Sunday potpourri (not to be confused with SPAM)

I’m not quite sure how to spend my time this weekend because it’s usually raining. But this weekend it isn’t, even though rain was predicted.  I blame both weather.com and accuweather.com for my feelings of chaos.

  1. According to USA Today, J. J. Rowling will release her fourth Cormoran Strike mystery this fall. She told USA Today she could easily write ten more. I don’t understand writers who have that many story ideas backed up inside their heads. But, I’m happy for her, I promise. I like the series for the same reason I liked the available detective stories that were popular when I was growing up. That is, they were Agatha Christie-style books in which (usually) one guy was trying to solve a crime rather than some high-tech firm with all kinds of illegal hacking software.
  2. Yesterday, the LeafFilter people were out here installing coverings on our gutters. They took pictures of the gutters before they cleaned them out. What a mess. We had flip screens at the old house, but stuff got under them and the wind blew them up and warped them in all kinds of ways to they wouldn’t cover the gutters properly anymore. I hope this system works. It didn’t help my mood on Saturday to have all the noise, but then I was in a bad mood already when Serena Williams lost her match in the Wimbledon final. So now, we’re protected against leaves.
  3. My hearing is crap and even with my Audibel hearing aids, I have a lot of trouble hearing human speech and need to use the closed captioning when I watch TV. So now I’m looking for something better. If you have hearing aids, are you happy with them? Can you hear your spouse asking you to take out the garbage or extinguish the stove-top grease fire? If so, tell me your stories. I looked at the online reviews and found that one site said brand XYZ was the best and then saw it had a lot of bad customer reviews. As always, I wonder if can I trust those, or is it simply that the people who are ticked off are the only ones who post anything?
  4. Maybe it’s just me, but seeing faux pas news stories and rants about Trump not bowing to the Queen of England tick me off. They are both heads of state and neither one should bow to the other. Yes, I know, the Queen is an old lady with 100000 years of tradition behind her, but we fought a war about bowing to the English monarch and I think we won it and no longer owe that monarch our allegiance. A friendly smile ought to be enough. (End of rant.)
  5. I’m starting to wish my publisher and I had scheduled the release date for Lena a little sooner than August 1. We had some trouble with the printing of the cover, and decided not to rush the release for fear something else would go wrong. (In this business, one has to assume that something will always go wrong.) However, now that the cover is squared away, I’m feeling a bit at loose ends waiting for the release date.
  6. I would like to start writing more “Jock Stewart” satire, but the real news is so crazy it’s hard to write anything outlandish. That is, reality is already enough of a satire about the left vs. right situation, so it’s hard to make up something worse.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane (Scots Edition)Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This buik is a joy tae read fur o’ tis inventive ‘n’ sprightly translation intae standard Scots by Scootlund leid expert Matthew Fitt. Some fowk say it’s mair fin than Rowling’s Sassenach edition. Ah gree. Th’ wurds fair jump aff th’ page. If ye dinnae speak Scots, dinnae fash yersel aboot it. Maist Sassenach speakers wull be able tae figure it oot, mibbie wi’ a bawherr o’ hulp fae an online translator. “Harry Potter ‘n’ th’ Philosopher’s Stane” is mair fin that a barrel o’ doolies (goblins. )

Thare is plenty o’ cantrip ‘ere fur Harry Potter’s mukkers.

–Malcolm

View all my reviews

Day of Rest

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” –  Maya Angelou  (Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now)

relaxationWhen I saw this quotation on Terri Windling’s Myth and Moor blog, I started thinking that while a writer’s life must appear serene to those who work in more active jobs, it’s very hard to allow oneself to get that day of rest.

If one is actively writing a story, the characters seldom take a day off. They’re always jabbering away inside the writer’s head. Or, s/he is thinking of facts to check or scenes that require another look. If one is not actively writing a story, then it’s easy to feel the need to be posting something on a blog like this one or on a Facebook page.

