Sunday’s diverse potpourri

  • Speaking of rain, many of us are getting tired of water and flash flooding. And yet there are some nearby farms that haven’t gotten a drop. We’ve had some heavy showers even though North Georgia isn’t in the dark green area on this map.
  • The 2001 Ken Follett novel Jackdaws about French resistance fighters during World War II has a surprising formatting problem at the beginning of the paperback. In the middle of chapter four, we suddenly find the front-matter praise for the book followed by the title page and the entire book starting over. Assuming that the initial print run was done via offset, an error like this would have been easy to spot during proofreading. My copy is from the 2017 printing which may well have been produced via print-on-demand. Even so, there would have been a proof copy where this error should have been found. I don’t expect this kind of screw-up from a publisher the size of Penguin.
  • Typical of indoor/outdoor cats, Robbie occasionally leaves a dead mouse or a dead bird on our welcome mat where they probably aren’t very welcoming to guests. He came inside late yesterday afternoon after the rain had made it dark enough outside to obscure the gift. When I opened the door to let him out this morning, he acted like the dead bird as a bomb and came to a sudden halt. Finally, he jumped over it and ran off. I have since removed the bird. Maybe he thought another cat left it there. Cats!
  • Kenan Thompson thinks “Saturday Night Live” could end in three years: “50 is a good number to stop at,” he said on “Thursday on Comedy Central’s “Hell of a Week” when asked about rumblings that the show could be planning its exit. “Well, I need to start planning,” he joked, but acknowledged, “there could be a lot of validity to that rumor.”  Personally, I haven’t watched it much since the original cast disappeared.
  • Speaking of rain again, there was a storm approaching when I started typing this post. Now it’s mysteriously gone and we have a sunny day once more.
  • We sat down with a snack last night, flipped on the TV, and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was running. We left it on the screen while deciding what to watch and got hypnotized into watching the whole thing. Normally, we would record it because there are way too many ads on the SYFY channel. Nonetheless, we had fun seeing it again. And, isn’t that cemetery really awesome?
  • Huffington Post: “Stuart Woods, an author of more than 90 novels, many featuring the character of lawyer-investigator Stone Barrington, has died. He was 84. Woods died in his sleep on Friday, July 22, at his home in Litchfield County, Connecticut, his publicist, Katie Grinch, said Wednesday.” I read a fair number of his lightweight novels featuring the globe-trotting attorney Stone Barrington, so it’s too bad there won’t be any more. I guess Woods paid his dues–and then some. Barrington seemed to end up in bed with every woman he met. What an inspiration!



Sunday Clatterings: magic to tennis to spring

When stuff falls on the floor, it (the stuff) clatters. This is what happens when people try to spring forward into daylight savings time when they first wake up. Florida’s trying to stay on daylight savings time. I’d rather see the whole country standardize on standard time instead of the “extra sunshine” nonsense. I love the sound of clocks hitting the floor: doesn’t everyone?

