MEROPE GAUNT, VOLDEMORT’S MOTHER: NARRATIVE AS A HOUSE OF CARDS

The first novel about Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published by Bloomsbury on 26 June 1997, already 25 years ago today. This post looks back to that date, to celebrate it, and forward to next November, when Barcelona’s Witch Market will finally return and all of us, local Potterheads, will have the chance to meet again after a two-year hiatus caused by Covid-19. I have chosen to lecture on Voldemort’s mother, Merope Gaunt, because she is an example of that type of secondary character who seems very minor but whose actions are indispensable for a story to start moving. If poor Merope had not fallen in love with the Muggle Tom Riddle, Lord Voldemort would have never been born. The villain, not the hero, sets the events in motion and, so, without He Who Must not Be Named young Harry Potter would have enjoyed just a normal wizard’s adolescence.

Merope (pronounced ‘mɛrəpiː) is named after a star in the Pleiades which borrows its moniker from one of the seven daughters of the Oceanid nymph Pleione and the Titan Atlas. She only appears in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), published eight years after the first novel, which suggests that Rowling may have thought of Voldemort’s back story relatively late in the process of writing, not necessarily from the beginning. Merope’s sad story is narrated in Chapter 10, “The House of Gaunt” (184-204, Bloomsbury 2005 hardback edition), and in Chapter 13, “The Secret Riddle” (242-260), though neither of the two chapters focus on her. Her name is mentioned a total of 32 times, very few in the context of the sprawling narrative that the whole series is, and she is never in dialogue with any other character. We know about Merope because Professor Dumbledore proceeds to recall scenes from the past sharing his Pensieve with Harry, having decided, as he tells the boy, “that it is time, now that you know what prompted Lord Voldemort to try and kill you fifteen years ago, for you to be given certain information” (186).

Dumbledore has no direct memories of Merope, so he uses instead the memories of the late Bob Ogden, a Department of Magical Law Enforcement official. Harry witnesses Odgen’s visit to the village of Little Hangleton, where the Gaunts live: the middle-aged father Marvolo, the son Morfin (possible in his mid-twenties), and the daughter Merope, who is eighteen as we eventually learn. The Gaunts are presented as the English equivalent of the American hillbillies, and Morfin, indeed, gives a rather violent welcome to their unwelcome visitor, sent by Slughorn to investigate a breach of magical law committed by the young man.

When Merope first appears, in a corner of their very poor dwelling, Rowling describes her focalizing the narration through Harry as “a girl whose ragged gray dress was the exact color of the dirty stone wall behind her. She was standing beside a steaming pot on a grimy black stove, and was fiddling around with the shelf of squalid-looking pots and pans above it. Her hair was lank and dull and she had a plain, pale, rather heavy face. Her eyes, like her brother’s, stared in opposite directions. She looked a little cleaner than the two men, but Harry thought he had never seen a more defeated-looking person” (194, my italics). When the nervous, mousy Merope drops a pot, her father upbraids her as he has done many times before: “That’s it, grub on the floor like some filthy Muggle, what’s your wand for, you useless sack of muck?” (194). She, however, cannot manage to repair the pot, which Odgen does, wishing to end the scene as quickly as possible.

When the visitor declares that Morfin has been summoned to the Ministry because he has attacked a Muggle, Marvolo reacts by yelling that his family are direct descendants of Salazar Slytherin, one of Hogwarts’ founders, and owed more respect. As proof he pushes Merope violently, so that Odgen can see the locket she’s wearing. This family heirloom, which she later sells to avoid starvation, is the same one that her adult son Tom, then in his early thirties, finds in the hands of rich collector Hepzibah Smith. When he murders her in a fit of rage (his first murder after he wiped out his father and grandparents, aged sixteen), he needs to flee, hence starting his path towards becoming Lord Voldemort.

Back in Chapter 10, a group of fashionable Muggle passers-by who mock the Gaunts’ derelict home startles Merope. She grows deadly pale when handsome Tom Riddle mocks Morfin and both siblings hear him call her companion Cecilia “darling”. Brutally, Morfin tells Merope (who has not said a word yet), “So he wouldn’t have you anyway” (198) and discloses to their angry father that “She likes looking at that Muggle” (199, original italics). This appals the old man, and even though Merope, still speechless, denies Morfin’s accusation, only Ogden’s providential intervention saves her from being strangled by her father. Then she does utter the first sounds coming from her mouth, though these are screams. Handsome Tom Riddle, as it is easy to guess, is the very same Muggle Morfin has assaulted, mistakenly believing he corresponded her sister’s interest.

Dumbledore tells Harry that both Morfin and Marvolo were apprehended at once and sent to Azkaban, a time of freedom for Merope during which her so far repressed magic flourished. Using, as Harry guesses, a love potion which, Dumbledore speculates, “would have seemed more romantic to her” (202) than an Imperious Curse, Merope seduces Tom Riddle and both elope together, to their village’s great scandal. The father, returned from Azkaban after six months, eventually dies of shock. As Dumbledore further gossips, Merope had lied to Riddle pretending she was pregnant, which she only became three months after their wedding. Riddle, however, returned soon home without his wife, claiming he had been “hoodwinked” (202) and Dumbledore continues his “guesswork” (203) suggesting that Merope “who was deeply in love with her husband, could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion. Perhaps, besotted as she was, she had convinced herself that he would by now have fallen in love with her in return. Perhaps she thought he would stay for the baby’s sake. If so, she was wrong on both counts. He left her, never saw her again, and never troubled to discover what became of his son” (203). This marks the ends of Merope’s presence in Chapter 10 and explains why the boy Tom grew to hate his Muggle father so intensely, though he never truly loved his pure-blood mother.

In Chapter 13 Dumbledore returns to the Pensieve to narrate Merope’s troubles once in London. Through the memories of one Caractacus Burke, Harry sees Merope selling the locket; she was “Covered in rags and pretty far along…”, meaning about to give birth (245). If this was not Dickensian enough, Rowling adds a date for the memories: before Christmas (supposedly of 1926). When Harry asks why the desperate Merope did not use magic, Dumbledore speculates that “when her husband abandoned her, Merope stopped using magic. I do not think that she wanted to be a witch any longer. Of course, it is also possible that her unrequited love and the attendant despair sapped her of her powers; that can happen. In any case, as you are about to see, Merope refused to raise her wand even to save her own life” (246).

Mysteriously (and a bit like Star Wars’ Amidala), Merope lets herself die after her baby’s birth. Harry is aghast that Merope would not choose to “live for her son” (246) and Dumbledore replies that, unlike Lily Potter who died to save her son Harry from Voldemort, “Yes, Merope Riddle chose death in spite of a son who needed her, but do not judge her too harshly, Harry. She was greatly weakened by long suffering and she never had your mother’s courage” (246). When Dumbledore recalls his first memory of eleven-year-old Tom Riddle, Rowling writes focalizing through him that “There was no trace of the Gaunts in Tom Riddle’s face. Merope had got her dying wish: He was his handsome father in miniature, tall for eleven years old, dark-haired, and pale” (249). He can only know this from Mrs. Cole, the orphanage’s director, who reports that Merope arrived on New Year’s Eve “staggering up the front steps” on a “nasty night” of cold and snow (249). She “had the baby within the hour. And she was dead in another hour” (249). Mrs. Cole confirms that Merope, who was “no beauty”, had just time to say “I hope he looks like his papa” (249), the only words she is reported to have pronounced, and to ask that the baby be named Tom Marvolo Riddle. Mrs Cole assumes that “she came from a circus” (249) because of the strange name; the surname Riddle, by the way, does exist.

Many commentators have expressed their surprise that Rowling uses Oliver Twist “not as the model for her hero but for the villain—creating, in essence, an Oliver twisted” in the Dark Lord (see James Washick, “Oliver Twisted: The Origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan”, Looking Glass 13.3 (2009), https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ojs/index.php/tlg/article/view/165/164). In Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-38) baby Oliver is born to young Agnes Fleming, who dies in childbirth, at a workhouse, where he is raised as an orphan. Agnes, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Navy officer is made pregnant by Edwin Leeford, a man possibly twice her age on the run from the older, rich woman his father had forced him to marry. Leeford dies with no time to pass onto Agnes and their yet unborn baby the fortune inherited from his father, a death which is supposed to characterize him as a good guy trapped between his late father’s patriarchal power and sheer bad luck. Yet, I find his liaison with the innocent daughter of the man harbouring him short of criminal. When Agnes dies, she is wearing a wedding band, which has always made me suspect that Leeford tricked her into believing he was free to marry her. Whatever the case, though Merope and Agnes are connected, Dickens ends his novel vindicating Agnes, with Oliver visiting her no longer anonymous grave, whereas psychopathic Tom Riddle never cares for Merope.

Just as Oliver Twist depends on the sexual attraction that Leeford feels for Agnes, all of Harry Potter depends on ugly Merope’s passion for her handsome Muggle neighbour Tom Riddle. I do not discard that this passion may have been awakened by Merope’s sexual abuse by both her father and her brother (Morfin’s assault of Tom hints at some type of unbrotherly jealousy), though only Rowling knows whether there are grounds for this speculation. If Merope had been beautiful, Riddle might have fallen naturally in love with her and perhaps even staid by her side. This would not have necessarily resulted in a different personality for their baby boy, for who knows why some men grow up to be horrendous villains, but the fact is that the whole house of cards that the Harry Potter heptalogy is depends on Merope’s attraction for Riddle. I am not calling it love, because considering how Merope has lived her life so far, she cannot know the meaning of love. In the absence of a mother who could have loved her, she cannot understand, either, the meaning of motherhood, hence her inability to bond with her baby, and her death, which is a sort of suicide.

Rowling could have invented a very different back story for Voldemort, but she came up with the pathetic romance between Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle, using a curious type of indirect characterization and narrative for the couple, who are never seen (or heard) together. They are in many ways the counterpart of Lily and James Potter, Harry’s loving parents, though, above all, Merope is Lily’s opposite. Both James and Lily die protecting Harry from Voldemort, but Lily’s death gives the boy the extra magical protection that saves his life. In contrast, young Tom’s bitterest moment comes when he is sixteen and learns the truth about his origins from his uncle Morfin. This literally breaks his soul as he proceeds, as I have noted, to kill the father that abandoned him and his grandparents. Tellingly, he commits these crimes not because the Riddles scorned Merope, for whom he never cares, but because their Muggle blood taints his own blood.

Poor Merope, unloved daughter, sister, wife and mother. Let’s not forget, though, that the worst sons may come from the best mothers, and that if little Tom Riddle turns out to be evil this is not her fault. It seems to me that the fault lies, rather, with the callous father, but this is the topic for another post…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THE RISK OF ERASING AUTHORSHIP: THE STRANGE CASE OF J.K. ROWLING

NOTE: This post was originally written on 10 January 2022, but it’s published now because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

The streaming on New Year’s Day of the show Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (HBO Max) may have brought back many sweet memories to the original Potterheads, but was no doubt marred by a conspicuous absence: that of J.K. Rowling. Warner Bros., the franchise owner, explained that Rowling had been invited but declined appearing; others noted that what was being celebrated was the film series, not the novels, and, hence, Rowling’s participation was not required. I have not seen the reunion show, precisely because I believe that there is no point to it without Rowling’s presence. Not only is she the author of the original book series but, as it is well known, she also guided adapter Steve Kloves in his task; let’s not forget that Rowling wrote part of her series (1997-2011) as the films (2001-2014) progressed. Having Kloves and Rowling sit down together to discuss how this overlapping process worked should have been a must for the show.

