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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Dumbledore's Theory of Early Childhood Education
I was knitting and listening to Harry Potter on audiobook (I should be sleeping! Instead, not.) like a good geek girl tonight, because after seeing the final film I was filled with nostalgia for the first four books, the ones I actually liked. Stephen Fry reads them, and I gotta go with Vonnegut on this one because I was sitting in a plush chair with a glass of wine knitting azure lace and listening to a beautiful British man tell me a beautiful story and if that's not nice I don't know what is.

But it occurred to me, whilst listening to Harry's hilariously over the top horrible treatment by the Dursleys, that this whole plan of Dumbledore's really could have gone very wrong. Because while, yes, it is true that being raised by normal people (albeit awful and they did know the Dursleys were awful, it just fit into a vague handwavey wibbly wobbly timey wimey protection spell sort of thing) instead of in a nonstop fame factory MIGHT create a gentle, humble, sweet-natured boy, it could also, quite easily, create a sociopath.

I mean, seriously. The cupboard under the stairs? This is the kind of shit that makes serial killers. It's the banality of evil, and though Voldemort's childhood was impressively Dickensian/Bret Easton Ellisian, Harry's is pretty much textbook on how to break a little kid. And though many kids come out of abusive homes relatively even-keeled and stable if defensively cynical (I did) just as many come out permanently broken, unable to make meaningful connections or even understand the concept of love, and certainly unable to perform the All Important Magical Feat of Believing in Yourself, which is Required for all Protagonists. In fact, that is kind of a problem with a lot of abused children--the inability to see themselves as protagonists in their own lives and stories, since they were treated in formative personal epochs as NPCs at best, villains at worst, and usually some kind of horrible side character who needs to be put down for the good of the Real People, ie, the abusers and those they deem part of their tribe of worthies.

I certainly see that growing up famous, rich, and adored/believed to be super powerful and important by all is a great way to raise a Gossip Girl-style horrorshow of a person, and often kids who have been raised just couched in comfort and unconditional love with no chance to fail or struggle on their own can be listless and spoiled and generally the worst. Sorrow and trauma is what makes us complex and compassionate, the experience of it personally allows us to predict, empathize, wish to avoid, and desire to protect others from it, and thus most social interaction is made. But that doesn't mean that in order to make the Most Compassionate Child, the Superhero of Being Really Nice, you should just beat down and crush a kid underfoot.

Which is more or less what Dumbledore does, and everyone is horrified that he's doing it, but he is Gandalf the White and None Shall Argue. I get that he is Wise and Male and Has a Job in School Administration, but really? (Don't even get me started on the absurd importance of a single public school in that world--and I honestly think it is a public school and not private, within the wizarding world any child with magical ability can go, there doesn't seem to be tuition beyond basic supplies, and the government is SUPER INVOLVED in the running of the place. Anyway.) Seriously, that is a DICE ROLL, YO. It could have gone the other way. Harry could have made Draco look like a kitten with a daisy in his paw.

File off the names and serial numbers and this could, easily and with great tragic muscle behind it, be Voldemort's origin story.

Now, now, I know that Harry and Voldemort are meant to have a lot in common, there are intended parallels, but the fact that the Dursley Shuffle is done deliberately, pretty much to make Harry not turn out to be a shithead makes it sort of darkly hilarious to me. Yes, you can turn out Ok. I like to think I have. But Not Ok is on the table at all times with this sort of thing. It is always in play.

Because if you lock ten children under the stairs for the first eleven years of their lives, I'll bet you a Time Turner that you'll get four supervillains, three deeply wounded individuals so desperate for love they will do anything they're told to by the first person who hugs them, two completely shattered psyches incapable of meaningful speech, and one Harry Potter, a basically normal, gently dented boy who is good at sports, naturally likeable, and willing to sacrifice himself for the group of your choice.

Them's some long odds, D-man. Glad that worked out for you.

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I completely agree. I had a student last semester wanting to write a paper about why Harry didn't turn out super fucked-up from his childhood and ascribing it to the good values his parents somehow imbued him with prior to his turning 1, and I had to gently point out that the reason it didn't fuck him up has nothing to do with psychological realism and everything to do with Rowling wanting to get Harry the sympathy of a Cinderella figure but not wanting to deal with the psychological fall-out that would naturally ensue.

The only thing I disagree with you about is that I really do think that Hogwarts is a private school. Rowling is writing into the English school story tradition (as you know! I don't mean to imply that you don't), which is so deeply invested in the tradition of the English boarding school, which is such a heavily class-based institution. Add to that the fact that we read of no kids at Hogwarts with working-class accents beyond Hagrid in his youth, even though Rowling is clearly capable of representing working-class accents (think of Ernie, who drives the Knight Bus).

I know it's meant to be a private school. But the apparatus seems so much more public to me--inside it is obviously an english private (public) school. But the way it is treated and run by the government is different and strange. Also, JKR doesn't show a lot of kinds of kids at Hogwarts. Doesn't mean they weren't there.

Anyway, BAH, values taught before 1! Whatever! At 1 you haven't figured out talking, let alone nebulous values.

Oh, I don't buy the idea that just because Rowling doesn't show them doesn't mean they aren't there. It kind of does. If it's not represented, or referred to, it's not there. Otherwise--I mean, sure, maybe Hogwarts had a Gay/Straight Alliance and we just never hear about it, and maybe it had a shooting range and a trampoline room, but if it's not in the books, why would anybody think that?

We see more than one sorting process. Harry interacts in passing with plenty of kids and there are plenty of minor characters. If Rowling had wanted to throw in a few working-class kids the way she threw in Padma and Parvati to reflect the racial/ethnic realities of contemporary England, there was nothing stopping her.

