… and now for the more critical post. I’m going to break this up into two categories that will hopefully instigate two distinct (but perhaps overlapping) conversational threads.
Thread 1: The Text
It is going to be a challenge, but we need to truly stick with book 1. I too reread these books in a way that has made each one blend together in my brain, but really, let’s stick with book 1.
This is the first contemporary novel we will be reading. How have depictions of young adulthood shifted from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?
This is also our first novel with a male protagonist. How do the struggles that Harry faces regarding gender expectations compare to those of Alice?
Breaking the Rules, Parenting, and Surrogates
So many young readers were drawn to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because they could simultaneously relate to Harry’s struggles and experience adventure vicariously through Harry. In what ways does the novel construct this simultaneous response on the part of its readers? Drew Chappell’s article addresses this more directly. What is Chappell’s argument? How does it relate to modern conceptions of young adulthood and parenting? (We gave Hemmings a bit of short shrift last week so take the time to read and comment on Chappell).
From my own perspective, I remember powerlessness as being one of the worst feelings of childhood. I was constantly beholden to the whims of other people. I had to go wherever and do whatever my parents wanted. When my parents got divorced and I was shuttled back and forth every weekend, I felt like a captive who had to constantly negotiate new sets of rules and the worldview of whomever I was currently in the company of. Despite the expectations of adults, the HP novels play out a fantasy of childhood empowerment, but at the cost of orphanhood. How do we understand adults operating within this fantasy? How do other adults act as surrogate parents for Harry, and how does their specific position allow for a different model of parenting than we would imagine of a blood parent or legal guardian?
Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of Harry Potter is its exploration of YA friendship and its value in navigating the difficult waters of young adulthood, such as bullying, finding a sense of self, and (in later books) romance. What elements of the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione are particularly attractive? What do we make of Ron and Harry’s early treatment of Hermione? The friendship triangle with two boys and one girl is also fairly common in YA lit. What conventions of this triangle manifest themselves in the novel? Why might Rowling have chosen this format?
Forgive me for spoilers here, but I think you can already tell in this book that the overarching theme of the series is the power of love in a Beatles “All You Need Is Love” kind of way. This can seem corny, or, at the very least, sentimental from a modern perspective. How does Rowling avoid this easy discounting of love as a human source of empowerment? In what ways is she setting up love as central to this first novel? What kinds of love are manifest here? What are the challenges and possibilities of it? I might go so far as to call it the strongest magic in the text. What does it mean to make love magical, and how does the novel’s fantasy genre substantiate love as magical in the real world too?
With Harry Potter we have our first fantasy series—a collection of texts that pull readers into the same fantastical world wherein there is a mythology and an epistemology that exists independently of our own. An epistemology is a culturally constructed way of knowing and seeing the world. We often take our belief system for granted as “natural” or “factual” when it is in fact a worldview specific to our cultural moment and geographical location—the way we have created systems and order (this came up a lot in our discussion of Alice too). Fantasy novels build their own systems, but they often contain many of the same themes and beliefs that are central to our own epistemology. In his book The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, narrative theorist Tzvetan Todorov, writes “the supernatural was merely a pretext to describe things [authors] would never have dared mention in realistic terms” (158). In other words, The fantastic allows writers not only to explore but also to critique the systems of knowledge and knowing of their own world in a safe, removed space.
- Rowling chose to build a fantasy that actually lives within but unnoticed in this world; why? What are the characteristics of Harry’s world?
- In what ways, does Harry have to become accustomed to the rules and systems of a new culture?
- What cultural values, morals, and problems are similar to our own?
- What is a muggle, really? Why choose this name?
Thread 2: Our Harry Potter Lovin’ World, a.k.a. Reading Communities
I put Harry Potter on this syllabus because it was a hugely important text for the development of the YA genre. It spawned the phenomenon of adults devouring YA that has only grown since the book’s initial success. Now, when you enter a bookstore (I know they are few and far between these days) the YA section is the mostly widely populated and publicized area. In England there was something unseemly about adults reading books meant for children, so Bloomsbury developed two distinct covers for the books to encourage both cross-sections of the market.
You’ll also notice that the title of the book was different in Britain; Rowling’s American publishers, Scholastic, were concerned that American children would not be attracted to a book about a philosopher. Before Rowling’s transnational success, Scholastic made several changes in the text to appease what they thought were the needs and concerns of American audiences; the later books have fewer and fewer differences.
It is worth considering how Harry Potter created the concept of the cross-over. For a long time there have been books written for adults that young adults read (usually because they are forced to) like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but HP was the first series written specifically for children that was devoured by adults. Since its publication and fanfare, cross-over has become a publisher’s buzzword, a sweet spot that both publishers and authors attempt to hit. The Book Thief is just one example, as is Twilight.
As some of you may or may not recall, Harry Potter was widely banned across the U.S., perhaps partly having to do with many of the issues that we will discuss in relationship to its fantasy of empowered young adulthood, but it was more openly decried for its use of “magic.” In the film Jesus Camp, fundamentalist Christians outline their basic arguments against the book. I used to insert the entire film below, but it is no longer available, so here is a clip of just the Harry Potter scene:
Young Harry Potter fans were among the most active protesters against the novel’s banning. A basic YouTube search for “responses harry potter ban” returns a wealth of these fan responses.
Harry Potter has also been renowned for its vigilant and steadfast fan community. See this website for an overview and some samples of Wizard Rock. The Wizard Rock songs demonstrate not only fans’ devotion to the series, but also their creative, interpretive work. The same goes for the healthy fanfic community that sprung up around the novels. As you are posting and commenting, feel free to explore and write about any of these fan-created objects so that we can spark a conversation about the role of fandoms in relationship to YA lit specifically.
Fan communities often use the term “canonical” to argue about whether something is or is not a valid part of a book’s cultural record, mythology, and/or text. Rowling’s revelation that she understood Dumbledore as a gay character sparked heated controversy among her fan community, raising important questions about the role of authors in interpreting their own text. When a book becomes as popular as the Harry Potter series, who does its interpretation and legacy belong to?
Okay, hopefully this will get us off to a good start!
“J.K. Rowling Outs Dumbledore as Gay.” BBC News. 20 Oct. 2007. Web. 7 June 2015. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7053982.stm>.
Steup, Matthias. “Epistemology.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 14 Dec. 2005. Web. 6 June 2015. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/>.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975. Google Books. Web. 6 June 2015.
Wizard Rock. Web 7 June 2016. <http://wizardrock.org>.