What irks me most about Rowling’s absence is the hypocrisy: everyone knows she is now a hindrance in the path of the franchise because of her controversial tweets against the Scottish legislation allowing transgender individuals to choose their gender identity regardless of their biology (a similar law has been submitted in Spain by Minister for Equality Irene Montero). Rowling has been branded a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), harassed on social media and at her own doorstep, cancelled by the same fans who used to treat her as almost a goddess. Articles about how Rowling has become Voldemort abound, which I am sure would amuse her villain could he read them. Far from apologizing for her transphobic remarks, Rowling has insisted on presenting her views whenever a controversial issue connected with transgender individuals arises, which has only worsened the situation. I don’t wish to discuss here, however, Rowling’s views but the impossible situation in which the Potterheads have placed themselves by reacting negatively to them. My thesis is quite straightforward: you may wish to cancel an author for their opinions, even when they are not expressed in their texts, but if you take that step, you also need to stop finding pleasure in reading their work. The alternative that is now emerging –erasing Rowling’s authorship but still celebrating Harry Potter– is, I insist, hypocritical and downright wrong.

I read in the article by Fatemeh Mirjalilli “Harry Potter Needs to Move on without J.K. Rowling” (https://www.slashfilm.com/722404/harry-potter-needs-to-move-on-without-j-k-rowling/) that Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’ theory applies to Rowling’s case. If you recall, Barthes (1915-1980) argued in his 1967 short essay (originally published in English in the avant-garde American journal Aspen) that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. He meant, in agreement with other French theorists like Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault (in a way all descendants of the Russian formalists), that literary criticism had been paying excessive attention to the person behind the text, when actually only the text matters. Certainly, the analysis of Literature had been bogged down by the Romantic biographical approach that views texts through the lens of the author’s biography to an absurd, often brutally gossipy extent. Yet, I have always believed that Barthes et al. were great double-dealers attempting to shift the authorial spotlight from the Author to the Critic. I don’t think Barthes would have quietly accepted the death of his own authorship. Unfortunately, his school succeeded and then went too far, so that it is now habitual to read literary criticism (or by analogy film criticism) in which the text appears to have magicked itself into existence with no actual author. Or articles like Mirjalili’s.

The ‘death of the author’ theory has been applied to Rowling already in academic literary criticism, which tends to ignore her biography and reads the Harry Potter series mainly in the absence of the Author, as Barthes suggested. Quite another matter is fandom. What Mirjalili means is that Barthes had given us permission to cancel authors and erase their authorship, which is not the case at all. One thing is saying that Charles Dickens’s texts are open to interpretation beyond what he intended them to mean, and quite another to claim that we are free to take his novels into our hands and deny he had an essential role in writing them because we don’t like his misogynistic views. This is what seemingly is being done to Rowling. There has always been fan fiction about the Harry Potter series (that is, fiction based on Rowling’s characters but prevented from being commercialized to respect her copyright), but Mirjalili is proposing that she hands over her work to the fans for them to do as they wish with it, even eventually erasing her authorship. I am sure this is how the classic author we know as ‘Homer’ was constructed, but this is the 21st century and we have strict views about authorship, beginning with the fact that the law prevents you from stealing it, regardless of the opinions which the authors may voice in their social media. No matter how great a fan you might be, you will never be the author.

Going down a truly dark path, ‘the death of the author’ may be taking a very grim meaning in the Harry Potter case. Rowling does not want to relent, that seems clear enough, and will go on tweeting for as long as Twitter allows her. It is very unlikely that she will accept the erasure of her name from the credits of the films based on her work, or the ones she is herself writing (for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise), since she enjoys internationally acknowledged legal rights protecting her work. I don’t see any judge granting an association of Potterheads the right to do with Rowling’s work as they please, to develop new fiction or, God forbid, rewrite her original novels to include more diverse characters, on the grounds that they feel offended by her tweets. This means, literally, that the only hope for those who think that Rowling should be kept apart from the Harry Potter franchise is that she literally disappears, even though, naturally, in the event of her demise her heirs would want to defend their own legal rights over her legacy. Talking about ‘the death of the author’ does have this sickening underside: that it runs the risk of becoming too literal, if only as morbid wishful thinking.

The Potterheads who still love anything connected with Harry Potter but hate Rowling’s TERF persona are thus stuck in a no-win situation, complicated by the specific nature of Harry Potter as children’s and young adult fiction. The series is too closely connected to their personal emotions and growth for them to abandon it with no regret; one can renounce rather easily an author read in adulthood but the impressions formed in childhood are quite another matter. Much more so when the text itself is not the actual problem but the opinions which the author has voiced about other issues decades after the beginning of its publication. I am serious when I say that the process of cancelling Rowling must be appallingly hurtful for many Potterheads, for she is not just one among many authors read in childhood and adolescence, but an astonishing exception among them. I have not heard any of my students referring to her as a personal idol, or a kind of surrogate parent, but Rowling created a world in which many young readers felt they were truly themselves. Discovering that this beloved, trusted woman has actually very different opinions from what is now common sense among most Potterheads must be, I insist, devastating. If she is not Voldemort, she feels at least like Dolores Umbridge. This massive generational disappointment must be also hurting Rowling, no doubt, and possibly threatening her emotional wellbeing and sense of personal safety, yet here she has the upper hand, for whereas she may have been emotionally invested in the process of creating the wizarding world, she created it at the margins of the fans and can do without them. The Potterheads, in contrast, depended on Rowling for their emotional fulfilment, hence the sense of betrayal once they have reached an age in which they understand that she defends politically incorrect opinions.

At this point, my impression is that the Harry Potter franchise is starting its decadence and J.K. Rowling will not survive its fall as a writer, though I guess that she is rich enough to live off benefits of her brainchild to a very old age even without her fans’ support. I leave it in the hands of sociologists to research what percentage of her readers will be cancelling her in the short and the long term, and in the hands of her publishers to report the slump in sales that is already possibly happening. I don’t think that the confrontation over the transgender rights she is disputing will abate; this is no storm in a teacup, but an unfolding process with deep ramifications we are very far from understanding (but that could be better understood with more dialogue). I have tried here to separate the novels from the author but the fact is that because of her transphobic tweets many see now the Harry Potter heptalogy as too homogenous in racial, sexual and class terms to be acceptable any more. Not everyone has been charmed by the series, but what is now happening is possibly unique in the annals of literary history: when has a writer ever been abandoned by their readers, like Rowling is being abandoned, but not his/her world?

Fans cannot, I insist, deprive Rowling of her legal rights over her work, pretend that she is disconnected from the franchise, wish that the author’s death did really apply to her case if only in Barthes’s metaphorical sense. Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling to the day her heart stops beating, and until then she needs to be acknowledged for her merits. Criticism of her demerits as an author is also part of the literary game she accepted playing when publishing her work but Potterheads cannot call themselves by that name and reject Rowling’s authorship at the same time. For good or for bad, this is inescapable. Fans can imagine a more diverse, politically updated version of Harry Potter, and negotiate with her in which directions the franchise can evolve, but the original text will always be hers. That’s a way in which an author, pace Barthes, can never be killed unless we cancel copyright when we cancel authors. Perish the thought.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

HOW ENTITLEMENT AND VILLAINY CONNECT (AS I EXPLAIN IN MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHAL VILLAINY: FROM HITLER TO VOLDEMORT)

I have been delaying this post in the hopes that some of our local Spanish universities would have bought by now the monograph I published back in November 2019, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/Masculinity-and-Patriarchal-Villainy-in-the-British-Novel-From-Hitler/Martin/p/book/9780367441463). This has not happened yet, though you can check here where the volume is available near you (https://www.worldcat.org/title/masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-in-the-british-novel-from-hitler-to-voldemort/oclc/1140353245&referer=brief_results). I’m told there the paperback edition will be published next year, when I’ll continue my own personal marketing campaign, of which this is post is, unashamedly, an item.

It is hard to say how long it has taken me to write this book because the idea first occurred to me back in 2008 (I spent a sabbatical then gathering bibliography), but technically the book expands on a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (submitted in 1996). Since 2006-7 I had been teaching the seminar (in Spanish) “Representations of Heroism” within the Cultural Studies module of the MA in Literatura Comparada: Estudios Literarios y Culturales of my university. I taught the last edition in 2016-17, so you can say that the book, which connects with my discourse on villainy for this seminar, was started back in 2006 and has taken thirteen years to be written. That might be the case, though the actual writing, from contract to publication, took about twenty months. If I have managed the feat of producing a monograph this is only because my teaching workload is now lower (thanks to the Government decree of 2012 by Minister Wert which few universities are applying), and because my Department allowed me to organize my teaching so that I could spend a complete year on the book (apart from tutorials for BA, MA, and PhD dissertations). I am already at work on another book, but I’m not sure at all that this window of opportunity will ever present itself again, considering that it has taken more than twenty-five years of my career for the past one to materialize.

Another reason why it has taken me long to write this book is that, once I hit on the idea that my topic should be villainy and not heroism (on which far more has been written), I had basically the whole field to myself. Believe it or not, there is very little direct bibliography on villainy, and what is available deals mainly with specific villains and not with the concept itself. Typically, I started with lists of villainous characters and soon got mired into what promised to be the beginnings of an encyclopedia. That was not, however, the kind of book I wanted to write. Nor a history of fictional villainy, though now that I’m done writing my own book this is a project that I wish someone else would write (not me!). The problem of how to select a corpus and structure a coherent volume plagued me for years –as I kept myself busy doing a thousand other things– until I ask my previous PhD supervisor, Andrew Monnickendam, for help. His advice was very simple but very helpful: narrow down the field to a genre, a period, and a nationality. Since most bibliography on villainy deals with recent American audio-visual products, here was the solution to my needs: I would focus on the British novel since WWII.

Why? Reason number one: the fictional construction of villainy is rooted in British culture, beginning with the Devil and Vice in the morality plays, following with Shakespeare, Milton, the Gothic novel, Dickens… Should I go on? The villain is, most definitely, not a product of American culture. Reason number two: the villain’s audiovisual presence often depends on novels that have been ignored or that, even when they are very popular, are seen as vehicles for the hero. I wanted to put together a variety of cases that would help me stress a crucial point: there is a remarkable coherence in the presentation of villainy across different fiction genres; this has been overlooked simply because no one was paying attention. Third reason: Adolf Hitler had to be in my book as the real-life villain that changed the rules of representing villainy. I knew from the very beginning that my book should be called From Hitler to Voldemort, though Routledge preferred the title to act as subtitle, and have the volume be called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction, which was originally my subtitle.

