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

Do you know how tall he was?
Because that’s all that really matters
Do you know his mother’s last name?
Don’t you think that he’s divine?
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the book,
You’re drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine
– Elvis Costello, “Useless thing” (from the sadly underrated Goodbye Cruel World)

THE STORY SO FAR: six main ‘plot strands’ have been identified in the ‘Harry Potter’ ‘series’. But is that all there is to it? And what has it got to do with the ‘brass tacks’ approach to fantasy? All will be revealed, hopefully.

There are, as we were saying, a whole series of plot lines in the Potter books:

  1. The Cinderella Factor (the cupboard under the stairs and how Harry escaped it)
  2. The Power Of Love (Lily’s sacrifice and its longer-term effects)
  3. Handsome Devil (Lily and Snape and Lily and James and Sirius and Snape and Lily)
  4. Noblesse Oblige (how the Malfoys (nearly) got in too deep)
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (the Ministry of Magic and how Harry very nearly didn’t escape it)
  6. We Could Rule The World (young Dumbledore and his special best friend)

The nobility of victimhood, I think, is the red thread that runs through plots ##1, 2, 3 and 5, contrasting with plot #6 (the false nobility of mastery) and to some extent with #4 (the false nobility of aristocracy). To put it another way, plot #1 – the Matilda plot, which appeared to have been shelved by the time Harry got to Hogwarts – is the master plot of the whole series: Harry is the victim who triumphs. More specifically, Harry is the sacrificial victim who triumphs by embracing his own sacrifice – and triumphs thanks to the strength he draws from the sacrifice of others, who had themselves each embraced their own sacrifice (first Lily, then Dumbledore, then Snape).

Celebrations of noble sacrifice are an awkward, self-contradictory thing in life: the person who did the noble deed isn’t there, while the people celebrating haven’t done anything. I tend to think self-sacrifice is overrated, both as a motivation and as an achievement; I firmly believe that Emily Davison intended to go home after the Derby, and I wonder if her death really gained the WSPU more than she would have given it in another five, ten or fifteen years of activism. (Clarence doesn’t tell George Bailey about all the people he could have inspired by dying heroically.) Even in the world of Potter, the canonical nobility of sacrifice is qualified by its uncertain effect: Lily’s death keeps Harry alive, but the only person who benefits directly from either Snape’s death or Dumbledore’s is Voldemort. (And if the magic of Lily’s love for her child was as powerful as all that – effectively rebounding on Voldemort not once but twice – you have to wonder why Voldemort’s curse couldn’t just have rebounded off her the first time round; it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.) Moreover, in the character of Snape Rowling comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the position that sacrificing one’s own conscience, so as to commit evil deeds for the sake of the greater good [sic], can be a form of self-sacrifice – a line of argument which rather uncomfortably evokes Himmler.

Nevertheless, I think this is the core logic of the books: Dumbledore as a willing victim, compromised by his thirst for power, but redeemed by his faith in Harry; Snape as a willing victim, compromised by being a Death Eater but redeemed by his love for Lily; Lily as a pure willing victim, ennobled by her love for Harry; and Harry as the Willing Victim Who Lived, mistreated by everyone from Aunt Marge to Lord Voldemort, but ultimately buoyed up by all that love and faith. The extraordinary range and variety of people who bully Harry also makes sense in this context: what else do the Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter and Rufus Scrimgeour have in common?

I suggested earlier that, although a lot of fantasy looks as if it’s set in a type-1 world – “here’s my made-up world, here’s a map and here are some stories set in it” – in practice successful fantasy worlds tend to fall into types 2 and 3, the ‘numinous’ and the ‘parasitic’. Both of these, in different ways, are animated by the aim of reflecting the world we know: ‘numinous’ worlds are about the meaning of life, ‘parasitic’ worlds are about how to run a country. (Earthsea is full of maps, but plainly numinous; Discworld has its own history, sort of, but it’s fundamentally parasitic.) I also suggested that even type-4 worlds – bodged-up, inconsistent worlds, like Narnia and the Potterverse – may turn out to have an animating goal, which in turn could be numinous/religious or parasitic/political; at least, Narnia certainly does, and its world-building is as bodged-up as you like.

