Recent reading

Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform Thirteen features a passageway, concealed in King’s Cross Station, between our world and a magical realm;  a boy with a glorious heritage adopted as a baby and for the next decade mistreated by his parents, forced to live below stairs, and tormented by their natural son — a boy around his own age, fat, whiny, spoiled, and fond of eating knickerbocker glories;  and assorted ghosts and giants.  Other notable characters include a group of frightening creatures who are hired, despite misgivings, by the good magical people when ruthlessness is called for;  the misgivings are proved reasonable when they bungle their jobs from over-use of violence.  The story follows the boy as he learns of his true parentage and destiny.

Ibbotson’s book was published in 1994, a few years before the Philosopher’s Stone.  One can speculate that she decided not to sue Rowling after Nancy Stouffer — who, in the ‘80s, wrote a book about “Muggles” and another about “Larry Potter” — lost her suit so spectacularly, finishing with a fine of $50,000 for her temerity.  Wikipedia, however, quotes Ibbotson saying that not only has she no hard feelings, she would “like to shake [Rowling] by the hand.”  I see no reason not to believe her.  Rowling had many sources, ranging from the New Testament to Enid Blyton, and her series is nevertheless its own creation.  Besides, one imagines that Ibbotson’s sales rose considerably after the success of HP.

The Secret of Platform Thirteen is a good book but not a great book.  The pacing is too fast;  it moves along without much development, and mostly lacks the ability to make you feel you’re in a new place or someone else’s mind.  Two much better books we’ve read lately are Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger and Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel. The Land of Green Ginger is probably thought of now as orientalist and bordering on racist, but really it’s not.  The wicked princes Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud are thwarted by the good prince Abu Ali, and this is as it should be.  Carbonel, a very different book, is equally fine.  The plot involves magic, but also provides a leisurely picture of mid-20th century England.  The details of Rosemary Brown’s life in a tiny furnished flat with her seamstress mother and those of her friend John’s life in the mansion of Tussocks are just as compelling to me and my six-year-old as the business of gathering together broom, cauldron, hat, and spell to release the Cat Prince from his enslavement.



A student writes at the beginning of her response paper that Aristotle’s Ethics is an instruction manual for a moral life.  At the end of the paper she writes that it is isn’t working very well as an instruction manual, as there are too many gaps.  It does not occur to her to use the second idea to challenge the first;  on the contrary, she sees in her juxtaposition a cohesiveness in focus.  What to me is the obvious next step — to ask if maybe the text is not an instructional manual — is not an obvious step for her.  In this she is typical of my students.  And I do not know how to correct them without saying what I believe:  that this way of reading bespeaks a character flaw.

I am planning a faculty resident event on Harry Potter, and have advertised quizzes and prizes.  This means I have to buy some prizes and, more interestingly, write some quizzes.  Eila and I are still devoting much of our time together to listening to the books on CD, now in the middle of our third time through the series, and I am noticing many repeated images.  For instance, in Books I, II, III, and IV, a bag splits open in the Hogwarts’ hallway.  It happens just once in each book, in different circumstances each time:  I forget whose bag in I, Harry’s in II, Hermione’s in III, Cedric’s in IV.  Does it also happen in Book V and Book VI?  I don’t know yet.

I’ll post the full quiz after the event.

Speaking of heteronormativity and Harry Potter

I just noticed that while it’s common for witches to marry muggle men, wizards seldom or never marry muggle women.  Think about it:  Dean Thomas’s mother is a witch and his father is a muggle.  Andromeda Black (witch) marries Ted Tonks (muggle).  Voldemort’s mum (witch) marries handsome Tom Riddle Sr. (muggle).  Snape’s mum (witch) marries alcoholic white-trash fellow (muggle).  Hagrid’s mum (giantess) marries non-magical non-giant man.

Can anyone think of an instance where it runs the other way?  And, if not, am I forced to conclude that witches are somehow naturally more muggle-like, or, in a word, weaker?

Favourite characters

I talked about favourite books, so now it’s time for favourite characters. What does it mean: a favourite character? More specifically, is your favourite the character you identify with, or is it the character you’re in love with? Obviously J.M. Barrie is sympathetic to Peter Pan. But does that mean he sees himself as Peter Pan? That’s what lots of scholars say. Or is he in love with Peter Pan? That’s what I think.