Here is the table of contents:
Introduction. Defining the Patriarchal Villain
Chapter 1. Adolf Hitler: The Threat of Absolute Villainy
Chapter 2. Big Brother and O’Brien: The Mystique of Power and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity
Chapter 3. Morgoth and Sauron: The Problem of Recurring Villainy
Chapter 4. Steerpike: Gormenghast’s Angry Young Man
Chapter 5. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Larger Than Life: The Villain in the James Bond Series
Chapter 6. Richard Onslow Roper and the ‘Labyrinth of Monstrosities’: John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Villains
Chapter 7. Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart Trilogy: Democracy at Risk
Chapter 8. Big Ger Cafferty, Crime Boss: The Constant Struggle to Retain Power
Chapter 9. Voldemort and the Limits of Dark Magic: Self-empowerment as Self-destruction

This is quite similar to the list I started with, although Chapter 4 was originally split between Mervyn Peake, Grahame Green (Brighton Rock), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). I soon realized that Peake’s Steerpike demanded more room and I gave it to him. As you can see, some chapters deal with very well-known texts, others not so much (Chapter 7 is the first academic essay on the Urquhart novels by Michael Dobbs). One thing that bothered me is that the list of primary sources for each chapter ran from just one book (Orwell’s 1984 in Chapter 2) to twelve (Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in Chapter 5) and even more (Ian Rankin’s many novels in Chapter 8). I discovered, though, that the strict word-count which I had to respect (110000 words), helped me to stay focused. Of all the villains here considered, I was most surprised by Tolkien’s Morgoth, a relatively little known character because he appears in the pages of The Silmarillion, not an easy book to read. If you’re wondering who Morgoth is you need to know that he is Sauron’s much admired master.

How did I tackle Hitler’s immense figure, you may be wondering? A turning point in my research was Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1997) and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis (2000). Kershaw, an English political historian, discusses Hitler’s rise and fall in relation to how the mechanism of power operates and why German society failed to control his crazed tyranny. Kershaw rejects evil and psychopathology as explanations for Hitler’s personality, and that was what I needed. I added to Kershaw’s interest in power my own interest in gender, and I developed thus my main thesis, namely, that villainy is the expression of the patriarchal sense of entitlement to power in its highest degree. For me, Hitler is not exceptional as a man who believes himself entitled to power in the patriarchal context of his own society, but rather a representative of a type of masculinity we now call toxic but should simply be called patriarchal. What was exceptional in his case, as Kershaw explains, is that all the mechanisms to stop Hitler’s excessive entitlement failed. The hero, I argue, personifies those mechanisms but in Hitler’s case there could be no German hero since he had presented himself as such. The Allies had to play that role but they did so among so many tensions that WWII was soon followed by the Cold War.

My theory of power is, unlike Kershaw’s, gendered but despite my focus on the patriarchal masculinity of the villains I have studied, I believe that entitlement is a negative quality present in both men and women with patriarchal inclinations. That is to say, although patriarchy has so far accumulated most power and deployed a series of strategies to keep non-white, non-heterosexual, non-upper-class men and all women subordinated, patriarchy is so attached to notions of power that as those excluded from power rebel (= empower themselves) it may welcome them in its patriarchal hegemonic circles. This is why, as I have written here before, I find the notion of empowerment very suspect. I decided not to deal in my book with female villains because to really understand villainy in women you need to find them in a post-gender context –while I wrote the book, then, I produced a chapter on Alma Coin, the female villain of The Hunger Games, for a book on the Final Girl. Women, my claim is, may feel a strong sense of entitlement to power, too, but so far this has been denied by patriarchy. If, however, patriarchy becomes less gender-obsessed while still retaining its obsession with power, we might see a female Hitler one day.

At this point, though, I have made it my mission to offer an anti-fascist diagnosis of what makes patriarchal men tick, claiming in the process that we urgently need positive representations of men as alternatives to patriarchy (see my previous post). It has been inevitable, logically, to speak of the heroes in connection to the villains but what I have found out is mostly depressing. The heroes offered by the British authors I have selected are mostly weak and disempowered –often crushed by the loss of male honourability– or plain nasty. I was surprised by how deeply Ian Fleming disliked his James Bond and dismayed by how fond Mervyn Peake was of Titus Groan, to me a young man on the verge of either worshipping or becoming someone like Hitler. My authors are all white and male because I wanted to see, precisely, how they deal with the tale of the hero and the villain, which is so central to hegemonic patriarchal culture. The only woman I chose, though, J.K. Rowling, provides, as I have been arguing again and again, the best possible model of anti-patriarchal heroic masculinity (borrowing from Tolkien’s Frodo). Harry Potter, however, seems to be too good for our macho-oriented times.

Throughout the writing of the book and afterwards I have been daily testing my thesis that what we call evil is actually entitlement based on a patriarchal understanding of power. Evil, in my view, is an interested patriarchal construction designed to mystify us about the operations of entitlement. Let me explain myself. Hitler acted as he did because he felt himself entitled to taking other European lands for the expansion of the German people, and to eliminating other European bodies that (for prejudices widespread at the time) he abhorred. He went further than any other villain (except for Joseph Stalin, of course) but you could say that all of human life is organized on the principle of how we express our own sense of entitlement depending on the power we wield and our disregard of punishment. From colonial occupation down to leaving your motorbike parked in the middle of the pavement everything is a matter of entitlement. Our own sense of personal privilege, our belief that we can do as we wish because we can (= we have the power) overcomes all sense of solidarity with the rest of the species. You might think that there is an enormous difference between bothering pedestrians and killing six million Jews (and many other persons) but this is a matter of degree (I’m NOT being flippant). Let your child’s sense of entitlement go uncurbed and you have a potential fascist in your hands. The rest is a matter of opportunities (the many Hitler had), befuddling your enemies (as he did with his impressive PR Nazi apparatus), and acting fast (while the victims considered appeasement policies that would never appease).

So, if the premise of my book works well readers will stop seeing patriarchy as a mechanism for women’s repression (it’s a hierarchical social structure based on power), and will deny the existence of evil (what matters is entitlement). Readers will also see female villainnesses, specially femme fatales, as the pathetic creatures they are, with their ultra-sexualised bodies, and will perceive how the villain’s masculinity is shaped by patriarchal doctrines. The way I see it, the hero has been invented by patriarchy to solve one of its main weaknesses: if you structure society on the basis of power, sooner or later an individual will claim too large a share, and this will endanger the other powerful individuals. The hero acts out, therefore, on behalf of patriarchy, to limit its excesses but not at all to challenge its hierarchy-oriented, pyramidal construction.

I ended the book with a plea that one day we find other stories to tell, in which there are no heroes because the power-hungry patriarchal villains are gone. I have no idea what these stories might be, or whether they will be exciting at all, but we really need to see beyond power, abuse, and suffering and think of new plots – for the sake of our survival as a species.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT AN UGLY IMAGINATION IS ABOUT (TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MY OWN IDEAS)

I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena González of the University of Barcelona, Parias y tránsfugas modernas: género y exclusión en la cultura popular del s.XXI (https://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘tránsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.

The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.

I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel Clúa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.

Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.

Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (https://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (…) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.

My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.

Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.

By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.

I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings… for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.

So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.

Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN MIDDLE-EARTH AGAIN: TOLKIEN (AND WILLIAM MORRIS)

I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here: www.raco.cat/index.php/Dart/article/download/100491/151064).

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: https://archive.org/details/volsungasagatran009188mbp) but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing… But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god Ilúvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male Manwë is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of Lúthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for Lúthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, Eówyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me Eówyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

FANDOM AND ACADEMIA: CRITERIA TO DISCUSS TEXTS

Even though it is already four years since I taught my monographic course on the Harry Potter series, Rowling still features prominently in my academic activities. This time I was invited to the ‘Semana Harry Potter’ organized by the undergrad students of the Facultad de Ciencias de la Comunicación of the Universidad de Sevilla. The Dean, Mª del Mar Rodríguez Alvarado, opened the inaugural session by confessing that she had borrowed from her 10-year-old daughter the Gryffindor hooded jumper she was wearing… which was very sweet! She was very much surprised that her tweet about the Potter week had become so popular; also by the generous press coverage of the event.

I chose to offer for the occasion a 45-minute lecture on Sirius Black, based on the article which I wrote a while ago; this was rejected by five Anglo-american academic journals until I decided that enough is enough. “Between Brownlow and Magwitch: Sirius Black and the Ruthless Elimination of the Male Protector in the Harry Potter Series” is now available online (also in Spanish) at https://ddd.uab.cat/record/163545. I first gave this lecture in the 2016 Pottercon and it went down well, by which I mean that the debate was lively and many fans joined in my critique of the cruelty that Rowling pours on poor Sirius. In Seville the reaction was different.

As I developed my argumentation about why Sirius’ sad fate may hurt sensitive readers very much, particularly children, I noticed that the audience was split–some nodded, others were sitting quite stiff. I observed something similar later in the day, when Paula Rodríguez Hoyos gave her excellent lecture on Albus Dumbledore, the subject of her recent BA dissertation, “Creación literaria y arquetipos: Aproximación al personaje en la fantasía del siglo XXI” (https://idus.us.es/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11441/64429/TFG%20FINAL%20.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y). In both cases the question and answer sessions revealed that the students, all of them Potterheads, had received our critical approach quite negatively. I noticed that both Paula and I were answering defensively, almost apologizing for having an opinion–which is a new experience for opinionated me…

Paula and I both did something similar: we took for granted that Harry Potter is worth studying in a university context and, then, proceeded to offer a critique of how these two prominent male characters, Sirius and Dumbledore, are presented in the text. In my case, I questioned authorial decisions while at the same time praising Rowling for a) having created Sirius, b) managing to manipulate my affects in a way that I care very much for this character (even too much!). Paula’s reading was not really a critique but a thorough examination of how Rowling deconstructs the figure of the mentor, traditional in heroic tales, by characterizing Dumbledore as a blemished example. This is not at all far-fetched and can even be deemed obvious if you consider, for instance, Dumbledore’s withered hand in the last stages of the saga–a clear sign that he’s up to no good behind Harry’s back. Everyone agrees, beginning with Severus Snape, that the way he grooms Harry to be slaughtered by Voldemort is disgraceful. Dumbledore is, in short, a born manipulator and what Paula did was simply (or not so simply) to highlight how Rowling steers our reading in that direction.

