Tag: Harry Potter (Page 1 of 2)

The State of the Art in the Social Science of Pop Culture

Slate posted a piece on the academic study of pop culture.  It found that academics studied Buffy the Vampire Slayer most.  Well, actually, no, it found that more folks studied the Buffy than the Matrix, the Simpsons, Aliens or The Wire.

This led to a Facebook discussion of selection bias.  We can discuss the merits of these five and ponder why the Simpsons did so poorly (perhaps we need a consistent plot progression?), or why the Wire is under-valued yet again.  That the 2nd and 3rd Matrix movies sucked so much that they sucked all the air out of the studying the Matrix enterprise? But what is most obvious is that this “study” is that it ignored the big, enduring elements of pop culture that we have been obsessing about for years/generations: Star Wars, Star Trek (which is tossed off as an side), Lord of the Rings, and, more recently, Harry Potter.  Using just the Berkeley source, Star Wars appears to be ahead of Buffy. 

Using scholar.google:

  • Buffy produces 6k hits; 
  • Star Trek: 30k; 
  • Star Wars: 51k (affected by Reagan’s naming of the Strategic Defense Initiative);
  • Lord of the Rings: 22k; 
  • Harry Potter: 32k.

To get a more systematic view, I used Publish or Perish, which relies on scholar google to build comparisons. If there are over a 100 papers, it just does the stats for one hundred (maybe I am lousy at setting the parameters, but this is a blogpost, not a submission to a journal).  There is plenty of error, of course, but there are some systematic patterns.

Papers Cites Cites per paper Cites per year H index* Most cited piece
Buffy TVS 100 4303 43 269 28 836
Harry Potter 83 6770 81 339 43 1296
Lord of the Rings 100 8339 83 83 33 1961
Star Trek 100 7192 72 153 37 926
Star Wars 100 9915 99 275 37 816
Simpsons 100 3164 32 44 24 507
The Matrix Trilogy 100 973 10 22 14 100
Alien Movies 100 370 4 2 9 54

Star Wars has the most citations but probably the most error given the aforementioned SDI bias.  What this does show is that the classics (old) double more or less Buffy while the new (Harry) has 50% more citations.  In terms of which papers have the most impact on average, again Star Wars  prevails but Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter lead the rest (and probably have fewer accidental cites along the way).  Harry Potter has the highest rate of cites per year since all of JK’s stuff came out since 1997.  This produces the highest H-index.  Buffy performs quite well, certainly outclassing the Matrix because, well, quality does matter after all.   The Simpsons do pretty well.  Aliens?  Scary but not worthy of citations.  Star Trek is a steady performer, among the leaders across the border, and with fewer false positives than Star Wars.  The Wire, well, hard to measure since even restricting Publish or Perish searches to social sciences gives way too many non-The Wire hits (same goes for Breaking Bad and Mad Men).  I guess folks will have to settle for The Wire remaining the best TV program in most folks’ minds and perhaps the best application of social science in a TV show.

Aside from the lesson that Slate does apparently poor pop social science, what can we learn from this exercise (other than my priorities are lousy–I should be doing something other than this–including my summer project of finally watching season one of Buffy)?  That we live in a golden age of pop culture and its over-analysis?  That Harry beats Buffy?  That Dan Nexon should edit a sequel to the previous HP volume?  That Star Wars and Star Trek fans have something else over which to fight?  That the Matrix really did suck?  What conclusions do the readers have?

Of course, one could argue that I have some selection bias myself–that this was hardly a systematic study of pop culture.  There might be other books/tv programs/movies that get more analysis than these.**  But I did do due diligence, web 2.0 style by crowdsourcing first. Certainly, one can do this better if one is writing a dissertation.  And surely someone is.

*  from Publish orPerish: H-index aims to measure the cumulative impact of a researcher’s output by looking at the amount of citation his/her work has received. Publish or Perish calculates and displays the h index proper, its associated proportionality constant a (from Nc,tot = ah2), and the rate parameter m (from h ~ mn, where n is the number of years since the first publication).

** Sorry, Charli, you don’t want to know how BSG did.  Let’s just say, BSG might be able to get tenure but not promotion to Full Professor.


Pop Culture Narratives in World Politics: A Bleg

I will be on a panel at 1.45pm in Indigo A with the following description:

There has been a growing body of work in world politics that relies on or analyzes fictional narratives. To what extent can cultutal phenomena like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter be used as for pedagogical purposes in the classroom? How useful are such narratives as data points to either explicate or substantiate theoretical claims in world politics? This roundtable weighs the costs and benefits of using popular culture narratives inside the classroom and in publications.

Charli Carpenter will be discussing her work on the intersection (PDF) between Battlestar Galactica and real-world politics. I assume that Patrick James will tell us about his forthcoming book on teaching international relations through The Lord of the Rings. I expect that you all can guess what Dan Drezner’s role on the panel will be. I’m not at all sure what Jonathan Cristol will present — perhaps something on Philip K. Dick?

Here’s my question: what should I talk about? I don’t have any interest in revisiting the substance of Harry Potter and International Relations, which leaves four options:

  1. Methods and Methodology. In essence, I could discuss my thinking — six-years on — about the framework Iver Neumann and I developed for HP&IR. If Steve Saideman will allow me to present last, this might be a nice way to close out the disparate panel presentations.
  2. The Hunger Games. My guess is that I would talk about the series from the perspective of the four  approaches to popular culture and politics referenced in the first option.
  3. Interstellar Relations: The Politics of Speculative Fiction. The substance and pedagogy of the class I teach, with ample kudos to PTJ’s influence.
  4. Strange IR: International-Relations Theory as Speculative Fiction. A discussion of a paper idea that PM came up with after we finished a brief comment on whether the nineteenth century was the most important  (.doc) “turning point” in international politics. In brief, why a number of over-the-horizon developments — the “great convergence,” climate change, the end of the “Age of Efflorescence” — might alter the constitutive rules of international politics and how coming to grips with that requires practical science fiction. 

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.


Stability Ops Among Muggles

Foreign Policy‘s latest foray into the nexus between science fiction and political reality is a lively sketch on post-conflict reconstruction, Harry Potter style. Written by experts on the topic from the Marine Corps War College, Human Rights Watch and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, the key point is this: though the “story” ends when the bad guys are vanquished (be they Deatheaters or Saddam Hussein’s forces) is is then that the real battle begins.

Former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre and retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan have described four pillars of post-conflict reconstruction: security, governance and participation, urgent social and economic needs, and justice and reconciliation. Of these pillars, the magical world can currently afford to feel complacent about only one — social and economic needs. After all, with the proper application of scouring, mending, and engorgement charms, much of the physical damage wrought by the war can be repaired, and food can be multiplied to meet the needs of the population. But with respect to the other imperatives, critical challenges remain.

Surviving Death Eaters will have to be brought to justice or reintegrated into magical society. Long-standing rifts among magical communities that the war widened must be healed. Most of all, we must ensure that the values that triumphed in the final battle — tolerance, pluralism, and respect for the dignity of all magical and non-magical creatures alike — are reflected in the institutions and arrangements that emerge from the conflict. What ultimately matters is not just whether something evil was defeated, but whether something good is built in its place.

Brilliant article; I must say, however, that I’m not sure the same dilemmas of post-conflict reconstruction apply to the end of all conflicts in the same way. Invoking “the recent experience of American Muggles in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the piece would seem a rejoinder to Bush-era declarations of “Mission: Accomplished.” But the defeat of Voldemort is more like the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait than it is like the US’ invasion and occupation of the Middle East and Central Asia post-9/11.

Voldemort, after all, is the invader; he is simply repulsed. It’s not as if Hogwarts invades the Muggle world, wins, and then has to deal with all the thorny dilemmas of reconstituting Muggle society. Hogwarts basically just defended its own borders and identity. As such its reconstruction projects will be more like Kuwait’s in the absence of Saddam’s invading army (rebuilding walls and lives) than like those of the US in Iraq in the absence of the old order (rebuilding society itself from scratch).

Even in such instances, as Cynthia Enloe reminded us in her post-Gulf War book The Morning After, victory is never as straight-forward as it would seem. But how non-straight-forward may be a matter of significant degree.


Terror, Counter-Terror, and Insurgency in Harry Potter, or Why Harry Won

In the waning days of classes, one of my colleagues asked a student if she’d been among those celebrating outside of the White House the night that President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin-Laden. “Of course,” she responded, “I mean, they got Voldemort!”

For many readers who aged along with its titular hero, the Harry Potter series inextricably intertwines with the war on terrorism. This connection stems from more than a mere accident of timing. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) provides readers their first glimpse of the Death Easters as they carry out a terror attack against the wizarding’s greatest sporting event, the Quidditch World Cup. The Goblet of Fire also expands upon themes first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999): state policies of arbitrary detention, torture, wrongful imprisonment, star-chamber style justice, and the use of all four by officials to advance their careers.

Such tropes surely already resonated in the United Kingdom—the “Good Friday” accords were, after all, signed in 1998—but they took on new dimensions with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policy responses. Indeed, for those inclined to see Harry Potter as, at least in part, a parable for terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the flawed responses of the state, the Goblet of Fire’s sequels—Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2003) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2006)—do not disappoint.

In Order of the Pheonix we find the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, refusing to accept that Voldemort has returned. This denial extends to Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to discredit and vilify Harry Potter. These failures of leadership allow Voldemort and his Death Eaters to wage a low-level campaign of terror, murder, and intimidation. Although fans disagree about whether or not the Death Eaters retain their cellular organization from the previous conflict, the only evidence to the contrary concerns Voldemort’s inner circle. It is clear, however, that power and authority among the Death Eaters is highly centralized in Voldemort’s hands.

