Washington Post Article
- I thought this might be of interest.
A Transgendered Wizard Caught in Post-Ironic Yada Yada
By Chris Mooney
Sunday, June 29, 2003; Page B04
When I was invited to give a paper at an event called "Nimbus-2003: A
Harry Potter Symposium," I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or to
take it as a hint that I ought to stop writing so much about fantasy.
Set for next month in Orlando, Fla., the Potter Symposium will
convene hundreds of fans and more than a few scholars to discuss the
ever-growing literary phenomenon of the boy wizard. More than 50
papers will be presented by college professors, graduate students, a
Jewish cantor and a former Supreme Court clerk. There will be
workshops, panel discussions, a Quidditch match (how it will be
played I cannot imagine) and even a "wizarding nightclub." Some
attendees apparently plan to show up dressed as characters from the
novels; these enthusiasts can look forward to the "Cloaks and
Cauldrons" panel, where "the main how and why of wizarding fashion
will be discussed."
I will not be attending Nimbus; not only do I not have a costume, I
have moved to California and event organizers were unable (or
unwilling) to provide a Portkey. Nevertheless, I decided to browse
through some of the offerings in the nascent field of Harry Potter
scholarship. To start with the most provocative:
Throwing Down the Gauntlet When it comes to Harry Potter scholarship,
Kansas State University assistant professor of English Philip Nel,
author of 2001's "J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's
Guide," is one of the icons of the field. Nel even teaches his own
course in the subject at Kansas State called "Harry Potter's
Library." At Nimbus-2003, he will be presenting a paper titled "What
Makes a Professor Behave Like Snape?: Literature, Marketing and the
Critical Backlash Against Harry Potter." The article will serve as a
rejoinder to critics such as Yale University's Harold Bloom, who have
claimed that the Harry Potter novels lack literary merit, as well as
others who see the series as little more than mass marketing run
amok. "I would argue that in fact, there is a literary work that
exists there, beyond all the marketing," says Nel.
Getting a Little Abstruse In a paper titled "Platform 9¾ and Sundry
Barriers: Ontological Displacements in the Harry Potter Series,"
Sudha Shastri of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay will
describe "the various means and tools that Rowling deploys to distort
ontological stability" -- i.e., letting characters walk through walls
and photographs or travel through time and into people's thoughts.
According to an abstract, the paper will also raise questions about
whether "such boundary-crossings . . . contribute to the definition
of magic in the Harry Potter books." It's hard to know what else to
say about this one. Apparently you need to hear the whole paper.
What Would Harry Do? Another vein of Potter analysis involves
Christian writers such as Connie Neal, author of "The Gospel
According to Harry Potter," who seeks to convince her fellow
believers that the Potter novels aren't Satanic after all. Neal's
presentation will explain how she read Rowling's novels and "found
the Christian gospel" in them. She will also discuss "how to handle
people who insist Harry is 'of the devil' in a friendly way." One
strategy, adopted by Nimbus-2003, seems to be not inviting them to
your conference: No panels will feature theological attacks on the
Satanic elements in the Potter series.
Stop Being So Funny Florida Southern College English professor Mary
Pharr will present a paper titled "Within the Pantheon: Harry Potter
and the Epic Question." Harry, writes Pharr in a preliminary draft of
her presentation, "whose expanding heroism is becoming both essential
to his society and intricate in its design, may be moving toward an
epic destiny." Pharr admits that the level of humor in the Potter
books may detract from their epic "seriousness," but adds that "book
by book . . . the humor is thinning out as the schoolboy moves toward
his adult destiny." Luckily for Pharr's thesis, by the end of the
latest Potter book, "The Order of the Phoenix," the cut-up Weasley
twins leave Hogwarts to start their own joke shop, suggesting that
future novels' humor content may indeed be reduced.
Free the House Elves! In "Sexuality, Protest, Elves and White
Womanhood: Hermione and S.P.E.W.," University of Wisconsin at
Milwaukee PhD candidate Laurie Barth Walczak will discuss Hermione
Granger's attempt to liberate the "slaves of the magical world" by
forming the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.),
and how she is distracted in her efforts once she begins to be
courted by Quidditch star Viktor Krum in the novel "Harry Potter and
the Goblet of Fire." "Hermione's relationships to the elves change as
she commences her passage into white womanhood; her protest is
forgotten when she becomes preoccupied with her new friend," Walczak
observes. House elf liberation turns out to be a hot topic in Harry
Potter studies; other papers on the subject include "But That's the
Title on the Manifesto!: Labor and Class Concerns in Harry Potter."
The offerings at the symposium are nothing if not varied. Emily
Katherine Anderson of Susquehanna University ponders whether Harry is
a "radical transgendered hero, one that is not entirely male or
female" while Hermione "possesses more of the qualities of a male
archetypal hero." Cantor Amy Miller wonders, "What's a nice Jewish
boy like Harry Potter doing in a place like this?" Diana Patterson of
Mount Royal College discusses technology and magic, while Susan Hall,
an Oxford University graduate and partner at a British law firm,
criticizes the wizard justice system. "The existence of a system of
bastard client/patronage networks in the Wizard World (loosely
corresponding to the model from the later Roman Republic) is in
itself inimical to the development of a legal system based on the
principles of equality before the law," she writes.
Some have suggested that scholarly writings about Harry Potter are
simply ways for adults to justify their addiction to kids' books. But
even if you accept that premise, it's hard not to be impressed by the
sheer volume of intellectual production going on right now because of
Harry. Though Harry Potter scholars are outsiders within academia and
open to ridicule, one gets the sense that J.K. Rowling might approve
of their activities for precisely this reason. After all, the motley
blend of fandom and scholarship on display in Nimbus-2003 has a clear
parallel in Rowling's own novels, which celebrate hybrids and
outcasts: Hagrid the half-giant, Lupin the werewolf, Hermione the
Muggle-born. If there's a clear moral to Rowling's books, it's that
through toleration of a little weirdness, we can learn something.
That certainly applies to those who combine identities usually
thought of as pure and distinct, like the identities of fan and
critic -- people working as scholars by day and as wizards by night.
Author's e-mail: moonecc@...
Chris Mooney frequently writes about the intersection of science and
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