The hidden assumptions of protestant secularism

I was browsing in a local bookshop yesterday, and noticed the growing range of titles in Dorling Kindersley’s “The ––– Book” series. I took a look at two that I hadn’t seen before: The Mythology Book and The Bible Book.

A couple of features drew my attention. In The Bible Book, it’s quite clear that the Bible we’re talking about is the Protestant Bible.  There is not a single hint in the table of contents that the deuterocanonical / apocryphal books exist. In the introduction it says bluntly (and very conservatively in its dating): Continue reading “The hidden assumptions of protestant secularism”

Appreciating BBC online for Paris coverage

Being the other side of the world when hearing of the Paris attacks has been a strange experience. But it’s made me even more appreciative of the BBC’s online presence. Anti-BBC “culture” secretary John Whittingdale (his philistinism really does justify the scare quotes) may want to get rid of it, but as a licence fee payer overseas on work, I’d say I ought to be able to access it. 

Why’s it been so good? Let me give two examples. First, BBC caution about confirming their facts meant that news might be a little slower than CNN which I could get on TV, but CNN were exaggerating the death toll by around 25. Secondly, CNN managed to include in successive sentences “This is an attack on French multi-culturalism” and “This is an attack on laïcité”. Since the secular policy of “laïcité” is what makes France the least multi-cultural society in Europe, this seems to represent the triumph of rhetoric over understanding. By comparison BBC explanation has been careful and acknowledging its limits.

When something bad happens in the world, I, like millions of others, including a great many citizens of other countries, trust the BBC. We do so with reason (and not uncritically). This government’s ideological  crusade against it, is a disaster in the making for those who want a trustworthy source for news. No doubt they are pandering to their friends the wealthy proprietors of newspapers who resent being held to the BBC standards rather than pursuing the profit drive downmarket. But it seems a wilful attempt to dilute one of the greatest of British brands, and the removing of a world-renowned benchmark for accuracy and truth.

The Ravenclaw reader: sadly not “wit beyond measure”

Minerva_McgonagallHow things change. Boswell famously records this soundbite of Samuel Johnson.

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

It would not be fair to apply that saying to the Ravenclaw Reader. Nonetheless my appreciation of the book is more for its existence than its content. I have enjoyed reading this kind of discussion of Harry Potter, and I don’t think I ever expected to see the fruits of an academic conference in print, far less one that took so seriously the underlying Christian themes of the series. That says as much about the many early battles some of us fought against the book-burning brigade as it does about this collection of conference papers.

There are some interesting themes dealt with in the (as always in a book of this type) very varied chapters. I have found all of them provoking me to think more deeply about my own appreciation of Rowling’s artistry. And for that I thank all the authors and the editors who have imposed a kind of logic on a very disparate collection.

I have been most astonished by the bibliography. I had not realised there were so many serious contributions to the field of Potter studies.

Yet, in the end, I have failed to be fully persuaded by a single essay in this collection, though some provoked me to new thinking of my own quite constructively. Some of that is, no doubt, down to my disagreement with some aspects of cultural and literary studies. Yet I constantly found myself thinking that despite the very sharp intellects revealed here, the authors were missing large swathes of the narrative wood in pursuit of their analysis of particular trees. Some papers were simply too clever for their own good.

Overall, I think my reaction to this book moved from excitement that it was published to disappointment that it was not as engaging as I hoped. I hope I have fairly indicated why I disagree with them, for disagree I do. Likewise I hope that I have offered in response enough my own reading of Potter grounded in the text to show a positive alternative. The individual posts in the series are listed below.

