Medievalist: “Potter Value Over-Blown”

I rarely post links to snarky criticism of the Potter books because there isn’t enough substance between the snide asides and sarcastic, patronizing assertions-posing-as-arguments for even an Elvendork like me to get me teeth into as a response. L.O.O.N.y Linda, though, sent me this piece from a Medievalist that made my morning. It and a previous one pointing out what Ms. Rowling herself has admitted (her Latin spells are clever not genius or even Eton grade Latin) left me smiling and taking myself a little less seriously.

Which, given the hours I’ve been giving the books (especially Deathly Hallows) this past week is probably a life-saver. Did you know, for instance, that in ten pages of King’s Cross conversation Dumbledore tells Harry “You know” or a variant of same fourteen times? Noting that and then explaining it in light of Coleridge’s “transforming vision” and the aims of symbolist literature in general can mean you’ve already gone around the twist or are well on your way. I’m grateful to Linda for the break this articles gave me.

If you know any other refreshing snarky Potter commentary, share it please! Next time someone says I’m a failed critic because I’ve never said an unkind word about the books, I’ll share this link (and a few others in which I point out failings, if not, I hope, unkindly).


  1. revgeorge says

    The blogger you referenced wrote: “It’s very similar to how certain members of my generation will talk about the “mythic structure” and “universal archetypes” in the Star Wars movies when pressed on why they’re popular. There’s a cottage industry in explaining to people why their guilty pleasures are actually rigorous intellectual exercises and thus thoroughly respectable, because many of us are just afraid to admit that we like things because they are exciting and fantastical.”

    Yes, perhaps. But I don’t see why it can’t be both. Something with depth & yet something also exciting & fantastical.

    And I disagree with his intimation that something worthwhile has to be hard to read & stretch readers as opposed to just plain, mundane writing. Obviously the writing in HPSS is pretty pedestrian but there was still something in it that caught people & held their interest.

    I will agree with him that using the Latin spells to try to teach Latin roots & thus English cognates is pretty silly. But that’s about all I give him. Guess I’m too serious, eh? But one can’t say I haven’t criticized the books. And yet even in their failings they still come off as brilliant.

  2. John,

    I’m glad you enjoyed Carl Pyrdum’s blog posts.

    Here’s one on Beowulf that made me laugh out loud.

    I read it the day after I saw that movie in the theaters and found his criticism to be snarky but accurate, and largely reflective of my own opinion on the adaptation.


  3. Well, OK, I get her point, I suppose. But it’s hardly fair to randomly read ten pages out of over 4000 and say that there is nothing challenging or of interest in the language that Rowling uses. Her use of the language, for a children’s book, was actually one of the things that I first appreciated, aside from just the story itself. I remember thinking as I read the first book, and more so with those that followed, that it was nice to read an author who wasn’t dumbing down the language — the dumbed down version being what children and teens usually find on TV and in movies that take up most of their attention.

    As for the Latin — yes, it’s fuzzy. It’s meant to be, isn’t it? That’s one of the charms of the names of the spells. It’s recognizable, but not so literal that one has to go sign up for Latin to figure out the meaning. (Sorry, John) I didn’t take Latin when I was in school, but my love of English, and the years of French (and some Spanish) were enough to send me looking for some Latin translations. It was one of the clues that there were all kinds of intriguing nuggets in the names of spells and in the characters’ names. And yet, the books could still be read without making that connection at all. Just part of the charm and fun, IMO.

    And as for the use of variants of “You know” — well, that’s just petty. It was after all, part of a conversation. People do tend to use the same phrases over and over when they are speaking. If they wrote it all out, they’d likely see the repetition and do something to correct it. So, does she want “you know” or the “ums” and “ers” that people often use as a vocal placeholder while they gather their thoughts.

