Harry Potter

Jacob Proffitt Jacob at Proffitt.com
Fri Jan 31 21:08:12 EST 2003

I've read some of the Potter messages and I have to say I'm a bit surprised
the short shrift we've given J.K. Rowling on this list.  I'll make a few
points first and then respond to some specific posts.
First, I'll come clean with the fact that I liked the Harry Potter books a
lot.  Part of that might be that I read them for the first time by reading
them aloud to my kids.  Doing so made some things very clear that I might
have missed otherwise.  Like how vivid the imagery is.  It is no surprise to
me that people watching the movie almost universally exclaim how like their
vision of the book it is.  That doesn't seem very remarkable, but think how
singularly rare that is.  How many book adaptations have even a fraction of
their fans talking about how close to their vision it was?  Not even the
superb Peter Jackson adaptation of Lord of the Rings has managed that.  It's
a remarkable (but sadly unremarked) evidence of Rowling's real strength as a
Another thing that occurred to me is how easy the books are to read.  They
literally flow.  And cues about tone and inflection are brilliantly
delineated in a way that will teach young readers how to interpret
inflection in a written work (which is a lot less obvious than we adults
assume from our faulty memories of the process).  This was a great help in
reading them aloud and I'm sure it's a similar help to young readers
learning to interpret narrative story.
One thing I think specifically is getting short shrift isn't just that we're
comparing Rowling at the beginning of her career to DWJ after years of
experience, but also that they are writing to very different audiences.  You
can generally tell the audience for a book by taking the heroes age and
subtracting two.  Rowling is clearly writing for an audience between 8 and
10 years old (at least to start).  This is a substantially different
audience from DWJ who tends to write for the 12+ age range.  This young
audience makes it a lot harder to write stories complex enough to engage
adults and I find it amazing that Rowling has managed it as well as she has.
And she manages to sneak very complex themes in there as well if you look
for them.  She constantly undermines easy categorizations, for example.  To
do this, she first sets up strong categorizations (Good vs. Evil, or school
houses).  Since kids tend to see things simply, this is familiar territory
to them and something they embrace right off.  Only then Rowling introduces
gentle remonstrations.  Snape is a great example of this as he is the prime
suspect in every book because the lead characters dislike him so much and he
dislikes 'em right back.  Only, he isn't the bad-guy.  Ever.  Which means we
can't be comfortable putting people into categories based on whether we like
them or not.
And the best thing about it is how gently she does all this.  Instead of
thwacking us upside the head with constant moral lessons, she inserts them
easily under the radar.
Okay, that said, some responses.  Before I do, though, I want to make it
explicit that I don't mean anything against those who have made the comments
I'm replying to.  I'm only occasionally right, so don't take it as any kind
of attack just because I disagree or want to counter a point you made.
> Behalf Of johanna at nobrandheroine.net
> Has anyone else been disturbed by the whole house-elf 
> thing? Like how it's treated like a big joke that Hermione 
> wants to get them better treatment--like just a nerdy 
> Hermione-type thing to do, that no one has to take seriously. 
> And everyone goes on about how the house elves are happy 
> being treated the way they are, & such... echoes of American 
> slavery rhetoric, anyone? I'm hoping Rowling redeems herself 
> by having people gradually realize that, hm, maybe Hermione 
> is on to something--instead of it just being a bit of comic relief.
To me, Rowling has nothing to redeem herself for.  In the course of the
text, none other than Dumbledore is shown to agree with Hermione.  Their
methods only differ.  Dumbledore employs more house-elves than he needs,
keeps their work-load light, and rewards them in ways others wouldn't even
consider.  And he has always offered them freedom should they desire it.  So
while others ignorantly claim that house-elves work so hard because it makes
them happy (hello Ron and Harry), it becomes clear to us, the readers, that
there is at least a touch of cultural conditioning involved.
So I find Rowling's point one of the most important points in the book--you
can't be any freer than you want to be.  The temptation is to go all
paternalistic and try to force them to be free (hello Hermione)--even though
they're clearly unprepared for that extreme change.  In contrast, Dumbledore
does what he's been doing with Ron, Hermione and Harry--he gives them a
little more freedom than they're comfortable with, as much guidance as he
can, and his trust.  It's an interesting commentary on paternalistic
coercion vs. trusting guidance--a lesson I find very interesting from the
perspective of a father with children who are, well, less capable than I am,
who need guidance, but also trust and a recognition of their potential to
become worthwhile adults.  Instead of moving them from one form of
subjugation to another (subjugation of slavery to the subjugation of
handling responsibilities they are in no way equipped to handle--and thus
being forced to rely on others just as if they were still slaves), Rowling
truly takes them from subjugation by assisting in their growth process--not
by dictating lessons, but by providing the resources they need to develop
judgment and confidence.
> Behalf Of Kyla Tornheim
> One thing I didn't understand was--Harry gets *away* from the 
> Dursleys, and then he goes *back*? Sheesh. They're abusive. 
> I'm sure *someone* (Dumbledore, McGonagall, this would be you 
> guys) could have gotten their guardianship negated or 
> something. I always thought Harry should go live with the 
> Weasleys and pay for his room and board, which would solve a 
> number of problems all round.

