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Azkaban blogging

Yes, it’s true, I’ve read all five Harry Potter books and I know my Flitwick from my Umbridge.  I resisted mightily at first, partly for the reasons the Onion gestured at in its December 2001 headline, “Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up In Harry Potter Craze.” (I’d link to the story—it’s hilarious—but it requires Onion Premium or Onion Advantage or something.) Also partly because of that weird brand of American Anglophilia I associate with PBS, A&E, and Moynihan liberals.  Also partly because I thought I’d already read all that stuff back when it was written by Roald Dahl. 

I realize that parental reading habits in these matters depend heavily on the age of the children; I believe the last book I read with Nick, actually with him, night by night, was the quite wonderful Racso and the Rats of Nimh, and that would have been sometime around 1992.  From that point on, he was on his own. So when he became one of J. K. Rowling’s faithful readers, buying Goblet of Fire the day it appeared and devouring it in one all-night reading marathon, I didn’t even look over his shoulder.

Then I took Jamie to the first Harry Potter movie, and I was stunned—partly by the story, which was at once darker and more charming than I’d anticipated, but mostly by Jamie, who completely got it.  I suppose it helped that Jamie was 10 at the time, and that his glasses look a great deal like Harry’s, so that he began talking about attending Hogwarts when he turned 11, and practicing the “wingardium leviosa” spell now and then.  As for me, after we saw the movie I was curious enough to read the dang book at last, and I was fairly impressed.  I’ve since heard that Harold Bloom, that learned old gasbag and self-designated arbiter of all written words, despises the book and has said so at least once every six months for the past five years.  Well, alas, Bloom, my good man—leave aside the sorry spectacle of the world’s most famous literary critic spending some of his dwindling energies trying to squash J. K. Rowling like a bug, all because of a series of books whose readership extends to eight-year-olds, for god’s sake (would Lionel Trilling have behaved this way with A Wrinkle in Time, do you think?), and let me put it this way:  you style yourself after Falstaff, but you have no sense of humor whatsoever.  You never did—and your Rowling snits seal the deal.  Now, what do we call people who think of themselves as latter-day Falstaffs, but who have never uttered a funny thing in their lives?  Don’t think Shakespeare—think Restoration comedy.

Back to Jamie.  After Jamie and I had seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ten or twenty times, I suggested to him that we read the books together.  Jamie doesn’t really read on his own, unless you count his various coffee-table books about the Beatles, and I wasn’t sure that he would be able to follow a narrative of 300, 400, or 700 pages on the basis of nighttime bedside reading, which might cover seven or eight pages on a good night.  But then, I didn’t think he’d follow the plot of the first movie, so what do I know?

Well, I don’t want to say too much more here, because (this is my first conflict of blogging interest in five months) I eventually want to write something about this experience for some nonacademic journal.  But suffice it to say that the Harry Potter books have extended Jamie’s capacity for narrative by powers of ten.  We started in early 2003 and we’re now a third of the way through Order of the Phoenix.  I read to him (sometimes Janet does), and I annotate and explain where necessary—not only with regard to unfamiliar words, but more important, with regard to narrative questions not broached by the films (for example, Harry and the Weasleys’ discussion, early in Chamber of Secrets, of whether Dobby the house elf might be lying to Harry, since, after all, he works for the Malfoys).  Once in a while I ask him questions about things that happened hundreds of pages ago, or in other books, and I’m astonished at how much he retains.  He’s also expanded his emotional repertoire as well, though I really shouldn’t say which character he sometimes feels sorry for, or whom he’d like to invite to the Yule Ball, without his permission.  But I will say that he’s come to understand, via Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sprout, etc. that his own parents are Professors too, though without the whole robes-and-hats-and-wands regalia.  As the books delve further into the problems associated with the idea of individual autonomy, seriously (via the Imperius Curse) and comically (with Hermione’s S.P.E.W.), we have to stop and discuss what’s what and who’s who (those of you familiar with the plot twists at the conclusion of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire know what I mean), and of course Jamie has to protect me from dementors with his patronus every now and then.  But for the most part, it’s going amazingly well.