Case in point: before I saw that quote about taking a day off, I was thinking of writing a post in response to a writer/reviewer who doesn’t think Rowling’s adult books are all that good. I don’t agree and was going to say why–not that it matters one way or another in the scheme of things what I think about Rowling’s books.

But in thinking about a day of rest–after I’ve already gone to the store and cleaned out the gutters over the front door—going through that reviewer’s negative Rowling points one by one, seemed very in-restful. So, I’m letting that go in favor of reading more of her latest “Robert Galbraith” detective story The Silkworm.

Growing up, I never looked forward to Sunday because–in that era and in that town–Sunday afternoons were reserved for calling on other people. My two brothers and I were ordered to stay in our Sunday clothes, keep our rooms clean, and not to get involved in any games that messed up the house. It was not a day of rest.

Traditionally, I think of Sunday as a day of rest even though a fair number of people are working at the restaurants, movie theaters, malls and other places where many people go to rest. Folks are still working their yards, though possibly not starting up their lawn mowers quite as early as they do on Saturday.

There’s always football and beer, and whether one slumps on the couch with a six pack or has friends over for grilling, that’s probably better than heading off to the office to catch up on paperwork or clearing the thicket of privet out of the backyard. There’s always taking a nap. For some, there are hobbies that provide some of the best relaxation on the planet. Perhaps one can also call it rest.

We need more than we’re getting even if we have to trick ourselves into resting rather than thinking of all the stuff we ought to be doing. Thank goodness, the era of people dropping by to call on Sunday afternoons is long gone. For a kid or a writer, boring conversation is hell rather than rest.

Now, time to pick up my copy of The Silkworm in spite of what that reviewer said about it, and get some well-deserved rest after yesterday afternoon’s yard work. Later this afternoon, there’s a U. S. Open Tennis game I want to watch, er, with a glass of wine rather than a six pack of anything

–Malcolm

P.S. Thank you, Mel Mathews for your kind words about The Sun Singer in ‘The Sun Singer’ – The Hero’s Journey par Excellence

 

 

 

Briefly Noted: ‘New Fairy Tales: Essays and Stories’

New Fairy Tales: Essays & Stories by John Patrick Pazdziora and Defne Çizakça (Unlocking Press – Sep 6, 2013), 456 pages

newfairytalesIs there a market for a book that mixes academic writing and stories? Normally, I wouldn’t think so outside the world of college textbooks. But this book works. Maybe it’s because so many of us who love reading fairy tales also like reading about what makes them tick.

In the introduction, the editors write,

“In New Fairy Tales, we have worked with both writers and academics, as well as with writers who are academic and academics who are writers. Fiction and critique appear within the same sections rather than separately. We hope the interplay between critical thought and aethetic practice will inspire even more new fairy tales to come to life.”

The stories an essays are divided up into five sections: Miniatures, Storytellers, Shadows and Reflections, Fairy Brides, and Fairy Tale Pedagogy. The book includes offerings from Claire Massey, Katherine Langrish, Christopher MacLachlan, Elizabeth Reeder, Joshua Richards and Kate Wolford. The thematic sections are supported with notes for readers who like following up on sources.

From the Publisher

New Fairy Tales unites critical research and creative retelling of the fairy tale tradition from the Early Modern period to the present day. Academic essays intersect with new fiction and poetry, to create a unique, polyvalent discourse. The essays discuss influential works from authors including Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde, J. R .R Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and Tifli. Original literary fairy tales by Katherine Langrish, Elizabeth Reeder, and others, appear alongside, discovering and re-creating the art form while as is being discussed. The result is an audacious and innovative dialogue about fairy tales and storytelling.

Interview With the Book’s Editors

In a two part interview in “Enchanted Conversation: a Fairy Tale Magazine” (posted here and here), Çizakça says  she hopes readers of the book will take away a “belief that fairy tales still contain endless possibilities for growth and innovation. That there are many different ways of writing a new fairy tale, and that there are many different traditions one can take inspiration from.”

