Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"the tide-turner, the shiny hinge"
February 24, 2014 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Neville Longbottom is the Most Important Person in Harry Potter—And Here’s Why
See, Rowling largely operates Harry’s generation in a clear system of parallels to the previous generation, Marauders and all. Harry is his father—Quidditch star, a little pig-headed sometimes, an excellent leader. Ron is Sirius Black—snarky and fun, loyal to a fault, mired in self-doubts. Hermione is Remus Lupin—book smart and meticulous, always level-headed, unfailingly perceptive. Ginny is Lily Evans—a firecracker, clever and kind, unwilling to take excuses. Draco Malfoy is Severus Snape—a natural foil to Harry, pretentious, possessed of the frailest ego and also deeper sense of right and wrong when it counts. And guess what? Neville Longbottom is Peter Pettigrew.

Emily Asher-Perrin on TOR.com writes (among other things) about the Harry Potter series.
Erased by Time and Blockbusters—The Cautionary Tale of Ron Weasley
But there’s perhaps something more subtle at work here as well. Where films are more recent in public memory, they can sometimes overwrite their fictional underpinnings. Is it possible that much of this Ron-hate is coming from people who are confusing canon-Ron with Ron-on-film?
Evryone Should Want to Be A Hufflepuff, Or, Stop the Hogwarts House-Hate
Cedric Diggory was supposed to be the lesson in all of this. Instead of inciting irritation and confusion in readers, the reaction to his selection in the Triwizard Tournament should have only ever been, “Of course the Hogwarts Champion is a Hufflepuff.” That was precisely the point. Of course the person who represents everything excellent about Hogwarts—its students, legacy, caliber—would come from Hufflepuff.
Growing Up Potter - "When Harry Potter was eleven, so was I."
posted by the man of twists and turns (109 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Platum leguminosae!
posted by gwint at 8:57 AM on February 24 [35 favorites]


A belated Valentine from Neville.
posted by sparkletone at 9:03 AM on February 24 [5 favorites]


What Slytherin seems to need is more students who are constructively ambitious, and the fact that they don’t have them is largely the wizarding world’s fault

One of the things I really, really disliked about the final book was the fact that not one member of Slytherin stood with the good guys; the point had been made repeatedly in previous books that not everyone in Slytherin was bad and that being ambitious was not a bad thing in itself.

Then they all either stood with Voldy or stood aside.

Unlike the author of these interesting columns, I don't blame the wizarding world - I blame the author of the series, who could've used that final standoff to demonstrate her point about ambition not necessarily being a bad thing, that it could come with principle, and utterly didn't.
posted by nubs at 9:08 AM on February 24 [13 favorites]


I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but there's nothing in them that, to my eye, suggests that Rowling had the kind of meticulous, detailed world-building in mind when she wrote them that many of the books' fans want to speculate about. That is, I just can't see the books as fruitful for this kind of analysis and argument (which, of course, is no reason that others shouldn't engage in it and enjoy it--I'm not kvetching about people doing this, just remarking on my own sense of there being a weird disjunction between the books' relatively slapdash and spontaneous approach to world-building and the painstaking, rabbinical quality of some of the analysis I see on fan sites).

I don't, personally, find it interesting to try to imagine how Hogwarts, say, could function as a real, living institution because it never for a second seemed to me that Rowling gave a passing thought to the question.
posted by yoink at 9:10 AM on February 24 [26 favorites]


#teamronbledore
posted by Rock Steady at 9:16 AM on February 24 [7 favorites]


yoink: I don't, personally, find it interesting to try to imagine how Hogwarts, say, could function as a real, living institution because it never for a second seemed to me that Rowling gave a passing thought to the question.

And that's exactly why I find it endlessly fascinating.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:16 AM on February 24 [7 favorites]


I agree - for one thing, the whole "house points" thing is hilariously arbitrary and capricious. But I also like about the books that as Harry grows older, the books start to ignore things like the points and the Quidditch matches and whatnot, much as children's tastes evolve as they approach adulthood.
posted by whir at 9:18 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but there's nothing in them that, to my eye, suggests that Rowling had the kind of meticulous, detailed world-building in mind when she wrote them that many of the books' fans want to speculate about. That is, I just can't see the books as fruitful for this kind of analysis and argument (which, of course, is no reason that others shouldn't engage in it and enjoy it--I'm not kvetching about people doing this, just remarking on my own sense of their being a weird disjunction between the books' relatively slapdash and spontaneous approach to world-building and the painstaking, rabbinical quality of some of the analysis I see on fan sites).

See, I love the painstaking, rabbinical analysis. Like you, I don't think the books are particularly well constructed, thoughtful, deep, etc (and I think that the books' racism, body-hate, classism and misogyny are equally accidental - they occur because Rowling lives relatively uncritically in a racist, body-hating, classist and misogynist culture, not because of her conscious investment in those ideologies. The culture and its received wisdom flow through Rowling, relatively unchanged.) But I adore the analysis, for several reasons - first, it teaches people to do (and value) close readings; second, it gets people in the headspace of the death of the author. It doesn't especially matter if Rowling was all "Neville is Peter Pettigrew come again!"; what matters is how the argument creates a productive, interesting or mobilizing reading of the books. That is a difficult line of reasoning to grasp if you're talking about, like, The Magic Mountain ("What do you mean, it doesn't matter what the author intended?") but it's easy to grasp when you're looking at a lesser, more accessible and more schematic work.

I also love the analysis because it teaches people to take pleasure in fussy reading - lots of people are having fun with careful readings who would never, ever have had fun with them in other circumstances. I'm not saying that everyone who is ever arguing about close readings of Rowling is going to reach for the Djuna Barnes next, but more people are developing smarter reading habits in general even if they're not deployed on the most challenging/rewarding texts.
posted by Frowner at 9:21 AM on February 24 [33 favorites]


Fuck yeah Neville Longbottom!
posted by charred husk at 9:28 AM on February 24


Of all of Rowling's authorial sins -- and they are massively outweighed by the sheer fun of the books, her careful stewardship of the property and her personal class and charity -- the house names are the absolute worst (yes, even more than making her hero a rich jock who's famous for something his parents did).

Gryffindor is okay -- it's the kind of thing that's perfect for kids and self-aggrandizement. But Slytherin? Really? Why not just name it House Badguys and make it like 1 percent more obvious? And Ravenclaw is just... boringly "This sounds like a fantasy family name and I need another house name that won't really matter much because we know it's all Gryffindor (yay!) vs. Slytherin (boo!)."

And then there's Hufflepuff. Fucking Hufflepuff. Not even kids can come up with demeaning takes on Hufflepuff, and kids can come up with demeaning takes on anything.
posted by Etrigan at 9:33 AM on February 24 [4 favorites]


What I hated about Slytherin was how stupid and unsubtle the Slytherins were. Apparently subtlety and underhandedness are something handed out at graduation, because nearly all of the time, when we see Slytherins, they're not being sneaks, they're just being dicks.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:33 AM on February 24 [11 favorites]


But I adore the analysis, for several reasons - first, it teaches people to do (and value) close readings; second, it gets people in the headspace of the death of the author. It doesn't especially matter if Rowling was all "Neville is Peter Pettigrew come again!"; what matters is how the argument creates a productive, interesting or mobilizing reading of the books. That is a difficult line of reasoning to grasp if you're talking about, like, The Magic Mountain ("What do you mean, it doesn't matter what the author intended?") but it's easy to grasp when you're looking at a lesser, more accessible and more schematic work.

Fair point, but I guess, for me, this kind of close reading is rewarding when the text keeps seeming to meet you half-way (or, rather, spookily seems to be getting there before you). I agree that this encourages the myth of the omniscient author who consciously "intended" every possible meaning that later readers derived from the work. But that myth (or interpretive error) grows out of analyzing works that are so richly constructed that they allow for multiple frameworks of analysis that all seem to find richly supportive evidence within the works. That just doesn't seem to me to be the case with the Potter books, at least when it comes to these particular kinds of analysis--the kinds that have to do with filling in the details of the universe in which the events of the books occur.

I think there are other kinds of analysis that the books would reward more richly. The analysis of the kinds of emotional/characterological connections between the characters (something Rowling obviously does, actually, care about and puts real effort into), for example or of the ways in which Rowling plays around with various kinds of storytelling tropes seem productive areas to me. But the world-building stuff? When I've read attempts to defend Quidditch as a viable game, for example, I can't tell if the writers are fooling themselves or trying to fool me or just engaging in some kind of weird performance art.
posted by yoink at 9:41 AM on February 24 [2 favorites]


One of the things I really, really disliked about the final book was the fact that not one member of Slytherin stood with the good guys; the point had been made repeatedly in previous books that not everyone in Slytherin was bad and that being ambitious was not a bad thing in itself.

