Albus Severus and the Burden of History

cursed child

There be liberal spoilers for Cursed Child below.

There were many things I didn’t like about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I read it in a haze of disbelief, often resorting to texting a friend in the format Harry made so famous in Order of the Phoenix: using all-caps to communicate my rage and frustration. ‘How is this a thing?’ I demanded at one point, and her responses, which ranged along the lines of ‘I knew you would say that’ did little to soothe me.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the ordeal, and while I’ve safely moved on and begun reading other, less disappointing follow-ups to fantasy series, I haven’t been able to get some of Cursed Child’s more startling ‘revelations’ out of my head. So much about the story didn’t make sense given the context of Rowling’s carefully built world, and the themes she espoused with such fervour in the Potter books. Just one tiny, but irritating example: people went around saying ‘By Dumbledore!’ or ‘Thank Dumbledore!’ the same way they say ‘Thank God’ in the ‘real world’. In Deathly Hallows, Rowling made it very clear that no one, least of all Dumbledore, is perfect, god-like. In fact, she took care to point out that he was much more flawed than many other characters, including Harry. So to suddenly raise him on this pedestal was not just alarming, it was so profoundly antithetical to all she had drilled into us before.

And let’s not even get into that ridiculous stuff about Voldemort having a child. Not only do I seriously doubt he was physically capable of conceiving one (the ‘man’ was built of a dead person’s bones, Pettigrew’s severed hand, Harry’s blood and a baby form that had lead_largebeen reared on snake ‘milk’ and had no nose—are we expected to believe he had a penis?), but why on earth would he want one at all? He believed he was immortal, so there was no need for him to have an heir, and second, at no point has Voldemort ever been shown as capable of experiencing feelings as ‘human’ as love, or even lust. He had one goal, and I sincerely doubt child rearing would have been anything but a hindrance to it.

So yeah, many things bothered me. There was the Panju nonsense, the fact that Ron was a blundering idiot, that Ginny existed merely to soothe Harry and her son (whatever happened to her important career?), that Hermione had little to no security on her office (seriously, the same woman who was part of a plan to get into the Ministry at the age of 17 using Polyjuice Potion wouldn’t ensure the glitch wasn’t repaired when she was Minister?), that the Fidelius charm makes zilch sense to me anymore (if Lily and James were under the charm when they were in Godric’s Hollow, how were Harry and company able to see them when they traveled back in time? Pettigrew had never revealed the secret to them!), and that’s just scratching the surface. If I start talking about how the Time Turner was just the worst plot device ever, I’ll probably implode.

But what really bothered me was Harry, and his lack of relationship with this child, Albus. For whatever reason, Albus seems to have always had a victim complex. Perhaps it was the result of growing up with James for a brother; in a curious twist, the kids seem a lot like the people they were named after, James being popular, brash and sure of himself, and Albus ‘Severus’ the misunderstood misfit, whose need for attention drives him to do silly and ultimately, destructive things. So much for the whole ‘we are more than our abilities and blood’ spiel that the Hogwarts years were all about; so much for nothing but choices, much less names, deciding our fate.

In the Epilogue to Hallows, it looked like history was set to repeat itself in certain ways: Rose was already being touted as the smart kid, this time blessed with a magical background that she didn’t have to scramble for; Scorpius was the designated enemy, the one to be beaten, and Albus was, well, Albus was most like Harry. Not only had he inherited the green eyes, the ones that Severus basically threw his life away for (still not getting over that), but he had the insecurity and worries that plagued Harry too. It was to him that Harry imparted the secret of his own Sorting, so readers could be forgiven for thinking that out of all his kids, Albus was the one who Harry understood best.

harry_potter

Evidently not. So much for Harry’s saying he doesn’t mind if Albus ends up in Slytherin, since his Sorting is what seems to set the ball rolling, culminating in a surprising declaration about Harry sometimes not wanting him as a son. While I completely agree that, given his own history, Harry is likely to be a lousy father, it was still a huge surprise that Albus, and not someone like, say, James, brought this on. Albus is the kid who is actually most like Harry: awkward, unsure of himself, holding onto one friend rather than making pals with loads of students. Harry too had faced the burden of history and expectation during his early years in school, and been alternately mocked, feared by, or lauded by peers. Hogwarts was never smooth sailing for him, and whatever happened in Year 6, before that, his time was marked by a less than stellar experience. Whether it was the aftermath of losing a landslide of points during his first year, being shunned for speaking Parseltongue, derided for fainting before Dementors, or haunted by whispers of death during Sirius’s escape from Azkaban, not to forget the anger that followed his announcement as Hogwarts champion, Harry knows what it’s like to not be understood or liked by Hogwarts students. So it’s really stunning that seeing what’s happening to his son, he does little to nothing about it for three whole years. When he does confront Albus, it’s with spectacularly bad results.