According to Pazdziora. there’s been heightened interest in fairy tales in the English speaking world during the last two decades. “Of course there’s a long and distinguished tradition of folkloristics, and there’s been the German study, but looking at literary fairy tales both as a distinct genre and as a subgenre of children’s literature—and like it or not, it’s both those things—that’s fairly new, at least in the form it’s taking now.”

Perhaps this book will result in a follow-up anthology with an even wider representation of the world’s old and new fairy tales.

–Malcolm

emilyebookMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including “The Betrayed,” and fantasy short stories including the three-story set for kids and adults, “Emily’s Stories.”

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

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

 

Your authentic author’s voice is who you are

“When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion — that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet — therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.” – Stephen Covey, quoted in Terri Windling’s blog

“Each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.” – James Hillman, in “The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling”

“In short, every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” – Virginia Woolf, in “Orlando”

booksartIn school, we are taught to emulate the great masters and/or to consider many overlapping recipes for how short stories and novels should be written so that it takes most of us a fair amount of time to discover our “author’s voice,” the mix of style and syntax and word choice that makes our writing “us” and not somebody else.

Editors look for a distinctive author’s voice. Without it, the writing is flat or an imitation of authors the writer likes. Sometimes, an editor can tell who a writer’s favorite author is by reading a page or two out of a submitted manuscript. If an author admires Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, the last thing s/he needs to do is try to write like either of them. At best, we end up with a parody. At worst, we have “false fiction,” that is to say, “Joe Doaks pretending to be Stephen King while writing a novel called ‘Carney Land.'”

The real Joe Doaks and what he might have been gets lost in the shuffle. Perhaps, had he allowed himself time to discover his own true voice and to develop his craft into the art that was possible in the beginning, he might have become a better writer than King. Or just as good as King, but different.

As James Hillman might suggest, Joe Doaks is ignoring his own calling, the themes that are really important to him, and spending his talents on other things.

In her post “Craft and Art,” author and college professor Theodora Goss says that in her creative writing classes, she focuses on the craft of writing. When a student with talent applies himself or herself to the writing craft, Goss says that she can then “point the way to art and say, if you wish, that’s where it is, in that general direction . . .” The same is true, I think, of an author’s voice.

Perhaps an author can hide who s/he is from the novels s/he writes, but it’s a lot of trouble. If we hide, we distort our author’s voice and the flow of intuition running through our consciousness as we write. If we’re not hiding, then it’s quite likely that our world view will lurk between the lines of our fiction even if the fiction is about characters that don’t resemble us in any way.

Most of us learned as children that there was a difference between “Dad telling a story,” “Mother telling a story” and “Grandpa telling a story” even when it was the same story. The difference was voice. Dad approached stories like a journalist, Mother like an ever-hopeful teacher, and Grandfather like a farmer who saw life in its most basic form. Their voices turned a potentially flat story into a “story being told by [Dad, Mother, Grandpa].”

We are, I think, drawn back to our favorite authors over and over again because we not only like their plots and characters, but the way they tell their stories. Of course, this factor in the public’s purchase of books makes it hard for young writers to get started. We saw an example of this in the recent revelation that Robert Galbraith (“The Cuckoo’s  Calling”) really wasn’t a debut author, but J. K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym. While, reviewers gave “Galbraith” high marks, few people bought the book before they found out Rowling was the author.

To some extent, those purchases are partially celebrity worship. But they also suggest that a fair number of readers like what they’re reading when the book is “Jo Rowling telling a story about ABC or XYZ.” Whether it’s our stories at bedtime, tall tales told around a campfire, or the novels we buy at the local bookstore, we discover that a hard-to-define mix of genre, craft, art and voice draws us to one storyteller more than another.

Starting out, it’s hard to resist the temptation NOT to write like King or Rowling because, after all, the bestseller list is so clearly telling us that is what readers want.  We might even sell our first book because we’ve written a book kind of like King’s “Joyland” or kind of like Rowling’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” But that kind of “success” really represents a great loss, the loss of our own author’s voice and our own storytelling passions.

