A Potter Postcard from the Quidditch Tournament of the Stars 2016

quidditch6803Dear Readers: please enjoy this digital postcard from this past Saturday, which I spent enjoying Muggle Collegiate Quidditch at the Tournament of the Stars, hosted by The Ohio State University Quidditch league. The play was physical, tiring-looking, and lasted all day. We were exhausted just from watching it! If you think Muggle Quidditch isn’t serious business, check out the official US Quidditch website. And if you’ve never been exposed to this sport before, the postcard will be a good introduction the quirky world of Muggle Quidditch.

Please share your own observations and experiences regarding Muggle Quidditch in the comments.

‘Black Bottle Man: A Fable’

black-bottle-manAuthor Craig Russell offered to send me a copy of his book, Black Bottle Man, in March. I agreed to read and review it if he did.

Why? I’m not sure. I get more than my share of such pitches, I have too much on my plate as it is with respect to reading and writing, and I wasn’t hungry for new projects this Spring. I think it was probably the book description on its Amazon page and back cover:

Forced to move every twelve days, what would happen to your life? 1927. Rembrandt is the only child in the tiny community of Three Farms. Soon his two aunts grow desperate for babies of their own. A man wearing a black top—coat and a ’glad—ta—meet—ya’ smile arrives with a magic bottle and a deadly deal is made. Determined to undo the wager, Rembrandt, Pa, and Uncle Thompson embark on the journey of their lives, for if they stay in one place for more than twelve days terrible things happen. But where and when will they find a champion capable of defeating the Black Bottle Man? Time ticks. Lives change. Every twelve days. . .

The book arrived, I read it in one long-into-the-night sitting, and put it aside. It’s good, very good, and I’ve thought about it almost every day at least once or twice since. Not just because the story is that good, though it is. Whenever I opened my email, the author’s original note to me was there. I’m fairly religious about clearing my inbox at least once a week but I never got to file this one. Russell has even sent me Black Bottle Man reviews others have done (see here and here for their thoughts) as gentle reminders of my pledge.

I guess I have neglected the task so long because I’ve wondered why he sent this book to me for my take on it. I read it again today, enjoyed it as much as I had months ago, and think I finally see why the author thought I of all readers in the blogosphere could write an appreciative note about his book. Gilderoy gets it at last.

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Literature of the Hidden and Fantastic: Michael Ward and John Granger Keynotes at University of Arkansas (FS)

planet-narniaNext weekend I travel across the eastern border of Oklahoma for an academic conference, ‘Literature of the Hidden and Fantastic,’ at the University of Arkansas, Ft. Smith (UAFS). The woman in charge, Carly Darling, Conference Chair, has put together a remarkable gathering of scholars to discuss “all aspects of fantasy, magic realism, fairy tales and folk tales, and in particular, their more arcane or enigmatic qualities and/or structures.” To that end, she invited both the Rev Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and expert on the esoteric artistry of C. S. Lewis, and me to give the conference’s two Keynote lectures. My talk is called ‘Writing in Rings: The Literary Alchemy and Inkling Artistry of Harry Potter.’

ringI have heard Michael Ward’s talk on the astrological symbolism of Lewis’ Narniad twice and traveled significant distances to do so. My copy of Planet Narnia is almost unreadable because of the highlighting, underlining, and marginalia; very few books of literary criticism have been as helpful to me as has Ward’s. If you haven’t heard him speak or if you want to ask him questions about his magisterial work on Lewis’ oeuvre, I hope I will see you there. It’s an experience worth the trip for all serious readers, believe me, not just Narniacs.

f36912486In addition to his talk and mine, there will be more than 20 other talks about authors covering the spectrum from Lewis and Rowling to Sartre, Stiefvater, Tolkien, and O’Connor. Really into the Hogwarts Saga? Seven of these talks explore the artistry and meaning of Harry’s adventures, one by the Rev Dr Danielle Tumminio, author of God and Harry Potter at Yale. Check out the schedule and slate of speakers here — then sign up at the conference’s registration page!

The Features Editor at The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent me five questions this morning about what I’ll talking about at the conference and about imaginative literature in general. My answers are after the jump. Please introduce yourself at the conference or just say hello if an old friend — and let me know where I went wrong with my answers, there or in the comment boxes!

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Initial Impressions of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”

by Emily Strand

sacred-text-1I once had a professor who hated those little bracelets everyone was wearing at the time: the ones that said “WWJD.” In case that moment in history passed you by (no great loss), “WWJD” stood for “what would Jesus do?” The bracelets were meant to remind Christians every day, in every moment, to conform their actions to those of Christ.

My prof hated the bracelets because he was a virtue ethicist. In his approach to Christian ethics, moral character is more important to living a good life than mere adherence to rules or the fear of negative consequences. He also claimed inspiration from something called narrative ethics, a branch of virtue ethics. Narrative ethics points to certain guiding or “master” stories as roadmaps, as it were, for living a moral life. For Christians, the most important “master story” is the Gospel.

The “WWJD” bracelets annoyed my professor, and eventually me, because, according to the virtue/narrative ethics traditions, the phrase they bore signifies a wrong-headed approach to moral decision-making. They put the individual actions of Jesus Christ at the center of our understanding of how to live as Christians: “What would Jesus do?”

Now everyone knows actions are important. What one does matters. But narrative ethics teaches that we need to take the whole story of Jesus Christ into consideration, not just his individual actions, as we attempt to conform our lives to his, and to make his story our own. In our devotion to Christ, we don’t rush around with a basin, washing people’s feet, because that’s what Jesus did. Rather we attempt to see particular actions of Jesus in the context of his overarching mission to bring about the Rule or Kingdom of God: a kingdom of caritas, or the kind of radical, self-sacrificing friendship which transcends the bonds of sin and death. This way we’re not brought up short when we can’t find a corresponding action of Jesus to guide the particular decision before us. We can look to the overarching story for meaning, instead of scouring it for analogies to our modern life, which it may or may not contain.

The folks producing a new Harry Potter podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, seem, at first, to be taking a narrative ethics approach to the subject. The podcast’s tag line is “Reading something we love as if it was [sic] sacred.” This means, explain the creators, they will read through Harry Potter not simply for entertainment, but looking to the books “as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives,” that is, as identity-shaping narrative.

sacred-text-2My first reaction to the podcast’s stated intent is: if that’s all they plan to do, they are a bit late to the party. You see, there’s this thing now. It’s called Harry Potter Studies. College campuses around the country offer an array of Potter-focused academic courses. And many podcasts, like our friends at Mugglenet Academia, already consider the books as far more than entertainment, bringing top-notch minds together to analyze the books for their meaning and artistry. So in terms of approach, the Sacred Text podcast is not the first to aim at Taking Harry Seriously.

But the folks at Sacred Text are doing something significant with the books we love, and in a more intentional way than I’ve seen. They’re taking them as scripture.

I don’t suppose this means that the creators of the podcast illumine their copies of Harry Potter with intricate marginal designs in gold leaf, or carry the books in procession, accompanied by lights and incense, the way we do with scripture in the Catholic tradition. Rather, the website clarifies on its methodology page that “The text in and of itself is not sacred, but is made so through our rigorous engagement,” and later, that “Scholars of religion explain that what makes a text sacred is not the text itself, but the community of readers that proclaim it as such.”

If you, like me, are a religious person with any degree of devotion to your own scriptures, you may feel the need to pick your chin up off the floor about now. But why should this shock us? Shame on us religious dupes for being surprised at Sacred Text’s substitution of Potter for scripture. Mircea Eliade told us this would happen – was happening – in the late 1950s. Eliade assured his readers that non-religious human being (who, some studies show, could make up 15% of the global population), new though he is in the history of humanity, is an inheritor nonetheless. He descends from a religious species, whether he likes to or not. Indeed, “he continues to be haunted by the realities that he has refused and denied.” (The Sacred and the Profane, 1959) Eliade said a whole volume could be penned on the different ways in which non-religious humans express their deep-set, inherited religious instincts: “the mythologies camouflaged in the plays that he enjoys, in the books that he reads…” So the idea that, when folks encounter books steeped in mythology, and it triggers in them a mythological response, such as a desire to treat the text as sacred when it’s really a kid’s story made-up by a lady in Scotland, should not surprise us.

