The link below is to an article that looks at the release of 4 new Harry Potter ebooks (which have already appeared in the Kindle store by the way) by J. K. Rowling.
Nikk Effingham, University of Birmingham; Anna Cermakova, University of Birmingham; Heather Widdows, University of Birmingham; James Walters, University of Birmingham; Michaela Mahlberg, University of Birmingham, and Stephan Lautenschlager, University of Birmingham
Even in the real world there are witches among us, and fantastic beasts – and a touch of magic, too. And so to mark the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, these experts have answered some of the more mysterious questions behind JK Rowling’s magical fiction. And they’ve made a series of short video explainers, too.
What would we see in the Mirror of Erised?
Professor Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics
The Mirror of Erised (“desire” backwards), features in the Harry Potter films and The Crimes of Grindelwald. It is a magic mirror that shows “not your face but your heart’s desire”. When Harry – the neglected, lonely orphan boy – looks in the magic mirror, for example, he sees himself surrounded by a happy, loving family. His heart’s desire is to be loved and not alone.
The moral of the Mirror of Erised – and the Harry Potter universe is full of morals – is that the truly happy person sees only themselves as they really are.
But could many of us do this? In our increasingly visual and virtual culture, what many of us would likely see if we looked in the Mirror of Erised is an improved, perfected body, the imagined self, the Perfect Me. This is the self we are constantly working on. The self we imagine we will attain if only we stick to our diets, go to the gym and perform the prescribed tasks: brushing, pumping, plucking, creaming, firming, smoothing and erasing.
This is the self we seek to invoke in our doctored and digitally remastered selfies. The thinner, firmer, smoother, younger, you. Still you, but the better, best or even – if you believe the language of the beauty business – the “real” you.
Is there equality in the world of witches and wizards?
Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics and Dr Anna Cermakova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow
In a captivating scene in Fantastic Beasts, little Modesty Barebone is playing hopscotch and singing:
My momma, your momma, gonna catch a witch,
My momma, your momma, flying on a switch,
My momma, your momma, witches never cry,
My momma, your momma, witches gonna die!
This ominous song alludes to the historical witch trials. The trials mainly focused on women and girls – and these historical connections contribute to the negative connotations we have of the word “witch”. Indeed, in today’s language, “witch” often refers to an unlikable, unpleasant or ugly woman.
But things are different for the word “wizard”. Wizards tend to have positive qualities, being wise and brave, for example – think of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings books – and there are also positive expressions, such as “computer wizard”. The word “wizard” is also used less frequently than “witch”.
And so the words “witch” and “wizard” make a rather unequal pair. How Rowling’s Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts series shift and question the meaning of these words for today’s children is really quite remarkable. She makes some witches (such as Hermione in the Harry Potter films) good, and some wizards, such as Grindelwald (played by Johnny Depp in the latest film) bad, subverting the old stereotypes. At the same time, it is interesting to see how our real world gender inequalities are mirrored in Rowling’s world of magic.
Are there real life Fantastic Beasts?
Dr Stephan Lautenschlager, Lecturer in Palaeobiology
In the Fantastic Beasts series, the audience is introduced to a range of weird and wonderful magical creatures: from winged horses and thunderbirds to demons and mischievous furry animals, which look like a cross between a mole and a platypus. While some of them might have been inspired by living animals, many of the beasts in the movies would seem to be too fantastic to be true if we encountered them in the wild. However, this might also be the case for many of the real-life fantastic beasts which inhabited this planet long before humans.
The evolutionary origins of modern animals date back more than 500m years, while the first traces of life itself go back as far as 3.5 billion years. Over that period of hundreds of millions of years, many animals which can only be described as fantastic beasts have evolved, conquered the water, land or air, and eventually become extinct again.
But proof for their existence is documented by their fossilised remains. In fact, the fossil record is full of fossil fantastic beasts and, as palaeontologists, we attempt to revive some of them. Not in real life, but by studying their fossilised skeletons to reconstruct their appearance, their biology and their behaviour.
What role do we play in the wizarding world?
