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.