14 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Flawed Interpretation

Last month The Awl published Maria Bustillo’s attack on the Harry Potter series in the guise of a review of the movie adapted from the sixth-and-a-half book. The essay struck me as far more ad hominem and nasty than it needed to be, and simply erroneous in some aspects.

Bustillo is correct, however, that J. K. Rowling’s books undercut her progressive surface themes through the structure of the magical world where they take place. Most particularly, as the article notes, there’s the congenital divide between wizards and muggles, and the never-resolved issue of the house elves.

But Bustillo misses how the books give so many of their good characters solid Anglo-Saxon names (Harry Potter, Granger, Weasley, Dumbledore, Black) while the worst villains have Latinate and French names (Lucius Malfoy, Voldemort, Lestrange). And foreigners are always funny—even as the books depict a modern multiethnic British society. In other words, Rowling’s fantasy world is both founded on some deep British prejudices and inclusive in how it defines being British.

Bustillo errs in identifying the Weasleys—middle-class civil servants—as aristocrats in Rowling’s world simply because they’re wizards. In fact, the Weasley clan is dedicated to good governance, deference to democratic authority, and protection of “muggles.” Symbolically, I think their ancient homestead actually reflects another deep prejudice: that the countryside is nicer than the city, regardless of class.

Bustillo closes with praise for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I can’t fault but I also can’t see as a ground-breaking recommendation. I wonder if she’s ever applied her critical eyes to that series and how it, too, reflects British notions of class. (All servants’ daemons being dogs, for example.) And perhaps we can discuss whether fantasy literature’s potentially Manichean presentation of good and evil needs to be reflected in critical thinking about it.


Samantha said...

I agree with you that Bustillo’s review was nasty and sometimes just plain wrong. She sees what she wants to see in Rowling’s work: a defense of aristocracy hiding beneath a progressive veneer. She does this by making up some facts and distorting others. But I find that your own analysis stretches some points to see what *you* want to see.

I don’t agree that there is a “congenital divide” between wizards and Muggles. Plenty of Muggles are aware of the wizarding world--either because their family members have magical abilities or because their jobs involve high-level security. Obviously, Muggles and wizards fall in love and have children on a regular basis. Ron says that wizards would have died out if they had not intermarried. Wizards concealed themselves from the Muggle world to protect both sides from violent misunderstandings, but the two worlds have never been separate.

These “deep British prejudices” you speak of-- I don’t see them that way, or maybe I just don’t like the connotations of the word “prejudices.” That foreigners are funny--is there a culture that does not think so? More interesting is that foreign characters who initially seem ridiculous eventually prove to be brave and trustworthy--although no less funny. (As to the definition of Britishness: Hogwarts students with non-British surnames are never portrayed as being anything other than cultural insiders.)

As you know, I read HP as an extended allegory of World War II. Thus, I read the wacky accents as: We’ll never understand Uncle Joe and the Russkies on some basic level--and they certainly don’t understand us--but thank God for them.

The name thing--we’ve been through this before. The Brits and the French have been at each other's throats forever. Ok, so Rowling’s still peevish about the Norman Conquest. I’m still peevish about the Spanish Inquisition. Let us have our fun.

Liking the countryside better than the city--again, I think this is a cultural norm worldwide, as cities are relatively new concepts in human history, not really a British prejudice. My country-mouse in-laws are terrified of the Upper East Side.

I would, however, take issue with your premise. Harry’s love of any environment has much more to do with the people in it than the place itself. In fact, his first trip to Diagon Alley, in London, is a wonder. Accompanied by Hagrid, he finds amazing sights, interesting people, fun things to buy, revelations everywhere he turns.

Likewise, he loves the Burrow, not because it’s in the country, but because it’s the home he never had, filled with caring (but sometimes overbearing) parents, tons of amusing (but sometimes annoying) siblings, and cozy (but sometimes threadbare) surroundings. Even Grimmauld Place (with its fascist house elf and malevolent interior) seems engaging when Sirius is in residence, desolate after his death.

The trio’s rural wanderings in the last book form a poignant (if overlong) valedictory, a tribute to the world they might be saying goodbye to. Is it really a prejudice to think that parts of your country are beautiful? I can’t find it in my heart to criticize Rowling for that, or to refer to it as a prejudice.

