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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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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 ....

That 'bridge' sounds not too far off from what I was getting at.

I too would like to know what Rowling has said on such topics, if anyone is a fan enough to have read it. Of course 'book-learning' and 'instinct' were my own terms.

You know, I'm not entirely sure that it has very much to do with specialities. I think a lot of it has to do with personality and reading habits. Plot holes and inconsistencies bother me. I mean, they really bother me. They have always bothered me, though with age and awareness and experience I've become more sensitive to them than I was when I was young and everything was fresh and new. But I'm not a specialist in the contemporary mainstream English novel, and Pat Barker's Another World was completely ruined for me by the fact that nobody--not her, not her editor, not her copy editor--caught that the tombstones discovered by the children in the book are reported to have different dates carved on them at different points in the text, and that the years carved don't match up with what the inhabitants were supposed to be doing historically. I cannot get beyond that. I just can't. It really bothers me.

I'm sure plenty of people liked that book fine--certainly none of the reviewers pointed it out, that I know of. But all I could see was the sloppiness.

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