The way it is treated and run by the government is weird and strange, but it seems equally weird and strange for a public school, to me. I think that's part of the super-magic specialness of Dumbledore, the Most Important Wizard in the Wizarding World.

I'd suggest that there _are_ working-class kids at Hogwarts. Dean, for a start. Colin Creevey is the son of a milkman. There are more ways than phonetic accents to mark social class in fiction*. Neville, for all his impeccable blood-status, is coded working class in many ways. And just because film!Hermione is relentlessly southern-middleclassed, book!Hermione is equally plausible as the daughter of working class parents who benefitted from post-war free education. Luna Lovegood is entirely plausibly from a working class family, her father from the strong WEA self-improvement tradition.

*For a start the pure-blood villains are coded ultra-upper-class in a way that is about as subtle as calling a German man Fritz in 1945. How did we all miss that Peter Pettigrew was the villain of PoA? I suppore because we hadn't yet met the Lestranges.

Ah, I forgot about Colin Creevey's origins. Didn't he have a brother, too? I forget.

Book Hermione's parents are both dentists. They may have benefitted from post-war free education, but their daughter has grown up the daughter of highly-educated white-collar professionals. Probably not as wealthy as the daughter of US dentists, but certainly well-off. Neville may be coded, but his parents were aurors, which seems to be a rather well-respected and highly-positioned profession. As for Luna...yeah, plausibly. But lots of things are plausible, such as a Hogwarts Gay/Straight Alliance. But if it's not mentioned or alluded to, it's not there.

I don't remember Dean being indicated to be working class--what did I miss/have I forgotten?

Also! Hogwarts clearly does have some sort of tuition: "I'm not paying for some crackpot to teach him magic tricks!" and Hagrid's insistence that Harry's parents left him enough money to pay for his education.

And it seems that Hogwarts isn't the only wizarding school, just the only one Harry really knows about (at least until book 4 when it became relevant to the plot), but is consistently referred to as "the best." There's some classism there. Plus, all the legacies-- it seems all the Blacks and Malfoys and Potters and Weasleys have been going to Hogwarts for generations, and they're quite proud of it.

And the Weasleys are quite poor.

I had forgotten that line though.

Well, the Weasleys are poor compared to the other kids at Hogwarts. The dad has a white-collar middle-management job and the mom is a stay-at-home mom even though it seems that almost all housework comes out of the end of a wand. And I'm pretty sure that Ron has his own room at home. They don't seem objectively that poor to me. Nobody's ever worried about losing a job or paying bills. It just means they have to wear hand-me-downs and that Christmas presents are often homemade.

Fair point. Does make all the commentary about their relative poverty a little weird then.

Yes, I'd forgotten that. There is tuition.

I think the stuff about the "best" is sloppy writing. If there are other schools in England, surely at some point one of the snotty kids would say something like "Goodness, look at incompetent old Trevor. I'm surprised he got here at all; surely he'd be more at home at a place like Squeedget's."

Well, yes; it was sloppy writing. There's a lot of that, especially in the early books.

Example: Molly and Arthur Weasley (in book 4) claim to remember Ogg, the groundskeeper before Hagrid. HOWEVER, (in book 2) it's stated that Hargid's been the groundskeeper since he was expelled FIFTY YEARS AGO. While it's conceivable he might have been apprenticed to this Ogg fellow for a period of years (not unlikely, considering he was quite young at the time), it's never stated, and it makes Molly and Arthur seem impossibly old for having children so young-- especially since it's made pretty clear that they eloped quite young during the war and started having babies immediately.

I think part of the problem is that she never sat down to figure out what "working-class" really means in the Wizarding World. Clearly being a bus driver is beneath being the Minister of Magic; attempts to be more specific than that are going to naturally become hazy.

There should be wizards born to working class Muggle families, but they wouldn't complete their education and then go join the Muggle working class... merely being a wizard is their Alger/Dickens/Perrault step out of that world.

Wizards depend on the Muggle working class for most of their infrastructure. There would never be extensive need for wizard road crews or farm workers. Any emergency "put things back the way they were before we blew it all to hell" maintenance performed by ministry workers would at the very least not be performed by hand, so even if the wizards tasked with those jobs are looked down upon by the wizards who work in offices or who don't have to work for a living, they're still above those who can't do magic.


Which brings me to the realization that the entire infrastructure of Hogwarts, inside and out, was kept up by a man who couldn't do magic and a man who was forbidden from doing so.

Well, the problem is that there are working-class wizards--Ernie, and Rosmerta who tends the bar in Hogsmeade. And even if muggle-born working-class wizards climb the class hierarchy by virtue of being magical, they would still retain working-class accents in Hogwarts.

I agree it's an issue of Rowling not thinking through the class structure of her world, but that in and of itself suggests the lack of importance she attaches to class.

Oh, I agree. I'm not saying anything about the lack of working-class markers among Hogwarts students makes sense*... just trying to analyze the depth of the shallowness, as it were.

*But actually as I typed that I had a thought: we're told again and again that some wizarding families prefer to educate their children at home, but we see little evidence of this. The class-conscious purebloods like the Malfoys seem to consider a formal school education to be worth continuing for status reasons even as they worry about the corrupting effects of it. Everybody inside of our viewpoint... in Harry's social circle... takes an education at Hogwarts as a given.

So who would be educating their children at home? The people whose children can expect to go into a trade that doesn't much involve transfiguration and charms, the people who can't afford it, the people who don't feel it's their place to send their children to school with the Malfoys of the world (or who don't want to deal with the Malfoys of the world thinking it's not their place to).

I really don't think Rowling thought all this out, but she may have unintentionally written an ugly truth of her world.

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