As is so often the case in politically unstable environments, Fudge worries most not about the possible threat posed by Voldemort, but that Dumbledore seeks to replace him as head of the Ministry. Given Dumbledore’s own political views, particularly with respect to the treatment of sentient magical creatures, Fudge’s attitude made a certain amount of pervese sense. Rowling’s account of the politics of the wizarding world suggest that the Death Eaters’ ideology—essentially one of wizard racial supremacy over muggles and muggle-born wizards and witches—is, in some ways, less revolutionary than that of Dumbledore’s embrace of radical inter-species equality. And, of course, Dumbledore does lead a clandestine paramilitary organization: the Order of the Phoenix.

The Order operates as a secret counter-terror squad determined to stop the Death Eaters even without help from the Ministry. Its structure is, in fact, rather similar to that of the Death Eaters. Through both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, the two groups fight a shadow war that extends into the ranks of the ministry itself. The Order’s main advantage in this struggle involves superior intelligence: that provided by Severus Snape and by Dumbledore’s investigations. Indeed, the film version of the Half-Blood Prince’s (2009) main contributions to advancing the series’ arc center on Harry’s and Dumbledore’s efforts to gain intelligence necessary to defeat Voldemort—the nature, existence, and number of his horcruxes.

Even after indisputable proof of Voldemort’s return at the end of Order of the Phoenix costs Fudge his job, the Ministry remains, at best, an uncertain ally of the Order. The Ministry proves unwilling to take concerted action against a number of likely Death Eaters—not out of a concern for due process, but rather an unwillingness to overly antagonize powerful members of the community. Instead, it engages in ineffectual “security theater,” including incarcerating innocent wizards and witches as suspected Death Eaters. The film version of the Half-Blood Prince drives the resulting fear and uncertainty home by adding a scene in which two of Voldemort’s most powerful lieutenants—Belatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback—attack the Burrow, lure its defenders away, and then burn its upper floors to the ground.

The Ministry’s preference for counter-terror show over substance allows the Death Eaters to subvert it from within. The nature of the conflict changes radically in The Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010), and not simply because of Dumbledore’s (willing) defenestration at Snape’s hands. Voldemort, through his agents, seizes control of the British wizarding government. His followers turn the Ministry’s coercive and propagandistic capacity—augmented by their own equivalent of brownshirts, the Snatchers—toward suppressing opposition to their new order. Taken together, the two parts of the Deathly Hallows films chart a government crackdown on dissent, a growing insurgency waging asymmetric warfare against the state, and Voldemort’s personal Stalingrad, i.e., the Battle of Hogwarts.

As much as I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, Part II, there’s not much in the way of international politics in the film; it deals almost exclusively with the final stages of the second Voldemort war. From this perspective, Part II involves three major events of concerns to scholars of international security:

  • The raid on Gringott’s to seize a crucial enemy resource (a horcrux) that nearly ends in disaster for the resistance;
  • The clandestine incursion to seize another horcrux that unexpectedly prompts an open revolt in Hogwarts; and
  • Voldemort’s attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all in a single battle.

Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Ron’s attack on Gringotts reflects the tactics they perfect over the courses of the series; these tactics fit squarely within the tradition of guerilla and asymmetric warfare. They rely on stealth and deception; they operate as a small mobile strike team. The three show no remorse about using the imperious curse—one of the three “Unforgiveable Curses”—to forward their goals. When detected, they exploit a weakness in their enemy’s defenses: they liberate an imprisoned dragon and use it as a means of escape. In their efforts they are aided by a network of supporters, including Aberforth Dumbledore, who conceals them in Hogsmeade, and, unbeknownst to them, Snape, who, in Part I, goes so far as to provide them with an important weapon—the Sword of Gryffindor and, in Part II, passes on crucial intelligence even as he lies dying.

Behind their success lies the superior intelligence and planning of the Order, and of Dumbledore in particular. Although Dumbledore’s role in the Order appears superficially comparable to Voldemort’s in the Death Eaters, Dumbledore takes extensive steps to ensure that his followers retain operational capability after his demise. He prudently conceals his plans by parceling out information among his agents, and by often encrypting that information to render it unusable by their enemies. He encourages Harry to share key intelligence with Ron and Hermione. Indeed, his efforts to guide the three since their arrival at Hogwarts wield them into a proficient covert operations teams. In the Order of the Phoenix, he does nothing to prevent Harry from training an army of students; “Dumbledore’s Army” provides one of the major fighting forces in the Battle of Hogwarts. In sum, Dumbledore builds an organization capable of surviving decapitation, and one that proves willing to fight on even in the face of Harry’s (apparent) death.

These advantages in intelligence and motivation are not, in of themselves, enough to overcome the Death Eater’s superior firepower, experience, and numbers. But the Death Eaters themselves suffer from a number of weaknesses. The Death Eaters’ problems, in fact, partially overlap with those we often associate with failed counterinsurgency campaigns.

First, Voldemort places far too much strategic emphasis on, and faith in, technological fixes—most notably his horcruxes and the Elder Wand. The former fail, the latter betrays him. Harry, on the other hand, seeks strength in the loyalty of his allies and the force of his cause.

Second, the Death Eaters reliance on fear as a tool of rule gives their regime, like those of Middle Eastern despots, an underlying fragility. Although they quash most dissent, they remain vulnerable so long as resistance continues. Thus, Harry, Ron, and Hermione remain potent symbols of opposition. Events at Hogwarts highlight the fragility of the Death Eaters’ regime, particularly in pockets of ideological opposition. There, Harry’s open defiance of Snape encourages the remnants of Dumbledore’s staff to rebel; previously unaligned students affiliated with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw immediately follow suit.

Indeed, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved, and councils rulers to inflict their injuries at the outset so that they can appear beneficent later, this advice fails miserably for Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s betrayal of Voldemort—a consequence of his cruel treatment of her family for Lucius’ failures—ensures that Harry survives to defeat him. Voldemort’s overtures to the students of Hogwarts after they believe Harry dead provoke resistance rather than capitulation. Or, to paraphrase Rowling, Voldemort does not understand the power of love, only of fear and hatred.

Third, Voldemort’s egocentrism and overdeveloped will-to-power lead him to build, in direct contrast to the Order, an organization that cannot function in his absence. After the end of the first war, his supporters scatter, renounce him, or go into hiding. In the second war, his iron-fisted rule, unwillingness to cultivate replacements, and generally poor people skills ensure that the Death Eaters cannot outlive him. Voldemort’s death shatters the Death Eaters because of their lack of organizational resilience—a direct consequence of their over-centralized leadership structure and reliance on Voldemort’s personal ability to inspire terror.

Voldemort compounds these problems by committing a major strategic blunder: he actively participates in a direct assault on a well-fortified enemy position, one in which his adversaries enjoy superior local knowledge. These are common mistakes made by fictional tyrants. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV allows himself to be lured to Arrakis where the Fremen, led by Paul Maud’Dib, defeat his supposedly invincible Sardukar; Emperor Palpatine, placing far too much faith in his so-called “Death Star,” engineers a final battle in which his forces fall before the rebels and their newfound indigenous care-bearish allies.

Palpatine’s death at the hands of his chief adjutant one might argue, stems from his inability to appreciate the power of love and compassion.

In the books, the tide of battle is turned by the intervention of magical beings, including Centaurs and the House Elves—both of which lack civil and political rights in wizarding society and face an even worse time from Voldemort’s regime. This omission from the film raises questions about the Death Eaters’ defeat. In the real world, insurgencies almost always lose when they attempt to transition to conventional warfare. Only those guerilla leaders that wait until they have state-like manpower and resources (for example, Mao Zedung, Fidel Casto, and Ho Chin Minh) succeed. This does not seem to be the case for Harry and his allies: the students, teachers, and members of the Order at Hogwarts are significantly overmatched by the Death Eaters and their auxiliaries. Whether in the books or the films, the Battle of Hogwarts is a near thing; we should not assume that Voldemort’s defeat was preordained.

Especially in the absence of third-party intervention on behalf of our heroes, Voldemort’s best course of action is straightforward: allows his forces to crush resistance, or at least settle in for a long siege, while he watches from safety. But his reliance on a fearsome reputation to hold his coalition together, combined with his narcissism, compel Voldemort to face Harry himself. Indeed, Harry only survives numerous confrontations with Death Eaters because of Voldemort’s unwillingness to delegate key tasks to his subordinates. And here, again, we see the superiority of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s approach to leadership, let alone their specific command decisions.

If audiences can merge Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden as embodiments of evil, this becomes more complicated once the Death Eaters achieve military superiority. Their terrorism ceases to be that of a weapon of the weak; it takes the form of state terrorism—directed against the state’s own citizens. The most obvious analogy here, both with respect to ideology and to style, is with Nazi occupation governments. But we might also draw parallels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or, in fact, with what an Al-Qaeda inspired regime in the Middle East might look like. For their part, once Harry and his friends find themselves reduced to the position of insurgents, (and branded as terrorists, no less), they prove willing to adopt some of their opponents’ tactics, including the use of Unforgiveable Curses.

To the extent that the comparison continues to instruct, it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the series of events that climax in The Deathly Hallows, Part II stand as a powerful indictment of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rowling’s deliberate condemnation of the repression she worked against while at Amnesty International resonates with recent experiences of arbitrary detention, torture, and incarceration of political dissidents. On the other hand, we can only hope that the Death Eaters’ pathologies are those of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. In the real world, however, few leaders prove as indispensible to a violent movements’ persistence as Voldemort. Given our tendency to personalize and personify our enemies, we would do well to remember that the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is, in the final analysis, just a movie.

This is a different stab at an international-affairs discussion of The Deathly Hallows. Be sure to read the other attempt.