The day before the hard freeze.
  • Several days ago, I was convinced spring had arrived. Rain had jump-started this year’s crop of weeds in the yard. The buds on the Japanese Magnolia were about to zap into full bloom. Then we had a hard freeze and flowers everywhere got ruined. Then it rained again. At least we’re not living in East Glacier or Browning, Montana where February was a record snowy month.
  • Better vision today after going back to the ophthalmologist Wednesday so he could use his lase to get rid of the cloudiness in my right eye and, while I was there, touch up a few missed spots in my left eye.
  • For reasons unknown, everyone’s eyes glaze over on Facebook whenever I mention I’ve been watching tennis and/or that I’m happy that the Williams sisters won their matches at the tournament in Indian Wells, California. I guess most people don’t like tennis or are unaware that the Williams sisters have dominated women’s tennis for a quarter of a century. I thought I’d mention this in today’s post so your eyes would glaze over, too.
  • I pre-ordered my Scots language copy of the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane. Amazon was proud of itself for saving me 5 cents because pre-orders lock in the price; then they had to apologize for delivering it late. It was supposed to arrive on the 8th and it’s still not here. If th’ book isnae ‘ere by Tuesday, a’m aff tae speil bagpipes in th’ amazon affice.
  • It’s comfort food week compliments of my wife’s dentist. He extracted a compacted molar several weeks ago. Things seemed to be going well with her gum healing up until the bone spurs appeared. (Think of chewing food with a cactus in your mouth.) So, we were back to the dentist two days ago so he could make another incision and grind down the spurs. That means soft food: mac & cheese, ravioli, ice cream.
  • I’ve been thinking about Angi Sullins’ comment in the introduction to her book Doorways and Dreams. She (and I agree) doesn’t see real magic as the stuff out of Harry Potter. Instead she says that it’s a “more-ness shimmering behind our everyday reality.” It shimmers in our dreams and meditations and sometimes in things one sees out of the corner of his eye. I figure that has long as it’s there, it’s a practical energy we can use to better understand and create the reality going on around us. If you’ve read my books, you’ve seen how it works.
  • If you like mystery/thrillers, see my review of Jane Harper’s Force of Nature. If you like satire, see my latest Jock Stewart post about hoodoo workers hexing Congress.

Have a great week.


Ur ye ready tae reid Harry Potter in th’ Scots leid?

Noo we hae:

Dumbledore = Dumbiedykes
Quidditch = Bizzumbaw
You Know Who = Ye ken wha
Sorting Hat = Blithering bonnet
Diagon Alley = Squinty Gate

Th’ story begins loch thes:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, o nummer fower, Privet Loan, were prood tae say that they were gey normal, thank ye awfie muckle. They were the lest fowk ye wid jalouse wid be taigled up wi onythin unco or ferlie, because they jist widnae hae onythin tae dae wi joukery packery like yon.

Description (Amazon UK): 

HARRY POTTER doesnae ken the first thing aboot Hogwarts when the LETTERS stert drappin ontae the doormat at nummer fower, Privet Loan. The letters, scrievit in GREEN ink on YELLA pairchment wi a PURPIE seal, are taen aff him by his AWFIE aunt and CRABBIT uncle. Then, on Harry’s eleeventh birthday, a muckle GIANT wi tousie hair cawed RUBEUS HAGRID breenges in tae his life wi some ASTOONDIN news: Harry Potter is a warlock, and he has a place at HOGWARTS SCHUIL O CARLINECRAFT AND WARLOCKRY.

It’s abit time, Ah say. (Scots is spoken in th’ coontry’s lowlands.)

Ye can buy th’ book oan March 1.


Mah lang-ago ancestors spoke Gaelic, but they will loch thes.


Some scientists say we know little to nothing about reality

The bar room response to statements like “Some scientists say we know little to nothing about reality” is, “How would we know?”

As an author, I’m very conscious of the reality I create when I write a novel. What the readers see and when they’re allowed to see it via a biased or unbiased character is closely orchestrated.

Is this reality or one version of reality
Is this reality or one version of reality?

Author Zadie Smith (Swing Time) said in a recent interview, “People want to control how they are perceived. On Facebook or Instagram, you show others what you want them to see. My experience, though, is there is a lot more going on in the interior. You find out who you are by the things that you do, and it’s not always a pleasant discovery.” In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut said it this way: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

I “love” novels that claim to be based on true stories. My response is often, “so what?” Looking more closely, I want to ask, “based on whose perception of that purported true story?” Who told the story? Why did they tell it? Which witnesses or historians were the most accurate? How did the author adjust story events and characters to make a more exciting novel?

Police claim eye witness accounts are usually unreliable. Other than lying or supporting one agenda or another, an eye witness seldom sees an entire event. Without knowing it, his brain fashions the probable scenario for the things he missed and then he believes his entire account. And, a lie detector won’t catch the unintentional fabrication. Think of all the eye witnesses to historical events, the things covered on the nightly news, and other “true stories.” What did they see as opposed to their brains’ versions of what they think they saw?

