The book I am finishing the final edits for this week (go to www.zossima.com to order it at the pre-publication special price) is titled Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. Almost everything I will write about here at HogPro will relate to one or more of these keys, so let me provide a short introduction to each one, why I think they are important, and how they work together. It helps I think to recall the keys to Moody’s chest in Goblet of Fire.
Narrative Misdirection: The first chapter of Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?(WKAD) is an essay on narrative misdirection I wrote for one of my Prince classes at BNU in 2005. That book had to start with this essay because WKAD is about what happens beneath the story-line of Half-Blood Prince. Narrative misdirection is the literary device Ms. Rowling uses in each of her books to create the impression in the reader’s mind that they have a good idea of what is going on when really all they have is Harry’s view. As Harry is at best a little slow and quite possibly, qua Gryffindor, born with a headless hat in place, Harry’s perspective is quite the restricted view. We learn this at the end of every book except Prince when Dumbledore and circumstances reveal all the mistakes Harry made in judgment, often from lack of information or just misunderstanding and neglecting clues on the periphery of his vision. I explain in Unlocking Harry Potter how Ms. Rowling does this and the debt she owes to Austen’s Emma for this technique.
Hero’s Journey and Repeated Elements: There is little mystery or deceit in Ms. Rowling’s formulaic writing. Harry’s story each year begins on Privet Drive and proceeds through ten steps of his annual adventure until he returns to King’s Cross Station for another summer with his Aunt and Uncle on Privet Drive. With the exception, again, of Half-Blood Prince’s finale, this journey and its repeated elements are the skeleton on which Ms. Rowling hangs her tales. I detail the ten steps, the important exceptions from formula in Prince, and, more to the point, what each journey means in Harry’s transformation year-by-year and his formation as hero and Voldy-Vanquisher overall.
Literary Alchemy: The subject of personal change via the journey brings us to Ms. Rowling’s remarkable and profound use of traditional alchemical imagery and symbols to detail and describe the process of Harry’s transformation. Alchemy is a seven stage work, hence the seven years of Hogwarts education and the seven books, it has three primary stages, hence the Black, White (Albus), and Red (Rubeus, among others) characters and action in the latest three novels, and alchemy is about the action of contraries – feminine alchemical mercury and masculine sulfur – resolving the impurities of a substance, hence Hermione (Hg) and Ron, “the quarrelling couple” of Harry’s alchemical life. The Harry Potter epic is suffused with symbols, number, and meaning from the stream of literary alchemy in traditional English literature that stretches from Shakespeare to C. S. Lewis. Despite this being cued from the first book’s title, Philosopher’s Stone, it remains something obscure for most readers and a large part of Unlocking Harry Potter is spent explaining how this key works in opening up everything from the sequence and details of the Tr-Wizard tasks to what the alchemical wedding of Bill and Fleur, the Red King and White Queen, means for Deathly Hallows.
Postmodern Themes and Meaning: As interesting as I find these keys, the most fun and biggest challenge I had while writing Unlocking Harry Potter was thinking of Ms. Rowling, not as a literary throwback to Austen or alchemical dinosaur, as a woman of our times. Trying to answer the question of why the books are so popular means thinking first of how and why they resonate as they do with readers of all ages and nationalities in the 21st century, not the 16th. I explain the twelve points books and screenplays written in our times, what is usually called “postmodernism” or post-structuralism,” have in common and then discuss how the Harry Potter books conform to this model. I hope this week to discuss on HogPro blog “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” the Christmas time television special, in light of three of four of these predominant themes to give you a taste for this. It involves looking at your own eyeballs, thinking about the “given” ideas we all share just by living and breathing in this historical period, but the rewards in understanding Harry Potter and just about every book and movie being released – think Happy Feet and Apocalypto – are probably greater than any other of the five keys.
Traditional Symbolism: Last but not least is the transcendent element of Ms. Rowling’s books, the symbols, themes, and meaning she gives her book that resonate with the human heart more than just with the preconceptions of our times. This includes the traditional Christian content I detailed in Looking for God in Harry Potter, although here I explain how Ms. Rowling’s use of these images is postmodern rather than evangelical, reflecting both her concerns and her faith, and the differences between her, Tolkien, and Lewis in this regard.
These five keys work together to create the wow effect that has entranced the readers of the world. To deliver her postmodern message about the limits of human understanding, the ubiquity of prejudice, and the dangers, even the evil of the predominant metanarrative, Ms. Rowling uses narrative misdirection to show us again and again how little we can “get” of what is really happening around us. Because the alchemical work is completed in the “white stage” or albedo, what transpired in Half-Blood Prince, a transformation that is invisible until the “red stage” to come in Deathly Hallows, we know that what we think happened in Prince is almost completely deception to be revealed in the eucatastrophe or apocalypse of the coming book. She resolves postmodern questions in each book by turning on the materialist metanarrative within postmodern thinking itself with Harry’s figurative death and resurrection in the presence of Christ, the hero’s ending we should expect at Deathly Hallows’ end. Harry either dies a faux-death once again, beheaded like Buckbeak or pulling off a Draught of Living Death escape, or Harry does the Sydney Carton sacrifice to redeem the magical world himself.
