This is not a Cursed Child review

cursed childQuestion: if you’re not exulting over Harry’s latest adventure on social media, are you dead inside?

For the past few days, I’ve been seeing status updates, celebrations of the new Harry Potter book (or, to be more pedantically correct, script) that released this morning. The last time this happened, many claimed, was 2007, when Deathly Hallows made its triumphant and heartbreaking entry onto the scene. Since then, there has been one book (The Tales of Beedle the Bard  [2007]), four movies (Order of the Phoenix also released in 2007, incredible as that might seem), news of three more movies, two versions of the same website, and finally, a play which opened its doors to the public yesterday in London.

Since Rowling seemingly bid adieu to Harry in 2007, she’s released four books, three of which she didn’t even publish under her own name. This is not counting the odd bits and pieces of information she dots about Pottermore, all of which, taken together, could probably build up that substantial Potterverse encyclopaedia we were promised aeons ago.

Besides this, there have been re-reads and re-reads, and controversies, and news trickling in about manga adaptations and Pokemon-Go-style HP games…so really, if you think about it, the magic’s never really left to come back again.

I confessed to a friend that, contrary to expectations, I was not jumping up and down over the new book. I confessed that this made me worry whether I had died inside, if I no longer found joy in the small things and had ‘grown up’ too much to want to pose with a book and write inspiring things about Harry and Hermione and Sirius and all the others who populate my blog. After all, if I’m not happy about a new HP book, can I be happy about anything?

Then I decided that I would stop over-thinking it and accept the facts: I do not feel the need to ‘revisit’ HP because it is so much a part of my life, my literary sensibilities and my fantasy footing that I never felt it go away. There’s nothing to revisit. It’s all still there, and I’m still referencing Rowling’s work enough in daily conversations that there hasn’t been enough of a break to make a new book—or script—feel like a ‘return’ to anything.

And I don’t think it’s just me. Harry, it’s safe to assume, has entered that rarefied realm of popular culture whose inhabitants are, for all intents and purposes, commercial or

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I will always be watching you.

otherwise, immortal. He’s right up there along with Indiana Jones, Batman and his merry rogues’ gallery, Superman, even (if you’re Indian) the characters of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He’s already been reinvented twice in our lifetime, played by two very different actors on very prominent platforms. New readers come across his adventures every day, in 79 different languages, and new viewers, if they have access to WB or MoviesNow, can catch up on the cinematic versions (seriously, there’s a Harry Potter movie playing every other day). Harry is here to stay, and nothing proves that like the two (TWO!) theme parks that continue to attract huge crowds, huge prices notwithstanding.

Perhaps my lack of discernible excitement is thanks to this knowledge: that there’s no need to ‘go back’ to anything about Harry, or the time in my life when I first met him, because he’s always been, and will continue to be around. I remember what my life was like when I read Prisoner of Azkaban, and while some things about being 12 years old are great, not everything was wonderful. Puberty was scary, and while adulthood may suck at times, I’d choose the uncertainty of my 20-something life over not understanding what was happening to my body, or the lack of deep friendships that, now, mean the world to me.

But everyone celebrates in their own way, and just because I don’t feel the excitement necessary to join in the party doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go on. That’s a thing Harry Potter taught us, right? That people express happiness, bravery, and their ideals in different ways, make different choices. And that’s a lesson the world could do with a lot more of, so really, it’s all to the good that there’s another book here, telling us about it once again.

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Rowling, the Navajo, and cultural appropriation

JK-Rowling-interview

A few days ago, J K Rowling began releasing a series of short writings called The History of Magic in North America. These pieces (of which there will be five; four are out, as of the writing of this post) provide snapshots of the development of the wizarding world in what is now the United States, setting the tone for the Fantastic Beasts movies, the first of which will be in theatres by the end of the year. The movies, which chronicle the adventures of Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), are largely set in 1920s New York, seventy years before the events of the Harry Potter series. The writings are posted on the new Pottermore website, and are available for anyone, member or not, to read.

Rowling’s first post, ‘Fourteenth Century—Seventeenth Century’, mentions the Navajo legend of the ‘skinwalkers’. According to myth, a skinwalker was ‘a medicine man or witch who has attained the highest level of priesthood in the tribe, but chose to use his or her power for evil by taking the form of an animal to inflict pain and suffering on others.’ In her post, Rowling states that the skin walker legends had their ‘basis in fact’, the skinwalkers being Animagi who were unfairly prosecuted, often by fraudulent ‘No-Maj’ (the North American term for Muggle) medicine men who were afraid of the exposure of their own lack of magical skill.

It seems, on the surface, an innocent enough tie-in to Rowling’s extended Potterverse. The backlash however, has been angry, with a number of Native American activists accusing Rowling of stereotyping of First Nations peoples, generalising specific tribes’ legends and beliefs to encompass all their differing, specific cultures, and affronting their cultural sensibilities (for a well written piece on this, go here). Criticism was only stepped up with the publication of the second in the series (‘Seventeenth Century and Beyond’), where aside from a description of ‘Scourers’, unscrupulous magic users who ‘even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards’, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is washed out of the narrative altogether.

