Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Literature for Children vs. the Childish Literati

If you've stuck your head out your door or into the worldwideweb recently, you'll be aware that the final book in the Harry Potter novels is due for release shortly, and there is also a movie of the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which has just opened. I enjoyed it, even more so the second time. My only frustration was realizing that each scene was missing 20 minutes of material from the book, but that’s also the explanation why they kept strictly to the core of the story, instead of straying. It was done well, taut from start to finish. Dicentra has a good review & link to another review by Orson Scott Card.

But the latest movie is not what I wanted to talk about here; rather, I’d like to talk about all the talk about them. There has been an enormous amount of commentary about both the movie and the upcoming book, and about the value they do or do not have - whether or not they are another nail in the coffin of the literature of western civilization in general, or its salvation.

Now, there are a number of people who don’t like the Harry Potter books, not due to some dislike of imaginative fiction in general, but because they just find no appeal in the stories, and that is fine, I’ve no quarrel with them.

However a significant number of the commentaries are by sniffy toned folk, seemingly intent on impressing us with their maturity, declaring that they are not going to be sucked into wasting their time on anything which has words such as 'leviosa!' strewn throughout its pages, and not only magic but anything so silly as a school of wizarding and magic!

Oh Pish posh! A fine example of this type of twit is the aptly named 'Frik Els' not knowing what the frick a Frik is, I can honestly say that I've no idea whether it is a he or a she – so I can deliver a nice cheap, yet honest insult, by referring to Frik as in It. Somehow this seems rather appropriate. From its review:

"I'VE BEEN ABLE TO avoid reading one of the 325m of JK Rowling's
escapist novels sold, despite pressure from people I thought were

Escapist. Ah. I suppose that's because it uses imaginary settings, wizards and fanciful characters? One yearns to hear its take on Dante’s Divine Comedy, or George Orwells ‘Animal Farm’ “dead poets leading people through the rings of hell, or talking pigs running farms – how unrealistic, what escapist foolishness!”.


It continues:

" for Harry Potter getting children to read literature again,
that's like saying SMSing encourages writing skills.”

I’m not so sure you can point to a chain of book types leading to others, such as “Pot leads to Heroin!”, it’s due more to the readers awareness and inclinations. My own bibliohistory began with Tom Swift Jr. books, then pulp westerns, Stephen King, Patricia K. McKillip, Frank Herbert, J.R.R Tolkien, Shakespeare, the Greeks, Montaigne, and so on. It is not so much a case of one leading to another, as one type of book became insufficient to fill me up, and I looked for something more. Once I discovered Literature, lesser ones wouldn’t do, except maybe as occasional minor distractions. I don’t know if readers will seek “higher” literature after reading Harry Potter, but I suspect that after having enjoyed the real thing (more on that below), I am pretty confident in saying they are unlikely to be satisfied going back to something like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

“ I'm just glad that the films take a bit more than two hours, while skimming
through 600 pages of Anapneo!, Carpe Retractum!, Waddiwasi! and Levicorpus!, to
name just a few spells, may just waste a whole afternoon. "

A whole afternoon is its estimate for the time needed to ‘skim’ a 600 page book? Doesn’t sound like the voice of much experience, does it? Skimming through 600 pages in an afternoon may be appropriate for business or computer programming books, but attempting such a thing with literature, good or bad, is a guaranteed inoculation against the possibility of encountering worthwhile thoughts or other such uncomfortable experiences.

Doubtless Frik has enough vaccinations against all forms of reflective thinking to avoid any thoughts outside the workaday world, studiously keeping to 1 + 1 = 2 (though algebra might still give him the shivers) must be so very comforting.

C.S. Lewis, in his excellent “An Experiment in Criticism”, noted that those imagine-ifobic folk that seem intent to show that they alone are focused on the important issues of the day, that they are mature, realistic and deeper than those who indulge in ‘escapist’ fiction and fanciful tales, it is they who are the ones recklessly in flight from the deeper and more important issues.

The truth is that nothing is more escapist than that fiction which strives for the utterly realistic, or that non-fiction fully determined to be serious and above all, humorless. A certain degree of immaturity clings to them with their insistence on limiting their thoughts to only those things which realistic behavior in daily life applies to, the image of a 13 year old sniffing at a toy as “kids stuff” comes to mind.