  1. Harry Potter and the Groves of Academe.
  2. The non-reality of a Hogwarts education
  3. Death of death and Voldemort’s destruction
  4. A humanist (mis)reading of Harry Potter?
  5. Harry Potter and the remarkably natural forest
  6. No props to Propp on the popularity of Potter
  7. Magic is might: et in Dystopia ego
  8. Neville Longbottom and the perils of allegory
  9. Severus Snape and the dangers of sorting too soon
  10. The Dursley Difficulty (doing Muggles a mischief)
  11. Harry Potter and the game of symbols

Pullman’s Dark Materials: prejudice, narrative and the BBC

compassIt’s interesting to read that the BBC plan the filming of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s not going to be the easiest thing to film, not least after the relative flop of The Golden Compass at the cinema, despite some excellent performances.

But in the face of his elegant writing, and often fascinating narrative, I’m one of those who doesn’t quite join the adulatory crowd. I love his development of Lyra and Will in the first two books. I’m fascinated by the way in which he delineates and constructs a world in which GRT peoples are the heroes’ mainstay and assistance. But I think that his anti-religious agenda trumps his plotting by the time the third book in the series arrives. Complex characters give way to simplistic polarities, and under-age sex in the face of adult religious control is presented as the panacea to all the world’s ills.

Dust simply doesn’t make sense, whether within or without the world of the narrative. Rather like the Matrix film trilogy, only far better, HIs Dark Materials disappears up its own arse. Pullman writes con brio, and delineates character with panache. It’s just that somewhere along the line, his ideology takes over from narrative logic. And I can’t help but feel that far too many of his plaudits derive from those who share his prejudice, rather than those who appreciate his literary contribution.

Harry Potter and the game of symbols

The final main chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader is by John Granger, who is rightly proud of the fact that TIME Magazine once described him as the Dean of Harry Potter Studies. He was one of the few people arguing from a relatively early stage that the Potter books were Christian in their themes. As someone who’s been making that argument since 1999, I salute him for that stand, although in terms of the books as Christian fantasy he goes further than I would, and sees themes and structures I beg leave to doubt are there.

Unfortunately, this essay is a very particular example of what I see as over-elaborated reading strategies. Here’s an example:

There’s the Gryffindor or “Golden Griffin” from Dante’s Purgatorio, the golden lion of the house symbol as Lion of Judah (and hat tip to Aslan, no doubt), the Phoenix or “Resurrection Bird” of lore, the Unicorn from tapestry and legendary tradition, the White Stag of St Godric and other holy men, the Hippogriff from Orlando, and the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemy … (p.206)

Now while this proves that Rowling and Granger are both widely read, it seems more probable to me that Rowling is simply drawing on the (largely) Western (largely) Christian cultural storehouse of imagery rather than creating “several traditional stand-ins for Christ” as Granger has it. Quite simply, I feel he offers an over-interpretation, an ingenious eisegesis of his own.

Whether Granger is drawing on alchemy or Mary Douglas’ theory of ring-composition (taking the dubious ability of readers to detect chiasmus everywhere to new and complex heights) he is fascinating but (in this reader’s view) entirely over-fanciful. It is perhaps not surprising that the generous response by Josephine Gabelman suggests that

we ought not to be overly scrutinising the extent to which the books correspond to Christian symbolism, but, instead considering the very real way by which they engage in something akin to religious thinking (p.228)

She spells out that by this she means “wondrous thinking”, or the “transgression of the possible”. In a sense, of course, this is part of the point of (much or all?) fiction, and perhaps especially children’s and fantasy fiction. It is to provide an exercise yard for the imagination, to enrich the possibilities we have for seeing differently. It is this that Rowling does so well. And I think it is this that lies at the heart of the series’ success.

The Dursley Difficulty (Doing Muggles a mischief)

The ninth chapter of the Ravenclaw Reader, by Rebecca Langworthy (who appears to be a PhD student at Aberdeen) looks at the place of the Dursleys in the series. This paper argues that they represent a real narrative difficulty. For all Rowling’s arguments elsewhere for acceptance of the different other, the Dursleys represent a particular case where Muggles are held up for ridicule and comic relief, and are made the subjects of author-sanctioned and approved magical violence from Hagrid’s giving Dudley a pig’s tail through to Dumbledore making their drinks behave aggressively in the penultimate book.