Now, as a general reader, I don’t think Rowling is under any obligation to write a detailed history of the United States, taking into consideration all its major historical landmarks and moments and tying them into her magical narrative. However, I do see the complicated nature of this particular sally. I’m not sure whose ‘side’ I’m on, in this affair, mostly because I find the accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’, most of the time, to be a not entirely unmixed affair. But let me lay out my view on this, and you can decide where I come down, if I come down anywhere at all.

  1. It’s true that the Native American genocide and the Slave Trade are both cornerstones of the modern United States, and their repercussions continue to ring through the country today. While Rowling does not dedicate much space to these tragedies, she does not, to be fair, talk of the Revolutionary War either, or the Civil War. The only ‘historical event’ she pays more than passing heed to are the Salem Witch Trials, which leads me to the second point.
  2. Rowling seems to be consciously offering no more than quick, picture postcard-like sketches of a vast history, and to do this, she latches onto the markers that already have some currency in popular imagination. The Salem Witch Trials are, arguably, the most famous mainstream evocation of ‘magic’ in US history. They have been immortalised on screen, in plays (you can’t argue with The Crucible) and are now cemented in the mainstream as a time when ‘witchcraft’ was believed to be real and punishable by death. Though far from the only instance of such widespread witch hunting (which continues to happen in countries across the world), they are arguably the most well-remembered, documented happening. Rowling’s decision, then, to focus on these Trials makes sense, given the context of the world she is building.
  3. To turn to that thorny term, ‘cultural appropriation’. As a reader and writer, I find the term…unnerving. I understand the history and hurt that is loaded onto it, when certain groups that have always been relatively more privileged make use, sometimes an insensitive manner, of the cultural products of those they have actively or unconsciously oppressed. But I think it is far too easy, now, to level this charge at people even when there is no malice intended in their use of such markers. It smacks, to my rather naive thinking, of policing, of wanting to draw lines about who is allowed to ‘use’ what to tell a story or make a song or video. Intention, such a difficult thing to assess and prove, seems to me the basic criterion that should help people decide whether something was ‘borrowed’ or ‘appropriated’. Again, this may just be my own privilege talking.
  4. To be fair, fantasy authors have always ‘culturally appropriated’ things. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire, for instance, talks about Eastern countries—in Essos or Sothyros—that sound remarkably similar to Mongolia, China, certain parts of the Middle East. Jordan’s Wheel of Time has an empire whose rulers behave a lot like the rulers of ancient China, lacquering their fingernails and wearing silken robes. When you’re building an entirely new world, you want lots of different cultures and peoples to feature in it, in order to make it realistic, well-rounded. Authors aren’t gods. They have to build something that, while new, also presents a familiar enough aspect that a reader wont be entirely put off (this is why I find fantasy a much more appealing genre than science fiction, but more on that some other time). To this, authors borrow from cultures and histories around the world, knowing that just sticking to their singular perspective does not a universe make. Hell, even Tolkien, who’s been raked across the coals for his racism, fused elements of different cultures together to build Middle Earth.
  5. The reason Rowling has gotten into ‘trouble’ on this front, despite being a fantasy author is because: 
    • The Potterverse, unlike Middle Earth or Westeros, is quite recognisably part of ‘our’ world. It is a secret part of the ‘real’ world we inhabit, and as such, any historical events and beliefs that play a part in our world, there is an understanding that the same should have repercussions on the Potterverse.
    • For this reason, skinwalkers in the Potterverse are held to be the same, in readers’ minds, as skinwalkers in real-world Navajo belief. Rowling is not even pretending to create them anew in an entirely different universe (as Basu reinvented rakshasas in the Gameworld Trilogy, or Stroud djinn and afrits in the Bartimaeus Trilogy), and is borrowing them while making alterations that change their moral position in the original mythology, turning negative beings into misunderstood characters. She is changing not her ‘own’ version of the skinchangers, but those that belong to the Navajo belief system.
    • She is J.K. Rowling, arguably one of the most famous and successful writers working today, and anything she does is bound to attract notice of a lot more people than the writing of most authors. If she writes ‘wrongly’ about a particular group of beings, a lot more people are going to read it and gain what might be, to some people, a ‘warped’ understanding of a folklore that is, sadly, far from the mainstream experience of most readers.

I’ve blathered on. In sum, I’ll say this: i dislike the term cultural appropriation. I don’t like putting down lines about who should be allowed to use what from other cultures. In an age where a lot of us have so much information at our disposal, so many different pantheons and treasure chests of stories to work with, I see no reason to stick to only those marked out as ‘yours’ because of an accident of birth. The longer we police other people, the longer we are policed in turn, I think. As stated, it’s all about the intent. I don’t think Rowling meant to harm anyone, simply to have fun building on a world that’s delighted so many people for years. That being said, I see why activists have gotten upset, and can only be sorry about the history that’s led to this state.

The Potter Christmas

Hogwarts_Christmas_tour_2013

Merry Christmas, world! Today, I thought I’d take a tour through the Potter Christmases, and focus on my favourite one. Thanks to the school-year structure of the books, Rowling as ample time to explore the various wizarding holiday traditions, and Christmas often receives special treatment in her books. It forms a kind of turning point, functioning as a halfway-mark for the adventures of Harry and company. You’ll notice that no matter how crazy the rest of the world, or their own lives, Christmas provides at least a few moments of calm and reflection for our favourite wizards, and Rowling often uses it to underscore the series’ themes of family, love and dealing with loss.