Dr James R Walters, Reader in Film and Television Studies
The wizarding communities in the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films live among ordinary people – the muggles, no-majs and non-magiques. These lives are sometimes intertwined as magical incidents spill over from one society to the next.
But who are these ordinary people? The monstrous Dursley family who abuse their magical nephew, Harry Potter? The childlike Jacob Kowalski, who cannot be trusted with the secrets of the wizarding world and must have his memory erased? Or the oblivious masses who feel only the effects of magic without seeing their causes? In these films, non-magical humans are often peripheral, inconvenient or even negative elements.
As ordinary humans, we are the muggles. In these worlds, we would be background details or minor complications. And yet the films allow us to become part of the magical world, as we move through its landscapes and share its secrets. We shake off our ordinariness and become temporary members of a society more spectacular, but less human. So, the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films possess a magic common to all of cinema. As we watch the films – something I discuss further in this podcast – we are not ourselves. There, in the darkness, these films cast their spell of invisibility over us.
Will we ever be able to ‘apparate’?
Dr Nikk Effingham, Reader in Philosophy
In the world of Harry Potter, the wizards can magically move around, vanishing from one place and appearing in another. They might use “floo powder” or “portkeys”, or “apparate” away. And they can also move through time! Using a “Time Turner”, a witch or wizard can travel back into the past. But doing so is risky – who wants to end up like Madam Mintumble who travelled back to the 15th century and ended up ageing five centuries?
But if you’re careful, the skilled magician can manage to pull it off, as we know from when Hermione Grainger, from the Harry Potter stories, managed to regularly travel back in time to fit in her studies. Or when the protagonists of the books managed to push the boundaries of safety when they went back to save Sirius Black and Buckbeak the Hippogriff.
But does this make any sense? What does teleportation involve? Does being careful when we’re back in the past make a difference? And is time travel even possible? I can’t say whether time travel is physically possible (you’ll have to ask a physicist) but in my latest research, I argue that it is at least theoretically possible – like many things, we can’t rule out its possibility without first learning more about the physical world around us.
Nikk Effingham, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Birmingham; Anna Cermakova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, Centre for Corpus Research, University of Birmingham; Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham; James Walters, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, University of Birmingham; Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham, and Stephan Lautenschlager, Lecturer in Palaeobiology, University of Birmingham
The link below is to an article reporting on J. K. Rowling suing her former assistant for scamming her out of money which was spent on cats and other things.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article on DIY Harry Potter bookmarks.
If you’re into Harry Potter, then you’re going to love the bookends in the article linked to below.
For more visit:
Harry Potter is the literary phenomenon of the past century, and while our society has had no difficulty celebrating J.K. Rowling’s work, the literary community has been somewhat slower in figuring out exactly what the series has to say.
We tend to think of Harry Potter as an escapist delight, but Rowling’s work also expertly constructs a poignant extended theme that has more in common with King Lear than most English professors might care to admit. This theme at the core of Rowling’s wizarding world speaks directly to a universal human reality: The struggle to come to terms with our mortality.
Death is obviously big in Harry Potter. Death initiates the core conflict of the series; death escalates in each text; death creates the tool by which Harry can defeat Voldemort; and death resolves the conflict in the end, since Voldemort’s death is the end of the war itself. Death recurs throughout the series, but recurrence is not enough to constitute a theme.
Literary theorist Roger Fowler notes that: “A theme is always a subject, but a subject is not always a theme: a theme is not usually thought of as the occasion of a work of art, but rather a branch of the subject which is indirectly expressed through the recurrence of certain events, images or symbols. We apprehend the theme by inference – it is the rationale of the images and symbols, not their quantity.”
Thus, a theme is a comprehensible viewpoint that emerges from a pattern of recurrence — a statement, if you will, that we perceive through progressive repetition and associated symbolism. Without that statement, a pattern is just a motif. If the author is using that pattern to say something, however, the pattern becomes a theme.
So what role does all this death play in the Harry Potter franchise?
Death in Potter
In his first adventure, Harry is tempted by the life-prolonging “philosopher’s stone” of legend.
At the end of that story, Harry is only able to obtain the stone from the Mirror of Erised because he does not want to use it. In this, he immediately establishes his contrast to Voldemort, who desperately seeks the stone in order to extend what the centaur Firenze calls “but a half life, a cursed life.”
Upon hearing this, Harry wonders “If you’re going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn’t it?” thus showing us Harry’s internal perspective on Voldemort’s choice.
Dumbledore himself confirms Harry’s viewpoint at the end of the novel by telling Harry that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” If we put these pieces together, the death theme Rowling uses is all laid out within the very first book.
As the series progresses, it is death that defines Harry’s character development. Cedric’s death leaves Harry traumatized. Sirius’s death shows Harry the high cost of Harry’s mistakes and the extent to which death can alter his future. Dumbledore’s death, of course, leaves Harry rudderless and vulnerable, forcing him to mature to a new level of personal responsibility.
By Book Seven, Harry’s own death represents the ultimate boon that bestows upon him the power to at last defeat Voldemort, whose vulnerability is created by horcruxes, dark magic used to protect him at the expense of his living soul.
As Harry marches to his death, “Every second he breathed, the smell of the grass, the cool air on his face, was so precious.” In this moment, as Harry accepts death, life itself becomes sweet, even beautiful — a sharp contrast to the cursed life that Voldemort cannot escape from.
This contrast is again the pivot-point of the mortality theme that Rowling develops. Voldemort looks like death, he brings death wherever he goes, his army are the “Death-Eaters,” and several aspects of his iconography associate him with the Grim Reaper of legend.
It would be easy to conclude that Harry is simply fighting death in the series, but that role is actually reserved for Voldemort himself, whose name can be translated from the French to mean “flight from death,” not death itself.
The entire series is then the story of an antagonist struggling to deny death, matched against a protagonist who is maturing toward accepting it. If this sounds cynical, Severus Snap agrees with you when he laments that Dumbledore has “been raising him like a pig for slaughter.”
In spite of this objection, Snape is willing to die for the cause of righteousness, just as James and Lilly were, just as Sirius was, just as Dumbledore was, and just as all the casualties of the Battle of Hogwarts were. Even Harry’s poor owl, Hedwig, chooses to die to protect something she loves.
When perceived as a pattern, heroism in Harry Potter means accepting death. In contrast, fighting against death is analogous to raging against the storm for Shakespeare’s King Lear, who, like Voldemort, is reduced to a cursed existence in consequence.
The notion of death in fantasy literature might seem counter-intuitive for a genre that’s commonly associated with escapism. The reality, however, runs contrary, and Rowling’s theme is well within the norms of the genre.
J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, once wrote an essay called “On Faerie Stories,” in which he describes the prominent role of death within the fantasy genre. Tolkien writes that:
“Few lessons are taught more clearly in [fantasy] than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the ‘fugitive’ would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today.”
For Tolkien, fantasy is a genre that frequently engages with themes of mortality and provides us with “consolation” for our universal fear of death. He refers to his own example, the elves of Middle Earth, to show how he portrays immortality as undesirable.
Tolkien’s elves don’t ever have to die — and their lives are miserable as a result. Though less evil than Voldemort, the nature of their immortal existence is actually quite similar to that of Rowling’s villain — again, a cursed existence.
The Tale of the Three Brothers
The strongest encapsulation of the mortality theme in Harry Potter is the story within the story, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” which is told in the final Harry Potter book. Three brothers face death and respond in three different ways. Only the one who ultimately accepts death is spared a brutal and humiliating end. “And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”
That “the boy who lived” is also the boy who died is not a paradox. Indeed, Rowling’s argument is that only by accepting our inevitable passing can we truly live a life of meaning and purpose.
To fly from death is to relinquish all the things that make life worth living. This is more than just a clever little message buried in a whimsical boy wizard story —indeed the resonance of this theme within all human beings may in fact be a huge part of the novel’s ubiquitous appeal. Harry Potter, you see, has something to say.