Arguably, she overstates her case. The portrayal, even of the Dursleys, is more complex than just comic relief by the end of the series. Aunt Petunia’s backstory, for example, as revealed in Snape’s memories, is overlooked. The extent to which the good wizarding world is asked to offer Muggles protection (a protection especially given to the Dursleys) is not properly discussed. Nonetheless she does make something of a case that the presentation of the biggest family of Muggles Hagrid has ever clapped eyes on is primarily a subject for the reader’s mockery.

This has a great deal to do with stock characters drawn entertainingly, I suspect, and almost nothing to do with Kobolds. Langworthy argues that there are strong parallels between Harry and the “Germanic folkloric tradition and literary representations of magical creatures that intrude into the home” (p.184) known as Kobolds.

If there are any such connections, they are indirect. It is indeed possible that this tradition in part informs the portrayal of Dobby. And there are certain similarities drawn between Dobby’s and Harry’s enforced servitude in the house which creates a bond of sympathy between them. But to move beyond that to suggest direct connections between Harry and the folklore of Kobolds seems to me fanciful at best.

The response by Travis Prinzi (a long time fan and writer on Potter, whose website is currently redirecting to annoying adverts, which is why I’m not linking to it) offers a brief reflection on Rowling’s satirical portrayal of the Prime Minister in Half-Blood Prince, and points out rightly that in Rowling’s narrative world there are issues of wizard oppression by Muggles that necessitates their cult of secrecy. He sees this as a significant caveat to the way Langworthy problematizes the wizarding attitude to Muggles in general and the Dursleys in particular.

I rather agree with him, and can’t help but feel that Langworthy’s paper is an example of pushing a particular and important detail of the narrative into so sharp a focus that the broader sweep, the frame, the context, is displaced. It seems to be as true for literary as for biblical studies that a text without a context is a pretext.

Severus Snape and the dangers of sorting too soon

snapeThe eighth chapter of the Harry Potter Conference book, the Ravenclaw Reader, takes the character of Snape as its topic. The substantive paper is by Joshua C Richards, with the response by Amy Sonheim. If Google has not let me down, Richards is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Sondheim a lecturer at Ouachita Baptist University. Given that these both appear to be relatively conservative Christian institutions (Palm Beach appears to expect faculty to sign a statement of faith) it’s an interesting comment on the now respectable status of Harry Potter in places where he might once have aroused fear and suspicion among conservative Christians.

The other surprise for me in discovering this Christian affiliation after reading the essays, is that I hadn’t particularly detected anything that would lead me to suspect it. In fact, almost the opposite. Richards explores what he calls a “pattern of paternal atonement” in the character of Snape, drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, as that latter channels Freud and Jung. He means by this the coming to terms (reconciliation) with the reality of a father as complex, neither a mythologised ideal father, nor his opposite the “ogre-father”. He sets Snape alongside a range of other potential father-figures in Rowling’s stories, and argues that Snape too is a father-figure with whom Potter reaches reconciliation.

Since my main reaction to Campbell’s work is to want to jump up and down shouting “bollocks”, this does not exactly fill me with joy. I think Richards is absolutely right to notice how Harry’s relationships with a range of adult figures matures to include recognition of flaw and virtue, to see them as they are. Nevertheless it is also the case that Harry’s relationships with his peers grow and mature as well. In other words, he is growing up. Yes, some of the adults are father figures (but why no discussion of Lupin as potentially albeit briefly occupying this role?), but I don’t think that makes Snape one. The Freudian stuff about fathers, turned by Campbell into Jungian archetypes, rather pulls Richards’ helpful inspection of Rowling’s characterisation a bit out of shape.

Sonheim’s response likes the stuff I don’t. But she also uses the portrayal of Snape as reconciled and now heroic “ogre-father”, and Dumbledore revealed as having moral failings, to refute a Marxist critique of Rowling as commercially and culturally safe.

