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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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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.

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