Notes from Prophecy 2007: Friday Luncheon

I am just getting back on my feet after two days in Toronto at Prophecy 2007. Because both my talks were about Deathly Hallows, a book I had only managed to read twice in the thirteen days since it was published, I was something of a wreck getting my notes into something like a lecture while moving my family from Point A to a distant Point B. That I had volunteered to say something meaningful about the Christian Content of the finale and the Literary Alchemy of Deathly Hallows, my supposed areas of expertise, didn’t make my preps any easier. Self-inflicted wounds are the worst, right?

Everything worked out well in the end, no doubt due to your prayers (for which “thank you!”), and both talks were well received. My regret from the conference was that all of my time not at the luncheon I moderated on Friday, at an HPEF meet-and-greet that evening, and at my own talks was spent getting ready for those two talks. I did have dinner with Travis and Tricia Prinzi from Sword of Gryffindor, I did manage to have longer conversations with Lisa Bunker and with Lee Hillman as we walked to and fro in the palatial Toronto Sheraton, and I did stay up way too late Saturday night/Sunday morning talking with Daniel Nexon, author of Harry Potter and International Relations. That was great.

But I didn’t get to have the meals and longer conversations I wanted with Diane Patterson, David Stoub, Melissa Aaron, and James Thomas, among many other people I met in Toronto or those who are friends from other Potter gatherings (hi, Paul!). Steve Vander Ark grabbed me as I was running to the elevator in order to get to my room and finish my Alchemy talk and we spoke for maybe 90 seconds before I started having a panic attack and begged off. Steve is one of the nicer people in Fandom and he was easily the person in Toronto with the greatest demands on his time; during our short chat we were surrounded by fans and I had a good idea of how Ron felt standing next to Harry on the King’s Cross platform in the Deathly Hallows epilogue .

And I didn’t have time to catch up with Steve? One of several Major Regrets. I played phone tag with Diane Patterson on Saturday after my last talk and lost the chance of catching up with the person I come to these conferences to touch base with.

I didn’t go to anyone else’s lectures. Pretty gross. And not much material for notes here, consequently, except for the luncheon. So let’s talk about that!

The Friday luncheon with a “Panel of Harry Potter Experts” was a lot of fun and well worth waiting for if you bought the recordings package from Content Management Corporation. Philip Nel of Kansas State University would have been a better moderator, I think, than I was but the quality of the panel discussion about Deathly Hallows obscured my shortcomings. Phil Nel, Karin Westman (also of KSU), Connie Neal, James Thomas (Pepperdine), and Daniel Nexon (Georgetown) gave the several subjects we discussed (their experience while reading the last book, how well Deathly Hallows did with respect to their expectations, why serious scholars read Harry Potter, and the probability of Ms. Rowling entering the “Great Books Canon”) a turn from their unique perspectives. I confess to being startled at the variety of people at the dais speaking intelligently on these books; a professor of Political Science at Georgetown, an Evangelical Christian soccer mom, a professor of postmodern English Literature, another of both early 20th century American Literature and of Shakespeare, a Children’s Literature prof, and a token alchemist each had important things to say.

All of them (surprise!) thought Deathly Hallows more than met expectations. Dan Nexon’s comments on the political content — that Ms. Rowling succeeded in critiquing both Hawks and Doves in the War on Terrorism — I thought were the most memorable of the accolades the panel tossed at the series finale but no one liked the books for the same reasons, especially the alchemist and Evangelical Christian soccer mom. The alchemist insisted the books could not be read as anything you want (an Evangelical pushing a relativist deconstructionist view is mind-numbing and not funny, however ironic) and that they weren’t Christian tracts for proselytizing despite soccer mom’s views, which will, of course, be the subject of a longer post here of its own.

To my surprise, I came close to tears talking about reading the last Harry Potter book aloud to my children the Saturday and Sunday after Potter-Day. Probably the question that drew the best laugh lines, though, was “Why do academics with any pretense of scholarship take these children’s books seriously?”