So yesterday he and Janet and I went to see the new movie—a milestone of sorts, since this is the first time Jamie’s read the book before seeing the film.  I made him promise to hold my hand when the dementors came so that I would not be scared, and he did, but I think even he was a little surprised at how ghastly they are, and didn’t have all that much comforting left over for me.  I won’t bore you with a full review of the film (after all, I have to bore you on Tuesday with a recap of the Cup finals!), but I will say that

-- the lovely Garman Theater in Bellefonte, PA is a great place to see movies, especially when your tix are taken by a young man who looks exactly like Professor Snape, and who has obligingly dressed the part;

-- Alfonso Cuaron is a more subtle director than Chris Columbus, but nonetheless, the film demands so much compression of the first nine-tenths of the book (in order to do justice to the concluding sequences) that it may be the first movie in the series for which a knowledge of the book is a prerequisite.  I know you can’t have kids’ movies coming in at the length of Berlin Alexanderplatz, now, but still, slightly more should have been done with Hermione’s inexplicable disappearances, and the Crookshanks - Scabbers subplot, so critical to the novel, is given about eight seconds of screen time; and

-- we all love Alan Rickman.

Kudos to Rowling, by the way, for broaching the issue of having an out gay man—er, I mean, a werewolf, cough cough—teaching at Hogwarts.  Note that Hogwarts’ only competent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (over a five-year span!) is chased from his job by a hate campaign mounted by the Malfoys.  If I recall correctly (it was only yesterday, after all), the film makes matters slightly more explicit than the novel, by having Lupin attribute his resignation to the fact that parents will not want “someone like me” teaching their children (he does not use the word “werewolf").  She’d already broached the racism of the Malfoys in Chamber of Secrets, and when we get to Goblet of Fire we’ll come up against the brutal stigma faced by those among us who are half giant.  I just gotta love Rowling—she’s managed to piss off the insufferable Bloom and the insane fundamentalist right, and she has no patience with Daily Prophet reporters who rely lazily and uncritically on sources like the Malfoys or Ministry of Magic apparatchiks.  What’s not to like?

Posted by on 06/06 at 07:35 AM
  1. My wife and daughters, ages 7 and 9, saw it last night and we also enjoyed it very much.  Your reading of the sexual orientation of Lupin (played by the under-used and under-appreciated acting genius that is David Thewlis) occurred to me too--but it was tempered by that scene where Serious grabs him as he is transforming and says something like “your true self is in here (your heart)!” Nonetheless, his parting comments to Harry are absolutely gay themed.  There also seems to be a healthy critique of the death penalty going on too, but I haven’t read the book(s) so take it for what it’s worth.

    Anyway, I confess, I’ve missed most of the Harry Potter phenomenon--the reading and watching with my girls was the pleasurable domain of my wife.  I’m sorry that it has been so.  Anyway, last night I repeatedly relied on my daughters, on either side of me, to explain arcane references and bring me quickly up to speed. This was very satisfying for both me and them.  Like you, I was amazed by their ability to track and almost intuit the turns of complicated narrative--an age-sensitive legibility I think may be unique to HP. 

    Posted by  on  06/06  at  11:33 AM
  2. I have not yet seen this one, but I have read all of the books and seen the other two films. I agree with your read of the <whisper> gay man </whisper> werewolf at Hogwarts. The only thing that could have been funnier might have been a <whisper> lesbian </whisper> vampire teaching gym!

    Posted by Dr. B.  on  06/06  at  12:35 PM
  3. Well, let’s not pass over Madame Hooch just yet!  But seriously, the first clearly lesbian character (imho) doesn’t appear until Tonks shows up in Phoenix

    Posted by  on  06/06  at  02:41 PM
  4. Trust me, no one wants to show up in Phoenix....heh.

    Posted by  on  06/06  at  02:55 PM
  5. Although I can think of Dickensian terms, I am totally blanking out on the Restoration-theater based word for America’s Literary Critic.  The seventeenth century is so far away . . . 

    Posted by  on  06/06  at  05:40 PM
  6. The idea of Prof. Lupin as a gay teacher occurred to me, too, and did seem more explicit in the film ... but then I got to thinking it through: where he’s in his werewolf form, he’s incapable of controlling himself, and therefore truly is a danger.  A good and courageous person, yes, but one you clearly need to watch out for, because he might be overcome by his condition (passions?) and eat some people.

