If you're like me, your eyebrow went up when you saw the subtitle of Mapping the World of Harry Potter, which consists of the mouthful phrase Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Explore the Bestselling Fantasy Series of All Time. The Harry Potter series may, indeed, be the bestselling fantasy series of all time, but it is first and foremost a series for children. This is something seemingly forgotten by many of the contributors, from Lackey herself to the genre writers defending J. K. Rowling from charges of sexism and insisting that naked Snape is the hottest thing since . . . well, naked Alan Rickman. Not, of course, that there is any problem with discussing the Harry Potter novels as literature for adults, just as we do with C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll and dozens of other classic children's authors. But when critics lose sight of these books' origins, some rather odd and sometimes unfair generalizations get tossed around, while characterizations that would not be at all problematic in books for adults may seem distinctly less palatable in books for children.
I might as well start by talking about the first essay to which I turned based on its irresistible title, Joyce Millman's "To Sir, With Love." But first, a note to children reading this review or considering purchasing Mapping the World of Harry Potter -- what follows is a rather R-rated discussion of a rather NC-17 rated essay, and indeed, I cannot recommend this book to anyone who is legally underage, as I'm sure it could get me arrested. In her essay, Millman declares, "Let's talk about the sex in Snape fan fiction. It's never vanilla. And it always features one or more of the following scenes: Snape initiating the woman into S/M play; the woman kneeling before Snape to perform oral sex..." and on and on about women fetishizing Snape's buttons, Snape bathing women because he insists that they be clean before sexual contact, etcetera. Now, I must admit that I do know something about Snape fan fiction, even pornographic Snape fan fiction. My preferences are of the slash variety, but that's neither here nor there . . . except it is, because Millman makes broad generalizations about female desire that lumps all women together into fantasy subs for Snape as dom. Snape's dominating sexual behavior is emphasized over and over.
Now, maybe I have been reading the wrong Snape fan fiction, but the idea of Snape as sub to Voldemort, to Bellatrix Lestrange, to Lucius and/or Narcissa Malfoy, even to Harry himself is hardly unusual. Moreover, Millman insists on reminding readers that bad men are Bad For Us, even quoting Rowling's legendary "Are you thinking of Snape or Alan Rickman?" (who gets mentioned a dozen times in the essay, particularly his voice; I get the impression the essayist really wanted to get Mr. Rickman's attention). But mostly this essay is about Sadist!Snape and what we describe in the fandom as Hermione!Sue -- a characterization of Hermione Granger who has little to do with her personality from the novels because she's really just a stand-in for the writer. If I thought five sentences of Millman's analysis of Snape and his appeal for female readers were accurate or fair to fans -- all female psychology being identical and such -- I'd have to cry. Fortunately, she doesn't get even that much right.
Now, perhaps it was unfair for me to turn first to the essay that I thought would hold my interest instead of starting at the beginning of Mapping the World of Harry Potter, so let me retrace my steps. I was amused by Lackey's introduction, in which she claims not to be too jealous of Rowling -- oh, sure, she's bummed someone else made all that money, but since Rowling turned young readers on to fantasy, she's opening young minds (and perhaps the success will spill over to other fantasy writers). And I liked the thoughtful first chapter, "Harry Potter and the Young Man's Mistake," which is an analysis of how innocence and power operate in Harry's world. Daniel P. Moloney, a philosopher by background and journalist by trade, talks about how young Harry does not make Headmaster Albus Dumbledore's mistake of idealizing innocence in the stories, for while Dumbledore is trying to protect Harry from a prophecy that may lead to his doom, Harry seeks to learn which things are worth dying for.
This is one of several essays that talks about archvillain Voldemort in his youthful persona as Tom Riddle, the loveless boy. Yet despite not idealizing Dumbledore, there is very little discussion of Harry's and Tom's similarly deprived backgrounds and the psychology of their development: it is taken for granted that Harry magically learned to make good, kind choices and Tom evil, selfish ones, and nobody demands to know why Dumbledore did not try giving the young Voldemort love, which is cited as the most potent force in the universe yet so far as we know has always been outside Tom's experience. In books for adults, I would find this a point for thought and conversation, but since these are books for children, I think at some point they must be discussed as such. What does it mean that Rowling expects children to develop an adult ethical system in a vacuum, if they are raised in privation like Tom and Harry? Is love a mystical force like, well, the Force in Star Wars, or is it something more abstract and accessible to anyone who lives life ethically? Children think about these things as well as adults.
The chapter on the Dursleys as social commentary, by Roberta Gellis, is very funny -- here we have Harry as Cinderella and materialism as farce. Then there are two chapters on the role of religion in the Harry Potter books. The first, Marguerite Krause's "Harry Potter and the End of Religion," I found to be an inane as well as superficial look at Christianity, taking for granted that the Harry Potter world is all as nominally Christian as the "Happy Christmas" expressed by students, even though there are indications that the holiday being celebrated in the books has more in common with the Pagan Yule than any Christian mass. "There's no doubt that Harry exists in a godless world," writes Krause, who is fortunately contradicted in the very next chapter by Elisabeth DeVos, who insists, at the other extreme, that "It's All About God." DeVos points out that God lives in many houses and under many names, and she is the only writer in this collection to emphasize the importance of the fact that "Rowling's tales are about and written for those experiencing childhood -- when awe is our natural state."
It's interesting that Lackey has included two essays that come to such radically opposite conclusions about the meaning of Harry Potter. After all, this isn't academic analysis, bringing the weight of literary theory and poststructuralist discourse to bear; it's just a bunch of successful and wannabe successful fantasy writers stating their opinions, and the end result feels amateurish, not engaged in analysis so much as allowing writers to justify their own gut instincts, such as Millman's assumption that the vast majority of female readers will feel about Snape as she does.
In addition to religion, the topic of feminism is debated to greater effect by some writers than others. Sarah Zettel does not consider the Harry Potter series feminist "by any stretch of the imagination," but she also doesn't find it sexist, and she announces right off that she doesn't want to find it sexist or it might ruin her enjoyment of the series. So instead of really looking at how Rowling constructs female characters, she dissects three essays which claim that the Harry Potter novels are sexist. She never really addresses the troubling underlying issues in books about rigid roles for adult women in particular, and she makes many pronouncements about the wickedness of Narcissa Malfoy -- a character we barely know -- while accepting the adoring canonical myth of Harry's mother, Saint Lily the Dead. It's particularly irksome that she compares Katharine Hepburn comedies unfavorably to Rowling's books in attempt to prove that Hermione's characterization is not sexist; I have a much easier time overlooking the mocking of a woman in a film made decades ago than I do in a book written many years after I was born, in what is presumably a more enlightened era.
Though her essay is not about Hermione in particular but about how characters negotiate their social positions, Susan Matthews' comments on Hermione in "Ich Bin Ein Hufflepuff" are actually more incisive. "She is ambitious and intellectually voracious while wanting to be liked and fit in, and is confused and frustrated by the fact that she is not and does not," she summarizes succinctly, analyzing Hermione's courage in befriending people she knows aren't her match intellectually and refusing to scorn those whose skills are in areas she does not particularly value. Matthews sees Hermione's speech about bravery at end of first novel as a recognition not only that people can be smart in different ways, but that by accepting that his strengths are in different areas as they work toward a common goal, she is not subjugating herself to Harry but putting them both in the strongest possible position.
A later chapter in Mapping the World of Harry Potter by Richard Garfinkle goes even further, spinning fan fiction of sorts about why Voldemort killing Harry would allow Hermione to step out of his shadow and get rid of the Dark Lord once and for all. "Hermione Granger and the Time Turner" is a rather enjoyable story, and I found it more entertaining than Roxann Longstreet Conrad's fan fiction about Wizarding manners, which seems a little too cutesy, rather didactic and lacking the energy of the superlative slash fan fiction Conrad wrote under the name Julie Fortune. There are brief chapters by Martha Wells on Neville as hero and by Lawrence Watt Evans on why Dumbledore had to die, both somewhat predictable for readers of mythology or Jungian studies of same, and an even briefer chapter by Lackey on the psychological underpinnings of the things Harry is repressing, swritten for humor, but without any real analysis of how Rowling might have addressed these problems in books for children without either weighing them down or oversimplifying the psychology even further.
The most courageous chapter is by Adam-Troy Castro and is entitled, "From Azkaban to Abu Ghraib." Castro studies the operation of fascism as a system of thought and government in the Harry Potter books, providing interesting and compelling real-world analogies while at the same time oversimplifying the playground politics of these books for children. Castro, for instance, lauds Fred and George Weasley as courageous rebels against Dolores Umbridge's tyrannical system of teaching and terrorizing the school. Yet Castro does not point out all the ways in which the Weasleys have always been like the Slytherins they despise; they don't play fair, they pick favorites and promote those people above others, they use the threat of humiliation to make people go along with them. In some ways, one might make the same accusations against kindly, manipulative headmaster Dumbledore, whose Ministry of Magic voting politics may be Democratic yet who clearly believes that some students are more equal than others. Comparing the Weasleys' pranks to the Boston Tea Party seems a little like comparing a playground bully to Samuel Adams.
If you're looking for entertaining essays on Rowling's opus, Mapping the World of Harry Potter contains a great deal of readable, reasonably thoughtful prose about where other fantasy writers see her work as fitting in. In many ways I prefer this collection to The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter and other collections of academic essays on the phenomenon. But like so many essay collections, it's uneven, at times amateurish and occasionally just silly.
Green Man Reviews