I love her Christmas chapters, some more than others. For instance, Order of the Phoenix’s is, in my opinion, undeniably the happiest, with Harry seated amongst the loving Weasley family, Hermione, Ron and Sirius at his side. It seems to be,really, the series’ peak moment, a bittersweet one, in retrospect, that shows us what could have been Harry’s life, had the school year not ended the way it did.

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But my favourite Potter Christmas by far is Harry’s first one in Hogwarts, when he sees his parents for the first time.

When Harry wakes on Christmas morning, he is surprised by the pile of presents at the foot of his bed. The Dursleys, after all, had never made his Christmases particularly wonderful. Not only do all his new friends give him gifts, but he also receives a key plot device that makes his adventuring a little bit easier: the Invisibility Cloak. Being a good little hero, Harry puts it into service right away, and lands up in front of the Mirror of Erised, where he sees his family waving back at him.

This moment is exceptionally beautiful, delivered as it is in Rowling’s trademark simple prose.

mirroroferised

The Potters smiles and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.

Rowling ties back to this first Christmas in the seventh, and final ‘canon’ Christmas, when Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hollow in Deathly Hallows. Apart from actually seeing the home he inhabited so briefly with his parents, Harry’s connection to Voldemort enables him to relive his final evening in the cottage, watching as his father plays with him, and his mother scoops him up to carry him to bed. Again, the parallels between Voldemort and Harry are underlined by this full circling: where Harry stands before the mirror, aching to join his parents but unable to, Voldemort too stands outside, watching as the family carries on with their everyday lives, so close to destruction, and yet so far from him, experiencing things he will never himself understand.

Similarly, Rowling closes the circle begun in Philosopher’s Stone by having Harry’s parents appear before him and speak to him, no longer just images waving from a mirror. Lily’s words to him, ‘We never left,’ are a beautiful allusion to the distance that Harry felt, in Book 1, and how that distance never really existed at all. It’s evident that, at the close, Harry has realized the truth of Sirius’s words to him in Prisoner of Azkaban: ‘The ones we love never truly leave us.’

Harry’s first wizarding Christmas is, I would argue, the most pivotal one in the series. Not only is his traipse through the castle his first solo adventure (it’s the first time he ventures out without Ron at his side), but the Mirror also provides his first real test. Harry has a choice, as Dumbledore reminds him. He can spend days before the Mirror, wasting away, or he can take the glimpse of his parents it has offered him, and use it as an anchor in the testing times to come. ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,’ Dumbledore tells him. The eleven-year-old Harry takes this to heart, I assume, because the next time he stands before the Mirror, it isn’t impossible dreams that haunt him, but a single-minded desire to do the right thing, a trait that he carries forward hereon out.

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Sirius Black and the Dangers of Loyalty

Great plans in fantasy literature have a tendency to go wrong. This is not really through any fault of the heroes’—to give them their due credit, they slog on even when things go really, steeply downhill. Great plans go wrong in fantasy because, well, that’s how things often turn out (or don’t) in real life, and say what you will, a lot of fantasy’s power as a genre comes from its ability to spin out amazingly ‘real’ and true-sounding stories in universes and settings nothing like our own.

But in fantasy, people, or events tend to show up and, sometimes, make the bad things go away, or salvage the situation before it is completely beyond repair. If done convincingly, this looks nothing like a deus-ex-machina, and instead segues smoothly into the narrative. Rowling is a master of this, and the character who perhaps best depicts this ability to just show up when needed is Sirius Black.

azkabanThe plotting of any novel requires precision, and I don’t think anything exemplifies this better than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In my review of the book for Fantasy Book Critic, I stated that what really impressed me about this novel was the sheer intricacy of its plotting—how each character, each event and seeming coincidence had a function to play in the larger scheme. To me this is still the most tightly plotted of the Potter books, and a real treasure of the mystery genre. Given that Sirius found his way onto the stage proper in this book, it seems fitting that it be the most well constructed and (pun not intended) well-‘timed’ of its fellows.

In an earlier post, I had celebrated Sirius’s unparalleled ability to love, and how I believe his unwavering, unconditional loyalty really defines his character. In that same post, I alluded to how his ability to just show up when needed, with no questions asked, is one of the greatest markers of said love for Harry. Sirius’s drive to drop all and be there for his godson is, to a large extent, simply a function of who he is—he is a dog, loyal, unquestioning, bound by feelings deeper than most around him would understand to someone he barely really knows. I think, however, that this tendency in him was probably exacerbated by ‘mistakes’ made early on in life, including that most crucial one of all: the decision to trust Peter over Remus in the first war against Voldemort.

Enough and more fan fiction has been written speculating on why Sirius chose to trust Sirius-sirius-black-7016619-937-1024Peter. The most compelling reading, for me at least, is that Sirius, always so hopped up on his own beliefs and loyalties, would never have considered for a second that the same didn’t apply to one of those he had chosen to protect, unless he had, at some point in his life, betrayed that other person. Sirius’s childhood, whatever little we know of it, seems far from a warm and nourishing experience. When Sirius turned his back on his family, he appears to have done it without any intention of ever going back, asking forgiveness, or even giving them a chance to change and come around to understanding his point of view. In the case of the Blacks this was probably a judicious decision, given how most of them turned out, but it also cut out any prospect of reconciling with those who did—such as Regulus.

