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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 admire Rowling's ediface and don't want to diss her in any way, but I'm not an expert on HP either, having skipped around in the earlier books then bailed at Phoenix.

So I don't know how much detail of the later books Rowling planned in advance before writing HP1. But my take would be, she was writing a fairy tale (on spec, in cafes to keep warm) and began with a classic fairy tale plot and tropes, and classic Brit school story plot and tropes. What cool stuff happens right now, not why someone made a mistake (or had some deep plot in mind which we don't learn about for, what 17 real world years, after a lot of fans have been asking a lot of questions).

Why did Cinderella's Fairy Godmother leave her so many years with the mean step-family? Why did C's father marry the mean step-mother? How did Snow White turn out to be nicer than the Evil Queen? Why did Knobe leave Luke with the mean uncle so long? Why did someone place Dorothy in dull Kansas? Why were Jill and Eustace at Experiment House with the bullies?

Because these are all fucking fairy tales and that's what happens in fairy tales.

Remember Lucas in 1977+ making up Star Wars dialog as he went along? "There is another" -- because he didn't have Mark Hamil under contract yet for the sequel? Remember being a Dungeon Master and trying to stay one night ahead of the players, wildly trying to fill plot holes that they discovered last session?

Of course it's a tribute to Rowling's skill that we're treating Harry and Dumbledore as real, by asking such questions at all....

I don't think it behooves us as readers to shrug and say that's just how it goes and never talk about it.

And as a writer of fairy tale retellings I have to take exception to the dismissal that poor plotting and convenience is just how fairy tales work--no. They are incredibly tight stories, and have a logic all their own. HP is not a fairy tale. Fairy tales are honed by centuries of retelling. HP is a fantasy.

Except that is not how fantasy works. You're dealing with two entirely different genres. Traditional fairy tales, such as Cinderella, are not interested in psychological realism; that's simply not one of the components of the art form, and to criticize an actual fairy tale for not having psychological realism and/or believable character actions is like criticizing prose for not having a regular meter, or like criticizing Pride and Prejudice for not having any action sequences. It's a meaningless criticism.

The Harry Potter books, on the other hand, are novels, and for better or for worse, novels have a tradition of attempting to capture psychological realism. It's not a question of treating Harry and Dumbledore as real by asking these questions; it's a question of critiquing Rowling's authorial practice and subjecting her assumptions to critical analysis.

(As for Dorothy, she's in Kansas because Baum specifically wanted to write an American fantasy, so he put her in the heartland.)

And yeah, it's hard to keep one step ahead of the readers--but it's Rowling's job as a writer. So I'm not giving her a pass on it.

That's like saying Star Wars 1977 isn't a fairy tale, it's a film. Film is a medium, not a genre.

HP1 is a book of a certain length: a medium, not a genre. There's no rule that it must have different components than a 'traditional fairy tale' does. A fairy tale can be told at any length, with any amount of detail.

It's interstitial, if you like, with components from several genres. Mixed and matched as the author chose.

No. Harry Potter is not a fairy tale. It is writing into several genres: the children's fantasy novel, the British school story. But not the fairy tale.

Form matters. Form is, in fact, what genre is all about. Medium matters. Star Wars is not a fairy tale. It is drawing on fairy-tale elements and traditions. It is a science-fiction movie.

Fairy tales have specific genre elements that make up what we understand the form to be today. Nothing about Harry Potter fits into that. The novel, however, is precisely the genre into which Rowling is writing--the romance, perhaps, if you're the sort of person who likes to differentiate between the novel and the romance, but I'm not, as I think it's a gendered distinction loaded with snobbery.

Length and format are part of what determines genre. Part of what differentiates epic poetry from lyric poetry is length. Films are radically different from prose because of format--format determines how you tell the story.

More about Harry Potter (and Star Wars 1977) as fairy tales (replying to a comment at http://yuki-onna.livejournal.com/649516.html?thread=19905580#t19905580

As to the meaning of 'is.' In Star Wars 1977, the largest arc is this plotline: farm boy gets sword and companions, rescues princess, defeats a powerful villain, and receives a reward from her and her family in a grand ceremony. These are the major events of the story. Given the first few events, we recognize the trope and anticipate what the later and final events will be. That's why I say SW77 'is' a fairy tale.

