Nothing But Memory
Archive for July, 2011

Mis-shapes, Mistakes, Misfits

A friend linked me to a blog post called Harry Potter: The Anti-Geek the other day. The author of the post argues that Harry Potter and his friends do not fit in with the “band of misfits” trope that commonly shows up in the fantasy genre; specifically, she cites the Scooby Gang from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of the type of group of social outcasts which Harry and friends are not. Seeing as Buffy and Harry Potter are two of my favourite things and I love comparing them, I have some thoughts on this subject.

I can’t disagree with the main point the author makes about Harry himself: I wouldn’t call him a nerd or a geek. It’s true that Harry is a jock, and that his fame and wealth give him some social status in the wizarding world. Some of the author’s other arguments, however, are more debatable. For example:

Harry and Ron, on the other hand, are more stereotypical privileged young men who only put forward a C effort in school because they know they can coast into adulthood on their families’ reputation.

This, I think, is blatantly wrong. First of all, the suggestion that Ron can coast through life on the Weasley family reputation seems dubious at best. The Weasleys are pure-bloods, but they are also poor, and we learn that Bill, Charlie, and Percy all work for a living after they graduate from Hogwarts. Arthur Weasley, meanwhile, is viewed by the wizarding community as an oddball (perhaps even … a misfit) because of his interest in Muggles. There is some suggestion that his obsession has even held him back at work.

I also think it’s unfair to condemn Harry and Ron as slackers. Sure, they might sleep through History of Magic — to be fair, everyone except Hermione also sleeps through that class — and BS their way through Divination — a subject even Hermione thinks is a load of crap —  but they work hard in the classes they enjoy, and there are many instances in the books where we see the two of them working frantically at their schoolwork. Are they more likely to skip doing homework than Hermione is? Yes. Is almost everyone else at Hogwarts also more likely to skip doing homework than Hermione is? Well, yes. She’s Hermione. I will agree that Harry and Ron may not be the most academically-inclined people in the world, but then neither are their Scooby Gang counterparts, Buffy and Xander.

And what of Hermione? I would think someone who loves schoolwork and reading as much as she does must have some nerd cred, but according to the author Hermione “still doesn’t rise to the level of a true geek character” because she’s beautiful and she dates Viktor Krum. This is a stretch. Hermione might grow up to be attractive, but she is explicitly described as being quite mousy in the first few books. The reaction from other Hogwarts students when she shows up at the Yule Ball looking pretty borders on cruel: Parvati gapes at her in “unflattering disbelief” that that’s Hermione Granger. As for Viktor Krum, while he’s certainly dashing on a broomstick, Harry notes that he’s much less impressive with his feet on the ground. It is possible that Krum himself is a bit of a misfit who just happens to be a world famous Quidditch player, too. At any rate: if the Scooby Gang is the standard by which all bands of misfits are to be judged, then I must admit that I’m struggling to see much of a difference in this respect between Hermione and her Scooby equivalent, Willow, who dates (ye gads!) a musician.

Regarding Harry himself: as several commenters on the original post pointed out, it’s worth noting that he spends significant parts of the series being shunned because many of his classmates suspect him of being evil (Chamber of Secrets), wildly egotistical (Goblet of Fire), or deranged (Order of the Phoenix). Clearly, the special status Harry gains from being “the boy who lived” is not always a positive thing: just like Buffy, whose gifts make her a social outcast, Harry often feels like a freak. Think about how many times he faints or has a Voldemort-related seizure in public over the course of the series. That’s got to be more than a little embarrassing for a teenager. Before he came to the wizarding world, too, Harry was most definitely a misfit: he was forced to wear Dudley’s hand-me-downs and was constantly bullied by Dudley and his friends, who made sure that Harry had no friends of his own. It’s this aspect of Harry’s background that I think defines how he perceives himself, much more than his new status in the wizarding world as a star athlete and celebrity.

Aside from all that, what really made me react to this blog post is that I have always considered the wider social circles within which the Scooby trio and the Potter trio move to be extremely similar precisely because the two heroes share an ability to look past a misfit-like exterior and see an individual’s true value. Neville is probably the nerdiest kid in Gryffindor and Luna is, let’s face it, a total weirdo, but they both become valued and well-liked friends to the trio. Anya may be a strangely literal ex-demon with little understanding of human customs, but she’s on Buffy’s team. Faith and Andrew are both former villains who find a place in the group.

This ability to be accepting of difference extends to looking past the conventional wisdom on the supposedly innate characteristics of various magical or supernatural creatures. For Buffy, this means taking Angel, a vampire, as an ally. The rest of the Scooby Gang is (mostly) comfortable with having Angel on the team, but Kendra can’t understand this at all: to her, all vampires are just plain evil and should always be killed. In season four, a similar situation arises when Riley finds out that Oz is a werewolf. His Initiative training makes him question why Buffy would associate with such a creature, but Buffy and the others know Oz as a person and ultimately Riley comes around. There is an obvious Potter parallel to this in Prisoner of Azkaban when Professor Lupin is revealed to be a werewolf: Ron, raised with the belief that werewolves are evil, is initially repulsed when he learns the truth, but in the end Lupin remains a trusted friend to the group. Harry, Ron, and Hermione also understand that although Hagrid is half giant, he is a kind and goodhearted person; that Dobby is not merely a slave, but an ally and friend who deserves the respect of a proper burial. Griphook, used to being treated as a lower life form, is obviously struck by Harry’s behaviour, commenting that his actions in Dobby’s case mark him as a very “unusual” wizard. Spike, meanwhile, who is despised and rejected by almost everyone, tells Buffy: “I know that I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man.”

To my mind, the fact that Harry and Buffy’s evil-fighting social circles are inclusive, taking in the social outcasts and misfits others might perceive as having no value, is one of the things that makes them so similar as characters.

·Tagged ,

Until the Very End

With the final Harry Potter movie being released this week, there’s been lots of looking back on the series and trying to express what it has meant: to the publishing and film industries (cash money), to the actors (so tiny when we first met them!), and to the fans.

I’m over 30, so I can’t say I grew up with Harry Potter like some people who read the first book as children can, but it suddenly came over me today just how significant a role the series has played in my life. I became a fan in 2000, when I signed up for an undergraduate course at Carleton on Harry Potter in the context of other children’s fantasy novels. We read the first four Potter books (the only ones that existed at the time) as well as The Hobbit, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Earthsea books, and The Dark Is Rising series. I enjoyed that class immensely. In particular, I loved the Harry Potter books. When the professor selected three students to present their papers at the Children’s Literature Association Conference that year, my friend Helen and I were two of them. It was the first academic conference I ever went to: a pretty major experience. Plus, free trip to Buffalo! (Yay?)

Somehow, Helen and I became very slightly famous for all this. I think it was the combination of undergraduate students presenting at a conference and the novelty of a university course about Harry Potter. Our picture was in the Ottawa Citizen. We even got interviewed by CBC Radio! We had gone to Montreal to see U2 on the Elevation Tour, and we were staying with our friend (and fellow Potter fan) Caitlin. The CBC called us at Caitlin’s place to do the interview. We were both on the phone in Caitlin’s room, and she sat eating a snack, listening while we talked to the radio guy. Maybe you had to be there, but it seemed hilarious at the time. Also: the U2 concerts (I went to both shows) were great.

That summer, I graduated from Carleton. For my graduation gift, my grandparents gave me a lamp shaped like a Golden Snitch. My current apartment is decorated with a few choice pieces of Potter memorabilia: the lamp, a Quidditch mobile, a small statue of Dumbledore, and a framed poster advertising the first film, which shows an owl delivering a letter to Mr. H. Potter, The Cupboard Under the Stairs, 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.

The next year, I went back to Carleton to start my Master’s. Barbara Garner, the professor who taught the Harry Potter course, became my advisor. When the Citizen called Prof. Garner soliciting a few articles about the series, I submitted a short piece which was published. That remains the only time anyone has ever paid for anything I’ve written. What did I write my final paper on? Harry Potter — obviously! I compared the books to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, noting all the similarities between Buffy and Harry as heroes. I loved spending all that time thinking about two of my very favourite things, and I think my paper has held up pretty well: nothing that happened in the books that were published later contradicted any of my ideas, at least.

Since then, I haven’t done any academic work on Harry Potter, but I’ve kept reading and loving the books. I ordered Order of the Phoenix from Amazon and sat outside all release day waiting for the mailman. When he finally drove up, he saw me sitting there, smiled, and said “Are you waiting for me?” I remember he told me it was the same all over the neighbourhood; he seemed not-at-all annoyed at having been asked to work on Saturday that week. For books six and seven, my sister and I went to midnight release parties at Mrs. Tiggy Winkle’s. We collected our pre-ordered books and ran back to the car, rushing to get home and start reading.