“I sometimes,” sighs Dumbledore, “think we Sort too soon.” (Deathly Hallows p.545) He is talking to Snape about the latter’s bravery. Character development as Rowling portrays it, gives just enough lie to Sorting to raise a critique of the way the school houses are. Mentally, sorting tends to be exactly what we do, especially in childhood, with other people. Growing up is about learning people are rarely as black and white as tabloid journalism. Indeed, one of the more pointed critiques Rowling makes is that in the world of the Daily Prophet, people always wear black or white hats to suit a political agenda, and someone who wore the white stetson of heroism yesterday can wear the black balaclava of criminality today. Rowling’s use of a fairly Chomskyan propaganda model is itself partly an answer to a Marxist critique of commercial safety.

Before summarising these contributions I noted the Christian affiliations of both authors’ institutions. What I think I find surprising then, is the lionization of Campbell’s eclectic and generic approach to world cultures, which turns them into a commercially appealing (think Star Wars and Dan Brown), vaguely spiritual, bourgeois mishmash of middle-American romantic gloop – “follow your bliss“. Walking the way of the cross, or at least entering the Forbidden Forest as a willing sacrifice is a lot harder than that. Surely there are more robust, and indeed more robustly Christian, lenses to alert us to questions of character complexity than the one selected here. The relationship of Harry to the adults in his life is a lot more complex than the Campbell-inspired polarities of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. And it is all the better for that.

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.

Magic is Might: et in Dystopia ego

I’m moving on with my series on the Ravenclaw Reader, a collection of papers on the world of Harry Potter delivered at a St Andrew’s University conference in 2012 and now tidied up and published this month. The sixth chapter looks at the wizarding world as a dystopia. The substantive paper is by Sarah Cocita Reschan (about whom I can glean nothing certain from Google), and the response by Amy H. Sturgis. I repeat my moan that a collection of essays such as this really does need do say something about its contributors.

The main paper picks up an interesting and important theme. Reschan suggests that from the death of Cedric Diggory at the end of Goblet of Fire onwards we see the world being disclosed as a dystopia. She sets this in the context of other dystopian literature, but especially some young adult ones such as the Hunger Games series, arguing that one of the differences in Rowling’s narrative is the presence of the magical intertwined with our mundane Muggle one.

Harry’s double existence in the magical world and the ordinary one, and the crossover nature of Voldemort’s activities encourage activism in the day to day world. In brief, Harry, his friends and his allies come to define and discover themselves in opposition to the gathering gloom, and through this narrative the reader is encouraged towards activism. She concludes:

The dystopian aspects of the Harry Potter series not only help readers understand themselves in an unbalanced world, but encourage them to be actively involved in making their society better. (p.135)

Sturgis’ response draws on a wider range of young adult dystopian literature to introduce a greater complexity to the discussion. She also suggests that the near utopia Reschan suggests Harry encounters in Philosopher’s Stone is scarcely utopian at all. Both authors make some valuable observations, to which I would wish to add a couple of things.

First, I agree with Sturgis about the earlier books: the dystopian elements intrude far earlier than Reschan allows. Harry arrives at Hogwarts when the world is still in a state of fragile and fearful peace, insufficiently sure of its stability even to speak Voldemort’s name. The world cannot face and name its fears honestly. In Chamber, we see, for example, the willingness of the ministry to take Hagrid in to custody with no evidence, but merely to satisfy public opinion. The racism of magical or Mudblood becomes overt. And the power of money and corruption intrude on Hogwarts with Dumbledore’s (temporary) sacking.

In Azkaban we see not only that an innocent man has been imprisoned, but that no-one would trust the evidence of 13 year old children. We see the treatment of Lupin as a werewolf deepen the issues of blood purity. And above all we see the Dementors, and Dumbledore’s anxiety over them voices our own suspicions. All that before we reach the book whose ending Reschan identifies as a turning point.

