What’s so funny ‘bout Peace, Love, and the Order of the Phoenix? Point of view and reader reaction

According to the great philosopher Obi-Wan Kenobi, a great many of the truths to which we cling depend upon our own point of view. This nugget of wisdom has been clearly illustrated to me lately as I’ve been reading aloud Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to my nine-year- old. I really hadn’t expected so much laughing from him as I read this one. Granted, there are some great Fred and George moments, and he is a big Fred and George fan, but I don’t really think of OP as being funny. It is, as we’ve discussed here at great length, the “black” book, the nigredo of Harry’s transformation as he begins to be stripped of his father substitutes with Sirius’s death. The Wizarding Wheezes humor, particularly appealing to pre-teen boys (setting off fireworks indoors, stuffing people in toilets, and puking seem much funnier to that age demographic) do serve to lighten the mood, and I guess they can be really laugh-out-loud funny if one is at the age to be deeply impressed by people who can burp the alphabet.

    That difference of reaction I understand, and I’m glad that his amusement has brought more of the humor to the forefront through this darker phase of our journey together with the boy wizard; what caught me up short was when we were reading “Snape’s Worst Memory,” a chapter I had actually been dreading (with “Career Advice,” my favorite chapter waiting just after to encourage me). I just did not look forward to reading that painful Pensieve scene, which I found unpleasant even before Deathly Hallows and its reassurance that Snape truly does deserve pity rather than contempt. Much to my horror, as I read, with some discomfort, of the Mauraders’ taunting of Snape, my sensitive, kind-hearted son actually laughed. I was appalled, and even snarled, “It’s not funny,” as defensive of Snape as Lily Evans is.

     Though he settled down and admitted that it is wrong to laugh at others,  I continued to ponder why the scene struck me as merely unpleasant, while to him, it was actually humorous. My husband, much to my surprise, said he thought that the scene was kind of funny, too.   Rather than assuming (incorrectly) that the males in my household are both barbarians, I began to ponder the function of reader point of view, particularly related to age, in reading about Harry’s adventures. I was a childless adult when I first journeyed to Hogwarts, and a mother of two by the time the series was complete, but I know many readers here began the series as children or teens and ended it as adults, read the books with or to their children, or are still younger readers who have not yet had the chance to see their perspectives change.

       So, what role do you see reader point of view playing in your own reading experiences with HP? Are there passages that were once funny that are no longer? Upsetting elements that seem harmless later? Characters who are more or less appealing to you as your own viewpoint changes over time( I know I’m far more in tune with Molly Weasley than I once was)? What elements of the series seem least affected by point of view? Can we see these as the elements that bring out childlikeness in us, very different, as C.S. Lewis notes, from childishness?  How does Harry Potter as shared text work within the variations of viewpoint among readers?

    Certainly, our perspectives can change how we read any book. I remember how surprised I was, as an adult, to realize how much I enjoyed The Scarlet Letter after being dragged through it in high school. I decided that a person needed to have made a few big mistakes in life to really appreciate and love Hester’s story. Other books, like Lewis’s Chronicles, had me in childhood and never let me go. So, has Harry’s story, like Aslan, gotten bigger as you have? Or do you sometimes wonder if you and your younger colleagues are reading the same story? I would really like to know if anyone else, like me, has been surprised by the reaction of a “co-reader” with a different point of view. Who knew Jedi knew so much about literary criticism?



  1. This is only tangentially related, but I wanted to note what a good conversation this is to bring up. People who are wary of relativism tend to balk at this kind of discussion, for fear it will place all meaning and truth into the subjective realm. But the great fairy tale thinkers like MacDonald and Tolkien saw the reader’s response and point of view as critical to the experience of making meaning out of a text.

    In fact, much of MacDonald’s great essay, “The Fantastic Imagination,” is taken up with this question! A few tidbits:

    “If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”

    Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.


    “But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”

    Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there!

    Tolkien takes up similar issues in his preface to the second Edition of LoTR, though I don’t have that in front of me at present to quote from.

  2. Hello, I rarely comment on blogs, but I am quickly getting hooked on this one, and now that the school year is winding down I hope to find more time to catch up. I just wanted to add that book 5 is my favorite because it was both the darkest AND the funniest. Laughter through tears is the best one-two punch. Equally affected by Snape’s humiliation, I also couldn’t help but laugh at the dirty underpants. These therapeutic bits of humor give us a reprieve, a moment to forgive ourselves for the personal parallels we see in the character’s behavior, and therefore allow us to keep reading on. As a teacher, the Umbridge versus Lupin/Dumbledore argument was powerful and prevalent – I wish all the teachers at my school would read this book. Troubled by that storyline and seeing parallels at my own school’s change of administration, I never laughed so hard as when McGonagall approved of F&G’s dramatic quitting of school. The cordoned off swamp, her charge to Peeves allowed a much needed release to a frustrating situation that hit very too close to home.

    How I love book 5.

    Thanks for letting me share my simple opinion.

  3. Elizabeth says

    Thanks for chiming in, Jessica! As many of us here are professional educators, we really enjoy looking at the pedagogy at Hogwarts and its real-world connections. I have found Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Lupin to be inspirational in my own teaching, and I think more teachers ought to get some “Hogwarts residency” under their belts!
    McGonagall’s defense of Harry’s career goals to Umbridge was one part of “Career Advice” I couldn’t wait to read out loud! (and, of course, my son and I both laugh at McGonagall’s advice to Peeves on unscrewing the chandelier!)
    Come back and visit often, and feel free to pitch in! Thanks!