When we follow our intuition and allow our stories to develop naturally as we write them, there’s a lot of ourselves in them even though they’re not about us. Our author’s voice develops and becomes stronger when we admit (to ourselves) “this novel is ‘me telling a story.'” I’m not talking about vanity here, but authenticity.

Or, more simply said, in being himself or herself while writing, an author is engaged in honest storytelling.

Malcolm

My world view, that each person has unlimited potential, is clearly visible in “The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande,” “The Seeker,” and “The Sailor.” I knew no other way to tell these stories.

Only $2.99 on Kindle.
Only $2.99 on Kindle.

Thank you for the 14,000 views in 2012

WordPress claims—and I believe them—that Malcolm’s Round Table had 14,000 views of its 115 new posts this past year. Thanks for visiting.

whitehousebook1A fair number of you were reading my post about an organization called “The White House Boys”, an ongoing story about alleged abuses at the now-closed Marianna, Florida  Arthur G Dozier School for Boys. I grew up 90 miles away from that school in Tallahassee.

Obviously, I was aware of the school. I drove past it multiple times. Classmates at my high school always speculated about the people who ended up there. But abuses, that was all new to me until this year. I mentioned this school indirectly in “Cora’s Crossing,” my Kindle short story about the nearby (and purportedly haunted) Bellamy Bridge.

goatsongA lot of you have stopped by to read the book reviews both here and on Literary Aficionado. I saw in GalleyCat this morning that GoodReads users published 20,000,000 reviews on that site this past year. I can’t compete with that even though some of those reviews are mine! In 2012, I liked The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin, Goatsong by Patricia Damery and The Storyteller’s Bracelet by Smoky Zeidel.

Many of you stopped by while searching for information about the hero’s journey. Since my reading and writing have been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I write about the steps on the heropath frequently.

Coming in 2013

Kindle Edition
Kindle Edition

You’ll see more about the hero’s journey on this blog in 2013 as my publisher releases my series of novels called The Garden of Heaven Trilogy. Two of my 2012 short stories (“Moonlight and Ghosts” and “Cora’s Crossing”) are now available on Kindle, but there are more on the way. That means, you’ll also be seeing more posts about ghosts, swampy Florida settings, and stuff that happens on dark and stormy nights.

There will be more reviews, too, beginning in January with Paul Blaney’s Handover which is set in Hong Kong during the country’s transfer of power from British to Chinese rule. I had a chance to visit Hong Kong in the 1960s, so I was interested in the author’s perspective of the city as it was in 1997.

I’m waiting for the second installment in Maggie Stiefvater’s four-book series The Raven Boys and Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (coming in the fall of 2013). Yes, we’ve had to wait a while for the eighth book in her Outlander series.

As a writer, I don’t like being rushed. As a reader, I’m always in a hurry for the next best thing. With a bit of luck, 2013 will be another great year for both reading and writing, and for sharing thoughts about our favorite books with each other.

Malcolm

MRCcoversDec2013

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.

The Magic of Harry Potter

from Sarabande’s Journey:

J. R. R. Tolkien is credited with bringing epic fantasy back into the lives of mainstream readers. We can also claim that J. K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books not only fired up the reading public’s love of contemporary fantasy, but introduced the concept of books to people who seldom read novels at all.

Fourteen years after her U. K. publisher (Bloomsbury) released the first, tentative thousand copies of  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (renamed in the U.S.), her fans continue to wait for word, any word, that there might be another Harry Potter novel. In 2007, the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold a record 8.3 million copies in the United States in the first 24 hours.

Any other author would have been told not to use the word “hallows” in a book title since the term wasn’t in the public’s consciousness. But Potter fans lined up and bought the book while debates raged on about what “hallows” might be.

The popularity of  Rowling’s books has been called a “black swan event.” Developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and explained in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the theory examines rare events that could never have been predicted or planned and that even in hindsight, usually cannot be duplicated. Taleb himself considered Harry Potter, as a publishing event, a black swan.

