Posts filed under ‘Harry Potter’
In my last post, I mentioned Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and raised the question whether an acquaintance with great books of the past can liberate us from the cave of popular culture.
While I think there is definitely something to that thought, it is also possible to have a wrong idea of those great books from the past. Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged in the disreputable southern side of London, essentially the red-light district. As a common laborer in Elizabethan London, you might work, watch a bear fight, and then buy a cheap ticket to go see a play by that Shakespeare dude, munching away on snacks during the performance and loudly voicing the emotional effect it has on you.
In a similar vein, the great Russian American novelist Nabokov did not at first manage to get his novel Lolita published with anything but a trashy pornographic publisher. Can you imagine a professor of literature being caught with it at the time? It would have been embarrassing. Today, any professor of literature can proudly hold up his Vintage edition of Lolita, showing what fine works he is reading. And if you look at the lives of the great composers, many of them lived as much like a rock star as their often limited finances would allow.
Frequently, the classics of today were yesterday’s pop culture, and what is taken up into (or drops out of) the canon of great literature changes over time. Literary sainthood is a fickle club.
Personally, I am not fond of an overly sharp distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, between real literature and mere entertainment. Not only were many highbrow works in the current canon originally anything but highbrow, but I think the implied supposition that “literary” works are somehow always more profound than popular works is false. Sure, Joyce’s Ulysses is a unique work and a great experiment of what you can do with language, and its many references and puzzles furnish literary classes with much to talk about, but in terms of the content, is it really more profound than popular works? For my money, I find The Lord of the Rings more profound than Ulysses, even though Tolkien is clearly part of popular culture.
Now Allan Bloom contests that the Great Books have a richness that is missing in popular culture. While I do not completely disagree, I find some of his examples rather badly chosen. He says that “students today have nothing like Dickens who gave so many of us the unforgettable Pecksniffs, Micawbers, Pips, with which we sharpened our vision, allowing us some subtlety in our distinction of human types. It is a complex set of experiences that enables one to say so simply, ‘He is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison lost. The psychological obtuseness of our students is appalling, because they have only pop psychology to tell them what people are like …”
Really? We have no equivalents of Dickens’ characters in current pop culture? Dickens was an extremely popular writer in his time, not someone whose readership was limited to those with a highly developed literary taste. So, for some reason, Bloom seems to suggest, popular writers have become much less perceptive in their portrayal of human characters since the golden age of Charles Dickens. Pardon me, Professor Bloom, but I don’t think so. I have read many popular novels where I was impressed by the perceptive portrayals of human character, even in novels that are clearly meant to thrill rather than educate us, such as those of Stephen King.
To take the issue beyond the written word, is the statement “He is a Scrooge” really such a more profound statement than, say, “He is a Mr. Burns” (from the Simpsons)? Many people today might not be familiar with Pecksniff, Micawber and Pip anymore, but they have the unforgettable Snape, Dumbledore and Harry Potter. Even though it is a children’s book series, Harry Potter deals with many important issues. As does Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, to name but two of the most popular book series of current popular culture.
Nevertheless, I think Bloom has a point that often, what we find in popular culture are dumbed-down and falsified concepts from earlier thinkers. “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”
As he says in another passage, “somehow the goods got damaged in transit.” Again talking about Marcuse, Bloom says that he “began in Germany in the twenties by being something of a serious Hegel scholar. He ended up here [in America] writing trashy culture criticism with a heavy sex interest in One Dimensional Man and other well-known books. In the Soviet Union, instead of the philosopher-king they got the ideological tyrant; in the United Sates the culture critic became the voice of Woodstock.”
When it comes to fiction, I am not convinced that books of the limited highbrow canon are always better than those excluded from the canon. But when it comes to non-fiction, particularly philosophy, I would agree with Bloom that there have been a certain amount of thinkers who continue to influence us, and knowing them helps us evaluate the popularized and often falsified versions of their thoughts.
For instance, Obama said during his recent address to the United Nations that “freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.” That’s quite a big claim, and I think knowing the Great Books helps evaluate such a claim. It helps us know where such a sentiment comes from.