Harry Potter and Foreign Policy, or Voldemort is not Osama Bin Laden

One draft of a piece that will not be appearing anytime soon. I will post the other version, a strategic-studies analysis of the outcome of the Deathly Hallows, later on.

The sixth Harry Potter film, the Half-Blood Prince (2009), opens with Harry standing side-by-side with his mentor, recently reinstated Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Blinding flashbulbs illuminate Harry’s vacant stare, rendering the scene a literal, as well as figurative, flashback to the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, in which three clandestine forces clashed within the Ministry of Magic itself: Voldemort’s Death Eaters, Dumbledore’s Order of the Phoenix, and Dumbledore’s Army (the “DA”)—students trained in secret by Harry in “defense against the dark arts.” Harry’s indifference stems from shock: his godfather, Sirius Black, died in the battle, and in the background we hear the voices of Voldemort and Black’s killer, the insane Bellatrix Lestrange.

Flash forward to a modern glass-and-metal office building in London. Disbelieving office workers leave a conference table and walk to its picture window as storm clouds appear from nowhere. Darkness rapidly engulfs the sky. The camera tacks into the thunderous clouds themselves as they form into the image of a skull: the Death Eater’s Dark Mark. Three inky-black vaporous streams emerge from it. They look and move like the trails of impossibly agile sidewinder missiles. The three, which fans of the films recognize as flying Death Eaters, zoom down over the Thames as the camera moves into position behind them. They streak on through Trafalgar square and the streets of London. They’re no longer sidewinders, but rather supersonic air-launched cruise missiles. They pass into the heart of the wizarding world in London, Diagon Alley, and slam into Olivander’s Wands.

The camera pulls back to give a birds-eye view of the shop exploding—sending glass flying and knocking bystanders to the ground. The camera cuts to street level to show Fenrir Grayback, a werewolf and ally of Voldemort, roughly dragging Olivander—head obscured under a blindfolding black hood—away from his shop. In the company of two Death Eaters, Grayback launches into the air with Olivander. But before they leave London, the three fly along the Millennium Bridge. The force of their passage rips the bridge from its supports. It collapses, along with terrified pedestrians, into the Thames.

The opening of the Half-Blood Prince continues a trend begun in the Order of the Phoenix, in which danger bleeds seamlessly from the wizarding world into our own, and back again. None of this sequence, I should add, is a faithful translation of the book onto the screen. In the novels, Voldemort is the only Death Eater capable of unassisted flight. Readers learn of Olivander’s abduction via exposition. In the opening chapter of the Half-Blood Prince, recently sacked Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge informs the Prime Minister of Britain that Voldemort is behind the destruction of a (fictional) bridge: “The Brockdale Bridge – he did it… he threatened a mass Muggle killing unless I stood aside for him and….” David Yates’ direction takes a basic fact about the Death Eaters—they are, by organization and tactics, terrorists—and renders it visceral. Its imagery blurs the distinction between magic and modern weaponry. Terrorism and warfare, it suggests, aren’t so different in Diagon Alley from the streets of Baghdad.

Indeed, later on in the Half-Blood Prince, Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger take a trip to Diagon Alley to, as they have every year since being accepted into Hogwarts, purchase school supplies. On their way to Fred and George’s joke shop, they pass the abandoned and burnt-out wreck of Olivander’s Wands. As in the books, Hogwarts, already scarred by the brief, but ruthless, tenure of Ministry of Magic hack Dolores Umbridge, has been transformed. The school is under lockdown, protected by magical defenses and the special agents of the Wizard world, the Aurors. We also see it, for the first time, through the eyes of adolescents firmly on their way to adulthood. Harry and Ron tower above first-year students. Yates makes sure we notice snogging teenagers as his camera pans the halls. In some scenes, students lounge around drinking unidentified substances in the hours between classes and curfew.

By the film’s end, these twin transitions are complete. Hogwart’s defenses have been compromised through the actions of Draco Malfoy, a student and uneasy Death Eater; Dumbledore lies dead at the hands of Severus Snape—a double-agent for the Order who, at least for the moment, appears to have actually been working as a triple-agent; and Harry, along with Hermione and Ron, has vowed to leave behind Hogwarts to find Voldemort’s remaining horcruxes: hidden containers for parts of his soul that, as long as they persist, protect him from death.

In many ways, the Harry Potter series interfaces uncomfortably with most understandings of international relations. Foreign policy is often about balancing unpalatable alternatives, as has been the story of US engagement with the so-called “Arab Spring,” its efforts to ensure the delivery of vital supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and its dealings with North Korea. Rowling’s novels—and their film versions—are too sophisticated not to allow even good characters to make bad, and even cruel, decisions. For example, a significant thematic of The Deathly Hallows is that Dumbledore, who we know as a paragon of moral rectitude and self-sacrifice, has lived a far from untarnished life.

The wizarding world that Harry and his friends fight to defend is itself deeply flawed. Its enslavement of House-Elves is so complete that all but Dobby recoil at the thought of freedom. It denies full political and civil rights to other sentient magical creatures, including Centaurs and Goblins. Many of its members look upon non-magical humans (Muggles) with a sense of smug superiority; more than a few refer to witches and wizards born of Muggles as “mudbloods.” The Ministry of Magic proves willing to propagandize against those it considers threats via British wizardry’s leading newspaper, The Daily Prophet. As the series unfolds, we also see it conduct star-chamber trials, condemn people to torture at the hands of the soul-sucking Dementors, and frequently bend to the desires of the rich and powerful.

Through all of this, however, Rowling never gives us any reason to doubt that Voldemort and his Death Eaters are evil embodied. They stand for racial subordination, tyranny, and the sacrifice of others to their own ambitions. Voldemort himself is the series’ “Big Bad”; his every action, as well as his very appearance confirms his demonic nature. Voldemort’s eyes are and nostrils are slits, his skin serpentine. He commits numerous atrocities, such as suspending a tortured Hogwarts teacher (of “Muggle studies”) above the table on which he and his followers eat dinner or feeding an innocent old man to his snake familiar. Indeed, while many of Rowling’s “good” characters are flawed, and her “bad” characters—other than Voldemort—capable of redemption, there is little moral ambiguity in Harry Potter.

If there exists an explicit foreign-policy message in Harry Potter, it is that we should not sacrifice liberty for security. The books are resolutely anti-torture. Hogwarts games keeper Hagrid is briefly sent to Azkaban—the wizarding world’s Guantanamo Bay—without anything approximating due process. Sirius Black spends years there for crimes he didn’t commit, during which he is driven (temporarily) insane. Rowling strongly suggests that even the guilty do not deserve punishment at the hands of Azkaban’s Dementors.

In fact, the Ministry’s practices prove steps along the slippery slope to fascism and tyranny. Once the Death Eater’s subvert it from within, they easily harness its institutional apparatus for the persecution of mudbloods and other “undesirables.” They deploy its propaganda to further their ideological of racial purity and magical superiority, as well as to brand Harry the most dangerous enemy of the wizarding community. Although they control some recalcitrant officials with the Imperious Curse, others, including Umbridge, eagerly embrace the Ministry’s new policies. As long as Voldemort stays in the shadows, many wizards and witches don’t even recognize that his forces have seized control.

Once the Ministry falls, the dominant tropes of the two Deathly Hallows films increasingly center around those of a resistance movement fighting against a tyrannical regime. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione pursue Voldemort’s horcruxes they mount what are, in effect, guerilla raids against the Ministry and the Death Eaters. Disguised as employees, they sneak into the Ministry to retrieve a horcrux, find themselves freeing a group of “mudbloods,” and barely escape capture. They spend a good deal of the rest of the film running and hiding. Eventually, their attempts to gather intelligence lead to their apprehension by a group of Death Eaters. With the assistance—and self-sacrifice—of Dobby the House-Elf, they escape from the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange only moments before Voldemort arrives to kill Harry.

Most of Part II concerns the final showdown with Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The pre-title sequence of Part II begins with Voldemort acquiring the most powerful wand ever created—the so-called “Elder Wand”—which he believes will make him invincible. The Battle of Hogwarts provides the major set piece of Part II, but beforehand some unfinished business remains. Harry, Ron, and Hermione steal one of the final horcruxes from Gringott’s Bank—the HSBC of the wizarding world… if HSBC were run by goblins and stored its patrons’ treasure in vault-lined caves and tunnels. Once again they narrowly evade capture, only this time they do so on the back of an abused dragon who guards the most important vaults. Their ride over London provides our last glimpse of the Muggle world until the film’s epilogue, which is fitting, because from hereafter we are firmly in the realm of fantasy.

The Battle of Hogwarts features a titanic clash between good and evil; moments of redemption , self-sacrifice, and rebirth; the triumph of the few over the many; and a final duel between Voldemort and Harry. The “Elder Wand” betrays Voldemort; it recognizes, for reasons too convoluted to explain here, that Harry as its true master. In the end, Harry breaks it into pieces and, in doing so, renounces the will-to-power that so twisted Voldemort.

In this respect, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is something like comfort food for unsettled times. Many people whom fans have grown to care about lose their lives, but never in vain. Voldemort’s defeat marks the end of the Death Eaters: absent his vision and the fear he inspires, they cannot recover. No wonder long-circulating comparisons between Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden gained a new lease on life in the lead up to the film’s release: for a generation reared on Harry Potter and marked by 9/11, it seems fitting that US forces killed Bin Laden not long before opening day. And it is nice, just for a moment, to imagine that Al-Qaeda, like the Death Eaters, will simply melt away.

