Sunday, February 21, 2016

Through a Lens Sharply 2: The Boy with Glasses

I have to question why anyone in J.K. Rowling’s magical world even needs glasses.  Wizards can mend bones and straighten teeth with spells, grow bones and cure colds with potions.  They can create a magical eye replacement that not only sends visual data directly to the wearer’s brain, but gives the wearer superhuman x-ray and invisibility vision.  So why aren’t wizards similarly fixing their poor vision with spells?  The Muggle world existing next to J.K. Rowling’s wizards already had non-magical means (refractive surgery) to do the same job.  A spell to fix refractive errors makes perfect sense in a fictional world where spells can mend bones and straighten teeth.  But no. The magical world doesn’t even seem to have contact lenses.

Seriously? The Muggles can fix a vision problem with surgery, but the wizards can’t do it with spells?  At the very least, some optometrist in Diagon Alley should be selling Dr. Everclear’s Magical Contacts—Now with Enhanced Telescopic Vision! Or Chameleon Colors!  Or Aura Detection!

That nitpick aside, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series includes a relatively high incidence of bespectacled characters.  Harry wears glasses, of course, and so do Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall, Mr. Weasley, Mrs. Weasley (for reading), Percy Weasley, Rufus Scrimgeor, Professor Trelawney, Madam Pince the librarian, Ernie Prang the Knight Bus driver, James Potter, Moaning Myrtle, Mr. Borgin, and Rita Skeeter.  (Luna wears Spectra-specs, but they, like sunglasses, don’t count.)  Fourteen whole people with glasses in the same fictional universe is a rather high number.  And Rowling doesn’t always fall for the stereotypes.  Brainy Hermione and the emotionally vulnerable and initially bullied Neville, for instance, can see just fine, and none of the nerdy Ravenclaws wear glasses, either.

Still, the characters have disproportionally good vision.  So often we’re back to the old fiction cliché.  Glasses Mean Something.

Dumbledore? Really old brainiac. Mr. Weasley? Middle-aged nerd (think of his esoteric hobbies).  McGonagall? Madam Pince? Old and brainy, with a generous helping of old-maid-schoolteacher and old-maid-librarian. Mrs. Weasley and Rufus Scrimgeor? Middle-aged.  Percy? Young brainiac (he’s not emotionally vulnerable enough for a nerd).  Myrtle? Emotionally vulnerable, unattractive bully victim. Rita Skeeter?  Brainy and physically unattractive.  Trelawney?  I actually think Trelawney’s glasses might be a thematic statement: the self-proclaimed Seer can’t actually see.

What about Harry? Harry actually has bad eyesight—Hermione comments on it in Deathly Hallows (52)—but his bad eyesight rarely gives him any trouble, even when his glasses become inconvenient.  Harry’s glasses signal his physical and emotional vulnerability, just like his small size and his cupboard under the stairs. 

Harry’s physical vulnerability is evident from the beginning of the series.  We first meet him injured by Voldemort’s curse, and he is continually injured during the course of the novels.  Rowling also shows Harry’s physical vulnerability in his depiction as a perpetual target for bullies.  We first see him as the victim of all three Dursleys. But the bullying doesn’t stay in the Muggle world. Draco Malfoy and his sidekick-enforcers Crabbe and Goyle bully Harry—or make some good attempts—at Hogwarts.  Even the teachers sometimes bully Harry: Snape and Umbridge both bully Harry, though in all (un)fairness, Snape and Umbridge bully other students as well. 

Harry’s glasses signal his weakness and emphasize his victimization: note that the glasses are broken at the beginning of Sorcerer’s Stone, and his family won’t have them fixed (20).  (As far as I can tell, no one ever fixes them in the first book though Hermione repairs them during the first movie.)  In Chamber of Secrets, Harry’s glasses are broken (again or worse) on his first Floo trip (49) and are repaired by Mr. Weasley (57).  The cover of the American edition of Goblet of Fire shows Harry in broken glasses, though he should be able to repair them himself by that point.
Harry is emotionally bullied, too.  He’s unloved at the Dursleys, “not wanted at home” as Draco taunts in Sorcerer’s Stone (195).  Dudley ensures Harry has no Muggle friends (SS 120). In Chamber of Secrets, Harry is shunned as the supposed Heir of Slytherin and as a Parselmouth; in Goblet of Fire, students exclude him and mock him with the “Potter Stinks!” buttons because someone has entered him in the Triwizard Tournament; and in Order of the Phoenix, students initially are wary of him because of Cedric’s murder.  In fact, Harry makes very few friends at Hogwarts: only Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Fred, George, Neville, and later, Luna.  These friends stick with Harry despite persistent emotional bullying (generally; Ron goes off in a snit several times).  The only time Harry seems truly accepted by his peers is when he wins Quidditch games.
Harry, like many guys with glasses, also is romantically vulnerable.  He’s tongue-tied with Cho, offends Pavarti (who has a right to be offended), and is paralyzed with Ginny.  Strangely enough, however, Harry is able to see where others’ romantic relationships are going and doesn’t consider Hermione as a potential girlfriend—not out of lack of romantic acumen, but rather because he senses Ron’s interest.

Despite these physical and emotional vulnerabilities combined with the glasses, Harry does not fit the “nerd” stereotype. Harry is a jock.  He’s smart enough, and he can do well in intellectual pursuits, but he doesn’t always choose to.  Though we often see him read books, many of those books concern sports.  And there’s another wrinkle in the jock stereotype: Harry wears glasses even on the Quidditch pitch. Only once are his glasses a disadvantage in the game—when the rain fogs them, a problem that Hermione promptly rectifies (PoA 177).  And Harry never breaks his glasses during Quidditch, not even when he falls from his broomstick in Prisoner of Azkaban (179). 
What surprises me most, however, is that Rowling never shows anyone exploiting glasses as a very obvious disadvantage in an actual fight. No magical student, not even Draco Malfoy, ever curses or summons Harry’s glasses to beat him up or even make fun of him.  This puts Draco ahead of Dudley Dursley, who presumably broke Harry’s glasses in a fight before the start of Sorcerer’s Stone, but it’s weird: usually bullies don’t flinch at making a victim more vulnerable. Even weirder, neither Voldemort nor any of his Death Eaters curse Harry’s glasses in an effort to disable or kill him—not even in the books’ final duel in The Deathly Hallows, when Voldemort knows his life is on the line.  Snape doesn’t even go after Harry’s glasses when Harry is chasing him down after Dumbledore’s death in The Half-Blood Prince.  Depriving Harry of his glasses would have stopped him in his tracks without hurting him.  But no—Snape, like Voldemort, just has to show off his magic instead of doing the sensible and practical thing to end the fight.