I wonder now if, thanks to my starting-point with Tolkien and Lewis, I defined the category of the ‘numinous’ too narrowly; perhaps you can use fantasy to ask what life is ultimately like without involving religion, or anything like it. Consider the Moomin books: an awful lot of those stories are precisely about what life is like. What life is like, they tell us, is ‘sad’ – but, crucially, sad in different ways: you can be sad like Moomintroll because your friend’s gone away, or like the Muskrat because you’ve chosen the wrong personal philosophy, or like Moominpappa because you feel that you’ve done everything, or like the Hemulen because you have done everything (that you could think of), or like the Fillyjonk because nobody appreciates the effort you make just to hold it together, or like the Groke because you’ve got a chip of ice in your heart that nothing will ever melt. And all of those different sadnesses can lift, and give way to different forms of happiness, even if only temporarily. (Sometimes the Fillyjonk dances; even the Groke dances, once.) Or you can be like Tooticky, keep yourself to yourself, take one day at a time and not fuss about sadness.

Similarly, perhaps, with Potter and victimisation (a word which here means both ‘the process of being made a victim’ and ‘being picked on and bullied’). That ticklish focus-pulling between mundane and metaphorical levels of description – that sense that what you’re reading both does and doesn’t have a deeper meaning – is seen most clearly in the depiction of Harry as a victim. Is Harry’s endless suffering at the hands of his various tormentors an ordeal to be borne with dignity – and for which he’ll receive a corresponding reward somewhere down the line – or is he just a teenage boy having a really rough time of it? (A rich, athletic and nationally famous teenage boy having a rough time, admittedly. It must have been awful for him.) Come to that, was Dumbledore’s death pointless – or Snape’s? Or does each man’s embrace of self-sacrifice endow his death with power and virtue, thanks to some wrinkle in the magical scenery? Right to the end, it’s never entirely clear. (At the very end, of course, we learn that Harry has named his first child after both Snape and Dumbledore – but that doesn’t answer the question, so much as rephrase it in the form Is that all there is?) Those two things – the glory and honour of the ‘noble victim’ motif, together with the knowledge that being a victim is horrible and the never-quite-staunched suspicion that it actually gets you nothing but pain – may account for a lot of the appeal of Potter. Just as the Moomin books are a meditation on life’s sadnesses, the Potter books are a misery memoir.

But this brings us back to the sheer strangeness of the prevalence of brass-tacks interpretations of Potter; nobody treats the world of the Moomins as if it were real, after all. Why is it that, if I go looking for discussion of Dolores Umbridge, the first (and second, and third) thing I find is an elaborate fictional back-story for this fictional character, complete with her mother’s maiden name and her age when her parents’ marriage broke up? And not, for example, a reference to Eichmann in Jerusalem or “In the Penal Colony”; or a discussion of that name (“Pain, Indignation”); or a debate about how successfully JKR walks the line between disgust at a female character’s play-acting of a sexist role and sexist disgust at a female character’s play-acting. (Not a new question, that last one. “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”…) I could also ask why, when I finally do find literary parallels being evoked on one of these pages, they aren’t Shakespeare or Kafka but Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death and Toy Story 3, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

The only parallel I can find for Potter fandom’s investment in the reality of ‘their’ world is Tolkien fandom. Perhaps that’s all there is by way of an explanation; perhaps literalist fandom is just the kind of thing that happens when you have a story which focuses on ordinary characters making a big difference to the world, written by an author who’s keen to fill in the background. I’m not sure; I think the differences between the two worlds, and the kind of detail that the respective fans invest in, are too great for us to conclude that Potter fans are doing the same kind of thing as TLOTR fans.

