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.

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The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

hermione
Reading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

Hermione-hermione-granger-33203720-1383-2100This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And
she doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive,
badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

The Importance of Being Hermione: Part I

hermione_granger_by_crymson99-d3oobb7I’m finally going to discuss a character I have been rather noticeably reticent about in all my previous entries. She’s amazingly popular, so it’s a little strange that I’ve ignored her for so long. I’ll be breaking this entry into two separate posts, the first dealing with the character herself and the second with the ‘relationship’ that, for me, is the most realistic and relatable of the Harry Potter canon, as well as the larger fantasy canon in general.

Recently, there was a great hullaballoo in the Harry Potter fandom. This was the result of Rowling sitting up and saying (according to selectively quoted portions of an interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland magazine) that the Ron-Hermione relationship was a form of ‘wish fulfillment’ and that perhaps, Harry and Hermione ‘are a better fit’. In the interview, Rowling cast aspersions on the stability of the pair’s marriage but admitted, eventually, that they would probably be ‘alright with a bit of counseling’.

I’ve never been a Harry/Hermione fan, not even when they were stuck in a tent together in the middle of Gods-only-know-where. There are a bunch of reasons for this, including the fact that I never really saw Harry as ‘ending up’ with anyone, really. I sort of assumed he would die at the close of the seventh book; to my mind, that would have been the most poetic ending. Also, given that his greatest desire at the start of the series is to see his family, it might have been nice to have him reunited with them at the close.

But perhaps that’s just me being morbid.

Anyhow, let’s get back to Hermione/Ron and Hermione/Harry. I think Rowling pitting Hermione with Ron was a great decision. Last night, I sat and thought about leading female characters in fantasy I could look upon as potential role models in a romantic relationship (after all, I do take my role models for everything from fantasy fiction, make of that what you will) and realized that very few are of any real use to a twenty-something, or any-something for that matter, urban, educated and relatively independent girl.

The problem is, many, many women in fantasy fiction, whether it be the beautiful Arwen or the feisty Ginny, fall into the familiar trap of waiting-for-Hero-to-finish-Quest. They are almost preternaturally understanding and patient creatures, providing unquestioning support to a Hero whose mission is, we assume, much more important than anything they might get up to or want to get up to. The other category of women, which includes people like Egwene al’Vere from Wheel of Time and Eowyn of Rohan, seem to see romance almost as a weakness, something they do not have time for. In fact, when Eowyn falls in love with Faramir, her emotional change is described as a ‘thaw’, melting her from the self-imposed frost that had previously defined her dealings with men.

My point is, none of the women I could think were shown as having healthy, functioning relationships with their significant others until that significant other had completed whatever divinely or fatefully ordained quest they were on. The other women, who were on quests themselves, acted like the men, refusing to really get ‘into’ a relationship, or fall in love, until they had finished their business. I include Katniss Everdeen in the latter category.

I noted in a previous entry (Ginny Weasley and the Loving Hero Paradox) that this is all too common a theme in epic fantasy, and that perhaps, if there were more novels floating about with female leads, we might see a change.  But if there is anyone who comes close to being in a healthy, somewhat relatable relationship, and still manages to go about saving the world, I honestly think its Hermione Jean Granger.

Cue for the splutters of surprise, confusion and even outrage.

herm and ron

 

It’s self-evident why Hermione is such a popular and important character. Not only is she Harry’s best friend, but she is not a conventionally attractive, popular, sporty girl. She is a swot, a geek, a girl who freaks out at the possibility of getting one question wrong in an exam. Find me another girl like that in popular fiction, I dare you. She’s always got her facts handy, and when she doesn’t, she refuses to let ridicule keep her from running off to her favourite haven: the Library.

Hermione taught me that it was okay to be yourself in high school, a hard lesson to drill into an adolescent girl. I never really saw myself in her though, chiefly because she was much more assertive and independent than I was. Also, I lacked the social consciousness that she had, the drive to do good things for the world. I wanted to do great things, not necessarily good, and there was the difference between us.

What was most relatable about Hermione, however, was her lack of perfection. For all her brains, for all her dedication to the good of the wizarding world, she was not the paragon of girlhood in the Potter books. That was Ginny Weasley, woman who never cries. Hermione gets emotionally overwrought, she acts silly and competitive and does immature things in order to get back at people (Ron, mostly). Unlike in the case of Ginny, Hermione’s particularly vicious jinxes are not held up for admiration; when she sends Charmed canaries whirring at Ron’s head, we’re meant (I believe) to see the act for what it is: vindictive, petty vengeance for his ‘snogging’ Lavender. Harry notes that Hermione’s eyes are ‘wild’, her voice ‘high’ when she does this. Clearly, the girl is not in her usual reasonable and reasoning frame of mind.