Bloom is right to point out what has been pointed out by others before: that one can indeed be chained to the shadow puppetry of contemporary popularism, especially in our age of mass production, and that a knowledge of the Great Books can help turn our heads away from the shadows at least long enough to gain a better understanding of what is really going on. Or, to change the picture, they can pull us up from among the throng of mass culture at least long enough to get a picture of some its direction, separating us from the throng long enough to gain a bit of individuality—to gain a mind not completely controlled by the dictates of mass consumption.
There and Back Again: The Goodness of Hobbiton in Contrast to the Lostness of Harry Potter’s Cupboard
The first Hobbit movie is finally in theaters. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a fitting time for some (I hope) meaningful thoughts on Bilbo’s (and Frodo’s) journey in comparison to Harry Potter’s journey into the world of wizards.
Let’s start with Harry.
On that day when Harry Potter’s wildest dreams came true and he discovered that he was a wizard, he did not in fact enter a better world. He soon learned that it was neither morally nor externally superior to the non-magical world he had grown up in.
School was just as (alternately) horrible, hard, boring and irrelevant as the worst schools in his old world. Some people were kind, some were mean, some even hated him. The fact that they were wizards made no difference. Magic was not much different to technology. (In fact, Harry found out that for Mr. Weasley, technology was as fascinating as magic was for him. It even seemed that Mr. Weasley was bored with Magic and highly interested in technology. When asked what his dearest ambition was, he answered, “To find out how aeroplanes stay up.”[i]) The governing bodies were infected with the cancer of corruption. The magic media was as gossipy as the magazines the Dursley’s were reading. And then there were those issues of racism and slavery that had not yet been dealt with.
No, the new world in which Harry Potter found himself was not better than his old world. It was equally corrupt, unfair, and evil. And in between the times that he managed to land himself in trouble, it was often even monotonous: “The fact was that living at the Headquarters of the anti-Voldemort movement was not nearly as interesting or exciting as Harry would have expected before he’d experienced it. […] On the very last day of the holidays Harry was sweeping up Hedwig’s owl droppings from the top of the wardrobe …”[ii]
And yet, Harry liked the wizarding world much better than the Muggle world. Why? He could not have possibly believed that it was a better world. That would have been nonsense. The improvement did not lie in the changed circumstances, but in the changed Harry, in who he was. In the Muggle world, Harry had been nothing. The Dursley’s had ignored him, treated him like a piece of dirt. In contrast, in the wizard world Harry was someone—someone really important.
Sure, he now had to face many dangers and obstacles. In many ways, life became harder for him than it had been at the Dursley’s. “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.”[iii] But at least Harry was not nothing, and that made all the difference. Although in the wizarding world some people hated him, the media at times maligned him, scores of witches and wizards occasionally disbelieved him, and Voldemort was constantly out to murder him, yet at least he was not being stuffed in a dark cupboard and ignored.
There is probably nothing worse for a teenager—and, indeed, for a human being of any age—than to feel totally insignificant. “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”[iv] People who feel that the world is indifferent to them often commit suicide. For the first eleven years of his life, Harry had felt insignificant; but in the wizard world, in spite of its many hitches, this had changed. Harry mattered. He mattered a great deal. “If he knew what he means to us!”[v] the house elf Dobby said about Harry. He meant something, a fact that was worth a thousand troubles.
This aspect of Harry Potter is entirely different to some (not all) other works of British Fantasy literature. Take J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, for instance. The subtitle of The Hobbit is There and Back Again. Bilbo embarks on a great adventure, and in this sense enters a different world; but in contrast to Harry, his sole identity does not lie in that world. He goes “There,” but he also comes “Back Again.” There could be no greater contrast between the beloved Hobbiton and the hated house of the Dursley’s. Bilbo’s home is “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.” No, it is “a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”[vi]
In contrast, Harry’s old home is exactly such a nasty hole: a cupboard under the staircase. Harry has no desire to go back to his old world. His sole identity lies in his role of defeating the evil Voldemort. In Tolkien, the characters also fight against evil, but their identity does not lie in the opposition to evil. Their identity lies in something good, in a world that is not corrupted by the Dark Shadow. They long to go back home when the adventure is over; Harry has no home to go back to. Hogwarts is his home. Once, when Dumbledore told him that Voldmort was “more attached to this school than he has ever been to a person” because “Hogwarts was where he had been happiest; the first and only place he had felt at home,” Harry felt uncomfortable, for “this was exactly how he felt about Hogwarts too.”[vii]
Now I am not saying that Harry never resents his role of being the Chosen Opponent of Voldemort; he does. The part he has to play is set with many difficulties, and he knows that he might fail and die. He does sometimes wish to be someone else. Yet, he has nothing better to go to. He has no “Hobbiton” that he will restore once the battle is over. Going back to the insignificance of the cupboard would be worse than dying.