Philip Nel, as a rising star in the field of Children’s Literature, hit this question out of the park, I thought. His field doesn’t get that much respect, compared to, say, Chemistry or Economics, and he suggested this question was not new to him. He said, more eloquently than my summary will suggest, that children’s books have the most impact on how the person thinks, i.e., Wordsworth’s “the child is the father of the man.” Prof. Nel thought it obvious then that children’s books were the most deserving of adult attention and study and that Harry Potter, as the most successful children’s book in publishing history, merited the academic scrutiny it is only beginning to receive.

James Thomas from Pepperdine shared his English Department colleagues concerns about his serious interest in this series. They respect him as a scholar of English Literature with areas of expertise as divergent as Shakespeare and Faulkner but they struggled, politely, to see why he was spending his time with Harry. Prof. Thomas learned in conversation with these friends that few had read more than Philosopher’s Stone, if even all of the first book, which led him to wonder aloud what these dons would think of Hamlet if they only read the first act; “a few ghosts, some guards, a little Danish royalty, what is all the fuss about this play?” He resolved to only discuss the books with those who had read all 4100 pages.

Daniel Nexon of Georgetown’s Political Science Department again had the most memorable comments on a question. If Prof. Thomas as a tenured faculty member in an English Department has colleagues raising their eyebrows at his “Potter Problem,” Prof. Nexon’s friends and advisors in a Poli Sci Department are very concerned about his priorities and all but telling him he is “taking the Road less traveled” (not a flattering comment in the Ivory Tower). Why, then, does he spend time with Ms. Rowling’s boy wizard? Because political science in an age of globalization is about tracking cultural packages that ‘reach’ and what influence and substance these packages carry, packages as different as technology, sports, and entertainment. Harry Potter is, again, worthy of adult attention because of its almost universal popularity even in areas where this would not be expected (can you say “the Gulf States”?). I have dumbed down Dr. Nexon’s remarks but I will be buying his Harry Potter and International Relations and the luncheon recording to “hear” again what he said from the dais in Toronto.

On the similar topic about Harry Potter as a “Great Book” or the likelihood of its entering “literary canon,” the panel was again unanimous. Karin Westman and Philip Nel reviewed the history of this canon and how much it has changed in the last thirty years as women and writers of color have been admitted. They felt that, though very little time has elapsed since the series was finished (thirteen days!), how books have been accepted previously as “Great Books” suggested that Harry Potter was a shoe-in. That scholars were already talking about Ms. Rowling’s books seriously as more than cultural artifacts but as texts (and the unlikelihood that the books will go out of print!) means that future generations will take them as seriously as we are. Prof. Westman, now writing a book on the most important literary influences on Ms. Rowling, made the observation that the children now having experienced Harry Potter as an important and transforming part of their childhood will almost certainly share the books with their children.

My only contribution to this conversation was to add that “Great Books” are the ones that we re-read. Just as Lewis re-read all of Austen every year from his youth and Ms. Rowling, after Disraeli, read Austen’s Emma 20 times in a row, Potter Pods and Pundits are reading Deathly Hallows and all the other books in the series repetitively and closely. Lewis is supposed to have said that a Great Book was one you liked very much and which made you a better person for having read it.

In that, there seems little doubt that Ms. Rowling’s work to date, the 4100 page Harry Potter epic, is a “Great Book.”

Or so I think, along with the Prophecy Potter Panel. John Mark Reynolds, whose sobriety and insights make dismissing him a difficult thing, says he thinks Harry Potter makes “good reading” on several levels but that he has doubts about its staying power. What do you think? I look forward to reading your comments and corrections on this question, about my notes on the Friday luncheon, and, if you were there, your notes on what I didn’t include in my abbreviated coverage of a two hour event.

Post: Thank you to the Prophecy 2007 organizers who invited me to moderate the panel and to the hundreds of people who attended for laughing at our jokes and for the excellent questions they asked.


  1. I don’t have anything to add to your coverage, but I wanted to thank you for leading such an illuminating panel. I was the girl who asked about what we non-Christians may have been missing out on; I was lifted by the positive response from you and the panel and reminded again of why my own avidly-skeptic father encouraged me to read C.S. Lewis as a child.

