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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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On a certain level, I agree with you... one of my defenses of the current trend in fantasy roleplaying games towards characters that start out ultracompetent (or ultra-lucky) and larger-than-life is that nobody wants the story about the dozens of expeditions to slay Smaug where everyone was killed by trolls or spiders along the way.

Unlikely hero/everyhobbit Bilbo doesn't make it there and back again because we're reading about him; we're reading about him because he's the one who makes it. There are any number of possibilities for how Harry's life might have turned out, but the one in which he has and fulfills a heroic destiny is the one that makes a good story.

But I really have to disagree with where you ultimately take this. If J.K. Rowling had written about a hundred Harry Potters who all turn out self-sacrificing and decent, it would be terrible fiction. She could say it happens. She could commit those words to paper. But she couldn't make it believable. And the reasons that outcome would be unbelievable also makes the one Harry Potter strain credulity.

Fatally? No. But as the blog post we're commenting on demonstrates, you don't actually have to hate a book outright to be struck by logical disconnects or unlikely outcomes.

For my part, I think what this shows is the "danger" of starting out writing what is basically a modern-day fairytale where the supposed mundane and dreary real-world situation Harry escapes from is something more in the tradition of Dahl than Dickens and then having that fairytale evolve into a Serious Work of Fantasy. Book one gives us a lot of flights of fancy with few consequences.

We see great feasts appearing from thin air, exactly as you would expect a wizard's feast to appear: like magic. Because that's the fairytale. But we also see that the Wizarding World is not a post-scarcity economy... there are rich wizards and poor wizards, and apparently this actually means something. So we then are given rules that say that precious resources like food can't actually be created from nothing, and we get a whole worker/slave caste that must actually toil to create these feasts and the whole thing is hidden away so that wizards never have to think much about it.

Harry's childhood under the stairs fits in the world of the first book, where everything is fanciful... the explanation given later is like the house-elves in the kitchen: kind of awkwardly shoehorned in to make the reality of the first book fit with where the series ended up.

That's not a knock at J.K. Rowling. It's the reality of writing something over a long period of time and releasing it in stages. Sometimes things evolve. Sometimes things go in unexpected directions. Sometimes you change your mind. If she'd written the whole thing all at once before publishing a word, it probably would be a very different story from top to bottom... but it also probably never would have been finished.

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