What is striking to me about Sacred Text’s approach is their claim that certain texts – particularly, the ones which they choose to engage with rigor, in community – are sacred. Their thoroughgoing, logic-defying relativism in claiming the potential for some kind of universal significance in a particular text, simply because readers choose to engage with it rigorously, is what I find baffling. Because, according to their methodology, if I wanted to engage Fifty Shades of Grey or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with enough rigor and in community with others, those texts, too, would become sacred scripture. For me and my little community. It sort of evacuates the words “sacred” and “scripture” of their traditional meanings. But maybe that’s the point.

So my old professor’s complaint about those “WWJD” bracelets is something of an analogy forbracelet-wwjd my initial impression of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. The bracelets encouraged wearers to look to the individual actions of the person of Jesus Christ as authoritative, instead of the Master Story from which all those actions flow with integrity: the Gospel. And this new podcast looks at Harry Potter – which, at its core, is an expression of and reflection on the story of Jesus Christ – without regard for its most influential source material: the Gospel. But the podcast goes beyond disregarding this source material (which plenty of others have done as well), attempting to replace the scripture story on which it’s based, with Potter itself becoming the “sacred text”.

So WWHD? In my next post, I’ll look at the first couple episodes of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text to discover whether the podcast, with its hyper-individualized notion of what counts as sacred, reveals anything new or surprising about our favorite books. Or whether it simply reveals stuff about us.

Stay tuned, and feel free to add your impressions of Sacred Text in the comments below.

TIME: J. K. Rowling Sketches for ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’

weasleysIn yesterday’s relatively lengthy post about the intertextual connection between Harry Potter and the Molesworth books of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, I chose Searle’s illustrations for decoration without mentioning what a part they play in the four schoolboy satires. Molesworth is almost a comic book or graphic novel; Searles pictures of the faculty, headmaster, Grabber the Headboy, and our anti-hero Nigel fill up as many pages as Willans’ text. As important, the spidery, grotesque figures, all of whom look like refugees from a Gothic feature film back lot, color the acidic commentary of boy Molesworth on life at St Custard’s and give it its third dimension.

quidditchLate last month, a frenetic period at Pottermore, Jo Rowling dumped eight pictures she drew while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for our amusement and consideration. You can see the whole set of illustrations at TIME magazine’s online post about the event. It seems clear from Rowling’s work that at one time she thought of making the book either a relatively conventional children’s book with a host of pictures to guide the imagination or another Molesworth, i.e., a book for adults about childhood which children might also enjoy.

Three quick notes:

harry-at-dursleys(1) The existence of these pictures is not news. There are more to be revealed, a lot more. Rowling sold an annotated and illustrated copy of Philosopher’s Stone at auction for charity in 2013, a copy with 43 pages of notes and pictures. If I had paid what the winning bidder did — just over $200,000 — I’m not sure how I’d feel about her sharing what I paid that much to own as my precious. Probably hopeful that she’d just raised the re-sale value.

privet-harry(2) Rowling has said that she does not see Daniel Radcliffe’s face when she thinks of Harry Potter, one more thing to put in the file ‘Things Only True of The Presence.’ Her early pictures bear up this statement, if those of us whose imaginative idea of Harry was forever obliterated by Warner Brothers Harry can see boy Radcliffe if we squint. Du Pre’s pictures seem to derive at least in part from these sketches.

snape(3) You gotta love the pointy hats and monastic rasson everyone wears, right? Imagine if that look had survived in the book illustrations and the movies. Would Fandom cosplay require the stiff, conical black hat of Rowling’s original conception? Would you see them in the streets of larger cities on the heads of devotees? Ah, if only…

Please share your comments, questions, and corrections below!