Contrast this to Ginny, whose Bat Bogey Hex on Zacharias Smith and deliberate crashing of her broom into the commentator’s box (when he was holding forth) is touted as ‘cool’ and totally okay. Ginny seems to be able to escape authorial and reader judgment, while Hermione, for all her admirable qualities, does not.

This is an important point, and one that I want to take forward into the second half of my post. Harry, for all his imperfections, is very rarely judged negatively by the reader. Even his darker actions, such as casting Unforgiveables, are put down to the influence of the Horcrux he carries within him (this was the explanation Rowling gave in an interview). This lack of accountability that he enjoys makes him somewhat difficult to like in the last two books, I think, which is why both Hermione and Ron, whose faults also glare much more brightly in these volumes, suddenly begin to steal the limelight from their more famous friend. Harry becomes more and more a remote ideal, much like Ginny does. How can you pair a very human girl with this increasingly blank Hero figure?

What Hermione, in all her glorious imperfection, needs is a fellow imperfect being. And that’s where Ron comes in.

 

 

A Valentine for Voldemort

‘You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love, or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.’ 

Valentine’s Day has just flashed past, festooned with hearts and roses and sundry red material. Some people celebrated love  while others berated them for it, whether for ‘religious’ reasons or simple desire to look cool and above the whole branded holiday. It got me thinking, however, of a person who, for whatever reason, is immune to and incapable of feeling love and I wondered what he would make of it.

ImageLord Voldemort has always struck me as a rather unsatisfactory villain. He starts out in Philosopher’s Stone as a terrifying, megalomaniacal figure (‘There is no good and evil’, he teaches Quirrell, ‘There is only power and those too weak to seek it’). In Chamber of Secrets we learn that he was always a sort of Machiavellian character, plotting from the sidelines and covering his tracks with practised ease even as a sixteen-year-old. In Prisoner of Azkaban and Half Blood Prince he doesn’t appear directly on screen, but in both he exerts a pull as a vague suggestion of menace, one who can rip apart friendships and loyalties with insinuations and threats. But the rather terrifying, smooth-talking, sinister figure who calmly lays out and executes a master plan in Order of the Phoenix disappears almost entirely in the shrieking, trigger-happy dictator in Deathly Hallows. What happened to good old Voldemort on the way?

I want to point out the one basic problem I have with Voldemort: he just doesn’t strike me as a convincing character. And for that reason, I cannot see him as a convincing villain. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by reading G. R. R. Martin, whose ‘villains’ are indistinguishable from his ‘good guys’ most of the time, with everyone being liberally painted with shades of grey. But my problem with Voldemort is very specific. It’s not that I don’t agree that his agenda of world domination is terrible (at least in the way he executes it), and yes, since the series is, as a whole, a great deal about accepting and living with the reality of death, he is a despicable coward for going the lengths he does to secure immortality.

But the infamous Prophecy, that marks Harry out as the hero who will defeat him, ascribes Voldemort’s downfall to one particular thing: ‘the power the Dark Lord knows not’. Which is, simply put, love.

My problem is: Voldemort is incapable of love. It’s not that he’s turned his back on it. It’s not that he has felt it and then decided that it was not for him, that it was something he should actively root out of the world and destroy. He is physically, emotionally, psychologically, whatever you want to call it, incapable of it. Since he was conceived under the influence of a Love Potion (we are told), the magic of Love does not extend its tendrils to him.

Now, I have a few quibbles with that theory (which J. K. Rowling stated later was no theory, but fact. Voldemort is constitutionally incapable of love because he was created by an act of love that was not entirely consensual, merely a product of magic). For one thing, does this mean that all babies who were born out of forced coupling (for whatever reason) in the wizarding world are incapable of love? Isn’t this a very easy way to explain Voldemort’s almost dyed-in-the-wool sociopathic tendencies? From the young age of eleven, Tom Riddle seems to be a monster-child and terrorizing his fellow Woolworth’s residents, stealing trinkets to memorialize his misdeeds. Even as a baby, we are told, he didn’t like to be touched, barely cried and in general, behaved rather strangely. Put together with Rowling’s statement about his constitutional incapacity, this behaviour makes sense.