IIRC, McGonagall basically sent the Slytherins out after Pansy Parkinson tied to give up Harry. Also, it was a quick decision by Narcissa Malfoy which really brought Voldemort down in the end.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:45 AM on February 24 [7 favorites]


One of the things I really, really disliked about the final book was the fact that not one member of Slytherin stood with the good guys; the point had been made repeatedly in previous books that not everyone in Slytherin was bad and that being ambitious was not a bad thing in itself.

Yup. My headcanon is that of course Slytherins fought for Hogwarts alongside the other houses; nothing else makes sense. Rowling got that wrong, no doubt taken in by Gryffindor propaganda.

I like Sarah Rees Brennan's take on Book 7.
posted by Shmuel510 at 9:48 AM on February 24 [7 favorites]


IIRC, McGonagall basically sent the Slytherins out after Pansy Parkinson tied to give up Harry. Also, it was a quick decision by Narcissa Malfoy which really brought Voldemort down in the end.

It's been a long time since I read the book, so I could be remembering it wrong; I just seem to recall a scene in which the entirety of Hogwart's is given the choice of standing and fighting against Voldemort, or going out and joining him. And nobody from Slytherin stands with Hogwarts.

Malfoy's decision, IIRC, was motivated by love/loyalty of family and fear for their safety - which is really one of the underpinning things of the series, I guess - I wanted to see a Slytherin take a fucking principled stand instead of being, well, snakes.
posted by nubs at 9:50 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


The really nice thing about the more freewheeling, seat-of-her-pants worldbuilding that Rowling did is that when it came time to answer some questions about the world and plot in the text, it ended up generally opening up the world a bit more, because there were always some loose ends and gaps that were left up to your imagination to fill. Contrast with GRRM's extremely meticulous worldbuilding and plotting in A Song of Ice and Fire, where we're now rapidly approaching the tipping point where every question that's answered locks down the world, confines it just a little more. I feel like things are going to be very pat and tidy when ASOIAF is done, which often makes a series a great ride the first time but a little less fun to revisit.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:54 AM on February 24 [6 favorites]


From the Harry Potter Wiki page on Horace Slughorn:
He returned to the castle at the head of vast number of residents and shopkeepers from the town, several Slytherin students who also returned to defend the school, and the friends and family of the students and staff already fighting. Slughorn engaged the Dark Lord head on, with McGonagall and Kingsley, proving himself a masterful duellist, able to hold his own against even the most dangerous Dark wizard of all time. After the battle, he sat at the Great Hall by Pomona Sprout and Filius Flitwick, telling of how he had lost his wand during the fighting, but eventually found it in the folds of his gowns and "dispatched" a few Death Eaters.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:59 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


It's too bad the intense sexual tension between Harry and Draco was never resolved.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:59 AM on February 24 [5 favorites]


I agree - for one thing, the whole "house points" thing is hilariously arbitrary and capricious.

Not if you went to an English boarding school.

Pre-Children's Act (1989) boarding schools were like little universes with their own internal logic, language and politics. Teachers had much more power than they do now. Parents and pupils had much less - the former because they were not generally considered to be "customers", and because fees were considerably lower; the latter because the prevailing view was that other people tended to know what was best for kids. Often they were also sealed off from the outside world - many were down long drives in former country homes. Pupils had little access to phones, letters out were vetted - ostensibly to check handwriting etc. Rowlings' picture of boarding school life: the caprice, camaraderie, cruelty is not so far fetched, notwithstanding the magical and mystical elements.

Anyway, points systems and house systems were common in most schools. In mine, there were four houses, and a lot of competition between them, mostly for honour. Older children would solemnly inform you of the 'character' of people from other houses, even though one's allocation into one or the other was random. The idea of 'character' was reinforced because siblings would typically be placed in the same 'house', which didn't always mean a different physical place (at junior schools, more often houses were just a way of grouping students; at senior schools they actually tended to denote where pupils slept).

Sometimes the points were accrued by overtly "house" activities such as internal competitions. At other times, they were accrued by summing up the points given to pupils of a particular house. In my school, you were made to do punishments through Saturday afternoon (you worked on Saturday morning) and Sunday if you got four black marks. In theory, these black marks were given out individually so you got some warning. In practice, capricious teachers, or ones who just didn't much like you, would hand out four or more at once, knowing they were trashing your free time.

The same was true the other way: you got red marks for doing something good. 20 red marks earned you a mention and sometimes a reward. Unfortunately, red and black marks sat on separate ledgers and did not affect one another's tallies. Here too, it was entirely discretionary how many you got. Some teachers handed them out in ones. Others were known to give out 30 in one go.

In short, not always hilarious, often arbitrary, totally believable.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:03 AM on February 24 [35 favorites]


From the Harry Potter Wiki page on Horace Slughorn:

Of House Slythrin, just to spell it out.

I feel like things are going to be very pat and tidy when ASOIAF is done, which often makes a series a great ride the first time but a little less fun to revisit.

I'd be very surprised if that's the case, and I'm pretty sure GRRM would be too.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:09 AM on February 24


I've been thinking a lot about Hogwarts versus Mercedes Lackey's Collegium and the general cruelty and all-around inefficient weirdness that Hogwarts has, and a lot of the problem is in Rowling's general favoritism toward Gryffindor values instead of Hufflepuff ones-- it feels like Lackey's authorial perspective colors things a lot more toward valuing friendship and loyalty and forming support networks instead of rushing headlong into danger, and the characters that do tend to charge on ahead actually get punished for it, which I think is an interesting perspective and provides a really nice contrast to Hogwarts. (There's an essay in this that I need to write and that Hufflepuff article actually does a good job of clarifying my thoughts.)
posted by NoraReed at 10:21 AM on February 24 [7 favorites]


The same was true the other way: you got red marks for doing something good. 20 red marks earned you a mention and sometimes a reward. Unfortunately, red and black marks sat on separate ledgers and did not affect one another's tallies. Here too, it was entirely discretionary how many you got. Some teachers handed them out in ones. Others were known to give out 30 in one go.

So what was to prevent the head of House X waiting until the last second and then just arbitrarily awarding some random student whatever number of points were necessary to win the intra-House competition every term?
posted by yoink at 10:29 AM on February 24


So what was to prevent the head of House X waiting until the last second

It would have made them fairly unpopular with their colleagues and their headteacher. About a third of the teaching staff were aligned with a house and did show some favour to pupils in their house.

Also: the main intra-house competitions had known points and were for specific activities - generally sports.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:39 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


From the Harry Potter Wiki page on Horace Slughorn:

Of House Slythrin, just to spell it out.


Then I guess I am corrected. There were a lot of things about the last book I didn't like, so it's quite possible I got some stuff conflated in my head.
posted by nubs at 10:48 AM on February 24


general cruelty and all-around inefficient weirdness that Hogwarts has

It's not just cruelty and inefficient weirdness, it's the way those are normalized. Like, if you read Orwell's essay on his private school experience, "Such, Such Were the Joys", or Connolly's "Enemies of Promise" or really any of the loads and loads of horrible-school-experience essays similar to them (or if you read Young Torless, or any of the books that grew out of such a sociopathic environment*, there much more acknowledgement that it's horribly abusive and destructive, both in what is said at the level of discourse and in how things are structured. And there's a whole social critique built in, an analysis underlying the whole which says "and society is totally fucked up, and that's why people are such monsters".

In the Harry Potter books, that really doesn't happen. Oh, Snape is evil (and he is evil - no matter what he does in the end, the way he treats children is monstrous and abusive) because he was abused, but there's no social explanation for such a sick system. I had a pretty terrible school experience with some collusion in the awful from teachers - and that's because those teachers were terrible. Why exactly doesn't Dumbledore or McGonagall put a stop right-smart to the stuff Snape does, if they're so great? If they're not great, that's one thing - but winking at abuse is pretty abusive too. There's a lot of moral waffle about the houses uniting and love and similar depoliticized babble, but there's never any systemic understanding. (And honestly, there are tons of kids books with this systemic understanding, ranging from those Hunger Games books to Diana Wynne Jones - it's not like Rowling would have been breaking new ground. It's because she fundamentally doesn't see anything wrong with a rigidly hierarchical world based on stereotypes, as long as they're her LibDem-esque "why can't we all get along" ones.)

