So, as I was saying, Harry Potter gets his first academic conference. The edited proceedings of a 2012 conference at St Andrew’s University have just been published as The Ravenclaw Reader. Potterheads will get the allusion: Ravenclaw is the house “where those of wit and learning / will always find their kind.” (Philosopher’s Stone p88 – The Sorting Hat’s song). I hope to blog my way through the articles (each paired with a response) over the next couple of weeks. This post is by way of a starter.
I’m rather proud that when it comes to all things Harry Potter, I started ahead of the curve. It was sometime in the winter of 1998/9, I think, that I became intrigued to see a number of boys at our church primary school, none of whom you would think of as eager readers, spending lunchtimes with their heads in books (it was less of a surprise with girls). And it appeared to be one of two books, either Philosopher’s Stone (none of this American Sorcerer’s nonsense, please, the philosopher’s stone is a celebrated trope of alchemy) or Chamber of Secrets.
I decided to try one, and enjoying it greatly moved on to the other. I was hooked. I bought Prisoner of Azkaban (which remains my favourite book) on its publication day, as I did the next two. By the time we got to Half-Blood Prince I was queuing at midnight outside the shop (fortified in-between times by regular reading of Mugglenet). But it was, memory tells me, soon after the publication of Azkaban that the bandwagon began to roll, and by the time, two years later, the first film came round, it had become an apparently unstoppable media juggernaut.
As the momentum swelled, the odd (and they were very odd) fundamentalists started to swim out of the walls, like some kind of Puritan Peeves. (Peeves is a chaotic poltergeist and troublemaker absent from the films.)
I found myself being told very firmly that the books were evil. “Have you read any?” I enquired. “No. But she uses real spells from mediaeval grimoires to draw children into evil,” came back the answer. “Hmm,” I said, “that spell to make chewing-gum fly out of a keyhole and up a poltergeist’s nose must have been all the rage in the Middle Ages.” (Waddiwasi, if you should care to try it.) Alas, the self-righteousness was such that they didn’t even get the mockery.
It seems a long way from the respectability of a Harry Potter conference at a prestigious Scottish university. Interestingly, the foreword (by James Thomas, Professor of English at Pepperdine’s Seaver College) notes that “Conservative Christian opposition has abated a good bit now that Harry’s story has been told in full” (p.i) Those of us who’ve been arguing for its roots in classical and Christian cultural themes for some time can only say “Amen”.
Even more interestingly, the book’s two editors appear to be Christians from the more conservative end of the theological spectrum. Micah Snell is a priest in the Anglican Church of North America (Anglican in name, but not in communion with Canterbury) and John Patrick Pazdziora is an alumnus of Moody Bible Institute and Belfast Bible College. They are both studying with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrew’s.
(It is one of the frustrations of the collection that there is no list of contributors – I’ve had to Google to bring you these biographical notes.)
In their introduction they note the “moral neutrality, both of Rowling’s fictional magic and of the imagination” (p.viii) and point out that “loved or loathed or preserved as quaint enigma, Harry Potter will remain the definitive cultural literary text of the generation that read its way into the third millennium.” (p.vi) Whatever their literary merit (much no doubt to be disputed) the books are a cultural phenomenon. I hope that the collection will live up to my hopes and the promise of its own foreword.