Horst Kornberger on Harry Potter and Narnia

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Horst Kornberger offers the following opinion on Harry Potter (I haven’t decided what I think about his comments yet, but it’s one opinion!):

“I am in two minds about Rowling’s creation,” Kornberger writes, “particularly as literature for young children. I think the books and films are often encountered too [-p.143] early. Harry Potter is great fantasy, but a certain foundation of soul needs to be established before a child enters the gothic labyrinth of Hogwarts.
The Potter books are based on the mystery novel and the emotional suspense created by this genre. In most mystery novels we do not know who the murderer is until the very end. In the Harry Potter books, the murder is yet to come. Though we know it is the Dark Lord who is attempting to kill Harry, we do not know under which mask he is hiding. This makes the books even more harrowing for the soul than conventional mysteries.
The dark forces in the Harry Potter series are hidden and unscrupulous, and ever more brilliant as the books progress. The portrayal of evil echoes the racial ethos of the Nazi regime and procedures of black magic. All this may be exciting and highly stimulating reading for the imagination-deprived teenager, but it is not appropriate for younger readers, who need to know who is good and who is bad so they can morally orientate themselves in a story.
In fairytales, evil and cruelty are dealt with imaginatively. The wolf that devours Red Riding Hood spills no blood and the child is soon revived. But the killing in Harry Potter is real and irreversible. The blood that is spilled is ‘real’ blood that will leave a mark on a young child’s soul. The cruelty of a sinister figure like Voldemort is too convincing to be digested before a child is equipped to face him. Too young, they may fall prey to his schemes – and as the book tells you, he is eager to kill then as young as he can.
I recommend you to the advice of the world expert in all matters concerning Harry Potter and the care of the magical and endangered child: Albertus Dumbledore, Director of Hogwarts School of Magic. The wise Professor protected Harry from all contact with the shady and dangerous world of magic until he had reached the age of eleven. I take this as the story’s own explicit advice for its appropriate use: children should reach this age before being admitted to the school of sorcery.
I have said I am in two minds about Harry Potter. While I am concerned about its premature use, it nevertheless provides a good dose of fantasy for teenage consumption. It also speaks directly to contemporary myth – its popularity shows that the stories answer a dire need in our culture:  the story deprivation of contemporary childhood.
Children recognise themselves in Harry. Like the modern child he starts off deprived of imagination and magic, denied his birthright to be an adventurer in any realm other than this world. Like the modern [-p.144] child he is endowed with imaginal gifts and has been brought up by parents who are ‘muggles’ – totally unmagical folk. Most parents are ‘Dursleys,’ not only lacking imagination, they suppress it with any means at their disposal.
The imaginal part in every modern child is as maltreated by parents and education as Harry Potter is by the Dursleys, while the child’s conventional and unmagical part is as spoiled as his stepbrother Dudley – who is the very kind of insensitive and competitive bully our world seems to reward while the Harrys are locked in closets and punished for who they are.
Harry Potter exemplifies the drama of the imaginative child. This is what makes his story a modern myth. He is the hero who escapes the prison of convention, breaking though the brick walls of King’s Cross Station into a new dimension of imaginal adventure. Harry is a symbol for the imaginal child and her adventures in this world and the next – but for a young child there are smoother ways to break the brick walls of convention. A new dimension may be more easily entered through an old wardrobe hung with fur coats.”  (pp.142-144)

Harry vs The Chronicles of Narnia

Interestingly, Kornberger also compares Harry to The Chronicles of Narnia:

“C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are a masterpiece of children’s literature. A nine year old can appreciate the imaginative treasures this series contains, and there is no need to censor their use, for the stories have a purity that will protect them from misuse. The children who are the heroes of many of the Narnia tales are aged between seven and twelve, and that seems a good indication of their age-appropriateness.” (p.144)

“Harry Potter is fantasy with mythological elements. The Chronicles of Narnia are much stronger myth, a product of exact imagination, revealing realities beyond the apparently real. The Narnia stories meet the soul on its own home ground. They speak the imaginative language of the heart and carry the power of transformation that only this language can provide.
It is this transformative capacity that Harry Potter lacks. He is a likeable hero and remains so, even as he becomes more adept in magic. He is protected by the love of his mother, but he is not touched by the love that changes the heart. He remains a somewhat superficial hero, the master of outer accomplishment and victories. He is Superboy equipped with magical powers and all the gadgets of the trade: owls and broomsticks, invisibility cloak and miraculous maps.” (p.145)

Again, I’m not yet sure what I think of these last comments, but I do find them interesting.