In the first few books of the series, Harry’s heroism is his identity; in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s heroism is born out of necessity. He sincerely wishes that the whole story had not happened to him: “I wish it need not to have happened in my time.”[viii] Yes, “he wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire.” In contrast, Harry does not at all wish that “his fortune had left him” in the cupboard. But in Middle Earth, all good inhabitants wish that the Shadow of Darkness had not grown and that they would not have to be heroes. “So do I,” Gandalf replies to Frodo, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[ix]
If one draws a parallel to religious worldviews at this point, particular to my own Christian background, in Christianity one’s identity does not lie in the opposition to evil either, though Christians should undoubtedly oppose evil in this world. But their identity lies in the belief that they are created in the image of God, and they long for the day when this image is fully restored, when they do not have to oppose evil anymore. They have a “Hobbiton” that is their home, and there they shall go “Back Again.”
This is one reason why the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is so important. It shows Harry building up his own “Hobbiton,” so to speak. Sure, he will ever after be The-One-Who-Defeated-Voldemort, but, by founding his own family and remaining close to his friends, he has built up an identity in something good apart from his struggle against evil. He has found “pure” good.
The epilogue demonstrates that Harry is not a perpetual polemicist who only thrives by being against something but never learns to be for something. He is not like, say, the French activist Henri Guilbeaux, who became one of the most important anti-war voices in Europe during World War I but who, after the war, found nothing positive to support. He continued to quibble with anything he got involved in and eventually died in some secluded corner of Paris, mostly forgotten. Chances are this is the first time you have ever heard of him.
Not so Harry. He finds that the love of his family and friends offers him more significance and a more stable home than being the hero of Hogwarts. Of course such love makes for a much more ordinary life, but Harry does not mind. He’s had “enough trouble for a lifetime.”[x] He is not like Voldemort, who showed “contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary.” Harry does not have to be “different, separate, notorious.”[xi] Quite the contrary, he is most happy when all is well.
In this post, I talked about the Golden Rule of Criticism: that we shouldn’t criticize something that we have no taste for or simply can’t stand. If I want to say something critical about Harry Potter, for instance, I have to turn to my palate before I turn to my subject. Do I have a taste for the genre that my object of examination is a part of? Or am I a blind man criticizing art?
In order to find that out, I first have to see what genre I am dealing with. What genre is Harry Potter? Some people might suggest “Children’s Books,” but I doubt that they are right. Certainly, the Harry Potter books appeal to many children. But is “Children’s Books” really a genre of literature—apart from pre-school picture books, that is?
C.S. Lewis pointed out that there are children’s encyclopedias, children’s detective stories, children’s handicraft books, children’s adventure stories and children’s fantasy books, just like there are encyclopedias, detective stories, handicraft books, adventure stories, and fantasy books for adults; and many are suitable for both age groups. But are the age groups the genres? Aren’t they only different levels within a genre?
Perhaps a detective story for children is not as complicated as one for adults, but it is still a detective story; and it is likely that the child who loves such stories will grow into an adult who loves the same, only on a higher level. Therefore I would not classify Harry Potter primarily as Children’s Books but as Fantasy Literature, perchance on a “lower” level than other works of its kind, but still part of the same genre.
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Fantasy as “imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting (such as other worlds or times) and of characters (such as supernatural or unnatural beings).” This definition includes books which we usually call Science-Fiction, such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells; traditional fairy-tales of Anderson and German Märchen preserved by the Brothers Grimm; fantastical poetry in the vein of The Faerie Queene; animal stories in the tradition of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and the books of Beatrix Potter; fantastical satires like Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm; allegories such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; myths and legends in the league of King Arthur and the Round Table; of course books like The Lord of the Rings that are typically called Fantasy; and also Harry Potter. After all, the setting of the Harry Potter books is a rather strange school that is teeming with even stranger characters.