Although glasses in Harry Potter are used, as elsewhere, as markers of age, braininess, vulnerability, and nerdiness, J.K. Rowling seems to have built two more meanings into glasses.  The first is familial connections.  Harry’s glasses associate him with his father, who improbably wears the same glasses that Harry does despite years of fashion changes.  In fact, many of Harry’s father-figures have glasses—not only James, but Arthur Weasley and Dumbledore.  Percy Weasley’s glasses also represent him as his father’s son: Percy is the only Weasley child to wear glasses, like his father.

Rowling also associates glasses with Animagi in the series.  We meet a total of four Animagi, Professor McGonagall, Rita Skeeter, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew, and we hear of a fifth, James Potter.  Three out of these five Animagi wear glasses, and for McGonagall and Skeeter at least, their glasses are so integral, so important, that the glasses transform into markings when the women transform into animals.  We don’t know whether this happens with James, because we never see his actual Animagus form, only Harry’s Patronus.  Still, it is striking that Animagi tend to wear glasses more often than not, and that those glasses sometimes transform with their owners.  Perhaps an Animagus’s eyeglasses indicate his / her braininess—Lupin tells us in Prisoner of Azkaban that the process is difficult and dangerous, thus requiring intelligence and dedication (354).  But this is overall a strange association; we don’t generally think of animals as needing glasses. 


One final note: many sets of glasses disappear in Harry Potter movies.  Several of the characters who specifically wear glasses in the book—Percy, Mr. Weasley, Rufus Scrimgeor—never wear them in the movies. McGonagall’s glasses are initially present but disappear eventually. Why?  I don’t have an answer.  It seems like a strange place to skimp on props, and eyeglasses, unlike contacts, don’t cause eye problems or allergic reactions. Maybe there are lighting issues, but the filmmakers manage with Harry and several other people with glasses.  Or perhaps the filmmakers went with the old stereotypes, and decided that characters should lose the Glasses That Mean Something.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Through a Lens Sharply: What Glasses Make Us See

According to the American Academy of Opthamology’s, “Eye Health Statistics,” about 187 million people in the United States wear some sort of prescription corrective eyewear.  According to the U.S. Census Population Clock, the U.S. population is about 323 million, give or take a couple (as of January 13, 2016), so roughly 58% of the U.S. population wears glasses or contacts.  Essilor (a company that makes eyeglass lenses) cites a study by the Vision Impact Institute that says 75% of the U.S. population wears corrective lenses, but I couldn’t find the study. 

Whichever statistic you want to accept, what do these statistics tell us about people who wear corrective glasses and contacts? Absolutely nothing.  Since most people must wear corrective lenses, we can’t say it’s actually a physical problem (though physical problems can cause it).  People who wear glasses are not necessarily ill, unhealthy, or injured.  Nor do glasses and contacts tell us anything about character, except that the frames hint at personal style.  In other words, needing glasses or contacts doesn’t mean anything. 

Strangely, however, most characters on screen, stage, and page do not wear glasses.  I’m talking strictly about corrective lenses, not safety glasses or sunglasses, which characters generally wear in appropriate situations (in a lab, in bright sunlight, trying to be cool). I’m talking about corrective lenses.  And by fictional texts, I include any given fictional text, not only books, drama, poetry, and stories, but movies, TV shows, graphic novels, comics, artwork, YouTube videos, etc.

And in any given text, perhaps one character out of ten wears glasses, if any do at all. The reason: in literature, wearing glasses always Means Something, and that Something is never good.

In snooty, deliberately High Art pieces, visual impairment often symbolizes spiritual or emotional blindness or indicates a skewed world view or something similar.  Generally, however, literary texts don’t assign such heavily symbolic or thematic significance to glasses.  Still, fictional characters never wear glasses without a Reason.  Glasses are literary shorthand not for weak vision (their meaning in Real Life) but for weakness in character.

The most benign of these weaknesses—if you want to call it benign—is age.  In real life, of course, many people find they need glasses to read as they reach their forties.  Still, because so many people need vision correction much earlier in life, eyeglasses don’t necessarily mark a real person as old.  Not so in literature.  Old characters wear glasses; young characters generally do not.   Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. wears eyeglasses consistently.  Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. does not—except when he wants to appear brainy (see below). 

Characters who need to appear active and powerful don’t wear glasses even though they should be old enough to need them.*  Magneto and Professor X should be wearing glasses because of their age, but they do not.  (An undiscovered mutant power?)  Phil Coulson and Melinda May in Agents of Shield appear to be in their forties, and Tony Stark of the Iron Man and Avengers series is at least that old, and they all do a lot of reading on screen.  But all three wear glasses only for protection: sunglasses or safety glasses.  Why?  Because Tony Stark and Coulson and May are strong and active heroes.  Put glasses on Phil Coulson, and suddenly he becomes an every-day, middle-aged government official—still competent, perhaps still on top of his game, but not anyone you’d send into the field but someone we’d probably label as past his prime and therefore weak.  We need Coulson to be the hero who goes to other worlds and kills psychotic bad guys with his amazing bionic hand, not some mature, pencil-pushing bureaucrat.

The association of glasses with age can occasionally work backwards as shorthand to give a youthful character some gravitas: the fifth, tenth, and eleventh incarnations of the Doctor (played by Peter Davison, David Tennant, and Matt Smith respectively) all wear reading glasses to indicate the Doctor’s great age and experience in contrast to his apparent youth and energy. But the current Doctor, played by the equally energetic but clearly middle-aged Peter Capaldi, never wears glasses, so that he may appear more youthful. Instead, he wears sunglasses, because sunglasses are cool (and now, sonic).