House elves, now--yeah, you’ve got me there. Still baffled by that one.

Kate Coombs said...

Wow! Maria B's "review" was way out there in the land of Hostile Much? Thanks for adding your thoughts. There's a much simpler way of looking at the idea of "chosenness," of course, which is that a lot of kids dream of having magic powers or being the missing prince/princess at some point. Besides which, it's a genre thing: If you went after all the sci-fi/fantasy with a chosen-type hero or heroine, you'd have to cut that set of shelves in the bookstore down by 2/3! (I wonder how Maria defines herself politically, as she seems to hate conservatives and liberals in equal measure. Could it be she's unique and special? Almost... chosen?)

lili wilkinson said...

Yeah, a very strange and hostile "review". (that totally lost me when she praised Bonham-Carter's panto-style "sexy witch" performance - the only thing I really didn't like in the latest film)

Although I do kind of agree with the whole wizard/muggle apartheid thing, and it's always bothered me. The Weasleys are all very salt-of-the-earth muggle-protectors... but Mr Weasley's confused fascination with them shows he's never MET one or sees them as anything more than amusing objects to study. It strikes me a bit like a liberal family who are all very supportive of gay rights but would freak out if their own child came out to them.

But all that would have been okay if one of two things had happened:

1. If there had been just ONE Muggle character in the books who was actively good. Who fought in the final battle. Who helped Harry & co. Who did SOMETHING.


2. if in the much-maligned epilogue, we had seen one of the grown-up Hogwarts kids had married a Muggle. Just one. Neville, or Draco, or Dean Thomas, or Luna, or Percy Weasley... No? So pureblood wizard families all round? How convenient.

J. L. Bell said...

When I say there’s a “congenital divide,” I mean that in Rowling’s cosmology some people are born wizards and some are born muggles. They can be part of the same family, they can be friends and colleagues, but there’s no way someone born a muggle can become a wizard.

Other fantasies work differently. In the Oz books, for instance, anyone can make magical instruments work. In the Bartimaeus series, Kitty summons a djinn.

Bustillo identifies that divide as setting up an aristocracy. I think Rowling works hard to show the good wizards as demoocratic, the bad wizards as racist snobs. However, she’s still left with a world in which some humans are naturally capable of much more than others.

Lili points out some ways that muggles might have been brought into the heroic circle at the end. There’s surely a story in the plight of a child born a “Squib” in a wizarding family, privy to the culture but not the power. But Rowling’s books, despite their breadth, don’t try those things.

J. L. Bell said...

In saying that Rowling presents the countryside as nicer than the city, I’m not drawing a distinction between the natural world and the most developed area. I don’t actually see a big “environmental” theme, certainly not at the level of other books. I’m hearkening back to an old British division between the metropolis (London) and the provinces (everything else).

This division shows up in the early political rivalry between “court party” and “country party.” It fueled the Beatles’ resentment of London snobs, and the Rolling Stones’ certainty that if louts from Liverpool could write songs anyone could. It lay beneath the Tories’ insistence that the Labour Party’s strictures on fox-hunting was an attack on rural Britain as a whole.

Rowling was raised near the border with Wales, attended university at Exeter, and settled in Edinburgh when she wrote. She worked in London briefly. That doesn’t mean she dislikes the metropolis, but she appears to prefer to provinces, and I suspect she sees herself as a product of the provinces.

Yes, Harry enjoys the Weasleys’ house more than the Dursleys’ because one family is nice and the other is horrid, not because of what scenery is outside the window. But Rowling made the choice to set one house in a London suburb and the other out in the countryside. It’s her preference, not Harry’s, that matters.

What do the books show in London besides the Dursleys’ house? Diagon Alley—exciting but dangerous. The Ministry of Magic—necessary, powerful, oppressive. The Black family house, which even Sirius dislikes. And King’s Cross Station, which is enjoyable because it’s the way out of the metropolis.

The way out to Hogwarts—that’s the series’ main setting, about as far from the metropolis as one can get. That’s not a natural environment, but it’s a wonderfully provincial one.