The question is whether I have a taste for Fantasy besides, or in spite of, Harry Potter. And the answer is, yes! I am a great believer in fairyland. This, in itself, does not make me a connoisseur on the topic. My judgment on Harry Potter might still be wrong. But at least it does not disqualify me from commenting on Harry. I have kept the critic’s Golden Rule.
This post was a slightly altered excerpt from the book Seven Years at Hogwarts: A Christian’s Conversion to Harry Potter.
If I had an aversion to alcohol, he said, I would be in no position to tell anyone that a certain kind of wine was of poor quality. Any wine would be poor to my taste, even if it happened to be the finest vintage in the history of the world. A deaf man cannot criticize music nor a blind one examine paintings. Only someone who loves good music will recognize bad music and only someone who has seen many great paintings will detect a meager one.
So with literature: People who do not have a taste for a certain genre had better hold their tongue about any particular book of that genre, because they might not be criticizing it at all but the genre in general. Of course they might have good reasons for disliking the genre, but then they should criticize the whole genre instead of a certain book. Someone might have good reasons for disliking alcohol, and it is understandable if he advocates the benefits of teetotalism, but if he criticizes a certain vintage, he will only betray his ignorance on the subject. Such a person will look quite ridiculous.
Since I am not eager to make a fool of myself, I have to turn to my palate before I turn to my subject. Do I have a taste for the genre that my object of examination is a part of? Or am I a blind man criticizing art?
This post was an excerpt from the book Seven Years at Hogwarts: A Christian’s Conversion to Harry Potter.
My new book is now ready to order at Amazon! If you’re still looking for a Christmas present for someone interested in Harry Potter, Fantasy, and Christianity, maybe this would be an idea:
After sharing the cover for my new book, here’s the back cover and the blurb. A link to order the book will follow soon.
Come and join Jacob Schriftman as he explores the world and worldview of J.K. Rowling’s Fantasy, drawing comparisons to Christian writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as well as to explicitly non-Christian ones like Philip Pullman and H.G. Wells.
In the process of analysis, Schriftman deals both with literary and existential questions. Should Harry Potter be understood as a parody of our own society? How does Harry Potter treat serious issues? It is common for humans to ask, “Where do we come from? What can we know? What should we do? Do we have a purpose? And how do we approach death?” These questions are woven into Harry Potter, and some of the answers take a surprising turn.
A book that delights as much as it instructs, a challenge to fans and skeptics alike.”
Yay! After some delays, my long-announced book on Harry Potter is finally about to be published.
Here’s the cover. More information coming soon …
In a few days, the first part of the last Harry Potter movie will hit theaters. That reminds me of the time when I was studying at a Christian university and had to tackle a major assignment: to write a long paper on a contemporary issue of my choice, analyze its underlying worldview and explain in what way it went against the Christian worldview. I picked Harry Potter.
The problem was not only that the series was not yet complete but that, from the outset, I was supposed to approach Harry Potter with my Christian hunting glasses on. I was to take out my spiritual rifle and shoot down Harry, dissect the carcass and demonstrate what was wrong with him, to show that this creature I shot down was not a proper Biblical creature.
Had I strictly followed the order of my Christian hunting guides, I would have made myself guilty of what might be called bibliocide, that is, the killing of a book. I would not have allowed the letters on the pages to come alive and create their own world in my mind. I would not have cared to immerse myself in a new world, but to merely extract what I perceived to be the worldview behind Mrs. Rowling’s magical pen.
However, in spite of my antagonistic conditioning toward Harry Potter, I actually found myself drawn into Rowling’s world. In the first book, I met a boy called Harry, who was the quintessential “uncool kid:” He grew up at his aunt and uncle’s because his parents had died when he was young, and he was ostracised both at home and at school. Hence, when Hogwarts’ half-giant gamekeeper told Harry that he was a wizard, he could hardly believe it. And when Harry stepped through the Leaky Cauldron onto Diagon Alley, everything was new and exciting. He had not had the slightest clue that such a world existed; accordingly he saw everything through the eyes of an amazed and hungry learner.