Glasses can also indicate braininess—not simply intelligence, but a brilliance which is weird and off-putting, a sort of knowledge that consumes a character. This kind of knowledge and brilliance is acquired only by wrapping oneself completely in the subject, and glasses indicate the character’s isolation from society to concentrate on the important work of study.  These characters know a lot about their specialties, but haven’t bothered to keep up with The Real World or People.  Think of the “absent-minded professor” and the “strict librarian” stereotypes.** Think about Agatha Christie’s Poirot here; his piece-nez not only indicates his intelligence but marks him as different.  He not only wears glasses but weird glasses, and they are part of his overall fussy, precise, and foreign character. Poirot may acutally know more about Real Life and Real People than most brainiacs with glasses—part of his specialization as a detective—but he still looks down his nose at people because they can’t keep up with his awesome knowledge. But like the “glasses= age” stereotype, the “glasses = brilliant but weird” stereotype can be used as an advantage: in the short “Time Crash,” David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor points out that Peter Davidson’s Fifth Doctor wore glasses strictly to appear smarter.

Glasses in fictional texts are also used to indicate social, physical, or emotional vulnerability.  How do you make the Hulk or Beast look emotionally needy and non-threatening?  Put Bruce Banner and Hank McCoy in glasses.  How do you make a powerful and virtually invulnerable hero appear gentle and bumbling?  Put Clark Kent in glasses.  No, Clark’s glasses are not a disguise; everyone I know can recognize a friend who has switched from glasses to contacts or vice versa.  Clark Kent’s glasses, like his ill-fitting suits and bad hairstyle, are a way of making people (including the audience) dismiss him as mild-mannered and ineffective, unlike  the active and intimidating Superman.  It’s also a way of making Clark Kent look physically weak; we have this strange, ingrained image that children and adults in glasses are weak, uncoordinated, and unathletic.  Or perhaps that’s not so strange—how many athletes actually wear their glasses on the field, court, or pitch?

If you combine the last two weaknesses—braininess and vulnerability—you get glasses as the marker of nerdhood.  See, for example, Leonard from The Big Bang Theory, Steve Urkel from Family Matters, Radar O’Reilly from MASH, Douglas Fargo on Eureka, and an absolute legion of others. I’ll grant that most of the characters on Big Bang and on Eureka are brainy and often socially ill-at-ease, but Leonard and Fargo generally are most vulnerable emotionally—they seek love and friendship, and often get burned.  Similarly, Steve Urkel of Family Matters is shown to be extremely smart, but terribly awkward and often quite lonely and desperate for approval.    In contrast, Sheldon and Isaac Parrish believe too strongly in their own innate superiority, and they do not perceive their obvious social difficulties as difficulties.  They are emotionally invulnerable, and neither of those characters has glasses, despite their obvious braininess. 

And finally, glasses in literary texts signal physical unattractiveness.  Old maids wear glasses.  Socially malajusted undesirable nerds with pimples wear glasses.  They signal that Amy Farrah Fowler from Big Bang is unattractive—and the actress isn’t unattractive at all.  Indeed, it is through his glasses that the strong and handsome Superman transforms into the physically awkward and undesirable Clark Kent.  And, come to think of it, far fewer female characters than male characters wear glasses, because women without glasses aren’t hot—or cool.  Wonder Woman? Incredibly strong and sexy kick-ass superhero.  Diana Prince? Efficient, unattractive secretary (with a side order of brainy old maid).


 Part 2 (coming soon): The Boy with Glasses

*This literary stereotype seems to keep real people from wearing glasses on television. Many news anchors must need reading glasses at least.  I know Rachel Maddow needs glasses; she often wears them on other shows, but rarely and briefly on her own show.  Only Stephen Colbert and John Oliver wear their glasses regularly on camera, possibly because it’s part of a nerdy persona (see below) and partially because they’re comedians, not newscasters.  Politicians who need glasses rarely wear them on camera, either.  President Obama and Secretary Clinton need reading glasses; I’ve seen still photos where both wear them, but not on live camera.  Jeb Bush needs glasses but wears the most invisible frames he can find.  Why?  Because visually, glasses on camera indicate age—and weakness.

**These stereotypes may be changing.  None of the characters in The Librarians series wear glasses (including the 1500-year-old Jenkins, who really ought to need them by now), nor do the brilliant and esoteric Fitz and Simmons from Agents of Shield.  The most famous professor characters of recent memory—Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon—don’t strictly need glasses.  Indiana Jones wears glasses at the university—presumably to signal his intelligence and assume separation from students.  The glasses also signal his change in identity from adventurer to academic, from man of action to man of study. 


Friday, January 29, 2016

Sorting On-Line

Pottermore's Sorting Hat and Wand generators are back on line.  

Various on-line engines have Sorted me into all four Hogwarts Houses--most frequently Ravenclaw, but often Hufflepuff and Gryffindor.  But then, as I've said in previous posts, the Sorting Hat lies about its criteria.  But most of the on-line Sorting programs believe what the Hat says instead of what it does, and therefore give inconsistent, and probably not particularly good, results.  The Pottermore Sorting criteria, however, are supposedly written by J.K. Rowling, and therefore should be at least consistent.

But no.

Pottermore originally sorted me into Slytherin.  Slytherin? Me? I'm a self-centered jerk (and probably racist to boot)? God, I hope not.

The next try (on a different e-mail, but still on the old test) came up with Hufflepuff or Slytherin, and it let me choose.  I chose Hufflepuff. ("Not Slytherin.  Not Slytherin.")  I can see Hufflepuff in myself--I am hard-working but also self-effacing and underappreciated.  

Now Pottermore says I'm in Ravenclaw, with a 10.5 inch aspen wand with a phoenix feather core.  