Given this, I think there are two character traits that, if taken together, could explain Sirius’s lack of trust in Remus and resulting decision to turn to Peter:

(i) Sirius values loyalty above all else, and seems to believe, to a great extent, that others should do the same. ‘Then you should have died,’ he tells Peter in the Shack, ‘died rather than betrayed your friends, as we would have done for you.’ There is no other option for a ‘true friend’, in his mind. The only reason anyone might not remain incredibly, steadfastly loyal to someone they ‘should’ stick with is if they have been badly treated by those same people, as he was by his family. The infamous ‘prank’ involving Snape and the exposure of Remus’s secret could, in all fairness, constitute such a betrayal of trust and friendship, and thereby expose Sirius and his pack to the same sort of betrayal from Remus’s side.

(ii) Sirius does not have great faith in people’s ability to change. This could be put down to the fact that he is the only adult character to have been actively disallowed from ‘growing up’, instead being frozen into an emotional mess at the age of 21-22. Sirius does not have the same sort of maturity and mellowness that most of the other adult characters (with the exception of Snape) seem to possess. It’s ironic that the two characters who seem to snape siriusdetest each other the most are actually in many ways the most similar—fiercely loyal to those they have sworn to protect and/or love and unable, very often, to contain their interactions and emotions in a mature fashion. They just have different ways of expressing that chosen loyalty. I also think this lack of ability to believe in change is a result of Sirius’s own unwavering nature. He perceives any sort of shift in his preconceived notions of how a person should be as some sort of betrayal—such as when Harry decides that the ‘fun’ of Sirius coming up to Hogwarts in Order of Phoenix is not worth the risk. At this point, Sirius coolly tells him that he is ‘less like James than [he] thought’, and its evident to Harry that he is, for the first time ever, upset with him. Peter, who had never been betrayed (as far as Sirius could tell), and had always remained faithful, could not possibly change—at least until he went and proved Sirius dramatically wrong.

Rowling gives her characters amazing strengths—but she also does a very clever thing wherein she makes these strengths function as their weaknesses as well. Dumbledore’s cleverness and skill and consequent pride proved his youthful undoing; Harry’s selfless ability to throw all aside and play the hero leads to the death of his godfather, Sirius’s stubborn and unwavering nature played a decisive role in the tragedy that marked his, and his godson’s, life. Loyalty has a price, and one slip exacts demands from Sirius, drives him to push himself ever more to be there for his godson.

But hey, if it weren’t for that slip, we might not have had a series at all.

Master Manipulators: Albus Dumbledore

I ambitiously began a series I called ‘Master Manipulators’, profiling characters who fit this category in their respective worlds, tweaking circumstances and their peers to fit, more often than not, some hidden agenda. The object of this was to give readers a chance to objectively view their strengths and weaknesses and then, perhaps, judge for themselves as to who would win a throw-down between them. A specialised Suvudu cage match, as it were, where the cage would be the known world, or as much of it as they might be able to influence.

I profiled the most obvious candidate first, Petyr Baelish from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Today, I’ll present the vital stats of Master Manipulator #2: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

manipulative dumbles

Strengths

Age and experience: Besides Nicholas Flamel, Dumbledore is easily the oldest person, with the most extensive career, that we meet in the series. The full range of his achievements is hinted at in the first book, and by the time we reach the seventh, they’ve only been substantiated. Dumbledore was around 115-116 when he died, and has dabbled with all kinds of magic (both light and dark, one would imagine), so he brings considerably experience, whether of people or technique, to bear on any situation.

Extensive political reach: Dumbledore is a mover and shaker despite being Headmaster of a school. He sits on councils, he has a hand in the government through his influence on Cornelius Fudge (supposedly he was sending Dumbledore constant owls at one point, soliciting his advice) and was even offered the top position himself. Yes, he gets painted as a liar and a madman at one point in the series, but the fact that the government bothers to do this at all shows how terrified they are of him and his influence.

Kindly old man persona: The other manipulators (Baelish and his fellows) have one major drawback, and that’s that no one really trusts them implicitly, the way people in the Potterverse trust Dumbledore. As long as he is around, they feel, things will turn out all right. ‘Dumbledore trusts him, and I trust Dumbledore’ is the reasoning much of the Order has for trusting Snape; his arrival at the Ministry makes everything magically all right that night in Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s response to Hermione’s worry in Half Blood Prince is ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Dumbledore.’ He provides a steady, anchoring presence in Hogwarts, at least for the ‘right’ students, inspiring them to follow him. Because of this, most people don’t even realize when they’re being manipulated, except, of course, for poor old Snape.

Weaknesses

Emotional attachment: I’m rather sceptical about this professed weakness. Dumbledore tearfully confesses to Harry in Order that he ‘cared’ too much for him to place the burden of the prophecy on his young shoulders. He distances himself from his protege in order to better protect him from Voldemort. He refuses to explain things to Harry, a decision that results in Sirius’s death and major emotional turmoil for our hero. Dumbledore’s plan almost goes awry before the Horcruxes are even introduced, let alone destroyed; Harry could have died countless times during that ill-advised rescue mission.