And since, as the reader, I always walked by Harry’s side, I, too, had this sense of awe. Together with Harry, I marveled at Gringotts Bank and its goblins, the power of the magic wands, the magic broomsticks, Platform 9 ¾ and the steaming Hogwarts Express, the gigantic school castle, the meeting hall with its enchanted ceiling, the moving staircases, the “living” paintings, the ghosts, the owl post, and numerous other things.
Harry became like a two-year old toddler again who is excited about discovering the world, and as the reader I was a toddler with him. This is Fantasy at its best. The fact that J.K. Rowling made Harry an outsider to the world of magic is of great importance to the experience of the reader. Otherwise I would not have been nearly as astonished about the details of Mrs. Rowling’s world as I was. It also prevented the technological aspects of the Harry-Potter magic from totally disenchanting her world.
Since my days as a Christian student, the Harry Potter series has been brought to completion. Harry’s seven years at Hogwart’s are over now, and I read the first book again shortly after I finished the seventh book. Knowing where the story and characters are headed, many scenes now took on new significance. It was fascinating to read a particular passage and think: “Ah! Now I know why she put that in there.” I have to complement J.K. Rowling on having planned the seven books so well.
Furthermore, reading the first book from the retrospective view of the whole series also makes a difference for the moral custodians among us. It changes the “worldview” I thought I had detected at first. If you only read the first book, you might come away thinking that Harry Potter tries to justify the means by the end a little too much. Harry’s magic is at first set into motion when he is “upset and angry,” the toffee-nosed know-it-all Hermione turns likable by lying on Harry’s behalf, and one of Harry’s chief character traits is that of a rule breaker.
Aside from the point that novels—including juvenile ones—don’t have to portray their main characters as saints, the series has, in fact, turned out to be of great moral depth. Given Harry’s final moral choices at the end of Book VII, Book I can now be seen as the beginning of a Bildungsroman, meaning a Coming Of Age Story in which Harry goes through all the stages of childhood and adolescence, to finally arrive at moral, social, and psychological maturity.
If that is not an ideal way of making teenagers aware of their own journey to maturity, I don’t know what is.
I have a book coming out next year that is largely the result of the long paper I wrote at the Christian university. It will most likely be called Seven Years at Hogwarts: A Christian’s Conversion to Harry Potter. There are several chapters that mostly address questions Christians might have about Harry Potter and Fantasy literature in general, and there are several others that analyze the world and worldview of Rowling’s creation. The paper had to undergo some editing, though, because now I no longer speak as Harry’s self-appointed Christian nemesis, but as a (not entirely uncritical) convert. It is my sincere hope that I don’t kill Harry off in the process of analysis. He is, after all, the Boy Who Lived.
“Potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture.”
—J.K. Rowling; about Professor Snape
At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry was the most famous boy, perhaps the richest (because he did not have any parents who could control how much money he spent), and the best player at the wizard sport Quidditch.
However, in a way the bubble burst very quickly. Yes, Harry was famous, rich, and athletic, but he soon discovered that this was not a guarantee for happiness. Indeed, in many ways the wizard school was exactly the same as a public Muggle school (“Muggles” are non-magical people). Because of his fame, money, and athletic ability, Harry managed better at the wizard school than at the public school, but that was not because it was a wizard school. The wizard school had just as many “uncool kids” as Harry himself used to be at public school.
It is worth taking a closer look at this wizard school, Hogwarts, to see how much like a public school it is.
First of all, some students experience great pressure of expectation. While Harry was on his way to his first year at Hogwarts, another boy, Ron Weasley (who was to become his best friend), told him, “I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left – Bill was Head Boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a Prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first. You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand and Percy’s old rat.”
As regards to peers’ relationships, it is the same old story every time. Hogwarts is no different to Muggle schools: the same clambering for status and acceptance, the same hierarchy and survival of the fittest, the same cliquism, the same trampling on each other’s feelings, the same boasting and gloating. This is especially shown in Harry’s enmity with Draco Malfoy:
Harry hadn’t had a single letter since Hagrid’s note, something that Malfoy had been quick to notice, of course. Malfoy’s eagle owl was always bringing him packages of sweets from home, which he opened gloatingly at the Slytherin table.