I’ll be posting here on the five keys in various contexts as I did in using literary alchemy to throw light on the meaning of the just announced title of the seventh book (see “The Meaning of Deathly Hallows, 25 December below). God and time allowing, I’ll try later this week to share the postmodern themes that have made “Rudolph” so popular. Stay Tuned!
And, if you want to get a steal-of-a-deal and your just-off-the presses copy of Unlocking Harry Potter, I’ll let you know when you can go to www.zossima.com and order your pre-publication copy (any day now!). Here’s what Tom Morris, author of If Harry Potter ran General Electric, wrote about the draft I shared with him this summer:
“I got so hooked I had to stop everything else I was doing and just read, read, read. I carried it around the house, I read it while using the exercycle, I hid in rooms away from the action of daily life so I could take it all in. I haven’t had that reaction to a book since, well, The Half-Blood Prince. A spectacular read for all serious fans of Rowling’s work. Compelling, well argued, fun and funny. Engaging. Thought provoking. Erudite.”
You can order Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? today at Zossima.com. I’ll send out your autographed copy via my seven dwarves packaging team if the Zossima elves forward your order by noon! Here is what Vincent Kling, Professor of Literature at La Salle University wrote about WKAD:
Edmund Wilson once expressed his contempt for detective fiction by asking about one of Agatha Christie’s books, in a wrongheaded and curmudgeonly burst of annoyance, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” And there are still no doubt those readers who find Harry Potter too juvenile, silly, trivial or marginal to care about Dumbledore or any other HP character. But people with any degree of interest at all will find this book a feast of information, speculation, and background.
Just don’t make it your first critical exposure to the HP series. The editor, John Granger, has previously written a couple of outstanding books on the HP series; it’s worth checking them out, too, since they’re perfect for beginners, whereas “Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?” which gets into nuance and presupposes familiarity with detail, is for more seasoned HP readers. Better than any other writer I know, Granger has correlated HP to wider literary influences, patterns, and sources, and, in his “Looking for God in Harry Potter,” he spiritedly defended the series as a profound spiritual enactment of heroic, self-sacrificing action when it was under attack. In arguing the presence of age-old redemptive story lines and placing them in a whole context of Western culture, especially the misunderstood practice of alchemy, Granger has persuaded me (and many other readers) that the HP series — enthralling and wonderfully entertaining as it is — holds serious value expressed by Rowling with profound spiritual insight and consummate artistic skill.
In this volume, Granger collaborates with five other HP experts to show that what we think we saw might not be the reality and to speculate with tight reasoning on detailed evidence about Rowling’s crucial technique of making us believe that what we see through Harry’s eyes — limited and incomplete evidence — is only part of the whole picture. The subtitle sets the theme: “What Really [underscore] Happened in ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince?'” The key is, as Granger argues, deliberate and skillful “narrative misdirection.”
Other topics include Wendy B. Harte’s analysis of the curse on the Black family tree, an essay rich with informed speculation about the actual role of the Black family. If only the other members were like Sirius! Have they been serving Voldemort or not? Harte’s comments take us to the question of what happens in the seventh volume; none of the topics can avoid spilling over into guessing how the series must end.
Sally M. Gallo shows how Dumbledore and Slughorn cooperated to create a brilliant illusion, a beautifully planned deception, just as Joyce Odell weighs the evidence that the events on the tower could be a conspiracy to mislead. What Harry witnesses may be pure stage magic. But mislead whom? and why? You have to read it to find out. Daniela Teo sets out to identify the remaining horcruxes and show how to get to them. Is Harry himself a horcrux, as so many have surmised? Read about it here. Read, too, Swythyv’s comments on the Nymphadora Tonks-Remus Lupin romance, which — surprise! — is anything but what it seems.
And don’t miss the chapter “Great Expectations,” where all the participants explicitly predict what the last volume will bring. The diagram on pages 218 and 219 is not to be missed, and it will be really fun later on to compare its predictions with actual developments when the book is published.
Although there’s plenty here to satisfy advanced devotees, and while the speculation turns on smallish points at times, you can be certain that the issues are never picayune. Whole theories of perception and analysis are brought into play, and the entire volume is as serious in its methods as it is exhilirating (and sometimes exasperating) in its ingenious guesswork and analysis. After Granger’s first couple of books, no interested reader could ever take the HP series for anything but a major achievement, and this volume deepens the analytical seriousness and the literary insight while keeping a great sense of joy in reading.
If you’re past the introductory phases of what’s too lightly called fandom, you will treasue this book. Hurry and get it now so you can compare it with the actual seventh volume. Keep an eye out, too, for Granger’s forthcoming book; it has the best analysis of postmoderism ever, and I’ve read plenty!