And really, it would be fine if you had a villain who was rather sociopathic and couldn’t help his behaviour, if you didn’t have another very strong moral running through the series:

‘It is our choices, Harry, that define us, rather than our abilities.’

harry and voldemortTime and again, Rowling underlines the parallels between Harry and Tom Riddle/Voldemort, from their entry into the world of magic (ushered in as wards of the school, rather than by a parent), the manner in which they view Hogwarts, their shared abilities and finally, linking them with that most intimate of connections: sharing a piece of soul. Dumbledore even points out that one of the many reasons Voldemort probably chose Harry over Neville as his potential vanquisher was because he saw in Harry, the half-blood, a reflection of himself.So in this case, Voldemort exercised his ability to choose, and thus defined Harry’s destiny and his own.

But Harry is who he is because he chooses to be. He chose to be in Gryffindor, he chose to trust Sirius and show mercy to Pettigrew, he chose to face Voldemort at the very end, despite learning of Dumbledore’s grand deception. In fact, even if he hadn’t heard of the Prophecy, he admits to Dumbledore that he would not walk away from the fight against Voldemort, going so far as to say ‘I’d want him finished. And I’d want to be the one to do it.’ The Prophecy doesn’t force his hand. He genuinely wants to fight and put an end to Voldemort.

And Voldemort? It appears he was born a certain way, lacking something that Harry has in such abundance. He never had to consciously make a choice to be a loving person, to care for others, simply because he can’t. In such a scenario, how is it fair to expect him to make the ‘right’ choices? During their stand-off on the Astronomy Tower, Dumbledore mentions to Draco that he once knew a young man who had made ‘all the wrong choices’, implying that Voldemort had the ability to choose otherwise. But he really couldn’t, could he? How was it possible for him to choose a side he simply did not have the ability to understand?

In such a scenario, what is right and wrong?

So in a series, where you highlight the importance of choice and the role it plays in defining a person, and take away the villain’s ability to choose (at least choose in the sphere that ‘counts’ in this universe), are you not weakening your villain considerably? Can he really be anything but a cartoon blow-up?

There’s a very poignant moment in Deathly Hallows where this inability of Voldemort really comes through in a rather bittersweet manner. It happens when he stands outside the Potter cottage, its inhabitants revealed to him by the Fidelius Charm. He looks through the window into the sitting room for a couple of moments, and witnesses the following:

They had not drawn the curtains; he saw them quite clearly in their little sitting room, the tall black-haired man in his glasses, making puffs of coloured smoke erupt from his wand for the amusement of the small black-haired boy in his blue pyjamas. The child was laughing and trying to catch the smoke, to grab it in his small fist…

A door opened and the mother entered, saying words he could not hear, her long dark-red hair falling over her face. Now the father scooped up the son and handed him to the mother. He threw his wand down upon the sofa and stretched, yawning…

It’s the one domestic scene we have of the Potters, describing what seems to be a normal routine for them: James amusing Harry before handing him to Lily to be put to bed. It’s startling because we know what awaits outside the window, how it’s all going to come crashing down in a matter of seconds.

Throughout this little section, where we’re in Voldemort’s head as he relives that fateful night, we have his thoughts on the weaknesses of the humans around him. He considers killing a child, then deems it ‘unnecessary’, he feels ‘calmly euphoric’, he reflects that it is ‘too easy’ to kill James because he comes rushing out without his wand. But his feelings on this scene are curiously absent. There is no thought about the weakness of this happy family, nothing about the silliness of the smoke rings, no word on how triumphant he feels at seeing them exposed, vulnerable. No, Voldemort is curiously expressionless on witnessing this cosy family scene. Almost as though he doesn’t know what to feel.

And I think it was at this point, really, that I felt most sorry for him.

Growing up Potter: For the Dog Star

ImageIt’s been more than a year now since I began posting to this blog. A lot of things have changed in that time, both for me, personally, and the wider world. Some things haven’t, such as the fact that I have scarily intense relationships with characters in fantasy novels. Perhaps the most ‘intense’ of those is the one I share with the man my blog is named after.

I have been planning to write about Sirius Black for a long while, but have been defeated each time by a feeling of inadequacy. It’s hard to write about something even you don’t understand, that many people around you find ridiculous (for good reason), that you expect yourself to grow out of. So I tried to assuage my need to write about this character by channelling it into watertight, specific aspects of his presentation: in a post where I compared him to Jaime Lannister and called him a Poor Little Rich Boy; in connection with the larger theme of slash fanfiction; moaning about how I couldn’t find good Wolfstar fics. I did scrawl a Facebook note on him once, fuelled mostly by adrenaline (my exams had just been postponed and a friend dared me to do it) and called it a ‘Manifesto’, but I have never sat and attempted to write a serious piece on what he means to me.

