Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (1 of 5)

Attention conservation notice: five-part series on world-building in fantasy fiction, focusing on Potter, Discworld, Narnia, Earthsea and Middle Earth in descending order. Nothing obscure. Not entirely uncritical of JKR. May contain Moomins.

Adam:

One thing that sometimes surprises me … is how wedded [sf/fantasy] fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of the resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world … That Harry Potter and his friends don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we’re on solider ground with brass tacks. We’re not, of course; but we often think we are.

I’ll also pull in an interesting comment from Greg Sanders on Adam’s post:

I think your coda does a good job of explaining the fairly short half life of many series and worlds for me. The longer series go that take their representations seriously, the more they often become about their conceits, their world building, past volumes, and less about the representation and metaphor that made the original so exciting.

As some series progress, author as well as fans succumb to brass-tacks-ism, investing less in what’s supposed to be going on in the imagined world than in the puzzle-solving challenge of filling in the map – as if to say, “we’re ‘ere because… it’s there because it’s there… because we’re ‘ere…”. As time goes on the map has fewer and fewer blank spaces – despite having been more powerful when it was half blank. Remember Discworld, and Pterry’s successive statements on the question of maps – that the Discworld was unmappable, then that the Discworld was unmappable but a map of Ankh-Morpork was a different question, and finally very well, there you go, here’s your map. But Discworld, despite some similarities, is very different from the Potterverse – particularly on the ‘brass tacks’ question – as I hope to show later on.

But back to Potter and brass tacks. To borrow Adam’s term, there’s something slippery (or perhaps, something insufficiently slippery) in the assertion that Harry & co “don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels“. It’s certainly true that when we read about Harry’s courage and agility (with magic), Hermione’s resourcefulness and ingenuity (with magic) or Ron’s dogged persistence (with magic), the clause in brackets is the least important part; the magic isn’t what the books are about, any more than Hamlet is about a poisoning in an orchard. But Harry Potter does literally have magical powers (in the world of the books) – just as it’s crucially important to Hamlet (and to Hamlet) that Hamlet’s father has literally been killed (in the world of the play), despite the resemblance which Adam points out between the killer’s supposed M.O. and a well-known metaphor for giving bad advice.

That said, there’s a crucial distinction between those two worlds. Poison isn’t commonly administered aurally, but the reality of poisoning – and of assassination generally – was known to Shakespeare’s audiences as it is to us. (Nor does the ghost of Hamlet’s father make a better dividing line: our breezy confidence that apparitions of the dead aren’t part of the natural order wasn’t universally shared by Hamlet‘s original audiences, any more than it is by the characters in the play.) By contrast, Harry Potter’s magical powers, in and of themselves, correspond to nothing in our world: there’s a suspension of disbelief involved, and once you’ve made it different criteria apply. Boggling at the amazing things that can be done with the flick of a wand is no more appropriate than Arthur Weasley marvelling at the Muggles and their elec-trickery. This in turn means that nothing which happens through the medium of magic has to rhyme thematically or make any kind of poetic sense, any more than the details of diurnal contemporary reality make poetic sense in mainstream fiction. Sectumsempra is a curse which magically inflicts a deep flesh wound, incurable by non-magical means. Why ‘Sectumsempra’? In that world, it just is – you might as well ask why Maundy Thursday, or why Armitage Shanks. Reality doesn’t have to make sense. The same goes for Rowling’s world-building more generally: it’s just the furniture for the story arc, and within that for the characters and their relationships. As teenagers with fairly limited life experience, Harry and Ron wouldn’t understand, or need to understand, the Ministry of Magic – any more than Jennings and Darbishire need to understand the Home Office – so we don’t need to understand it either.

In short, the outlandish elements in the Potter books don’t have the same focus-pulling doubleness (“now you see metaphor, now you don’t”) as the outlandish elements in Hamlet. Moreover, this isn’t despite the fact that Potter’s magic is even more outlandish than what happens in Hamlet, but because of it. Hamlet is a densely textured story studded with weird and unworldly details, set in our world; watching Hamlet you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but you’re also seeing something else, something that tells you about your own world. The Potter books tell a fairly straight story, set in a world which isn’t like ours; reading Potter, you’re reading what you’re reading. In that world, everything is brass tacks, magic included.

The mundane case for the mundane defence rests, in a mundane sort of way. I don’t think it’s satisfactory, though – in fact, I sense that the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’ readings of Potter has something to do with a weakness in the work, and in particular in the world-building.

Next: nuts and bolts – do we need them?

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One Comment

  1. Greg Sanders
    Posted 21 November 2018 at 18:35 | Permalink | Reply

    Glad you found the comment interesting. I’m more forgiving when it comes to your crummy worldbuilding category, but I think it does place both time and type of story limitations on a universe. I do think the final Harry Potter and Dumbledore scene worked along with some other parts of the 7th book, but had commented that in RPG terms, it felt like Rowlings had gotten the special supplement book for wands and wanted to work all the rules in. That kind of thing can sometimes work in a more sturdily built world, but won’t bear much weight in one without a solid foundation.

    On the other hand, I think consistent with some of the points you make in later posts, I think the thing I worry about with high standards for worldbuilding is that it may discourage authors from starting fresh. If you aren’t telling an epic or other genre strongy tied to world details, putting your authorial attention elsewhere might be a good idea. Not everything needs a sequel.

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