Perhaps evolution’s to blame

realityAccording to some scientists, the reality problem is worse than we think it is. Donald Hoffman’s use of evolutionary game theory suggests that that our perception of reality is an illusion. According to his models and research, this happens because our evolution has created us to “see” what aids our fitness and safety more than an accurate picture of what’s in front of us.

“Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be,” Hoffman says.

Many gurus from the often diverse worlds of science and spirituality have long claimed that reality as we generally view it is an illusion, our own dream perhaps, or maybe the universe’s dream, or the result of our brains’ algorithm for converting what is–in actuality–energy into physical stuff.

I have always believed we create our own reality via our thoughts. I can’t prove that any more than I can say whether or not Hoffman is correct or way off course. I’m fairly certain about the truth of Zadie Smith’s view. As a writer, I delight in the chaos and uncertainty of all this, because it makes storytelling such a powerful reality-generating art. Those of us who write novels are very similar to those who are good at spinning yarns around a camp fire with versions that differ from one telling to the next. We see reality as fluid like a mixed drink that one bartender makes one way and another bartender makes another way, often depending on what s/he thinks the customer wants or his/her general mood of the moment.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Snape said, “I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even put a stopper on death.” He did this with potions. Writers bottle truth, brew reality, and manage births and deaths with words. Enjoy it all, but don’t for a moment think it’s anything more than an illusion.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” FREE on Kindle December 9, 1o, and 11.



Secrets – a writer’s stock in trade

I started thinking about secrets after reading author Dora Goss’ post about keeping secrets. Looking at the relationships between men and women, she writes, “It seems to me that there are women men keep secrets from, and women men tell secrets to. Most women, at different points in their lives, occupy both of these positions: secrets are kept from them, and they are told secrets.”

Bloomsbury - adult edition
Bloomsbury – adult edition

In “real life,” I don’t like being told secrets because those who are asked to help hide one thing or another are usually part of the collateral damage when the truth comes out. As a writer, though, I love secrets because every novel begins with the unsaid premise that there are secrets within that the reader must uncover while reading the book.

I liked the imagery in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. For one thing–like so many novels about extraordinary youths–here we had within Hogwarts School a secret room that all the master wizards of the realm could not (or did not) find, open up, and neutralize. To enjoy the story, the reader has to play along with the ruse that wizards many times more powerful and knowledgeable than young Harry Potter really had no clue about the chamber other than as an old myth about the castle.

Putting a Christian spin on the meaning of the chamber of secrets, John Granger sees Harry Potter as “everyman” the chamber as the world, the snake in the chamber as sin, the evil Lord Voldemort as Satan, etc. One can make a strong case for this interpretation in line with many religions and myths.

I tend to see a chamber of secrets as man’s unconscious mind and that like the powerful wizard teachers at Hogwarts, most of us see that part of the psyche as either a myth or–if real–a place too dangerous to visit. Using this view, a writer looks at his or her protagonist as an individual, badly flawed or otherwise, who doesn’t wholly know himself or herself, much less all of his/her capabilities.

When I start writing a story, my aim is always to conceal as much as possible from the reader without appearing to be concealing anything. I drop hints, many of which will only make sense later when the secrets home out. Like stage magicians, writers are presenting for your entertainment an illusion that obscures the mechanics of what’s really going on in front of your face.

A good magician seldom reveals how assistants disappear out of boxes, how rabbits appear in empty hats or how playing cards disappear into oranges, locked safes or the pockets of people sitting out in the audience. Of course, a great book has a climax to it and that’s when the reader finds out everything (maybe) that was happening that wasn’t apparent up to that point.

With the discovery, there is often surprise, but if the author has done his or her job well, there’s also a”but of course” moment of recognition. Later, the reviewers and critics will argue about how the author kept the secrets for so many pages and what those secrets really mean. Once all the reviews, articles and books have been written about the story, everyone will think they know everything.

But they won’t because authors never tell everything not even to the women men tell their secrets to.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Garden of Heaven Trilogy of fantasy novels: “The Seeker,” “The Sailor” and “The Betrayed.”