Yes, I’m sure I’ve a lost a good number of my readers already. ‘Fangirl’, you’re snorting. What on earth is a twenty-four year old doing writing about a silly crush she has on a fictional character? I wonder myself. But I’m hoping, through this post on Sirius, to find something vaguely profound in this whole matter.

Like my beloved Wheel of Time books, the Potter series saw me through high school and into college. Harry and company were as important to me as my closest friends, seeing me through the ups and downs of adolescence and into adulthood. Harry and I probably experienced our first major crushes at the same time. Unlike him, of course, I was a lot more articulate about asking people to go to the ball.

My first ‘love’ in the Potter books was, predictably, Harry himself. I felt that here, at last, was a boy who got it, who knew what a hassle growing up was (I’ve alluded to this cosmic connection between us before). I remember wishing, fervently, that Harry would somehow magically step out of the books and find me and we would have amazing adventures together. It’s embarrassing to admit that I had these daydreams till I was as old as sixteen, but that’s the burden of being a fantasy and book-crazed teenager.Harry potter hot

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out in the first week of my undergraduate life. The timing was wonderfully symbolic—as Harry died and came back to life, a part of my own journey ended and a new one began. I put him away with some amount of grief and annoyance (he had married Ginny and not me, after all), and didn’t think about him very much until three years later, in the first year of my Masters’.

Postgrad was a tough time for various boring and petty reasons which I will not go into here. Sufficeth to say that what prompted me to pick up the Potter books again was a combination of nostalgia and a desire to escape to what I perceived to be a ‘simpler’ time. When I was living it, of course, school had hardly seemed ‘simple’, but everything looks better from a distance. It is known.

Instead of finding a blandly comforting story, my re-read of The Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows threw up a bunch of questions which have prompted a number of posts on this blog. Additionally, the re-read showed me that my interests had shifted considerably. I was no longer in love with the Boy Who Lived.

I was in love with Sirius Black.

Now, a number of people have asked me what on earth I find so compelling about a less-than-major character. One friend, on seeing my ‘Sirius Play-list’ stuttered that perhaps an immense amount of fanfiction reading had clouded my perception of Sirius, built him up into something more than canon supports. Another said that Sirius was the stereotypical ‘cool guy’, and that while I was fascinated by the idea of him, I would hardly be able to tolerate him if he were to suddenly appear before me. I will concede points to both friends. True, the amount of fanfiction I’ve read probably has done its bit to bolster Sirius’s image in my eyes. And true, Sirius would probably have been too loud and ‘obnoxious’ for me to consider getting to know (if we had gone to the same school). Post-Azkaban Sirius, however, would have been a completely different person and one that, I think, I might have gotten along with. We could have been broody and angsty together.images

But let’s not waste time thinking of what could have been.

Anyone who’s read the books knows why Sirius is eminently crush-worthy, so I won’t go into it here. It’s not any of those immediately apparent things that pull me towards him, though—not his gorgeous looks, his fierce intelligence or his tragic air. Instead, it’s what I like to think of as his defining trait, one that really jarred me out of my slump of despondency when I re-met him.

I’m talking, of course, about his fantastic sense of defiance.

Sirius Black is, above all things, a rebel. Smack him down, and he will surge back up, twice as eager to prove himself. Lock him up in a soul sucking prison for twelve years? He will quietly and inconsiderately refuse to make things easier for you by going mad. Station dementors around the campus and the neighbouring village with the sole aim of catching him? He’ll sneak right past them and make himself at home as a loveable stray. Tell him he can’t come out of house arrest to save his godson? He’ll cavort about in the heart of the Ministry of Magic and duel Voldemort’s ‘lieutenant’.

In a godfather, this sense of defiance is, at times, lamentable. Sirius can’t very well hope to keep a raging Harry in check if he can’t live by the rules himself. Removed from his context and seen as a peer rather than a mentor, however, Sirius’s irrepressible spirit becomes a very attractive quality. And yes, in case you were wondering, it was three years ago that I started seeing him as a peer rather than an older, removed ‘adult’ character.

Now, I never considered myself the kind of girl who liked ‘defiant’ people. At least, not those who are loud about their defiance. Remus Lupin was more my ‘type’, I thought. He was academic, he was insecure and yet sort of quietly steadfast, and he was morally complex. For the record, I don’t subscribe to the ‘opposites attract’ theory either, so my regard for Sirius really was sort of random.