Severus-Snape-Albus-Dumbledore-severus-snape-4853008-1279-541

Pride: In my post on Snape, I mentioned that the success of Dumbledore’s grand plan hinged on three things:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry the truth of the last Horcrux (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

Dumbledore made these assumptions because he is used to being correct, he believes he knows people better than they know themselves. ‘I am a great deal…cleverer than you,’ he tells Harry rather snappily,when pressed for the reason why he trusts Snape. Dumbledore never believes he has to explain himself except in cases of utmost distress (notably in that office scene in Order and during his King’s Cross walk with Harry in Deathly Hallows), but this sort of overweening pride could easily have caught up with him and tripped him spectacularly in a more realistic, less kid-friendly universe. I think this is a serious blind spot that Dumbledore really needs to watch out for. His pride, in some instances, makes him as bad as Voldemort.

Need for ‘moral’ backing: Dumbledore’s teenage insecurities made him such a mess that he refused to step in while Grindelwald ravaged Europe. He waited years to make his move, too terrified to hear that he might have killed his own sister. I find this a really crippling weakness; Dumbledore gave his enemy leeway to destroy both him and the lives of countless others. In this instance, Dumbledore betrayed stupidity: even if he did tell him that Dumbledore was the one who cast the final, fatal spell on Ariana, what reason did Grindelwald have to tell him the truth? If Grindelwald were any kind of villain worth his salt, wouldn’t he lie if he knew it would throw Dumbledore off his game?

Dumbledore’s need to be morally in the right puts him at a severe disadvantage when battling masters like Littlefinger. I understand that  good deal of this is because he is in a young adult/children’s series, and needs to stand in moral opposition to Voldemort, but since he’s proven he is not afraid to get his hands dirty in other ways—such as by ruthlessly manipulating Snape or lying all his life to Harry—this one scruple makes him seem ridiculous rather than admirable.

Conclusion: If it came down to sheer firepower, Dumbledore has it all. Magic is a great asset. But if you threw Dumbledore and Littlefinger on opposite sides of a chessboard stacked with real people, placed some ‘sympathetic’ figures on Dumbledore’s side and then asked them to play, I think poor old Albus would have a tough time seeing the bigger picture for the tears in his eyes. 

Keep on Keeping On

Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.

Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.

Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.

What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator.  The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills. frodo and sam

Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.

harry deathlyThe same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.

I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.

And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.

That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.

Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.

How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?

It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.

Master Manipulators: Petyr Baelish

One thing we love doing in the fantasy community is pitting random characters against each other in grand showdowns. I suppose this has a lot to do with the form of the genre, where really, each series/book ends in a dramatic encounter between the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, or, to give them their genre-specific names, prophesied hero and dark evil overlord. In our time out of the books however, we like to toss characters from different series against each other, to figure out who would win if, say, there was a cross-world war and Harry Potter found himself facing Darth Vader.star-wars-vader-force-choke

 

vs.harry with wand

No contest. Clearly Vader would win. Harry could Expelliarmus his Jedi sword, but Vader does have that nifty little strangulation technique.

In my upcoming posts, I’m profiling characters of a certain type in preparation to pitting them against each other—four master manipulators who pull strings and make puppets dance in their respective worlds. You can thank a rather intense and nerdy discussion on Facebook. What makes this comparison difficult is that all their worlds are so different, and their particular skills and positions are largely shaped by the world they inhabit. Therefore, removing them from their contexts and trying to view them objectively is  trifle problematic, but I’m going to ignore such purist concerns in favor of the potential entertainment these comparisons will afford.

Without further ado…

petyrPetyr Baelish

Strengths:

Utter and complete lack of permanent alliances. Littlefinger is loyal only to himself. He shifts and shuffles his allies according to his convenience, does each major house enough ‘favours’ to make them believe that he is firmly part of their team.

Money matters: Littlefinger has his hands on the economic pulse of Westeros, or whatever passes for it. He finds money where there is none to be found, makes his own from his brothels. Money is might, in any universe, and his gold is what allows Littlefinger to buy knives, protection and loyalty from those who have no other reason to work for him.

Lack of discernible agenda: This is, perhaps, Littlefinger’s greatest strength. He always keeps his opponents guessing. Does he support the Lannisters? Yes, for a while. Why? We don’t know. Does he think the Tyrells should have the power? He certainly seems to let them think he does. He plays people so well because he knows what everyone else wants, which is usually power or vengeance, but no one has the same grasp on him because his long-term plan is so hazy. Does he want to marry Sansa and rule through her? That’s a possibility. Does he just want to do whatever upsets Varys’s plans? Also a possibility. Five books in, we have no idea.

Weaknesses:

Lack of physical strength: Granted, we haven’t actually seen Littlefinger in a fight, but from what we know, he’s a small man who, more often than not, hires people to do his killing. He has never been a soldier, was quite thoroughly routed by Brandon Stark when he did try to pick a fight (fine, he was ‘little more than a boy’ but I’m pretty sure that if he had any latent martial skill, it would have manifested by then), and he does not seem the kind of man who has time to invest in physical training. No, Baelish is much too sophisticated for the old school chivalric/martial code of lords like Ned and Robert. It’s precisely why he looks down on them.