The audience, however, chose to put their feet down and correct us: basically, I was told that all the (wrong) decisions that Rowling makes about Sirius are unquestionable, simply perfect; Paula was told, to our surprise, that she was misreading Dumbledore and that he remains to the very end a devoted mentor to Harry, unlike what she suggested. Let me rephrase this: the fans in the room were protecting their own misreading of Rowling, in the belief that they were protecting her authorial decisions. Whatever happens to Sirius, they told us, is his fault (as Rowling argues), and Dumbledore is a good guy (even though Rowling points out in many different ways that he’s not!). There is, in short, a single way of approaching the text, and it belongs to the fans. Not to us, academics. Perhaps not even to the author…

I think that I finally understood why my article on Sirius has faced so many problems. It’s because it offers an opinion and we, academics, are not supposed to offer any–just praise the text we analyze. I was, plainly, wrong to approach Rowling from a critical position that questions how she takes the wrong turning points in Sirius’ narrative arc. Instead, I should have stayed on safe ground and, for instance, deal with James Potter as a reviewer suggested. Please, consider that, once he is described as a teen bully, nothing saves James’ reputation as a secondary character, not even his being a good father to Harry. He is unproblematic, unlike Black and, so, off he goes. What I did, then, was similar to arguing that Shakespeare wrongly endorses Hamlet’s misogynist attitude towards Ophelia and that, hence, her drowning is an excessive cruelty that really adds nothing to the Prince’s characterization. Poor girl.

But, wait!! We do that, right…?

I’m sure you see that I am being sarcastic. What worries me is that while I can more or less accept that I overstepped the boundaries in my critique of Sirius’ ill-treatment (though this is not at all the first time I question authors’ relationships with characters), what worries me far more is the reaction to Paula’s lecture. That was based on the audience’s blatant misunderstanding of the text. We joked that perhaps the simple presence of a long white beard and the connotations associated with Santa Claus are enough to put Dumbledore beyond suspicion. Yet, that he does manipulate Harry is not a matter of opinion but of engaging in a solid close reading of the text. Of course, a fan is a fanatic and, so will tend to approach his/her favourite text uncritically. This might be acceptable in very young readers but it is worrying in university students… and in relation to their favourite text.

When I taught my Harry Potter course I was certainly anxious that a scholarly approach would result in constant wrangles with my students. This didn’t happen perhaps because I made it quite obvious from the beginning that a) I’m a Potterhead (though not of the staunchest variety), b) the academic method is supposed to enrich the depth of any reading, not destroy the text (unless it is very bad, but, then, why teach it?). I did ask my students at the end of the course whether their pleasure in Harry Potter had been spoiled by their course work and they said no. That was unanimous. Surely, they were at points dismayed to see obvious flaws but that made, so to speak, Rowling more real to them as an author. Less godlike, more approachable. And I am not saying that this is exclusive to Harry Potter or to any popular text. It is a general phenomenon: you may love Jane Austen as a committed, blindly adoring fan, or you may appreciate her talent from a more sophisticated position. What makes no sense to me is keeping a fan’s stance in a university classroom, for the simple reason that fanaticism is out of place if you want to be educated. Quite another matter is passion, which is a good foundation for education, I think.

As teachers, then, we do not face any problems when inviting our students to read the classics or more modern texts in which they have not invested (with few exceptions) much emotional energy. The problem, I’m warning you, may surface when dealing with texts that our students have first approached as fans, whether they are YA fiction, TV series or videogames (cinema is, I insist, fast disappearing from our horizon). It is no longer necessary, as it was in the past, to erect an impassable wall between fandom and academia, and to force students, as many were and are still forced, to put aside the texts they do love in order to do proper academic work. What needs to be remembered, and in this I may have been very naïve, or very lucky, is that whereas fandom is based on adulatory celebration of authorial achievement, academic work is about wondering how texts work, which may result in sharp criticism even when you admire the author profoundly. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is less confusing to English Studies students because there is so much bibliography on any aspect of popular culture of the kind that inspires committed fandom. Perhaps, just perhaps, what I am describing here is a situation far more visible in the Spanish context, in which popular fiction is still kept outside the university walls unless, as you can see in the example of the ‘Semana Harry Potter’, students bring it in.

Still, Sirius Black hurts–stubbornly. My good friend Bela Clúa, now a teacher in Seville, and the person responsible for bringing me into the Potter cult (my thanks to her!), kindly reminded me that Sirius is doomed from the start–as doomed as Hamlet. Yet, while I don’t care much for fickle Danish princes, I am a total sucker for characters that risk their lives to protect children–call me sentimental! You need to blame Dickens for this: he gave us John Brownlow and even Abel Magwitch, and now I think that for every Oliver (or Pip), there must be a good man ready to help. Harry gets Sirius (or Sirius Harry, I’m not sure) but things go as wrong as they can go, and, so, I overreact. If in order to be an accomplished academic in Literary Studies you need to be coolly indifferent, then I must acknowledge that I’m as bad an academic as they make them (and so I was told, ouch!). I wonder, though, how many throwing their academic stones at me have overreacted in their own academic work (or were overreacting to my own critique).

What baffles me, then, is uncritical admiration in any context, for no text is perfect–the flaws, the chinks in the machine is what make us react to them. The fan invests colossal amounts of emotional energy into beloved texts and becomes awfully territorial, even within academia, which is why I have been told at so many levels “don’t touch my Rowling!” (as others have been told “don’t touch my Joyce!”. Yet, the true connection with a text only happens when we lower our defences, prepare to be hit in the head with interpretations that question our own, and engage in meaningful debate with other admirers. If you cannot do that you have two options: a) stay away from academia and be an uncompromising fan, b) separate what you love as a fan from what you do as a scholar.

But, then, that is so sad… right?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DOUBLE NOSTALGIA AND CLASS MATTERS: 1930s FICTION ON 1980s TV (THE BOX OF DELIGHTS)

A couple of months ago I came across a blog post on a book for children which apparently connects with Harry Potter, as a possible predecessor. This is John Masefield’s 1935 novel The Box of Delights (see https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/nov/30/long-before-harry-potter-the-box-of-delights-remade-childrens-fantasy). I had heard, vaguely, of Masefield (1878-1967) as a distinguished poet (he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930, a post he held until his death) but not in relation to children’s literature. It turns out that The Box of Delights and its prequel, The Midnight Folk (1927) are, if not downright classics, at least well-known among genre connoisseurs.

Masefield appears to have been a very accomplished author, unafraid of trying his hand at many different literary pursuits. He wrote poems (both short and very long), plays, and a string of novels of varied types, with 12 appearing in just 15 years (1924-39). These included social novels (The Square Peg, The Hawbucks), adventures in exploration (Sard Harker, Odtaa), sea yarns (Victorious Troy, The Bird of Dawning), and the above named children’s fantasy. I make a first stop here to consider how difficult it is to keep a clear impression of whole stretches of English Literature and of whole personal careers which were important in the past, less than one century ago. No matter how hard you study, so much escapes our attention that it is a wonder we know anything at all! I will sound terribly obvious if I say that the only way to fix our memory of authors whose names we encounter in introductions and panoramic overviews is reading their works. Masefield is now more vividly present in my mind though, as happens with author you only see in old photos, perhaps not vividly enough.

The claim that The Box of Delights must have inspired some elements in Harry Potter is only of relative interest. There is a boy hero (Kay Harker), who has a dim but cute friend (Peter Jones), but they do not form with Peter’s sister Maria–a pert little girl too fond of revolvers–a triangular friendship in the style of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Two other Jones sisters, Jemima and Susan, are present in the tale but in very minor roles. Masefield’s story has an appealing magician at its core, one Cole Hawlings who turns out to be Majorcan all-talented, wise man Ramon Llull (or Lully, 1232-1315), still alive in 1935 thanks to an elixir. You might see shades of Hawlings in Dumbledore in a scene that has to do with a phoenix, and in his avuncular behaviour towards Kay, but Tolkien’s Gandalf seems a much relevant predecessor. Likewise, villain Abner Brown is not really in the same league as Lord Voldemort, being just a jewel thief thirsting after bigger booty, namely the titular box of delights, a singular magic contraption.

Judging a book according to whether it measures up to another one with which it might not really be connected is not a good idea. Let’s then get rid of Harry Potter (but do watch the Italian fan film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6SZa5U8sIg) and enjoy the ‘delights’ Masefield has to offer. These are not few but I must confess that I struggled a little bit to get into the spirit of his novel. I attributed this to the fact that The Box of Delights is actually a sequel but the information I came across regarding The Midnight Folk confirmed that this is not a story in two books but two stories sharing a set of characters. The difficulties had to do, rather, with how characters speak, using a kind of dialogue which I found odd, not only because of the peculiarities of each character (one is always using ‘what?’ at the end of his sentences) but also because Kay and the Jones children use a formal register very different from what, um, Harry Potter and colleagues use. Kay does use school slang in one sentence but his guardian quickly bans this jargon, which suggests that the children use separate idiolects, one for themselves and one for the adults. Yet, this was not exactly the case, either (as you will see).

I just needed to hear them speak to get the right delivery and tone–and luckily for me I could use for that the charming six-part BBC version (broadcast between 21 November and 24 December in 1984). YouTube and its illegal uploads have very useful applications, as you can see. As I expected, the series ironed out all my difficulties and contributed, besides, not only very good performances by young and not so young actors but also a delicious use of special effects to materialize the magic that Masefield describes in his lovely book. This includes the metamorphosis of some characters into animals (or even a tree), Kay’s multiple size changes, a talking statue, a picture that opens up for Cole to walk in, etc. Masefield was also interested in technological fantasy and so, anticipating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, he gives the villains a car that transform into a sort of helicopter (nothing to do with the Weasleys lumbering flying car, then).

The comments by other YouTube spectators led in two enticing but quite different directions. One the one hand, many celebrate their second contact with a beloved Christmas classic of their own 1980s childhood (actually a few have repeatedly seen the series in this context). Others speculate about whether a new version is (over)due because of how fast special effects age. For The Box of Delights the BBC used cutting-edge video technology which did a very good job of reproducing Masefield’s gorgeous fantasy; this is visually demanding even for the plain reader, much more so for TV before cgi (computer-generated images). I found the fx ‘delightful’ as corresponds to the ‘box of delights’ that television was in the early days of video (and that gave us masterpieces such as David Bowie’s marvellous music video for “Ashes to Ashes”, 1980, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMThz7eQ6K0).

The BBC, then, went as far as it was possible to go for TV in 1984 yet I understand those in favour of an update, for I found myself thinking as I enjoyed the enchanting 6 hours how many scenes would look today. Ironically, I might call this ‘the Harry Potter’ syndrome, as the whole movie series adapting Rowling is cutting-edge for the early 21st century–just as The Box of Delights was for 1984. There is a scene in the novel, excluded from the BBC version possibly because of how expensive it would have been, in which people seen in paintings start moving and, beyond whether Rowling did take inspiration from that or not, the Harry Potter films mirrored spot on what she meant in a way that simply could not be done for Masefield. Arguably, the same fx ageing process will eventually affect Harry Potter in thirty years time, when films will all come in virtual reality devices.