Ultimately, this is my major problem with Cursed Child. It’s not so much the ridiculous plot and the ridiculous turns and devices it employs to make its ridiculous ‘progress’, but what it does to the things we think we ‘know’ about these characters. Would Hermione simply hot-headedly cancel meetings and show up at Hogwarts with no plan? Would Ron just joke around and give out love potions, like he’s never done something more daring than leave the shop alone for a day? And would Harry, who’s seen so much and gone through so much shit himself, act out the way he does with a son who, more than any of his other kids, seems to bring to life the worst aspects of his own time at Hogwarts? Maybe they would, and maybe he would, but I’d prefer not to know it, thanks. I’d prefer to think he’d be a little more sensitive about it.

But oh well, that’s the price of not letting an end be the end.

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The Potter book(s) I really want

The Cursed Child is here and despite some less than thrilled reviews, it is selling like hot cakes, as anything with the magic words ‘Harry Potter’ tends to do. Honestly, Rowling, or whoever he next co-writers are, don’t even have to try very hard any more. No matter how fanficcy the storyline, we’re all going to buy it anyway, the same way we buy tickets to DC movies with less than stellar reviews.

Just me? Oh, okay.

While more Potter is (usually) a good thing, I’ve been thinking: if Rowling had to dive back into this world, and release more books set in the Potterverse, why not travel back in time a bit? Yes, she’s doing this with Fantastic Beasts, but let’s be honest: I don’t really care about Newt Scamander. His story has never been central to the lives of the characters I already know, and since his adventures take place in the 1920s in New York City, the chances of his bumping into people I might know are extremely slim. Unless they shoehorn a Dumbledore figure into the narrative (which they could, since Dumbledore was definitely around and making dubious world domination plans), I don’t see how it’s going to tie into Harry’s Hogwarts years.

Nah, the prequel I’m really interested in, that so much of fan fiction has been obsessed with and built saga-length novels around, is Voldemort’s first rise to power.

marauders_viria

Who wouldn’t want to read a series about these guys?


Think about it—a book-length peek into those eleven years, featuring characters whose sheer awesomeness is hinted at in the course of Harry’s Hogwarts tenure, but whom we rarely see actually doing much. Mad Eye, McGonagall, Snape, the Marauders, Lily, Bellatrix, Lucius—all of them are people who feature heavily in the existing books, and I think it would be amazing to really see them deal with the darkness of Voldemort’s first reign.

There is much that Rowling hints at in the Potter books. Voldemort’s first rise to power was a time of mistrust, where betrayal was so rife that Sirius and Remus, best friends from school, actually suspected each other of turning against the Order. Things were so bad that people feared coming home to a Dark Mark floating over their houses, that entire families were slaughtered. It seems that battles were so intense that the Aurors were literally given the go-ahead to be nasty, to use the Unforgivables if they felt they had to.

None of this is unfamiliar to us in the real world. Mistrust, fear of the state, inexplicable disappearances, sudden death—all of it only seems to have been amplified over the course of the years since Harry died and came back to life. Obviously, since a prequel would dwell mostly on older, adult characters, Rowling would have the scope to work with much darker events than she portrays in her children’s books, to give rein to the headier side of desire, for power, people, life that no doubt propelled many of the protagonists of that first war. We’ve seen the effects of those days, the lingering distrust and bigotry, the betrayal of friends that resonates even in Harry’s lifetime, but we never see the cause, at least not directly.

tom riddleThe main reason I would want a prequel Potter book is because I want to see Rowling really write Voldemort. The Dark Lord in the Potter books is, at first, a mysterious, shadowy figure, who only really steps onto the scene in Goblet of Fire. Somewhere along the way, he loses the mystique and the cunning that made him so terrifying—by Deathly Hallows, he’s ranting and raving and opening fire on his few loyal servants. The result of this is that we cease to really fear Voldemort, and while that works on a symbolic level (showing that evil is, ultimately, small and can be overcome) it’s what keeps the books grounded, ultimately, in their genre as ‘children’s literature’. Evil is never that easily overcome, and while other novelists like Tolkien and Martin work this into their narrative, making it affect everyone involved in the grand fantasy undertaking, or just be part of their personalities, Rowling’s building of Voldemort as a Big Bad and final takedown of him gives readers the quick-fix but ultimately untrue words ‘All was well’.