    My friend/co-site director was guilty of using “OK” in that same way when she gave the morning and afternoon announcements. Someone (I think one of her daughters) got the whole camp to immediately respond with “OK –OK –OK OK OK! Hey!” It has a certain rhythm to it that’s impossible to write, hence the odd dashes and lack of them. The point was, it was a funny way to show her what she was doing, without being mean about it. So, she changed the “OK” to “All righty, then”. There didn’t seem to be a good answer for that one. But it’s still one of those useless, but often-used phrases that are common in speaking. To leave those odd things out of conversation would give the conversation a very formal and stilted feel. As far as I’m concerned, Rowling’s conversations have always had such a believable sound to them.

    Anyway, snarky comments usually irritate me quite a lot; this one doesn’t as much. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read any of her other opinions about Potter, or perhaps it’s because it isn’t as snobbish as most of them.

    I’m glad it gave you a nice break, John.


  4. Pat, my point about the “you knows” was not that they were filler “y’knows” (they’re anything but!); I was trying to say I have been grinding on some hard ideas to make them accessible and this throw-away but funny take on the books was a pleasant respite.

    I look forward to hearing what you think when I finally print the story of why Dumbledore feels obliged to tell (and demonstrate to) Harry that the Boy Who Lived is all but omniscient at King’s Cross.


  5. Hmm. I guess I see some of the points here (and can see why they might make you smile, John!). Still, I think even “garden variety” language needs to be learned, and what better way to learn it than through story! I still remember learning all sorts of useful words from series fiction I read when I was a kid, much less literary and much less thematically rich than Harry Potter. (I used to drive my family crazy, trying new words out at the dinner table.) I think this generation is frankly blessed to have the fun of learning vocabulary from stories this well told! And there’s nothing “tricky” about it. The confundus charm is a memorable way to learn the word “confound” though of course that’s just a lovely side benefit. I imagine JKR chose to use it because it worked for her story, not because she hoped to trick kids into learning latin roots. I’d wager plenty of children picked up the meaning of that word and many others by context, having read the HP stories over and over.

    Of course, I’m still marveling over an email I received from a friend this evening, a proud mom who just let me know that her not quite 9 year just finished reading all 734 pages of Goblet of Fire….

  6. Arabella Figg says

    It was the following comment in the previous Pyrdum post (referred to in the one you linked) that got me spewing snot-flavored jelly beans (read the post for a hilarious take on the PS train conversation):

    “If saying ‘sonorous’ can make your voice all loud, it must be hell living with a wizard with a large vocabulary in JKR’s world. Reading aloud a piece by William F. Buckley would be like firing a pistol randomly out the window.”

    I think it’s great that any book(s) can even vaguely connect kids to roots of their own language. And, Beth, I’ve been accused of eating dictionaries for breakfast. My license-plate frame reads “Synesthete For Sesquipedals.” I also agree that Rowling served her story, and wasn’t trying to “infect” kids with “Latinusphilius.” Or whatever.

    Curious Black thnks a sesquipedal is a bug you kill and eat…

  7. Well OK I think there is some truth in the quote below

    “…There’s a cottage industry in explaining to people why their guilty pleasures are actually rigorous intellectual exercises and thus thoroughly respectable, because many of us are just afraid to admit that we like things because they are exciting and fantastical.”

    Fair enough! However it also seems to me that (to misquote): “…many of us are just afraid to admit that the Harry Potter books might just be more that an exiciting and fantastical read for kids…”

  8. Eeyore,

    Er – the person who wrote the post about “Latinis Suckius” was a man.

    His picture is on that blog as well (although you may have gotten confused by seeing a photo of the actress who played Isolde higher up on that page.)

    That’s just to clarify things. Carl is obviously not a fan of the series, but I find his blog posts on a variety of subjects to be consistently funny and wanted to share them with John. I’m glad he liked them enough to share with his readers as well.


  9. I enjoyed the article and found humour in how his views were expressed. If nothing else, the piece is a great reference to send to those who still think the spells in Harry Potter are real!

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