The ‘double nostalgia’ of my title, then, refers to the combined experience of reading a 1930s book and seeing its 1980s TV adaptation at the same time, taking also into account that the series approaches the book nostalgically and that we, 21st century spectators, also enjoy the special effects with nostalgia. I should think that a most spectacular case of this effect was the 1981 Granada/ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, a story about the nostalgia which Charles Ryder feels for the 1920s, when, famously, he met spoilt child Sebastian Flyte and his contact with the very rich Flytes changed his life for ever. The Box of Delights is a sort of junior version of that compounded nostalgia (with appealing fx). That make-believe world of Masefield, Waugh and, later, Downtown Abbey (though with more servants) convinces us that the lifestyle of the rich is the rule, not the exception, and, oddly, despite having never enjoyed it, that we still feel it is somehow ours. Seeing the orphan Kay Harker do as he pleases with his friends under the very loose guardianship of the flexible Caroline Louisa, abused Harry Potter would surely have a fit. For the main delight of The Box of Delights is how Kay plunges into adventure without a worldly care. How refreshing.

It’s not, then, just plain nostalgia (or envy) but a yearning for the same carefree world that keeps us glued to the screen (or the book pages). In this, Masefield’s world could not be further from Rowling’s, where Kay would be a Slytherin, though he’s much nicer than Malfoy. And so, although I said that I would leave Harry Potter aside, it turns out that the heptalogy is indeed linked to Masefield’s fantasy world but not at all for the reasons suggested by other authors, the occasional borrowings. Kay and Harry would, I think, like each other instantaneously, as orphans keen on magic open to whatever it may bring. Also, because Kay is no snob (the series, however, conveniently eliminates the discomfort he feels in the novel before the hostile poor children in his rural community). The school which Kay attends, and that we don’t see since he is on holiday, is possibly similar to Hogwarts, or, rather, Hogwarts is similar to the establishments that 1930s upper-class kids would patronize. Rowling does operate her own kind of nostalgia but I wonder with what aim, as Harry battles Voldemort’s upper-class sycophantic Death Eaters but in the end Malfoy and his kind are still there, and nothing much changes in the Wizarding world, despite ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione.

I have finally realized, then, that my problem with The Box of Delights is not the challenge of visualizing the magic or my bad ear for dialogue but a class matter. Leaving aside the cultural distance between 1930s England and 2010s Catalonia, where I live, I had in the end fewer problems to accept the magic than the wonder of a household in which children are so comfortably well off. Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs and his constant ill-treatment by the awful Dursleys have complicated very much the matter of class in children’s fiction. And, yes, I had to see the BBC version to make sense of what I know understand to be Kay’s upper-class (or upper-middle-class, I’m not sure) idiolect.

You can see that I’m a bit bitter here, and this is because my working-class childhood was full of BBC series like The Box of Delights and of their promise of a carefree world that was never fulfilled. Still, this is not Masefield’s fault but my own for having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, like the majority. He did what he had to do: tell a perfect tale of Christmas joy and makes us believe in magic for as long as it lasts. No mean feat.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SECONDARY CHARACTERS: TIME TO END OUR NEGLECT

These days my students smile the moment the phrase ‘secondary character’ comes our of my lips, as they have heard me say already many times that we have neglected them woefully. They smile as a polite way to tell me that I need to be more persuasive, for everyone knows that the main characters are the ones that carry the weight of the fictional text, hence the only ones that deserve being the object of literary analysis.

I have, however, already showed to my two classes that a) in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games a great deal of the plot depends on decisions made extradiagetically (um, secretly!) by secondary characters (the scheming President Alma Coin but also, intriguingly, fashion designer Cinna); b) in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the real plot mover may be the wicked Arthur Huntingdon and not the protagonist, his saintly wife Helen, but the greatly neglected plot shaker is his sexy mistress, Annabella Wilmot. Likewise, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I am about to start teaching again, although Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch are impressive secondary characters, it is actually the far more secondary Compeyson who sets the plot in motion. Literally, for he is bound by a (criminal) plot to both.

Literary Studies has paid very scant attention to the secondary character. To begin with, there is doubt about when a character is a protagonist or just a supporting actor (I’m thinking here of Iago in Othello). In, for instance, Wuthering Heights, the elder Catherine is universally regarded to be a main character. Her daughter, also named Catherine, plays in the second part of Emily Brontë’s novel a similarly important role; nonetheless, she has hardly received any critical attention. There may be, then, plenty of analyses of particular secondary characters, as I have found in a quick search, but there is not a sustained theoretical approach to how they are built and how/why they matter.

In this quick search, combining the MLA database and WorldCat, I have found, as I should expect, more articles and dissertations than books about the secondary character–all in all, less than 60 documents since the 1970s, and only if we combine in this list four different major languages. The books are actually just two: Peter Bly’s The Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 (2004) and Jennifer Camden’s Secondary Heroines in Nineteenth-Century British and American Novels (2010), both originating in doctoral dissertations. Also committed to making the most of the secondary character is the monographic issue published by the French and English-language journal Belphégor in November 2006 (https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210). The issue, nonetheless, is focused on the flexibility of secondary characters in their diverse media adaptations, rather than to an in-depth consideration of their role in print fiction.

Fictional characters, generally speaking, are underanalysed as literary constructions. This is why what Lennard J. Davis had to say about them 30 years ago in his singular 1987 volume Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction is still relevant (the book was reissued recently, in 2014). In a fascinating chapter called “Characters, narrators, and readers: Making friends with signs”, Davis explains that characters “are designed to elicit maximum identification with the observer” and that “their existence is part of a monolithic structure created by an author”; that is to say, they are a function of the text.

Characters, Davis adds, do not have a personality: they have characteristics, although the main trick that novelists play upon us, readers, is making us believe that a limited set of features constitutes a human-like personality. “In essence,” Davis argues “the feeling that we get that we are watching a complex character is largely an illusion created by the opposite–the relatively small number of traits that make up a character”. Oddly, Davis focuses on how attractive protagonists are created to be desired “in some non-specific but erotic way” because “part of novel reading is the process of falling in love with characters or making friends with signs”. Yet, he misses the chance to consider, first, what minimum number of traits gives secondary characters a distinct personality; second, in how many tiers are they organized (from your basic ‘spear carrier’ with no lines to almost-protagonist) and, third, how much of any novel’s appeal depends on them.

In cinema things are slightly different, if only because the Oscars (and the Emmys for TV) acknowledge actors’ merits in two categories: leading and supporting. This is not without controversy for, often, production companies try to have co-protagonists nominated in both categories so as to increase the chances of a particular film to win an Oscar (or two). Other strange things often happen in connection to the Oscars. This year Viola Davis won as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, even though she is the female lead in that film. I don’t believe that she has less screen time than Ruth Negga, nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role for Loving–but of course, how could Davis compete with Emma Stone, everyone’s favourite for La La Land?

‘Screen time’ is, of course, also a very tricky concept to measure the ‘secondariness’ of a role: Judith Dench got a very well-deserved Oscar for playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998), a performance lasting all of… eight minutes. It turns out that the record is in the hands of Beatrice Straight for a six-minute role as a spurned wife in Network (1976). This is fine as, precisely, Straight’s win shows that what matters in a secondary character is not the extent of their presence but of their impact.

Whereas screenwriters can congratulate themselves for having written secondary characters that, in the right hands, become Oscar-worthy, (print) fiction writers are not granted any special merit for creating great supporting roles. Praise usually goes in the direction of number, rather than specific successful characterization. There are exceptions, of course. Dickens’ disciple J.K. Rowling gave us in Harry Potter a marvellous secondary character list that kept the best British actors happy for years, whether they had been chosen to play minor roles (Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart) or fundamental ones (Alan Rickman as Severus Snape). Fans claim that Rowling came up with 772 characters, though apparently ‘only’ 136 receive enough attention to qualify as main or secondary (with lines), the rest are just names dropped in passing into the text.

The list of Dickensian characters runs to many more hundreds, among which the secondary roles come in all sizes and types, from the cheeky Artful Dodger, to the ill-treated Bob Cratchit, or the brutal Bentley Drummle. And the inevitable ‘spear carriers’. Dickens, indeed, seems to be the only writer in English always drawing praise for his secondary roles, even far above Shakespeare, who could do Mercutio brilliantly but somehow fell short with the likes of Count Paris. In a 2012 article, Paul Bailey enthuses about Dickens’ “ability to catch life on the hop” and chronicle life through his myriad minor people. There is, however, still that elephant in the room as beyond creative writing courses (I assume), nobody is trying to analyze secondary characters in fiction. How do writers ‘do’ them?

Perhaps this academic feet-dragging should be blamed onto genius playwright Tom Stoppard, who had the last word (and the last laugh?) with his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead. In it Prince Hamlet’s hapless university classmates, called by King Claudius and commissioned to help do away with the obnoxious heir to the Danish throne, meet a sad end, as happens in Shakespeare’s play, of course. What changes in Stoppard’s witty version is the focalization: whereas the hesitant blonde prince is our delegate in the original text, in this other play the pair of minor characters are the protagonists. That they have no idea of what is going on and that their lives only appear to make sense (if any) when Hamlet is on stage is a wonderful comment on the role of secondary characters. Also, a sort of self-defeating strategy, since few authors can pull the trick of using secondary characters as narrators and focalisers without promoting them to the main role–the exception being, of course, Nelly in Wuthering Heights, who remains elusively secondary.

In The Hunger Games there is a secondary character called Johanna Mason, a former victor in the 71st edition of the Games. Ostensibly introduced as a lesser rival to Katniss Everdeen, Johanna turns out to be her reluctant secret ally. Spunky, forthright, angry and resilient, Mason is so well-drawn despite her very limited presence that many fans wish Collins should have chosen her to play hero. You should have seen the smiles in my students’ faces when we briefly discussed her. Briefly because, of course, being a secondary character Johanna only got whatever little time was left after we finished discussing Katniss. Now I know those few minutes was far less than her contribution to the success of the trilogy deserved. Next time I teach The Hunger Games I’ll do it the other way round: beginning with the secondary characters.

One day I should teach a course called ‘Great Secondary Characters of English Literature’… Let’s start a list!

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A BRIEF RETURN TO HOGWARTS, WITH QUESTIONS ABOUT COMMERCIAL LITERATURE

A week ago I visited my good friend Antonio Penedo’s class to deliver a lecture on my experience of teaching the Harry Potter series in the Spring of 2014. This was for his elective course ‘Estudios Culturales’ within the Minor in Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature (which used to be a second-cycle Licenciatura… alas!… always losing chances to enrich our academic panorama). His class is crowded enough and in addition I had the good company of some of my Victorian Literature class, probably close to 100 persons, a size I am not used to (my classes are around 50 students at the most). I think I can safely say that possibly 75% would have joined a new Harry Potter course if I had offered it on the spot; quite a few did ask me to do so.

I’ll deal first with the problems involved in going back to Hogwarts and then with two of the questions I was asked.

I could certainly teach again ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Case’ within the degree in English Studies… unless, that is, we start the feared 3+2 model immediately (whether within the Spanish Kingdom or the Catalan Republic, I don’t even know…). As I explained to students, this 3+2 models means the end for fourth-year electives, that wonderful chance to catch students right where you want them, at the end of three years of academic training in our style and with up to 35 persons in class.