Except it really wasn’t. In the grand ship known as me-Sirius (ha!), context was and is everything. When had I found and latched on to him? When I was in some sort of transition period, when I was at an emotional and personal low. I needed energy and inspiration and he, with his half-crazed sense of freedom and unwillingness to just shut up and live by the rules, gave it to me.

Would I call him a knight in shining armour? Yes and no. Yes because I am a romantic and, despite my enlightened feminist views, I still like to picture a handsome young man sweeping up on a horse (or a flying motorbike) and whisking me away on dull days. No because, let’s face it, Sirius, for the duration of readers’ acquaintance with him, is not in a position to be saving anyone but himself. Also no, because, as we all know (and I assure you, I know as well), he is a fictional character and hence, any inspiration he brings about generate, finally, in me. It’s what I make of him and the way Rowling has presented him, after all, that really matters.

I’ve moved past the drama that drove me to Potter, but my regard for Sirius and what he represents endures. He taught me a very important lesson when I needed it: trust yourself even if you can’t rely on anything else. The world gets dark, it gets depressing and ugly, but screw that, he seems to say. Screw that ‘gentle night’. Sirius rages, always rages, against the dying of the light.

Growing up Potter: Becoming Ron

  In my early adolescence (think 13), I spent many hours doing stranger and stranger ‘personality’ tests in an attempt to discover myself. I would copy paste the results on a Microsoft Word document and pore over them later, analyzing every word in those descriptions (probably written by girls only a little older than me) and convincing myself that these computer-algorithm-based assumptions told the truth about me.

 It was, as I said, a phase.

 Of course, I did tweak my results at times, especially when it came to those ‘Which Harry Potter house would you be in?’ or ‘which character are you?’ tests. I always worked it so that I got Gryffindor (I was such a populist) and more often than not, aimed to be classified a ‘Harry Potter’ in the ‘character’ tests. When I was a little more honest with my answers, as I grew older, I was told I should be in Slytherin or Ravenclaw, and that I was Ginny Weasley. The last, I think, was chiefly because I answered with absolute adoration when asked how much I liked Harry himself, admitting that I wanted to marry him.

 And then, at the age of twenty three going on twenty four, I took a mandated MBTI test. And was told I now had the same personality initials as … Ron Weasley.

Image Yes, this was a surprise. No, I had never seen myself as Ron, Ron—the least conventionally ‘academic’ of the trio, the most traditional in terms of blood status, the most prone to being used for random comic relief. I am not a Ron, I thought. I don’t like to think of myself as a side-kick, a second-fiddle. I am not perennially insecure about my own abilities, needing a boost before every test. I am not the ‘funny’ one in my group.

 The shock and, dare I name it, outrage that gripped me for a couple of seconds after getting the result is telling, I think. It reveals a lot about my inherent snobbishness (seriously, I might have preferred the rich and aristocratic Draco Malfoy, budding Hitler Youth though he is), but it also says something about Ron. If someone who’s read the books back to front countless times can’t recall anything especially emulation-worthy about him in a second of being confronted by his name, whither the appeal of this character?

 I sat back, and I thought about it, and I realized what my problem with Ron was.

 Through books 1 to 4, Ron is undoubtedly Harry’s best friend. He is, in many ways, Harry’s guide to the wizarding world, volunteering as ‘second’ in a planned midnight duel with Draco, sacrificing himself in a game of chess to enable his friends to move forward, providing Harry a family that welcomes and takes him to their hearts. It is a matter of course that these two ‘partner off’ in most lessons, including reading each other’s tea leaves in that memorable first Divination class in Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry does not seem to share the same sort of unquestioned, deep-seated bond with Hermione; in Azkaban, there is a period of time when Hermione’s ‘interference’ results in a fight within the group, with Ron and Harry refusing to speak to her. When compared to the rift that Ron’s jealousy creates within the Trio in Goblet of Fire, however, and the amount of emotional energy Harry expends in ‘hating’ Ron, the break with Hermione seems inconsequential. Rowling devotes large portions of her text to how angry and betrayed Harry feels at Ron’s seeming lack of interest in his fate.

 I would argue this is not only because of Harry’s ‘dark’ teenage angst surfacing (it comes into full throttle in Order of the Phoenix), but because the idea of Ron turning his back on his best friend is so incomprehensible as to shock Harry out of his (until now) usual emotional quietude. Harry is curious or nervous or determined, he is very rarely bitterly angry until this point in the books. Another point to note is that even before they became friends, Hermione has shown a tendency to interfere and boss over Harry and Ron; recall the ‘Midnight Duel’ chapter of Philosopher’s Stone where she waits up to waylay them in the Gryffindor Common Room as they sneak out to meet Draco. Rowling even states that ‘Harry couldn’t believe anyone could be so interfering.’