Good for kids. Not so good for adults.

So I guess I’m asking for an ‘adult’ Potter book. Ridiculous? Maybe. I’ve been spoiled by fantasy I’ve read after Rowling, the Martins and Gaimans and Rothfusses, all of whom do such a good job of portraying the seductive, truly sinister side of evil. Maybe I’ve gotten used to seeing the adult characters in Harry’s world, and finding them more fascinating than the kids, which has led me to wish for stories about them. While fan fiction can handle this craving, the continued forays Rowling makes into her own world leave me wondering why she won’t answer it herself. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that did happen?

Rowling has said that she’s done with Harry, but I’m not asking for Harry. No, I’m dreaming of a time when he was merely a sparkle in his mother’s eye (more likely, his father’s eye). When four boys roamed the school grounds in the guise of animals, when a lonely half blood scrawled notes in his Potions book and dreamt of vengeance, while outside, a terrifyingly smart and determined man, fresh from his ‘foreign studies’, began to build his dark castle. I want feel relief when he’s brought down after long drawn out battles, the catharsis brought about by the sheer insanity of how he was defeated: by a tiny baby, staring out between the bars of his crib.

Who knows, maybe this dream will be a reality some day. Stranger things have happened.

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

MSDHAPO EC040

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.

The ‘new’ Hermione Granger-Weasley

A few months ago, when it was announced that Noma Dumezweni, Olivier-award winner and all-around stellar-seeming actress, would be playing Hermione Granger, everybody’s favourite swot in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the fandom went mad. Most people embraced the casting of a black actress, seeing it as an indication that ‘main’ characters in popular fiction need not always be white if not explicitly described as such; a lot of other people got angry and took to the books to point out that what had been done was unconscionable. Myself, I wrote about why this was both welcome (a no-brainer) as well as not entirely out-of-canon (or untrue to Potterverse themes), here.

Everything to do with this play is under microscopic scrutiny though, so no surprise when, a few days ago, the first cast-in-character photos were released and people went crazy again. We got our first glimpse of Dumezweni as Hermione, looking mighty fine in midnight blue. Personally, one look at her convinced me that I would be willing to trust this incarnation of Hermione with my life. Others though, not so happy, citing much the same reasons they had right at the outset. To add fuel to their fire, Hermione and Ron’s daughter, Rose Granger-Weasley, is being played by a black actress (Cherrelle Skeete) as well. The horror! The people of colour are everywhere! It’s an invasion!

granger weasleys

I don’t think we need another post justifying/explaining/laying out how great it is that someone of colour has been cast as an inspiring, iconic character. I know that the casting team of Cursed Child know their job, and don’t need me to lay out why their choice is great. In some ways, I see the rationale behind Priyanka Chopra’s line of thinking, which is, succinctly put, all this race stuff doesn’t matter and we should just give the job to the person who’s best qualified to do it.

But unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where ‘the best person for the role’ is always given the job. As both the backlash and the support for/against Rose and her stage-mother has shown, we don’t live in a ‘post racial’ society. This has the following immediate impact, when it comes to this particular choice of actress(es):

  1. People are angry still angry that someone not white was chosen to play a character portrayed as white in the recent films.
  2. The sight of the new Hermione and Rose made me, as a non-white fan and long-time lover of fantasy, extremely happy.

See, there you have it. If we live in a post-racial world, why would I be particularly thrilled by the sight of Noma in full costume? It should have been normal for me, much as the Wanda_Poster_Cropsight of Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch provoked the response ‘Okay, cool, she looks good.’ Yeah, maybe that’s a bad example; I did not ‘grow up’ reading about the Scarlet Witch, and she is not as high up on my list of favourite fictional characters as Hermione is, nowhere near her level.

But you see what I mean? I’ve never been one of those readers who consciously felt the lack of ‘reflections’ in the literature I read. The colour of someone’s skin didn’t keep me from thinking they were my soul-twin, or that we could be best friends. For instance, the character I most identified with for a long time was Kirsten, one of the American Girls of the series of the same name. I understood, at the age of 8 (when I really got into the series), what it felt like to leave home and friends and come to a new country where I knew nobody, and didn’t really understand the language (only unlike Kirsten, I was leaving a nation of immigrants to come to the ‘old country’, I just didn’t know it). I didn’t feel like I couldn’t empathise with Harry, or Frodo, or Rand or Egwene when I read about them, just because they were male, or white, or both.

