Neville Longbottom and the perils of allegory

The seventh section of the Ravenclaw Reader’s conference papers on Harry Potter focuses attention on the character of Neville Longbottom. The substantive paper on “The Canonization of Neville Longbottom” is by Timothy Bartel, and the response is by Maria Nilson. Bartel is a student at St Andrew’s, Nilson is a lecturer at Linnaeus University.

While Bartel carefully traces Neville’s development over the series, I am entirely unpersuaded by the allegorical reading in which Harry is Jesus and Neville a model of Christian disciple as courageous confessor. While it is quite clear that Rowling draws on Christian themes and embeds them in the narrative, this kind of reading seems to me quite alien to the world she constructs and the way the characters develop within it.

Nilson in her brief response notes that Neville is not an archetypal hero, and suggests that as a boy who reads he disrupts the typical gender roles so readily inhabited by Harry and Ron, on the one hand and Hermione on the other.

Both essays rightly draw attention to Rowling’s development of a number of subsidiary characters as more complex in their own right than their roles in the narrative might demand. However, I can’t help avoid the suspicion that Bartel reads his own interests into the text, and that Neville as a character is about more than resisting gender stereotyping.

In particular I feel they rather miss the character of Neville as the awkward child, the picked-on and bullied one whose school experience carries a lot of discomfort and misery. He is, perhaps, a more realistic conduit of comfort for a great many of Rowling’s potential readers than the trio at the centre. I suspect Rowling has a profound sympathy for such awkward and gauche children, and wishes to give them their place in the sun.

2 Replies to “Neville Longbottom and the perils of allegory”

  1. Like you I’m un comfortable with “Harry is this and Neville is that…” but even if we wanted to do that then Neville is the Christ as he slays the snake, and was the unexpected one. The whole focus on Harry was a mistake in the first place, the Child Born was Neville ( I have got that right haven’t I?) And I share with Doug an unease with allegory. It did Augustine of Hippo no good and the early Church was the poorer for it.

    1. There’s a place for allegory, and some of the early Fathers were interesting in their use of it. I just resist it as a helpful reading of Potter here. But the child of the prophecy is Harry. In Rowling’s theory of prophecy they are open ended until they are acted on. Although the prophecy could have pointed to either Harry or Neville, the way in which Voldemort acts because of it closes down its meaning so that it only points to Harry.

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