How to create a whoopass wall of protection

Did you ever notice how tough guys in movies and brainy guys on science shows are always claiming that a darned good bomb can be made out of the contents of a family’s medicine cabinet?

The first time I heard this I was a kid in the days when kids were still allowed to play with fire, cap pistols, bows and arrows and cherry bombs. How exactly would I make a darned good bomb? Would I mix Preparation H and Vagisil? Or, possibly hydrogen peroxide and codeine. (In those days, the feds allowed people to buy codeine, paregoric and other miracle meds).

The thing is, nobody who claimed to know how to turn a medicine cabinet into a bomb ever explained how.

I have no interest in making a bomb, but I wonder what–as a writer–I should do if a character in one of my books was fighting bad guys, needed a bomb, and ran into the bathroom to throw one together. How should one realistically describe what he does?

Look, I’ve read plenty of thrillers written by people who know everything in the world about bombs, guns, aircraft, submarines, martial arts, police procedures, &c. They never say, “Bob grabbed a gun before he got on the helicopter.” For purposes of reality–and to prove to readers they know their subject matter–they state what kind of gun in was, what kind of helicopter it was, and spout out a bunch of stats like they’ve got the owner’s manuals with them.

What about magic?

Rowling has already confessed to using fake spells in the Harry Potter books. They’re kind of cute, actually. But they don’t do squat. I’m sure a lot of people went around shouting Accio Money and Avada Kedavra  before Jo told the world she didn’t give us the real stuff.

So now, I’ve got an ethical dilemma as I work on my conjure woman novella. I’m a fanatic about realism because I think it’s a wonderful foundation for the magic. If the stuff people already know is obviously real, then they’ll think the stuff they don’t know is also real. (That’s not logical, but it works in books.)

Suffice  it to say, that if Rowling used real spells or if some book called “Mega-Enforcer Dude” gave a step-by-step recipe for making a bomb out out Preparation H, folks would be getting hurt. But, the details have to sound plausible because: (a) you don’t want people who know how to make spells and bombs writing bad reviews on Amazon saying the recipes were a bunch of crap, and (b) you hate being dishonest with your readers.

There’s a wonderful conjuring spell called The Whoopass Wall of Protection (not its real name). As she fights the bad guys, my conjure woman needs to use this spell. But I can hardly say she dumped “a bunch of stuff” out of a sack. Nobody will believe she knows squat or, worse yet, that I (as the author) know squat. I can use footnotes to tell readers that the real Whoopass spell isn’t included, but footnotes turn people off because they start thinking they’re reading a doctoral dissertation and, trust me on this, nothing is more boring that that kind of writing.

Perhaps I should give a few hints to satisfy those craving reality as well as those who really know the spell. “Lucy dumped a sack filled with cornmeal, coffin nails, rue and pepper on her sidewalk.” Okay, that could work, but it doesn’t really plunge the reader into the moment, does it?

This is going to require some careful thought. If you’re a writer, perhaps you can offer some advice about just how much dangerous information should be included in a novel for the sake of accuracy.

If you’re a reader, just how much do you want to know? And, if the novella included the real spell, would you promise not to use in unwisely?

Related Posts


Malcolm R. Campbell, as you may already suspect, writes magical realism, fantasy and paranormal stories and novels.

Katniss and Harry – Orphans in the Storm

“We find them everywhere in fantasy fiction: the “orphaned heroes,” young men and women whose parents are dead, absent, or unknown, who turn out to be the heirs to the kingdom, the destined pullers of swords from stones, the keys to the riddles, the prophesies’ answers, the bearers of powerful magic.” – Terri Windling in Lost and Found: The Orphaned Hero  in Myth, Folklore, and Fantasy

“The hero, Tristan, is a conventional orphan-hero. Mythic heroes are typically orphans and/orfoundlings of some sort. This symbolic convention was first discovered by psychoanalyst OttoRank (1914/1964), described in his classic work, ‘The Myth of the Birth of the Hero.'” – Ronald L. Boyer in “Key Archetypes in the Celtic Myth of Tristan and Isolde: A Brief Introduction”

hungergamesposterOrphans in literature and in fact are portrayed as beginning life behind the figurative 8-ball. In novels and classic myths, they grow up in an uncertain world, often without love and often with cruel or other substandard conditions. Sometimes we find them in institutions, sometimes with relatives or foster families, and sometimes as street-smart children living on the fringes of society in major cities.

