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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Dumbledore's Theory of Early Childhood Education
menchi
catvalente
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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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.

So.

... 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.

Heh, interesting. I'm not the world's biggest fan of "On Fairy-Stories." I've tried teaching it once or twice, and I like some parts of it...the eucatastrophe, the secondary creation (that is the secondary creation essay, right?). But all in all...I don't find that it speaks to...I don't know...actual fairy tales, you know? Like, he references fantasy novels, and I believe he references sagas, and he references ballads...but he doesn't actually do much to reference what we would actually call fairy tales.

At least not in my memory. Am I misremembering?

For the sake of accuracy. To use a word often seen in this thread, NO. Lewis's line "What do they teach them in these schools?" occurs in the first book of the Narnia series. Iirc it's said by 'the Professor,' supporting Lucy's claim of another world 'just round the corner' through the wardrobe. He's referencing (via Plato) a theological doctrine that's presented briefly in THE DISCARDED IMAGE and at length in Lovejoy's THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING. Lewis's quarrel with education of the period is detailed in THE ABOLITION OF MAN. It has nothing to do with co-ed facilities or a female administrator.

It is Peter Pevensie's education that the Professor is dissing. But Peter did not go to co-ed Experiment House, which does not appear till THE SILVER CHAIR. The remark dissing its Head does not mention its curriculum, and iirc the curriculum is not mentioned anywhere in that book.

Ok, zooming out to basics. When an important work like LOTR or HP has an inconsistency* that to some modern readers sticks out as a very bad flaw, but other serious readers don't mind, or approve it -- I'm interested in finding out why and how the inconsistency works for those approving readers.

Yes, we can't just lump Bilbo's freight train in with balrogs; they're two different kinds of thing. We can't lump Harry under stairs with the magic cat etc in the first chapter of HP1. It is two different standards: colorful magic stuff, vs why didn't the Child Protective Agency equivalent discover serious mundane abuse.

I suspect that some HP readers (me among them) see a whole nother standard at work here: fairy tale trope (if that term is more acceptable to you). Of course there might be other standards or other reasons (I described one in a reply to Asakiyume just now above).

*Some editions of WIND IN THE WILLOWS actually leave out the chapter "the piper at the gates of dawn" because some readers actively dislike it (though there's a legitimate length factor there).

Well, but that's a different issue. Whether or not some readers don't mind the unrealistic treatment of Harry's psychology and why is not the same thing as saying that HP is a fairy tale just like Cinderella, which is what you said in your first comment.

The "why didn't CPS visit the Dursleys" doesn't seem like an issue of any sort, really. CPS misses abused children all the time, unfortunately. That doesn't take any leap of faith at all.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that non-specialists are always a little less critical, simply because they're not as steeped in the specifics of Ur Doin' it Rong per genre or sub-genre. I myself specialize in fairy tales and children's stories, but not British school stories, and I missed some of the probable allusions until a friend who focuses on that sub-genre explained them to me.

What actually fascinates *me* about that is how the human mind overlays its own logic onto a story, and fills in the gaps when it is an otherwise compelling story: I mean, I might have initially read a lot of the character archetypes in a more "Breakfast Club" type of a fashion than was accurate or intended, but the story still hung together nicely. In other cases, like the one at hand, the broad qualities of the fairy tale might serve as the necessary bridge (for you, for other readers, possibly for Rowling herself: I haven't seen any interviews where she's discussed it, but they might well be out there; btw, what *did* she say about book-learning vs. instinct?). We're generous to the works we love ....

So according to your theories, how did Cinderella and Snow White grow up to be nice people in spite of their abusive situations?

It's not a relevant question, because, as I've noted before, fairy tales are not interested in psychological realism. It's not a characteristic of the genre, so they're not bound by it. Snow White and Cinderella are not meant to be fully-realized fleshed-out three-dimensional realistic representations of the human psyche. That is a convention of the novel. Asking why fairy-tale characters don't behave according to a recently-developed literary convention that applies to a completely different genre is like asking why there are no explicit sex scenes in Shakespeare's plays. It's just not relevant.

Cinderella and Snow White behave the way they do because those stories require persecuted, virtuous heroines (for a given value of virtue that can include killing one's [step]mother). They are not novelistic characters. They are story elements.

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