    Posted by Matthew Cheney  on  06/06  at  06:38 PM
  7. Well, the gay/werewolf thing is open to the homophobic “they can’t control themselves” reading, yeah, but remember, Lupin is on medication, grudgingly provided by Snape on Dumbledore’s orders (because he’s HIV-positive, see).  And then there’s the fact that his adolescent buddies-- Peter Pettigrew, Sirius Black, and James Potter-- decided to become unregistered animagi in solidarity with him.  So you could associate him with a number of available “outlaw” identities.  But I don’t mean to suggest that Lupin is only gay.  After all, didn’t Dumbledore make the Shrieking Shack available to him, during his student days, as a place where he could go when the moon was full?  (Hence the secret passage from the Whomping Willow.) Let’s see . . . a monthly indisposition during which you have to go off into a hut by yourself . . . hey, Lupin has a menstrual cycle!

    Seriously, I think Rowling is quite deliberately exploring various kinds of social stigmata in the series, from Mudbloods to werewolves to giants to speakers of parseltongue, and the only form of social stigma around at the moment which provokes this specific kind of moral panic is associated with openly gay teachers.  And the hysteria is centered precisely on the conviction that they can’t “control” themselves-- and might even turn some of our kids into werewolves too!

    Ask me about my work in progress, in which I show that the X-Men are gifted gay Jewish kids with disabilities.

    Posted by  on  06/06  at  07:05 PM
  8. I would really, really like to hear about your work in progress, in which you show that the X-men are gifted gay Jewish kids with disabilities.

    I think I’ve heard/seen/intuited the gifted gay Jewish reading before, but the disabilities bit is new to me.

    Posted by  on  06/06  at  09:34 PM
  9. >> Let’s see . . . a monthly indisposition during which you have to go off into a hut by yourself . . . hey, Lupin has a menstrual cycle!

    If you want to read a really good story written on this subject, seek out “The Curse” by Alan Moore.


    Posted by Stef  on  06/06  at  10:46 PM
  10. Yes, the rampaging “literati” snobbery that attacks Rowling is on a par with the anti-Tolkien frothing resurgent in the press these past years.

    Part of it’s the whole “anti-fantasy” thing that CS Lewis pegged, people who are out of touch with their imaginations and really have a horor of getting in touch with them.

    Partly it’s the other thing he hit on, the pathetic snobbery of kids wanting to be seen to be grown up, so afraid of being thought “juvenile,” so they daren’t admit they enjoy “kidlit” or other “unsophisticated” genres.

    But I think that now something else has entered into it: the statement that CSL made when he and Brian Aldiss and another SF author were knocking back a few, that genre fiction was the literature of the future, but among the self-styled elite, the “literary establishment,” the snobbery was so entrenched that “this generation will have to die and rot,” before comic books and fantasy will be able to be taken seriously. (Yes, they did endorse comics as lit, too, on that tape.)

    The few hold outs of the Old Guard have realized (I suspect) that they’re irrelevant, that they might as well command the sea as to stop the polis from reading, watching, and talking about things fantastic, that they’ve lost this culture war. And deservedly.

    So they become increasingly shrill and absurd, condemning a genre filled with ethical debate, historical references, and formal structures, and which has spurred kids to go out and read other works, and start trying to write - and develop schools of formal literary analysis, complete with coined terminology and distinctions, in the interest of understanding and appreciating and writing better.

    Sad in a way - they’re like poor old Ardath Bey, who just won’t accept that he’s, well, dead as he keeps trying to turn back time…

    Posted by bellatrys  on  06/07  at  02:57 AM
  11. It took me a long time to pick up my first Harry Potter book, because 1) my kids are grown; 2) I’ve been disgusted by the bulk of the infantile crap that passes for children’s literature in the past few decades and 3) with rare exceptions, I have little patience with the fantasy genre.

    I actually got sucked in by the movies before I read the books. What a great series! And they actually have kids reading real books again - you know, the kind with themes and characters.