  4. This blog thing is fairly new to me as well, but I just wanted to say that those are some great quotes Travis posted. They remind me of a verse from the Bible. “Unto the pure all things are pure, but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure, but even their mind and conscience is defiled.” Titus 1:15
    Being a fundamentalist Christian, I come from some of those churches and schools that really overreact to objectionable elements in literature, movies, and music. I understand their concerns, but I also believe you can find objectionable elements anywhere, including in the Bible itself. What you get out of something really depends on what you bring to it. I believe C.S. Lewis said pretty much the same thing.
    I really enjoy the discussions on this website. Thanks for sharing, everyone!

  5. I must confess that I laughed at the way James and Sirius dealt with Snape in the “Worst Memory” scene — despite my own experiences of frequent teasing from classmates in school years. The lines are funny — and Snape is hardly an innocent victim. It’s clear throughout the series that Snape does his own share of dirty deeds in his interactions with the Marauders. It was only when Lily intervened that I reconsidered my reactions. But then the way Snape rejects her undid that effect for me. Ultimately, as Lily says, both James and Severus are equally bad in this.

    I do also confess that I’ve never understood the love that many of the people on this forum have for the character of Severus Snape. He is a not a nice character; he does nasty things often out of sheer spite. Even with the back story of his actual relationship with Lily Evans complete, it falls short of genuine love. Perhaps it was only with her death (both threatened and actual) that Severus truly loved Lily. But even then he is incapable of transferring this affection to her son.

    I wish Rowling would have shown us how much James changed and grew in contrast to how little Snape did. For a lot of readers, the character of James Potter seems to have been frozen in “Snape’s Worst Memory.” We never really had a chance to see how James became the man Lily loved and married … and who went on to become the loving, heroic father who stepped into Voldemort’s way in an attempt to give his wife and son a chance to escape.

  6. Trudy’s comment made me pause. I was throughout all the books a Snape advocate. When book 6 ended and we don’t know the truth of AD’s death and everyone was saying they KNEW Snape was evil I stood firmly by his side and told all my fellow readers and friends that I knew he was loyal and there was no way he had killed AD.

    Granted, my faith in his innocence had more to do with me being confident that AD could not be fooled but still I believed in his innocence. Why? Why do I still find Snape fascinating? Why is he one of my favorite characters? I do not know. I guess it is because in a strange way Snape does what Prof Dumbledore intended by leaving Harry with his muggle family, to keep him from knowing he was ‘the boy who lived’ to give him some sense of normalcy.
    Snape does what no one else does to Harry, he treats him like he treats everyone else with condescension, with a sneer and poorly disguised disgust.

    Harry needs this. Harry needs not to be universally liked, adored or tolerated. Even McGonogall has her own brand of special treatment for Harry (Letting him play as the younger seeker for example) Dumbledore adores him and all the other teachers like him too. Snape brings a little balance to the table.

    He is unfair, unlikable, rude and sarcastic, but he does it oh so well! I have laughed out loud with Snape’s witty mean remarks more than with even the twins and the exchanges between Harry and Snape are always tense, funny and never boring. “There’s no need to call me ‘sir’ Professor” Indeed!

    I guess part of me always saw Snape as the underdog. Even more than Harry. He was always so lonely. Nobody liked him, he didn’t really have any friends. Even in the last book you find that to Dumbledore he is no more than a tool to be used to destroy Voldemort.

    When I read the chapter of the dirty underpants my reaction was the same as the blogger’s, I didn’t find it funny at all, I was angrier at James than I was at Snape for snapping at Lily. Maybe it’s because James even though he is Harry’s father is a background character, James is Harry’s father, Lily’s husband, Sirius’ best friend and that’s it. Snape is someone we get to know, someone we may not like, but familiar nonetheless and I felt more compelled to defend him in that chapter than to excuse James for his bullying behavior simply for being Harry’s father.

    Even Harry in the book, in spite of his hatred for Snape finds himself horrified at what his father did to Snape. He can understand what it feels. In his head his father was him and Snape was Draco Malfoy, that memory served to make Harry see that Snape had true reasons to dislike James, that he isn’t mean and rude and hateful without cause and that his father wasn’t the perfect man he thought he was.

    Snape’s attack on Lily didn’t seem to me as a real attack on her but more the bite of a wounded dog who snaps back because he is afraid of hurting more.

  7. Elizabeth says

    What a great discussion, and a great illustration of how point of view works! It’s great to have so many new folks pitching in, too (and we hope not for the last time!) Trudy’s comment made me wonder if my inability to find the scene funny was because of my own experience as both the brunt of jokes, and, like Lily, as the rescuer of those who were the brunt of jokes.
    As Travis points out (and thanks for those fantastic quotations, too!) we are not talking about moral relativism here, but about perspective, about how the view changes depending on where you are standing, and the fairy tale connections work beautifully, because so many of us experience those when we are ourselves children and later in life with our own children. Though the landscape of the story is the same, our vantage point is different as adults, and we may see the fictional world differently.
    Mel, I like your point about Snape’s bringing some balance to Harry’s life. He is a thoroughly nasty person, of course, and, most offensive to me personally, a rotten teacher, but he has never been nice to anyone outside of a few pet Slytherins, a fact established well before Harry’s arrival at Hogwarts, and no one expects him to be nice to Harry. So, while much of his vitriol toward Harry is genuine resentment toward James, some of it may be part of the consummate actor’s script in the play Dumbledore is directing.
    Thanks again, guys!

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