Sunday, December 04, 2005

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."



After shopping yesterday, my fourteen year-old daughter -- who is a first year student at America's leading Secondary School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (the other two kids are at Hogwarts) -- persuaded me to see the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The movie is lots of fun and perfect for this holiday season. I am sure that it will make trillions of dollars. Incidentally, in the U.S., magic is taught in very few schools. In New York's East Village there is one school of magic and witchcraft (in need of additional federal funds), where the specialty is: "Defense Against the Dark Arts." Silvia's favorite teacher, for instance, rides a new "Sirius, 2006" broom to school. In fact, she is occasionally caught speeding and issued a summons by the Ministry of Magic.

I have read the first three novels in the series. I like them. Another great children's universe has been added to those that exist already, in the land and language that has made the greatest contribution to the literary imagination of the world.

"You are still an Anglophile!" No comment.

Harry Potter will take his place with Peter Pan, Alice and the March Hare, Robin Hood, and so many other characters in the fantasies of children all over the world. Thank you Ms. Rowling for "presuming" to write, for refusing to be discouraged by anyone, and for demonstrating, yet again, the practical benefits of "impractical" imagination.

The Potter books and films are rooted in English literature. Not only is Harry a distant cousin of Shakespeare's Prince Hal, "Harry le Roi," when the king is in disguise (wearing his own cloak of invisibility), but young Mr. Potter is also related to David Copperfield, to all of those Dickens children, who are so damaged by poverty and the misunderstanding of ruthless and greedy adults in an exploitative society. The suburban "Dursleys" and Dickens's "Mr. Gradgrind" would find much to agree on.

In a review which appeared in The New York Review of Books, Alison Lurie suggests that J.K. Rowling invokes the well-known distinction between children's imaginative world-views and experiences, and the dull conformity of adult responsibility among "muggles." The distinction goes deeper than that. The Dursleys' child will never go to Hogwarts, whereas many adults will always be there. I may be one of them.

The important distinction established in these novels is between the dreaming and imaginative, but mostly feeling or sensitive persons in this world, usually artists or creative thinkers -- like scientists and philosophers -- who are mostly women, as opposed to the literal-minded, about whom the less said the better. One or two such literal-minded persons may be found in politics, law and electrical engineering. Gordon Brown is a muggle; David Cameron is an evil wizard, one of the Malfoys perhaps.

It is not difficult to trace a connection between my daughter's interest in Harry Potter (which may also have a bit of "puppy love" to it) and her fondness for the musical Rent, with its celebration of Bohemia and the artistic imagination. Film director Otto Preminger said: "Actors are children." He failed to see that this is what all great (or just authentic) artists are, to some extent, if they are to create their magic. Perhaps the same is true of philosophers. (See "Agnes Heller and the Homecoming of Philosophy.")

The inventiveness central to these stories, the charm and wit in characterization, are familiar to habitual readers. The stories are very English in their relish of eccentricity. Falstaff might be a fine teacher at Hogwarts; Scrooge would make a great villain; Harry is related to Sherlock Holmes, and Lord Voldemort is Professor Moriarty in a dark cape.

The presence of so many great English actors -- amazing in their ability to transform small parts into unforgettable experiences, with tiny but telling theatrical gestures -- is not difficult to understand. What an opportunity to chew on and even digest the scenery this magical world offers to actors. Miranda Richardson manages to be seductive in a small part, even as she embodies a repulsive British tabloid reporter, a "type" that J.K. Rowling must have reason to know by now. Ms. Richardson's character might have been invented by Evelyn Waugh on acid.

The mythological elements are amenable to analysis in Jungian terms at great length, but why bother? Read Joseph Campbell, Eliade, Zimmerman. The challenge in this story involves Harry in confrontations in all elements: earth, air, fire, water. The "Goblet of Fire" and Holy Grail are related too, so that Harry is a kind of Parsifal (Percival). The submersion into the dark, green water is the journey back to our watery origins, as a species, and into the collective subconscious. Ms. Rowling has discovered both Shakespeare and Darwin in her subconscious, and much more.

For those seeking "connections" for purposes of dissertation writing, you may wish to note the similarity in the device of the "wardrobe" in C.S. Lewis's "Narnia" stories (the doorway to the world of imagination) and "platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King's Cross Station," as Harry travels to Hogwarts. The symbolism is meant to convey the obstacles -- that barrier/doorway within the psyche -- that must be removed or opened in order to liberate the imagination. As we get older, the door gets heavier and thicker ... for most of us, but not for all. In some very strange persons, such as myself, the process is reversed.

The confrontation with evil and reliance on the power of love, or the presence of those we love in our moments of crisis, is crucial to the defense of virtue and "culture" in these stories. (See Roger Scruton's "What is culture?" )

We are never alone, as inheritors of a great civilization, in the struggle against evil. Think about that the next time you wonder how British people survived the Battle of Britain and the blitz. There is a reason for Harry's rootedness in English literature and for our decision to read his adventures. These literary and mythological instantiations of archetypes are the sources of ourselves, in shared memories. They are the metaphors and images we reach for, after events like the recent bombings in London or the tragedy on 9/11. Read Paul Ricoeur and Carl Jung on the sources of identity and freedom in those universal archetypes found in myth and literature.

In a nation where a great actress is called "Miranda," it should not surprise us that a character in these stories is named "Hermione." When I suggest that all native English speakers are born having read Shakespeare, you may begin to see what I mean.

Delight in imagination and sensibility cannot really be explained, only enjoyed. Like Harry, we smile to ourselves -- as Hamlet must have smiled when jousting, verbally, with Polonius -- during our confrontations with slow and literal-minded persons, who are always in a desperate search for facts, consumed by envy, even at the expense of truth and meaning:

"... and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over [Harry's] face. "They don't know we're not allowed to use magic at home. I'm going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer. ..."

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