Okay, fine.  I am a first-class nerd / geek with membership in at least four major geek tribes (Star Wars, Harry Potter, role-playing games, Marvel movies) and a Ph.D.  But I've always seen myself as a Gryffindor, because of my flaws, with a cherry wand, probably with the magical core of some sort of distinctly American magical creature--a thunderbird or something.

Go figure.  


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Angry Words

I'm teaching the Harry Potter course again.  (Hurray!)  This, of course, necessitates re-reading the series again.  (Hurray!  Hey, whoever thought I would get paid to read Harry Potter?)

Normally, I enjoy reading the Harry Potter series.  I first read the series for fun, and I still read the series for fun.  I own a second full set of the Harry Potter without my academic markings just so I can read the series for fun without being distracted by the work aspect of it.  Even when I read the series for work, it's fun.  Hey, texts don't stop being enjoyable just because I teach them.   I'll grant that I look a texts differently when I read them for teaching or research--the focus is sort of different, and so is the approach.  I remember quite clearly that it felt like I was reading Harry Potter with a different set of glasses when I started looking at it academically.  It's work, but it's good and interesting work.

Lysistrata, The Country Wife, and The Importance of Being Earnest make me laugh every time, and I even enjoy the tragedies in a weird way that I can't quite explain.  I love re-reading Beowulf to teach it.  I get misty-eyed over parts of Jane Eyre and engrossed figuring out the clues in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

And sometimes, texts make me angry.  Very, very angry.  I want to slap emo Victor Frankenstein and his equally emo creature for their continual whining and their stupidity.  The misogyny in certain medieval and Renaissance texts--not to mention the narrator's initial internalization of it in The Book of the City of Ladies--pisses me off to the point that I sometimes want, like the Wife of Bath, to throw the book in the fire and clout the author.

I laugh over the Harry Potter books.  I cry when Dobby dies and when Harry goes off to the woods to die.  I enjoy unraveling the mystery and hunting for the throw-away references in the early books that turn out to be foreshadow in ways we couldn't initially understand.  I cringe over the dramatic irony of "Mad-Eye Moody's" dialogue in Goblet of Fire, now that I know that it's really Barty Crouch Jr. talking.  And I get angry, too--at Snape for being a jerk and a bad teacher; at the Dursleys for their materialism and abuse; at Dolores Umbridge for her self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and sadism.

But for the first time, I became so angry while reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that I had to put the book down and walk away.  And who made me so angry?  The abusive Dursleys? No. Bully Draco? No. Nasty Snape? No.

Hagrid.

Yes.  You read that right.  Hagrid.

When Harry, Hermione, and Ron finally talk Hagrid into getting rid of his illegal dragon, it is the children, not Hagrid, who sneak around after hours to get Baby Norbert safely away (SS 233-41).  Harry and Hermione are caught and given detention for being out of bed after hours and for supposedly luring Draco Malfoy and Neville Longbottom out with some "'cock and bull story about a dragon'" (SS 243).  Professor McGonagall gives Harry and Hermione a horrible dressing down, a penalty of fifty House points each, and detention (SS 243-44).

Detention.  With Hagrid.

I'll leave aside for the moment that detention with Hagrid means that a bunch of inexperienced first-years are hunting down something powerful enough to kill a unicorn (which are highly magical and difficult to catch), something more powerful than a werewolf (SS 251).  Hagrid knows why Harry and Hermione were out of bed after curfew.  He knows what they were doing.  Hagrid should have been doing it himself--it's his dragon, after all.  Moreover, he could have taken Norbert to the Astronomy Tower without getting in trouble, since he's staff.  As he's larger and stronger than Harry and Hermione, it would have even been easier for him.  But no--Hagrid lets Harry and Hermione take the risks.

And then he lets them take the blame.

Hagrid knows Harry and Hermione got detention; he's supervising it.  He must know what they got detention for.  But Hagrid doesn't speak up.  He doesn't got to McGonagall and say, "Harry and Hermione were helping me get rid of my illegal dragon."  He doesn't take the blame or admit his part in it--he just stands by and lets Harry and Hermione be punished for something that is ultimately his responsibility.

And that, my friends, pisses me off.  Hagrid is a likable character, someone we as readers view as Harry's ally and friend.  And he betrays Harry and Hermione, who refuse to betray him.  The children show more loyalty and more responsibility than Hagrid does.

And worse, Dumbledore knows it.  He's the one who retrieved Harry's invisibility cloak from the Astronomy Tower, after all.  As usual, Dumbledore doesn't do anything about it: but then he doesn't do anything about the Dursleys, Umbridge, or Snape, either. Dumbledore allows his staff member to shove the blame for his own wrong-doing onto first-year students.

But if I were Hagrid's colleague, if I were McGonagall and I found out about this afterwards, I would be giving Hagrid holy hell.

Perhaps you are thinking that I'm getting too wrapped up in this, overreacting to what is, essentially, a story.  It's not real.  Harry and Hermione only exist in the words on the page and in our imaginations.  They can't be hurt because they don't exist; Hagrid's irresponsibility and disloyalty don't matter because they don't exist, either.

But stories are powerful, and I get caught up in stories.  And stories are real in their own place and their own way--it's a different sort of reality, a mental or metaphysical reality.  And in that metaphysical place, not only are the stories real, but the emotions.  And the consequences of those emotions are real.

The emotions provoked by stories are powerful enough to change things in the real world.  Think of the effects of Dickens and Beecher Stowe's novels on social reform.

Those emotions are powerful enough to stop me from reading a book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Ghost of Christmas Stories

I’ve been thinking about Christmas stories.  Hey, it’s the season.  No, Harry Potter isn’t a Christmas story by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m going to talk about Christmas stories anyway.  It’s my blog.  Sue me.  But because this is a Harry Potter and literature blog, I promise I’ll tell you why there really can’t be a Harry Potter Christmas story.  But bear with me.  There’s a lot of ground to cover about Christmas stories first.

So what makes a Christmas story a Christmas story?  After some thought, I’ve come up with the following common elements:
-         Setting during the Christmas season, roughly Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. or the beginning of December elsewhere to Twelfth Night (January 6).
-         Radical change of a character or characters, always for the better, through transformation and / or renewal.
-         Christmas serves, in some form, as the catalyst for the transformation / restoration.
-         Themes of love, forgiveness, and redemption.

