Monday, April 26, 2010

Harry Potter's vocational dilemma

It's kind of embarrassing to admit that I'm reading the Harry Potter novels, even more embarrassing to admit that I'm reading them again. But I'm not going all Adorno-Harold Bloom-highbrow when I say that it's an experience rather less than continuously pleasurable.

Here's the thing: P. (aet. 8) is deeply immersed in the books at the moment, most of the way thru #4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or, as I like to call it, HP and the Cauldron of Shit). So I thought the least I could do was to gamely keep up with her, or at least try to stay a few chapters ahead. Problem is, when an 8-year-old is obsessing over a book – or at least our 8-year-old – it's hard to get it away from her to read it yourself. So I powered thru Goblet & into the next, mammoth volume, HP and the Order of the Phoenix (which I'm irritating J. by referring to by a title that makes into a piece of bookish pornography). Just finished this 800-pager earlier today, to the detriment of things that really needed to get read.
Me: This book is 800 pages long. I could be reading Middlemarch.
J: Middlemarch is harder; you have to pay attention to the words.
Me: True.
Why re-reading, you ask? Well, as I've perhaps mentioned once or twice, I have no memory for narrative or character. I remember if I liked a novel or disliked it, if I found it riveting or revolting, I remember a striking character or a vivid scene or a particularly nice piece of writing; but there're very few novels I've read, even ones I've read repeatedly & even taught, whose plot I could accurately summarize. So I knew that if P. asked me even the most simple Hogwartish question about the HP books, I'd need to have them more or less fresh in my mind if I didn't want to destroy her entirely healthy sense of paternal omniscience.

For the most part, I find the novels pretty benign stuff. Not particularly well-written, by any means, but not awfully ham-fisted. The allegories are pretty thin, and I dislike the Perry Mason-ish wrapping up that seems to end every volume. Phoenix is of course grotesquely overlong. My memories of the last two books, HP and the Half-Pence and HP and the Healthy Fellows (or something like that), are dim, but I remember them seeming even longer than Phoenix, alas. I think the good guys win in the end.

The scenes in HP & the Order etc. where the batrachian Dolores Umbridge (slimy representative of the Ministry of Magic) takes over the Defence Against the Dark Arts class, banning actual spell practice & forcing the students merely to read their textbooks (theory rather than practice – I'm sure there's an anti-Adorno message buried there) reminded me of a moment in my own educational experience – my ninth grade history class, where some poor schmuck of a teacher (he'd taught driver's ed for 30 years, & suddenly found himself forced to teach American history because of budget cuts) had us sitting in class and reading the textbook aloud.

Of course, Dolores Umbridge is Rowling's jab at educational theorists who prescribe syllabi & courses of study from an ivory tower. But I've never been particularly happy reading Rowling's account of the educational experience of Hogwarts: the kids sit around in class praticing stuff the professor have just shown them (doing spells, mixing potions); for homework, they have to go back to the dorms & write essays (measured by inches of parchment) which look for all the world like regurgitations from their textbooks. The only exception (leaving aside Hagrid's Care of Magical Animals course and Sprout's Herbology) is Binns's History of Magic, which consists of interminable, boring lectures.

So, I keep thinking to myself, is this really the way they do it at Eton? The essay homework, especially, seems to replicate some of the least useful parts of my own education, while I seem to recall having Cuthbert Binns in a social studies class in 7th grade. Why aren't I more convinced by the picture Rowling gives us of the education of a young wizard? Why don't I want to teach at Hogwarts?

The answer came to me the other evening: Howgarts isn't really an old-fashioned "public school" at all, for all its house colors, prefects, & top girls & boys – it's a vocational school. It's not Stalky & Company with potions or Tom Brown's School Days with hexes, but a beauty school or car repair academy with wands and brooms. In the end, Sprout's greenhouses and Hagrid's paddocks are the most true-to-life portions of the Hogwarts panorama, places where the students are getting hands-on experience at things they'll need to know as mature witches and wizards. The other classes, where everybody sits at the desks, facing front (or passing magical notes), is conventional classroom with an overlay of exotic subject matter.

A real live school of Witchcraft & Wizardry, one suspects, would be far more like a martial arts dojo – lots of practice rooms with padded floors & walls, lots of open spaces, lockers, showers, & cubbies. Ah, but then Rowling would have had to reinvent The Karate Kid with wands, & one suspects that wouldn't have quite the cachet of a magical Tom Brown – or at least she probably wouldn't be able to recycle so many school-story stereotypes (kindly headmaster, cranky caretaker, grouchy librarian, etc).


Anonymous said...

Actually, I think it's more like the school in Pink Floyd. I mean, a teacher who has you write "I will not tell lies" on your hand so many times that it leaves the words as scars?
The first time I read the books, I was irritated that Harry would never tell the teachers when he saw trouble coming. This time, I'm annoyed that the teachers can do so little to avert disaster. Why should Harry be the one who has to unravel the mystery, every time?
Why indeed? Maybe the books should be read as bloated psychomachia. It's The Lord of the Rings, it's Star Wars, it's losing your finger to save the world; acknowledging the darkness within yourself is the way to win the game.
My favorite volume is "The Order of the Phoenix" because I like the kinky sadism of Umbridge's magic pen. "This thing of darkness, et cetera, et cetera."
--Jennifer Low

Vance Maverick said...

I haven't read these books, and my daughter isn't there yet (the Magic Tree House series is more her speed, for now). But did you see Rowling's recent editorial? She went not to Eton but to Wyedean Comprehensive ("head girl in 1982"), and the strange hybrid school she invented may reflect a view of the public school of literary tradition, as seen from quite another sort of place.

Vance Maverick said...

Whoops, meant to link the editorial (via).

Word verification: prions, evidently what's addling my brain.

Anonymous said...

You might enjoy tracking down Christine Brooke-Rose's witty, rather exasperated take on 'Lord of the Rings' in her essay 'The Evil Ring, Realism and the Marvellous' ('A Rhetoric of the Unreal', 1981). C B-R concludes, 'As the story advances, or rather ambles in travelogue, stumbles in delays and spreads out in reduplications, it is as if the evil power of the ring that weighs down Frodo with its intolerable burden were paralleled by the (evil?) power of realistic discourse as it weighs down the marvellous.' Having kept my Harry Potter virginity, I don't know if JKR has avoided this trap. (She is much to be congratulated on Good Works in real life by all accounts, however.)

Jeremiah said...

Try "Harry Potty and the Cauldron of Shite" for a title.

Curtis Faville said...

What is it that Edmund Wilson called the Tolkien books? --"oh those awful Orcs!"

There's one easy way to avoid all this stuff. Just say no.

The Potter phenomenon: Too old for kids, and too juvenile for grown-ups. Who, then, is it written for? Weird pre-teen nerds who live entirely in a fantasy world? They were never happy as kids, and they'll be immature and impractical as adults.

"Now, how is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure. You can see it in the tone they fall into when they talk about Tolkien in print: they bubble, they squeal, they coo; they go on about Malory and Spenser - both of whom have a charm and a distinction that Tolkien has never touched."