I wanted to reread the first six books before the seventh came out, but I’d intended to do a reread before book six, too, and completely failed. So, I decided to count the number of chapters in the books, and start my reread that exact number of days before book seven’s release. I figured if I assigned myself a chapter each day, I would probably make it. I did! And then I read book seven the day it came out, and then I read it again starting the next day, one chapter per day. That was the summer of 2007, the year I moved to Vancouver, and I had my copy of Deathly Hallows with me as I drove across Canada.

From that rereading success came the idea for Harry Potter and the Ultimate Reread, which has been a wonderful experience. We’re just finishing up now with The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The tales and the commentary by “Dumbledore” have only increased my admiration for J.K. Rowling. She is, quite simply, a genius, and her storytelling ability is astounding. Her work has given me not only countless hours of pleasure, but also some truly great memories.

So, on Friday, I will wear my Gryffindor House Quidditch Team shirt in tribute to the Boy Who Lived and his creator, and I will think about all these things and remember.

Thanks for everything, J.K.R.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

This weekend I saw Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life. I knew the response to this movie had been quite polarized, with glowing reviews on the one hand, and people walking out of screenings and demanding refunds on the other. The only other Malick film I’ve seen is The Thin Red Line, which I liked but wasn’t blown away by, but I think that plus the reaction from others probably gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect this time: something not very linear, kind of long, and likely rather meditative. And that is indeed essentially what I got. I enjoyed it very much, but I also completely understand why so many people have hated it.

Surface impressions: The Tree of Life is a very beautiful film. The images on screen may at times seem random, but they are almost always visually stunning. The music, too, is gorgeous, both Alexandre Desplat’s score and the numerous classical pieces used throughout.

But now to go a little deeper and tackle the big question: what is it all about, anyway? I don’t know what Malick intended, but I can tell you what I took from it. The movie opens with an epigraph, a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Job. I’m no biblical scholar, but I know Job is about a good man who suffers greatly. The main event that drives the story (okay, “story” may not be the right word here) of The Tree of Life is the death of the main character’s brother at age 19; although it’s never explicitly stated, it seems reasonable to assume that the boy was killed in Vietnam, given the time period. The entire film, I believe, is the main character, Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn (although it seemed to me Penn only appeared in the film for about 20 minutes, and all he did was walk around … I don’t think there’s an Oscar nomination in the cards this year), meditating on the Book of Job’s central question: why do bad things happen to good people? The film is Jack’s stream of consciousness on this subject. In considering that question, his thoughts take him all the way back to the creation of the universe — yes, there are dinosaurs. It is bizarre, to be sure, that a movie which is about a family living in Texas in the 1950s includes a sequence involving dinosaurs, but it also makes sense. We humans do occasionally think about these big ideas; the train of thought goes to some strange places sometimes, and I can well imagine that a man angry at God for taking his brother’s young life, wondering what it all means, might end up in contemplation of the cosmos. Jack also remembers incidents from his own childhood, including a longish sequence in which he remembers the sins he committed as he started coming of age, perhaps wondering if his bad behaviour somehow led to his brother’s death. The reference to Eden in the movie’s title also seems linked to this idea: Adam and Eve, of course, are banned from Eden and denied the bounty of the tree of life after they sin by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, even those who do not sin, like Job, may suffer.

Jack’s parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, are presented as embodying the two different ways of life outlined at the beginning of the movie: the way of nature (the father) and the way of grace (the mother). Grace, according to the mother’s voiceover, “doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” Nature, meanwhile, “only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Jay Michaelson has an interesting analysis of nature and grace in The Tree of Life at Religion Dispatches. (I’m sure there’s probably room for a more complete analysis of the Book of Job and The Tree of Life in this context, but I’m also sure I’m not the person to do it.) I’m not 100% on board with this nature vs. grace dichotomy, partly because I think the mother is closely associated with nature and wildness, while the father seems intent on civilizing it: for example, he’s strangely obsessed with having a perfectly neat front lawn. Then again, I suppose this could be his way of lording over nature itself, and we are shown in the film that there is sometimes grace in the natural world. I’m still not quite sure I buy the nature vs. grace argument as it’s presented, but this may be because I think of civilization as nature’s true opposite and I just can’t wrap my head around what Malick is trying to say.

Come to think of it, that last thing seems very likely. The Tree of Life: I have no idea what it really means, but it was beautiful and oddly powerful. To celebrate it, here is a piece by Bedrich Smetana called “My Country – Vltava (The Moldau)” — it’s a very grand piece of music that plays toward the middle of the film. Enjoy!