The Christmastime setting is an obvious, necessary element, but a story can be set at Christmas, and not be a Christmas story.  Ellis Peters’s A Virgin in the Ice, for instance, takes place during the Christmas season, but the story is a mystery, plain and simple.  Even though Brother Cadfael’s previously unknown son is revealed to him and two missing children are returned to their families, the story concerns crime, punishment, and justice, rather than transformation or renewal.  Christmas plays no role in the action, except for providing the winter weather.  The story could just as easily take place in November or February, with no thematic or plot changes. 

Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Blue Carbuncle,” on the other hand, is a Christmas story.  Yes, like A Virgin in the Ice, it’s a mystery set during the Christmas season.  But the plot and the characters revolve around Christmas.  The mystery is precipitated by the arrival of a Christmas goose, and more importantly, the final resolution of the story is also informed and motivated by Christmas values.  Sherlock Holmes, true to form, discovers the thief of the Blue Carbuncle, Ryder, but lets him go because “‘it is just possible that [Holmes] is saving a soul’” and because he believes that the thief will reform (“The Blue Carbuncle,” Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume 1, 346).  “‘Besides,’” as Holmes goes on to say, “‘it is the season of forgiveness’” (346).  Ryder’s salvation takes precedence over the mystery’s solution and retribution, and the mystery themes of justice and retribution yield to the Christmas story’s insistence on transformation and forgiveness.

This idea of change for the better, of salvation and regeneration, mark a story as a true Christmas story, rather than a story merely set in the Christmas season.  All of the major, classic Christmas stories focus on and in fact depend on these ideas: their plots, themes, and characters all show the power of Christmas to change the world for the better.  The stories fall into two categories: the transformative and the restorative.

The transformative stories trace a journey of a character who must be taught to be good, and who learns his lesson to the benefit of the people around him. (The main character of these stories can be of either sex, but typically is male.) The archetype of the transformative Christmas story is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but although we keep telling and retelling Scrooge’s story, our culture has produced several other examples: “The Blue Carbuncle,” How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Santa Clause, to name a few.  The main character here is a bad person, generally at least isolated, hard-hearted, and self-centered, but often also represented as greedy (Dickens’s Scrooge), angry (the Grinch), or ambitious (Frank Cross from Scrooged).  The character has often distanced him / herself from other people as well, often expressed in the physical isolation of their homes: the Grinch lives in a mountain cave away from Whoville, and Scrooge lives in lonely rooms in what amounts to an office building (The Annotated Christmas Carol, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn, 1st ed., 69). 

But the transformational character, while bad, is not evil, and is generally shown to be redeemable early on. Scrooge threatens to beat a caroler with a ruler and threatens to withhold Bob Cratchitt’s Christmas wages (68-69), but doesn’t do either.   When reminded of his own past, Scrooge quickly wishes he had been kinder to both the caroler and to Bob (93, 101).  Another case in point: the Grinch may be a cranky old coot who hates his neighbors’ loud parties, but instead of killing and eating people like Beowulf’s Grendel, the Grinch attempts to steal the party equipment.  And like Scrooge, the Grinch’s potential for redemption is shown early.  He is mean enough to take candy from babies, as the cartoon version shows explicitly. But when confronted by one of those babies, Cindy Lou Who, the Grinch reassures her (with a lie, granted) and takes care of her physical needs by giving her a drink and seeing her safely back to bed. 

Eventually, this bad character fulfills his redemptive potential.  The plot teaches him that he is harming the world and the people around him, and that he should be actively making the world a better place instead.  The character learns his lesson, is redeemed, and starts living the lesson. Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city ever knew” and saves Tiny Tim (172).  The bitter and self-centered Scott Calvin of The Santa Clause becomes Santa Claus, both professionally and emotionally.  Ambitious Frank Cross of Scrooged torpedoes his television production and possibly his career to spread his new-found knowledge of benevolence and love.  The Grinch returns the Christmas gifts and decorations, leaves his self-imposed isolation, and joins the Whos for roast beast. 

The restorative Christmas stories—such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and Love Actually—reinforce the transformative themes of love but turn the transformation plots inside out.  Instead of a bad person learning to be good, the protagonist is an ordinary but good person who needs to learn that he / she is doing good already and who needs to regain his / her lost faith.  In other words, where Scrooge needs to learn he isn’t making a difference in the world, George Bailey needs to learn that he is; where the Grinch needs to learn to love others, Doris Walker needs to love and have faith in herself.  The plots of both transformative and restorative Christmas stories are remarkably similar, often relying on retrospection and flashbacks or working through the events leading to Christmas.  Both types of stories also involve the protagonist’s spiritual crisis, but in the restorative stories, this crisis often stems from an external problem: possible business failures in Wonderful Life and White Christmas, various family troubles in Love Actually, Kris’s commitment hearing in Miracle, Charlie Brown’s inability to fit into the festivities around him in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  But like the transformative protagonists, the heroes of the restorative Christmas stories learn their lessons: George Bailey rejoices in his life and returns home; Doris Walker and her daughter Susan learn to believe and to love; various protagonists in Love Actually realize the extent of their marital, familial, or friendly love. 

But what makes these stories Christmas stories specifically, and not just stories of spiritual growth or redemption, or of love?  It’s simple: the importance and power of Christmas serves as a catalyst of positive change.  In both types of Christmas stories, the characters are saved, or save themselves, because of some aspect(s) or agent(s) of Christmas.  Sometimes, these Christmassy aspects are obvious, even personified, such as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and the various Ghosts in A Christmas Carol.  Sometimes, the power of Christmas is very subtle, like the connection of major plot developments in Love Actually to a Christmas cover song and to holiday parties and events.  The power of Christmas can be expressed as supernatural, such Wonderful Life’s angels, or as completely mundane, such as the Whos’ Christmas carol and the Grinch’s subsequent cogitation in Grinch.  The agents of Christmas can even be ambiguous figures: we never learn if Miracle’s Kris Kringle is really Santa Claus or not.

