Reflections on Harry Potter, A History of Magic and Fantasy

The British Library created an exhibition on Harry Potter (with focus on the books, not the movies) called A History of Magic, but for those of us who won’t be going to London anytime soon, they also produced two books about the exhibition: Harry Potter, A History of Magic and Harry Potter, A Journey Through a History of Magic, with the latter being shorter than the former. A History of Magic is a deeper look at the exhibition, and everything in the Journey Through version is in the longer version (at least as far as I could tell).

The exhibition isn’t just of Harry Potter books or items directly related to the series. Instead, the exhibition has a broader scope that focuses on various historical artifacts that fit into the mythology behind the series. For example, there are artifacts about witches and basilisks and the like. It provides an interesting look at the mythology that has existed over centuries in Europe and which influenced J.K. Rowling while writing Harry Potter.

As someone who loves Harry Potter, history, and literature, I found these books fascinating. (I’m sure I’d find the exhibition itself even more fascinating if I was able to go.) Everyone knows that the Harry Potter series has a firm footing in stories that had already been told for centuries, and it wouldn’t exist without that history. These books and, I’m sure, the exhibition itself highlight that in a wonderful way by showing these real historical artifacts and connecting them back to the series.

I particularly loved how both books were divided into chapters based on Hogwarts subjects, such as Transfiguration and Potions, as this showed how deeply ingrained each subject is in European mythology despite being fantasy.

This rich connection to older stories shows the most magical part of Harry Potter, I think. I love fantasy. It will always be my favorite genre, and this deep connection to previous fantasy stories is what makes fantasy so rich. That connection doesn’t need to be to European mythology like Harry Potter is. Every part of the world has its own stories that fantasy can draw upon and be just as rich. But that connection to the past is something unique to fantasy I believe. Even with historical fiction (which I also love), it’s not exactly the same. That genre has a direct connection with the hard facts of the past, while fantasy has a direct connection with the stories we’ve been telling for centuries.

Harry Potter will always be special when it comes to literature, but every fantasy world I create and write about is an attempt to forge the same rich connection to the past that Harry Potter achieved. There’s always room for new ideas and innovation in fantasy, but I want to create stories that are just as richly connected to past stories as Harry Potter is.

My past attempts at fantasy were nowhere close, something that I couldn’t help but ruminate on as I flipped through these books and something that’s been on my mind since. It’s not an easy task, creating a world like Harry Potter, but one day, I hope to come somewhere close.

Feminist Literary Criticism and Harry Potter

I’m posting some of the papers from my senior portfolio. This is a paper that I wrote for my British literature class during the fall of my junior year. Since we would ideally take that class before literary criticism, we studied different literary theories in less detail to prepare us. I had actually already taken lit crit.

When we were given the option to write about any book we wanted using any theory we wanted, my choice is probably unsurprising, and when I was choosing which papers to include in my portfolio, I couldn’t resist having something about Harry Potter in it.

Feminist literary criticism explores the use of gender in literary works, although there are numerous different branches of feminist criticism that focus on different aspects of works. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling may not be immediately thought of from the perspective of feminist criticism because of its male protagonist, but gender can provide an interesting way to look at the Harry Potter series even if some allowances have to be made that it is not a perfect way of looking at the series.

Although some critics are hesitant to focus on an author when studying a work, feminist critics might find it interesting that the Harry Potter series is written by a woman who chose to write about a male protagonist. This could provide an interesting perspective to study as the story is told by a female perspective even though the main character is male and should have a male perspective. American feminist critics, in particular, might be interested in this as they often focus on female authorship (Bressler 154). If the critic was really willing to bring in outside information, they could also explore the fact that J.K. Rowling decided to go by initials because her publishers did not think boys would buy her books if they knew they were written by a woman. That raises interesting questions over how female authorship of a story such as the Harry Potter series is viewed.

Of the three main characters of the series, two are male and one is female. Feminist critics might be interested in studying the differences between the three characters, especially considering Hermione, the female, is the one who is considered smart and “uptight” about following the rules while Ron and Harry, the males, are more easygoing about both school and breaking the rules. A cultural feminist critic could analyze whether any of these differences in personality were a result of gender (Bressler 158).

Going outside of the main characters, feminist critics could study the gender of those in power in the novels through Kate Millett’s idea of sexual politics (Bressler 150). Many of the most powerful figures in the novel are male. Harry is “the Chosen One” who is tasked with defeating “the Dark Lord” who is also male. There are multiple Ministers of Magic during the series, and every single one of them is male. There are two headmasters of Hogwarts during the series that are male, although McGonagall takes over as Headmistress at the very end of the last novel. Feminist critics might find these positions of power interesting to study.

Expanding on that, there are female characters who are in positions of power underneath the males. McGonagall is deputy headmistress underneath Dumbledore. Umbridge has an important position at the Ministry of Magic and is very loyal to the Minister of Magic Fudge. Bellatrix is one of the Death Eaters that Voldemort seems to keep close, and she is fiercely loyal to him to the point that it is basically an obsession. All of these women are in relatively powerful positions, but they all answer to men. That would help deepen an analysis of the Harry Potter series that discussed sexual politics.

While few women are in top positions of power in the series, there is one position that is given great importance in the series and dominated by women: motherhood. The love of mothers is a powerful image through the Harry Potter series. Lily Potter died in order to save Harry’s life, and her sacrifice becomes a key aspect of Harry finally defeating Voldemort. Feminist critics might be interested in studying why Rowling decided to use Harry’s mother for this position instead of his father.

In addition to Lily Potter, feminist critics might be interested in studying Molly Weasley. Molly is a stay-at-home mother who is fiercely dedicated to her children. Although she does not have a job, she does join the Order of the Phoenix in the fifth novel, but her job there seems to largely revolve around making sure Grimmauld Place runs smoothly. Readers witness her fight for the Order, but it never seems to be her primary goal in the organization. Her position as a mother is her most note-worthy characteristic and what defines her throughout the series, which opens up even more the discussion of mothers within the Harry Potter series. Arthur Weasley is portrayed in a very different way, which could also contribute to the contrast between mothers and fathers throughout the series.

Magic itself could also contribute to an interesting discussion amongst feminist critics. Amazon feminism asserts that women and men are equal physically and would probably be interesting in studying the differences between men and women fighting in a war (Bressler 157). In Harry Potter, the war is fought with magic alone. There is no physical aspect. Whether or not men and women are physically equal becomes more or less irrelevant because physical strength is not how they overpower each other. This would no doubt provide an interesting way to compare the world in Harry Potter to reality.

At the same time, there are also a few problems with studying the Harry Potter series using feminist criticism. The biggest is that the series takes place in a fictional world with a social structure entirely different from real social structures. The culture in Harry Potter has no doubt been influenced by our own culture because of the author, but readers of the series cannot know the entire history and social context of that world. While it is true that most of the powerful leaders in the novel are male, maybe that just happens to be a coincidence. Maybe there have been plenty of females in power before but there just are not at the time of the novels. It may seem unlikely, but no one can really know for sure. There is no certainty that the wizarding world holds the same view on women in power that is common in our own culture.

While there may be a few cautions to keep in mind, studying Harry Potter using feminist criticism can provide valuable insight into the text. A female author writing about a male protagonist automatically opens up questions about the role gender plays in the series, and there are plenty of aspects of gender throughout the series that could easily be explored. Doing so could greatly enrich any interpretation of the novels.

Works Cited

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print

A Magical World Inferiority Complex

When it comes to the magical world I’m creating for my fantasy novel, I have a bit of an inferiority complex. You see, I can’t not compare my created world to the wizarding world within Harry Potter. In my mind, Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, etc. are the quintessential fantasy world. That’s not to say I haven’t read about many other fantastic literary worlds over the years. It’s just that Harry Potter has always stood out as the paradigm.

Comparing my own creation to Harry Potter isn’t the smartest thing I could do, but it’s difficult to not sit back and find what I’ve created as inadequate in comparison.

My world is going to be different. There’s the fact that Harry Potter is considered a children’s book (despite the later books getting darker) in comparison to the young adult story I’m writing. There’s the fact that Harry Potter, while not high fantasy, is also not quite urban fantasy like what I’m writing.

They’re different. As they should be. I wouldn’t want to write something that was merely an imitation of Harry Potter. That would fail miserably. I don’t want to write Harry Potter 2.0, yet I can’t help but feel like there’s some magical essence to Harry Potter that my own world will never have its own version of.

Whether that’s due to insecurities or because my world is actually lacking in something, I doubt I could tell you without feeling biased.

Dear Ron,

A year ago, I wrote a letter to Hermione to tell her how much she has meant to me over the years. I didn’t mean for it to take this long to write one to you too.

At first I didn’t take you seriously. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I just didn’t pay you much attention. I fell into the trap that so many Harry Potter fans criticize movie watchers for. I didn’t realize how amazing of a character and person you were.

That’s changed as I’ve gotten older. When I was a kid, Hermione was my favorite Harry Potter character hands down. I had blinders on. Now I realize that the two of you are tied. It’s impossible for me to say one of you is better than the other now.

Hermione is the so-called smart one of the group. Whenever you need to know something, you go to Hermione. I appreciated that as a kid, especially being a bookworm like her. I overlooked the fact that you were just as important. You don’t have Hermione’s book smarts, but you are just really good at being a best friend. (Yes, you screwed up like everyone else, but Hermione took convincing before she would admit that the Hallows were real.)

That was a trait I took for granted as a kid because I assumed that everyone had it. It’s only years later that I realize that’s not the case. People like you are people who should be appreciated just as much as anyone else with any other talent.
So, thank you, Ron, for being such a great friend to Harry and Hermione and me. I may not have realized how much you were shaping my childhood at the time, but you still managed to have just as much of an effect as Hermione. I won’t take that for granted again.

Sincerely,

Haley Keller

Dear Accio,

You’d be such a convenient spell to have, possibly the most. I’ve always thought so. Making things fly is cool and all, but summoning things would be so nice. It would help strengthen my lazy side.

If I wanted to be serious about this, I’d admit that other spells would be more useful. Anything life-saving would be an invaluable tool to have around. Lumos would be great for those moments when I don’t have a flashlight lying around.

Yet, for some reason, you’re the one I long for, the one I think about wanting the most. You’re the spell that comes to mind most often and makes me long for Hogwarts, makes me sad that I never got my letter.

But I suppose, for now, I’ll just have to get up and get my own stuff because that letter isn’t coming.

Sincerely,

Haley Keller

Poetry: Phoenix

An attempt at an acrostic poem. Yes, I ended it that way because I’d challenged myself to use phoenix, and it was a terrible idea. I honestly think this is one of the most terrible things I’ve ever written, but the attempt is getting posted anyway.

Playing in my mind all the time,
Harry’s epic adventures run
On and on and on.
Evermore they will last.
Never to fade while we remain
It’s always there to welcome us home.
Xoxo

Dear J.K. Rowling

If my letter to Hermione wasn’t a sign, your creation is extremely important to me. I can say that Harry Potter is one of the top five most influential things in my life. (We won’t argue about what number one is.)

As a child, it helped shape my view of the world in the best possible way. It gave me a place to escape to, and one I still escape to frequently. It gave me characters to look up to and aspire to emulate.

When I got a little older and realized I wanted to be a writer, you were my biggest inspiration. You still are. I will always attribute a lot of my desire to write to wanting to create worlds like Hogwarts.

While I loved reading before, the fandom turned that love into something  stronger. I have you, Jo, to think for that even being a possibility.

I had no idea when I went to see the first Harry Potter movie at eight what was about to change in my life. That change has meant more than almost anything.

Sincerely,

Haley Keller

The Secret of Harry Potter

I think the biggest indicator of a book’s true success is that it’s one readers want to experience over and over again. I love a lot of books, but there are only a handful that I come back to over and over again.

I’m currently in the middle of another Harry Potter re-read. (I’m in the middle of Chamber of Secrets as I write this.) Of course, I’m enjoying the books as much as I have every other time I’ve read them.

When I think about it, that’s kind of crazy. I first read Harry Potter when I was eight years old. The fact that I still get as much enjoyment out of them now as I did then isn’t a common phenomenon. There are books people love because of how they felt as a kid, but only a fraction get the same reaction when people read them as adults. I know Harry Potter is one of those series for a lot of people.

This time around, I’m staying pretty conscious of that as I read. What is it about Harry Potter that manages to do that? It’s something I’ve thought about before, of course, but I’ve never kept it at the forefront of my mind while reading. (Usually, I’m too caught up in the story itself to be bothered.)

I already have opinions on what it is, but I’m trying to measure that up with my experience to see if those opinions continue to hold weight. It’s still early on in the re-read, so we’ll see what I think by the end of it.

Surely there’s a number of things that are all coming together. There can’t be one secret to the entire phenomenon that Harry Potter has been. Still, the fact that Harry Potter managed to be as big as it is means that it, or J.K. Rowling rather, managed to do something right.

As a writer, I can’t help but have a curiosity as to what that is, not that I’ll ever be able to replicate it. (As a Potter fan since childhood, I’ll continue to be influenced by Harry Potter, even subconsciously.)