The twentieth anniversary celebrations of the highest-selling book series of all time are now coming to a close. 2017 has been a milestone year for Harry Potter fans in their twenties and thirties, who spent much of their youth in anticipation of the release of each new book or film.
Last week’s Wheeler Centre event Harry Who? The True Heroes of Hogwarts brought together writers, comedians and musicians to celebrate the series. While Harry and his broken glasses predominate at most Potter tourist sites and film screenings, Harry Who? asked the audience to consider who really is the true hero of J.K. Rowling’s stories.
As readers contemplate the long-term legacy of the Potter universe and whether it will endure, it’s also important to consider the overarching messages of Rowling’s series as the most popular example of children’s literature to date.
Harry embodies the key characteristic of some of the most memorable protagonists of classic children’s literature. From centuries-old stories of Cinderella onwards, child and youth characters who are orphans not only foster the reader’s empathy, but are also freed from the expectations and restrictions that biological parents impose.
Melanie A. Kimball explains the twin effects of child orphans in literature:
Orphans are at once pitiable and noble. They are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also represent the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves.
Without the tragedy of Harry’s parents being violently killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry would have had no compulsion to go beyond the “typical” experience of a child with a witch and a wizard for parents.
At Harry Who?, writer Ben Pobjie pointed out that Harry is not exceptional, but that it is his nemesis, Voldemort, who propels Harry to importance. With reference to his dubious celebrity, Pobjie joked that if Voldemort was in Australia, he would “be on Sunrise every morning”. As with the importance of Harry’s lack of parental influence and constraint, the extreme adversity of being Voldemort’s inadvertent nemesis establishes a heroic scenario for Harry to inhabit.
One of the repeated claims throughout the event was that Harry is not much of a hero at all, particularly as he relies on other people to succeed. In the first book of the series especially, Hermione Granger possesses most of the personal attributes and knowledge required to defeat the ever-present threat posed by Voldemort. She is clearly the most intelligent of the Harry, Ron and Hermione trio, and works hard where her male counterparts often attempt to shirk the effort required.
While Hermione’s heroism is important, she clearly plays a supporting role to Harry: the series is, after all, named after him. The emphasis on Harry is reflective of the deep gender bias in children’s literature throughout the past century.
A 2011 study of twentieth-century children’s books found that, on average, in each year, no more than a third of children’s books featured central characters who were adult women or female animals. In contrast, adult men and male animals usually featured in 100 per cent of children’s books.
Though the Harry Potter series does depict some strong and beloved female characters including Professor Minerva McGonagall, it is reflective of an era in which protagonists in children’s literature are usually male unless a book is specifically marketed at a girl readership. In addition, the series is also lacking in the depiction of queer characters, regardless of J.K. Rowling’s post-book declaration that Hogwarts’ headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore is gay.
With the rapid changes in attitudes toward social and cultural issues including same-sex marriage and children with non-normative gender and sexual identities, the Harry Potter series — as a product of the 1990s and early 2000s – might not endure as well as some might imagine.
Indeed, the issue of changing social norms means that very few children’s “classics” continue to be read by children as decades and even centuries pass. It could be that the series is eventually understood as somewhat outdated and more about producing nostalgia for adults in the same way as the once ubiquitous books of Enid Blyton are viewed today.
One crucial part of the Harry Potter legacy, however, is its effectiveness in encouraging readers, viewers, and now theatre goers with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, to embrace fantastic stories about young people once again.
Adults in the late 19th and early 20th centuries delighted in children’s stories and made up a significant segment of the audience for plays such as Peter Pan. The dual audience of children’s literature, for both adults and children, was once the norm and one that did not bring any shame or embarrassment with it.
Twenty years on, today’s adults are still gathering to talk about and celebrate the Potter novels they enjoyed as children and have continued to re-read. In addition, other series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games and Riverdale, show the continuing popularity of stories about young people for adults. In 2037 we will be able to tell if the Potter-effect has lasted or if its magic only worked for a brief spell.