Dumbledore put Harry with the Dursleys.  And reinforced that at the end of
book four by sending him back.  Obviously, there is something going on there
that we haven't explored yet.  Since book four also introduced some
interesting statements about blood and blood ties, I'm relatively certain
that something important is brewing on that front.  I don't think it has to
do with "family" as much as it has to do with relation--similar, yes, but
only in an unexamined way.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if book five
doesn't explore this deeper.
> Behalf Of Kyla Tornheim
> There was some article somewhere, or perhaps it was on 
> another e-mail list I'm on, in which the non-positive aspect 
> of Gryffindor was discussed, and I found it really 
> interesting. Gryffindors tend to ignore rules right and left. 
> Sure, it's mostly "for the greater good," but even Hermione 
> is all "oh, we're not allowed to do magic on our own, 
> particularly really difficult and dangerous spells? eh, 
> whatever. We're doing *important
> stuff* here!"
This is a deliberate part of the books that I find a strength and not a
weakness.  Gryffindor isn't the house of good-guys.  It's the house of
courage and personal honor.  Traits that are hard, but not impossible, to
subvert to evil (as I think we'll be seeing with one of the Weasley boys
here soon).  And even though people are separated into houses, it's apparent
as well that everybody mixes these attributes in different ways (more below)
> Behalf Of Gili Bar-Hillel
> Except Neville is in Gryffindor!! He is clearly the 
> Hufflepuff type, just as 
> Hermione is clearly the Ravenclaw type, but if there really were only 
> Gryffindors in Gryffindor, what kind of group dynamic would there be?
I disagree.  I don't think Neville is clearly the Hufflepuff type.  What
trait are you assigning to Hufflepuff?  As I understand it, Hufflepuffs are
those who work steadily towards worthwhile goals.  They're loyal, determined
and hard-working.  This doesn't describe Neville at all.  Others take
Hufflepuffs to be simple-minded, but I think that's as misleading as
assuming that Ravenclaws are smart (they aren't; they're studious, which
isn't at all the same thing).  So while Hermione reads a lot and likes to
study, she is in Gryffindor because she isn't motivated by study, she is
motivated by overthrowing bad-guys and achieving her full potential as a
witch (hence Gryffindor).  Harry is in Gryffindor because, while he has the
ambition and hunger for power of a Slytherin, he actually chooses to
emphasize personal honor instead.  A true Slytherin would pursue his
ambition even though he had a personal distaste for someone else in his
house; Harry's dislike of Draco Malfoy played a large part in his desire not
to be in Slytherin, despite the Sorting Hat's comment that he'd do well
Okay, one final point and I'll shut up.  I think a lot of people are going
to be surprised once we get a little romance going (Real Soon Now (tm)).
The universal assumption seems to be that Harry will end up with Hermione.
I think this is clearly another example where Rowling makes things appear
clear-cut while undermining that in important and interesting ways.  It
helps if you know that she is a huge fan of Jane Austen, though.  In that
light, it's pretty clear (at least to me, and I'll reiterate my right to be
wrong) that Hermione isn't headed towards eventual love and life with Harry.
She's headed for . . . wait for it . . . didja guess? . . . Ron.  That's
right, she's going to end up the future Mrs. Weasley and you can see that
coming for a couple books now (if not right from the start).  Book four is
particularly clear if you're looking for it.  In true romantic tradition, I
expect they won't realize this for a while yet, but it is going to smack
them upside the head in their not so distant future....
Jacob Proffitt
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