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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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It's not a question of being discredited. It's about the fact that the essays you're referring to are decades old. No field is static, and the humanities are not a fundamentalist religion--there's no essay or theory or definition that is so perfect that, several decades on, it's going to be accepted as authoritative or trump what's been done since. Time marches on; perspectives shift; new information is uncovered and/or proposed; underlying assumptions change; materials are re-evaluated. Even the most important critical texts, the ones that need to be referred to when discussing a given field, aren't inviolate. It's the equivalent of referring to...I don't know...Melanie Klein, and thinking that because she's a significant figure, she had the final word on child psychology.

Alan Dundes does pretty awesome critiques of Campbell's monomyth theory; he published one in his 1984 book Sacred Narrative and one in his 1997 book From Game to War. Some main points: Campbell draws only on Indo-European hero tales, excluding other traditions from his "universal" pattern, and even in this tradition, not demonstrating familiarity with its various incarnations. He does not provide cross-cultural data supporting his claim of universality. Perhaps most damning, he can't seem to provide one hero myth that encompasses all the elements of this supposedly universal cycle.

Sigh. For the sake of describing the set of events common to HP1, Star Wars 1977, etc -- it doesn't MATTER whether certain people think Campbell was wrong about it being a "universal" pattern. Even if you think Campbell made it up, we can still use his term to DESCRIBE it.

For the sake of finding another term to describe that or similar patterns, it doesn't MATTER whether Luthi's books are decades old.

If the pattern 'farm boy + magic sword + villain + princess + reward' wasn't familiar to most people before 1977, it was certainly familiar afterwards.

It's possible to use the term 'fairy tale' without even distinguishing the sword/dragon kind from the Perrault kind. (And both often begin with a protagonist in humble/abusive circumstances, who gets to a royal reward in a surprising way.)

I suppose Google is beyond the pale too, but it finds 5,000+ hits for "Star Wars" + "fairy tale in space". And 45,000+ for "Harry Potter is a fairy tale." Many of the SW hits lead to reasonable discussions about, eg, why SW1977 'is' a fairy tale and Star Trek is something else. Lewis called THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH (a novel about academic office politics) "a fairy tale", in an introduction which showed some of its content as being within the traditional fairy tale pattern.

If using the term 'fairy tale' in this ordinary, popular way to describe a popular book is 'having a party' -- then I hope we ordinary people don't get too loud. ;-)

OK, seriously? Because lots of people on the internet think something, that's evidence that it must be true? Because a medievalist used a term to describe his science fiction novel, it must be accurate? I realize that to many people, the idea of expertise in the humanities is anathema, but I didn't realize that such expertise was supposed to be trumped by google.

Lots of misconceptions are popular. That doesn't make them accurate.

You were not making an argument about the series's popular perception. You were making an argument about how genre works--i.e. that Harry Potter's plot holes and character-construction problems were OK for the same reasons that Cinderella's lack of psychological realism is OK, because they're both of the same genre. If you want to do this and be convincing--no, more than be convincing, be making a reasonable argument, then understanding how the genre works and why, as well as what makes something an instance of that genre or not, is pretty essential. If you're not interested in making a reasonable argument, you can always say so. But saying "a bunch of people on the internet agree with me" is neither convincing or relevant.

Plenty of insufferable people on wedding-based reality shows also use the term "fairy tale" to describe their situation. While that's interesting in terms of what the term has come to signify in popular culture, that doesn't mean that wearing a white poofy dress on national television has anything to do with the actual genre.

As to the monomyth, you'd have a point if anybody was arguing that Campbell's theories hadn't influenced Star Wars and the like. But again, that doesn't mean the theories themselves are accurate, nor does it mean that using his theories to design a story places that story into the genre of the fairy tale. You can use his term if you like, but doing so will, when talking to people who are familiar with the critiques, lead to derails, rather than to the conversation that you'd rather have about the pattern.

Lewis, who referred to Narnia as "fairytale form", would have made short work of that derail.

Back to basics. Imo there were several flaws here, eg Dumbledore and the Hogwartians leaving Harry back with the Dursleys after the first book, D's lame explanation about 'family blood', and the later 11th dimensional chess explanation. And the dark later books may have seriously over-balanced the whole series.

What I'm defending as not a serious flaw, is HP1's opening situation of protaqonist in an abusive semi-family home who is still a nice person; a traditional opening in fairy tales. Even if this required some original misjudgment or ignorance on Dumbledore's part. After Harry had been in Hogwarts and had a chance to communicate about the Dursleys' treatment, returning him to Dursleys full time is not so defensible. I could only blink away from that by taking the repeated Dursley openings as reprise of the fairy tale pattern of the first book, a somewhat serious flaw but understandable.

Overall, I don't see judging the whole series (much less a personal judgment against Rowling for "sloppiness" etc) as though it were a single book written in a few months in 2011, with repeated revisions to bring the opening in line with the later parts (and perhaps advice from a friendly editor) before mailing it away whole in a single manila envelope. The HP series is simply a different kind of animal, er, edifice.

What personal judgment? My judgment of "sloppiness" is not based on whether or not Rowling makes her bed. It's a judgment of her writing, which is quite sloppy. And I, unlike you, have read all the books, several of them more than once.

You, if you like, can blink away the sloppy writing evidenced by not thinking through the consequences of putting a psychologically realistic protagonist in an abusive situation by ascribing it to a reprise of a fairy tale pattern. That does not make the novel a fairy tale, and it does not mean that anybody else has to find your blinking convincing.

As to what a dead author's hypothetical response would be to a discussion of Campbell's theories--I really could not possibly care less.

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