25 October 2007

Harry Potter and the Bulgarian Invasion

My favorite single shot from the Harry Potter movies appears in the fourth, when the ship from Durmstrang school bursts out of the lake beside Hogwarts, its furled sails shedding water like a mallard's wings.

That image comes directly from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and appears to the right as illustrated by Mary GrandPré.

Much as I like that sight and how well the CGI-effects crew brought it to life, something about the idea nags at me. This ship is basically a submarine from a European power surfacing off the British shore. And where in British literature have we encountered that motif before?

In invasion literature, of course! I've discussed this genre before in connection Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker, which wears its xenophobia on its sleeve. It may seem incongruous to bring it up in regard to the Harry Potter books since they try so hard to be inclusive.

Yet Rowling also plays off traditional British xenophobia, especially in HP4. Invasion literature could never figure out whether the UK's sneaky enemy would be Germany or Russia. Durmstrang is cleverly located in Bulgaria, at a longitude between those two powers. There's something sinister about that school: its students study the Dark Arts, ostensibly to protect themselves, but you never know about foreigners, do you? Durmstrang's champion, Viktor Krum, turns out to be a muscled, brooding fellow lusting after an Englishwoman.

And then there are the other foreign wizards in HP4: students from Beauxbatons of France. They're represented principally by Fleur Delacour, who's one-quarter Veela--a magical temptress of men. Ooh la la!

Obviously, Rowling is using the shortcut of cultural stereotypes. Viktor and Fleur are painted in broad strokes and familiar colors so they make easy rivals for Harry (and dear, noble, doomed Cedric) in the Triwizard Tournament.

Then Rowling turns the tables by using those same characters to provide lessons in how We Can All Get Along. Fleur becomes engaged to Bill Weasley, and in one scene her concern for him and her blunt indignation wins over her future in-laws. (Of course, she's still French. Why do you think she has that outrrrrrageous accent?)

Similarly, in HP7 Viktor returns to show how he as a good Bulgarian is even more upset by old fascist symbols than his British hosts. Yes, now We Can All Get Along. ("So it's all forgotten now and let's hear no more about it. So that's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Herman Goering and four Colditz salads. . . . No, wait a minute...I got confused because everyone keeps mentioning the war.")

That's two John Cleese quotes in one posting, but they seem appropriate because Rowling plays the same game as the Monty Python gang: portraying ethnic stereotypes for both their familiarity and their shock value, their rudeness and their reassurance that we enlightened folks can see them for what they are.

Still, we don't see many different types of Bulgarian men in the Harry Potter books. Or many different types of French women.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

See the comments at the next post for a correction on the location of Durmstrang. Samantha reminded me that although Krum in from Bulgaria, his school is more shifty.