Variously, society often pities them, mistrusts them, intrudes into their lives purportedly in their best interests and views them as broken children who will have a long, hard climb back into  the normal world of commerce, relationships and other traditional forms of success. We also see them as underdogs and, in spite of whatever else we may feel about their birth and circumstances, we root for them  in literature and life.

In J. K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books and movies, Harry is the unwanted orphan forced to live in a cupboard beneath the stairs. In Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, the fatherless and –practically speaking–motherless Katniss Everdeen struggles to support the family in a coal mining district. Do they have an extra axe to grind? Has their childhood made them more suspicious and/or more resourceful than children in happy families? Perhaps.

The first real help they get comes from outside their families. Harry is mentored by Hagrid. Katniss is mentored by Haymitch Abernathy. Harry leaves his everyday world when he goes to Hogwarts and Katniss leaves her everyday world when she takes the train to the capital city.

harrypotterfilmsIn their stories, Katniss and Harry follow a long literary tradition. According to John Granger (aka, the Hogwarts Professor), their “hero’s journey — one in which the principal character plays the part of what the Bible calls ‘the heart’ and their story is about their apotheosis or spiritual illumination, something like divinization — has a tradition of its own in English literature we can call ‘literary alchemy.’”  Twilight, The Hunger Games and Rowling’s series contain similar tropes and symbols.

Whether we consciously know what those themes and symbols are, we resonate to them when we read myths and modern fiction that contain them.  One way or another we know what it takes to turn lead into gold and to turn an orphan into a heroic figure.

We have seen this story in many forms with many characters. As Windling writes:

“We can trace the archetype back from the popular fantasy books listed above to the literary orphans of the 19th century (Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’, Mark Twain’s ‘Huck Finn,’ Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre,’ to name just a few), and then further back through “foundling” stories such as Henry Fielding’s ‘The History of Tom Jones’ and William Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ to a world–wide body of folk tales and myths about children orphaned and abandoned. Alongside these stories is another deep cache of tales on the “stolen child” theme: children whisked away by fairies, trolls, djinn, gypsies, Baba Yaga. . .sometimes reappearing many years later and sometimes never seen again. We discussed changeling and stolen child stories in a previous article, so well leave these tales aside for the moment and focus on the orphan archetype.”

Stories about orphans in the storm can be powerful because of the authors’ art and craft in creating memorable plots and characters. They’re also powerful because such stories are part of a long literary tradition than rings a bell, subconsciously perhaps, when we pick up a book about an orphan on a larger-than-life journey.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels.


Rowling’s Amazon Experience

As the week winds down, and I sit here with a glass of dark red wine contemplating J. K. Rowling’s negative reviews on Amazon, I have come to the conclusion that the wrong people bought  The Casual Vacancy and then got mad about it. By the “wrong people,” I mean people who are reading literary fiction who normally stick to commercial fiction and people reading about troubled everyday characters who normally read fast-paced, high-energy page-turners.

As of this moment, The Casual Vacancy has 193 one-star reviews and 125 five star reviews. Who would have thought during the heady days of Harry Potter and midnight book sale parties that a Rowling book would fair so badly in the public eye?

Those who don’t like the book claim it’s dull, that nothing happens, that the people are gloomy low life trash, that they weren’t entertained because there wasn’t any humor in it, that the author’s normal charm was missing, that the characters were petty and had disgusting behavior, and that the story was filled with general dullness and lackluster material.

I don’t agree. Since I’m only 250 pages into the 500-page novel, I can’t write a review yet. So far, the book is a gem that I think may well be viewed as an important novel about small-town life in England long after the Harry Potter series has faded from the public consciousness. I say this even though, as a writer of contemporary fantasy, I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series.