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Horst Kornberger (2008) The Power of Stories: Nurturing Children’s Imagination and Consciousness. Floris Books: Edinburgh

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Hermione in the Bathroom (the construction of female gender through the Gothic elements of Harry Potter) – June Cummins

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June Cummins writes:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 2Anyone teaching, as well as many people reading, the Harry Potter series is aware that J.K. Rowling borrows from, or blends in, a number of literary genres while writing her books. A learned, sophisticated reader could rattle off the names of particular genres, such as school stories, the Bildungsroman, high fantasy, epic, medieval legend, and so on; while even a relatively untutored or inexperienced reader can sense the connections between Harry Potter and well-known stories such as Star Wars or famous fairytales like Cinderella Yet, despite the classic ‘trappings’ of a Gothic novel, including ‘castles, ghosts, corrupt clergy, and so on,’ as described by Donna Heiland in Gothic and Gender (2004: 4), not much mention of the Gothic has been made in the critical discourse of the Harry Potter novels. For example, as of June 2006, a search on the terms ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘gothic’ through the MLA bibliography database yielded zero hits On the first page of her article ‘Generic Fusion and the Mosaic of Harry Potter,’ Anne Hiebert Alton lists ‘gothic’ as one of the genres within the series, along with ‘pulp fiction, mystery…horror stories, detective fiction, the school story and the closely related sports story, and series books’ (2003: 141), but does not go on to explore the Gothic elements of the books. This lack of attention is understandable for the very reason addressed in Alton’s article title: ‘Generic Fusion.’ The Gothic elements merge so smoothly into so many other genres within the Harry Potter series and are so natural to [-p.178] its setting that they are almost invisible or at least so normalized that it appears as if they do not merit attention.” (pp.177-178)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneCummins continues: “Yet Rowling’s use of Gothic elements or conventions goes beyond the architecture of Hogwarts or the inclusion of classic haunted characters such as ghosts and werewolves throughout the series. Significantly, Gothic elements of the novel rise to the surface of the stories when the topic under consideration or at least narrative exposition is that of female development. At crucial junctures, the Gothic is blended with elements of Horror or the Grotesque in a swirl of allusions that evoke age-old narrative traditions surrounding female development. Specifically, Hermione, a most decidedly un-Gothic heroine for the vast majority of the Harry Potter series, slips into a Gothic mode at a moment of important psychical and perhaps physical transformation. Another character, however, Moaning Myrtle, very much a Gothic, as well as comic, character shows up in and remains in a Gothic mode throughout the series. …J.K. Rowling pushes hard on these elements when she needs to tell the story of female development.” (p.178)

Cummins analyses closely the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) (i.e., Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) when Hermione locks herself in the bathroom, crying, and Ron and Harry send a troll in there (and then proceed to defeat it). Cummins reads this scene as pivotal to Hermione’s character – and to her relationship with Ron and Harry. She begins by demonstrating its connection (through the setting of the bathroom) with menarche and female growth, then discusses its role in changing Hermione into someone who is not just bossy, argumentative, intelligent, competitive, etc., but also willing to lie for her friends, worry about what others think of her, and rely on her (male) friends to get by. Among others, one “intertextual device linking the scene to the Gothic is that of the damsel in distress,” Cummins explains, “a character stereotype totally opposite to Hermione’s character in all other dangerous scenes that include her in the series. During this scene, Hermione becomes a traditional ingénue character.” (p.184)

Cummins poses the question: “Is Hermione an ‘agential’ adult who opens the way for social transformation and a postmodern heroine who subverts patriarchy and other forms of oppression?” (p.187) Her answer is interesting, in that it involves a parallel reading of Moaning Myrtle…:

“Moaning Myrtle, with her tears, sighs, pimples, and suicidal tendencies, is, among other things, a parody of a teenage girl. Part of that parody is her residence in the girls’ bathroom, and her intimate familiarity with sinks, pipes, and toilets. With Myrtle, Rowling simultaneously makes fun of and points out the important status of the girls’ bathroom in the lives of (pre)teenage girls.” (p.179)