    In fact, I wanted to thank you for something else, and ask a question, as well. I was blown away by the sheer number of off-handed literary references you and the other panelists made in regards to J.K.R.’s references and in-jokes… I really had no idea there was such a richness to these little books I love.

    So, while I’m reading the HogProf archives and making my own notes, I was wondering if you had any kind of a standard “reading list” for those of us hoping to get a little more out of the history behind these books? I’m from that younger generation who were never exposed to the Classics, and I’m starting to feel the lack.

    Thank you – for being there, for opening my mind, and for HogwartsProfessor. I hope to see you speak at Portus in Texas next year!


  2. Hi, Melanie!

    Thank you for the great question you asked at Prophecy’s Friday luncheon. I remember being startled by your excitement and curiosity about a world of books you hadn’t been aware of before. What a relief that you didn’t find my answer or the other answers from the panel a blanket or extinguisher for that excitement! I don’t recall any of the details of those responses (please feel free to share what you remember) but I will make three recommendations for a Harry Potter serious reader wanting to experience that magic again in other books.

    If you haven’t read Jane Austen, I urge you to start there. A few of my friends don’t care for her books and I understand from them that these Georgian era manners-and-morals set pieces are an acquired taste, but they are a lifetime of pleasure if you can get through the initial difficulties. Try ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ first and I think you’ll know why these books are Ms. Rowling’s favorites.

    Next, I’d try ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ Dickens wrote the first genre-bending novel in a book that is alchemical drama, historical fiction, and a romance penny-thriller. For the “Resurrection Men” alone, the doppelgangers, and the killer ending (sorry) which Ms. Rowling has said includes the best line in English literature, you’ve got to read TOTC.

    I was thinking of closing with either C. S. Lewis’ ‘Space Trilogy’ (Out of the Silent Planet/Perelandra/That Hideous Strength) or Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ but I’ll go with Eric Blair/George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984.’ The Space Trilogy gives you a taste of Lewis trying to be Charles Williams, a great alchemical novelist, and Swift gives you hilarious and bitter satire not very convincingly hidden in a children’s story/travelogue. Orwell gives you the nightmare of our lives in totalitarian states where big brother is invisible and omnipresent in stories that are as engaging, disturbing, and life-changing as anything I’ve read.

    I’m sure the HogPro All-Pros have their own recommendations (and will tell you why mine are lousy!) but I hope these will work. If the reading is really too hard, try watching the movie version first and come back to the book. And please let me know how you’re doing!

    John, glad you’re with us at HogPro

  3. John, it sounds like it was a great luncheon–I’d love to have been there.

    Melanie, John’s list is a wonderful place to start, though I’d switch out Emma for Sense and Sensibility. And if reading Austen is too tedious–I love it, but sometimes, it just is–try renting the movies. Skip the latest, chopped up version of Pride and Prejudice and look for the one by the BBC/A&E–the one with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy is excellent. And Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility (the cast includes her, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet) is one of my favorite Austen adaptations.

    I never thought I liked Dickens, but for some reason before Half-Blood Prince came out, I read a Tale of Two Cities, and loved it. I’ve since read Oliver Twist (and saw a lot of the description of Spinner’s End), and am currently reading Great Expectations, which I somehow managed to avoid in high school, even though it was assigned.

    Animal Farm and 1984 were books I read a long time ago, and they are well worth a look as John says. I did finally read Charles Williams, but I wouldn’t go there till you feel like you have a reasonable grasp on Alchemy–the books have much more meaning when you do.

    One of the things that I have found, in going back and re-reading Austen, is that I also read or re-read other 19th century English authors–Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope mainly, with a side trip to Wilke Collins (another author Rowling mentioned she liked).

    One of the other things that I have found helpful is to read the books that J.K. Rowling said she read and loved–some are children’s books, but you’ll find all sorts of nods to them in all the Harry Potter books, and they are quite enjoyable–specifically, “I Capture the Castle”, “The Little White Horse”, and “Five Children and It”. I’m not a fan of Raold Dahl, but she is, so there’s another to add to the list.