My experience of teaching in masters’ degrees is that the electives do not work at a higher level (with the exception of the early years of the MA in Comparative Literature, then crowded with many absolutely brilliant Latin-American students, later expelled from the system by our crazy non-EU rates of up to 6,000 euros). Why not, if MA students already have a BA degree? Well, because they come from different backgrounds, both national and international and by the time you manage to produce a homogeneous academic approach the course is over… Sorry, but I think this is a common experience. I simply don’t see myself teaching Harry Potter in the first year of a two-year MA which, besides, needs more than 10/15 students, a critical mass big enough to generate a variety of experience.

Beyond the 3+2 problem, the fact is that a new Harry Potter course could not compare with the one I have taught in terms of the serendipity that made that one a unique occasion–I could have the same guests, the materials I could generate would be very similar to the ones I have published (or are still trying to publish). It would be haunted by intense déjà vu. And, then, it should be now or never, before the original readers leave university. As for teaching Harry Potter to students in another degree, the problem is that I don’t see myself teaching Rowling’s series in translation. I would cringe all the time… I did this once, I mean teach the same elective in English at 10:00 and in Spanish at 15:00 and it worked very well because the texts were essays and documentaries and, somehow, the translations worked (this was a course on the US critique of US-generated globalisation: Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore…). The problem with Harry Potter is the magical jargon which Rowling developed–the Death Eaters can never be Mortífagos for me, no matter how accurate the translation. Yes, I know, this sound snobbish but this is not what I mean–I’m sure my literary colleagues understand me.

Now for the questions from the floor: 1) if Rowling did not plan beforehand her heptalogy as a best-selling series, how come this is perceived as a commercial product?; 2) is the Harry Potter series Literature? My answers…

As it is well known, the Rowling myth is a rag-to-riches story. Here is this recently divorced mother, raising her daughter in Edinburgh, supported by the generous Scottish benefits system. She went through many difficulties to sell her first Harry Potter novel, and even when the first three novels (I think) were already successful in Britain, many publishing houses in other countries rejected them. If this had been a commercial operation from scratch, then Planeta would have published Rowling, instead of the (lucky) Salamandra, the only one to bid for her books then. Likewise, please do visit the awesome bookshop Gigamesh to see how far the profits of George R.R.R. Martin’s saga have taken its eponymous publishing house, which believed in Martin when nobody did in Spain.

The intensive commercialization, as I explained, corresponds mainly to the film adaptations and the entrance of the gigantic Warner Bros. corporation in Rowling’s universe. Once the series became a world-wide phenomenon turning Rowling into a billionaire, it became hard to say who was the owner, the author or the corporation. The colossal publicity campaigns connected with the book and film launches may make us believe this had been planned from book one, but it is simply not the case.

What is certainly true is that successful products inspire the intensive commercialization of similar products, often commissioned. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games was, I believe, a phenomenon similar to Harry Potter, whereas now many of those who practice the new sub-genre spawned by Collins, young adult dystopian fiction, do so not out of conviction but because they see an easy chance to make a quick buck. Or because publishing houses head-hunt them, as was the case of Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy. The derivative product is easy to spot because it tends to be inferior in quality and seems to be written by joining the dots, if you know what I mean. Collins can be read (more or less), Roth is trash.

Is Harry Potter Literature? I wonder how many times I have been asked this… No, it is not if you understand by Literature the endeavour to produce (in fiction) high-quality prose in which you can observe the artistic ambition of the writer. I only found one passage I would call literary in that sense, corresponding to the description of the clashing wands in the duel between Harry and the resurrected Voldemort in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. Rowling’s prose is palpably functional and extremely effective in leading the reader by the hand; this is a kind of prose which is not that easy to produce, for it can quickly become too obviously hackneyed. I think that Rowling naturally writes this way, that this is her talent (though I must say I have not read her other books).

This is not a literary talent as subtle as what you can find in any of the literary elite writers, from Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood, yet it is an aspect of Literature, whether we like it or not. As I explained, we need to think that the Harry Potter series was addressed to children and teenagers, not to adults and, hence, it operates within certain literary limits (yes, I remember the poetical Platero y yo, but that’s an exception). What I most appreciate, and I think there must be some authorial control here, is Rowling’s ability to darken her prose as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort proceeds. The style of the first and the seventh book is very different: each suits the needs of the story and the age of the implied reader (7-10 in the first case, 16-18 in the latter). I myself was put off by the first book, which I found too childish, until I gave the series a second chance–when I got to book three, Prisoner of Azkaban, I finally understood the gimmick.

Sirius’ handsome wand, a central icon in the décor of my home office, watches my back as I write–this is how close Rowling’s series remain to me. Now, let me think about teaching the elective again…

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MOTIVATING STUDENTS TO READ (BEYOND POPULAR FICTION): NOT MY JOB

At the end of my intervention narrating the experience of teaching Harry Potter on a round table (see my previous post) a woman asked me whether I’m not depressed by the thought that students are willing to read Rowling’s seven-volume saga but not (implicitly) better books. Marta Gutiérrez, one of the round table organizers, asked me to what extent the experience of teaching popular fiction is different (or specific). A third person asked me: what should university teachers do to motivate students to read the classics with as much enthusiasm as they pour into reading certain popular fiction?

First my answer to Marta: what made the difference in my Harry Potter course was not the content but the fact that all the students registered in it had read the books (in many cases, more than once; in some, many times). I am, like all my Literature colleagues all over the world, tired of forcing LITERATURE students to read… Literature. I don’t even demand enthusiasm but simply that students who have FREELY CHOSEN to take a degree in language and Literature come to class having read the books we discuss (ideally having underlined key passages and made notes). The Harry Potter elective was wonderful to teach because a) I didn’t have to ‘sell’ the books to anyone nor ‘force’ them to read, b) everyone knew the contents in depth. This way I could take discussion to much deeper levels than usual. How do I know who has read the book or not? Easy: non-readers make notes of basic plot points, particularly those towards the end of the novel. Yes, we teach novels in rigorous narrative order to give students a chance to reach the end before we do. Spoilers are a problem.

The other two answers are intertwined. No, I’m not depressed that students have read Harry Potter, as I see it’s been a beautiful experience (also for me) and I can never be sorry that people enjoy books. I don’t want them to have read something else instead, particularly because I’m very much aware than Rowling did manage to turn many children into very keen readers. I am, to be honest, dismayed rather than depressed by the situation in class. I have been wondering in the last weeks when I became the kind of boring old teacher during whose lectures students fall asleep, check their email or wassap, sit slumped as if they have run a marathon… I have started to hear myself speak and I realise I drone on, loudly, to cover up their silences. We teachers have started to refer to ‘the cobra movement,’ which is that moment in class when you say something connected to what students enjoy and they raise their heads collectively. Also, I have taken to calling myself a dinosaur and to imagine my university as a campus Jurassic Park, as I’m quite sure about my obsolescence as a Literature teacher in a world of non-readers.

I told the three ladies and the 120 students in the room that I do not think my job includes motivating students. These are adults over 18 who have chosen to pursue an academic degree in the Humanities. Their capacity to read well and for long stretches all kinds of academic and literary texts must be taken for granted, as must their interest in a subject of their choice. We, English Literature teachers, have had enough of students who tell us to our faces they don’t like reading and that they’re here to learn English –well, I was under the impression that reading is the best possible exercise to acquire vocabulary in a native or foreign language. And if you don’t like reading Literature fancy reading English phonetics manuals… As I explained, I am responsible for finding my motivation to teach and I will not be made responsible for the students’ motivation to read. I make sensible choices (like asking them to read Oliver Twist and not the very long Bleak House) and try to connect the Literature of the foreign past with our local present, but this is it. Well, I also try to be as professional as I can. They know this.

Next year I very much want to teach an elective monographic course on science fiction. I have chosen a list of novels and films with some students and I’m beginning work now on downsizing this overlong list to fit the limits of the semester. I find the syllabus very thrilling but I am as worried as if I were to teach Middle-English poetry for there is no guarantee at all that students will a) read the texts, b) like them, c) be willing to discuss them in class with energy and enthusiasm. I do look forward to teaching this course but, as I anticipated last semester, I know that the degree of student involvement I enjoyed during the Harry Potter course will NEVER materialise again. And I won’t complain, as I am VERY lucky that I had the chance to enjoy that.

I have conversations all the time with students about the matters I raise here but, as they tell me, the problem is that I usually talk with students who are keen readers (they are the ones who, logically, take coffee with Literature teachers…). For the non-reading students I must be a bore, a pest, an obstacle they want to forget as soon as they can. When I think of the nightmarish years I spent trying to obtain tenure and the constant effort that maintaining an academic career afloat entails… then I get depressed. Would things change, I’m often asked, if we taught English-language culture through audiovisual texts exclusively (films, TV)? No, I don’t think so. It’s something else altogether, a deep fault in the system.

So, students, you should know that we Literature teachers are worried sick there is no way we can do our job well. We need your collaboration, your participation, more effort and more enthusiasm on your side. You’re the young ones, not us, and this must show. I hate to think that my Harry Potter course will be the exception to remember not now, after 23 years teaching, but when I retire in 22 years… I know it might be hard to swallow but we need to know what’s going on and why you don’t want to learn from us, willing as we are to teach you. And, no, your motivation is not our responsibility. We have the duty to teach you, you have the duty to read, as simple as that.

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THE HIGHS OF ACADEMIC LIFE: A CROWDED COURSE ON POPULAR FICTIONS

I have just spent two joyful days in Valladolid, where I have offered a lecture and have also taken part on a round table. Both were activities within the course ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ organized by the efficient and committed Sara Molpeceres (a member of the ‘Literary Theory and Comparative Literature’ section of the local university). I have felt throughout these two days a deep envy of the 75 students registered in her course, for in my time it would have been unthinkable to gather together so many lecturers to discuss comics, Tolkien, science-fiction, role games, zombies, witches… with the utmost academic naturalness.

What is happening, despite petty attempts at repressing some aspects of these kind of events (for the events themselves can no longer be stopped) is that the younger academics are making available to current undergrads the subjects we could not study in our time (but are teaching and researching now). I hope these lucky undergrads in Valladolid do appreciate the effort. Naturally, there might be other subjects many students are interested in which are still overlooked or, worse, excluded from the university. If that’s the case, do let us know –unlike many of our predecessors, we do listen.

To my surprise, I find myself hailed as a Spanish pioneer in the field of the study of popular fictions. It is true that I already have twenty years of experience under my belt (I presented my first paper in public back in 1994… oh, my!!) but I feel personally that I’m just beginning and far from being consolidated. It is lovely, in any case, to have my ego massaged by invitations like the one issued to me by Sara and our common friend and colleague, Marta Gutiérrez (of the English Department).

Sara and Marta accepted my proposal to lecture on SF and the post-human as part of my current research, and asked me to discuss my experience of teaching Harry Potter last semester –on which you have read plenty on this blog– on a round table. I spent a very happy time describing this innovative, fulfilling experience and sharing it with about 120 persons crowding the room (the questions I was asked deserve deeper thinking that I can offer now, next post, then). The lecture on SF went well, I think, and I left Valladolid happier than I have been in a long while.

