Harry Potter and the remarkably natural forest

The fourth pairing of papers in the Ravenclaw Reader concern the Forbidden Forest. The main article is by Garry MacKenzie, and the response by one of the editors John Patrick Pazdziora. Both of these (if my googling has served me well) are PhD students at St Andrew’s University.

MacKenzie is working on landscapes in post WWII poetry, and his choice of the Forest clearly draws on that, as he explores its significance in fairy-tale and literature, particularly drawing parallels with the Brothers Grimm. He also explores this question in the light of A. S. Byatt’s notorious critique of Rowling’s creation, characterised (not unfairly) by Salon magazine as A.S. Byatt and the goblet of bile.

MacKenzie (p.79) finds something in Byatt’s critique: the Forbidden Forest is not a particularly dangerous place in itself, nor a numinous or magic-imbued environment. There are dangerous, mysterious and frightening things which live in it, but in and of itself it is natural. MacKenzie suggests that it functions primarily as a liminal place, sitting at the boundary of wizard society (p.82). There may be something to this, in that it is a place where the rules of society break down, but it never seems to really function as quite the a place of change that suggests. A place where things happen that advance the plot, certainly, but not, I think the degree of change that suggests liminal status.

While I think MacKenzie rightly draws attention to its place in almost all of the narratives, it is more-or-less incidental to Azkaban, and to Goblet (where its role as mysterious place of danger from magical creatures (and “liminal” boundary through which the Durmstang ship enters) is taken by the Lake. He may therefore somewhat exaggerate its narrative role.

Pazdziora’s response, which unlike the previous chapter does indeed respond, also notes other forests of the series, the Albanian forest where the disembodied Voldemort goes to hide among the snakes, and the Forest of Dean. In the latter of these he finds echoes of Rowling’s childhood experience, which he feels explains its non-threatening nature (pp.90-91). The Forest of Dean, however, is more refuge than place of danger, and its relative tameness doesn’t deal with what MacKenzie identifies as Byatt’s problem, that the Forbidden Forest is not sufficiently numinous.

I wonder, though, whether the ordinariness even of the Forbidden Forest has a point. Potterworld may contain magical creatures, and wizards may practice magic, but the world is natural. Trees are not inhabited by dryads; lakes may have mermaids and grindylows in them, but there are no naiads to preside over them. Rowling appears (whether deliberately or coincidentally) to be selective in her raiding of the classics. There are no genii loci or lares in the Potterverse. Magic is its technology, good overcoming evil is its theme, love is its abiding morality, but the world of witchcraft and wizardry portrayed by Rowling still seems to play out in a world whose mystery is not a numinous super-nature, but a wonderful nature. Perhaps we even dare say, a good creation.