But I think it is too easy to dismiss Harry Potter as fantastic escapism. Popular culture seldom has a direct effect on international politics. Instead, it supplies common referents that shape our understandings of events; its images, narratives, and ideas intrude into the “common sense” of its consumers. How it represents, for example, ethnic groups, ideologies, and threats matters. Thus, the very idea of an analogy between Voldemort and Bin Laden, and the ease with which it comes to mind for students of a certain age, takes on some significance. To the extent that popular culture influences our understandings of right and wrong, then the content of Potter’s moral compass matters even more. Rowling’s sophisticated treatment of torture, justice, propaganda, political inequality, and the dangers of state excess are likely to be among the enduring legacy of the novels and films.


Harry Potter, Social Misfits, and the Popular Crowd

Amanda Marcotte (via Zack Beauchamp):

“Harry isn’t a nerd,” I said, “Harry is a jock.” I mean, Harry has an existential crisis that gives him some depth, but social outcast and/or geek he’s not. The opposite, in fact.

I realized then that the “band of misfits” theme has so much power over the American imagination (maybe not the British, which could explain Rowling’s choices) that people just sort of shove Harry and his friends into that mold, and then rely on a handful of rationalizations for it—Harry wears glasses, Hermione is a bookworm, Ron is a redhead—in order for that theory to make sense. We’re used to the X-Men or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby Gang, so much so that we don’t see that Harry’s trajectory is the inverse of Buffy’s. Buffy is a former cheerleader whose magic powers actually make her a geek and an outcast. Harry is a nobody-special who finds out that he’s special, and becomes not just the star athlete and hero of his school, but an actual celebrity. Sure, there’s ups and downs, but his trajectory is away from being the outcast and towards being the homecoming king.

E.D. Kain provides a more nuanced analysis:

Well…almost. Potter may be a chip off the old block, but he’s not an arrogant bully like his father was. Likewise, Potter may not be an outcast himself but he attracts outcasts. Hagrid, Neville, Luna Lovegood, Dobby – these are all social outcasts attracted to Potter because he gladly welcomes social outcasts into his circle, and because he identifies with them in spite of his own celebrity (or perhaps because of it).

Marcotte uses the Snape/Potter animas as an example of the nerd/jock tension, but I don’t think that holds out either. That mutual hatred was born before Harry was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Snape hates the part of Harry that is a reflection of James. If Snape and Harry were classmates, instead of Snape and James Potter, it’s quite likely things would have gone differently between them.

Nevertheless, I agree with Marcotte’s larger point. Harry is no social outcast himself, even if he doesn’t really recognize his own popularity or use it to gain advantage over others. He’s not your typical pop-culture jock either, or your typical hero. His greatness has been largely thrust upon him. More importantly, his success is almost always thanks to the help of his friends. It is his loyalty and his friendship that defines him and bulwarks him against his enemies, not his role as a jock or an outcast. He is Frodo-like in this regard, doomed to failure without the faithful Sam to carry his burden for him.

I want to expand on this a bit further: Rowling consistently pushes the theme that our choices, not our “natures,” define us. Social environment matters a great deal, but can also be overcome by the decisions we make. What Snape cannot recognize is that Harry is a counterfactual James (and even James, despite his character flaws, chooses the right side). Harry grows up bullied, marginalized, and abused. Rather than adopting–as so many would under his circumstances–the role of bully and abuser, he develops a profound sense of compassion and humility. Recall that what shocks Harry so much about seeing Snape’s past (during Occlumency lessons) is that it echoes his own torment at the hands of Dudley.

Indeed, Harry repeatedly rejects the opportunities afforded him by his new-found fame, wealth, and athletic prowess. Consider the first two choices he makes in The Philosopher’s Stone: to turn down Malfoy’s offer of friendship and the chance to be in Slytherin house. Griffindor may be for the brave of heart, but that group includes Ron and Neville; neither of whom seem, at first brush, preordained for courageous feats. In this respect, he’s closer to Buffy than Marcotte recognizes: Buffy also (in the Pilot) aligns herself with the outcasts and nerds.

I think, in another important respect, Marcotte gets it wrong: Slytherin is not the “nerd house,” but that of those willing to let nothing stand in the way of greatness. Snape is a nerd and an outcast, but that’s not why he is in Slytherin. After all, Luna is sorted into Ravenclaw. Hermione is a Gryffindor. Let’s not forget that until magical dentistry and her appearance at the ball, Hermione suffers constant ridicule for her mousy appearance and nerdy disposition. My memory may be off here, but although Hermione emerges from adolescence as a rather attractive girl, she’s never presented as stunningly beautiful. In other words, we should avoid conflating the Hermione of the books with Emma Watson.

My central point is not that Harry Potter is a nerd, but that he is a misfit–by choice. Harry does complicate Marcotte’s distinctions, as Kain notes. But perhaps Marcotte, not popular culture, is responsible for drawing such stark alternatives? After all, the X-Men, contra Marcotte, had popular, rich, and attractive members in their shifting ranks.


Friday Nerd Blogging: Late to the Party (Part the Second)

We saw HPatDHpt2 (as the young’ns are calling it) this evening. It was quite good: action-packed, emotionally satisfying, and all that. We sat next to a group of hipster teenagers who were extremely psyched throughout the whole thing–they clapped, they cheered, and were very upset when my daughter interjected commentary (“That’s a lot of Death Eaters!”). This provided an important reminder of how a whole generation of kids grew up with — or, more accurately, aged along with — the Harry Potter novels. Anyway, I may be doing a review for a “real” online outlet this weekend; I’ll post a link if it comes together.

But that’s not the subject of this post. I discovered web comics relatively recently; although that makes me very late to the party, I still want to point to two superlative sf/fantasy publications available online.

First, Girl Genius. While my wife was out of the country last year, I stayed up all night reading the adventures of Agatha Heterodyne and her (ever-increasing) cast of supporting characters. Produced out of the gleefully demented minds of Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius has won numerous accolades — in this case, well-deserved ones.

Agatha lives in a “steam punk” world, but that dubious quality doesn’t overwhelm the comic. Instead, it provides a whimsical  backdrop for wacky adventures in the mold of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fantastic adventures –albeit updated in sensibility, particularly in terms of gender roles.

In Girl Genius, “sparks” — super-genius mad scientists — are in the driver’s seat of world events. At its start, a powerful spark exerts hegemony over Europea from his “city” of dirigibles and other aircraft. His position comes as much as anything else from a power vacuum left by the departure of the Heterodyne brothers — members of a long line of “sparks” who turned from villainy to heroism, but then disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The plot becomes more convoluted every few weeks, so that’s as far as I’ll attempt to explain it. The key points: Girl Genius is more than a page-turning yarn, it is often downright hilarious. I snorted a caffeinated beverage during a certain sequence involving a coffee machine.

Second, Gunnerkrigg Court. This gem is even harder to describe than Girl Genius. A female-centric Harry Potter on acid? Maybe. Antimony (Annie) Carver arrives at the mysterious Gunnerkrigg Court. Within a few panels, she befriends a sentient shadow and builds a robot. Then the series gets weirder. Annie’s mother is dead, her father has disappeared. She becomes best friends with Katja Donlan, a scientific genius (she makes a gravity-field generator out of a thermos and coat hangers). Katja’s parents not only teach at the school, but also were schoolmates with Annie’s father and mother.

Gunnerkirgg Court’s author, Tom Siddell, pilfers liberally from Native American and European folklore, Egyptian mythology, and just about any other source you might imagine. The drawings are deceptively simple, evocative, and sometimes a joy to behold. Despite my — and particularly my wife’s — concern that some of the subject matter is inappropriate (which it is), Lyra loves it so much that she’s stolen my print version, makes me read it aloud, and reads it to herself day and night. I console myself with the fact that Gunnerkrigg Court is full of powerful, competent, and resourceful female characters. And that Siddell does a wonderful job alternating between melancholy, a little bit scary, and hilarity.

Gunnerkrigg court is also the recipient of a number of completely justified awards.

So, if you’re like me and have been missing out, go read. If you prefer print versions, there are bound collections of the comic, as well as a novel. Same goes, as I’ve already implied, for Gunnerkrigg Court, although only the first volume is currently available (at least for a reasonable price).


Politics of Potter

Alyssa Rosenberg has a good discussion of the anti-torture themes in the Harry Potter series. But she neglects two other ways in which J.K. Rowling critiques the US conduct of the war on terror: Azkaban and arbitrary detention.

Harry’s disdain for the ministry in The Half-Blood Prince focuses on their detention of Stan Shunpike in Azkaban — Stan’s obvious innocence doesn’t deter Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour from scapegoating the young man as part of his effort to create the illusion of security in the Wizarding world. Indeed, Azkaban itself could be any number of soul-devouring prisons in the Muggle world, but in the the last few books it sometimes seems a stand in for Guantanamo Bay.

Given the obvious connections between the Death Eaters and terrorist organizations — from their methods to their cell-structure organization — it doesn’t take much to read the later novels as, in part, a claim that state terror, whatever its purpose, inevitably corrupts democratic governance and renders it vulnerable to fascism and totalitarianism.

(note: I’ve edited this post a bit. Still getting used to blogging from iPad)


Zombie scale?

Abi Southerland on the current popularity of Zombies:

I mentioned this puzzle to my better half, who happens to be in the middle of a reread of World War Z. His answer? … You can have a fascinating story about a single zombie in a world of humans or the last human in a world of zombies. You can do one on one human-zombie interactions, or set entire armies against each other. They work differently as individuals (stupid and clumsy) and in crowds (lucky by means of what sheer numbers can do with probability theory). A group of them is as impersonal as a natural disaster; a single one is as intimate as death or betrayal.

Um. Maybe.

I suspect that, like most social phenomena, we’re in the realm of complex causation. There isn’t one reason for the popularity of the Zombie Apocalypse. Instead, we have a convergence of many reinforcing factors.