Actually, one of the reasons that Harry Potter is such fertile ground for fan fiction - and in particular fertile ground for pornographic fan fiction! - is because there's all this unaddressed social violence floating around that is totally normal and okay per Rowling.
posted by Frowner at 11:03 AM on February 24 [18 favorites]


I also love the painstaking, rabbinical analysis, but only when it's for character or thematic stuff, not endlessly analyzing the rules of quidditch or other fiddly stuff that ultimately doesn't make a huge difference to the series as a whole. I get that it's how some people do fandom to nitpick and analyze the rules of quidditch or the specs of the Enterprise or whatever, but those discussions never really seem to go anywhere particularly interesting. They especially don't go anywhere in the wizarding world, which is sort of deliberately ramshackle and nonsensical, and I think it would have sucked a lot of charm and life out of JKR's worldbuilding if she had gotten too detailed about it.

I'd much rather get into painstaking, rabbinical analysis of say, Snape or Dumbledore or just what went down in the months leading up to Halloween 1981 when Harry's parents were killed. You get great fan fiction and discussion out of that, not out of a nitpicky discussion about how the scoring in quidditch makes no sense.
posted by yasaman at 11:53 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Love these articles. Slytherin is an example of a house gone bad. When you get down to it, its not unreasonable that peer pressure is going to get to members of a house who has been so filled with poison for so long to abandon the defence of Hogwarts, but it is a shame that Rowling chose to write it that way.

What I really like about the HP books is that the wizarding world is clear, deliberately corrupt. The ministry of magic, the attitude to magical creatures in general, the condensation towards muggles, its a world that has bred its own problems and reaps the benefits. The interesting thing to wonder is how much really will change with the end of Voldemort. The moneyed families still exist, and somehow the Malfoys managed to talk their way out of trouble again. Will House Elves have a better future? Its all unclear, and that's great.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:02 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


what went down in the months leading up to Halloween 1981 when Harry's parents were killed. You get great fan fiction and discussion out of that, not out of a nitpicky discussion about how the scoring in quidditch makes no sense.

What if what happened in the months leading up to Halloween 1981 was the result of a discussion about how the scoring in quidditch makes no sense? Maybe, in addition to that whole world domination thing, Voldemort really hated the rules of quidditch and was proposing serious reform?
posted by nubs at 12:10 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


Oh, Snape is evil (and he is evil - no matter what he does in the end, the way he treats children is monstrous and abusive) because he was abused, but there's no social explanation for such a sick system.

Snape is two sideburns short of a Heathcliff.
posted by sukeban at 12:10 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


Maybe, in addition to that whole world domination thing, Voldemort really hated the rules of quidditch and was proposing serious reform?

Broken clocks and such, then, because the scoring of quidditch is legitimately very stupid.
posted by Copronymus at 12:18 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


One of the things I liked about the extremely long fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality -- a work that I've pretty much given up on by now but which had some fun bits in the beginning -- is its treatment of Slytherin. Once Harry started digging into the history of the school, it became clear that the Slytherin we know is the end product of a long decline, a vicious cycle in which the more it got a reputation as the place where all the racist assholes are, the less anyone who wasn't a racist asshole wanted to be there.

The "Everyone Should Want To Be a Hufflepuff" piece reminded me of that in places.
posted by baf at 12:25 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


Exactly! But I can just see the high mucky-mucks of the wizarding world saying "We're down the with the world domination plan, Voldy...but leave quidditich alone!"
posted by nubs at 12:25 PM on February 24


One of the interesting things about the Potterverse is the tension between predestination and free will (which the Neville article gets at). One of the least interesting and most bothersome things about the Potterverse is that Rowling generally comes down on the side of predestination. (See: Voldemort cannot love because he was conceived under the influence of a love potion, Slytherin = bad, "sometimes we sort too soon", etc.)

I find the Potter books a very implicitly Christian set of texts because of the clear "you can choose to do whatever you want but if you don't choose to go with the plan, you fuck things up". As an atheist, I find this a significant downcheck for the books. I nitpick the books as a way of engaging them that deals with this downcheck.
posted by immlass at 12:34 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


for one thing, the whole "house points" thing is hilariously arbitrary and capricious.

This morning in the class I teach (Freshman Comp...whee!) I came very close to saying "Excellent, Travis! Ten points to Gryffindor!" when one of my students made a particularly good point.

But then I stopped myself because what if he's in Slytherin.
posted by dersins at 12:40 PM on February 24 [10 favorites]


"Not if you went to an English boarding school"

Or a particular boarding school in Delaware (where they filmed Dead Poets Society). It was called "marks work off". Literally hours of shit work on the weekends for every 'mark' a teacher gave you. No houses or class system there though, everyone suffered equally.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 12:46 PM on February 24


Pre-Children's Act (1989) boarding schools were like little universes with their own internal logic, language and politics.

Out of curiousity, how did this change it? I'm really fascinated by how the real-world stuff influences fiction of this type, and curious to see how long it will take reality to permeate fiction.
posted by corb at 12:48 PM on February 24


whir: "I agree - for one thing, the whole "house points" thing is hilariously arbitrary and capricious. But I also like about the books that as Harry grows older, the books start to ignore things like the points and the Quidditch matches and whatnot, much as children's tastes evolve as they approach adulthood."

In case you're under the impression that Rowling made it up, she's only modeling Hogwarts after very ordinary English schools.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:17 PM on February 24


not one member of Slytherin stood with the good guys

except, as has been noted, for horace slughorn.

Not to mention one of the two bravest wizrds harry'd ever known.

But yes, it's an omission, to say the least. Significant insofar as it reveals something about Rowling's attitudes about class: both Slughorn and Snape were low-born strivers, presumed to have more initiative than the upperclass twits they bunked with.
posted by lodurr at 1:18 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


American kids lose out because Americans don't know the tradition of boarding school stories.

My wife taught an international fiction section a few times at her last place of employment, and she used Sorcerer's Stone as a text one year. I encouraged her to also assign Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys" in conjunction, as it helped to explain that some aspects of the system that seem fantastic to us were really quite normal in a British context. (I tried halheartedly to get her to assign History of Danish Dreams, which has a long early section basically ripped-off from Orwell, but I didn't push that.)
posted by lodurr at 1:24 PM on February 24


corb: for the first time it put child welfare explicitly on the agenda in boarding schools. Things were already changing before 1989. For example, fagging was largely dying out. The idea that harsh conditions toughened kids up was already a minority view, although it still existed more among parents than staff. But there were no agreed minimum standards, I don't think, on child welfare as opposed to things like fire safety or specific health and safety regulations. Boarding schools were mostly independent and their ethos on child welfare and the speed at which they were modernising varied a lot.

Initially, the changes dealt with things like rights to privacy and dignity and comfort. For example, in the school I went to from 8-13, there was a single payphone, open, in a heavily trafficked hallway, which you needed to get permission to use. Showers were taken in front of a supervisory member of staff, who might be as young as 20. And female. The floors of some dormitories were wooden, and prone to giving you splinters when in bare feet. Kids slept in sheets with a woollen blanket. We weren't cold, but it wasn't much like home. After the Children's Act this all changed. Phones were placed in (mostly) soundproof kiosks for privacy, bathing conducted in privacy, floors carpeted, duvets on beds. I should note mine was a good, well managed school with many lovely members of staff who cared deeply about the welfare and education of kids.

Since then, the changes have gone further. Indeed, the whole market had changed. The fees are much higher in real terms now. Expectations a very different. Schools have to have better facilities and have to compete much harder for custom. Parents and pupils are very much customers. Every school explicitly talks about pastoral care and pupil welfare. The schools have softer edges and home comforts. The food is better. Many single sex schools have gone co-ed, so siblings are more likely to be kept together. Kids leave school more often and more flexibly - not just for a weekend each side of half term + half term but other weekends too and more weekly boarding.

And of course the entire conversation about child abuse is different, in and outside these schools. The Children's Act was a catalyst for all of this.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:26 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


Etrigan: "the absolute worst (yes, even more than making her hero a rich jock who's famous for something his parents did)."

You mean, as opposed to Arthur son of Uther Pendragon, Gawaine son of Lancelot and Morgaine, Paul son of Duke Atreides, and (looking solely to the famous parentage part) Jesus son of God and Perseus son of Zeus and Princess Danae?

