Harry Potter, Schmarry Potter

As we all know, the books are really about Hermione. Or Neville. (Spoilers for both the books and the last movie behind those links, and below.)

Even HP haters might want to read that first link, Sady Doyle’s “In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series.” In its alternate universe, “strong female character” Hermione got to be the protagonist.

The biggest problem with HP, I’ve always thought, is the “chosen one” stuff. The designation between hero and sidekick was so stark, and there was no good reason for it. Near the climax of the final movie, Harry, Hermione, and Ron show up at Hogwarts, where Neville and the rest of the kids have been holding down the fort under Death Eater occupation. They circle around Harry, thrilled to see him, and Ron and Hermione get ignored. Now that Harry’s here, everything’s going to be okay. *Eye roll* It made me happy to briefly step into a world in which things didn’t quite work like that:

Hermione is not Chosen. That’s the best thing about her. Hermione is a hero because she decides to be a hero; she’s brave, she’s principled, she works hard, and she never apologizes for the fact that her goal is to be very, extremely good at this whole “wizard” deal. Just as Hermione’s origins are nothing special, we’re left with the impression that her much-vaunted intelligence might not be anything special, on its own. But Hermione is never comfortable with relying on her “gifts” to get by. There’s no prophecy assuring her importance; the only way for Hermione to have the life she wants is to work for it.

And of course, this alternaverse fixes one of the things that bugged me most in the entire series:

Hermione, in her defining moment, became an activist for the enfranchisement of house-elves. The best thing about this development is Rowling’s lack of condescension; it’s easy to take potshots at youthful activism, and a lesser author would have played Hermione’s campaign for nasty comedy. Imagine that abomination; Hermione being the only character to notice that her sparkly, magical world relied on the creation of a goddamn slave race, and all of the supposedly sympathetic characters being like, “no, they like slavery! Stop being such a downer!”

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11 Responses to Harry Potter, Schmarry Potter

  1. Sam says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments! First of all, I agree with you that beginning a discussion about Harry Potter at this level with kids is the wrong approach. As you say, it has some rich characterization, plotting, and language, and kids love it and engage with it in ways that might be quite different from how adults do. This blog is primarily for adults and older teens, not middle grade readers.

    But that’s the beauty of these books, and meaty literature in general: different people can get different things out of them. I enjoy this sort of literary picking-apart. I’m not saying HP is a “bad book” when I criticize it this way; I’m giving it a compliment: it’s a complex enough text to be worth discussing. For me, these conversations are part of the joy of reading. They may not be for you, and that’s just fine!

    As for bringing them into the classroom, though, I agree that’s tricky. On the one hand, I remember being frustrated when I was a pre-teen that my mom and teachers always wanted to “pick apart” everything I loved. At the time, it felt like sucking the magic out, overthinking it.

    But as an adult, I’m so grateful for having been taught how to see symbolism, hidden meanings, and unintended meanings from societal context. Those skills, taught in my English classes, made the world of reading that much richer and made me a stronger critical thinker. Those classes, as you say, “illuminated how to discover the meanings” for myself.

    As with every skill, there are less and more effective ways to teach this. I do believe it’s possible to do without “ruining” the classics for students, though their experience won’t be the same as if they read them outside of class. It’s required schoolwork, after all. The best English classes for kids, I think, both read books together in class to teach these literary skills, and assign students to choose books to read on their own, purely for their own pleasure.

  2. Picking apart books ruins the books for me- and for most students. Frankly, what kid wouldn’t love the classics if their H.S. English teachers really illuminated how to discover the meanings and not told them the meanings. It took me years after graduating as an English Lit major to read for pleasure in any genre because my college professors did the same thing.

    I love Harry Potter for the themes, the characterization, and the rich vocabulary which often writers abandon when writing for young readers. (As compared to Riley’s Percy books which I love but don’t have near the same rich vocabulary as Rowling’s.)

    Books don’t have to be perfect for a reader to engage and find meaning, what book is to for all readers!? The reader makes it her or his own meaning because of what they bring to the text.

    To me, reading is entertainment and frankly, it engaged more of my students with books in ways that I’d only seen with my bookish students. I remember children’s reading life before Harry Potter. For the love that it gave children of books, Harry Potter books are magical!

    These books weren’t written for esoteric adult critics and honestly, I’m confused why we’re having such a critical discussion with our adult paradigms of literature about a book written for elementary students – not adults.

    As far as the female issue, if you look at the majority of best children’s books, the protagonists are mostly female – at least the books that made my lists. (See my upcoming 100 Best Children’s Books article on Babble.com.)

    Not only that, the theme of good versus evil and the flawed hero work for many reasons. Remember that this is child’s beginning experience with books of this nature – even maybe the first book they’ve ever loved and read multiple times. So, it doesn’t need to be overly complex – look at A Wrinkle in Time for the same simplicity. These work for young readers in my experience as a teacher of many hundreds of readers.

    Hay gustos por todos,

    Melissa

  3. Sam says:

    That’s a really good point, Michael. These stories that seem cliche to us as adults are new to everyone at some point, and storytellers use them over and over again because they work.

    (I’m still not sure the Chosen One premise was central enough for HP’s success to depend on it. “Kid with a crappy life learns he has special magical powers” strikes me as the more important trope at work here, but in this world that’s not enough to make him Chosen.)