Pedantic digression on abbreviations.
I keep having to remind myself to write TLOTR instead of the more familiar abbreviation LOTR. But the trilogy is called The Lord of the Rings for a reason. It’s not about the general idea that, if there were some important Rings, there might be such a role as Lord of same; it’s about the Lord of the Rings – and how he was defeated. I wonder what the vastly greater uptake of “LOTR” as an abbreviation – 119 million hits for LOTR without TLOTR, 96 thousand for TLOTR without LOTR – signifies.

Moving along… There’s a big difference between investing in the reality of Middle Earth and investing in the reality of the Potterverse. Getting back to our typology of world-building, Middle Earth is very much type 2; the world-building is numinous with a capital Nu. The reality you’re committing to, if you immerse yourself in the Tyler Companion or pore over Tolkien’s own maps (those mountains! that lettering!), is a reality that is always already metaphorical, a world in which (what are basically) angels do centuries-long battle with (someone who’s basically) Lucifer. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings apparently began with the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which itself began with Tolkien’s fascination with the seemingly paradoxical idea that an eternal being (whether Arwen or God) might feel genuine love for a here-today, gone-tomorrow mortal (whether Aragorn or… you and me). This in turn grew out of Tolkien’s personal experience of the paradox of death – that the death of a parent, a lover, a friend is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to that person, and yet is experienced as an unbearable, earth-shattering tragedy, the one thing we could never have prepared for. (Cue the Daniel Handler quote: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”)

Put all that together and you have a view of the world – this world as well as Middle Earth – sub specie aeternitatis. Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” Ahab, admittedly, was crazy – and I’m not too sure about Herman Melville – but I think there’s something of this philosophy in Tolkien, and perhaps in any Christian author. (This world is certainly a ‘pasteboard mask’ in the Narnia books – but ultimately so is Narnia. Further up and further in!) The facts of everyday life, in this way of thinking, are a mundane backdrop, temporarily shielding us from a story that’s told in much bigger terms – the joy of absolute love, the threat of absolute loss; and that story, even though we only have access to it in rare and heightened moments, is our story, the story of our lives. I’m not saying all that is on every page of TLOTR, but it is in there somewhere. And it follows that to say you believe in the reality of Middle Earth is also to say you believe in life and death, good and evil, God and… certain tendencies to turn away from God. Big stuff.

Potter, not so much. The glory (or is it?) of the ennobling (or is it?) experience of victimisation (it definitely is) is the sore tooth that the Potter books keep going back to prod. But this cluster of ideas doesn’t really have any resolution; it only leads to savouring the put-upon wretchedness of being a victim, on one hand, and the vindictive pleasure of being a victor on the other. We aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go, in the same way that meeting God exceeds anything we can think and meeting death (or the Lady of the Cold) exceeds anything we can do. Rather, we’re left playing through an unresolved emotional conflict, with an endgame that reverses the players’ positions but leaves the conflict itself in place. Was everything Harry endured really necessary, or were people like Aunt Marge and Pansy Parkinson just really nasty to him? (And even if his suffering was necessary, did Dumbledore have any right to put him through it?) At the end of the series, does happiness reign, with people like Umbridge being punished appropriately, or has life returned to normal, with arrogant snobs like Draco Malfoy still contriving to fast-track their kids? If Umbridge is being tormented in Azkaban, is that something we can or should feel happy about? If Draco is still, well, Draco, is that something to feel unhappy about? There’s a satisfaction in playing it through, watching our hero repeatedly getting sand kicked in his face and then, eventually, turning the tables – especially when he tricks the system, turning the tables by being an especially good victim. But satisfaction isn’t resolution; there can be no resolution, because both sides of the opposition – victimhood and victory – are themselves impure, un-worked-through, unresolved. In short, an alternative title for Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass is Harry Potter and the Compulsion of Repetition. We have to keep going back to that world, and taking it on its own terms, for much the same reason that JKR keeps going back to it – because it’s not done yet. Another detail, another supporting character, another back-story plot-twist, another retcon, and it’ll be finished, perhaps… But it never will – or not without a change of narrative gear that would make the shift from The Subtle Knife to The Amber Spyglass look trivial.

