Book Review: ‘The Subversive Harry Potter’ by Vandana Saxena
Vandana Saxena has done a careful and credible job surveying themes of fantasy fiction and adolescence in The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J. K. Rowling Novels (McFarland, April 2012). Substantiated by the source materials, her approach views the years between childhood and adulthood as a time of testing, experimentation and rebellion that society allows and/or tolerates with the expectation that youth will ultimately enter “normal” adult society within the confines of generally accepted social and cultural values.
Saxena demonstrates that, paradoxically, young adult novels—such as the Potter series—not only facilitate the rebellious and experimental mindset of their expected readers (and protagonists), they also serve to contain it. J. K. Rowling, for example, leans heavily on the hero monomyth (hero’s journey) theme which, no matter how strange the journey, envisions the hero joining “normal society” once the quest is complete. Saxena correctly notes that the monomyth always arises on a foundation of the norms and beliefs of the culture or country where the story is set.
Rowling also draws heavily on the tradition of English Boarding School fiction that echoes what such schools were intended to do in society: mold raw, undisciplined youths into model citizens. Harry and the other students at Hogwarts are expected, by the powers that be at the Ministry of Magic, to play by the rules after they leave school in spite of their love of pranks and disobedience prior to graduation.
“The school story, as a narrative emerging from a specific cultural context and being situated in a socio-cultural institution like a school,” writes Saxena, “is doubly bound to the ideas and ideologies of its epoch.”
Hero, Schoolboy, Savior and Monsters
In addition to its focus on the literary and cultural traditions of hero and school themes, The Subversive Harry Potter explores Harry’s role as the savior of his magical world as well as that world’s marginalized monsters (giants, house-elves, werewolves) whom he and Hermione befriend out of their humanity and their defiance of societal norms.
Saxena points out that while Rowling’s books have often been criticized for their positive approach to magic and witchcraft, the series has two strong Christian themes. First, Harry becomes the savior who accepts death, not as a fearful end, but as a grace he receives while offering up his own life on behalf of his friends, fellow students and magical world. Second, love is called the strongest magic of all with a power so great that Lily Potter’s love for her son Harry lives on long after her sacrificial death on his behalf.
The hero, schoolboy and savior themes are not only skewed outside their normal linear evolution by the friendship and help of such outcasts as Hagrid, Dobby and Lupin, but by the presence of magic itself. Saxena’s study portrays adolescents—from the viewpoint adults—as “other,” that is to say, alien. However, within our consensual mainstream reality, magic, witchcraft and anything else regarded as supernatural, are much more alien.
The Subversive Harry Potter shows that, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Rowling’s use of magic not only makes for exciting reading, but introduces elements that impact the protagonist’s expected evolution from adolescent/other to mainstream adult. It’s as though society is saying, “You can play with fantasy during your teenage years, but we expect you to grow out of it.” Yet, what if the supernatural is too strong and too compelling to leave behind? This is a “danger” society perceives in wildly popular fantasy literature as well as an interesting counterpoint to the hero, schoolboy and savior themes in the Potter series itself.
The Influence of “Queer Theory”
Saxena’s view of magic and fantasy within adolescent fiction is strongly influenced by her study’s reliance on “Queer Theory” as a means of exploring potentially discordant themes and values. As a post-structuralist critical theory that defines everything outside of society’s norms as “queer,” the theory would suggest that the hero/savior who exhibits a larger-than-life performance of his role is not exhibiting normal behaviors. The study suggests that magic further “queers” the functions of the monomyth, the boarding school theme, and the savior roles within the series.
While the words “queer” and “queer theory” in context within an academic study illustrate society’s view of everything different (including fantasy and magic), the tightly focused 1990s terminology is in my view unfortunate and out of date when extrapolated upon in 2012 for a wider research project.
“Queer analysis,” writes Saxena, “of the narrative of boyhood therefore reveals the essentially performative aspect of boy-to-man growth. The elements of fantasy and magic denaturalize this cultural project. The narrative of fantasy revolves around the power of magic, an illegitimate force whose presence in society has been characterized by simultaneous ubiquity and secrecy.”
The author’s role?
Unfortunately, the fantasy author’s role (if any) in either orchestrating or intuitively utilizing the hero, schoolboy, savior, monster and magical themes to facilitate/contain adolescent rebellion through instructional or inspirational storytelling was outside the parameters of the study. This leaves an open question about whether the themes explored in the study are overt elements of authorial intent or simply part and parcel of fantasy and hero’s journey fiction. Saxena shows that Rowling knew very well the traditions—within British society—of school fiction, the evolution of a hero, and of giant and elf folklore. But she doesn’t explore whether Rowling intended for her fiction to impact adolescent needs within society in the manner viewed by theorists.
The Subversive Harry Potter grew out of a doctoral dissertation and, as such, is a formal academic study intended for literary theorists, psychologists, sociologists and other scholars. The retail price ($40 for a 218-page paperback) is within the realm of scholarly and professional publication pricing rather than that of general nonfiction.
For an academic audience, The Subversive Harry Potter meets its goals while providing fantasy authors and fans with some very interesting food for thought.