Hermione’s story slips into a Gothic mode when she reaches puberty/becomes a woman, but she then exits that mode to go on to become a much more dynamic and genre-busting character. Moaning Myrtle, however is stuck in the bathroom, which is the very site of female development [Cummins explains the connection between bathrooms and menarch in YA lit earlier in her essay], and is stuck in a Gothic mode as a permanent ghost. We can argue that Myrtle is sacrificed to the Gothic plot. While there are parodic and comedic elements to her, and we laugh at her character, her tears are actually quite symbolic of the sadness behind the way girls still get arrested – stuck- in certain patterns of behavior and expectations, even today, in our supposedly post-feminist world. Myrtle, then, is a kind of heroine in her own right, as she serves as a reminder of a path many girls take, while Hermione represents the potential alternative.” (p.190)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) June Cummins ‘Hermione in the Bathroom: The Gothic, Menarche, and Female Development in the Harry Potter Series’ pp.177-193 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

Reference is to: Anne Hiebert Alton (2003) Generic fusion and the mosaic of Harry Potter. In E Heilman (Ed.) Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives (pp.141-162). New York: RoutledgeFalmer

Donna Heiland (2004) Gothic and Gender: An Introduction. Malden, MA; Osford, UK; Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing.

Harry Potter’s mix of subgenres – Saxena

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Vandana Saxena also asserts that: “J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, as a mix of subgenres of young adult literature, becomes an ideal text to study; the heroic quest, the boarding-school fiction, fantasy, magic and adventure – the series brings together all these narratives of boyhood, portraying youthful subversion as well as cultural containment and an adolescent’s negotiations through these conflicting forces. Secondly, the charges leveled against the series – that it is formulaic, that its popularity rests on aggressive marketing strategies rather than content, and that, in guise of its engagements with difference, it foregrounds conventionality and conformity – rather than working against the series, as we shall see, make it a suitable representative text of postmodern children’s literature.” (p.7)

“To an extent,” Saxena goes on to note, “the charges ring true. Harry Potter is after all a conventional hero of a late capitalist world. He is an orphan but belongs to an ancient powerful family of wizards. His Cinderella-like transformation from rags to riches is an oft-repeated fairy tale. Surrounded by aides and by virtue of owning some unique magical objects, the White English boy overcomes all evil to save the world. As a school story, Harry’s relationship with his friends and teachers eventually reassert the boundaries of gender and race that are inherent to the culture from which the text emerges.” (p.7)

Ref: Vandana Saxena (2012) The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, NC and London.

Vandana Saxena – the dynamics of adolescence in Harry Potter

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According to Vandana Saxena: “The subgenre of adolescent fantasy can be characterized as a mix of illusion, escape, entertainment, formula and also instruction and guidance. Fantasy and adolescence…reinforce each other. An adolescent can be seen as an ‘other,’ an outsider to the categories of child and adult, embodying the gap between the two states of being in the chronology of growth. Many critics agree that young adult literature expresses the trials of adolescence, the process of individual coming-of-age set against a specific social and cultural background. [-p.6] Sarah Herz and Donald Gallo point out the situational archetypes and themes in YA fiction, which include coming-of-age rituals, quest and search for self. The literature centers on the youthful protagonist as much as it centers on the cultural background that frames his/her growth.” (pp.5-6)

Saxena continues: “Robyn McCallum defines adolescent fiction in relation to the essential humanist ideology that traditionally underscored the idea of child and children’s literature: “preoccupation with a personal maturation … is commonly articulated in conjunction with a perceived need for children to overcome solipsism and develop intersubjective concepts of personal identity within this world and in relation to others’ (7). This feature of YA literature derives from the unique position that an adolescent occupies in society. On the one hand, an adolescent is an outsider to the social and political frameworks of the society. At the same time, s/he occupies an important position in the collective psyche – preparing adolescents to become responsible members of the community is a major cultural preoccupation. It is important to contain adolescence through the discourses of growth, development and maturity since an adolescent, by the virtue of his/her position on the cultural periphery, has the potential to question and subvert these very discourses. According to Roberta Trites, ‘the distinction between a children’s and an adolescent novel lies not so much in how the protagonist grows – even though the gradations of growth do help us better understand the nature of the genre – but with the very determined way that YA novels tend to interrogate social constructions, foregrounding the relationship between the society and the individual’ (Disturbing [the Universe] 20). Rowling’s series portrays this two-way relationship that characterizes adolescence. Adolescence …emerges not as a stage of life, but as a state of being – an existence on the margins and in a constant dialogue with the center, always challenging and negotiating with the attempts at containment. Thus, young adult literature emerges as a volatile field of engagement with institutional politics and dominant social constructions.” (p.6)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Vandana Saxena (2012) The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels. McFarland & Company: Jefferson, NC and London.