    So I was pleasantly surprised

    Posted by Susie from Philly  on  06/07  at  04:06 AM
  12. For Susie from Philly and everyone else:

    I connected with the Harry Potter books via my niece, so I guess I’m one of the middle-aged weirdos mentioned by The Onion. But I’ve made a point of joining the midnight lines for each of the last two Potter book premieres because such things are always more fun when you see them with the hardcore fans. (I did the same thing when “The Phantom Menace” opened, and the multiple generations of Star Wars buffs in the audience turned out to be more entertaining than the movie.)

    It’s impossible not to be charmed and engaged by the sight of so many kids chomping at the bit to get their hands on a hefty book. I’d suggest old wilted Bloom give it a dry, if only to blow the dust off his cerebrum, but who’d want him around if the medicine failed to take hold?

    When I was the age of these children, I devoured Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, the L’Engle series and “A Wizard of Earthsea.” For me, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” series opened the door to Dickens, not the other way around, and I think we’re all better off for it. The Harry Potter books stand tall in this company, and Susie from Philly might want to give them a try.

    I also admire J.K. Rowling’s stiff-necked refusal to be hustled into anything she doesn’t want to do. Not many tyro writers would have the brass to tell Steven Spielberg to go fly a kite, but she did and more power to her. He thought the first book was all scene-setting and the second book was repetitious. He was right, of course, but so what?

    The Potter books get more ambitious with each volume, and I look forward to reading them to my daughters when they’re old enough. 

    Posted by  on  06/07  at  07:23 AM
  13. One of the things that continues to impress me about the Potter series is how well Rowling gets into the emotional world of children at different ages.

    One of the things that continues to impress me about Harold Bloom’s comments is how obvious it is that he didn’t actually read what he said he did. 

    Posted by  on  06/07  at  08:07 AM
  14. I’m another one of those middle-age weirdos.  I just gobbled up my son’s books.
    I think it’s just so fantastic you’re reading them to your son!
    I miss that the most.  The last big thing I read to him was The Hobbit, when he was in First Grade (it took about 3 months).
    Oh, he’s 17 now.

    Posted by  on  06/07  at  09:46 AM
  15. Bellatrys: The “other sf writer” was Kingsley Amis.

    Posted by Arthur D. Hlavaty  on  06/07  at  10:53 AM
  16. It took me a long, long time to fall under Rowling’s spell, but count me in now as another middle-aged weirdo. What I want to know, however, is this: How is it that we’re reading Remus as homosexual? His lycanthropy surely marks him as an Other, and a stigmatized Other at that (Rowling and Cuaron depict Lupin with numerous facial scars). But, I’m not sure exactly how that Otherness gets translated into homosexuality and not just an illness or disability.

    Michael, you write that “I think Rowling is quite deliberately exploring various kinds of social stigmata in the series...” Damn, can I get a time turner and go back a few years to rewrite my dissertation prospectus?

    And I hope you’re not just joshing with us about the X-Men project. I’d love to see a long sub-section on Kurt Wagner, the multiply-stigmatized supercrip. He’s ripe for analysis, and he is cute, too.

    Posted by  on  06/07  at  12:12 PM
  17. God Loves, Man Kills started the whole mutie-hatred-cum-racism theme explicitly, as I recall, but the disabled Jewish kids thing is new on me.

    Posted by mythago  on  06/07  at  12:55 PM
  18. There’s a reasonable argument for reading Superman as Jewish.  I cannot, at this moment, remember what that argument is, but it made sense to me when I heard it.  It’s probably not a huge stretch to apply a similar reading to the X-men. 

    Plus, there’s the whole Magneto thing. 

    Posted by  on  06/08  at  11:32 AM
  19. Posted by  on  06/08  at  01:14 PM
  20. Ellen notes: There’s a reasonable argument for reading Superman as Jewish. I cannot, at this moment, remember what that argument is, but it made sense to me when I heard it.

    I believe that the argument is roughly summarized in the phrase “Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster.” (See also The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay for an ad-nauseum treatment of the idea.)

    Posted by Doctor Memory  on  06/08  at  07:18 PM
  21. So thus also, Stan *Liebowitz*.