Lack of allies: If push came to shove, who would back Baelish up? No one. Even Sansa is, obviously, playing her own game with him. This is the flip-side of being a totally rogue agent. He has no family connections, no romantic connections (except Lysa, who is now dead) and the one bond he does seem to have, with Sansa, will, I predict, be the one that ends up destroying him.

Conclusion: Littlefinger is formidable. He couples immense intellectual capacity with financial know-how, and plays a game that very few seem to be able to see, let alone guess the object of.  I wouldn’t even call his bond with Sansa a weakness, since we don’t know how far he’s playing her and what his eventual aim with her is. I somehow doubt he’s going to be easily seduced and left for dead. No, Littlefinger’s going to have a bigger plan than just getting into bed with her.

sansa-and-petyr-sansa-stark-34188034-950-525

 

And if he doesn’t, I’ll be rather disappointed.

Next time, I’ll assess the second contestant in this face-off. Who’s it going to be? Now, that’s a surprise.

I AM Harry Potter

Imagine being famous for doing something you can’t even remember, or did when you were a child. It’s a little horrifying.

Kill Your Darlings screening - 57th BFI London Film FestivalI remember reading an article years ago, headlined with the provocative words ‘I AM Harry Potter’. The piece was one of those generic ones about the up-and-coming Daniel Radcliffe, written shortly after the second film had been completed. Radcliffe had gone on to sign for the remaining Potter films in that time period—that was the article’s main focus.

When I first saw Daniel in the various newspaper clippings and magazine articles that came out before the filming of Philosopher’s Stone, my one thought was: ‘Yes, he’s cute, but why does he have blue eyes?’ I was shocked that no one had disqualified him on that basis (shows what I knew about the movie industry, or any industry, for that matter). I decided to dislike him, no matter how cute he was, or how adorably he tried and failed to bring Harry to life. The Harry I saw on screen was NOT, i thought, the ‘real’ Harry Potter. For all his Englishness and cuteness, Dan Rad could never do justice to my childhood love.

This is, in retrospect, a very uncharitable feeling. I refused to take into consideration the fact that this boy was my age, struggling under the weight of expectations that most 11 year olds never have to bear—that of starring in the leading role of a franchise that was still very new, whose first readers were very much alive and waiting to judge what a big-budget studio would make of their favorite books. As he signed on for more films, Daniel agreed, whether he knew it or not, to grow up in the public eye. He might have known what this entailed at the age of 12. If so, he was a prescient child and wise beyond his years. Certainly, I would have seen nothing but the glamour and appeal of being a movie star.

Because of my (unfair) expectations and (unjustified) disappointment, I dismissed his claims of ‘being’ Harry Potter. ‘He wishes’, I’d sneer, and dive back into contemplation of my Harry who had, thankfully, the proper emerald eyes so reminiscent of fresh pickled toads. It was only years later that I began to appreciate Radcliffe at all—after I matured and decided not to sit around being bitter about a little boy’s inability to deliver exactly what i wanted. Instead, i realized that he had been right. He was, still inescapably is Harry Potter. Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334

What makes Harry different from many of his fantasy hero brethren is the fact that he is famous before he even enters the story in any conscious manner. Frodo, Rand, Arthur—these heroes are perhaps prophesied and awaited, but they have to consciously do something in order to earn that approval and mantle. Harry becomes a hero almost by default, because of the actions of someone else, and he grows up entirely unconscious of this before being thrust summarily into the public eye. Once he enters the magical world, he becomes somewhat of a celebrity, stalked by the paparazzi (in Goblet of Fire), recipient of hate and fan-mail both and, later, gets painted as a major terrorist in a sustained media campaign. Harry’s actions and words are constantly judged and scrutinized, with little or no heed paid to context. Even his time in Hogwarts, within the school walls, is marked by this celebrity-dom, at least for the first half of the first year.

Harry, for these reasons, grows up aware of his importance, and is never entirely able to escape the weight of expectation that comes with it. Everyone is waiting for him to do great things, based on an event he remembers only as a flash of green light. This first encounter with Voldemort quite literally marks him for the rest of his childhood, and despite his decision to let it go at the close (by giving up the Elder Wand), I doubt his success, especially since he went ahead and joined the Aurors.

Dan Rad is, in many respects, similar to Harry. He got a HUGE role at the age of what, 11? That role defined his life for the next ten years. The world watched him grow up and through the films, scrutinized his relationships and decisions and wardrobe choices. He’s gone on record saying that he wants to shed the image of Harry Potter, a desire that prompts him, perhaps, to take up more ‘adult’ and ‘dark’ projects like Equus and Horns. But despite all he does, the distance he tries to put between himself and that first role, I think he’s pretty well marked. As long as he, and the generation he brought Potter to life for are alive, he won’t be able to run away from that first step.

Grandiose claims, maybe, to call himself Harry Potter. But you have to admit that guy’s got a rather bittersweet truth to his statement. The fact that he seemingly bears up under the weight of that label is impressive and, acting be damned, I think I like him just for that.