Sorry, but "the hero surprises those around him by turning out to be the son of incredibly famous and powerful parentage, who must re-earn his birthright by heroic deeds" is a trope that dates back to Hercules son of Zeus and Athena, and probably further.

Don't blame Joanne Rowling for using a heroic-tale structure older than any habitable building on your continent.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:29 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


except my pedantic side makes me point out that it's Hercules son of Zeus and Alcmene
posted by corb at 1:33 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


corb: "except my pedantic side makes me point out that it's Hercules son of Zeus and Alcmene"

Sorry - my mind is polluted by rewatching the Disney cartoon just last night...
posted by IAmBroom at 1:44 PM on February 24


Etrigan: "Gryffindor is okay -- it's the kind of thing that's perfect for kids and self-aggrandizement. But Slytherin? Really? Why not just name it House Badguys and make it like 1 percent more obvious? And Ravenclaw is just... boringly "This sounds like a fantasy family name and I need another house name that won't really matter much because we know it's all Gryffindor (yay!) vs. Slytherin (boo!).""

It's written for kids. Shall we complain that cats don't actually wear hats, and fish come in more colors than red & blue?

I'm not saying the story has to be idiotic - but it has to be comprehensible to its audience. 6-7-8yo children need to understand from the very first moment that they hear about Draco Malfoy that he's a bad egg, and someone to watch out for.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:44 PM on February 24


Pope Guilty: "What I hated about Slytherin was how stupid and unsubtle the Slytherins were. Apparently subtlety and underhandedness are something handed out at graduation, because nearly all of the time, when we see Slytherins, they're not being sneaks, they're just being dicks."

That, at least, is 100% believable, and true of every badhearted kid I ever grew up with. Learning to control enough of your presentation and storyline to lie effectively, and to plan far in advance are traits that are basically beyond children's brains.

So, my argument here is that if Malfoy in Year 1 were even 1/10th as capable as his father of sophisticated malevolence, it wouldn't ring true. The child characters would seem adult in their capacities.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:44 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


Frowner: "In the Harry Potter books, that really doesn't happen. Oh, Snape is evil (and he is evil - no matter what he does in the end, the way he treats children is monstrous and abusive) because he was abused, but there's no social explanation for such a sick system. "

Yes, there is. Rowling is English, and the horribleness you describe is rather ordinary-seeming and realistic to her and her expected audience (at the time of writing the first book, before it went internationally bestselling). In fact, it's more than ordinary: it's slightly antiquated, which lends it the magical authenticity of nostalgia (even if it's a dark nostalgia).
posted by IAmBroom at 1:47 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I agree - for one thing, the whole "house points" thing is hilariously arbitrary and capricious.

Maybe so, but as Muffinman outlines above, also entirely real. My high school (British run, British curriculum, in Hong Kong) operated on a house points system very much like the one described by Rowling. The exception being that sports were not so privileged over academic achievement.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:00 PM on February 24


Yes, there is. Rowling is English, and the horribleness you describe is rather ordinary-seeming and realistic to her and her expected audience

This is kind of what I was thinking.

I've noticed among my own British friends and acquaintances that English from the mouths of its native speakers sometimes sounds far harsher to American ears than I suspect it does to the natives.

For example, I've heard British parents casually admonishing their kids "Don't be stupid!" or "Don't be such an idiot!" etc. In the US, some people would consider the use of that sort of language child abuse, and hearing it used casually in this way was definitely jarring to me the first few times I heard it. But the sense that I get is that those particular words just don't necessarily carry the same weight for British speakers as they carry for US speakers. Especially the word "stupid." Brits seem to use it much more casually and lightly than we do. At least, that's how it seems to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:26 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Exactly! But I can just see the high mucky-mucks of the wizarding world saying "We're down the with the world domination plan, Voldy...but leave quidditich alone!"


Actually, this becomes more and more plausible as we think about it- the Death Eaters did attack the Quidditch World Cup, after all.


I imagine the composition of of the Voldemort movement (for lack of a better word) might in some ways resemble the "strange bedfellows" and "fellow travelers" of certain fascist movements- the Carlists, Alfonsists, and the Falange during the Spanish Civil War, for example. You probably have a number of conservative wizards who aren't fully down with Voldemort's program of radically overhauling wizard society (or don't fully understand it's implications), but are willing to go along with it because they'll be putting the Muggles and Mudbloods back in their place. They're probably a bit skeptical of Voldy's anti-Quidditch stance, but participate anyway, figuring that they will eventually be able to use him to suit their own ends later (and see how that worked out for the Zentrum in Germany).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:29 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Harry naming his kid after someone cowardly enough to abuse an 11 year old Neville because of "bravery" is some of the biggest bullshit in the series. Hiding behind being sad about being rejected romantically as a teenager is even worse.

Say what you will about Umbridge, but she never put up that kind of pretense about why she's abusing children and manipulating power structures to her favor.
posted by NoraReed at 2:33 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Say what you will about Umbridge

At least it's an ethos?
posted by dersins at 2:58 PM on February 24 [13 favorites]


Sorry, but "the hero surprises those around him by turning out to be the son of incredibly famous and powerful parentage, who must re-earn his birthright by heroic deeds" is a trope that dates back to Hercules son of Zeus and Athena, and probably further.

Don't blame Joanne Rowling for using a heroic-tale structure older than any habitable building on your continent.


I'll blame her for a lazily-aristocratic-tale structure, then. And Harry Potter doesn't re-earn his birthright by heroic deeds, unless you count surviving the Dursleys until he has a heap of gold dropped in his lap or when he walks onto a quidditch pitch, both of which have happened 2 percent of the way into the books.

I'm not saying the story has to be idiotic - but it has to be comprehensible to its audience. 6-7-8yo children need to understand from the very first moment that they hear about Draco Malfoy that he's a bad egg, and someone to watch out for.

And that has already been done two chapters before Harry arrives at Hogwarts and gets the exposition about the houses.
posted by Etrigan at 3:01 PM on February 24


Maybe, in addition to that whole world domination thing, Voldemort really hated the rules of quidditch and was proposing serious reform?

Broken clocks and such, then, because the scoring of quidditch is legitimately very stupid.


This is actually addressed in oft-cited fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality:
"So let me get this straight," Harry said as it seemed that Ron's explanation (with associated hand gestures) was winding down. "Catching the Snitch is worth one hundred and fifty points? "

"Yeah -"

"How many ten-point goals does one side usually score not counting the Snitch?"

"Um, maybe fifteen or twenty in professional games -"

"That's just wrong. That violates every possible rule of game design. Look, the rest of this game sounds like it might make sense, sort of, for a sport I mean, but you're basically saying that catching the Snitch overwhelms almost any ordinary point spread. The two Seekers are up there flying around looking for the Snitch and usually not interacting with anyone else, spotting the Snitch first is going to be mostly luck -"

"It's not luck!" protested Ron. "You've got to keep your eyes moving in the right pattern -"

"That's not interactive, there's no back-and-forth with the other player and how much fun is it to watch someone incredibly good at moving their eyes? And then whichever Seeker gets lucky swoops in and grabs the Snitch and makes everyone else's work moot. It's like someone took a real game and grafted on this pointless extra position so that you could be the Most Important Player without needing to really get involved or learn the rest of it. Who was the first Seeker, the King's idiot son who wanted to play Quidditch but couldn't understand the rules?" Actually, now that Harry thought about it, that seemed like a surprisingly good hypothesis. Put him on a broomstick and tell him to catch the shiny thing...

Ron's face pulled into a scowl. "If you don't like Quidditch, you don't have to make fun of it!"

"If you can't criticise, you can't optimise. I'm suggesting how to improve the game. And it's very simple. Get rid of the Snitch."

"They won't change the game just 'cause you say so!"

"I am the Boy-Who-Lived, you know. People will listen to me. And maybe if I can persuade them to change the game at Hogwarts, the innovation will spread."

A look of absolute horror was spreading over Ron's face. "But, but if you get rid of the Snitch, how will anyone know when the game ends?"

"Buy... a... clock."
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:11 PM on February 24 [19 favorites]


According to the Quidditch book that Rowling wrote for charity, the Snitch was a later addition to the game.