The lesson learned from the very successful Valladolid course is that there is room for thrilling activities to accompany regular teaching but also that they are under attack. Not because of their content, which may be more or less adventurous, but because the degrees have been pruned of all extras. I used to teach a UAB summer course on film adaptations, which always was a very satisfactory experience, before the concept of the ‘free credit’ was erased from the new BA degrees. It is true that the ‘free credit’ was often too easy to earn with trivial activities but this can be easily corrected.

Sara and Marta tell me that their university allows students to take courses like theirs up to 6 ECTS, which are then validated as an elective. I think this makes perfect sense but I need to check whether my university allows this. We complain that the university is lacking the intellectual effervescence of previous times but then we seem to be doing all we can to prevent that from coming back… I hear that the new degrees will have as few elective courses as the authorities can manage and I fear very much that the precious chance to teach a fourth-year elective connected with our research and the students’ specific interests might soon vanish all together. Not to mention any possible extras we can fantasize about.

The other lesson I need to consider is whether specialised courses can contribute to making other subjects attractive –or just the opposite. Let me explain. My worry is that the success of ‘Héroes, dioses y otras criaturas’ and similar courses based on connecting popular fictions with better-established academic disciplines (here the study of ‘myth’), may make ‘standard’ subjects (even) less attractive. The course included a lecture by the illustrious Carlos García Gual, emeritus professor of Greek at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. His presence added indeed much academic ‘respectability’ and interest to the course topic but I wonder whether students would have responded that well to a course on Greek myth. He himself told us over lunch a revealing anecdote: a student in his course complained against the obligation to read the Ilyad, which is like telling Prof. Harold Bloom you’re not willing to read Shakespeare…

I’m wondering, then, whether after the excitement provoked by a course like the one I’m discussing here the students feel an increased dislike of the classics they must read. One thing is, say, Tolkien and myth, quite another just myth. Couldn’t we offer, then, a more exciting view of the classics? The colleagues in charge of presenting a great session on role games within the course claimed that all narratives can be turned into role games and, thus, that role games are very good educational tools. I had this queer vision of my students playing Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice, and I thought ‘no, this is not the way to go.’ But then it is hard to imagine a class as enthusiastic about Dickens and Austen as the Valladolid students were about role games.

Sara, Marta: thanks, it’s been a wonderful experience. Call me anytime, I’ll be there. And keep up the good work!!

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HARRY AND OLIVER: AN EXAMPLE OF (UNCANNY) INTERTEXTUALITY

This intense Harry Potter period of my life seems never to end… I’m currently teaching Oliver Twist to my Victorian Literature class on the usual pretence that they have all read the book and can follow my analysis. Well. Since they need to learn how to write a paper, I explained to them what a conference is and why papers are written, taking the chance to publicise an oncoming event at my own university: a conference on monstrosity (December 2014, Las mil caras del monstruo, https://visionesdelofantastico2.weebly.com/) to which I have submitted a paper on Voldemort. Now, that caught their attention… and mine to their alertness. Three students actually waylaid me at the end of my lecture to demand that I teach again the Harry Potter elective… a tall order!

This is why I decided to use the last 15 minutes of my lecture yesterday to a) present the connections between Oliver Twist and the Harry Potter series, b) introduce students to the concept of intertextuality (first coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966). In the process I learned that the majority of students in class have read Rowling’s saga (and enough Dickens to follow me, good…). Also, that there must be something uncanny in the links between the two authors and the two characters because a girl student got goosebumps several times as I lectured (her physical reaction was certainly intense).

So here we go. Intertextuality, a notoriously wide-ranging term, replaces the old-fashioned idea of ‘influence’. It is, despite the looselessness of its meaning, very useful to discuss how texts keep a dialogue with each other, which can be more or less willed, more or less direct. Some intertextuality is explicit (James Joyce’s Ulysses), some implicit. We can see this for Oliver Twist as well: Terry Pratchett wants us to see at first sight that his novel Dodger connects with Dickens’s work, Rowling is not particularly interested in establishing a connection but this is visible enough and very strong at some points. Uncannily so.

Of course, as a student pointed out yesterday, the list which follows might simply be pure coincidence. Or have just dubious value, I’ll add. Precisely, it was my intention to alert students to the fact that intertextuality tends to be extremely subjective, hard to prove persuasively, and always open to criticism.

Now, consider (sorry about the spoilers):

*Harry and Oliver are orphans. They both spend a miserable childhood, which includes a stay with unsympathetic pseudo-parents (the Dursleys, the Sowerberrys) with a particularly nasty foster mother. They’re both bullied in this foster home by an older boy (Dudley, Noah).
*The trope of the mother’s death is displaced in Harry Potter to Tom Riddle’s birth, the difference being that Merope Gaunt lets herself die after giving birth. Both Agnes (Oliver’s mother) and Merope become pregnant by men who keep with them a relationship beset by problems (Oliver’s father actually seduces the poor woman and tricks her into a false wedding, no matter how much he loves her; Merope bewitches Tom Riddle Sr. with a love potion).
*Both Oliver and Harry are protected by their dead mother’s blood: Harry literally and also in the person of his unkind aunt Petunia; Oliver by his much kinder aunt Rose Maylie, who saves him from his life of crime and the persecution of the main villains.
*Harry and Oliver are roughly the same age (11) when they leave behind their known environment for a new world of which they know nothing: the world of wizarding and the world of crime, respectively. I might argue that Fagin is a wicked version of Dumbledore but I’ll let that be…
*Both James Potter (Harry’s father) and Oliver’s father, Edward Leeford Sr., are characters with moral flaws: James used to be a bully at school, as his victim, Snape, reveals; Leeford was quite dishonest about his marital situation with Agnes.

Here comes my favourite bit: Mr. John Brownlow. This is a rich bachelor gentleman, with a London establishment of his own, and the closest friend of Oliver’s dead father. When after many incidents Rose puts Oliver again in touch with him, Mr. Brownlow ends up offering Oliver a happy home and adopting the boy. The moment I named Sirius Black my students understood that he is Brownlow’s equivalent in the Harry Potter saga, with a difference: he dies too soon, too cruelly. Essentially, once he is rescued from Fagin and Sykes’s hands (thanks to Nancy, another Lily Potter sacrificial figure), Oliver has no role in his own story, except that of offering forgiveness. In contrast, Rowling forces his boy to face his arch-enemy alone, once he’s lost his protectors (Sirius but also Dumbledore, Snape). Dickens, always a sentimental man regarding children, would have been horrified at her cruelty. I am.

Finally, both Oliver and Harry make me wonder about their goodness. Dickens defended himself from criticisms against Oliver’s idealisation claiming that the boy represented a ‘principle of good’ beset by evil. There is a wonderful scene in which Nancy throws a tantrum, full of rage against Fagin’s physical ill-treatment of the boy; her point is that Oliver will soon become a degraded criminal, there’s no need to add abuse to this. Shortly after this explosion, however, Fagin tells Monks, Oliver’s arch-enemy, that the boy is impossible to train for a life of crime as he has nothing to scare him with. Harry seems, likewise, impervious to the attraction of the dark side, no matter how often Voldemort insists that they’re quite similar. In both cases the reward for this triumphant inner goodness is a happy (middle-class) family life with the difference, as I have noted, that the child Oliver is rescued by others from evil (imagine a nice aunt Petunia helping a stable Sirius raise Harry), whereas Harry must grow up and rescue himself.

The goosebumps of the girl student and the wand watching my back as I write (Sirius’s of course) suggest to me that other operations apart from rational intertextuality are at stake in this kind of connection. Most likely, I need Jung’s collective unconscious and not Freud’s idea of the uncanny to explain them, though there’s something truly uncanny at work. Brownlow, based on a well-known Victorian philanthropist of the same name (secretary to the Foundlings Hospital Dickens knew so well) suggests that something resonates in us when we read about unprotected children. I firmly believe Freud was too focused on the little and big dramas of the patriarchal nuclear family to note other figures we set much store by, and which, somehow, Brownlow (adoptive father) and Sirius (godfather) embody. Dickens understood this, by the way, much better than Rowling, which is why he paid homage with his fictional character to the man employed in real life to protect abandoned babies.

I’ll keep on thinking about that. You, too.

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BACK TO HARRY POTTER ONCE MORE: PUBLISHING UNDERGRAD STUDENTS’ WORK

Back on May 12 I published a post commenting on my students collective volume, Addictive and Wonderful: Reading the Harry Potter Series (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118225). Today, I’m announcing the publication of our second collective volume, Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122987/).

The elective I taught last Spring, ‘Cultural Studies in English: The Case of Harry Potter’ has given me many satisfactions but also much work, as I decided to turn it as well into an experiment on teaching. I’m writing this post today with the aim of describing this experiment, in case it is useful for any colleague out there. I am repeating many of these innovations in my current elective subject (also fourth year), ‘Gender Studies (in English)’.

To begin with, I choose a handbook, on which I based my initial lectures: David Walton’s excellent Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice. I soon realised that there was no way I could write one or several exam questions to test my students’ reading of this ultra-rich volume. I asked them instead to produce their own exam question: read the book, select a topic, find a text related to it (not Harry Potter), e-mail me the question. On the day of the exam, they brought from home a printed page with the question, and if they wished so, a quotation to comment on. Then they wrote in class the 500-word argumentative essay planned at home. It worked beautifully, not just because, obviously, everyone passed, but most importantly because they learned to ask questions rather than simply answer them.

The short essays published in Addictive and Wonderful were not part of assessment for two reasons: a) I hadn’t planned to publish this before the course started; 2) I want students to learn that assessment is not everything and that it’s fine to produce ideas for free (I’m doing this here all the time). When I started reading the essays, the idea of the volume came to me as a sudden inspiration. I have just checked and, as happens, 492 persons have downloaded already this volume from its location at my university’s digital repository. I had no idea we could reach this kind of readership at all. Something else I have learned, then. This semester I’m repeating the experience, with a volume by my students on gender issues (currently at its very early stages).

The second volume Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series, was clearer in my mind when I started teaching the subject but I think I miscalculated the effort it would entail from me. Not that I regret it, quite the opposite –once more, I’m trying the experiment again.

I offered my students a list of 50 topics, a wide-ranging panorama of Rowling’s series. I had no clear idea of the coherence the final volume might have but hoped for the best. My reasoning was that since I had to mark the papers anyway, I could turn my marking into preliminary editorial work, then use the corrected texts as the basis for a second round of editorial revisions before publication. I was quite sure from the beginning that I would not teach Harry Potter again, a decision I am going to maintain because there is no way I can reproduce the atmosphere generated by the happy convergence of a particular group of students and a particular group of guests. The volume would be a trace left for ever by that happy experience.

The papers were part of assessment and I awarded the corresponding marks. As it is my habitual practice, I asked for revisions in a handful of cases. Only one student among those who followed continuous assessment failed the subject, the rest passed but I decided to discard 5 of the 38 essays because they demanded a too extensive revision before publication. I was on the whole happy with the papers and awarded high marks.