 Ron’s betrayal was necessary for his, as well as Harry’s, character development. The ever-loyal best friend was shown to have depth and a bit of a petty streak (only natural when you’re usually the underdog, even in your own family), and Harry was forced to make do without one of his usual emotional crutches and so begin his long and lonely hero’s journey. It also allowed him to bond with Hermione, who really begins to steal the limelight at this point in the series.

Image So given that the betrayal has already happened once, and Ron has walked out on Harry when needed already, why have a repetition of the same in Deathly Hallows? Aside from the improbability of Ron managing to get home and stay undercover without putting both his family and himself in grave danger (in the middle of a media campaign which paints his known best friend as Undesirable No. 1), his departure has no significant effect on the plot. He might as well have stayed, stewed, rescued Harry when needed and then destroyed the Horcrux. The information he brings back, that Voldemort’s name is now Taboo, is relayed too late to be of any use.

 This, really, is why I don’t have great fondness for Ron, or the way Rowling treats him in the latter half of the series. The staunchly loyal strategist with a marked flair for improvisation (he was the one who bashed the troll with its own club in the infamous bathroom scene in Philosopher’s Stone) becomes a young man who needs a book to charm the supposed love of his life (who he’s known for six years), who chooses the comforts of home and effectively abandons his best friends and is the only one of the Trio to persist in calling Voldemort ‘You-Know-Who’ (though he is, ironically, vindicated for his nervousness). He’s even stupid and petty in matters of romance, his insecurity laid bare when Ginny lashes out at him and calls him jealous because both Harry and Hermione have ‘snogged’ people. The best Ron has done, Ginny whines, is be kissed by Auntie Muriel.

 Ron had a big moment in Book 5, when he becomes prefect and is given responsibility that even Harry does not have. Again, we are witness to his surprise and insecurity when he says that he expected Harry would get the title. Of course, it turns out that the only reason, ostensibly, Harry didn’t get the job was because Dumbledore thought he had far bigger worries. Poor Ron.

 I do  think the Horcrux-destruction in Hallows was very important and certainly called-for, given the sustained reminders we’d been getting of Ron’s insecurity and inferiority complex, but I’m not sure it was enough. I don’t deny that the movies have also played a huge role in the undermining of this character, the most memorable being the stealing of Ron’s lines in Azkaban in the Shrieking Shack. In the book, Ron, bed-held by a broken leg, screams out ‘If you kill Harry, you’ll have to kill us too!’; in the movie, Hermione, both legs sound, throws herself in front of Harry and delivers the same line. Ron is silent.

 And I’m not even going to mention the fact that in Hallows Part 2, Hermione volunteers to accompany Harry to the Forest while Ron stands around looking macho. Okay fine, I mentioned it.

 I feel sort of, sad, when I think of Ron now. I feel like I often overlook the brave little boy who faced a cold, stone-faced White Queen, not knowing what was going to happen, to help his friend. The unquestioning right-hand man who braved his worst fears and went into the Forbidden Forest, convincing himself with a glance at his Petrified friend. The friend who wasn’t too proud to come back and confess to his mistakes, not once, but twice. Instead I remember the insecure boy who runs around screaming ‘HERMIONE!’ when he really should be keeping his head cool and figuring out a way to get the hell out of that basement.

 But at the same time, I can see why I, or most people for that matter, would be Ron. Constantly beset by insecurity and doubt, measuring ourselves against other, seemingly more ‘collected’ people and feeling and responding to peer pressure in the most immature ways possible. Ron’s is a messy growing up, with ups and a hell of a lot of downs. Ron’s is, therefore, perhaps the most realistic growing up. We don’t all have Dark Lords and prophecies riding on our shoulders, but we sure as hell do have pettiness, jealousy and insecurity to contend with.

 And that’s when Ron becomes a hero.

Growing up Potter: Those Slippery Slytherins

Image A few months ago, I sent out a survey to a bunch of friends. It concerned (wait for it) the Harry Potter books and movies, and included the question ‘Who is your favourite character’. The results, when they came back, surprised me. Sirius Black had a large number of takers, as did Hermione Granger. Contrary to the Guardian’s expectations, not a single person chose Severus Snape. And only two people mentioned harbouring a ‘soft spot’ for Harry himself.