I don't recall any discussion of how the game was determined to be over before then.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 3:16 PM on February 24


It's because she fundamentally doesn't see anything wrong with a rigidly hierarchical world based on stereotypes,

I think it's simpler than all that. The entire wizarding world is constructed to appeal to an escapist nostalgia where stereotyped old-timey things are important and romanticized and better for being old-timey. Writing with quills instead of ball-point, ink-wells, boarding school, old stone buildings, getting there by train (Famous Five!), overlord teachers who teach while wearing their grad robes, candles and lamplight and wax and oil, letters with wax seals, heraldic institutional flags, goblets instead of cups or glasses, great one-off tomes of secrets and reverence untouched by the printing press, etc etc. .

She gets to decide which authentic old-timey things project the flavour and push the story forward, and what to replace with fiction in her world, but I think it's making unnecesary assumption to say she probably sees nothing wrong in the negative things included - the old-timey social violence is a great setting for a story, it's an authentic part of the nostalgic setting, it resonates with people, she isn't going to be all things for all causes, I'm not sure the books would be better with a more modern-feeling or a more fictional social structure, or that she was the person able to devise a new social structure, or that Harry Potter should have been Hunger Games. Maybe we would have liked the books more, maybe kids wouldn't have? Or would have? But I think it's an extra step that is neither here nor there. We see something scary with old-fashioned society, and I didn't get the feeling at all that that side of it was being endorsed.
posted by anonymisc at 3:22 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


So, my argument here is that if Malfoy in Year 1 were even 1/10th as capable as his father of sophisticated malevolence, it wouldn't ring true. The child characters would seem adult in their capacities.

I had kind of the opposite problem with the points system - points were so transparently meaningless and rewardless, yet kids were turning on each other to obey adults simply because adults assured them that the points had great honor. That is exactly the level of stupidity and naivety of children, but having it in my face that the main characters acted like morons made it difficult for me to get behind them instead of be frustrated with their choices. I liked it more once they grew up a bit :-)
posted by anonymisc at 3:43 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Quidditch reminds me of a lot of bad game shows. The entire first 1/2 to 3/4 of the game is just to waste everyone's time before the winner is decided in the last five minutes. I think the goal is to make an exciting spectator sport where it can be anyone's game right up until the end (unlike a lot of real-world sports, where it can be obvious that one team is completely crushing the other in the first quarter) but really you just get a game in which only the last five minutes has any point at all.

Although, Quidditch is ever worse than most of those because at least in those game shows, when you had teams, the whole team would be participating in that last round. In Quidditch it feels like the entire point of most of the team is just to prevent a roll so severe that your team gets far enough behind the snitch can't put them ahead. That's not a very inspiring role for most of the people on the field.

Finally, when you add in the randomness inherent in the snitch's appearance and movements, you add a huge element of chance. It seems pretty clear that, unless one team is drastically better than the other, it's going to come down to the snitch, and unless one seeker is drastically better than the other, that's probably going to mostly come down to luck. So, for any two teams that are even close to similar in skill, it's basically going to be a coin flip who wins.

It really is a terrible game from the perspective of a player or a spectator. I guess it works as a literary device though.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:48 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


I was a bit surprised at the idea that the abusiveness of boarding schools isn't as intuitive to American audiences - "Dead Poets Society" is an American movie that I thought was pretty widely seen (I know I've been forced to watch it at school on at least two occasions, though I wasn't in the USA). However on reflection, Dead Poets Society predates the bulk of the Harry Potter readership, and probably isn't the kind of film they would be shown until older.
(I was also required to read "The Chocolate War", which is also American, though I recall basically nothing about it)
posted by anonymisc at 4:11 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


According to the Quidditch book that Rowling wrote for charity, the Snitch was a later addition to the game.

Which is kind of a shame, because I always thought it made more sense the other way around. Like, you start with a game about snitch-hunting. And it's considered to be the national sport of the wizarding world, but it's kind of dull, because the players can spend hours just looking around before the exciting part happens. So someone comes up with the idea of bolting on a game of aerial soccer so that the spectators have something to watch while they're waiting for the snitch to appear, and that makes it much more popular. Tickets are selling like hotcakes. But at the same time, wizards are traditionalists, and the idea of this sideshow actually affecting the outcome of the match is repugnant to the old-school fans. So they design the scoring system with that in mind.
posted by baf at 4:30 PM on February 24 [17 favorites]


Actually, one of the reasons that Harry Potter is such fertile ground for fan fiction - and in particular fertile ground for pornographic fan fiction! - is because there's all this unaddressed social violence floating around that is totally normal and okay per Rowling.

I don't think USAn readers can appreciate the ubiquitous nature of English school stories, starting with Tom Brown's Schooldays, moving through Stalky & Co. and The Magnet, and only petering out in the 1970s or later. Basically, these books (later magazines, later comics) taught everybody that Proper Schools were boarding schools, filled with all the rigid stratification and violence that you get when you force people into each other's company 24/7. Rowling was born a generation after these stories peaked, and writing for people a generation younger than herself. She rode a wave of nostalgia by taking something old (boarding school stories) and presenting it as something new that you could give to your kids. I think she's a crap writer, myself, but she certainly had the right thing at the right time.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:37 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


> Get rid of the Snitch.

OTOH I think a bludger would add a lot to all kinds of other games. Tennis. Poker. Scrabble. Elder Scrolls. (I don't mean in the Elder Scrolls universe, I mean in your living room while you're playingBAM.)
posted by jfuller at 4:44 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


I don't mean in the Elder Scrolls universe, I mean in your living room while you're playingBAM.

You need a large excitable dog, and someone to throw a ball :)
posted by anonymisc at 4:55 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


anonymisc: I think it's simpler than all that. The entire wizarding world is constructed to appeal to an escapist nostalgia where stereotyped old-timey things are important and romanticized and better for being old-timey.

It'd be awesome if Wes Anderson did a version of Harry Potter.
posted by gucci mane at 5:08 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


Harry naming his kid after someone cowardly enough to abuse an 11 year old Neville because of "bravery" is some of the biggest bullshit in the series. Hiding behind being sad about being rejected romantically as a teenager is even worse.

This might be a stretch for most people, and I get that, but I think the HP series works best if read, not with an unreliable narrator concept exactly, because obviously that's not right, but with the concept that these are the events as understood by the heroes at their ages as the events are happening. So the adults are going to look a lot more like something out of Roald Dahl when the kids are 11 than they will when the kids are 17.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:47 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


[Stop the USian/USAn derail. Go to MetaTalk if you need to have this argument again.]
posted by jessamyn at 6:37 PM on February 24


OK, concise version … Cannon Quidditch was pretty much fixed by Muggle quidditch, primarily by reducing the value of the Snitch.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:57 PM on February 24


the condensation towards muggles

It is Britain after all. Damp is expected.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:32 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


No need to abolish the snitch - just make it worth less points. It could still be a game changer that way, just not necessarily so.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:36 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Wow -- y'all complaining about Quidditch scoring and game-play are completely missing the point of the game.

The key thing that all these critiques leave out is that although game only ends when you catch the snitch -- but catching the snitch doesn't win the game. It just scores a shitload of points.

So, it's possible to get the snitch, and still lose the game.

Does that not remind you of certain real-world scenarios?
posted by lodurr at 5:58 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


It'd be awesome if Wes Anderson did a version of Harry Potter.

It'd be much more awesome to imagine than to actually see. To see, would be painful (and not in a 'painfully constructive' way).
posted by lodurr at 6:00 AM on February 25


lodurr: catching the snitch doesn't win the game. It just scores a shitload of points. So, it's possible to get the snitch, and still lose the game.

Well, by definition, it does win the game, just maybe not for the catching team, and the shitload of which you speak is such a shitload that it essentially invalidates all of the rest of the scoring in the game. It's like if a football safety was worth 45 points. It's possible to surrender 45 points and still win, but not in the normal course of affairs.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:13 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


So what I hear all of you saying is that you want this metaphorical game to be more like a real game and less like a metaphor.
posted by lodurr at 8:42 AM on February 25


If the game's a metaphor, what's it a metaphor for? Because the literal role the fictional game plays appears to be that some people/roles are more special and important than others; not sure it needs to be a metaphor.
posted by nubs at 8:55 AM on February 25


this metaphorical game

I don't think there's any way to make an extended description of a game into a "metaphor." A metaphor requires some kind of "X is Y" statement ("that man is a lion in battle!"). You might mean that the game is an allegory or that it is symbolic, perhaps. But if it's an allegory, what's in an allegory of? Harry stands for...um...Harry? Catching the snitch stands for "defeating Voldemort"? If so, why do we have to suffer through more than one match description? Surely we don't need to be told over and over again that Harry will defeat Voldemort?

