Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 11: Harry Potter and High Fantasy

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

  • How is high fantasy different from garden variety fantasy?
  • Harry Potter (HP) has done huge things to this concept of fantasy and how it is delivered and practised in not just literature but in the broad areas of culture as well (movies, gaming and the impetus it’s given to other writers).
  • Key readings: The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature edited by Peter Hunt
  • Also: The Heroic Tradition
  • an article by Amy Green from The Looking Glass (an open access journal), about racial discrimination in Harry Potter
  • High fantasy is not consistent with ‘accepted reality’. But who does the accepting? Who imagined what could be rather than examining what is?
  • Kathryn Hume looks at this idea comparing two terms related to Tolkien’s idea of primary world and secondary world: mimesis (from mime, mimic, imitate) — the idea of sharing the reality that we have now, and comparing this idea to ‘fantasy’ in which you extend and alter that reality. Two worlds: one which is and one which could be.
  • Dennis Butts looks at the difference between the ‘extraordinary’ and the ‘probable’. The probable refers to things which are credible — we think they not only can happen but are likely to happen. Mundane. (Mundus is the Latin, which means ‘the world’.) So mundane simply means ‘of this world’. Today it carries a negative connotation connected to ‘boring’. The extraordinary takes you away from that.
  • The standard realistic adventure has the reader thinking ‘that could happen to me’. The fantasy has the reader thinking, ‘Yes, I can see me there.’
  • High fantasy has nothing to do with the quality of the storytelling but is to do with the telling of the story. It’s to do with the scale of the story, the characters and the themes. The whole world is dependent upon the outcome.
  • Take Watership Down and Mrs Frisby and Toy Story — the outcome of those stories mean absolutely nothing to us. But in Harry Potter and Star Wars the whole world is dependent upon what happens in the plot. This is what makes it ‘high’. [Here I was thinking it was all dependent upon the presence of a dragon.]
  • Because we’re looking at the fate of the world then the good guys are very, very good. The bad are so bad.
  • Because of the nature of the style of writing you also come across many allusions to other writing. Other writers may not appear directly but certainly influence what’s going on.
  • The high fantasy worlds: Good vs evil worlds implies there are statements being made about humanity, about where humans fit into things. There are ethical concerns. (And Pamela Gates calls it Ethical Fantasy for this reason.)
  • Recurring themes and motives in high fantasy: Ideals of black and white, symbology reinforces that binary. They usually take place outside our primary world.
  • Of course the moral judgements derive from our world.
  • Types of high fantasy: Quest. Often the main character has something about them that is really different. We get into quasi-religious judgements. For example Frodo/Luke Skywalker/Harry Potter all face what is effectively the Christ situation of ‘I am prepared to offer myself to die if the others can live.’ [I suppose this makes The Bible high fantasy.]

Harry Potter

  • JK Rowling was born in Chipping Sodbury. [Yes, that’s an actual place.]
  • Rowling had the entire series worked out before the first was published.
  • It was thought that boys would resist an author called ‘Joanne’ which is why her name was shortened to initials.
  • The story starts as a story for 11 year olds and is meant to finish as a near-adult story. This style was intended right from the start.
  • A criticism: A couple of the middle ones (Phoenix, Half Blood Prince) could have been more carefully pruned and could have been half the length were she not so famous.
  • One of the key things about HP is how heavily the plots draw on established ideas (witches, centaurs, goblins) but not just from that sort of thing but also from very specific characters. In Philosopher’s Stone Nicholas Flamel was a real person.
  • Rowling comes up with marvellous allegorical names, which give a sense of goodness or evil e.g. Draco Malfoy (malodorous, malicious, dragons). Dickens is the one who came up with this onomatopoeic way of describing a person through their name. Dickens contributes tremendously to Harry Potter.
  • See James Washick called Oliver Twisted: The origins of Lord Voldemort in the Dickensian Orphan.
  • Enid Blyton also has an influence on HP. ‘The Famous Five Go Off To Mallory Towers And Then Up The Faraway Tree’ might describe HP. Blyton was very good at the boarding school story. The chums who look out for each other in Famous Five are very much Ron and Hermione and Neville supporting Harry. The Faraway Tree’s type of magic is comic almost, developing as the story goes on, but at the start HP is just Magic Wishing Chair kind of stuff.
  • Questions have been raised about censorship. HP is now one of the most challenged books in US libraries, where compared to England/Aus/NZ the public have a much greater capacity to challenge books used in schools. Consequently, teachers and school boards in USA are more ready to act at the slightest complaint. Some people don’t like HP because of the magic and occult. What is the role of magic in the story? Is magic a magic mechanism that solves problems, or is it simply a bit of decoration in the background — a tool among others? The other main problem regards the death and violence. Many characters die. Is it necessary for all these people to die? These are major characters who readers have developed sympathy with. Or is death purely there for video-game type entertainment?
  • What is magic? It is certainly super-normal/paranormal/supernatural. Any sort of mechanism that appears beyond the understanding of the observer observes magic. Anne McCaffrey wrote a series of novels set in a world called Pern. Their duty was to get rid of a thing that flew past every 400 years. But as the stories developed across the series it turned out they were not anything magic but genetically engineered little wizards, and all the people living on the approaching world were originally from earth [or something]. So what appeared to be magic ended up being science. Eventually the whole thing is solved by blowing up the spaceship.
  • What is the magic in HP? A devilish power or a fantasy tool to use?
  • Look at the choices characters make rather than the tools used. This argument is used in wars. If we go out and kill are we as bad as the people opposing us? This same question comes up in HP, but is not answered.

Related:

Why fantasy is not just juvenile nonsense from The Telegraph

At io9, commenters ask why movies these days are all high stakes. What did we do to deserve that story to the exclusion of all others? (Purchased box office tickets, I guess.)

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