My guess is that most people reading the Harry Potter books identify with Hermione. Girls, boys, it doesn’t matter: she is the voice of common sense, as well the one who understands the muggle perspective, our perspective. I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t really make sense to read the books without identifying with Hermione. What she thinks is always, in the broadest sense, true; it’s what we’re meant to think, what we’re being drawn to think. But does this make her the universal favourite? I do not think so. Nor, for that matter, does it make Ron the universal favourite. But I’m thinking more and more that “favourite” implies a loosely erotic connection.

One of my students came into my class with a favourite character: Bellatrix Lestrange. I have put gentle effort into questioning this choice, and believe I have successfully steered him in the direction of his next love, who turns out to be Narcissa Malfoy. In turn, he has convinced me that Cissy is one of the great behind-the-scenes manipulators of the books. I look forward to future character studies.

More James Potter

I’ve just finished James Potter and the Curse of the Gatekeeper, the second in G. Norman Lippert’s series on the Son of Harry.  At the end of the book there’s some additional material, including a statement to the effect that Lippert’s work reflects whatever he happens to be reading while he’s writing it.  He suggests that this is true of most people, and it’s certainly true of me.  My sentences get much longer when I’m reading Austen and I get a lot funnier when I’m reading Wodehouse. (Knowing this I try to read little else.)  I bet it’s not true of JK, whose style is awfully consistent and distinctive (if not always excellent) but that’s beside the point, which is that here lies the explanation for why Lippert’s first JP novel is so much better than the second.  During the writing of the first, he explains, he was reading That Hideous Strength, one of the most thrilling and intelligent pieces of science fiction ever produced.  During the writing of the second, he was reading Chamber of Secrets, a ball of fluff.  Gatekeeper is a good enough book, but it doesn’t touch the reflective heights of Elder’s Crossing.

At another point in his closing statement, Lippert threatens not to finish the series.  Probably an empty threat, as he himself admits.  Still, I think those of us who would like to see him write more, should haul ourselves over to Lulu and purchase his Petra Morganstern novel (during the composition of which he has clearly been reading Cinderella), enabling Lippert to quit his day job and devote himself solely to us.  At the same time (eschewing desperate proposals inciting Jackrroo’s scorn), let’s put our heads together and suggest some reading material that will raise the third book back up to the standard of Elder’s Crossing.

For my part, I would like to see a little more school in these schoolbooks, and will therefore start out with some standards in the genre.  Norman please read for me:  Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Stalky, Malory Towers, and “Such, Such Were the Joys.”  All these are solid school;  what’s more, all of them will deepen consideration of the best idea in Elder’s Crossing, the Progressive Element, for they all raise the question of what it is to be educated to rule an empire.

James Potter and the Hall of Elders’ Crossing

You probably know that a fellow named G. Norman Lippert has written a sequel to the Harry series and put it up on line.  (It’s here, and if you happen to want to read the “wizard” version – though I don’t know why you would since it’s exactly the same as the “muggle” version – the passwords are “genipolaris” and “corsica”).  It’s easy to find online statements like “ohwow best fanfic ever!!,” but I haven’t been able to find any actual reviews.  So I thought I’d offer a few words along those lines.  I do recommend it.  I know it’d be cooler for me to turn up my nose at it, and find fault with it in some complicated way, but the fact is I enjoyed it tremendously.  The first few chapters are kind of lame; it picks up around chapter 6.

Lippert is, by academic standards, cleverer than JK.  He’s a Ravenclaw to her Gryffindor.  You can see this in his fascination with technical questions.  He’s interested both in the way magic and muggle physics correlate and also in morphologizing certain loose ends JK left hanging, such as the moving portrait problem.  These matters he handles with a loving detail guaranteed to endear him to fanatical fans (sorry), of which he is clearly one himself.  But he’s not just a nerd.  His academic-style intelligence also emerges in social-political insight.  Having opened at exactly the moment JK closed her epilogue to Harry VII – James Potter on the Hogwarts train – he makes, almost immediately, three interesting moves.  The first is to give young James two close friends (his Ron and Hermione, as it were) who are sorted that evening into different houses.  The second is to bring an American delegation to Hogwarts, initiating a discussion of national character and making for some fairly funny jokes.  The third – by far the most interesting – is to introduce “the Progressive Element,” a group of students who seek to repeal the law of secrecy separating muggle and wizard worlds.  The machinations of the Progressive Element drive most of the novel’s plot, and allow Lippert to raise questions about propaganda and deceit that he handles beautifully.  There is a school debate on the issue in chapter 9: it is brilliantly done.