Draco Malfoy, who was Snape’s favourite student, kept flicking puffer-fish eyes at Ron and Harry, who knew that if they retaliated they would get detention faster than you could say ‘unfair’.
Or take this passage about Ron, when he joined the Quidditch team in his fifth year:
The only thing really worrying Harry was how much Ron was allowing the tactics of the Sytherin team to upset him before they even got on to the pitch. Harry, of course, had endured their snide comments for over four years, so whispers of, ‘Hey, Potty, I heard Warrnington’s sworn to knock you off your broom on Saturday’, far from chilling his blood, made him laugh. ‘Warrington’s aim’s so pathetic I’d be more worried if he was aiming for the person next to me,’ he retorted, which made Ron and Hermione laugh and wiped the smirk off Pansy Parkinson’s face.
But Ron had never endured a relentless campaign of insults, jeers and intimidation. When Slytherins, some of them seventh-years and considerably larger than he was, muttered as they passed in the corridors, ‘Got your bed booked in the hospital wing, Weasley?’ he didn’t laugh, but turned a delicate shade of green. When Draco Malfoy imitated Ron dropping the Quaffle (which he did whenever they came within sight of each other), Ron’s ears glowed red and his hands shook so badly that he was likely to drop whatever he was holding at the time, too.
“A relentless campaign of insults, jeers, and intimidation”—this is the reality of the peers’ relationships at Hogwarts. Certainly not better than non-magical schools.
Indeed, the school system makes the development of competition, rivalry, and factions all too easy:
‘Welcome to Hogwarts’ said Professor McGonagall. ‘The start-of-term banquet will begin shortly, but before you take your seats in the Great Hall, you will be sorted into your houses. The Sorting is a very important ceremony because, while you are here, your house will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory and spend free time in your house common room.
‘The four houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. Each house has its own noble history and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your house points. At the end of the year, the house with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honour. I hope each of you will be a credit to whichever house becomes yours.’
To say nothing of the teachers. Most of the wizard teachers at Hogwarts are just as “non-magical” as the non-magical teachers at our Muggle schools. Some of them are unfair and spiteful, like Professor Snape:
‘Double Potions with the Slytherins,’ said Ron. ‘Snape’ Head of Slytherin house. They say he always favours them – we’ll be able to see if it’s true.’
‘Wish McGonogall favoured us,’ said Harry. Professor McGonogall was head of Gryffindor house, but it hadn’t stopped her giving them a huge pile of homework the day before.
Harry soon discovers that Professor Snape’s reputation of being unfair is only a shadow of his real nastiness; he is actually worse than people say! “At the start-of-term banquet, Harry had got the idea that Professor Snape disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry – he hated him.” During the first lesson, Professor Snape told the class, “I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.” How did that make the students feel, I wonder? And when the clumsy, “uncool kid” Neville Longbottom did something wrong at first try, Snape immediately snarled, “Idiot boy!” Not only did he put Neville down, he then irrationally blamed Harry for Neville’s mess-up. Said he, “You – Potter – why didn’t you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he’d make you look good if he go it wrong, did you? That’s another point you’ve lost for Gryffindor.”
This was so unfair that Harry opened his mouth to argue, but Ron kicked him behind their cauldron. ‘Don’t push it,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve heard Snape can turn very nasty.
And during another year, Professor Snape said to a new professor in front of the whole class, “Possibly no one’s warned you, Lupin, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult. Not unless Miss Granger is hissing instructions in his ear.” Naturally, “Neville went scarlet. Harry glared at Snape; it was bad enough that he bullied Neville in his own classes, let alone doing it in front of other teachers.” Snape was so horrible a teacher that “potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture.”
But not all teachers at Hogwarts are cruel, sarcastic, and unfair; some are simply boring: “History of Magic was by common consent the most boring subject ever devised by wizardkind. Professor Binns, their ghost teacher, had a wheezy, droning voice that was almost guaranteed to cause severe drowsiness within ten minutes, five in warm weather. He never varied the form of their lessons, but lecture them without pausing while they took note, or rather, gazed sleepily into space. Harry and Ron had so far managed to scrape passes in this subject only by copying Hermione’s notes before exams; she alone seemed able to resist the soporific power of Binns’s voice.”