Harry Potter will never approach the higher planes of meaning – big ideas entertained in tranquillity – frequented by Aslan, and Elrond, and Granny Weatherwax and Tooticky. The crushing revelation in book 7 that even Dumbledore was never really above the game – that he was a player, just as much as Rufus Scrimgeour or Narcissa Malfoy – eliminated that possibility. There is no good and evil in Potter, only people who dedicate themselves to the cause of good, or the cause of evil, with smaller or larger degrees of self-doubt and smaller or larger degrees of self-deception. Indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that those who don’t doubt themselves are deceiving themselves, and vice versa – Umbridge vs Dumbledore, Bellatrix vs Narcissa: “the best lack all conviction”, while the worst lack insight and honesty. What this means, though, is that both sides are impure; both can (perhaps) be forgiven for the bad, or condemned for their good, they try to do. It also means that the sublimity of death and glory is, for the most part, out of bounds; there is no noble victory and no obliterating defeat, only people fighting in the name of good things and people fighting in the name of bad things. We know how this goes: they’ll win, and lose, and win, and lose. Harry Potter will get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again. And then he’ll get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again.

Advertisements

3 Comments

  1. Posted 21 November 2018 at 02:17 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, I’m glad I followed Adam Roberts’ tweet to this series. As someone who has enjoyed all of the worlds mentioned here to varying degrees, this has given me much food for thought as to why that is.

  2. adamrobertswriter
    Posted 25 November 2018 at 09:57 | Permalink | Reply

    I posted a long and, since it seems to have disappeared forever into whatever electronic limbo receives such things, let’s agree brilliant comment on this splendid series of blogs. Since my lost comment was, really, restating an argument (about the revelation that Dumbledore was a player, which you mention, which I take as a feature rather than a bug of the whole) developed in this blog post, maybe I’ll just leave the link to that here for now, and come back later.

  3. Phil
    Posted 25 November 2018 at 16:35 | Permalink | Reply

    There’s a lot in that. Certainly, when I wrote that in Potter “we aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go” there’s a qualification missing, viz. “(except for that one scene which sets up the narrative climax of the entire series)”: Harry knowingly walking to his death is very nearly as powerful as the scene in which Aslan gives his back to the smiters and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair – and, unlike that scene, its power is very much its own.

    But I think a lot of your post works better as exposition of the Binding of Isaac itself than it does as a reflection on Potter. One big problem has to do with the relative importance of Dumbledore and Harry. We talk about Abrahamic, not Isaachic religions; the story is the key episode in the life of Abraham, not Isaac (Isaac didn’t have a lot of choice either way). Even overlooking the absence of anything resembling a deity in Potter, the dynamic of “obedience unto certain death” is very different from that of “obedience unto murdering the person dearest to me”; the focus is on self-sacrifice, not being prepared to sacrifice another person. Harry’s self-sacrifice also rhymes with Lily’s, Snape’s and (at least to some extent) Dumbledore’s own. (It’s strongly suggested that Dumbledore doesn’t fit the Abrahamic mould either, inasmuch as he wasn’t acting blindly or out of faith – he took a calculated decision to get Harry killed at the right time.)

    You also pass very lightly over a point I prefer to press quite hard: you cite Tolkien describing TLOTR as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, but one in which the religion is built into the world itself, then say “It’s possible Rowling, who was raised an Anglican and attended Church of Scotland services whilst writing the novels (her eldest daughter was baptised in Edinburgh), is doing something similar”. Is it, though? I think there are secret (thematic) harmonies to be heard in the Potter series, but I can’t see that they’re Christianity-shaped; I don’t see a clear line dividing humility from pride, or openness from selfishness, or turning to the good from turning away. I’s more about how heartbreakingly sad it is for someone to sacrifice him-/herself for somebody else, and how sometimes it may be necessary, and sometimes it may even (perhaps) be rewarded (eventually).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: