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Studying Harry Potter- Why not other texts?

August 22, 2010

Interesting story from the BBC website… Durham University students offered first Harry Potter course.

“A number of themes will be explored, including the world of rituals, prejudice and intolerance in the classroom, bullying, friendship and solidarity and the ideals of and good citizenship… says Dr Martin Richardson, head of the Department of Education at Durham University.

“It seeks to place the series in its wider social and cultural context and will explore some fundamental issues such as the moral universe of the school.”

I have always been an avid reader, fascinated by characters and their worlds. I love fantasy and scifi best when they build in a strong sense of cultural questions. Questions that could be brought out into a larger context, to let a reader think more deeply about his or her own worldview. I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy for the questions they pose about what we assume is normal.  I’m all for speculative fiction doing its work in a larger, more critical sociocultural analysis. (Little-known fact: I did my anthropology senior seminar paper on Speaker For the Dead.)

I’m dubious about Harry Potter getting this treatment. I’m not sure the character development and writing JKR used to create Harry’s world stands up to this level of analysis. (Especially Book 7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Lack of Editing!) Yes- it’s popular, and it’s unifying in that so many people have read it. Just not sure that this particular series has enough meat on its bones, enough deliberation of structure, to work for this. (Then again, I’m grateful it’s not Twilight!)

I’m all for revisiting childhood favorites in a more critical context. I’d like to get my hands on a syllabus and the one for a follow up course on “Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion.”

For this kind of extra-contextual scrutiny, I’m asking for a more thematically structured book, serving a larger agenda. Of course, I’m biased toward Ender’s Game being the right platform for these kinds of questions. Or even the Narnia books, both more overt in their mythic undertones.  I am sure courses on Star Wars have been done in a similar vein.

Speaking of Star Wars– it could be that what I’m asking for really isn’t a good thing. Star Wars is a perfect case study of what happens when an author diverges from telling a good story to hammering out an ideological/symbolic agenda and then grafting story onto it. George Lucas’s original conception of Star Wars occurred before he’d read Joseph Campbell’s work about the hero quest that Skywalker embodies. The movies Lucas made with more deliberately orchestrated symbolism… are much more heavy handed and clunky. Trying too hard, instead of telling a good story that stands up agelessly.

I would also love to see more of modern and comparatively recent American/Western literature treated socio-anthropologically like this, taking into account cultural context and contemporary cultural application. That’s why I majored in anthropology rather than English. I’m enamored of the idea of the story as cultural artifact, part of its context, rather than something to be diagrammed according to internal logic and individual craft. I remember being frustrated in high school about the weird guessing games of reverse engineering an author’s intent from a story. It felt more like frog dissection than story collection, and made me see authorship in a very Machiavellian light before I started studying anthropology.

And studying anthropology, I was always happiest crossing over into sociology and media studies, using questions of culture and societal norms to check out otherwise unquestioned assumptions.  Workplace culture and health. Woman as other in King Kong. It stuck with me- wondering what Buffy the Vampire Slayer says about female agency, monster as allegory.

Hm. I should read more journals playing with pop culture in an academic light. September’s coming. I always get more ambitious about academics and using my brain at this time of year. It’s the smell of school supplies going on sale.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2010 1:46 pm

    “I’m enamored of the idea of the story as cultural artifact, part of its context, rather than something to be diagrammed according to internal logic and individual craft. ”

    Yes, this.

    The Harry Potter series is a ripping good yarn, and I loved every word of it, but as a work through which to plumb thematic insights, it’s not Ulysses.

    To me, a far more interesting course would look at the popularity of HP and its genre-kin (even the dreaded Twilight) in a cultural context, and to examine the roles Sci-Fi and dystopian fantasy have had in reflecting our collective anxieties.

  2. Pat Newman permalink
    August 22, 2010 3:05 pm

    Hi Elizabeth: I forwarded your post about HP to my friend Diana Austin — another very bright lady I’ve known since she was a wee one. Thought you might like her resply:

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve always wondered why something can’t just be a well-written, fun read. A Wrinkle in Time, for example, is a wonderful book, and the author may have had some lofty thematic intentions, but in the end, it’s not Ulysses, it’s just a ripping good yarn—good enough to entertain adults as well as kids.

    I think it would be far more interesting to look at the popularity of the genre(s) into which HP books (and Twilight, for that matter) fit, and what it says about our cultural history.

    And of course Elizabeth is brilliant; she’s using the same blogging platform, and even the same blog theme I do. 😉

  3. Keri permalink
    August 23, 2010 9:32 am

    It’s like a fascinating Con panel that goes on for weeks instead of just an hour! 🙂

    It would be cool to see those cross-cultural and media studies elements drawn in. We do a lot of that ourselves in fandom.

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