For a boy who has won the hearts of children and adults alike, Harry James Potter has few groupies of his own, few people who would declare that he was/is their ‘favourite’ character in the series named after him. A few years ago, I would have, right until (and chiefly because of) The Order of the Phoenix. Thanks to ‘growing up’ alongside of him, I felt especially connected to Harry (as millions of my fellow readers no doubt did), and when he angsted and argued his way through OoTP, I saw my own teenage angst given heroic proportions in this over-burdened fifteen-year-old. Harry was me, only better, because he had a Dark Lord to defeat and he could do magic. All I had, on the other hand, were exams to get past and maybe highschool romances to negotiate, and even those were low on the ground and barely sparking.

So if I was Harry, if most of those who read the books at that age felt they were Harry, that this boy spoke for them and it was his immediacy and utter normality in the face of all that world-shifting magic that made him so appealing, what caused him to lose his lustre? Why does a twenty-three-year-old me find Sirius Black a more compelling character than Harry? Is it simply because Sirius is an ‘adult’, older and therefore more relatable on a purely superficial level? I think the idea of his being an ‘adult’ is important, but not simply in terms of age. Why then did so many choose Hermione Granger, who is a mere ten months older than Harry?

No, I think my waning interest in Harry himself is due largely to the fact that Harry, as a character, ceases to develop after the sixth book. The Harry we meet in Book 5 never grows up. Instead, he becomes encased in a wooden, popular boy facade, one to whom the death of Sirius barely seems to matter, for whom a Slytherin automatically becomes a bad person*, who does nothing to protest the wholesale evacuation of a Hogwarts house based on the frightened actions of one person. This is a Harry who, no longer hidden in the shadows, struts about the halls of Hogwarts, cursing his fellow students with impunity (cough Sectumsempra cough) and when faced with the greatest quest of his life, relies on Hermione to get him out of trouble.

In The Goblet of Fire, Sirius gives Harry a valid piece of advice: ‘The world isn’t divided between good people and Death Eaters’. The Harry of Book 7 seems to have forgotten that. Why else would he not open his Chosen mouth to halt the death march of the Slytherins? And why else does every ‘bad guy’ in the book get judged for his use of Unforgivables, but when Harry casts one it’s considered ‘gallant’?

There is no question that the morals of the Potterverse are, at times, simplistic and skewed, and as you grow older, this becomes more apparent. A friend of mine recently posted this on my Facebook wall, and followed it up with this comment: I remain extremely disturbed that the entirety of House Slytherin was sent to the dungeons (!) at the start of HP7b, and are then never heard from again (!!).Also, when we see Snape being awful to the Hogwarts students in HP6? He could well have been more chilled out about discipline if he’d wanted to; I think that’s just Snape being Snape. He really is that nasty, petty, small and mean, and being irrevocably in (unreciprocated) love with Lily doesn’t excuse that.

If we are going to talk about skewed morals and quick generalizing of characters and their motivations, we should start with the Sorting system. While in the beginning it seems a fairly cool thing to drop a hat on someone and thus decide who their friends are going to be for the next seven years, on closer consideration it seems very, well, fast. Does an eleven-year-old child really have a ‘fixed’ set of traits? The Sorting system, whereby children are judged based on the proportion of ‘bravery’, ‘learning’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘cunning’ they have, cements them into one dormitory and high school clique for the rest of their seven years. The moment the Hat touches their heads, their future is decided. At least in Rowling’s brain, and since she is the god of this universe, that’s a daunting.

The best way to highlight the sheer randomness of the Sorting system is to think of what Harry feels just before he sits down. ‘The hat seemed to be asking rather a lot; Harry didn’t feel brave or quick-witted or any of it at the moment. If only the hat had mentioned a house for people who felt a bit queasy, that would have been the one for him.’

The Sorting, based on Harry’s feelings immediately prior to it and his confession to his son, Albus, in the Epilogue, seems to operate on two distinct principles: 1) the Hat knows its wearer better than the wearer him/herself; 2) the Hat takes into consideration the choice of the child under it. I’m no logician, but I’m not entirely sure these principles are compatible. If the Hat knows better than the wearer what the perfect House for said person would be, why would it take the child’s personal choice into consideration at all, unless the choice happens to be what the Hat itself would have chosen? For instance, if a muggleborn child sat under its brim and asked to be put in Slytherin, despite the hat’s best instincts (if it has any, which, based on its ability to ‘choose’ for each child, is probably the case), would it place her there?