But of course Lippert is not JK.  Not only could he not have done this without her – obviously, as fanfic, it is parasitic on every level, from character to style – but he is not able to mimic her feats of whacky imagination.  JK was often criticized for the zany improbability of her plots, but for me it was this madcap quality that made her fun: or at any rate the silliness of her plotting was part and parcel of the lightness and freshness of the whole experience.  Lippert doesn’t have that quality, and he doesn’t have it precisely because of his strengths.  His plot all hangs together, no development appears like an afterthought, and the result, oddly enough, is that he’s less believable: one rolls one eyes and says “oh come now!” – something one would never have said to JK because one had the sense that the ridiculous, the loose thread, and the deus ex machina were the ground on which she stood.  His imitations of JK’s style are often superb – some passages could easily have been written by her – but sometimes they are less good.  And the humour is really inadequate. These are her jokes and when he makes them they seem stale.

The climax involves Merlin.  This is Lippert’s nod to C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength and Peter Dickinson’s HeartseaseElders’ Crossing isn’t nearly as good as either of those two novels, of course, but if one sees it as part of an ongoing discussion of Merlin and technology (which those two books also treat) it has some interesting things to say.  The effect is undercut, though, by what appears to be Lippert’s exhaustion at this stage.  Merlin’s speech is awful: he begins in incorrect pompous medievalese, then suddenly switches to incorrect contemporary vernacular.  Errors of diction start to crop up: “peaked” for “piqued,” “foresworn” for “sworn,” “oversight” for “overseeing.”  And finally there’s a sentimental bit towards the end that’s just dumb, and that JK would never have tolerated.  Taken all in all, however, it’s a remarkable achievement.  I was happy to be back in that world – and I really did feel like I was.  I will read his next.

They’ve got you coming and going

So about Dumbledore being gay. It’s great and all. But am I the only one thinking that one potential take-home lesson is that being gay leads to a life of miserable lovelessness? That gays are drawn to fascists, and that ethical gays have to spend their lives punishing themselves for it? That JK’s offering us a moral worthy of the morons who condemn the books for satanism? Between Rowling and her opponents, a queer can’t win.

Death with Harry

My mother tells me she heard on the radio a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan say that the only times he escapes the unbearable tension of being in a war zone are “when I’m with Harry.” It’s a little more evidence for my contention that the Harry books, far from dark, are at every moment comforting and amusing.

So different from Jane Austen. There’s tension for you! Particularly in Emma and Northanger Abbey. In fact I had to stop reading the latter last night because it was too much for me: there was Catherine, against her better judgment out for a jaunt with the unspeakably vulgar Mr. Thorpe when she should have been looking for Miss Tilney in the Pump Room, and I couldn’t bear it! I will not be able to finish the book (though I know, of course, from my previous 14 readings that it all works out in the end). At this moment I do not need to deal with this anxiety.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about death in the Harry books. There are four kinds: two regular, and two special and restricted to a single character.

1. First there’s normal death. We have ample evidence that this involves an afterlife in which loved ones are reunited, and also that an aspect or aura of the dead can remain or be recalled, in photographs (a bit), or in portraits or with the Hallow stone (quite a lot, but it’s still not the real autonomous thing).

2. Second there are ghosts, dead people with unfinished business who can’t quite get off the ground. We’re given an explanation of this phenomenon and of why some few people become ghosts instead of moving on.

3. There’s Dumbledore. Dumbledore’s dead and not a ghost: he ought to fit into pattern one. But his portrait is way too powerful and alive — it can have all sorts of new ideas and mastermind events in way the aura-portraits can’t; it offers real, warm, living (albeit disembodied) communication from beyond the grave — and, worse, he can show up as a spectre in Harry’s mind telling Harry true things he didn’t know before. None of the other dead can do this: they just show up to offer their tag lines or cheer the heroes on, like good auras should.

4. Finally there’s Sirius, strangest of all. Sirius dies in a way that in all respects fits into pattern one, except for one thing: he takes his body with him.

I’ll give her everything except Sirius. The first two ways are consistently worked out — that’s fine. We know Dumbledore is god or something, so he can break the rules — that’s fine too. But, no, you can’t die and leave no body, and you certainly can’t do so with no explanation of what it’s all about, and I don’t need habeas corpus to tell me so.