    It’s a long list, with no particular order, and no need to rush through any of them. It probably is best to follow John’s advice, but I just wanted to throw in some others in case you get through those quickly.


  4. Wow!

    Thank you for this – looks like a trip to the bookstore is in short order. I remember some of my friends reading Tale of Two Cities – assigned, of course, and it’s interesting how much less attractive a book becomes when you’re required to read it.

    When I moved in college, I had to sell off the books I’d acquired when I was younger (nearly two thousand, too many trashy sci-fi), and now that I’m more settled I’m excited about the prospect of filling my shelved with more considered choices – not that I won’t ever pick up any trashy sci-fi at some point along the way 😉

    Thank you again! I’ve got lots of full evenings ahead of me – and I couldn’t be happier.

  5. I very much enjoyed the luncheon group and the two presentations you gave. I was really touched by how much reading the books to your children meant to you. The conclusion of the HP series is meaningful to so many people (definitely me!) and it is worth strong feelings.

    Pat mentioned the Little White Horse. Do you realize that Rowling just wrote the Little Silver White Doe?

    I told you and Connie Neal both that I deeply appreciate your willingness to write pro Harry books from a Christian viewpoint.

    With all the negatives thrown at the series by the hardline folks, the need for apologetics was great. The hardliners were making all Christians look like idiots to people of ohter faiths as well as to people who are agnostic or atheistic who read the HP books and found them…oh…charming? good to read? worthy? Certianly nothing to rant over and send lawyers to libraries and school boards over.

    So you made it OK for people like me (much more of a Hufflepuff than a Gryffindor) to step up and be a Christian who writes good things about Harry Potter too. My presentation at the con for Weasleyan theology went over pretty well.

    See!? Long ago I told you that Ron would be a Lord of Light! Ha!

  6. Moonyprof says

    I attended with my Mom (and I *am* Melissa Aaron–thanks for the mention!) and we both enjoyed a lot of the commentary. Your sum-up pretty much covers it for those who couldn’t be there.

    Philip Nel was great and he did make an excellent point–that children’s literature is often a poor stepchild of “serious” literature. In re both his and Prof. Thomas’ pov: English literature is a fairly new field. A hundred years ago it was the province of people who read Shakespeare for amusement. Even the most serious scholars were amateurs in the best sense of the word–and Faulkner hadn’t even been written. It’s a commonplace, of course, but Shakespeare didn’t write his plays so they could be placed on a syllabus and then avoided. They weren’t even meant to be read, but seen, and they were almost as commercially successful as the Harry Potter books!

    Your own remark about rereading spurred some discussion between my mother and me about the dislike of rereading. Sadly, I saw it in my own graduate program–a literature program! Some of my colleagues preferred theorizing about books to reading them and certainly did not like rereading them and admitted as much.

    Probably because my specialty is Renaissance lit., I see a lot of Renaissance literature in the series. I don’t know how much a person would want to read Chaucer, Spenser, Dante and Petrarch on his or her own, but it can’t hurt to look at the Pardoner’s Tale. The Norton Anthology of English Literature contains a lot of the “greatest hits” that she references, along with a lot of helpful notes to understand them. (Then, I’ve always agreed with Spenser that the difficulty and complexity of a work makes it more enjoyable, not less.) Also, considering the Arthurian content and the nature of the hero and his mentor, TH White’s Arthurian book *The Once and Future King* provides a lot of echoes–though a much more pessimistic ending.

    In between the reading, I would fire up the old DVD player and *watch* some Shakespeare. Both Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier did great *Hamlet*s and *Henry V*s, both of which are echoed a lot. I had wondered if JKR would ever get around to the “little touch of Harry in the night*, and sure enough she did–pp. 744-45 US edition.

    The sheer number of books people are suggesting really speaks to the complexity of these books!


  7. John, the comments from the children’s lit prof reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s words on that topic:

    “I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last” (Of Other Worlds, p. 24). He also notes that “it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then” (38).