To take another example of what seems, to me, a complicated Sorting: Severus Snape’s. On his first train ride to Hogwarts, Snape talks of how Lily had ‘better be in Slytherin’, implying, of course, that that’s where he’s going. He is visibly and aurally disappointed when Lily gets sent to Gryffindor, but it doesn’t change his own house-result: the hat sends him off to Slytherin, and his future is, Rowling would have us believe, sealed. He falls in with a bad crowd, his latent nastiness swims to the fore, and he loses the regard of the woman he ‘loved’. Later, when he displays the bravery and decency asked of him in his mission to bring down the Dark Lord, his bravery is applauded as something outside of his expected nature, outside of the nature of any ‘slimy’ Slytherin.

The House system would not appal me as much as it does were it not for the fact that it operates disturbingly like the most rigid and unshakeable of cliques in the toughest high school. Once you’re labelled, you’re stuck. Thanks to its ‘dark’ reputation, most of the kids going into Slytherin are members of pureblooded families who hold to certain beliefs, well aware of the expectations the rest of the school has of them. No one who enters the Slytherin common room did not expect to be there—those from different, less bigoted families would have chosen to be elsewhere, and surely the muggleborns, if they stood a chance of getting in at all (if allowed by the Hat) would have heard enough about the House on their journey north.

Where, then, the chance for change? Slytherins are branded from day one, and it’s no wonder they develop an ‘us versus them’ mentality that results in the trademark Quidditch cheating, the bullying of achievers from other houses and the protectionism that comes in the form of cozening from their head of house, Snape. I read a fanfic which glanced briefly at the effect of the sudden turning of tables at the Farewell Feast in Harry’s first year, where the reigning champion, Slytherin, was summarily dethroned by a sudden rush of, what would be to most of the school, unexplained point-awards to Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville. Dumbledore, when doling out these last minute points, does not offer full explanation for them, and Snape, whose POV the fic followed, noted the incomprehension and betrayal on the faces of his students. It was brief, but emotionally hard-hitting enough.

Then again, that’s the power of fanfic, to make you see and feel what you never thought of before.

To my mind, the Sorting perpetrates a vicious cycle, feeding those students from a certain stratum of wizarding society to a house that will, through its need to constantly defend and ‘look out for’ itself, only cement them further in their beliefs that the world at large, constituted by those ‘not like’ them, needs to warred upon. The blacklisting of these students reaches a peak before the Battle of Hogwarts; the film version of the exile of Slytherin House is even more disturbing than its book counterpart. McGonagall sends the students to the ‘dungeons’, and in a deleted scene we see them begging Filch to let them out, when the wall behind them blasts open, debris flying everywhere, the children screaming and running about wildly. The Death Eaters swoop in from the hole and, contrary to Gryffindor expectations, storm through the Slytherins rather than gathering them up in their evil fold.^

I remember how the audience hooted and clapped when Slytherin was denounced and banished, as though they couldn’t see what was happening on screen, as though they couldn’t see what was wrong with it. To have a respected character like McGonagall deliver the smackdown made it even worse, it seemed to validate and give a ‘positive’ sheen to the act. This one scene sort of dampened the whole movie for me, and I couldn’t believe that no one, not Hermione, the woman who fights for the repressed, or Harry, shining saviour, lifted a voice to protest it.

In an interview, Rowling stated that after the war, Hogwarts was rebuilt, but Slytherin house retains its ‘dark reputation’. This is quite obvious, given that nineteen years after the war, Albus Severus (who seems to have lived under a rock his whole life, given that he has to ask why people are ‘staring’ at his family) is terrified of being sorted into the house of snakes. What has Albus Severus heard his whole life, that makes him so terrified? Surely Harry, who hasn’t seemed to have told his children his own story, hasn’t filled his head with anti-Slytherin propaganda?

Unfortunately that would seem to be the case. Unless it was his brother, of course, or his aunt, uncles, grandparents, friends… Considering Albus’ general ignorance (really, how could he NOT be used to people staring at his father?), I would assume it was someone near and dear to him who poisoned him against Slytherin.

And this happening to a child born after those troubled times is just sad. It shows the troubled times, with all their division and strife, are not entirely past.

So all is not well, after all.

I started this post with an entirely different agenda, and wandered on to another track. It would seem I need more than one posting to deal with the  issues and thoughts thrown up by my survey, and this is just the beginning. Next time, I’ll examine the portrayal of ambition and ‘cunning’ in Rowling’s universe, and the implications of this for various characters and groups in the series.

Till then!

*In Harry’s defence, even Dumbledore operates on a similar simplistic basis. The moment Snape, a Slytherin, shows  himself to braver than most men, Dumbledore responds with a ‘Perhaps we sort too soon.’ Because of course ‘Slytherins’ can’t possibly be brave.

^ Except for Draco, who gathers up Crabbe and Zabini. Who knows where the film-world’s Goyle disappeared.