No, Quidditch is just a game. She wanted Harry to be the nerdy unpopular kid who turns out (gosh, surprise!) to be a star on the sports field. It's a perfectly serviceable story to tell in a boarding school setting--if, perhaps, a little cliched--and on the whole she tells it well. Unfortunately, she is clearly uninterested in (and, I would guess, contemptuous of) sport and just half-assed the attempt to actually think up a plausible game. She wanted Harry's efforts to be obviously the thing that won the game (so you couldn't say "well, sure, he scored the winning goal, but it wouldn't have been the winning goal if it hadn't been for all the other goals his teammates scored") and just didn't stop to think that a team game in which the efforts of one player were all that actually mattered just didn't make sense. She tried to fix this a bit in later books, but the original shoddy conception of the game defeats any attempt to make it plausible.
posted by yoink at 9:08 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


So, it's possible to get the snitch, and still lose the game.

Didn't this happen in the Ireland/Bulgaria World Cup?

I just have to say, I know the rules are ridiculous, but when I read HP to my kids a year ago, my 7yo LIVED for the Quidditch matches. She didn't see the illogic of the game and was disappointed when it featured less prominently in the later books. And the snitch was of course the most awesomest part of it ALL.

Perhaps Quidditch is a metaphor for Rowling's ability to tell a ripping good tale for children while leaving a lot of loose ends untied.
posted by torticat at 9:23 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


Unfortunately, she is clearly uninterested in (and, I would guess, contemptuous of) sport and just half-assed the attempt to actually think up a plausible game.

I thought it was well-documented at this point that that's exactly what she did on purpose and for pretty much those exact reasons? The most relevant thing I can find is here (and a number of other places).

She invented Quidditch after a fight with her then boyfriend, adding, "I had been pondering the things that hold a society together, cause it to congregate and signify its particular character and knew I needed a sport. It infuriates men, in my experience (why is the Snitch so valuable etc.), which is quite satisfying given my state of mind when I invented it."

That's the most recentish quote about it being intentionally nonsensical that I could find. I'm pretty positive there are other older ones. Complaining that it's a poorly designed game when that's pretty much explicitly what she was setting out to do seems weird to me, as I don't see what making Quidditch a well-designed game would add to the experience of the books. It's self-consciously wacky silliness, but so are lots of elements of the stories (I don't think that's a bad thing, especially in the earlier ones).
posted by sparkletone at 9:37 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


Seriously, you people are going to make me point out the ways in which quidditch can be seen as a metaphor for life in society? The fact that you can rack up a big score and still get beaten by your opponent doing this one stupid high-status thing? The fact that you can do this stupidly high-status thing that everyone thinks is amazingly wonderful, and still lose the game? The fact that you have to keep on playing and playing until somebody (who may well be the loser) accomplishes that stupidly high-status thing?

(BTW: If you look for a specific mapping of that stupidly high-status thing to a specific element of life, then I submit that you're overworking the concept of metaphor.)

Also, sparkletone, I'm unclear on why one would interpret that quote as equivalent to 'just half-assing the attempt to actually think up a plausible game.' If the point was to infuriate men (while making a point about sport), then I'd say, based on the reactions here, she's done her job well.
posted by lodurr at 9:46 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Also, sparkletone, I'm unclear on why one would interpret that quote as equivalent to 'just half-assing the attempt to actually think up a plausible game.' If the point was to infuriate men (while making a point about sport), then I'd say, based on the reactions here, she's done her job well.

I phrased it poorly, then. What I'm saying is that she was not trying to make a well-designed game. Rather the opposite. It's deliberately nonsensical/poorly designed as a game. Treating it as something she intended to be taken seriously as a game, or as a serious effort to design a good game for the wizarding world is a mistake.
posted by sparkletone at 10:00 AM on February 25


"I had been pondering the things that hold a society together, cause it to congregate and signify its particular character and knew I needed a sport. It infuriates men, in my experience (why is the Snitch so valuable etc.), which is quite satisfying given my state of mind when I invented it."

And now I love quidditch even more. A+ TROLLING JKR, I LOVE YOU FOREVER.
posted by yasaman at 10:14 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


This actually fits in with my theory that Quidditch was a reaction to soccer, which is infuriating in precisely the opposite way.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:33 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Complaining that it's a poorly designed game when that's pretty much explicitly what she was setting out to do seems weird to me, as I don't see what making Quidditch a well-designed game would add to the experience of the books.

It would add greatly to the experience of the books because the readers wouldn't keep having their suspension of disbelief ripped away for no good reason, like a great big record-scratch in the middle of the story.
That she intended this aspect of the books to be idiotic isn't any kind of defense against the complaint, it's an explanation of why they fail so badly on that level and why the complaint is so valid.
posted by anonymisc at 10:58 AM on February 25


Complaining that it's a poorly designed game when that's pretty much explicitly what she was setting out to do seems weird to me, as I don't see what making Quidditch a well-designed game would add to the experience of the books.

Maybe a problem with Quidditch is that its nonsense nature doesn't really suit the rest of the books? I can imagine a book where there's a ludicrous and incoherent game as a key piece, either because the author wants the ludicrousness to be apparent to the readers but not the characters or because the book itself is surreal in style, but it's very difficult to reconcile all of the plot-coupon aspects of the books with the loosey-goosey worldbuilding.

My sense of the books is not "JK Rowling had a grand plan when she wrote the first book OMG!!!!" but "JK Rowling wrote a charming, slightly surreal children's book while having a very general idea that the story continued in some way, and then had a lot of trouble managing the plot later on". The tone changes are managed pretty well, I guess, although I tend to think of that as an artifact of the plot, but the plot itself....well, the first book or two are pretty light and it feels normal to have Quidditch be goofy and silly, since a great deal of the magic is goofy and silly and the whole world is obviously put together more to be an aesthetic experience than a coherent one. But as the plot goes along and become super plot-coupon-y - like, there's a definite mystery to solve, and there are all these things you have to find, and all of them have a very definite relationship to the mystery and very definite rules by which they operate - well, that part of the books is very NOT loosey-goosey, and it sits poorly with the style of worldbuilding that has been introduced. In fact, one of the problems I have with the series is precisely that it feels like plot-coupon-ex-machina at a lot of points - "Oh, we need to go here! And find this item that was not mentioned until now but is suddenly very important!"

To some people this is a sign of Rowling's craft; to me it's a sign of someone being way, way more successful than they anticipated and being called upon to produce a lot more and a lot more seriously than they planned.
posted by Frowner at 11:34 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


This might be a stretch for most people, and I get that, but I think the HP series works best if read, not with an unreliable narrator concept exactly, because obviously that's not right, but with the concept that these are the events as understood by the heroes at their ages as the events are happening. So the adults are going to look a lot more like something out of Roald Dahl when the kids are 11 than they will when the kids are 17.

Yeah, this. I mean, people are dying through horrific torture all over the place, and we're going to claim that Severus Snape, in deep cover to save the motherfucking world, is somehow a bad guy because in keeping with his cover, he hurt kids' feelings?

Also the Lily thing isn't just about being rejected romantically - it's about having nothing, being alone, being a child of abuse and fear and finally having one bright thing for yourself, one friendship that is beautiful and has managed to stand. And then you mess up, because you are an abuse victim with defensive reactions trained from avoiding fists and anger, and you've forever fucked up, the one beautiful thing in your life is gone and hates you. And you still want to protect it, you still want to keep it safe, you still think that somehow you can erase that mistake and make it all better, so you fall in with a gang of thugs who swear they're going to protect the person you love if you only do this one thing.

And then they kill them, not even deliberately, not even intentionally, but because why not? And it's your fault.

Snape may not be the "best" character in the books, but he's certainly one of the more complex and interesting.
posted by corb at 11:40 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


That she intended this aspect of the books to be idiotic isn't any kind of defense against the complaint, it's an explanation of why they fail so badly on that level and why the complaint is so valid.

What I was responding to there was the back and forth upthread about whether the game was a metaphor for something, what "the point" of it was, etc. It's intentionally pointless by design, and trying to read into it very much also seems pointless to me.