Maybe it’s a product of growing older and more aware of context, but now, when I read a book set in a post-apocalyptic future, and it has no non-white people in it, I get a little annoyed. Now when I see a ‘dream cast list’ for a series which I loved, and saw myself in, and it harbours no dark-skinned person, I am a little taken aback. And when I see that  no-nonsense dark-skinned Hermione, I feel a rush of pride and love and omg how amazing are you, woman, that you made me more excited to see this play than even the words ‘by J. K. Rowling’.

Noma-Dumezweni-as-Hermione-Granger-in-New-Cast-of-Harry-potterSo no, I’m not going to justify this choice, I’m not going to explain it to those people who still see the need for explanation. The paradox of our time is that we live in an age where these things shouldn’t have to be explained, which means, such casting choices should ideally be ‘normal’; but even idealistic me knows that it’s not normal, and it’s not because of the haters or the self-appointed keepers of canon, but because I still feel a sense of victory at seeing a black Hermione. I look forward to the day when it’s just another casting announcement, one that I read over in the same manner I read that Brie Larson may be Captain Marvel.

But until that blissful day, I’ll be right over here, squeeing over how bloody wonderful the new Mrs. Granger Weasley looks.

Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rematch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Unworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

Aragorn_in_Forest

What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly build by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very much invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits, I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of 1716995-mulanbooks or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the switch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional
heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing my book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

Frodo

There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways.

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.

Immortal love

LOTR The Two Towers 024Valentine’s Day is coming. For some reason, it’s become cool to hate on it, and diss it as a ‘commercial holiday’, because you know, every holiday is so pure and untouched by the reigning force of capitalism (Christmas and Diwali being prime examples). I’ve even seen people calling out the ‘fallacy’ of celebrating it as a day of ‘love’, pointing out that the eponymous St. Valentine was martyred on this day, and hence, we should probably mark it with sadness rather than bursts of hearts and chocolate. I disagree with such folk; as Taylor Swift said, and as St. Valentine would probably agree, the best way to show the ‘haters’ who ‘gonna hate’ is to just shake it off and shove your happiness in their face, proving that nothing’s going to keep your happiness down.

I’ve realised that it’s become cool to hate on the concept of romantic love in general. Or to be cynical about it at least. The pop culture aimed at people over the age of 18 seems full of mixed messages: on the one hand, you’ve got romantic comedies, that promise that no matter how klutzy and socially awkward you might be, you will find true love; on the other, there are the Girls style shows that indicate that from rooms, people will come and go, but you should concentrate on being Michelangelo. ‘True love’, many things tell us, does not really exist; there are people who help you grow or achieve things, but you cannot rely on them to be around forever, nor do they magically solve all your problems, the way a Disney prince once did.

I’m of the latter school of thought. I don’t think there is ‘one’ single soul mate for anyone, and that romantic love is largely a matter of timing. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind to recognise what you feel, what the other person feels, not to mention a host of other factors that ultimately dictate whether or not a relationship unfolds. In fact, the idea of having just ‘one’ person terrifies me because it automatically lessens your chances of happiness; what if you mess it up, or miss that person altogether? Would you never be happy?

snape and lily

Despite my  reservations about such a thing playing out in real life (happiness= one ‘true’ soul mate), I can see why it holds such appeal in fiction. ‘I like the idea,’ a friend told me, when I expressed some dislike for Snape’s unstinting love for Lily. ‘Doesn’t it seem so special to be loved in that way, like no one else can ever compare?’ Sure, it’s all right if the person is fictional, but as I noted in this post, unrequited love is very poetic, but it is extremely painful in reality.

