28 January 2007

Fantasy lit as prophecy

Tony Grist has been writing about his impressions of reading the Harry Potter novels for the first time, without the gaps that most of us experienced of having to wait a year or three for the next one to come out. He makes some interesting comments
Every era gets the fantasy it needs. The early twentieth century had Peter Pan- rich pickings for Freudians and all that weirdly prescient stuff about lost boys. The second half of the 20th century had Tolkien- with his ethos of cold war paranoia and unwitting prophecy of flower power. And Harry Potter is the fantasy for the Noughties.

And then
Fantasy gets to places the realist novel can't reach. At its best it doesn't try to teach us anything (which is why C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman are lesser writers) it just tips the contents of what Jung called the collective unconscious at our feet. In hindsight it looks as if Rowling were writing a fantasy commentary on the Blair years- the scurvy politicians, the war on terror, the cynical trampling on civil liberties- but, of course, the whole series was planned in detail in advance. Azkaban isn't a reflection on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but a prophecy.

And he notes that those who have dismissed the Harry Potter stories as simply escapist are pretty far off the mark. The fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories has some remarkable resemblances to the real world. And his response to reading The prisoner of Azkaban comes even closer to the mark
Then there's that other prison: the Guantanamo Bay-like hell-hole of Azkaban. In the first two books evil has been concentrated in the person of Voldemort (the enemy, the other, the dark lord, out there) here Voldemort never appears except in discourse and the focus of evil is Azkaban and its disgusting Dementors who- disturbingly- are on our side.

So, if we employ Dementors and send people who break our rules- like the innocent Hagrid- to a place where it's guaranteed they'll lose their minds if not their very souls- how exactly are we better than Voldemort?

One point on which I disagree with Tony Grist is that I believe Rowling, like C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, does try to teach us things. Her blending of different genres (the school story and the fantasy story, for a start) enables her to go beyond the simplistic moral universe of classic school stories like the Billy Bunter series, for example. As Tony Grist himself notes, she teaches us that moral choices are not always simple. Like other school stories, the Harry Potter stories show some perennial problems in the school environment, like bullying; but Rowling also show how the pattern of moral behaviour formed at school continues in later life.


bigbluemeanie said...

I don't believe that Rowling's series has the depth or maturity of CS Lewis and Philip Pullman's books. She has dealt with a number of issues well, but she has also left a number of issues unresolved (e.g. elf-slavery) that she seems to have just dropped. The pace of the books also swings wildly. Sometimes nothing much happens for the odd hundred pages or so, then she suddenly narrates us on.

Some of this has to do with the way she has written the books, in installments, with a skeleton outline as guide. Perhaps the alleged writer's block (according to which she has employed a team of ghost-writers since book three) plays a role. She could have looked at how other writers, such as Dickens, dealt with this challenge.

Nonetheless, any consideration of her view of politics and society needs to take into account her former life as an Amnesty International activist, and her current life as a financial backer for the anti-metric anti-Euro campaign in the UK.

Anonymous said...

No relevance to this article whatsoever! But. I came across your comment on John Smulo's blog and was curious to find out what your interest was in the Orthodox Church. When did you take an interest in Orthodoxy & when did you become a Deacon? I was born in Jo'burg into a Greek Orthodox family and now live in England where I attend a Pentacostal Church.

Steve Hayes said...


Whatever Rowling's former or current lives, I think Tony Grist's point stands. Neither her former life nor her current life contributed to the establishment of Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay. At first I took Azkaban to be a kind of general prison, but in fact it was established in an ostensibly democratic society (the Minister of Magic in the magical Britain was the liaison with the Muggle British cabinet).


This isn't really the place to answer your questions, but if you look at the sidebar to the right you will see several options - a message forum, a guest book, and a few others.

bigbluemeanie said...

Steve, I dispute that her view of Britain as represented in the novel is one of a democracy. It is of a country ruled by bureaucracy and ineffectual politicians. There are mysterious powers/factions who manipulate and power play behind the scenes. The sensationalist tabloid-like press hardly illustrates a vibrant democracy either.

This is a clear satire on elements of post 1980s Britain, which does not illustrate any clairvoyant powers.

The whole thing with the dementors, trampling on civil liberties, etc. and comparison with Guantanamo is interesting but it would be common sense to assume that she based this notion on any one of a number of other extant countries/situations with which she would be familiar.

The name Azkaban which she chose for the prison invokes a foreign (non-English) placename, unlike if she had named the prison with a name like "Belmarsh" or "Dartmoor"). Rowling puts a lot of energy into chosing names, and Privet Drive and Little Whinging invoke a very English place - so this must be significant.

One of the primary differences between Rowling's Azkaban and Guantanamo (& Abu Graib) is that there is some legal process in the former which results in sentencing. People are not locked up on executive order. I can see some eerie parallels but I don't see any prophesy.


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