Growing up Potter: The Sins of the Father

In the third year of the my undergrad degree, my class studied a play called ‘Ghosts’ by Norwegian heavyweight, Henrik Ibsen. The play brings to life an old adage, ‘the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons’. Oswald, a bright, young artist is laid low by a congenital disease he’s inherited from his debauched sire, and ends the play (spoiler) mindlessly chanting ‘the sun, the sun’ while his mother wrestles with the weight of a past that has brought them to this.

Now, a lot’s been written about the role of mothers in the Potterverse, how they shape their children, provide a grounding force in the face of evil and sometimes, literally give their kids another chance at life with their sacrifices. In this post, I want to look at the other half of that parenting equation, with a study of how fathers shape their (specifically) sons. I would argue that this shaping is, more often than not, a root cause of several problems that characters face. It seems a negative rather than positive force in many male characters’ lives, a negativity that is only corrected with the application of a mother’s love and influence.

In short, fathers mess up the sons so that the mothers can set them right.

I’ll illustrate this with, what seems to me, the most glaring examples in the Potter canon. By asserting that fathers are often a negative force, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the integrity and character of the fathers themselves. Some of them, such as Arthur Weasley and James Potter, are no doubt wonderful (in James’s case, become wonderful) human beings, who do all that can be expected, and more, to defend and protect those they love. Nonetheless, their actions, whether meant in good faith or not, often rebound in a negative manner on their offspring. Let’s consider a few examples, shall we?

1)       James and Harry Potter

jamesJames is absent for most of the books, but it was his behaviour in school that, allegedly, caused Snape’s undying hatred of him and resulted in the bullying that Harry faced for six years. If Lily had married someone else, would Snape’s virulence been as pronounced? Idle speculation, probably, but no doubt his hatred of Harry was exacerbated a huge amount by the fact that he was his schoolyard rival’s son.

 

James is held up as a shining paragon for all of four and a half books—until that terrible moment in Order of the Phoenix where all of Snape’s worst stories seem to be confirmed. The viewing of ‘Snape’s worst memory’ causes perhaps the most profound moral crisis Harry has faced until this point, a crisis that never really gets resolved, given that James, from this point on, begins to lose his lustre (a move that only gets cemented with the death of his staunchest supporter and the strongest link—Sirius) and Lily becomes much more of a player in Harry’s life.

 

2)      Lyall and Remus Lupin

remusThanks to recently published information on Pottermore, we now know that Lyall Lupin, Remus’s father, was a ‘world renowned authority on Non-Human Spiritous Apparitions’ such as Boggarts. He was unlucky (and bigoted enough) to express an opinion on werewolves to Fenrir Greyback, calling them ‘soulless, evil and deserving nothing but death’. To teach the Ministry man a lesson, Greyback retaliated by biting his almost five-year-old son, Remus Lupin.

You can read the full story here: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Lyall_Lupin

Do I really need to spell this out for you? Remus’s whole life has been shaped by that moment, his ‘furry little problem’ dictating both his career and personal
choices for many, many years. Right until Deathly Hallows, Remus is struggling with his identity as a werewolf, his fear of his own strength and darkness prompting him to run away from his pregnant wife.

 

3)      Lucius and Draco Malfoy

lucius and dracoIf there’s one thing that little Draco knows, it’s the power his father’s name commands in the wizarding world. ‘My father will be hearing about this’ is his catch phrase, and he uses it on everyone, from Hagrid to fake!Moody to Ron and Harry. Lucius is the brick on which Draco rests his own importance, whether it be his facilitating Draco’s entrance into the Slytherin Quidditch team in Chamber of Secrets or cozening up to Snape and suggesting that he take up Headmastership in Dumbledore’s absence. Draco’s near hero worship of his father reaches a head at the end of Order of the Phoenix when he promises to make Harry and his friends ‘pay’ for putting him behind bars. Draco’s unquestioning love of his father extends to a wholesale acceptance of his ideals, leading to an unthinking parroting of conservative pureblood attitudes from a very young age. It also, scarily enough, leads to his acceptance of a position in Voldemort’s circle.

There’s no doubt that Draco’s Death Eater status is a result both of his espousal of their ideals (or what he thinks their ideals to be) and careful bullying from Voldemort’s supporters. Draco’s service under the Dark Lord is marked by a crumbling of illusions; by halfway through Half Blood Prince Draco has understood the reality of his position and the complete lack of glamour it possesses. It’s thanks to Narcissa’s snap decision in the Forbidden Forest that Draco gets out of Hogwarts relatively unharmed. I don’t see him lasting happily under Voldemort’s reign.

 

4)      Arthur and Percy Weasley

arthurI know, this is an incredible assertion to make: Arthur Weasley, model father in the Potterverse (i.e. the only one who fulfils basic criteria like being alive, being one of the good guys and not running out on his family, unlike the three previously mentioned) messed up his son? But consider this: one of the reasons Percy gives for walking out on his family is that his father was unambitious, that he didn’t do all he could to better the status of the family or his own position in the Ministry. Percy sees Arthur’s lack of ambition and eccentricity as a handicap, something he has had to struggle against in his own professional life. A self constructed sin, perhaps, but certainly something that resulted in Percy’s morally questionable actions and decisions in the latter half of the series.