  4. Michael says:

    I agree with you, and I appreciate Sady Doyle’s points. But all these gripes seem to take it as a foregone conclusion that the HP series could have been the unprecedented success that it was, even without a chosen-one main character. I remember my avid-reader now-12-year-old encountering the “hidden prince” trope for the first time — he reread the chapter where Tip is revealed to actually be Ozma a dozen times.

    It’s easy to bash the Chosen One as a cheap way out of motivating part of your story. But you can’t deny its power, and frankly, I’m not willing to believe HP would have succeeded without it.

  5. Sam says:

    Greg: It’s totally not true that girls don’t buy books. Conventional wisdom says that girls, in fact, tend to do way more book-buying and -reading than boys; it’s why something like Guys Read is so unusual and important.

    That said, I think it is often true that boys won’t read books about girls, whereas the reverse is not true. If a book has a girl and only a girl on the cover, it’s a “girl book,” whereas a book with a boy on the cover can be for anyone who likes the genre it represents (science fiction, action, sports, mystery, whatever). Hunger Games, you’ll note, doesn’t have a person on the cover at all, and I bet that was a conscious decision.

    (The comment about boys’ and girls’ reading habits, btw, is about boys and girls, not men and women. I would venture a guess that the people who recommended HG to you were women, not girls, and therefore not the original target audience.)

  6. Sam says:

    Jaime: It’s a good point about the contrast with Draco and his henchmen. When Harry gets all snotty and stops talking to his friends, bad things happen, so it is clear that their teamwork is important.

    But he is ultimately the Chosen One — the horcrux, the Boy Who Lived, the celebrity. I agree with you that it could have been an interesting twist on that trope, but it ended up being pretty standard.

    And the prophecy totally should have been about Neville. Prophecies are only interesting if they mean something other than the obvious; duh!

  7. Sam says:

    Karen: “I don’t like the kind of fan-dom that refuses to see flaws.” Exactly! What’s the point of reading if there’s nothing to pick apart after?

    Lexi: That is a great quote from an awesome article. Thanks!

  8. Greg says:

    I’ve heard the whole “girls don’t buy books and boys don’t buy books about girls” thing before, but I’d be interested to see some demographic data on who was buying/reading The Hunger Games. Now that I think about it, most of the people who recommended it to me were female, but I’d be curious whether that’s a general trend.

  9. jaime says:

    Oh man, all of those articles are AWESOME. I agree with most everything critical, and also cheerfully admit to not caring: I love Harry Potter (and especially Hermione. Hermione + Neville 4eva.)

    That said, I thought Rowling did a MUCH more careful, thoughtful job with the Chosen One deal than most people, and then let it all go to hell in the end. Right up until then, Harry, Dumbledore, and even the Malfoys spent a lot of time interrogating Harry’s specialness. At some point someone (I think it’s a Malfoy) bothers to ask Voldemort WHAT’S YOUR DEAL being obsessed with this kid? In the end, it’s pretty much crazy Voldy’s single mindedness and the Celebrity of the People that makes Harry Chosen, which is kind of an interesting idea, except that having Harry be a horcrux kind of blows that up a bit. Also it would be better if the prophecy were about Neville. Although that comic is entirely accurate.
    But Harry IS special, even if he only becomes special as a result of being told so. His major attribute, we are told every book, is that Harry is brave, is willing to stick up for the weak and nerdy (though not nerdy himself, for sure), and most importantly, is able to combine those qualities in a characteristic I’m going to call “Bravery as a result of caring about and being cared about by others.” That’s a pretty neat set of qualities, worthy of admiration.
    In addition, while for the sake of convention there’s always a Harry Alone showdown, we constantly see Harry succeed due to relying on the help of others, especially Hermione. It’s clear that his Chosenness would be totally a death sentence without her, and their teamwork is often a crucial difference from Draco and his sidekicks. (Anytime a Draco henchman acts on his own initiative, which is rarely, things go up in flames, sometimes literally, so mostly they just do as Draco says.)

  10. Lexi says:

    This is an excellent examination of why the series just didn’t engage me, ultimately. No matter how much I tried. Harry is this golden boy who is important by chance, and achieves a lot of success (though not all) without very much work. That’s never going to be my guy.
    Here is another one:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/17/harry-potter-is-a-badass?CMP=twt_gu
    The gist is that the series succeeded so wildly where other similar stories did not because Harry & his band of misfit heroes are NOT actually misfits, and so more readers can identify with them. Whereas me, I like my heroes to be as nerdy and outcast as you can get. Best line here:
    “if The Social Network took place at Hogwarts, Mark Zuckerberg would be in Slytherin and the Winklevoss twins would be in Gryffindor.”

  11. Karen Keely says:

    First of all, EXACTLY! None of that making-fun-of-SPEW crap that upset me so much in the HP books.

    Second, the chosen one business? One of the many things I like better about the Percy Jackson series. Yes, in a way Percy is “chosen” by virtue of being Poseidon’s son … but he’s not the only demi-god around (which is actually key to the whole series), and in fact (not to spoil things too much) the resolution in the last book is dramatically opposite the eye-rolling HP scene that you describe here.

    I’m not at all hatin’ on HP — I always got the new book within hours of release and read it immediately, although I don’t have that same devotion to the films — but I don’t like the kind of fan-dom that refuses to see flaws.

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