But then again, it doesn’t matter whether the power is normal or supernatural; in these stories, Christmas can produce magical results through natural means.  Take Miracle on 34th Street.  Despite the title, no miracles take place.  Every “miraculous” part of the plot happens because of the choices, often selfish, of normal people.  Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimble promote good will and Christmas spirit, yes, but they do so explicitly for profit.  Dr. Sawyer receives his X-ray machine through Kris’s generosity and the department store owners’ determination to outdo each other.  Kris receives thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus because of two postal employees want to clear out the dead letter office.  The judge legally confirms Kris’s sanity because a) Fred Gailey is clever enough to turn those dead letters into evidence and b) the judge wants to be re-elected.  Susan receives her Christmas wish, a house, because Kris sends Doris, Susan, and Fred past a house for sale (to “avoid traffic”), and Fred and Doris consciously decide to buy the house so Susan won’t be disappointed.  Sorry, folks, no miracle here.  But 34th Street doesn’t need angels or ghosts or Santa Claus or even miracles.  So long as we believe in ourselves and in Christmas, so long as we reaffirm our love and generosity, we can make our own Christmas magic.  It doesn’t matter if Kris Kringle is Santa Claus, so long as we believe he is.

These Christmas stories are all about believing in oneself, in others, and in the ideals of Christmas: love in all its forms, generosity and charity (which are also forms of love), forgiveness.  In the end, the transformations and restorations of the stories and of their main characters serve simply to reinstate and reinforce these Christmas (Christian?) values: love, faith, hope, charity.  And from these values come forgiveness and renewal: the willingness of mankind to forgive allows Scrooge and the Grinch to return to society and goodness, Holmes’s charity will allow Ryder’s reformation, Doris Walker and George Bailey’s self-acceptance and faith will renew their lives. It is no coincidence that the cover song constantly in the background of Love Actually is “Love is All Around.” 

I promised a return to the Harry Potter stories.  If after reading all this, you’re wondering how Harry Potter fits into the scheme of Christmas stories, it doesn’t.  Harry has sufficient faith in himself and in love that he doesn’t need restoration and renewal.  In fact, Harry only once doubts the efficacy of his own goodness and actions: he believes that his and Hermione’s efforts with the Time Turner “didn’t make any difference” (PoA 425).  But the doubt is momentary: Dumbledore immediately sets Harry straight by pointing out that he and Hermione saved both Sirius and Buckbeak and discovered the truth (PoA 425).  Harry not only accepts this but decides that all the consequences of his decision to spare Peter Pettigrew are his fault (PoA 425-26).  This is no George Bailey, no Doris Walker.  Harry doesn’t need to renew faith in himself; he actually has too much.  The character who lacks this kind of faith and desperately needs to star in his own Christmas story is Remus Lupin—but Rowling sends him his wake-up call in a far less uplifting form.

And while Harry is imperfect, he certainly isn’t a bad, selfish character, such as Scrooge, in need of love lessons and transformation.  And generally, the bad Harry Potter characters fall into two camps.  First, we have evil characters who absolutely can’t learn goodness because they are incapable of understanding their own evil: Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange, Dolores Umbridge.  Dolores Umbridge genuinely believes she is doing the right, good, and lawful thing, that Harry and her politcal opponents are doing wrong—telling lies, in Harry’s case (OotP 245)—and therefore, she can’t reform.  As for Voldemort, it is indicative that he can’t understand, let alone comply with, Harry’s call for his remorse (DH 741).

Yes, there are some Harry Potter characters who might make a good protagonist for a transformational Christmas story because they are driven not by evil, but by self-interest, ambition, and possibly fear.  But Snape, Vernon Dursley, Rita Skeeter, Cornelius Fudge, and Rufus Scrimgeor each refuse their chance at redemption.  Draco Malfoy, despite refusing to rat Harry out in Deathly Hallows, never quite makes the change, and though Lucius Malfoy eschews his Death Eater ways to attempt to save his son, we don’t see whether he truly changes.  Only Percy Weasley and Horace Slughorn successfully transform.  But not at Christmas, and not through Christmas.  At least with Percy, we can say that it is the Christmas value of love that ultimately saves him.



Monday, June 2, 2014

On the Statute of Secrecy

Hello.  Yes, it’s been a while.

I had some fine blogs planned for this past semester.  I was teaching English Novel, a course so broadly defined at my university that I could pretty much include any English novel written during and after the 18th century.  I focused on Gothic novels.  (Of course I did.  What did you expect?)  And I had some great blogs planned: how Harry Potter is a virtual checklist of Gothic conventions; the hubris of trying to (re)create life from death in Frankenstein and in the depiction of Voldemort; the failure of science in Rowling and Stoker’s works; the use of the orphan characters Jane Eyre and Harry Potter; how the big, scary black dog trope in Jane Eyre, Hound of the Baskervilles, and others becomes Sirius Black . . . the list went on.

And then, just before the semester began, I broke my right wrist.* 

Suddenly, I was reduced to the manual capabilities of a four-year-old.  I could not perform a host of normal, everyday activities, and those I could manage took between two and ten times longer to accomplish (and generally were awkward, difficult, and / or painful).  More significant to this post (and this blog), I could not write, type, or use a computer mouse.  Needless to say, my adult and professional responsibilities didn’t evaporate, and the limitations of broken bone and awkward cast impacted all my professional activities.  Only dictation software allowed me to do my job—and the software isn’t as accurate as manufacturers claim.  Everything I did became more frustrating and time consuming—thus my silence here on the blog.  While I was struggling to keep up with my everyday tasks and my teaching, the blog (and Facebook too) naturally fell by the wayside.

Yes, I’m better now.  The bone finally healed after four months, and I am finally out of casts and braces and am slowly regaining the motion in my right hand.  But this entire ordeal got me thinking about the Statute of Secrecy.