 

5)      Barty and Barty Crouch Jr., Tom and Tom Marvolo Riddle

Barty_Crouch_JrFake!Moody/Barty Crouch Jr himself draws the parallels between him and his master at the close of Goblet of Fire. Both are ashamed of/opposed to their fathers; both were ‘abandoned’ by them; both paid the ultimate price for their abandonment. Crouch’s negligence of his home life, the subject of furious gossip after his son’s trial, resulted perhaps in his son’s straying to the ‘wrong’ side. Tom Riddle’s abandonment of Merope resulted in Tom growing up unloved in an orphanage, setting in course a series of events that would see him rise as a vengeful Dark Lord with no desire for forgiveness or understanding. If Tom Riddle Sr hadn’t left his wife, would Voldemort have turned out the way he did? Rowling stated that he was ‘incapable’ of love since he was conceived under the effect of a love potion, but perhaps the presence of a parental figure might have remedied that. Who knows?

And so we have it: the dad’s job in the Potterverse is to pass on prejudice, be the cause for prejudice, or set up skewed morals in his son. There’s a hint of this being carried on even in Harry’s generation: Ron warns Rose against Scorpius Malfoy, telling her that she has to ‘beat him in every test’ and that ‘Grandpa Weasley’ would never forgive her if she married a pureblood. Hermione, strikingly, says nothing.

You have to admit this is a little disturbing: Scorpius is being judged, much like Harry was, on the basis of his parentage and not his own merits or lack thereof. Evidently some things don’t change.

 

 

 

 

Slytherin the Saviour: How Selfishness won the War

slytherin_crest1 In previous posts, I’ve discussed the Sorting of students at Hogwarts and the ramifications their houses have on their futures. I’ve also admitted that my own placement in said Houses has changed over the years, chiefly because my assessment of what’s really important to me (i.e., how I want to be perceived) has shifted. Last but not least, the idea that you can actually choose which House you go into sort of throws into doubt the whole magical and more-knowledgeable-than-thou air of the Sorting Hat in the first place.

Here though, I want to talk about a very specific thing, and that is the importance of the Slytherin trait of self-interest to the winning of the Second Wizarding War.

We all know the basics, right? Gryffindor is the house of the brave, Ravenclaw of the intelligent, Hufflepuff the hardworking and Slytherin the rich, obnoxious and/or bigoted. In the Battle of Hogwarts, the Slytherins were supposedly evacuated en masse, and didn’t stay behind to help defend their school or the ‘right side’. What defines them is their selfishness, their cunning and their penchant for supporting the wrong authority figures. If anyone won the Battle of Hogwarts, it was the selfless Gryffindors and their staunch allies. Slytherin didn’t do anything—besides start the war in the first place.

I don’t want to take away from the sacrifice of the ‘light’ soldiers, but I believe that much of their effort would have been for naught, if two Slytherins hadn’t done what they did to win the war.

First of all—Severus Snape. If he hadn’t passed on those Harry-is-a-Horcrux memories, would Harry have gone out to face death in the manner that he did? Probably not. He might have continued fighting, surprised when the destruction of the known Horcruxes didn’t have the expected effect. He might possibly have killed Voldemort once, but surely the Dark Lord would have sprung back and AK’d him before Harry knew what was happening. Without Snape’s revelations, Harry would not have walked out unarmed and unsupported to face death and end one more of Voldemort’s connections to life.

Second—this gallant sacrifice on Harry’s part would have, once again, been for nothing if Narcissa Malfoy had not, for whatever reason, declared him ‘dead’. While I think Voldemort was an idiot to send Narcissa and not, say, an unreservedly faithful follower like Bellatrix, this was a stroke of luck for Harry. Narcissa’s desire to get back into the castle and get to Draco outweighed any interest she might have had in figuring out what went wrong with the Dark Lord’s curse, and this lie provided her a deadly revenge on the man-snake who had been terrorizing her family all year long.

Again, if Narcissa had not done what she did, I don’t think Harry would have left that clearing alive.

Why did these people act as they did? Certainly there was bravery involved, but what defines both Snape and Narcissa’s behaviour here is self-interest, the domain of Slytherin house. Slytherins fight not for ideals or abstract concepts, apparently, can follow the dictates of their selfish desires to good ends. Snape, a great example of a tenacious Slytherin, joined Dumbledore’s side because of his love of, not freedom or humanity in general, but Lily. His desire to serve against Voldemort was born of a selfish exchange: so long as Lily was safe, he would fight for Dumbledore. Even after she died, it was in her memory that he fought on, as well evidenced by the gravelly ‘Always’.

Narcissa wants to do nothing but get back to her son. Not for her the politics of the war or the questions of right and wrong thrown up by it: what matters is the preservation of those she loves, and all the rest can go to hell.

I think, with the Slytherins, Rowling proved that you don’t always need sweeping ideals or larger-than-life courage to be a hero. Sometimes, devotion to purely selfish interests does do good. As the Sorting Hat said, ‘Those cunning folk use any means/To achieve their ends’. Not all of those ends, nor the means, are evil.

And in some ways, this makes Slytherin house the most realistic of them all.