    Posted by  on  06/08  at  07:36 PM
  22. Michael, that’s really interesting.  Are you planning to address the impacts of mutation/disability on education, access to public spaces, and/or assistive technology? 

    Posted by  on  06/08  at  08:38 PM
  23. Playing voldy’s advocate.

    Bloom’s critique of rowling books is unpleasant, and makes him appear unpleasant, all right, and i’m just as happy as the next guy to enjoy something that bugs all the right people.

    But book five? Rowling seems to be like overstretched in this one, and the ropes are showing a bit. It’s not nearly enough to make bloom’s critic relevant (he really doesn’t get it) but maybe enough to raise some eyebrows and hope she takes more time for the next. Still a great read though.

    About lupin, he appeared to me more as a general outcast figure, not specifically a gay one. I’d tend to be wary about specifying him too much, as rowling’s overall meaning (or one of them) seems to try to show a very general open minded/bigoted tension.

    I’m personally curious to see how the ministry of magic fascistoid tendencies will evolve.

    Posted by  on  06/09  at  03:44 AM
  24. Ellen-- No, no plans in that direction just yet.  The paragraph is really just an aside about how central (and how unremarked) disability is in fantasy/SF narratives.  And Yabonn, there are some great comments on the series over at Making Light, including one from a “Contrary Mary” who notes that the novels are meant to be read at high speed, and we should apply the “galloping horse” rule to them (check out her comment for the explanation).  As for me, I found both Goblet of Fire and Phoenix to be overstretched, but I will say this:  Tolkien never dealt with this kind of pressure.  LOTR caught on long after the books were written; while he was working on them, they were just an English don’s little hobby.  Rowling’s last two novels have been written under conditions no other writer on the planet has had to contend with.

    Posted by  on  06/09  at  04:23 AM
  25. Matthew Cheney is right.  The fact that werewolves do have the annoying habit of ripping people to shreds works against the Lupin is gay reading.  Plus, I wonder if British Public Schools have quite the same sort of phobias about gay teachers that we have.  Might be better to say that being a werewolf at Hogarts is *like” being a gay teacher at Ronald Reagan Elementary.

    Lupin, like Dumbledore and Sirius Black, is foremost a stand in father figure for Harry to emulate.  Their jobs are to give Harry ways to know and love his real father, which is a way for him to learn to know and love himself, and that gives him the courage and the strength to stand up to his other self, Tom Riddle.

    Sorry.  Nevermind Harold Bloom.  Save me from too much Joseph Campbell.

    A.S. Byatt is another pompous old fraud who gives herself away in her loathing for Potter.  The revealing flaw in both her and Bloom is that neither one of them seems to get the jokes.  They don’t recognize that Rowling is a great comic writer.  Both my sons, ages 10 and 8, double up in laughter when we’re reading the books.  Me too.

    Posted by  on  06/09  at  06:51 PM
  26. OK, OK, Lupin isn’t literally gay.  I’ll just repeat what I said on Monday, namely, that the only form of social stigma around at the moment which provokes this specific kind of moral panic is associated with openly gay teachers.  The X-Men aren’t really Jewish, either, save for Magneto, so far as I know.  These are just varieties of representational strategies for associating characters with one or another socially stigmatized identity, that’s all.  But “Lupin is gay” makes the point more startlingly than “varieties of representational strategies etc.” Gets people’s attention, and gets ‘em talking about varieties of representational strategies, too.

    One thing about these father figures, though:  Lupin to some extent, and Sirius to a much greater extent, conflate Harry with his father, thus mucking the whole thing up.  I believe Mrs. Weasley comments on this in Order of the Phoenix-- chastisting Sirius for basically wanting Harry as a playmate when it looks like he might be expelled from Hogwarts by the Wizengamot--

    And yes, A. S. Byatt’s op-ed last summer was a humorless piece of bilge.  As if she has a Wonder Meter at home, and has measured Rowling’s thestrals in the scales and found them wanting.

    Posted by  on  06/09  at  08:02 PM
  27. You’re right, Michael.  And now you’ve got me looking forward to Phoenix.  (We’re halfway through Goblet.) I’ve got a soft spot for Mrs Weasley even when she’s sending her howlers and pretending not to enjoy Fred and George’s shenanigans.