I think, in some ways, the fascination for the immortals, for vampires and Elves and other such beings, is tied up in this desire to feel ‘special’. Okay, let me try and explain this: people diss Twilight for a number of reasons, and yes, I’m one of those who does not consider it spectacular literature, but I can see why so many people love it. I can see why men and women think it would be amazing to be loved like Edward loves Bella, stalking and vampirish urges and all. The idea that someone who has literally lived for hundreds of years, seen thousands of people, picks you, of all humanity, to love—now THAT would make anyone feel special. The same idea applies to Arwen and Aragorn. Here’s an Elf who has lived thousands of years. She has seen many, many specimens pass through her life, more than a few of whom must have been drop dead gorgeous, accomplished, wise Elves, maybe even a few men. And yet, it was Aragorn, at that point a not-so-well-washed, uncrowned Ranger from the north, for whom she gave up her immortality, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

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In every romantic relationship, I would think, there’s that need to feel special, to feel like though there may have been people before you, and may be others after you in your significant others’ life,  you are somehow different. To be chosen by someone like Edward, or Arwen, or a billion other vampires who go after their mortal prey for reasons other than culinary denotes that you have something more than all those others they have met before. Something does separate you from the herd of humanity, and someone special, who knows what they’re on about (having seen a hell of a lot of the world) has noticed that in you and decided to love or desire you for it.

Okay Twilight fans, now I sort of get what you’re on about. Doesn’t mean I think your ship is a better one than Cersei/Jaime, and that’s saying something.

Coming to terms with Snape

snape poster

Is the Gryffindor scarf a sly allusion to the person he’s really protecting?

I have a poster of Snape on my desk. He stands there, poised for combat, wand raised to fight off someone—whether Death Eater or member of the Order, it’s not clear—set against a broken window pane, the view outside indicative of chaos and fire and dark streaks of ‘evil’ Apparition.

It’s an odd choice for a motivational poster, perhaps. Snape is not (as I have made clear) one of my favourite characters in the series. In fact, I still believe that Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the character has made me even the slightest bit more accepting of the man’s flaws, as I might see them. If Rickman hadn’t owned the performance the way he did, I might never have thought of buying a Snape poster, let alone placing it in pride of place on my desk.

Recently, I’ve begun to think about why I refuse to idolise Snape, what it is about him that made me lash out against the rising adulation he receives, what I saw as blindness and willingness to overlook his extremely glaring flaws. I’ve come to a rather alarming conclusion: he terrifies me, more than any other character from the series does.

I think I should explain myself here. Slytherin House, as I made clear in this post, symbolises for me the ability to change your mind and move on, and how ultimately, it is choices rather than blood that defines you. Sure, Slytherin is the blood purists’ house (as made all too clear by its founder, who literally left behind a monster to kill those he believed unworthy of magic), but its residents also, time and again, show they are more than their blood and history, and make choices that ultimately push the series forward along its heroic path.

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Yes, Snape makes what is perhaps the biggest decision in the series, because unlike many other ‘big decision makers’ (namely, Lily), he has to live with what he’s chosen—both the good and the bad—every single day. He has to live with the fact that his choices led to the death of his love, and that he must protect the image of the man who ‘stole’ her from him. He chooses to look at the consequence of his mistakes, and rectify them, knowing all the while that he cannot do so. Protecting Harry stems, at first, from a deep sense of remorse, no matter what it becomes later. In many ways, Marvel’s Penance, a superhero who gives himself a literal, iconic ‘penance’ in the form of incredible pain, reminded me of Snape. Every move Penance makes (please ignore the unintentional Police reference), he is reminded of that terrible decision.

(Go read Marvel’s Civil War comics if you want more details.)

So while I absolutely admire Snape’s courage and the sheer intelligence it took to pull off that double agent role (no matter whether he ‘really’ accomplished anything or not…), I am more than a little horrified at the personal toll it took on him. I dislike how much he had to sacrifice in a universe where everyone, even Sirius (in my view the most abused character in the books), gets some measure of happiness. But all of Snape’s chances at it seem to be taken away on a summer’s day, when he made the mistake of calling his best friend a ‘Mudblood’.

I’m not saying that it’s only circumstances that make Snape’s life what it is; indeed, a lot of his misery can be laid at his own feet. While some of his decisions (such as hanging out with the ‘bad crowd’ at Hogwarts, or his cursing Lily) might generously be explained away as an immature, angry response to being mistreated, the later decisions, to be cruel to his students, for instance, is entirely in his hands. Unless it was a means of maintaining cover, I see no reason to bully Neville quite so thoroughly, or to put down Hermione in the fashion that he did time and again.

My reasons for refusing to romanticise Snape, as so many do, is simple: he frightens me.  It frightens me that in this series full of hope and second chances, he doesn’t really get one, personally. His happiness dies the day Lily does, and it terrifies me to think that such a thing might happen to someone, to anyone. Maybe I’m being a coward, and refusing to see life’s darkness for what it is, but I still believe that Rowling’s portrayal of this flawed, heroic man is not a hopeful one. It is a deeply jarring one in this universe full of magic and ultimate victory. It’s a poignant illustration of the fact that not everyone gets a happy ending. Snape’s life is consistently dark, and the snatching away of his one ray of sunshine, while giving him a new mission, does not, in any sense, give him a new hope. He labours on to protect Harry, hating himself, always knowing that no matter what he does, he can never turn back time and bring Lily back. He can never atone enough for what he’s done,as evidenced by the claim, ‘Always.’

snape and lily

And so, sitting on that desk, he is for me a reminder that sometimes, you might choose to do what’s right, and not be rewarded for it. You might not even be liked very much while you’re doing it. It might not make you happy at all. But still, you can retain strength, and keep going, simply because it’s the thing to do.

To be told stories

This post is dedicated to Alan Rickman (21 Feb 1946 – 14 Jan 2016)

ootp-us-jacket-artWhenever I read The Order of the Phoenix, a weird thing happens: the last few chapters of the book leave me, quite literally, in tears. No matter what time it is, no matter what I may have been doing earlier that day, or planning to do later, every time Sirius arcs through the veil, I break down and end up weeping.

A few years ago, I tried to rationalise it to myself. ‘It’s  because I expect to cry, and that’s why I cry,’ I thought, a reading that Pavlov might be proud of. Sirius dying= negative reinforcement:: crying= learned response. Having cried the first or second time, my body has learned that it is expected to shed tears at this literary moment, and so indulges me. 

But then, that doesn’t explain the total, all-out sorrow that assailed me towards the final chapters of Wheel of Time, when characters I knew and loved fell one after the other. When a friend registered alarm at my reaction, I tried to explain, ‘It’s like losing a friend I’ve grown up with for ten years.’ It didn’t seem to make much sense to my interrogator. How could someone who lived in the covers of  a book, no matter how wonderfully written, exist so vividly in my mind, have such an impact on my feelings that I actually shed tears at their imaginary demise? It happened the first time, and it happened recently, on a re-read of A Memory of Light.

Someone said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In that case, perhaps it is only ‘sane’ that I cry time and again. But we can chase for those reasons and just go around in circles, serving only to confuse ourselves (do we cry because we’ve done it before and therefore expect to? Is it, in that sense, like the climax of Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry casts a Patronus without worrying because he’s done it before, and therefore knows he can even if he couldn’t have possibly known because Time is weird and it’s all a paradox and well, magic?). We’d end up like Hermione, blinking and saying ‘No, that doesn’t make sense at all!’

What is it about losing a fictional character that is, sometimes, so emotionally devastating? Well, in some cases you watch someone you’ve read about, whose head you’ve lived in for years, perish without the happy ending you’d been hoping they’d get. Sometimes it’s someone you think would ‘get’ you in a way that few other people ever can, or do. Sometimes it’s because you can relate to how the other characters, those left snapebehind, feel. When you live so vividly through someone else’s words, it shouldn’t be surprising that loss, one of those most helplessness-inducing, agonising feelings, filters through,even if the loss is happening to people who don’t, in all physical and ‘realistic’ senses, exist.

In some ways, losing an actor is sort of like this. Actors, and other contemporary celebrities, come, ins some sense, closest to fictional characters. To many of us, they will never be more than the roles they play on screen—I will never know Alan Rickman as a man, but I will always have his movies, recordings of interviews, plays, his voice reading poetry on a Youtube channel. But however much I may read of what he’s said, or watch his more candid moments, I cannot claim to have ‘lost’ him in the way his family or friends have. In the most ‘realistic’ sense, having no ‘real’ connection to him, I haven’t lost him at all.

But still, there is that sense, of something missing. Perhaps it’s because, like I have through many, many of their fictional kin, I lived through Rickman’s characters. He brought to life a person and a story that has played, and continues to play, an incredibly important role in my life. And for that, I will always be grateful to him. For that, I felt, and do feel, no matter how strange it might sound, a vague emptiness, an echo that resounds a little hauntingly with that one word, ‘Always.’

‘It is an ancient need to be told stories,’ Rickman once wrote. It’s a need that he played his part in fulfilling, so brilliantly and incredibly well.

alan rickman

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.

Christmas_1995

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.

Harry-potter_mirror-of-erised