Why the Statute of Secrecy?  Because Madam Pomphrey says she can heal broken bones in a second in The Chamber of Secrets (174) and heals Neville Longbottom’s wrist in a matter of days in The Sorcerer’s Stone.  Because even Fleur Delacour, no Healer, can mend a broken leg overnight with a bottle of Skele-Gro. 

Seriously, when my hand and arm were in a cast for three months and a brace for seven weeks, when I couldn’t sign my name or drive my car or fold my clothes, I would have paid top dollar for an appointment with Madam Pomphrey or a bottle of Skele-Gro.

Yet, even if the Harry Potter universe were real, I would have been unable to access that kind of health care—and even the Skele-Gro—because of the Statute of Secrecy. 

The Harry Potter novels never say, officially, why the Statute was created and why it remains in force.  The obvious answer—or what we would think is the obvious answer—is persecution, but Harry’s homework assignment in The Prisoner of Azkaban tells us that medieval persecution of magical practitioners was “Completely Pointless” (1), and Rowling creates a passage from A History of Magic that claims that Muggles are incapable of a) recognizing true magic and b) seizing a witch or wizard unless he / she desires to be caught (Prisoner of Azkaban 2).  The second most obvious answer might be a fear of Muggle governments using witches and wizards as military weapons or assets.  This possibility isn’t mentioned in the novels, possibly because of the Muggle ineptitude in finding and seizing wizards, possibly because some wizards and witches (such as Grindelwald and Bellatrix) would not have minded killing Muggles for a government.

Rowling only offers one explanation of the Statute, when Harry asks Hagrid why the Ministry keeps magic a secret: “Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems.  Nah, we’re best left alone.” (Sorcerer’s Stone 65).

The magical community doesn’t fear persecution or being compelled to use magic against others.  They just don’t want to be bothered with Muggles and their problems.

Yes, I know the objection: the magical community be left in peace, and they don’t want to be pestered by Muggles who want love potions or other frivolous uses of magic.  Granted.  No one likes to be pestered, and magic—just like any other power or talent—should not be used lightly.

But put another occupation in the place of wizard.  Suppose we were talking about medical doctors?  Hagrid’s answer becomes, “Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ medical solutions to their problems.”  Would we accept that answer from a physician?  Is it appropriate to pretend we don’t have talents and professional training because we don’t want to bother using them for someone else’s benefit? What sort of person would I be if I said, “I don’t want people to know I’m an English professor, because someone might want me to teach them about writing or literature?”

But there’s another element here. That “everyone” in Hagrid’s quotation doesn’t really mean everyone; it means MugglesWe see wizards and witches use magic to make a living, and they provide magical solutions to problems throughout the Harry Potter series.  Madam Pomphrey and the Healers at St. Mungo’s treat patients; Ollivander creates and sells wands; the Hogwarts teachers teach; the Aurors catch criminals; Bill Weasley breaks curses.  But these professionals only work for other witches and wizards.  They don’t serve Muggles.

Now, add that bit of racism and xenophobia back into Hagrid’s objection.  And remember that this racism and xenophobia is required by law.  Wizards and witches are not allowed to help Muggles—or at least, they are not allowed to let the Muggles know they are doing it.  Kingsley Shacklebolt has to argue that the wizards have a responsibility to protect Muggles (Deathly Hallows 440). 

Some may argue that the Statute protects Muggles; after all, if wizards and witches can’t use their magic to help Muggles, they can’t use magic to hurt them.  But as far as the Harry Potter novels tell us, the Statute of Secrecy never stopped a witch or wizard from using magic maliciously; it certainly doesn’t stop the Death Eaters or Voldemort’s Ministry from persecuting and murdering Muggles.   The Statute also punishes—or attempts to punish—those who use magic to protect Muggles (see the Ministry’s prosecution of Harry for using the Patronus Charm to protect himself and Dudley in Order of the Phoenix).  It seems like the Statue of Secrecy serves no actual purpose but to isolate the wizards and witches and validate their racism. 

It is only logical and reasonable that such a cultural setting would produce the deep-rooted, overt, and proud racism of the Malfoys and Voldemort.  While the racism that Voldemort and his followers endorse is discredited in the novels, the Statute of Secrecy remains in place.  Since the Statute requires xenophobia and racial discrimination, it is likely that the wizarding world will continue to produce Malfoys, will produce other groups like the Death Eaters, and may ultimately produce another Voldemort.




* I just fell and broke my wrist, indoors, on a perfectly dry floor.  But if you prefer a better story: I was walking back to Salem Witches’ Institute to Arkham Academy when my students and I were attacked by dark wizards from Miskatonic University.  I hit the first one with the Entrail-Expelling Curse, then turned to hit the second one with a Hurling Hex, but I slipped in the entrails, fell, and broke my wrist.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Epic Battle: Voldemort vs. Satan

Generally, when I teach literature survey courses, I include Milton's Paradise Lost.  Not only did the epic influence later authors and works, but it continues the epic tradition (a major focus in my World Literature I class), shows the influence of Shakespeare and other authors, and also reflects the history and culture in which it was written.  

But Paradise Lost exhibits an uncomfortable fascination with its villain, Satan.  The Romantic author, William Blake, claims in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Milton was "of the Devil's party" (plate 5, p. 52)*, and later critics have often agreed.  Readers just can't help admiring Satan. 

Did Milton intend us to admire Satan?  Probably not.  Milton makes a point of showing us, repeatedly, that Satan is evil, sinful, and corrupt.  Satan is proud.  Yes, he rebelled against God, and he continually chooses to rebel, because of this pride.  In the epic's own terms, Satan is wrong to rebel: Milton's God is unequaled and totally good, and therefore is entitled to and worthy of the worship he demands.  Worse, Satan knows he's wrong and knows he has a choice--and he does it anyway.  To add insult to injury, he gets others to join him, and then he goes and corrupts Adam and Eve just to give God the figurative bird.  