1. Over the last 10-15 years we’ve seen a number of different, but independently successful, Zombie-themed cultural artifacts. Just take two examples: we’ve had a generation (at least) of gamers cut their teeth on the Resident Evil franchise. 28 Days Later made a lot of money–and significant cultural impact–back in 2002. Both of these saw success for qualities not at all intrinsic to their Zombie elements, but related to their quality as games or as film.

2. Note I say “Zombie-esque.” Neither Resident Evil nor 28 Days Later dealt with “traditional” Zombies. The Zombies in both are the consequences of contagion unleashed by biomedical experiments. In fact, most contemporary Zombie fare–going back at least to George Romero’s genre-defining work–takes a similar line. While there have been attempts to update Vampire mythology the same way–with Vampyrism as a virus–I don’t think such attempts have really worked. The nature of the transformation seems less plausible; the contrast with fears of mass contagion and biotechnological catastrophe somewhat shallow.

3. Indeed, Zombies aren’t scalable so much in size but in terms of representation. Vampires are basically about sex, sex, and sex: “scary” female sexuality, “scary” eastern sexuality, coming of age, defilement and corruption, etc. Even the “good vampire” genre is basically about sex. You know: some powerful guy proving his love by restraining his natural urges and refusing to take the heroine’s virginity blood, even when the heroine has no such self control and would willingly surrender to him. I’m surprised Twilight didn’t get an grant from the Bush Administration.

Now, Barbara Hambly did once try to use vampirism to riff on nationalism and World War I, but Zombies will always beat Vampires as metaphors for nationalism. Indeed, as Romero himself proved, one can represent anything involving contagion (natural or mimetic), loss of individuality, or consumption with Zombies. And that covers a lot of ground.

4. Zombies are meta. Yes, of course, we all know about Shaun of the Dead, but Zombies have been ironic ever since they first appeared in US popular culture. Vampires just don’t work as objects of the funny-but-still-kinda-scary sort (except, perhaps, in Joss Weedon’s hands). Subject the Vampire mythology to too much scrutiny, however, and collapses under its own quasi-pornographic weight.

[update: I neglected vampirism as “drug abuse,” but I suspect that the The Lost Boys probably proves my point about the limited ways one can successfully use vampires as allegory]

Think of Bill in Left4Dead (“You call this a zombie apocalypse? This ain’t nothin’ compared to the zombie attacks of 1954!”) or Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, Episode 1 (“A Combine zombie. Zombie Combine. That’s, that’s like a… ah… a Zombine! Right? Heh”).

Ultimately, though, the real issue isn’t “Vampires versus Zombies” (although I think I smell a… oh wait, google says it’s been done) but why we’re seeing a wave of interest in metaphorically-laden supernatural thingies.

I would have attributed to the economy–kinda like punk’s big breakout in the US during the early 1990s–but it started before then. 9/11? Harry Potter as gateway drug? What do you think?


Another Harry Potter and International Relations review

With all of the important developments in world politics in need ripe for thoughtful self-important analysis at the Duck, why am I posting another review of Harry Potter and International Relations? Because I can.

Frank A. Stengel in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft:

The study of popular culture is slowly gaining ground within the discipline of International Relations. Not only are more and more teachers discovering movies, music, and so on, as educational tools, but ever more researchers are systemically examining how pop culture influences, and is influenced by, international politics and foreign policy.2 One recent addition to this body of literature is Harry Potter and International Relations. Edited by Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann, this volume comprises nine articles written by scholars and students from different academic backgrounds who discuss various aspects of the International Relations/pop culture connection. Its aim is not only to address the »Harry Potter phenomenon« from an International Relations perspective but also – and more importantly – to demonstrate the relevance of pop culture for the study of world

Indeed, as the editors demonstrate in their introduction, the connection is stronger and more multi-faceted than one might at first expect. […A lot of detail about the book…]

Overall, Harry Potter and International Relations is a highly convincing plea for taking seriously the role of popular culture in world politics. The volume, far from being merely an entertaining read, makes a significant contribution to the field by examining unstudied aspects of the important, but often neglected, connection between pop culture and international politics. Furthermore, using Harry Potter as a lens, the authors offer fresh perspectives on a broad range of International Relations topics. Although a concluding chapter might have added to the book’s coherence by summarizing the findings and »connecting the dots,« this does not bar the book from being highly recommendable for International Relations students and scholars alike (even those firmly rooted in the »Muggle« world). Due to the authors’ comprehensible writing style, the book is suitable not only for academics but also for non-scholarly Harry Potter fans with an interest in world politics. One caveat remains, though: while understanding most of the book does not require prior expertise in International Relations, at least some familiarity with the Harry Potter universe is indispensable.


The Putin phenomenon

I find it difficult sometimes to adequately explain to Americans Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia. We get media stories about Putin’s tightening hold on media and political freedoms, and Americans automatically assume that the Russian people must resent this creeping dictatorship.

Yet Putin is highly popular, with poll numbers achieved only by American presidents in the aftermath of a major crisis. His positives consistently rank in the high 70s–his disapproves are lower than Bush’s approval rating.

Some of Putin’s popularity is easy to explain: Russia is a richer and less chaotic place that it was during the Yeltsin years. High energy prices mean that the government is flush with cash, and salaries and pensions are paid. Putin has also inaugurated a more “muscular” foreign policy, attempting to reassert Russian interests not only in the near-abroad (the former Soviet empire), but in Europe and beyond. This graphic from the BBC’s Russia profile gives a nutshell picture of this side of things.

But it’s not just the economy, stupid. There is much, much more to it. Although Americans have an image of Yeltsin as the man who brought down Communism, in Russia he was widely perceived as a buffoonish drunk, with some justification.

And this is the key to the other part of Putin’s popularity. Not only is Putin a teetotaling technocrat–he’s a manly man. A sex symbol. He’s got his own personality cult–the sort that is not usually devoted to politicians in America. He’s even got a catchy pop song devoted to him: Takogo Kak Putin (Someone Like Putin), in which a female vocalist sings about how her boyfriend was a lousy drunk so she threw him out, and now what she really needs is a strong man like Putin. It’s all rather mind-boggling. Presumably the ex-boyfriend is Yeltsin and the singer herself is a stand-in for Russia in a time of need.

(This is just a clip–an mp3 of the full song is here.)

There are downsides, though, to looming large in the national psyche: back in 2003, when the film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” was released, there was a big flap about an alleged resemblance between Putin and Dobby, the computer-generated house elf. I’m afraid that I find it hard to believe that the character designers had Putin in mind when they were working up Dobby, despite the unfortunate coincidence their respective appearances. So, with that in mind, do watch this delightful clip.

(To fully appreciate the Dobby video, make sure you watch the other clip first.)

Dobby video via Siberian Light


Harry Potter: from hero to global commonplace

For those who might be interested, my lecture notes from my address at Prophecy 2007 follow.

Keep in mind that I departed a great deal from the text, particularly when talking about nationalism and not all of my notes add up to coherent sentences.

Also, the notes I’ve reproduced below constituted prompts rather than text to be read verbatim. I may clean it up one day, but I don’t really have the energy to do so right now.

The clever subtitle of Prophecy 2007, “From Hero to Legend,” raises an interesting question: has Harry Potter passed, in one way or another, into the realm of legend? Or, to put it in broader terms, what are the various relationships between the category of “legend” and Harry Potter, both within the confines of the series and in terms of the Harry Potter phenomenon writ large?

It seems appropriate to begin with some “textbook” definitions of three categories relevant to my discussion: myth, legend, and folklore. These definitions have their own problems, and experts in these fields will rightfully question my use of them, yet they provide good benchmarks for the claims I will make later on.

1. Myth, in the first definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, embodies

A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures , which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

Myths often refer to events “out of time”: the origins of gods, the primordial mist from which a society springs, and so forth.

In popular and some scholarly usages, myth refers to stories that are uncommonly believed to be false. “That’s just a myth.”

2. Legends, in contrast, operate in “human time.” They take place in “our world” and describe people and events that, while at least one element may be of ambiguous veracity, have some plausibility to them. We can argue about whether or not legends really happened in the precise manner described, but they, unlike myths, are in principle verifiable. While Arthur may not have established a “round table” or may not be lying in Avalon to await a new threat to Britain, there may have been a historical figure to which the legends of King Arthur refer—if only in some distant and distorted way.

3. Finally, contemporary understandings of folklore originate in nineteenth-century Romantic Nationalism. For those concerned with the apparently pernicious effects of what we would now term “modernization,” recording and interrogating the “folktales” of rural society became a way of capturing the essence of national character. Folklorists, of course, did not merely record “national culture,” they produced it by enshrining local variations in European peasant culture as exemplars of national difference. Hence the joke that all European “national folk dances” are basically variations on the same theme with a few different moves and shifts in styles of dress.

Regardless, when we speak of folklore we refer to common cultural currency—much of it mythological or legendary in character—that informs and enables communication between members of a community. In doing so, it defines social and cultural communities through shared referents, themes, and narratives.

I am no expert in literature or the analysis of genre, but even to a luddite such as myself it seems that the fantasy genre has a complicated relationship with myth, legend, and folklore. J.R.R. Tolkein, whose work for many defines modern fantasy, built a fully realized world out of an analysis of myth, legend, folklore, and linguistics. His world was more than simply borrowed from these elements, but presented a theory of them.

Consider, also, the late Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. Alexander bases his world in the myths, legends, and folklore of premodern Britain—specifically its Celtic inheritance. But while he lifts elements, he radically reinterprets many of them. Thus the Castle of Llyr bears only some resemblance to the lore surrounding the Children of Llyr from which he borrows the name. The Black Cauldrun is the Cauldrun of Mabinogi, but its narrative role in the Prydain Chronicles is quite different from that of the Second Portion of the Mabinogi. Here legend, transformed into folklore, provides the “source material” for a different story.