The sequels (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) are not fairy tales, and that whole trilogy is not a fairy tale: just the first film.

I've forgotten whether it was LOTR or Hobbit+LOTR that Lewis was referring to when he said 'it' begins as a children's story and expands into a saga. As though the Battle of Toad Hall had turned into some classic armageddon whose name I've also forgotten.

I like that sort of dissonance; it's like Father Christmas in Narnia, or Tom Bombadil in LOTR -- but here it's a combination of structures.

I didn't say HP1 'is' a fairy tale all the way through. It starts as a fairy tale (the Monomyth): humble/abused child is taken by powerful friends, turns out to be a prince (in effect), gets treasure and powerful tools, and is given a destiny to fight a powerful villain to save his new/true community. As HP1 goes along, non-fairy tale events come in, and then it's a mixed school story / magic adventure story. The series as a whole isn't a fairy tale either.

But in the early part, the major events are from the fairy tale trope: especially the poor of bad family/step/foster family.

Genres are not defined by plot elements. Plot elements can sometimes be characteristic of a genre, but they do not define it.

Certainly Harry Potter and Star Wars both draw on plot elements that come from fairy tale and myth (though honestly, I don't know of a folklorist who takes Campbell and the "monomyth" seriously--it's a fairly imperialist notion, when you get right down to it). But genre is not about plot. Genre is about form. Harry Potter takes the form of a novel. It subscribes to novelistic conventions. The fact that it borrows plot elements from fairy tales without bothering to make those plot elements make any sense in the genre to which they have been transported is a problem with the series.

I suppose Rowling would have checked to make sure the folklorists c. 1990 took that pattern seriously before letting herself be influenced by it.

That's irrelevant to the debate we're having. Influenced by fairy tales or myth or Campbell's theories is a very different thing from being a fairy tale or a myth.

Coming in a bit late to say ... look, just, NO. Harry Potter is not a fairy tale. Harry Potter is not a fairy tale [i]because it is a novel[/i]. You said it yourself when you said, "That's like saying Star Wars 1977 isn't a fairy tale, it's a film. Film is a medium, not a genre." The fairy tale is [i]also[/i] a medium. Common wisdom confuses the issue by referring to the fairy tale as a genre periodically (the glory of a form that's thousands of years old), but what you're talking about is the fact that the [i]tropes[h/i] of the fairy tale have permeated many, many other mediums, so they are now common in novels, in movies, in video games, etc., etc.

Now that the technicalities are out of the way ... still, NO. Your initial comment basically boils down to, JKR's lazy writing is okay because she's writing in a lazy genre. That's, a) not true, and, b) kind of insulting (and I say this as somebody with a damned Ph.D. in fairy tales). Fairy tales have a very powerful internal logic: to modern readers, some elements of it (generally what we term elements of psychological realism) can be difficult to parse, because our society has changed drastically, and our givens are no longer the same, so we'll spend ages and ages and articles and articles trying to explain why Cinderella's Papa allowed his second wife to treat his firstborn unfairly, and why Hansel and Gretel's parents tried to abandon them in the woods. But the defining trait of the fairy tale, quite simply, is that magic is taken for granted. Nobody ever looks up in a fairy tale and says, "Say [i]what[/i] now? Did I have too many 'shrooms, or did that pumpkin turn into a ... coach?" Large chunks of Harry Potter are devoted to explaining the ways in which the magical world works: as many posters above have pointed out, the shift to concrete explanation marks the maturation of the series, while simultaneously providing the readers with some of their greatest disappointments and most thought-provoking implications (i.e., feasts don't appear out of nowhere: they're the result of slave labor).

In short: being [i]influenced[/i] by fairy tales, the theories of an armchair folklorist, Star Wars, or the Moon in Retrograde is not enough to make a work of fiction into a fairy tale. JKR wrote an awesome story, and it's not necessary to defend it tooth and claw: you can acknowledge its flaws without having to repudiate it entirely, or insult other forms in order to explain it. Good lord.

