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

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.”

What if Harry Potter Bought the House Next Door to You?

WHAT IF?

Few questions are more important to a writer. So, what if Harry Potter bought the house next door and wasn’t shy about who he was and what he could do? Really, Harry Potter himself, not Daniel Radcliffe.

Of course, the real Harry Potter—if there is one—is part of a secret world that “in real life” we would never know anything about. There’s a reason for that: people who are different are usually shunned, persecuted or worse.

The first traditional rule for the adept—alchemist, psychic, shaman, wizard—is KEEP SILENT. If he lived next door to any of us, the real Harry Potter would probably appear as unassuming as Clark Kent in the Superman stories.

But, as long as we’re playing WHAT IF?, let’s say Harry is sick and tired of staying in his figurative closet. (Actually, he did stay in a closet at his foster parents’ house—what a nice touch of symbolism on Rowling’s part).

Time for the Welcome Wagon

When a new family moves into a neighborhood, people are curious. They drop by with pies and casseroles partly as a way of starting things off with a friendly “hello” and partly as a way of getting a look at the new folks to assess how they’re going to fit in. Times might be changing, but even today there are many neighborhoods in which the “welcome committee” will be displeased if a Black, Jew, Muslim, or Gay answers the door. In other neighborhoods, Whites, Catholics, and Japanese “don’t belong.”

In scholarly literature, those who don’t belong are often referred to as The Other. They are outside the mainstream. In the Harry Potter books, witches, elves, wizards and giants are outside the mainstream of English society. Even within the magical world itself, there’s a hierarchy about who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Fantasy offers readers unlimited opportunities to come to terms with what’s different, what goes against the mainstream scheme of things, and to consider whether the consensus reality of “real life” must be engraved in stone or not. Fantasy lets us safely question “what is.” While reading a Harry Potter book or watching a Harry Potter movie, it’s easy to feel simpatico with Harry, Ron, Hermione,  and Dumbledore, and perhaps even to feel a bit sorry for the everyday people in London who don’t know anything about the magic in their midst. Just think of all they’re missing!

But What Happens When We Get to the End of the Book and the Last Movie?

Here come Harry’s friends!

Picture this. The moving van has pulled away and the new family—who looked normal enough while carrying boxes into the house—has gone inside. So, you put together your best cherry pie or your favorite Hamburger Helper meal (depending on your skill in the kitchen), and you go next door and ring the bell.

A dark-haired guy comes to the door. He’s wearing well-aged dungarees and a polo shirt. He smiles and says “Hello.” But, before you can introduce yourself, his son—whom you can see down the entry hall in the living room—shouts Avis! and a flock of pigeons appears out of nowhere and flies past you en route to the wide open sky.

What happens now?

  • The guy who answered the door says, “Hi, I’m Harry,” and acts like the thing with the birds didn’t happen.
  • You ask, “How did he do that” and Harry says, “No big deal, it’s just James Sirius having a bit of fun.”

It’s not quite like seeing it in the movie, is it? As I play with this WHAT IF question, I like to think that the world has progressed a lot between the time when TV viewers were watching Rob and Laura Petrie at 148 Bonnie Meadow Road in the Dick Van Dyke Show and all the Wisteria Lane families on Desperate Housewives. We are more likely to welcome Harry today than we were in the 1960s, aren’t we?

What do you think happens if Harry Potter moves in to your neighborhood and, along with his wife Ginny, makes no secret of his skill with spell casting and potions? Will the neighbors accept him with open arms the way they did while reading Rowling’s books, or will they stay away?

This is not a WHAT IF question I plan to use for the plot of my next novel. If I were Dan Brown, I might show that Rowling’s books weren’t fiction at all and that the guy next door is probably attracting the wrong kind of attention from, say, Homeland Security, the mob, and various terrorist groups. If I were Katherine Neville, I might show that in spite of his skills, Harry needs the help of my protagonist, say, Bill Smith, who has to go on a search for the real Nicholas Flamel to save the neighborhood. Or, if I were Tom Clancy, I’d probably have a couple of CIA operatives show up to assess “which side” Harry was planning to help “win” with his most powerful spells.

Do We Want the Fantasy Characters to Just Stay in Their Books Where They Belong?

We love fantasy whether it’s epic, contemporary, urban, steampunk, heroic or another sub-genre. In the books, Harry Potter was viewed as the hero who saved the magical world and (by readers) as one of the most-loved characters in fiction.

But WHAT IF Harry, Ginny and the kids moved into your neighborhood. Would it all become one happy family with baseball games on Saturdays and Quidditch matches on Sundays? Or, would Harry, Ginny, and their friends from Hogwarts and Diagon Alley remain separate in their house and yard as The Other?

What I think would happen and what I would like to see happen don’t match up here. Even so, I like asking the question WHAT IF?

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, including the 2011 novel Sarabande from Vanilla Heart Publishing.