J. L. Bell said...

As to how the Harry Potter books present foreigners, let’s look at the French.

J. K. Rowling read French in college, spent a year studying in Paris, and worked on issues of francophone Africa while she was at Amnesty International. I’m sure her French is better than mine, and that she’s met many more French people.

But how do her books depict French characters? With sexual allure, funny accents, and better food back home. It's a stereotype personified.

Eventually, Rowling shows Fleur Delacour marrying into the salt-of-the-British-earth Weasley family, and showing true devotion. In the end the books’ vision is inclusive, as I wrote above. But it starts from the basis of some very old British attitudes.

I’d love to see an extended analysis of the series as an allegory of WW2. I’m especially curious about where the Yanks are since the books (unlike some other British fantasies of late) hardly mention them. Guest blog, perhaps?

Kate Coombs said...

One more thought: Bustillo praises Philip Pullman's trilogy after she dissects Rowling's books with utter disdain. However, she admits that she's on board with Pullman's agenda. I loved Pullman's first book, but he lost me at some point in Book 3 because I felt that his agenda had overtaken his storytelling; the wizard behind the curtain was showing, and it interfered with my previously blissful immersion in the world of the story. Keep in mind that Pullman has very openly claimed his agenda of preaching atheism to children with the Golden Compass books. My point is, Bustillo embraces Pullman's agenda and the fact that he's written agenda-driven fiction because she AGREES with him, but hates (I don't think that's too strong a word) Rowling's supposed agenda--an agenda which is the opposite of what the Harry Potter author is trying to accomplish. Of course, it's ironic that Rowling's attempts to criticize racism and prejudice with her anti-Muggle/Mudblood subplot (and even the house elf liberation movement, though that got lost in the shuffle) should result in Bustillo finding racism and prejudice lurking just below the surface.

Like all of us, Rowling is a product of her culture, but I do think her efforts to be progressive should count for something. Otherwise, a lot of terrific writers might as well just curl up in little balls and keep their fingers off the keyboards for fear of writing something deeply and obnoxiously political no matter WHAT their intentions.

I was once told by a person of a different race that no matter how much I thought I wasn't racist or tried not to be racist or cared about not being racist or even studied not being racist, I would still be racist--because of my own race. Yet I continue caring about not being racist and trying not to be racist as best I can, because what kind of world would it be if people didn't make that effort?

J. L. Bell said...

Your comment, Kate, reminds me of a couple of online conversations I've had in the past decade.

Sometime after The Subtle Knife was published, I read someone on the CW list positing a Christian reading of The Golden Compass. The New York Times had just run one of the first articles (in the US, at least) about the atheist philosophy Pullman brought to his series. I posted that link to the list, which naturally changed the conversation.

One thing I took from that exchange is that if one sees good and evil through a particular window (e.g, Christianity), it's easy to interpret all depictions of good and evil (which fantasy is prone to be) according to that frame. I then wondered if Pullman had not been outspoken about his themes, would people have been so quick to recognize and, in some cases, resent them?

The second anecdote was brought back to me by your remark about giving Rowling credit for her intentions. Back when she announced that Dumbledore was gay, I got into some rather heated discussions on the Child_Lit list about what that meant.

My position was twofold: that Rowling had gone further toward inclusiveness than any other children's-fantasy writer we could name, and that her depiction was limited and possibly stereotypical (Dumbledore's one love affair goes horribly wrong, he's celibate and closeted enough that Rowling had to tell us about this part of his life outside the books, nearly all the kids end up in heterosexual marriages and none in gay relationships).

That was my primary example of the "two steps forward, one step back" (not necessarily in that order) pattern I see in Rowling's progressiveness. I want to give her all the credit she deserves while also recognizing the limitations of the wizarding world.

Kate Coombs said...

Hmm. Good points. My own experience with reading Pullman was before all the hoopla. I just got partway through Book 3 and became really irked as a reader because I felt sucked out of the story by his suddenly obvious agenda. Such great storytelling up to that point--I just felt sort of INTERRUPTED as a reader. But of course, the whole thing ended up being controversial among different camps of belief.