But as evil as Satan is, there's something great and grand about him.  He has the qualities of a great king.  He leads by example, both leading his troops in the battle against God and the angels, and by taking on the mission that none of the other devils would volunteer for: spying on Adam and Eve. Like most epic kings, Satan speaks well. His speeches are generally the finest in Paradise Lost and include the off-quoted "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n" (PL 1.254-55) and "To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: / Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heav'n" (PL 1.262-63).  He rallies his troops with rhetoric about freedom and liberty, beliefs dear to English and Americans alike, and he blames their defeat not on the devils' failure, but on God's superior strength.  He gives his followers hope and renews their ambition in Books 1, 2, and 3.

And there is something undeniably brave about Milton's Satan.  He rebels against God.  Of course, Satan will lose--because he's fighting the omnipotent Christian God who is, well, omnipotent.  When defeated, Satan puts a brave face on it, rallies his troops, and vows to try again, even if only to stick it to God.  Satan's in the wrong, and the audience knows it.  But even though we can see that Satan is sinful and prideful and stubborn, we can equally see that he is no coward.  Like many heroic figures, he's willing to fight on, even in the face of overwhelming odds, for his values.  The values are flawed, yes, but the steadfastness, though wrongly directed, is admirable.

That bravery is poignant, because Satan knows he's wrong and he knows he's going to be defeated, and he chooses to go on because of his pride.  Milton makes a point of showing us Satan's self-awareness of his own sin, of his own free will, and of its consequences in a long speech in Book 4 (32-113). I won't quote the whole thing here, but Satan acknowledges that God is good (42-47), that he had the choice to rebel or not (66), and that he could repent, but his pride forbids it (79-85).  Satan also knows that what he claimed before--that the mind could make Hell heavenly--is wrong: "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell" (75).  Not only is Satan brave: he's wise enough to understand what he's done, and how he's paying for it.  

The idea of free will, and the choice to become evil, can easily connect Milton's Satan to Rowling's Voldemort.  Voldemort, too, makes a choice--several choices--to become evil, and like Satan, he pays for that choice.  But Voldemort lacks Satan's grandeur and admirable qualities, and next to Milton's Satan, Voldemort seems like a one-dimensional mafia boss instead of a tragic villain.

Granted, Voldemort's speeches come off the worse than Satan's because a) Milton is writing in poetry and Rowling in prose; and b) Milton is writing an epic, a form that highlights and, to a certain extent, depends on grand speeches.  But Voldemort's content is also much less admirable than Satan's.  In Books 1, 2, and 3 of Paradises Lost, Satan rallies his troops, talks grandly about their newfound freedom from God's tyranny (Satan's words, not mine), and proposes to keep up the fight.  Voldemort's first long speech to Harry in The Chamber of Secrets brags about what he, Voldemort, accomplished.  In the graveyard scene of Goblet of Fire, Voldemort focuses on the Death Eaters' betrayal of him and the wrongs they have committed against him and on what he, Voldemort, plans to do about them and about Harry Potter.  Voldemort's speeches in The Deathly Hallows, one to the Death Eaters as a group and one to Snape, again focus on Voldemort: his actions, his mistakes, what he must do about them.  With Satan, it's all about the group: what they can do about their defeat.  With Voldemort, it's all about him, and it's always about him only.

Voldemort isn't exactly a coward, but he isn't exactly brave, either: he'll fight Dumbledore when he has to. But he generally sends other people to do his dirty work.  Note that, in The Order of the Phoenix, he shows up at the Ministry when his Death Eaters have failed and only to face Harry and the other teenagers; Voldemort isn't aware that Dumbledore is on the scene. We shouldn't be surprised by this behavior.  In Goblet of Fire, Voldemort proposes to prove his own magical superiority by fighting a wounded, fourteen-year old boy, and Voldemort usually leads by bullying other people.  Satan, though proud enough to think himself God's equal, tries to prove it by fighting God, not kids.

Voldemort also lacks Satan's self-awareness both of his own choices and the consequences of those choices.  Voldemort lies, manipulates, steals, tortures, and murders, not to mention maiming his own soul, but he seems to have no concept that what he is doing is wrong.  When we see him as a child in The Half-Blood Prince, he is stealing and bullying and hurting other children, and the boy Tom Riddle only acknowledges these actions when forced, and only makes restitution when forced. Rowling shows Voldemort engaging in the same behaviors--and worse ones--as an adult, again; despite what Dumbledore says about bad behavior not being tolerated at Hogwarts, Voldemort doesn't learn that he's engaging in bad behavior.  Voldemort lies and tortures and murders because he can, because he's more brilliant and powerful than anyone else, and because might (in his mind) makes right.  Despite his intelligence, despite his learning, despite his age and experience, Voldemort doesn't change or learn from the time he's eleven until his death.

And this, more than anything else, makes Voldemort one-dimensional where Satan is tragic. When Harry asks Voldemort to try for a little remorse in The Deathly Hallows, Harry doesn't realize that he's asking for the impossible.  Remorse requires the understanding that one is in the wrong, and despite his great intelligence, Voldemort doesn't have that insight, refuses to learn, and may be incapable of learning. He can never be saved, because he cannot learn, and because he cannot see or acknowledge any right, or rights, outside himself.   Voldemort's self-centeredness and willful blindness is not tragic.  It doesn't inspire  pity and fear, but contempt.  Villains like Voldemort--selfish, dismissive of others' rights, willing to break rules / laws because they want to and because they can--do not appear in our tragedies.  Instead, they are mocked on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report because of their blindness, hypocrisy, and lack of critical thinking.  

Satan, on the other hand, realizes his own evil, knows his own sins, and acknowledges them; he could repent, as he says in that long speech in Book 4 cited above, if it were not for his pride.  To understand one's evil and be capable of repentance and of goodness, and yet choose evil because of a flaw in character--that the stuff of tragedy. We see it in our tragic heroes, such as Oedipus, Othello, and Hamlet, and in our tragic villains, such as Iago and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, and in characters that combine heroic and villainous characteristics, like Macbeth.  To choose evil despite one's virtues and self-knowledge is wrong, but we can admire the character as we condemn the choice.  


* The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 2, 3rd ed., ed. M. H. Abrams et. al.  New York: Norton, 1979.  Yes, I have later editions, but they're in my office.