Journalist Will Hutton believes Rowling’s success transcends the quality of the books themselves. “Rowling is repeating the Da Vinci Code effect – but much more shrewdly,” he writes. “In the creative industries success always begets more success, but in an era of globalisation the success can be very big indeed, as both Rowling and Dan Brown can testify.”

Hutton, and others, think globalization and the viral phenomenon of ideas, books, movies songs suddenly becoming popular seemingly everywhere is more responsible for Harry Potter’s popularity than the quality of Rowling’s books.

Is Harry Potter’s Success Simply Books Going Viral Around the Globe?
U.K. cover

Based on Hutton’s theory of why a Da Vinci Code Effect book does so well we could, let us say, create a look-alike universe without television, cell phones, satellites providing news in real time, and the Internet, and then display the Harry Potter books (one person at a time) to 8.3 million readers. Hutton would say that Rowling’s sales in that universe would be a fraction of what they are here. He may be right.

But that still leaves us with the question of: “If the outside influence of millions of people saying the books are great is what caused each reader to pick up a Harry Potter book, what caused them to enjoy it so thoroughly and read and re-read it so passionately?”

While peer influence is a powerful thing, reading is a solitary act. Top ten songs are easy to share in a way that further leads to their enjoyment and popularity. People listen to them together in cars and break rooms and parties and hear them in large groups at concerts. While the Harry Potter movies were shared by theater audiences in real time, the books were not. Each reader had to choose to sit in a chair, curl up in a hammock, or prop up in bed and read the book by himself and herself. Like all reading, Harry Potter represented an investment in time.

Many have said that in addition to Rowling’s creative and imaginative mix of characters, themes, and settings, the books’ success comes in part through their believable account of a rather geeky (yet lovable) underdog becoming so empowered, he was able to effectively battle against the adult, experienced and highly skilled bad wizards in the book. Noticeably, the good adult wizards teaching magic at Hogwarts had very little to do with the triumph of good over evil in each book.

In a world where most of the news is bad and most of the global issues seem impossible to solve, the prospective readers of the Harry Potter books found a wonderful antidote in Rowling’s books to the negativity, hopelessness and alienation prevalent in so many people’s lives and world views. Rowling’s stories are inspirational: even the most hard-hearted and logical adult can read them with a sense of wonderment and empowerment.

Far from being escapist reading that captures readers’ imaginations while they are reading, the Harry Potter books—through some we-don’t-really-understand-it mix of Rowling’s genius and a black swan publishing event—continue to delight and inspire readers after they finish the books.

In Fantasy, Magic is a Positive Symbol for What You Can Do in the Everyday World

While J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort is just as nasty as the bad guys found it occult horror books, the Harry Potter series illustrates one important difference between fantasy and other so-called paranormal books. In fantasy, magic is viewed as normal and a capability that the book’s protagonist can become allied with and even learn. This is the case even when there are Voldemort-type characters who are using the magic for evil reasons. In occult horror books, the magic, whether its seen as a typical component of the location or not, is something that is nonetheless alien and evil and to be feared. In supernatural horror stories and most mainstream fiction, the occult is considered abnormal, evil and threatening.

In fantasy, magic is seen as normal, as a talent both good guys and bad guys can utilize, and as something to be embraced. In many respects, the acceptance of and learned proficiency with magic represents a character’s personal transformation either figuratively or literally. Transformation is an important theme in fantasy. As such, we view it in fantasy fiction as symbolic of the non-magical transformations we can seek out an attain in our non-magical real world.

This is part of the empowerment one feels, I think, when they read Rowling’s books. The books stimulate the readers’ imagination, and they begin to feel the first inklings of wonderment about the prospects for their own success in becoming the best people they can be. They may still have a “Heart of Darkness,” as Joseph Conrad suggested in his novella published in 1902, but they can transcend it.

The Harry Potter books weren’t written as guides for living or as recipes for personal success. However, the magic (real and figurative) that readers discover in them and then internalize is a large part of their power.

–Malcolm

a contemporary fantasy of the dark moon