I see what you mean about Rowling. I guess I just worry, as a writer, about getting tied up in knots no matter what I do. For example, my WIP is a retelling of a British fairy tale, so it doesn't really have any minority characters unless you count trolls and giants, but you COULD get symbolic about them, and then I'd be in trouble. And which is worse, being accused of being Eurocentric for writing about a tale from the UK, or writing about a legend from India or Kenya and getting accused of cultural appropriation?

Looking back over the entire J.K. Rowling conversation, to what extent do all the hundreds of other books out there, children's and adult fantasy alike, let alone other genres, withstand this kind of scrutiny or interpretation? (I'm assuming most writers in our day are pretty much against prejudice, but even so.)

J. L. Bell said...

I think Rowling gets a lot of extra scrutiny because her books have been so successful, influential, widely read, lucrative, etc. People like this reviewer are more harsh than they’d be toward other authors working from their first outline. At times I have seen a “damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t” attitude toward Rowling’s work. Fortunately, she seems to manage the attention coolly.

There are indeed conflicting pressures on authors about such culturally sensitive matters as including non-white characters v. appropriating other people’s experiences. I think you’re right that these pressures might be especially high on people who write for children because our culture assumes their work should offer more moral guidance than we expect in stories for adults.

dorkismo said...

Hello Mr. Bell! Maria Bustillos here. I enjoyed your post and the interesting responses to it a lot. Just wanted to pop in and say that my view of the Weasleys as aristocratic comes from the frequent descriptions in the books of the Weasleys being one of the oldest wizarding families, and the most prominent; they are total "pure-bloods". That is heavily freighted language in English culture. It doesn't matter that they're poor, or that they are civil servants, if their blood is noble. That is true in real-world English culture, too.

As for Pullman ... I mentioned him in the piece not really because I'm "on board with his agenda" but because it is genuinely subversive; a kid who enjoys the Potter series, I think, might really really enjoy the far greater depth of Pullman with respect to the difficult questions of risk-taking, politics, rebellion etc. Though I agree with Kate Coombs that there are weaknesses, especially in the third book of His Dark Materials. lili wilkinson's comments really great, too.

As for my own politics, I am a regular old dyed-in-the-wool liberal.

Thanks so much for reading my piece and for composing such a thoughtful response--


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comment, Maria Bustillos! And thanks for starting this conversation with a brave iconoclastic take on such a popular series of books and movies.

My own take on the Weasleys’ ancient lineage starts with old Whiggish history. Their family is so ancient that they embody pre-Norman all-British values, supposedly less aristocratic than those brought by conquerors from across the Channel.

Samantha said...

John, thanks for explaining some of your comments further and clearing up my misunderstandings. I really don't know much about the inner workings of British politics, so that was enlightening.

You also know a lot more about Rowling's life than I do. I'm sure you're right about the facts, but I'm not convinced that they mean what you think they mean. When you use phrases like "she appears to prefer" and "I suspect"--well, it makes me wonder what prejudices readers might find in my WIP based on where I grew up and went to school. (I know: I should be so lucky!)

In the end, I guess our differences involve the *degree* of how we define "deep," "British," and "prejudices"--and I can live with those differences.

I would love to write a guest blog, but I'm trying to be a good girl and finish my first draft. (What a hypocrite I am; obviously, this post shows that I'm enjoying your blog more than my own writing . . .)

Kate Coombs: I very much enjoyed your analysis, both of Bustillos's [sorry about my previous misspelling] review and of Pullman; I feel the same way, having lost patience with him by Book 3.

You bring up an important point about some criticism having a potentially chilling effect on writers. I admit to wavering in my current work, which involves characters of different ethnicities and backgrounds, all of whom behave badly at times. I hope I'm not being too simplistic in saying that the perfect, in these cases, is the enemy of the good.

dorkismo said...

Interesting ... something in that, no doubt. I like your observations about Rowling's view of the French very much indeed; food for thought, there.

On the other hand ... I too read Rowling's beloved Hons and Rebels as a kid and was kind of smitten with the elegance and dash of the Mitford family; they embody perfectly the elitist tang that still exists in the veneration of ancient lineage in England. It was learning of Rowling's fascination with that book (imagine naming your kid after a favorite author!) that really crystallized my ideas about her work.