The course was over by the end of June but I could not lay my hands onto the projected volume again until late August. This was good because texts need to cool down, if you know what I mean. When I took a second look, however, I almost gave up.

Even though I had provided my students with a template for their paper, thinking this would diminish my workload as an editor, and they had mostly used it well, I had to make the 33 final essays as homogeneous as possible in terms of editing. Luckily, I learned a few new tricks from Word which saved me plenty of time (like how to accept all revisions in the text). I spent anyway a whole week, Monday to Friday, working on the text. This included all aspects of text layout, including the cover, for which I had a wonderful illustration by the talented Genzoman.

In the preface I wrote that 85% of the text was my students, 15% mine. This is correct, I believe. Call me silly but I had not realised that the impression a student’s paper produces for the purposes of awarding it a grade has nothing to do with the impression it produces when you’re thinking of publication. I have by no means changed the nature of the papers but I have worked hard on the language, careful not too make it sound artificial for an undergrad. This has been a challenge: let it be as it is, but make it nicer. A little, yes, like applying a discrete layer of make-up.

What puzzled me enormously is that, once I saw the complete volume, it turned out to have much coherence. The essays are organised by students’ surname but –this must be yet another example of the magic haunting my Harry Potter course– they connect this way much better than in any other way I could have planned. I really think the volume is quite decent, a strange word, I know. I suppose other teachers have published similar volumes but the word that sums up how I feel is ‘proud’, very proud indeed. Whether this is a pioneering initiative or not, it doesn’t really matter.

Finally, without my university’s repository I may not have thought of publishing the volumes. I have my own professional website and I have published there plenty, yet I am convinced by now that the repository seems to work better. I wonder that people are downloading the volumes at all but it’s nice to see the count grow. I’ll be very happy if both Addictive and Wonderful and Charming and Bewitching reach 500 downloads.

I forget: this is as low-cost as it can be, and it is still a book. I have spent no money at all, just my own personal work and my students’. This, I believe, is how knowledge should flow: we have the instruments to generate content for the internet, and we must use them.

I hope this experience encourages and inspires other colleagues to do the same, in whatever courses they teach. And students as well.

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FANTASIZING ALTERNATIVE FATHER FIGURES: THE WAY, WAY BACK

Just three posts ago I wrote about reviewing in websites like Amazon or IMBD. Today I’m opening this post with my eyebrows raised because the IMDB reviews I’ve just been reading for a film I enjoyed last night (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back, 2013) seem to describe ten different films. The average rating for the film is 7’4. For me it’s an 8. For 7605 voters this is a 10, for 629 this is a 1 (IMDB does not allow 0s). How can I recommended it in view of this? How can anyone recommend anything, I wonder?

I’m taking then an oblique angle on the film to say: Potterheads, if you care to see a successful Muggle version of the Harry-Sirius relationship, this is it. For this a story about a teen boy, Duncan, who finds someone who cares, Owen. And what I love about Owen, and possibly what any Potterhead loves about Sirius, is that neither has the obligation to care. Yet they do.

Let me explain. Most teen pics focus on 16-year-olds discovering how to empower themselves in relation to their parents and peers. Duncan is, in contrast, totally disempowered. He’s just 14, that uncomfortable age in which he cannot yet refuse going on a summer holiday with his mum, her obnoxious new boyfriend and his odious teen daughter. Raised by a divorced mother too scared, as she confesses, to face life alone, and distant from a father who does not care for him, Duncan needs badly a reliable man in his life. Trent, the boyfriend, is simply hateful –a Dursley if I’ve seen one. At the film’s start he asks Duncan how he’d rate himself on a scale from 1 to 10. The boy, confused and upset, answers 6. Trent (based on a stepfather of one of the film directors) replies that for him Duncan’s just a 3. What kind of man, later Duncan wonders, would ask a boy a question like that?

As I’ve been arguing for years, the main topic of US cinema is not romantic love but the father-son bond. Fun or tragic, Leia and Han Solo, Amidala and Annakin are not the centre of the story –the centre is Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke Skywalker that he’s Luke’s father. Whether close or absent, fathers are mostly inadequate, as films written by men have been complaining for about three decades. Fight Club (both novel and film) has that devastating dialogue in which Tyler Durden and his alter ego (or viceversa) come to the conclusion, after discussing how useless their absent fathers are, that “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Indeed no. The answer is an (alternative) father figure.

As fantasy father figures go, Owen is great. He’s, I think, what Sirius could have been without the long years in prison, the bitterness. Even though Owen is the embodiment of irresponsibility when it comes to his own life and job (he manages a water park), he acts very responsibly by Duncan. He takes the boy under his wing, gives him a job and embarks him on a programme aimed at raising his self-esteem, dispelling his overwhelming shyness. It works reasonably well given the short span Duncan spends (secretly) under Owen’s tutelage. Harry would have been so happy to have Sirius help him this way.

Funnily, neither the film nor the reviewers note how complicated navigating the matter of sexuality is here. A spectator does complain that the film is sexually too sanitized, another one that Duncan’s mother is too careless about the company his son keeps. The boy simply does not tell his mother where he’s working and who for, and this seems right for, surely, relationships between boys and adult men are so contaminated by the sad reality of abuse that it’s hard to imagine how the fine friendship that develops in the film could happen in real life.

The Way, Way Back is a very simple tale in comparison to Harry Potter, and there’s absolutely no need for Owen to sacrifice himself at all as Sirius does. What the film highlights for me is how necessary the intervention of well-meaning adults is for young people (and I also include girls) beyond the family circle. Yet, if the intervention of adults entitled to help, such as teachers, is difficult enough, imagine how impossible to digest is the presence of someone like Owen –who helps Duncan just because he feels like doing it.

You may undermine all this by arguing that in reality Owen would seek some satisfaction, whether sexual or emotional, but, well, I’m not discussing reality, I’m discussing fantasy, for this is a fantasy no doubt. What the directors and screen playwrights are showing is wishful thinking, but as it always happens with wishful thinking what matters is the absence, the lack it is built on.

Food for thought, there in Hollywood and here.

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DUBBING: THE IGNORED ACTORS

When I included the film adaptation of Harry Potter as a topic for my course I intended to consider how the movies betray or enhance the text –yes, the old-fashioned fidelity criterion. Also, I wanted to examine the very British cast. However, I ended transforming the two planned lectures into far more active sessions on, first, translation (with the help of Ariadna García Turón, working Harry Potter for her BA dissertation) and, second, dubbing.

A friend suggested that I contact Masumi Mutsuda, the actor who dubbed Harry into Catalan. Although a bit disoriented by his name (his dad is Japanese, his mum Spanish) I did so and he, very generously, allowed himself to be interviewed not only on Harry-related matters but on the much wider issue of dubbing. It was, for all of us, a great lesson on how culture works. Also, the best possible ending for the course.

Masumi’s answers allowed us to understand not only how the whole process of dubbing a film works, starting with casting, but also how invisible this practice is. When I asked which scene I should show as a sample of his work, he chose one in Deathly Hallows, part 1, when Harry, Hermione and Ron –much stressed and on the run from Voldemort– quarrel. Ron then leaves. You should see the surprised faces of my American and British students, hearing the trio they know so well speak in a totally unknown language… We had to explain to them matters as peculiar such as the fact that several famous Hollywood actors share the same Spanish or Catalan voice. And this is odd. Yet, we take it for granted.

Dubbing was introduced by Hollywood studios as soon as sound made it into films (1927, The Jazz Singer). In the Babel tower that Europe is this resulted in a split in the 1930s between countries who opted for subtitling and those, like Spain, which chose dubbing. The high illiteracy rate of spectators made reading subtitles impractical. I refer to the times of the Spanish Republic (1931-6). Franco’s regime, imitating Hitler and Mussolini, passed a law in 1941 banning subtitles in any language spoken in Spain and making dubbing compulsory, albeit only in Spanish Castilian. Subtitles were gradually allowed from the 1950s onwards (in Castilian, for art-house films). Dubbing into the other languages, however, only re-emerged in the 1980s with the new regional media. Dallas made TV3 very popular.

Masumi Mutsuda argued that, for the spectator, the most reasonable practice should be to see in the original version the films whose original language the spectator understands and, then, consume dubbed versions for the rest. This sounds very sensible. Yet, I put a stop to this in my own practice when I saw a Korean thriller (I forget the title) in which a gang of Chinese criminals and a gang of Korean villains met to discuss business –they spoke English to each other but their native language among themselves. Now imagine all this dubbed into Spanish… Ironically, it seems Masumi dubbed the scene!!

Children, who cannot really read fast-moving subtitles proficiently until at least twelve (my guess), are quite another matter. I don’t know how they manage in, say, Finland, when they show Disney films to kids who don’t even know how to read, but in that context the matter of dubbing makes sense. Actually, Masumi and my own students were at the centre of a fascinating, still on-going war between the Generalitat and the Hollywood distributors for dubbing into Catalan.

I chronicled that in an article you can find in my web. Basically, Warner Bros. declined to dub the first Harry Potter film (Philosopher’s Stone, 2001) into Catalan, despite having obtained already a subsidy to do so from the Catalan Government, Generalitat. 50,000 angry parents of the 200,000 children who’d read the book in Catalan (as many as children who’d read it in Spanish in Catalonia) started a furious campaign… that led Warner Bros. to apologise and to offer a few subtitled copies (useless…). They agreed to dub all subsequent Harry Potter films into Catalan. Now: my students were among these 200,000 children, the campaigners were their own parents or their peers, and Masumi was cast to be Harry from the second film onwards –he did dub the first one, too, for its TV3 release. He knew about the conflict, my students did not or had forgotten.

My students moved onto the original version of the books and films as soon as they could, around age 13, and often with great difficulties. Considering that most started reading Harry Potter aged between 7 and 10, you can see how great their dependence was on the translations of the books (and how nonchalantly these were produced!!) and on dubbing –in the language of their choice. Dubbing even affected the translation in the Catalan case and it many others it seems. The (very questionable) translator Laura Escorihuela was replaced after book four when she refused to give Warner Bros. for free the right to use her translation as the basis of dubbing for the first film. What a story…

Masumi tells me that in Japan dubbing actors (or voice actors, the term he uses) are big stars with specialised magazines, fans, etc. Here, even though their contribution is so crucial for our access to foreign culture and their quality amazingly high, they’re anonymous. He himself, though a professional making a living off his trade, runs a small start-up company with some friends on the side. Just in case work turns slack.

I believe that film critics are very much to blame for this state of affairs. I hate it when they praise the work of a particular actor despite having seen a dubbed version of the film in question (when they even mispronounce the names of actors or characters that is obvious). If they got into the habit of seeing both versions and praising the talent of the voice actors, things would be quite different. The pretence that voice actors contribute nothing and are just a transparent medium for the original actor to shine should be dropped urgently.

Thanks Masumi!! I’ll do my best to teach this to anyone who’ll listen.

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