“It was amazing how he could make even bloody and vicious goblin riots sound as boring as Percy’s cauldron-bottom report.”
One time, Harry “glanced round at Professer Binns who continued to read his notes, serenely unaware that the class’s attention was even less focused upon him than usual.”
Other classes are a total sham. Professor Trelawney, for example, teaches divination. But by the end of the fifth book she has only uttered two true prophecies in her life—and she does not even know about them because she spoke them in a trance. In other words, her classes are a waste of time and energy. The students learn a fake system of divination, which causes them to “play” with the teacher: to invent dreams and prophecies in order to see how much of them she would believe. Sad to say, they are rather successful. Professor Trelawney is a teacher who considers “her subject above such sordid matters as examinations.” Indeed, her subject is so much above real knowledge that the students do not learn anything of true value from her.
To top it all, during Harry’s fifth year the Ministry of Magic sent a commissioner to monitor the school. She taught some classes herself, which revealed her educational dictum only too plainly:
‘Using defensive spells?’ Professor Umbridge repeated with a little laugh. ‘Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked ruing class?’
‘We’re not going to use magic?’ Ron exclaimed loudly.
‘It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through your examination, which, after all, is what school is all about. And your name is?’ she added, staring at Parvati, whose hand had just shot up.
‘Parvati Patil, and isn’t there a practical bit in our Defence Against the Dark Arts OWL? Aren’t we supposed to show that we can actually do the counter-curses and things?’
‘As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions,’ said Professor Umbridge dismissively.
Not only did Mrs. Umbridge believe that proper education only consist of “studying the theory hard enough,” she also disallowed the students to question any of her teachings. When Hermione asked, “Surely the whole point of Defence Against the Dark Arts is to practice defensive spells?” Professor Umbridge did not give a real answer but asked in a falsely sweet voice, “Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” Since Hermione had to admit that she was not, Mrs. Umbridge said, “Well then, I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the “whole point” of any class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new programme of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way –”
On another occasion, Hermione said that she disagreed with a certain point that was made in a text book: “Mr Slinkhard doesn’t like jinxes, does he? But I think they can be very useful when they’re used defensively.”—“Oh, you do, do you?’ replied Professor Umbridge. “Well, I’m afraid it is Mr Slinkhard’s opinion, and not yours, that matters within this classroom, Miss Granger.”
Such are the teachers at Hogwarts. I have not yet mentioned Professor Quirrel, who actually turns out to be a servant of the evil Lord Voldemort and tries to kill Harry! Have you ever heard of a teacher who tries to kill a student? Quite a school, isn’t it! Or Professor Lockhart. He could be put in a similar category as the divination teacher Trelawney, because, like her, he is an unbelievably gigantic impostor. The only difference is that he is so much more self-conceited than Trelawney. Or Hagrid. Although a kind friend, he is insecure, clumsy and not quite “with it.” Not exactly a good teacher.
To be fair, I should say that Hogwarts also has a number of teachers that are actually “OK.” But my point is that the educational quality at Hogwarts is no better than in most public schools today; perhaps worse. For Harry, studying Magic was not particularly magical, but just as torturing, boring, or theoretical as the non-magical subjects Muggles study at school. In that way, Hogwarts is very much a parody of the problems in public schools today.
C. S. Lewis maintained that one of the prime achievements in every good fiction has nothing to do with truth or philosophy or a Weltanschauung (worldview) at all. And this is especially true of Lewis’s favorite kind of fiction: fantasy.
The primary value he saw in reading fantasy was not that he could learn truths about life but that through it he could be more than himself. He wanted to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with his own. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, was not enough. He wanted to see what others had invented.
He would therefore have delighted to enter into the beliefs of Philip Pullman or J. K. Rowling, even though he would have thought certain aspects of them untrue. His defense for doing this, for occupying his heart with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which he tried to avoid having in his own person, was that in reading them he became a thousand men and yet remained himself.
Like thousands of stars looking upon the earth, he saw with a myriad eyes, but it was still he who saw. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, he transcended himself; and was never more himself than when he did. “The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison,” he wrote.
This, however, does not mean that C. S. Lewis thought that imaginative literature could have no positive or negative effects on the reader beyond this experience of self-transcendence. But more about that in my next entry…