"I suppose Rowling would have checked to make sure the folklorists c. 1990 took that pattern seriously before letting herself be influenced by it."

P.S. - Er ... this reply is predicated on the notion that the monomyth is a real thing. I believe what V. was saying there was, it isn't, by the standards of most people who spend their lives studying it - not c. 1949, when Campbell came out with it, not in the '90s, and not now - and it's quite a leap to assume that, a) fairy tale = monomyth, and, b) Rowling subscribes to a discredited theory.

PS to my own.

Lacking a /sarcasm tag, maybe I'd better flee back to reading Lewis (who called LION WITCH AND WARDROBE and his THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH a fairy tale) and Tolkien who had something to say on the subject also.

What do they teach them in these modern schools?

Must "influenced by" mean some sort of 'left-brain' checking with the experts? Or might it mean using a story-telling 'instinct' which was formed by seeing that pattern in various popular stories?

What has Rowling herself said about left-brained book-learning research -- vs 'instinct' -- in general?

I don't understand the point you are trying to make here. Is it that I should automatically defer to Lewis and Tolkien, two fantasy writers whom I've never much admired? Is it that because Rowling may have been influenced by Campbell's theories that those theories must be legit?

I think you're trying to make an appeal to authority in citing Lewis and Tolkien--it's a logical fallacy, but OK. They were writing decades ago, and neither one, to my knowledge, was trained as a folklorist. Tolkien was a...linguist, was it? Or a medieval historian? No, a philologist with a specialty in middle English. And Lewis was an English professor who specialized in the later Middle Ages. So your appeal to authority does not actually refer to anybody who has any authoritative knowledge of folklore, or what we have come to call fairy tales. (I happen to enjoy and find useful Lewis's essays on writing for children, but there he is writing as a creative writer, not making any claims about his expertise in folklore.)

Lewis and Tolkien are both widely respected fantasy writers, though neither one is to my taste. Again, being a fantasy writer does not preclude knowledge of folklore and fairy tales (our gracious hostess being a case in point), but nor does it confer it, either.

On the other hand, I'm an English professor who specializes in the study of fairy tales. D'Aulnoy is an English professor who specializes in the study of fairy tales. Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, and Donald Haase are the giants in the field--and they've all been around long enough that they were not tainted by "these modern schools." So I'll see your appeal to authority, and I'll raise you by an appeal to expertise.

Why would it matter what Rowling herself as said about different forms of knowledge? She's not some kind of sage to whom I must defer. She's a highly successful writer of children's fantasy books that, while being great fun, are deeply flawed by poorly thought through plots and other markers of shoddy construction.

Since it would be wrong to simply type "Co-sign," though that is my sentiment, you'll have to forgive me if there's a little repetition: I had an interruption which kept me from posting immediately.


... Lewis, while a great writer, specialized in Medieval lit (And Tolkien, for the record, *hated* what he'd done in TLTW&tW), so his analysis of the medium doesn't really mean all that much to me. Tolkien, who *was* an amateur folklorist of sorts, in his wonderful essay "On Fairy Stories," did a great job of delineating the difference between fairy stories and fantasies and the functions that they fulfill in society. He does not, however, at any point try to claim they're the same damned thing. (I, for one, *do* make a point of teaching that essay in "these modern schools" - and, uh, btw, that quote is one of Lewis's low points, as he's busily bitching about the idea of - horrors! - co-education and a female administrator).

Bottom line: "influenced by" means ... influenced by. So, if you want to say HP was "influenced by" fairy tales, by all means! Have a party! You'll get no argument! If, on the other hand, you want to unequivocally argue that HP IS a fairy tale and that's why parts of it are poorly thought out, and keep doing so despite the fact that two people with Ph.D.s on the topic tell you that's actually not the case ... well, at the end of the day, I can only assume you're more interested in "defending" the books than discussing them. Since I'm not attacking them - carry on, dude, carry on.

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