As for Quidditch as world building, I never found it particularly jarring on those grounds because well... Wizards live in a world governed by bizarre, inscrutable, arbitrary rules and powers. It doesn't feel like that huge a stretch to me that their national sport would be similarly weird and arbitrary.
posted by sparkletone at 12:39 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


My sense of the books is not "JK Rowling had a grand plan when she wrote the first book OMG!!!!"

Pretty much nobody makes a work of HP's length that hits every single bit of their "master plan" assuming they had one in the first place. Rowling's always struck me as someone who probably outlines pretty heavily when preparing to write a particular novel, and had a general idea of the shape of things (though not the specifics) down the line... But not One Master Plan For Everything Down To The Tiniest Detail™. Nobody does that, or if they do, they tend to alter course or abandon things as they get into the messy process of actually writing the thing.

A large part of why I get that vibe is you can practically see her leaving little things around in the world that might or might not matter in the overall scheme of things. Later on when it came time to come up with something to help accomplish plot point X, she'd look back and see if there was anything about that she could use for whatever she had in mind.

I might be mistaken, but my understanding that quite a bit of the interconnections in Gaiman's Sandman comics came about in a similar manner. A kind of half-breed of pleasant coincidence and planning ahead. I could swear he talks about this some in the forwards/extra material for the various collected editions but I don't have my books at hand.
posted by sparkletone at 12:56 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


See also Homestuck, where many of the details of the story came from on-the-fly reader suggestions, but it all still manages to give one of the strongest illusions of everything fitting into a pre-determined master plan that I've ever seen in fiction.
posted by baf at 3:12 PM on February 25


Also worth bearing in mind about Harry's Slytherin speech, is that he's trying to reassure his son that Slytherin isn't so bad. Saying, "One Slytherin was sort of alright, in that he gave up his life to protect me because he had an unfufilled crush on my grandma but he was super mean to me and my friends and his insanely jealous actions in my third year of school led to the near death and persecution of an innocent man and the release of a dangerous criminal whose actions led pretty much directly to the rise of Voldemort and many other deaths" probably wouldn't have had the desired effect.

Re: Quidditch, when you get down to it its extremely useful to have a position which Harry can fill which is supremely important, and it allows a much simpler description of the action. Rowling was never that interested in describing the game itself, which is why in the early books she follows Harry almost exclusively, and in the later books we just get reports on how Ron is doing as a keeper. Sure, its an odd game for the wizarding world to get obsessed with, but that's really what breaks you out of the story?
posted by Cannon Fodder at 11:47 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Slytherin is a huge problem. I'll grant that readily. But dismissing Snape as a coward doesn't really make sense for any actual definition of the word "coward" that I'm familiar with. It's worth pointing out (again, as always seems necessary) that Snape is a person of great physical courage, whose first instinct when faced with a werewolf while unarmed is to get between it and a bunch of children he dislikes.

And Snape's harshness toward students, while reprehensible, makes perfect sense within his ethos. It sucks, and it's a terrible way to teach, but the hard-teacher-who-does-it-for-your-own-good is also a standard trope in the boarding school genre.
posted by lodurr at 3:24 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]


The only way I've been able to make sense of Slytherin is to see it as a stand-in for the Tories. There are some good, brave, honorable Tories. There must be. But she just couldn't think of enough of them to create credible analogs for the book.
posted by lodurr at 3:26 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]


The only way I've been able to make sense of Slytherin is to see it as a stand-in for the Tories

Given Rowling's Labour politics (as presented in the books, not her personal politics), this makes a lot of sense. The heroes are people like the Weasleys: Dad is a low-level Ministry functionary and the kids for the most part are also either government employees or small business owners. Most of the bad guys are wealthy and use their money to buy their way out of the consequences of their rotten deeds. (Exception: Snape, who's also a hero.) The only good rich people are those who renounce class loyalty to the upper class like Sirius Black--who isn't a Slytherin.

You might be able to slip by as marginally bad if you're either Slytherin or well-off, but if you're both, you're a Bad Human Being.
posted by immlass at 8:17 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Etrigan: "And Harry Potter doesn't re-earn his birthright by heroic deeds, unless you count surviving the Dursleys until he has a heap of gold dropped in his lap or when he walks onto a quidditch pitch, both of which have happened 2 percent of the way into the books."

So, literally nothing else Harry Potter does in the entire series strikes you as "heroic deeds"? Why on earth did you bother to sit through such a hum-drum account of boring, daily life at Harry Potter's school?
posted by IAmBroom at 8:42 AM on February 26


Blame the Sorting Hat, it stacks the houses. If it knows you're a little shit, off to Slytherin you go!
posted by jason_steakums at 8:43 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]


anonymisc: "I was a bit surprised at the idea that the abusiveness of boarding schools isn't as intuitive to American audiences"

Even more surprising when you realize that 9/10ths of them can sing along to half the songs on Pink Floyd's The Wall. Apparently they think that the pain expressed in that album was about an entirely fictional abusive school system.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:46 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


The more I think about it, the more I think the Sorting Hat made Slytherin into Dickhole City on purpose to keep potential threats quarantined to one house instead of allowing more opportunity for jerks to rot the other houses from within.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:50 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]


lodurr: "The only way I've been able to make sense of Slytherin is to see it as a stand-in for the Tories. There are some good, brave, honorable Tories. There must be. But she just couldn't think of enough of them to create credible analogs for the book."

Unironically, I was thinking of them as (USian) Republicans. I'm sure some of the GOP in office aren't there out of a desire to advance the politics of hate and bigotry, who admire and respect women, and so forth. Jon Huntsman, possibly.

But I'll be damned if I can point out two.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:58 AM on February 26


Even more surprising when you realize that 9/10ths of them can sing along to half the songs on Pink Floyd's The Wall. Apparently they think that the pain expressed in that album was about an entirely fictional abusive school system.

This is not far off. The Wall is anthemic for middle-class white USian kids who feel wronged by their public school experience, and I'd wager the vast majority of them think it's just about that (and treat "how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" as essentially dada).

The kids who really do have it tough run home to various flavors of hiphop and rap, and of course we feel massively threatened by that. I was in junior high when it came out and don't recall adults being threatened by The Wall so much as puzzled and offended by it ('how dare they question education?') -- again, not really understanding the origin. I honestly only got it because I'd seen 'Tompkinson's School Days'.
posted by lodurr at 9:26 AM on February 26


So, literally nothing else Harry Potter does in the entire series strikes you as "heroic deeds"? Why on earth did you bother to sit through such a hum-drum account of boring, daily life at Harry Potter's school?

The trope being discussed was "re-earn his birthright by heroic deeds," using the examples of kings and demigods. You might have noticed that I quoted that part, said that part again and emphasized the re part of that part. Harry Potter's birthrights were money and athletic ability.
posted by Etrigan at 9:49 AM on February 26


Etrigan, what would he have to do to "re-earn his birthright"? Lead a small brave team past dangers to face and defeat an enemy who hopelessly outclasses him? Pull a magic sword from a hat and slay a dragon? Charm a terrifying magical beast and outmaneuver a werewolf to save the life of a brave man wrongly convicted of his parents' murder? Engage in a series of trials-by-fire that include saving a little girl from what he thinks will be certain death? Lead a small, brave band in a secret war with a hopelessly powerful adversary? Perform a terrible task at the behest of his awesomely powerful mentor, only to watch the man die before his eyes? Lead a smaller, braver band on an even more hopeless quest to destroy a powerful adversary's tokens of power -- and then (as far as he knows) sacrifice his own life to defeat said adversary?

You're a hard guy to please.

Mind, if what you want is to not have this trope, fine, I'm more or less with you. That's kind of what the whole FP is about, and if you'd like to dig into that, I'm sure you can find a bunch to chew on. But it sounds like you're calling the story shite for being an example of an age-old trope that a shitload of people find awfully satisfying.
posted by lodurr at 12:43 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


The only way I've been able to make sense of Slytherin is to see it as a stand-in for the Tories
Given Rowling's Labour politics (as presented in the books, not her personal politics), this makes a lot of sense.
To the extent that this is correct, it's a very English sort of Labour politics. Nobody in the wizarding world is what we would call working class. You're either a member of the aristocracy, having been born into magic, or you're someone whose innate gifts (i.e., magic) led you to be selected for special training and a place in the corridors of power. The closest things to working-class humans are a very few craftsmen and -women, like that guy who makes wands. Everybody else is either an aristocrat or at worst has a neutral upper-or-middle class job like teaching. Even the police are aristocrats: the low-level coppers are demonic soul-sucking creatures with no individual personalities.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:27 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


Etrigan, what would he have to do to "re-earn his birthright"?