As the story develops, we are seeing two things simultaneously, I think. One is the regrowing influence of Voldemort and / or his supporters. Th other is Harry slowly having his eyes opened to the reality of the world he now inhabits. It parallels growth through adolescence, for as well as becoming aware of the problems of the media, politics and justice in his own personal experience, he also becomes aware of the complexity of people. Dolores Umbridge complicates his view of what a corrupt person is. Severus Snape complicates his view of what a courageous person is. He also loses his adult support to the point where he must make his own decisions: not only does Sirius die, but he has eventually to come to terms with Sirius’ treatment of Kreacher. He has to lose the idealised image he had of his father, and recognise that his father’s behaviour in Snape’s memory is reprehensible. And he has to lose Dumbledore, who is the north star which guides his adventure. It is not just that Dumbledore dies, but that he is revealed to have been flawed in quite painful ways.

I think the theme that unites this, and in many respects holds the series together, and is exactly what comes to prompt and guide Harry’s determination to resist dystopia, is that he has to discover both a true vision of the world as it is, and to continue to love. He is to name He Who Must Not Be Named not only as Lord Voldemort, but as Tom Riddle. He is to see the feet of clay below Albus Dumbledore’s greatness, and the wounded heart of love beneath Severus Snape’s viciousness, and to be able not only to remake the dystopia – not into utopia which is a fool’s dream, but into normality – but to name his second son Albus Severus Potter.

No props to Propp on the popularity of Potter

The fifth section of the Ravenclaw Reader is a pair of essays attempting to explore the popularity of Harry Potter. The main essay, by Joel Hunter, is an attempt to explore the books in terms of Propp’s formalist analysis of folktales. The author, Dr Hunter, is a philosopher who’s moved out of traditional university into a community college. The response is written by Dr Gabrielle Ceraldi, who specialises in children’s literature at Western University, Canada.

I’m going to be brief here, since I’ve never been a fan of the way formalism (or structuralism for that matter) analyses texts. I think that while the noting of similarities can be mildly helpful, the really interesting analysis comes when you ask how this writer or that narrative complicates or works against common forms, functions, structures and oppositions.The danger of formalism is it puts the interest in the abstracted functions, and fails to read the complex particulars. I don’t think Hunter does that, but while I can abstractedly (see what I did there) admire his industry, I am not engaged enough to want to consult the 37 pages stretched across four appendices which accompany his paper.

He concludes, based on analysing both the stories, and readers’ responses to the stories as gathered through a simple questionnaire, that the “series of books cast (sic) its spell over readers by closely adhering to the formal organisation of folktale structure.” (p.111) According to his analysis, the books that do so most closely are those that are the most popular within the Potter canon as well.

This still leaves me with the question, is this simply noting features that tend to occur in popular stories, rather than explaining their popularity. After all, there are many other stories with similar structures which sell well, but have nowhere near the sales of Rowling’s creation. Perhaps one of the nearest comparisons (which as a reworking of classical myths will have, I suspect, just the same sort of archetypal forms and functions) is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, written slightly later but over a comparable time-span and aimed at a similar age and audience. The main books consist of two series of five each (plus various other supplements) so more than the Potter series. As of March this year, Riordan had sold somewhere in the region of 40 million books against Rowling’s sales, which were more than ten times that amount, being upwards of 450 million.

Nor, though Ceraldi’s response suggests it as one alternative (p.115), can the coincidence of Potter’s popularity simply be attributed to the possibilities of Web 2.0 arriving in time to generate the fan phenomenon (should we neologise fanomenon?). The popularity, however, rather predates the technology. Blogger, which in many ways is the first harbinger of Web 2.0, wasn’t launched until after the third book had been published, and the fanomenon (there I go) was beginning to roll before it attained any wide use.

In short, the question of their popularity will almost certainly need complex and polyvalent answers, and not a single explanation, and as Ceraldi says, it is the questions of exploring their meaning (I dislike her expression “made meaningful” p.119 – Rowling’s already done that) which matter rather more.