    Snape is another one who’s mixing Harry up with his dad.  And doesn’t that create all kinds of weirdnesses and kinky subtexts.

    PS Sorry about the double post.  I hate it when I make a mess in other people’s homes.  I feel like I’ve knocked over the bottle of wine.

    Posted by  on  06/10  at  04:25 AM
  28. Yes, you’re right about Snape-- and I’m sorry if I gave anything away about Phoenix!  (And, of course, the Malfoys’ objection to Hagrid as a teacher doesn’t mean he’s gay-- that’s just plain old vanilla class/race politics.)

    Oh, and don’t worry about the double post-- just a little dab of seltzer water will fix that.  Watch--

    Posted by  on  06/10  at  06:45 AM
  29. Michael, for your further research on the X-Men, note that Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat) is Jewish, and that Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler) is Catholic.

    Posted by  on  06/10  at  07:16 AM
  30. Michael, great post.  Seems like most of what I see written about Harry Potter is just too extreme one way or the other--Bloom’s & Byatt’s “end of civilization” ranting or people touting Rowling as the greatest writer of the 20th & 21st centuries.  My kids are 3 & 1, so we aren’t reading Harry Potter yet (though I read one of them to my first daughter when she was 3-4 months old--I was reading it anyway & figured it worked as bedtime reading as well as anything) but I’ve read all of the books and enjoyed them, even though they are somewhat clunky at times, especially the last one.  They are books aimed at kids, and Rowling captures adolescents’ liminality and emotional states really well, her books are funny and complicated enough for her audience to have to stretch a bit to understand.  She’s no Tolstoy, but she’s not trying to be. 

    I think you’re exactly right about the novels as “exploring various kinds of social stigmata,” which is an awful lot of their appeal, for adolescents especially, and I certainly took Lupin as being (more or less) gay too. 

    Posted by David Morgen  on  06/11  at  01:45 AM
  31. Regarding A. S. Byatt’s disdain for Harry Potter . . .

    I thought her piece attacking Rowling was overwrought, but we should be fair to Byatt: she knows her children’s fantasy lit, and she is a quite public and quite explicit advocate for Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy Discworld novels (suggesting to me that she does have a sense of humor).

    I suspect that her animus toward Rowling has more to do with a love for Diana Wynne Jones and other excellent children’s writers--and Byatt’s sense that these authors are ignored while Rowling is lauded.

    Posted by  on  06/14  at  07:10 AM
  32. This note is so disjointed that I’ll break it up into sections. That’s what comes of joining so late.

    1) What is a gay-werewolf discussion without a mention of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode? She and her friends were searching their high school for a werewolf in hopes of helping him (or her) manage this cyclical disorder. They approached one suspect, who was inspired by their talk of learning to deal with one’s secrets. Needless to say, he came out of the closet as a homosexual.

    2) As for the X Men: All teenagers are mutants in the sense that they are not their parents, though they often share DNA, and at puberty, they undergo uncontrollable changes on their path to adulthood. Yes, some of them are Jewish, but there is enough Christian allegory in the XMen corpus to satisfy any fan of the Saints and Martyrs genre.

    3) I think Michael Chabon (Kavalier and Klay) was right in his introduction to the narrative issue of McSweeney’s. In fact all literature is genre literature, it’s just that there is only one genre still acceptible in certain academic and literary circles, the novel of everyday life with its moment of revelation. He asked us all to imagine a world in which the only acceptible literary form was the nurse novel, and to be honest, that sounded more appealing.

    4) Let’s face it, narrative is a basic human form. If the physicists are right about causality, it is intrinsic in our understanding of the universe. Children suck it up at a million miles an hour, and the more narrative they consume, the better they get at understanding it.

    We had one niece who had a language problem that kept her from reading at her grade level. The solution was well written narrative. Try the Prydain books, try the Princess and the Goblin, try the Oz books. Just avoid the standardized, grade approved, age appropriate trash that the schools tend to peddle. We started reading to her. Then, she started reading to us. Now she reads all kinds of stuff, some of it good, some of it trash, but SHE READS!

    Posted by Kaleberg  on  07/15  at  12:47 PM





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