The last paragraph of the Prydain Chronciles—of the High King—holds special interest for us. After his costly victory over Arawan, Taran forsakes voyage to the Summer Lands—and hence immortality—in order to set about the hard task of bringing to fruition the many small and large works of those who have perished in the conflict. His love-interest, Eilonwy, forsakes immortality as well:

And they lived many happy years, and the promised tasks were accomplished. Yet long afterward, when all had passed away into distant memory, there were many who wondered whether King Taran, Queen Eilonwy, and their companions had indeed walked the earth, or whether they had been no more than dreams in a tale set down to beguile children. And, in time, only the bards knew the truth of it.

What Alexander describes here, of course, is the passage of “real events” into the realm of legend and even, ultimately, myth. This serves a double purpose. First, as with the Harry Potter series—and so many of the best works of children’s fantasy, such as LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy—the acceptance of death reflects an acceptance of one’s humanity, and thus of one’s interconnectedness with other human beings. But death claims more than self—it ultimately effaces memory of deeds. Second, it locates the Prydain Chronicles in the realm of myth and legend. We might, if we so choose, view them as accounts of “real events” that have been transformed into traces of folktales.

In contrast, Evangeline Walton’s classic Mabinogian Tetrology is a straightforward adaptation of what would once have been legend, but now we think of as folklore. She adapts the narrative elements and introduces mid-20th century interpretations of the transition from pre-Indo European to Indo-European societies, but her work stands as a modern retelling of folkloric source material.

Now these are all examples of so-called “high fantasy,” and some have suggested that Harry Potter is best thought of as “low fantasy.” I think this is wrong, but I’ll return to this later.

So, between such disparate re-workings of legend-cum-folklore we can identify some basic functions of contemporary fantastical fiction. A great deal of fantasy literature might be understood in terms of the disenchantment of the modern world. Reading fantasy provides many with an opportunity to “suspend disbelief” and enter into a re-enchanted world; many examples of fantastical fiction thus mimic the structures of legends. Without confidence in the legendary—that is to say, somewhat true—character of folklore, we produce and read explicitly fictional legends.

In “high fantasy”, much of it derivative of Tolkein, authors invent entire worlds with their own myths, legends, and even folklore. But even in other examples of the fantasy genre, a problem emerges: how to give the constructed world sufficient resonance for it to seem “plausible” or “grounded”? The answer, for many (and here again we see Tolkein’s influence), is to fill the world with real or pseudo-tropes from existing folkloric traditions. This lowers, if you will, the barriers to entry for readers and provides short-cuts for writers.

But regardless of the particular genre of fantasy, any fictional narrative that re-enchants the world creates interesting possibilities: folklore may be, and often proves to be, real. Plots often hinge on how the deeds of great heroes, wizards, or what-have-you—sometimes viewed by characters as suspect—turn out to be, at least to some degree, factual. Separating the “real” from the legendary and folkloric drives plot development. Heroes themselves often are inserted into an ongoing flow of legend and must, if good is to triumph, take up their appointed roles. Perhaps one of the most straightforward—and interesting—examples of this kind of narrative can be found in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Finnovar Tapestry.

So a great deal of fantastical fiction is structured as myth or legend—with various borrowings from our own folklore—with internal myths, legends and folklore in an often unstable conceptual relationship.

How, then, might we cut into the question of “Prophecy… from Hero to Legend” in Harry Potter? Here let me make four arguments: First, as is often the case in fantasy, the shifting relationship between myth—and particularly legend and folklore—is often important to the plot of Harry Potter. Second, Harry’s journey is not from hero to legend, but from legend to hero to legend. Third, Harry Potter is structured as “legend” in a way that helps to explain its tremendous appeal. And, fourth, and I think most important, the Harry Potter phenomenon involves not the translation of hero into legend, but the emergence of a “global commonplace” akin to the conceptual category of folklore.

Myth, Legend, and Folkore in HP

Folkloric elements; legend and myth. Status of certain things as myth/legend/folklore crucial. Characters discuss or dismiss the Chamber of Secrets, for example, as a “legend.” The Deathly Hallows may or may not be a “fairy tale.” But it is particularly interesting that characters in the Harry Potter universe—unlike in many other examples of fantasy—discuss these issues with a “modern” vocabulary. As the Lovegoods’ various obsessions make clear, the Wizarding world is full of fairytales and mythical animals that do not refer to anything real. Within the universe of Harry Potter.

Myth, Legend, and Folklore: HP himself

It encapsulates Harry Potter’s own story. When Harry arrives at Hogwarts he is, after all, something of a legend in the Wizarding World; “the boy who lived”: the only person ever to survive Voldemort’s Avada Kedavra curse. For most of the Wizarding World, and for Harry himself, his survival is the stuff of legend. How he survived, and why he survived, remain—for most of the novels—cloaked in mystery. For Harry to find his place in the world, and to triumph over Voldemort, he must travel a specific kind of hero’s journey in which he transforms himself from a legend into a hero. But having defeated Voldemort, Harry’s heroism will inevitably transition back into the realm of Wizarding legend.

Harry Potter has, from our perspective, the architecture of “legend.”

Harry Potter demands very little “ontological displacement.” Harry exists in our world, in our time, and at least partly in our geography. The fantastic elements of the Wizarding World are almost entirely drawn from European folklore—from the magical creatures, to the language of spells which is either Latin or Latin-esque, to the practice of witchcraft and wizardry which mirrors medieval and early modern accounts. In many ways, the Wizarding world is quite mundane. Magic functions as an alternative technology, bureaucrats bumble, reporters twist the facts, the Ministry regulates international trade, and we even have a World Cup.

Harry Potter does not, therefore, take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” or on a parallel world with its own geography, history, myth, legend, and folklore. Harry is not LeGuin’s Ged, Nix’s Sabriel, or one of the countless heroes and heroines of fantasy who step through a magic portal and find themselves in a cosmological struggle between good and evil. He is a boy who discovers, on his birthday, that he is part of a “secret society” with its own—mostly familiar—rules, practices, and struggles—ones that bleed seamlessly into 20th and 21st century Britain. Harry Potter is, as some people say, “low fantasy.” But unlike many examples of “low fantasy,” the Wizarding World looks more like that of “high fantasy” with its clear-cut distinctions between “good” and “evil” (even if individual characters face moral struggles) and its menagerie of elves, goblins, phoenixes, centaurs, and so forth.

But this has certain implications. First, all bets are off about which of our own legends and folklore are “true” and which are merely myth or fairy tales. We know that some stories in the Wizard World are in fact nothing more than folklore, and that some magical creatures do not exist. We must, as I suggested above, reorient the lines to draw when we “suspend disbelief.” Second, it gives Potter the architecture of a successful Muggle legend.

Because Potter’s world intermixes seamlessly with our own—our world of Playstations and early modern witchcrazes and prime ministers—it has the infrastructure of plausibility associated with “legend.”

Now, much fantastical fiction apes the structure of legend. After all, they provide us with an escape into a re-enchanted world of swords, sorcery, and magical creatures that once seemed quite real to every human being. A protagonist enters into an unfolding legend; he or she fulfills the prophecy and therefore both acts out and produces the legendary arc of the fantasy world. But the Harry Potter novels go further, by presenting us with—at least in its structure—a “plausible” legend of our own world.

This helps explain, I think, the wild success of the novels. Because they present themselves as a legend rooted in our—and the stress should be on “our” as in those of us in this room—time and space, they bring with them a familiarity—the lack of a demand for strong ontological displacement—which makes the books accessible to people who might otherwise never read works of fantasy, let alone children’s fantasy

Of course, and this brings me to my final “riff,” only a very young child or a crank would read this literary architecture as imply that Potter’s story is—or could in fact be—true. Thus, I think that “legend” is the wrong way to think about the nature of the Potter phenomenon.

Harry Potter isn’t actually becoming the “stuff of legend,” but rather the stuff of folklore.

What do I mean by this? As many people much better informed on these matters than I have noted, the “commercialization” of folklore is a major staple of the last century or so. In its most basic sense, we have Disney and other appropriations of folklore as mass media. But in a more profound sense, the narratives, myths, legends, themes, and figures that used to provide common currency and structure community through oral tradition—as public property—now disseminate through mass, commercial media. Our “folklore,” in fact, is found in television dramas, movies, and novels.

This is actually a very significant development, one with precedents that date back at least until the 19th century. The famous scholar of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, argues that “the nation” is an “imagined community.” In a “real” community, people know one another and interact directly with one another. But, in his account, nineteenth century newspapers and state propaganda played a key role in creating the social fact of “nations”: the sense that members of a national community are, in fact, connected to one another through common experiences and orientations. The experience of temporal “simultaneity” plays an essential role in our ability to “imagine” communities. (And here we should think about the simultaneous worldwide release of the English-language editions of Deathly Hallows, and the experience we had of reading the book knowing that millions of others were doing the same thing. The academic blogsphere, to take one example, basicall stopped in its tracks in the hours after the book was released.) Now, newspapers are now less important than this sense of an “imagined community” than television, film, and even the experience of, say, going to any mall in the US and seeing the same stores.

So Harry Potter is not merely a reinterpretation of folklore, it is a, functionally speaking, contemporary folklore. And more than that, it is folklore on a global scale. Or, as I’ve argued in various settings, Harry Potter is cultural globalization: it is part of the creation of transnational common currency of narratives, personages, themes, and other circulating commonplaces.

Let me illustrate this through the history of the volume I edited. Put together a panel—which was packed (albeit in a small room) and sparked lots of conversation. I met scholars from France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and India who got easily and enthusiastically discuss Harry Potter.