I don’t want to spend the time doing this, but I suspect that some of the reviewers who claimed that the characters in The Casual Vacancy were trashy and disgusting, probably gave five stars to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo whose characters were far more violent and disgusting. Why? Most of those reading Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy want a rush of crime, sex and fast-turning pages rather than a book filled with characters who are rather like the Harry Potter’s Dursley family on a very bad day.

If somebody forced me to read the genres and styles I usually avoid, quite possibly I would want revenge. If I had just smoked or drank the wrong stuff, I might take out my frustrations on the authors of some very fine books that just don’t happen to be my cup of tea. But that would be unfair, rather like criticizing a sushi chef for preparing a meal for a person who hates fish.

The book reviewing world feels out of sync to me when people proudly claim they “reviewed” The Casual Vacancy based on the synopsis alone or trashed it in public after reading only a hundred pages then believe what they left on Amazon is a review. No, it was a non-review. Perhaps the wine has loosened my tongue, but I really want to tell such people to shut the hell up.

I’m enjoying the book. It has its own magic and its own truth.


Books: Magic Between the Covers

“A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.” – Caroline Gordon

My parents orchestrated Christmas Eve and the following morning with skill, making it a time of magic and expectation even though the gifts beneath the gifts beneath the tree were saturated with love rather than money. More often that not, one or more of the carefully wrapped packages beneath the spruce tree contained a book.

More often than not, each book was inscribed with my name, the date, and the name of the person who found the book and thought I might like the story. Pirates, space ships, wild animals and detectives waited between the covers for me to turn the page and enter an alternate universe. I didn’t see stories as alternate universes at the time, but now when I think of books, I smile at the concept of being in two places at one time.

There I was following the Hardy Boys in their latest attempt to help their police detective father crack a dangerous case AND there I was sitting in a comfortable chair in the living room next to a lamp. According to reports, I often didn’t respond when my parents called me to dinner when I was more there than here within the pages of a book like The Twisted Claw.

Portals, Portkeys and Magic Carpets

Caroline Gordon saw books as magic carpets. Ever fascinated with portals, I see books as doorways to faraway lands like the famous wardrobe in C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia. In today’s Harry Potter series terms, readers might well see a book as a portkey that whisks them away the minute they touch it.

While looking at the Amazon page for Mark Helprin’s upcoming novel In Sun Light and Shadow, I found the novel’s stunning 489-word prologue included there as part of the book’s description. The constraints of fair use don’t allow me to cut and paste the entire prologue into this blog as a shining example of an author’s invitation to his readers asking them to step through the door, touch the portkey or settle themselves onto a flying carpet. But, here’s a taste. . .

An Invitation

Helprin’s prologue begins with the line: If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.

The prologue goes on to describe the view from that window, and then the room itself: full bookshelves, the Manet seascape above the fireplace, a telephone, a desk drawer containing a loaded pistol, and a “bracelet waiting for a wrist.” Then the prologue concludes with: And if you were a spirit, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then there you would wait for someone to return, and the story to unfold.

Even though I was, from the viewpoint of my three cats who were hovering around the den door waiting to be fed, sitting here at my desk, I had in fact stepped through a portal to an apartment in New York 65 years ago. I tell you this: I wasn’t ready to return when Katy, our large calico, rubbed against my leg with a no-nonsense purr because I was thoroughly enchanted by the magic between the covers.

Even though a small percentage of the books I read each year come into my hands as gifts, I approach every book with an interesting premise and a cover splashed with promises as a gift. Years ago, I watched a TV western called “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Today, I gravitate more toward Have Book, Will Travel. Each book is an invitation to adventure, lives hanging in the balance, twisted claws lurking in the dark, castles set high above green valleys, and frightened travelers walking down roads in sunlight and in shadow.

Books cast spells and carry us away and while we are gone, we are changed, writ larger by the experiences now living within our consciousness, and ready to see the word of here with the visions we had while we were there.


Travel to mountains and magic for $4.99. It’s cheaper than Amtrak and Delta Airlines.

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.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels, including the hero”s journey “The Sun Singer” and the heroine’s journey “Sarabande.”