Time and Death in Fantasy Worlds

Since much of fantasy literature is accessible to readers of all age and education levels, writers often use a variety of methods to work around and through difficult or unsavory topics. These techniques alImage result for time and deathso help with creating an alternate view of these subjects suitable for the alternate worlds in which these stories unfold. One subject that frequently manifests itself in unique ways is that of Death. While figures like Voldemort fear and flee death, it is an inevitable part of life, and no amount of Horcruxes or Invisibility of Cloaks will hide us from it forever.  To personify Death, authors sometimes rely on the conventional imagery of the Grim Reaper, but when it comes to speculative fiction, on the page or on the screen, this image sometimes is conflated with another, that of Father Time, and, in the process of fusing Time and Death, these stories use creative imagery and unique symbolism to portray the brief candles that are all of our lives.

On that cheerful note, cue up the cowbell and follow me after the jump for a look at a few recent and popular treatments of Time and Death in fantasy worlds. It really is less depressing than it sounds, TRUST ME.

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Not all Fantastic Beasts are Fictional

hpspiderIt seems appropriate that this paper should be released at this season of renewed interest in JK Rowling’s magical creatures. A pair of Potter-loving scientists from India recently discovered a new species of spider, and, upon noticing its resemblance to the Sorting Hat, named it Eriovixia gryffindori. Even better, they provided a explanation of the name in the scientific paper that described the beastie.

harry_potter_sorting_hat_by_boywizard94-d5ma8izThis uniquely shaped spider derives its name from the fabulous, sentient magical artifact, the sorting hat, owned by the (fictitious) medieval wizard Godric Gryffindor, one of the four founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and stemming from the powerful imagination of Ms. J.K. Rowling, wordsmith extraordinaire, as presented in her beloved series of books, featuring everyone’s favorite boy-wizard, Harry Potter. An ode from the authors, for magic lost, and found, in an effort to draw attention to the fascinating, but oft overlooked world of invertebrates, and their secret lives.

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Harry Potter and the Political Humorists

politico-harryThis election coverage has generated more media attention that ever before, and many of the stories have turned into fodder for writers, sketch comics, late-night stand-up routines, and internet memes.  It is not surprising that many efforts at humor, from both sides of the aisle, employ our favorite Shared Text.

There was, for instance, an early report that Trump nemesis Megyn Kelly had jokingly compared him to Voldemort, though a close reading of the quote in context made it seem more like a jab at the other Republican candidates for forgetting Dumbledore’s wisdom that “fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself.”

hilary-love-childThere are also innumerable memes comparing Hilary Clinton to Umbridge, though, interestingly, as many seem to be the result of an admittedly less-than-attractive pink outfit she choose for a campaign appearance as for her politics. The truly anti-Clinton political nerds seem to prefer to compare her to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s power-hungry and self-entitled Kai Winn Adami, a comparison that goes back at least to 2008. Those of you who are not Trekkies can read about Kai Winn at the above link, or you can just rest in the kai-hillaryknowledge that she was played by Louise “Nurse Ratched” Fletcher, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. This commentary, from a Clinton supporter, on those comparisons, will be of interest to anyone who has read Patrick McCauley’s work on violence against women in Harry Potter.

For sheer cleverness and clear Shared Text Appreciation, my vote for funniest piece goes to this essay on the destruction of Donald Trump’s Hollywood Star.  trump-star-vandalised-smallWhile I in no way advocate property destruction as a political statement, the author manages to simultaneously demonstrate knowledge of horcruxes, basilisks, Quirrell’s turban and house-elves, and gave me a laugh-out-loud that I could sorely use this political season.

potter-for-presFinally, I’ll close with the most non-partisan Harry Political cartoon I could find, and a link to this article (Hat tip to John!) that tells us Voldemort is more popular among Generation Hex than either of the two major candidates. Nonetheless, you are a US Citizen, get out and exercise your right to vote next week—  for someone, even if you must write in “He Who Must Not Be Named.”  Or maybe Harry Himself—  the Potter for President signs and buttons sold like hotcakes last week at Chestnut Hill.

 

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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.

Harry Potter Chair Up For Auction: Opening Bid? $45,000

Update: It sold to an anonymous bidder for $394,000. The owner, who bought it for $29,000 in 2009 (from the buyer who paid $21,000 when Rowling sold it for charity in 2002), says he will give ten percent of his $365,000 profit to Rowling’s Lumos fund.

“According to the AP, an anonymous buyer made the bid, which far surpassed the seller, Gerald Gray’s, expectations.” In ten years, when the chair sells for more than a Rembrandt or Picasso, maybe the world of art collectors will get what ‘Shared Text’ and Potter Mania mean to Generation Hex.