What they don’t seem to realize is that people are much more easily deceived by those things which ape ‘realism’ and seriousness, it is the simplest of things to mask falsehood as accuracy (truth really doesn’t apply for such folk), it is the simplest thing to concoct a selective set of out-of-context facts and statistics to convince people that their accelerating in the passing lane is actually jeopardizing the world’s very existence (Global Warming anybody?)

They are deaf to what C.S. Lewis, Dante, Aristotle and so many others knew, that the Poetic or as it’s being called here, fantasy, is much better suited to illustrate what is True, by using situations which are obviously not real, in such a way that what is True in them is not encumbered by being associated with simple transitory facts.

It is simple to quote rain fall measurements and random effects of clorofloro carbons and conclude that the end is near, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a plausible lie in opposition to Dumbledore’s ‘The time is coming when we all shall have to choose between what is right and what is easy’, or Harry’s ‘We’ve got something Voldemort doesn’t have – something worth fighting for’. Difficult trying to imagine ‘Remember, what is easy is always the better choice over what is right’, or ‘Voldemort is angry, hateful, friendless, keeps followers only by the threat of destruction – wouldn’t we all prefer that kind of life to one of associating with friends, family and loved ones?” Doesn’t quite work, does it?

It is the fool insisting on the realistic, who is the escapist – desperately seeking to escape consideration of the deeper truths which are the pervue of literature, reflections of the Good, the Beautiful and the True, this is what Literature, whether set in an actual or fantastical landscape, is concerned with weaving its readers into.

Frik goes on to illustrate this odd fetish for ‘realism’ by making a desperate grab at tying the movie to its own flattened view of reality:

"Heavy-handed political analogy also makes its way into The Order of the Phoenix. Written at the time when Britain and the United States were preparing to invade Iraq, Rowling takes swipes at government and media propaganda and the stifling of dissent. I don't know if Rowling included those themes for the sake of her adult readership, but in 2007 it loses all impact."
I can honestly say that that is a ‘thought’ which never occurred to me while reading any of the Harry Potter books, and being a sympathizer of the vast right wing conspiracy, that is something I’m usually on the lookout for. I submit that anyone who takes Harry Potter as some type of allegory for the details of current events, rather than an illustration of what is timelessly true behind the events of any age, is seriously twisted.

An Outrageous Black Lie
Should the Harry Potter books be considered Literature? What is it that marks some work as Literature, and others not? Whether it is Children’s literature or not, is irrelevant, the themes and situations, plot & characters, and to some extent the language used and so forth may themselves indicate whether or not a story is to be considered Adult or Children’s literature - but in either case, if it is literature, it will be worthwhile and worthy of being read by children as well as by Adults.

More relevant, is whether or not the story touch upon a significant number of what Mortimer Adler called the Great Ideas? Does its contents handle thorny implications and dilemmas associated with issues of character and virtue, the complications of living in community and with the law - of what is Right and what is Wrong. How does it approach the question of authority and the questioning of it? Does it treat of the Good life, and do so respectfully, and does it mark the wasted life and do so in a fashion that does not ultimately glamorize it? Does it illustrate the importance of living a life with and in Meaning, does it draw your imagination - either explicitly or implicitly - towards consideration of the Good, the Beautiful and the True? Does it employ Humor, and if so, does it use it in the services of the Good, the Beautiful and the True - or in opposition to them?

In short, does the story deal with the issues of living a life of choices and the importance of striving to choose well?

Is it's story, it's plot, well constructed, or does it pointlessly recite a meaningless stream of images from 'reality'? Does it manage to seem plausible not only within the world it constructs, but also without conflicting violently with the world without, which you must read it from?

Does its language... please? Are its sentences constructed in such a way as to give delight in their reading? Do you wish to savor the language? Does the author succeed in being Eloquent? Perhaps most importantly, does the language successfully affix the stories significant points and thoughts to your soul?

These are the questions which should be in mind when considering whether or not a work of literature is worthy of being considered literature.

Those familiar with the Harry Potter books know that these issues are the very fabric of J.K. Rowling’s plot, setting and characters. They Great Ideas are not delivered as platitudes, such as Polonius’s ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’ and other disconnected truths strewn out as parting good luck charms to his son in Hamlet (Act 1 scene 3), here they are almost innocently raised in the first of the books, and through succeeding books they are developed along with the maturing of the characters. The Great Ideas and conflicts are more and more seen to clearly stand out in the choices the characters must make, inexorably driving the story forward as these issues and their implications become clearer and clearer.

I literally began reading the stories as bedtime stories to my two boys. That continued through the second book, and by the time third book was released, neither had the patience to wait for bedtime for me to read it to them though occasionally they'd have me read parts of them out loud because they liked my 'voices'(Proud Dad strokes ego, puts back in box). Much as I enjoyed reading them to them, that ceased to be the reason I read the stories by the end of the second installment.

Perhaps above all, the books are thoroughly delightful to read - and they certainly succeed in affixing their major themes and points to your soul. Lines such as "there is coming a time when we will all have to choose between what is Right and what is easy" is shot through with truth and relevance and is memorable in and of itself.

J.K. Rowling was recently quoted in describing her books as “ "profoundly moral", adding: "I think it is a lie to pretend that even children of 11 don't have to make moral decisions. I think it's an outrageous black lie."” I couldn’t agree with her more.

Literature and the difference between children's literature and childish literature

What, one wonders, would the sniffers who denigrate J. K. Rowlings books point to as proper alternatives to them? What do you suppose Frik considers to be worth its time reading?

Books and movies which deal with 'adult' themes? Perhaps stories which deal with the descent of a man's soul into a wasted conflict of alcoholism, drugs and illicit sex, perhaps? Betrayal? Compulsive obsessions, perversions, violence and the pointlessness of life? These are what, more than anything else, you’ll find as the major themes of modern ‘Adult’ literature.

Are these really Adult themes - or settings which, though they are undoubtedly unsuitable for children, are far more childish than adult in nature?

These books, pre and post modern, focus and turn upon issues in which the characters have utterly failed to identify a need for morality or principle in their lives, have failed to choose between Good and Bad in an adult manner. It is safe to say that if these characters of ‘adult’ literature, and probably their authors, had ever been presented with the great ideas, they must have turned away from them, not wishing to exert the effort of mind or soul to properly consider them. They would and did refuse them any place in the forefront of their minds as they crawl through life, preferring instead to do that most childish action of all, choosing to do or not do, because of the immediate gratifications perceived to flow from their present actions.

These so called adult stories are nothing more than the illustration of lives flushed past the issues of the great ideas, and into the sewer of immaturity and pointless animal like existence.

Is that Literature? Not even close. Are those who praise it to be considered literate in any meaningful way? Nah, just childish literati, to whom you are well advised to shout ‘Expelliaramus!”


Kaffepaus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kaffepaus said...

I have just one word to this post: WOW!

Myself, I don't know if I like the Potter books or not, because I've not even considered reading them. Reasons? I don't have time, I got more important reading to do right now, and since I read Tolkien for the first time in 1986 or so, I have not been able to really appreciate other "fantasy" litteratur. I found them just so... simple, like pale shadows, compared to the "master of fantasy litterature".

Liked the first Potter-movie though, but haven't seen any of the others yet, guess I'll at least have to do that :)

Anyhow, I can fully agree with you in your view of litterature here, great post!

Van Harvey said...

Thanks Johan!

"Reasons? I don't have time, I got more important reading to do right now, and since I read Tolkien for the first time in 1986 or so, I have not been able to really appreciate other "fantasy" litteratur."

Those are good reasons, and were mine also - like I said, I just got sucked into Potter from reading them to the kids.

I'm semi-dreading this weekend, because from the point UPS shows up with our Amazon order, our house is going to grind to a screaching halt.

Got to watch out for those bedtime stories!

julie said...

I actually read this review the other day, and must agree with Johan.

I read the first few Potter books, and enjoyed them. I tend to lose interest in really drawn out series, though, so I haven't kept up with them. From what I've heard of the latest movie, I'm more inclined to actually watch it, though.

eredux said...

Check out this US Carbon Footprint Map, an interactive United States Carbon Footprint Map, illustrating Greenest States to Cities. This site has all sorts of stats on individual State & City energy consumptions, demographics and State energy offices, State Taxes and more down to the local US City level...

Van Harvey said...

Wow, did you ever wander into the wrong blog.

I've got one BIG carbon footprint, and do all I can to make it bigger and bigger. I already guzzle as much gas as I need, and recycle nothing but air.

I get no thrill from knowing the demographics of how foolish and gullible people can be, wasting their resources by buying into 'feel good' green siren songs.

How is seeing the distribution curve of fools going to help me to use up my resources more wisely?

Mizz E said...

Comment to err ducks - a tour de Van.

Joan of Argghh! said...

I agree with the Swede. I've never even seen or picked up a Harry Potter book. Never seen the movies, either. And about the same time as Johan, I discovered C.S.L., Tokien, Van Morrison, and George MacDonald. Balms for the mind and soul that already knew the Mystery, just didn't have the permission and freedom to investigate it fearlessly.

And besides, if you've ever engaged in truly transcendent spiritual warfare, all the mumblings of "magic" are just that, and easily defeated, dismissed, and dispatched. It holds no mystery or interest for me, but not for lack of imagination. Just for lack of a challenge.


Van Harvey said...

There is certainly no reason why someone should read the Harry Potter books as opposed to some of the other valuable works available to them. My gripe is with the poser-fluff who try to denigrate it with a sniff, because it is imaginative literature, or because it is written for kids. Idiots. Good Literature is Good Literature, and as long as you read some of it, I don't think it matters all that much which ones you do or don't read, except in the pleasures of being able to chew them over with others who have read the same.

In most cases, what you read is a matter of what catches and jibes with your current interests, and there's nothing wrong with not having an interest in these books. If I hadn't had the kids to read the first two books to, and if they hadn't demanded that I read the third... which took awhile for me to yield to, I wouldn't have read them either. As Johan said, there are many other books on my list to read, and far too little time to read them all, to be distracted by Childrens literature - but I'm very glad I did.

Without looking for them, most of the jewels (or facets of a single large Jewel..?) within these stories could be easily overlooked (on the conscious level, anyway) as simple items of an adventure story, but as with all good lit, there is much more living beneath the surface, waiting for a visitor willing to engage it.

I'm leaving too much out with the elipses, and without the entire context of the preceding story and books to support it, this probably falls flat, but is one of my favorite parts from the second to last book (as I impatiently await the UPS truck to bring the last). Harry's unimpressed to learn that the 'power' he has behind him, that his life and his friends life relies upon, is 'love'. Professor Dumbledore is trying to get him to look beyond mere strength, and realize the true power he is supported by,

"... If he had not forced your mother to die for you, would he have given you a magical protection he could not penetrate? Of course not, Harry! Don't you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! Voldemort is no different! Always he was on the lookout for the one who would challenge him. He heard the prophecy and he leapt into action, with the result that he not only handpicked the man most likely to finish him, he handed him uniquely deadly weapons!"
"But —"
"It is essential that you understand this!" said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake; Harry had never seen him so agitated. "By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job! It is Voldemort's fault that you were able to see into his thoughts, his ambitions, that you even understand the snakelike language in which he gives orders, and yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort's world (which, incidentally, is a gift any Death Eater would kill to have), you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers!"
"Of course I haven't!" said Harry indignantly. "He killed my mum and dad!"
"You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!" said Dumbledore loudly. "The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart's desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort, and not immortality or riches. Harry, have you any idea how few wizards could have seen what you saw in that mirror? Voldemort should have known then what he was dealing with, but he did not..."

There is much in that apparent bauble, which I enjoy holding up to the light to see the jewel glittering within...

Damn slow UPS trucks.


Anonymous said...

Van...what a great piece to extract from the Potter shows the real intent behind Rowling's writings; not just some fluffy bunch of kiddie adventures like "the Goonies", but an almost operatic tale of coming of age, and good vs evil.

Harry's gradual realization of just what power he really has over his enemy reminds me so much of the evolution of Tolkien's Frodo, from simple village-dwelling hobbit to fearsome, determined warrior who marches into Mordor determined to succeed or die trying. Does he have his moments of doubt and wavering? Certainly; but in the end the inner fire that has been ignited within him cannot be extinguished. I see the same thing in Lucas's Luke Skywalker; once he realizes who he really is and what he must do, no one can stop him, even through his own moments of doubt and his many mistakes. The person who cannot see this but instead sees witchcraft and sorcery and lots of "no-no's", is failing to see the forest for the trees in a very big way, and would seem to me to be almost obsessively-compulsively occupied with religious correctness rather than the overall story being told. What a tragedy to be that blind. Such a person reminds me a lot of Thomas Gradgrind, the mine operator in Dickens' "Hard Times", who is obsessed with facts, facts, facts, and who is totally blind to any transcendant truths or deeper meanings. Unfortunately it seems that both the Left and the Right are populated by lots of Gradgrinds, who used microscopes instead of their own eyes to read books like this, or the Tolkien ones.