But we’re talking about a peculiar stratum here. There’s significant evidence that Harry Potter has become transnational cultural currency. Over 350 million books sold worldwide; over 3.8b in international revenue, 66+ translations. But what we want to see even more than that is evidence of Potter showing up “outside” of the text, in, for example, political settings.

And we have some evidence for this. As I recently argued, Harry Potter, in fact, functions something like a Rorschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxieties about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not Harry Potter indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism. Some Swedish commentators decry what they perceive as Harry Potter’s Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality. In Turkey, we find a significant discussion of Harry Potter that pivots around issues of Turkish civilizational identity: whether Turkey is part of the West, the East, or a bridge between the two.

A few Turkish writers have even asserted that controversies over Harry Potter in the United States demonstrate how Turks are more “Western” than Americans. And in Russia, a country whose concern over international status and prestige becomes more apparent each day, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta created a minor firestorm when it claimed that the film visage of Dobby the House-Elf was a deliberate insult to President Vladimir Putin.

We also have other indicators of Potter’s status of global folklore. Folklore, of course, involves common themes that are adapted and translated into local contexts, that evolve over time in particular settings. The Cinderella story, for example, has variants across Eurasia. We see this in fanfiction, but also in the official and unofficial—read, unauthorized—“translations” of Potter. India. China.

I don’t know how long this will last. What, HP’s “half life” will be. A generation? More? But Harry Potter is one of the most recent, and most profound, examples of commercial folklore achieving transnational status. Of creating a commonplace for people speaking different languages, living in different countries, and with otherwise distinctive cultural settings. And I think that’s pretty interesting, and pretty exciting.


What Harry Potter inherits from Star Wars

For members of generation X like myself, Star Wars is one of the constitutive myths of our childhoods. The Force, lightsaber duels, the Millennium Falcon, “I am your father,” “he’s my brother,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and so on . . . this is what we grew up with. And because Star Wars was such a mega-hit, the characters and tropes and themes spawned a whole slew of allusions and invocations that continue to infiltrate popular public discussions of all kinds of things. Few pop culture artifacts achieve that level of saturation; few artists are able to shape the common cultural vernacular in such a profound way; few packages of commonplaces become that widely shared, widely enough that a non-obscure Star Wars reference like “use the Force” or the image of Darth Vader [a gargoyle of which adorns the National Cathedral as an iconic contemporary representation of Evil] is extremely likely to make sense even to people who haven’t even seen the films!

For members of the next generation, the “millennial” generation, I’d wager that a principal constitutive myth is the Harry Potter series. I say this not just because of the mega-blockbuster character of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, although that helps something become a constitutive myth out of which large numbers of people are empowered to construct their senses of self; the more widespread the recognition of the symbols and tropes, the easier it is to gain social affirmation for one’s use of them in constructing one’s own story, after all. But I also think that one of the striking things about the Harry Potter series is how similar the story is to the constitutive myth it succeeds, how many of the same elements recur in lightly shuffled and reorganized form, albeit updated in a way that makes contemporary sense for the present world. Of course, this should not be too surprising, since both Harry Potter and Star Wars are mythological works, and mythology always works by re-telling some version of an old, old story — by recombining traditional elements so as to reaffirm and reinforce certain basic motifs and themes that are strangely familiar to the audience even as the specifics of the plot and the characters are anything but familiar.

Harry Potter thus inherits two things from Star Wars: a set of cultural commonplaces on which it draws for much of its evocative power, and the mantle of serving as a root experience for massive numbers of people — especially for younger people, into whose cultural lifeworld notions like “muggle” and the Ministry of Magic have now been firmly implanted. Just as much of cultural life in the industrialized parts of Europe and North America (and quite a ways beyond it) was decisively shaped or colored by the way that Star Wars updated and transmitted the cultural commonplaces that it deployed and utilized, so too will cultural life be divisible into pre- and post-Potter eras, with a “Potterian” flavor going forward.

Fortunately for us, the post-Potter world contains much of what the pre-Potter world contained, because the Harry Potter story — as mythology — is an old, old story. What is new here are the details and specifics, not the basic themes and tropes. I can’t substantiate this point without spoilers, which I have kept below the fold — you have been warned.

First, a little analytical history.

One of the most important things that George Lucas did in the opening moments of Star Wars was to insert a simple text-card on the screen before the opening title crawl and the main theme music begins: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” it reads, and it’s a very important little clue to how the read and appreciate what’s about to happen on screen. Lucas’ brief intro serves the same function as “Once upon a time . . .” and similar phrases, signaling that we’re about to enter an alternate reality that is connected to our own thematically rather than literally or plausibly. A phrase like this announces a fairy tale, a bit of myth, and implicitly warns us that the story to come shouldn’t be evaluated for its representative accuracy or for its analytical incisiveness or whatever — instead, we’re in the realm of allegory, symbol, dream, and fantasy.

It’s important that Lucas puts this over the head of each of the Star Wars films, because the conventional cultural code seems to dictate that stories involving spaceships and laser swords should be read as “science fiction” rather than as mythology. It makes a difference: virtually all science fiction has a burden of appearing scientifically plausible, of providing some way for the scientifically literate reader to come to terms with things like faster-than-light travel and teleportation and the like. Star Wars has none of this: nowhere in any of the films is there even a half-hearted attempt to explain how hyperdrive works, and the attempt to demystify the Force by introducing “midi-chlorians” in Episode I falls so flat that we never hear another word about them after that film. This makes sense because Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction, more mythology than systematic exploration of how technological changes and alien encounter affect human beings — after all, Star Wars (unlike, say, Star Trek) isn’t about Earth-native humans at all, making it somewhat absurd to try to connect our present science or present social order to that of Star Wars in any systematic way.

But what we can do — what I’d wager that Lucas wants us to do — is to read Star Wars as a fictional realm wherein very current themes and issues, specifically philosophical and moral/ethical themes and issues, are played out. After all, that’s what mythology is for: it’s a purer exemplar of such themes and issues than the often-messy examples provided in the “real world,” and as such offers the reader/viewer a chance to experience and explore those issues and themes more or less directly. Mythology, unlike the real world or unlike “realistic fiction” which strives to tell it like it is (more or less), has a “moral of the story” — a set of lessons we’re supposed to take away, even if those lessons are somewhat ambiguous.

The Harry Potter series is like Star Wars in this respect — it’s mythology rather than literature or social commentary or any other genre of writing that you might care to mention. As such, it deserves to be interpreted as mythology, which makes complaints about (say) the “nonideological evil” in the series somewhat beside the point. No, neither Vader nor Voldemort have fully-fleshed-out ideological programs, but they’re not supposed to: these are less depictions of actual people than archetypal symbols, and their movements or organizations are just generically Evil in intent, bent on the usual Evil Overlord goals: power, domination, supremacy, immortality, and so forth. And the fact that there are disillusioned followers of both Evil Overlords who turn out to have a variety of reasons for turning away from their former masters should not, I’d argue, be read as some kind of commentary on leadership styles or whatever; instead, it’s the introduction of another archetype, the Remorseful Former Bad Guy who generally turns out to just be misunderstood and in need of a little community affirmation. In Star Wars, part of the twist is that the Remorseful Former Bad Guy is also the main exemplar of Evil: Vader, it turns out, is redeemable. In Harry Potter, it’s Snape who (contrary to my expectations) falls into Evil, sees the error of his ways [more or less — I still think that Snape is hedging his bets at least until after he kills Dumbledore in book 6, and he almost defects from Dumbledore’s plan once he learns what Harry is being prepared for . . . but that’s material for another post, I think] fulfills this role. The point is that these are archetypes, and shouldn’t be read as examples of some governance strategy failing; they present occasions for ethical reflection, not case studies for empirical dissection.

But the genetic connection between the two constitutive mythological works is a lot stronger than this. The parallel is most obvious between the original three Star Wars films (i.e., not the prequels) and the Harry Potter sequence: a young boy (Luke/Harry), orphaned, discovers that he has a Mysterious Destiny, goes into training, makes some close friends (Leia/Hermione and Han/Ron), is cultivated and shaped by a mysterious older wizard (Obi-Wan/Dumbledore) who has a history with the current Embodiment Of Evil, ends up confronting that Evil and defeating it by not fighting — indeed, by throwing away his weapon and allowing himself to be a noble sacrifice, but doesn’t end up really dead because of the intervention of some form of human affection. By not fighting, by simply presenting himself as the archetypal peaceful warrior (fight to disarm and no further, which is what both Luke and Harry do during their respective epic final battles — how perfectly appropriate is it that in the end Harry defeats the Dark Lord with a well-cast Expelliarmus spell, despite Lupin’s criticism of him for just that tactic earlier in the book?), the hero triumphs over Evil.

Of course this is a familiar story. The noble sacrifice motif, especially the noble sacrifice that ends up conquering or mastering death, goes back into antiquity, and in the “Western world” one can’t help but reference Jesus Christ as an exemplar. The spirit guide helping to engineer the epic confrontation has numerous precedents. The hero journey to mastery over death is what Hamlet undertakes, what grail seekers do in Arthurian legends, what C. S. Lewis’ characters do when visiting Narnia, etc. etc.

If we start looking at the Star Wars prequels, we find a further parallel in that both Dumbledore and Anakin start off as idealists, but Anakin ends up going into politics and trying to impose his ideas by force while Dumbledore resists that temptation and remains an academic. But both have their Citizen Kane moments — they just take different directions in response to that challenge.

And further: both Harry Potter and Star Wars feature an intriguing double moral message structure in which a second teaching contradicts the first, more obvious teaching. At the most obvious level, both myth cycles celebrate the individual and her or his choices; self-actualization seems central, and individual empowerment against a faceless overwhelming mass seems to be the name of the game. Choice over capacity seems central: Luke has to choose between Dark and Light, and even the Sorting Hat listens to Harry’s (and Hermione’s!) preferences about which house he wants to be placed into, and Dumbledore highlights this choice as an essential difference between Harry and Voldemort. But on closer examination, neither mythology actually ends up with this kind of liberal individualist decisionism: Harry’s most important moments are those in which he just acts in the way that he feels that he is supposed to be acting, and just knows what he is supposed to do, much like Luke when he gets better acquainted with the Force. And the choice situations that we see are engineered and enabled by a lot of prior social action, both by individual mentors and by the broader community: Harry can’t confront Voldemort, and Luke can’t confront Vader, absent the actions of a multitude of people whose effort makes the confrontation possible. No one is an isolated individual, and people get in trouble in both mythologies when they try to act alone, without friends and colleagues supporting them.

In the end these are communal mythologies rather than individualistic ones, affirming the conceptual priority of the intersubjective over the subjective and of the cultural context over the bearer of aspects of that context. They’re not collectivist; call them “post-individualist,” since we still have valuable and worthy individuals floating around and individuals do matter; they just don’t matter as Lockeian or neoliberal atoms out of which societal polymers are constructed. Shades here of Heidegger, I think: individual people are the occasions for existence to exist in a self-conscious or reflexive way, the moments for the Force or the deeper magic of love (which is the Force-analogue in the Harry Potter books) to manifest and triumph.

So: they’re old, old stories. I’m not completely sure what to make of the fact that the new mythology (Harry Potter) is more archaic-fantasy while the older mythology (Star Wars) is techno-futuristic in flavor; maybe this says something about the way we view ourselves now? Magic rather than spaceships. Hmm. I wonder if that’s a post-Challenger thing, a general diminishing of the excitement of space exploration — Star Wars was only a few years removed from the moon landings, after all, so some of the romance of space travel was still around to be drawn upon. But I’m not confident about that, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s ideas.


Why Harry Potter beats football as a topic of conversation

I was going to reply to Peter’s comment on my last post about Harry Potter in the comments section, but it started to get too long and I thought I’d better make an actual post out of it. I am also going to try to do this without revealing anything of great significance from the plot of the seventh book (which I finished yesterday), but I can’t guarantee that I won’t let something slip.

Also, at this point I am just going to be replying to Peter’s contention that “Harry Potter is nothing more than an ‘intellectually more acceptable’ activity than football,” suitable for the same kind of “water cooler chatting” and Monday-morning quarterbacking characteristic of causal football fans. I am not going to talk about my overall reactions to the seventh book and the now-concluded HP series; I’m not sure that such a discussion is really all that appropriate for Duck, so I’ll be reactivating my long-dormant personal blog tomorrow or the next day and posting some reflections there, in case anyone’s interested. [Teaser: when I get around to doing that post or those posts I’m going to argue that HP is myth, not literature, and needs to be evaluated accordingly — and in fact it’s largely the same myth as Star Wars and Hamlet and a bunch of other prominent components of the “Western tradition,” which is certainly part of the reason for its global success.]

Okay, here goes.

Even if there are some similarities between being a fan of HP and being a fan of football (or any other professional sport), there is one important difference in that the object of fandom has a different — oh, let’s call it conceptual range — and as such makes possible different kinds of conversational exchanges. Putting this bluntly, football fans can basically talk together only about football, but HP fans can talk about a lot of other things through HP, because the vocabulary provided by the common experience of reading the HP novels and participating in other elements of HP fandom is a richer and more mythic vocabulary with a much broader range of applicability. Talking about game-playing strategy does not allow one to raise the kind of ethical and philosophical issues that talking about HP does — at any rate, not as easily. And I for one would rather have people talking about HP than football, as it makes for better conversations.

Let me elaborate. When we spectators talk about a professional sporting competition, we talk from our vantage-point as outsiders — we watch, we read, we know things about the game and the players. So that gives us a shared basis from which to discuss plays that might have been made, excellent and dismal playing performances, chances for success and failure in future games, and so on. But our conversation is limited to the game and its playing; we are, as it were, constrained by the social fact of a manifest performance (the game) and the institutionalization of future performances (the rest of the season, the structure of the post-season, and so forth). Yes, we can talk about that structure too, but we are still talking about the game.

I like talking about games of which I am a fan. I also like using those games and sports as examples of other things — using football to talk about war, using baseball to talk about politics, etc. Useful pedagogically, for one thing. But notice that in this case we are not really talking about the game as much as we are instrumentally deploying our shared knowledge of the game to talk about something else — and that instrumental deployment is limited, and sharply limited, by the existing structure of the game and the way that it is played. As such, “war is like football” is and can only ever be an analogy, and a somewhat artificial one at that because one can always see the manifest differences between the two domains.

So we have two kinds of conversations made possible by shared sports fandom: conversations about the sport itself, and conversations using knowledge about the sport as a basis to make analogies. But what it is much much harder to do from a shared basis of watching a sport is to start talking about moral and political issues, because those issues are by and large already solved in the very structure of the sport itself! Issues concerning, say, the moral dilemmas of having both an ideal and the power to implement that ideal in the face of opposition simply do not arise in the performance of your average game of baseball or football. Nor do we get to talk about appropriate action in the face of overwhelming evil, or the balance between liberty and security, or the proper response to death…In short, we don’t get to talk about most of the issues that interest social theorists and intellectuals and political commentators and people who read blogs like this one. [Yes, yes, we can pull a George Will and attempt to extract some moral lessons from baseball, but those parts of Will’s book ring the most hollow and the most strained — he’s better as a straight-up baseball analyst.]

But in talking about HP, we can’t help but talk about those issues. This is because HP, as a story, covers a lot more ground — and as a richly detailed alternative world but one that remains recognizable to us Muggles, it can’t help but present us with situations that are both strangely familiar and distant enough to permit them to be discussed in a relatively non-partisan way. Being a HP fan, getting caught up in the excitement to the point where you learn to speak the language, provides us with a new way to examine those pressing and perennial issues. Dumbledore’s explanation, for instance, of why he refused to take the position of Minister of Magic, is quite Weberian, and it presents an opportunity to discuss whether his rationale for remaining a teacher and not becoming a politician makes sense. While discussing Dumbledore, though, we would be simultaneously discussing the whole panoply of issues involved in the tension between science and politics, and discussing them in such a way that other HP fans, who have also wrapped themselves in the language and the trappings of that fictional world, would be drawn into the discussion.

Sports are not mythic. Sports stories might be mythic, but then we wouldn’t be talking about the sport as much as we’d be talking about the story. HP is mythic. It might not be literary genius — it’s not, but then again, neither was Star Wars — but it is a rich source of a common moral vocabulary. And that’s why it’s a better conversational topic than football.


All media, good and bad….

That highbrow publication, USA Weekend Magazine:

Scores of absurdtie-ins include “If Harry Potter Ran General Electric,” “Looking for God in Harry Potter” and our personal favorite, “Harry Potter and International Relations,” in which the boy wizard is linked to real-life globalization and geopolitical issues.

The bizarre thing here is actually not the criticism-based-on-title of our book (for redux, see Scott McLemee writing at Inside Higher Ed), but the accusation that Looking for God in Harry Potter is nothing more than an attempt to cash in on Potter’s success.

It seems that Jeffrey Resner knows little about the religious controversy surrounding Harry Potter and why so many Christians have felt compelled to weigh in on the phenomenon. The debate over Harry Potter in the U.S. Christian community was, for a time, pretty intense; Conservative Christians remain divided over the books.

Given Potter’s enormous penetration into American–and global–culture, “what to do about Potter” amounts to serious business for conservative Christians. I’d be tempted to dismiss Resner’s mistake as a result of elite media detachment, but I’ve talked to plenty of reporters and critics over the last week who are sufficiently knowledgeable not to embarrass themselves like that.

I, on the other hand, am honored to make Resner’s “personal favorite” for “absurdtie-ins.” After all, who would be crazy enough to think that Harry Potter has anything to do with globalization?

Anyway, I have a piece in The New Republic Online called “How Harry Potter Explains the Word.” (free resistration required.) Check it out, if so inclined.


Going through the motions

Welp, we know that a new Harry Potter book is about to come out, because the Washington Post has featured the obligatory piece on Christian reactions to Harry Potter, along with a side-helping of wonderment at the rise of explicitly Christian publishing.

Too bad this is so not new.

The article points out that some Christians are uncomfortable with the depiction of magic in the series, and notes that literature marketed as Christian in content (as opposed to the previous thousand years or so of Christian literature which was, well, just literature) is becoming a large and important market segment.

As Dan and I have argued elsewhere, for Christians who genuinely believe that magic is 1) real; and 2) derived from demonic forces, it is perfectly logical and consistent within their worldview to object to Harry Potter, the popularity of which encourages children to play at being wizards themselves, putting them at risk of contacting those demonic forces. That the heroes use magic for good is irrelevant, since magic is per se evil and dangerous. The article, unfortunately, doesn’t really explain the basis for the objection. Although to many of us on the secular left (as well as the very large number of Christians who also don’t believe in magic), their claims are patently ridiculous, there is a nearly unbroken chain of cultural imagination concerning witchcraft and satanism going all the way back to the middle ages, and possibly beyond. (If you want to know more, you need to buy the book. I can’t give away everything, you know.)

Then there’s the breathless discovery of Christian literature, complete with OMIGOD! They. Have. Romance. Novels. With. No. Sex. Scenes. Although Christian publishing continues to be a rapidly expanding market, the writer makes the forays of the major trade houses in Christian publishing sound like they happened yesterday. Unfortunately, this has been going on now for over 10 years. Sure, it’s a trend, but it didn’t start yesterday.

Update: Here’s an example of the kind of thinking I mentioned above, concerning the promotion of magic by Harry Potter.

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