    Melanie, you have been given some good suggestions above, regarding books that particularly influenced JK Rowling. For someone wanting to dip into classic literature in general but perhaps feeling a bit overwhelmed, the book “Invitation to the Classics” or a similar book, can be a helpful guide – to whet your appetite, to help you make sense of what you are reading, and to help you decide what to read next. Here’s the Amazon link:

    If you enjoyed the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis was profoundly influenced (among many others) by George MacDonald, who he called “my master” for all the things he felt he learned from MacDonald. Lewis said MacDonald’s book Phantastes is the book that “baptized my imagination”. You might enjoy trying some MacDonald (Phantastes, Lilith, or some of his shorter works like The Golden Key) and, if you haven’t read them, some of Lewis’s other imaginative works like “The Great Divorce” (more interesting than it sounds, and not about marital divorce), the Space Trilogy or ‘Til We Have Faces. Tale of Two Cities was for a long time my favorite novel. I’d definitely recommend it if you want to try Dickens. If you find you enjoy Jane Austen, the novels of George Elliot – particularly Middlemarch – are also great.

  8. Till We Have Faces is by far C. S. Lewis’s best novel, but I never cared much for the trilogy. I also didn’t think much of Middlemarch, I’m afraid.
    Tale of Two Cities was the first Dickens book I read on my own, and it’s definitely as advertised; you won’t regret reading it.
    Good heavens, I thought I was the only living person on earth who’d read I Capture the Castle. Nice to find a kindred spirit.

  9. “I also didn’t think much of Middlemarch, I’m afraid.”

    Well to each his/her own. And not to get too far off the HP track. But . . . [from Wikipedia entry]

    “Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”.[1]

    V. S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative … I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot … No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

    In January 2007, a book entitled The Top Ten (edited by J. Peder Zane) listed Middlemarch tenth in their list of The 10 Greatest Books of All Time, based on the ballots of 125 selected writers.[2]

  10. Arabella Figg says

    I discovered wonderful young adult literature in my 20s. Books by Madeleine L’Engle and the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander (who just passed away) enthralled me and are still favorites. Occasionally I’ll hit the young adult section and find great books, ones often better than adult fiction. See if you aren’t riveted by Terry Trueman’s Stuck In Neutral or Lois Lowry’s Giver trilogy.

    Sorry, I found TOTC incredibly depressing and difficult to slog through (read it on my own), but enjoyed Great Expectations. I’m going to check into the Austen again.

    A book and kitties on the lap, heaven…

  11. Arabella Figg says

    A note on the “will the books last” and Great Books issue:

    On the first question, yes, no doubt, amen. Rowling was smart to keep these books so timeless.

    I think of seeing Hal Holbrook do Mark Twain Tonight a few years ago. It was a fantastic experience and, should any of you ever have the opportunity to see it, do. Holbrook isn’t getting any younger.

    Anyway, as Twain, he commented on Congress, political parties, politics, social issues, etc. It was simply amazing how these words, written over 100 years ago, fit today’s American times exactly! Exactly!! The audience was in stitches.

    I believe the HP books will be like this. A hundred years from now (and longer) people will laugh, cry, wince and bemoan over the same things in the books we do now.

    Are they Great Books? I don’t know the criteria for that designation. But are they great books that will enthrall readers again and again through the years? Absolutely!

    Thudders refuses to vacate my office chair, so I’m sitting on the edge and it’s getting uncomfortable…

  12. Arabella Figg says

    Hot doggy-doo!

    Speaking of HP being one of the Great Books, our newspaper reviewed the play “All the Great Books (abridged)”, a slapstick look at serious literature by Reed martin and Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (the “bad boys of abridgement,” as they call themselves), who wrote “The Complete Works of Shakesepeare (abridged)” and “The Complete History of America (abridged)”; they race you through 100 books in under 100 minutes.

    The reviewer writes ‘The “Great Books” syllabus is particularly wide-ranging. You’ll see “Don Quixote” and “Dianetics”; “Plato’s Republic” and “Harry Potter”; “Beowulf” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”‘

    Well. Perhaps HP will truly make the Great Books sooner than we think.

    Madame Scrawny has studied her pink foam ball and predicts it…

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