I'd rather he not bloody well have a "birthright". I'd rather he not be this kid who's fawned over from the age of eleven as The Boy Who Lived, an appellation that describes everyone else in the world and should more accurately be The Boy Who Was Protected By Someone Else. I guess I'm just an anti-monarchist in my literary preferences.

But it sounds like you're calling the story shite for being an example of an age-old trope that a shitload of people find awfully satisfying.

It sounds more like you missed the part of that paragraph outside the parentheses, the part where I explicitly said, and I quote, "Of all of Rowling's authorial sins -- and they are massively outweighed by the sheer fun of the books, her careful stewardship of the property and her personal class and charity -- the house names are the absolute worst (yes, even more than making her hero a rich jock who's famous for something his parents did)." (emphasis added).
posted by Etrigan at 4:17 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


You're either a member of the aristocracy, having been born into magic, or you're someone whose innate gifts (i.e., magic) led you to be selected for special training and a place in the corridors of power.

You're looking at it as Muggles are the working class, maybe? Inside the wizarding world, there are clear class differences. You don't see a lot of actual working class wizards, but you do see a lot of low-level Ministry flunkies like Arthur Weasley and some small business owners (Ollivander the wand-maker is in this category). The Dementors aren't people at all--they're also not cops, but prison guards--and the fact that the Ministry uses them is a sign of how terribly corrupt it has become. After the war one of the things that Kingsley Shacklebolt does is stop using them as prison guards because it's effectively cruel and unusual punishment.

But the good guys are collectively lower-middle-class folks (the Weasleys, who may have an old name but whose vault is empty) or class traitor rich people (Sirius Black and to a certain extent Harry) or outsiders who come into natural alliance with them (Hermione). The actual rich aristocrats like the Malfoys are bad people unless and until they disavow their class. It's a Labour bureaucrat's view of the world: class snobbery from underneath (even if they're not all that different).

As an aside on that point, one of the really disappointing post-canon revelations to me was that the Shacklebolts were pureblooded, which really brings home how much the Voldemort wars are a political fight among the old pureblooded families. I had thought of Kingsley as a half-blood with some fairly recent Muggle ancestry (hence his ability to pass in the Muggle Minister's office) but come to find out he's just another pureblood class traitor who happens to find himself in a leadership position in the class struggle of blood equality vs old money purebloods.
posted by immlass at 4:39 PM on February 26


Oh no. Muggles are emphatically not working class. Muggles are less than the vast unwashed masses on the dole, because they are oblivious to and can't elect anyone to the Wizengamot. To the extent they mean anything at all, it's because they can occasionally get in the way of a real person. Serfs in Imperial Russia were at least necessary to the economy. Muggles have no resources that are worth considering; they are incapable of any productive labor whatsoever. Muggles are meaningless.

You might think of the Weasleys as being lower-middle-class because they lack money, but money isn't the sole indicator of social status even in the USA. The Weasleys have familial and social resources that they can draw on; they know what to do, whom to call, and how things are done. Snape, in contrast, is a greasy oik and nothing he can do will change it: he's a scholarship boy, a day-boarder, someone whose social position (such as it is) is entirely a consequence of what he does rather than who he is.

No, if there is a working class in Rowling's books it's the non-human magic workers: house-elves, and possibly goblins. House-elves are slaves; goblins may be a true "middle class" because they can actually own property and generally do what they want, subject to the dictates of the Wizengamot. They don't have any social position, though, any more than house-elves do.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:24 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


You might think of the Weasleys as being lower-middle-class because they lack money, but money isn't the sole indicator of social status even in the USA.

The Weasleys are wage slaves but they're sort of genteel poor, yes. But Rowling's politics aren't hard Labour, they're bourgeois Labour, in an anti-Thatcherite sort of way, and it's Ministry workers like the Weasleys who are virtuous. The books are not socialist at all, but they're really obviously influenced by post-WWII Labour policies: the sort of thing that gave the UK the NHS. This is why it's the low-level Ministry functionaries, who serve The People, who are the good guys. The actual lack of The People in the books is almost beside the point.

In terms of economics, there are no working-class people because almost nobody in the wizarding world engages in productive labor. Who actually makes things? The Weasley twins add value by enchanting things; Ollivander makes wands; there are a few shops that sell things but it's unclear who makes most of the items created. (Goblins make some things but their primary economic function is banking.) Where food comes from is completely glossed. It's an incomplete, if not outright impossible, economic system.
posted by immlass at 10:45 PM on February 26


It's an incomplete, if not outright impossible, economic system.

Bruce Sterling is supposed to have once remarked about an early draft of what would become a well-known story, "it's a nice story as these things go, but the economics just don't make any sense. how do any of these people make a living?"

It would be more interesting if the economics made sense. But given the power that magic gives you in this universe, that could be a tall order.
posted by lodurr at 10:08 AM on February 27


& re. Rowling's labor politics: they're even more blatant, & much of imlass's critique even more applicable, w.r.t. The Casual Vacancy. (The main exception being that it does have a number of fairly unromanticized real-people in it.)
posted by lodurr at 10:10 AM on February 27


It would be more interesting if the economics made sense. But given the power that magic gives you in this universe, that could be a tall order.

It's a children's book and it's kind of a parody of a certain sort of Englishness, so you don't really expect it to make economic sense, especially given how bad Rowling is at math. But when you stop and poke at the ways in which it's economically nonsensical, particularly as it relates to her other biases, it becomes part of a pattern.

The class bias stuff niggles at me a lot more. Both because everybody talks about the series giving you good moral lessons and yet "rich people are generally horrible", while quite possibly true, isn't necessarily the sort of uplifting message you think of a children's series as delivering, and because the "class is almost always destiny" message runs so counter to the "our choices make us what we are" moral that's supposed to be so central to the books. (Which also goes back to predestination vs free will, obviously.)

As a reader, I feel like some of her messages there are not what Rowling thinks, or at least tells the readership, they are.
posted by immlass at 10:40 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


again, see Casual Vacancy: the central-by-absence character (Barry Fairbrother)* is "up from the gutter" and the book's very definition of a 'good man'; yet once we're past the introduction all the real working class people we meet in the book are either junkies, criminals, unwed parents, or on the road to being one or more of the above.

--
*he's most present as 'the ghost of Barry Fairbrother', where his appropriated, idealized memory is used as a weapon.
posted by lodurr at 10:48 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]


IIRC, the only really, indubitably working class wizard we actually see is the guy who drives the Night Bus, and he has a comic prole accent and spots. And the actual shit work is all done by the happy house elves - so happy in their servitude that they don't even want to be free - Winky worships her abusive master. They also speak a comic patois.

Rowling thinks she is very progressive, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc....but her actual plots and characterizations are centrist at best. It's like that quote about the English gentleman, what a brute he must be by nature if he makes such a fuss about how wonderful he is for not hurting the weak, not hitting women, etc. Rowling's books are basically 'look how anti-racist I am, some of the peripheral characters are not white and there's a nebulous "racial purity defined by blood is bad' storyline"; "look how progressive I am, the very very rich people are All Evil".

It's not just that the economics don't make sense, it's that they don't make sense in a way that is actively bad. Like, if house elves don't get paid and there's no moral problem with keeping them, why can't working class people have them? Apparently because being "working class" is a state of the soul, not a state of finances, and being "wealthy" is a cargo cult thing - be blond and snobby and the trappings of wealth will accrue around you. Why are the values of people who can create magical stuff identical to the values of middle class Muggle Britons?
posted by Frowner at 11:25 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the economics of Potterverse reflect the author's upbringing. Popular descriptions of her remark that she was a single mother and living on welfare at the time the books were written. If you look at her early life, though, it seems almost enchanted: she grew up in a pretty little cottage in a pretty little village; she was Head Girl at school; and although she failed to get into Oxford she got a decent degree at the University of Exeter. She then went on to become a researcher for Amnesty International, and moved to Portugal to teach English.

This is not a typical working-class biography. This is someone with entrée to the fringes of British society, someone who could genuinely aspire to anything within her capabilities, someone who knows people that know people. In sum, she was a Weasley. Her home and environment and education represented centuries of physical and social capital, wealth that simply can't be measured in dollars. Of course her books don't make economic sense: neither did her upbringing!
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:19 PM on February 27 [2 favorites]


« Older The mechanical furniture of the Roentgens...  |  One hundred years ago today, G... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments