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Respect my authority? April 6, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood.
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I’ve spoken many times about the first book-review I ever wrote for a newspaper, which was the result of an angry letter to the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, whom I accused of not reading The Amber Spyglass before reviewing it. Her response was that if I thought she hadn’t reviewed the book well enough, why didn’t I have a go at it myself? But the review which gave me a permanent freelance reviewing career was one I pitched to The Canberra Times just before the fifth Harry Potter book came out: an article about the similarities between J.K. Rowling’s series and the children’s works of Roald Dahl.

One of the points I made was that both Dahl and Rowling tapped into a longstanding, Dickensian, British tradition of depicting adults as cartoonishly villainous and/or inept. While both authors do have many examples of functioning, intelligent adult characters, these are outweighed by the bumbling, idiotic, sadistic and cruel examples of adulthood, and by the shining, idealistic, courageous and intelligent child characters.

That’s not to say that either author (Rowling in particular) writes flat, two-dimensional characters. Both Harry Potter and Dahl’s works abound with examples of rounded, nuanced, flawed individuals. But on a basic level, both authors work on the underlying assumption that there is a dichotomy between children and adults. Adults are more flawed, less able and less honourable. Children are more idealistic, more able (or at least more willing) to confront the evils in their world and more courageous. And for both authors, an essential part of the process of growing up seems to be the slow erosion of trust in even the most trustworthy authority figures.

This is a criticism I’ve seen levelled at both authors; Rowling by one of my former housemates last year, Dahl by a member of an internet forum of which I am a member, several days ago. Both people said that they disliked Dahl or Rowling because they thought the books taught children to challenge authority and that this was a dangerous and improper thing to be teaching young readers. It’s a criticism I have very little time for, both because it’s not entirely accurate and because challenging authority is precisely what children should be learning.

Let’s look at the accuracy of the criticism first. It’s probably more fairly levelled at Dahl; most of his adult characters are cartoonishly evil or exaggeratedly ineffectual. There are very few positive portrayals of adults (aside from Miss Honey in Matilda, the grandmother in The Witches and perhaps Charlie’s relatives in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). But the Harry Potter books abound with positive portrayals of adults: Mr and Mrs Weasley, Augusta Longbottom, Minerva McGonagall, Albus Dumbledore, Tonks and Lupin, and I could go on but won’t so as to avoid lurching into spoiler territory. Harry and his friends respect these adults in varying degrees as the series wears on, and they are certainly established as positive adult figures, albeit with a variety of flaws which serve only to emphasise their complete humanity.

Both authors operate as writers within the established traditions of children’s literature: that in order for child protagonists to do anything, adults have to be removed from the scene. This is entirely correct and justified. The most common theme in children’s literature is coming-of-age and establishing a separate identity as a person distinct from one’s family – a process with which many children and teenagers can identify – and it is difficult to explore such a theme with the protagonists’ families cluttering up the plot. Thus, Dahl and Rowling’s protagonists operate at a remove from the adult characters, always keeping back some of their intentions – just as (in Harry Potter in particular) these adult characters withhold important information that may have made the children’s quests and struggles quite a bit easier.

So far I’ve been discussing the structural reasons why the children in Dahl and Rowling’s books operate at a remove from adult authority, and why it is incorrect to suggest that they are teaching children to ‘disrespect authority’. I’d now like to move on to address my larger concern, which is the argument that it is wrong to teach children to challenge authority.

I would argue that it is precisely the ability to question and challenge authority that we should be teaching children, every day of their lives. Authority is not, and must never be allowed to be, empty respect for a person’s position without reference to whether such respect is warranted or justified. Authority – and respect – must be earned. Children should be taught to question whether authority figures deserve respect and deserve the exalted positions in which they exist, because a person who is not taught to be discriminating in this manner runs the risk of blindly following orders whether those orders are morally correct or not.

This is not to say that we should teach children to be disrespectful in the sense of rude. But you will notice that neither author advocates this. Harry and co are exceedingly polite to the adults they decide deserve their respect – and when they are not (Harry’s explosions of anger at Dumbledore and Lupin, Hermione’s defiance of Umbridge), it’s with very good reason. Such instances should make every reader sit up and take notice, because they are key in Rowling’s argument that respect for authority must be earned, demonstrating massive betrayals of trust on the part of the adult characters, and representing defining moments in the child characters’ journey from childhood to adulthood.

I have no patience for people who criticise Dahl and Rowling for their depictions of ‘defiant’ children who challenge authority. Have such people never read any other young-adult literature? Every child in every bildungsroman (whether such coming-of-age tales be structured around a quest narrative or not) takes the first steps towards adulthood by walking into a world not inhabited by their parents, by keeping something of themselves back from adults. And every child cannot but be better off from having read about children who think indepedently and critically about the authority figures and structural forces that underpin their worlds.

Question authority! Challenge it if you think it’s in the wrong! Make use of your independent mind! Always, always, always ask why.


The past is always tense July 24, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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I’ve been told that this is necessary: SPOILER WARNING FOR THE ENTIRE HARRY POTTER SERIES. Sorry to anyone who might’ve been inadvertently been spoiled.

When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother’s curse?

This quote comes from A. E. Housman’s ‘The Welsh Marches’, and also serves as the epigraph to The Witch In The Wood, the second book in T. H. White’s Arthurian cycle The Once And Future King. But it could just as easily serve as an epigraph to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

I sense confusion may be emanating from my readers at this point, so I will elaborate. I’ve been participating in a bit of discussion on the Republic of Heaven since the Half-Blood Prince film came out, and one conclusion that I reached was that, for me at least, the Harry Potter books ceased to be about the magic a long time ago.

We all take different things from books, and for me, Harry Potter is above all a story not about magic, not about growing up, and certainly not about the Campbellian hero’s journey. It’s about family and history.

When Book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, focusing as it did on Sirius Black, I decided that Rowling was a genius. She’d taken a ‘throwaway reference’ to a ‘minor character’ in Book 1 and woven a whole new strand of the story around him. By the time we’d got to Book 5, however, I realised that the reference was not quite as ‘throwaway’ as it might’ve seemed. No, Rowling had planned, right from the beginning, to write a story about (for matters of simplicity) three generations. The ‘grandparent generation’ (Dumbledore, Grindelwald and Tom Riddle, whom I’m including in this generation although he doesn’t fit into it perfectly) caused the problems. The ‘parent generation’ (Harry’s parents, Sirius, Remus Lupin, the extended Black family, and, above all, Severus Snape) were unable to make common cause in the face of the problems and thus exacerbated them. The ‘present generation’ (Harry and his friends and nemeses from Hogwarts) is thus forced to deal with conflicts and problems that have been accumulating and intensifying for more than two generations.

What’s interesting, though, is that none of this is revealed at the beginning of the series. In fact, it really takes five books for readers to gain this information (although clever readers with a talent for riddles might’ve picked up more from earlier books), and it is not until the seventh book that the extent and scope of this theme becomes completely clear. There have certainly been countless fantasy books written about young characters having to overcome the traumas and difficulties of the past, but the difference is that such traumas are explicit from the beginning. A young boy’s father was a traitor: how does he convince everyone that he is loyal? A teenage girl wants to be a seer, but her mother burnt down the seer school: can the girl be trusted? Nothing in Harry Potter is so clear.

Rowling has said that the series is ‘all about death’, but in fact it is all about families: the family we are born into (and burdened with) and the family that we find, choose and make for ourselves. This is reinforced by the wizarding world’s preoccupation with matters of purity of the blood, and the incestuous, tangled family trees that result from many old wizarding families’ racism. Dumbledore and Sirius are born into just such ‘pureblood’ families, and spend their lifetimes trying to repent for this (Dumbledore after a youthful flirtation with a belief in pureblood superiority, Sirius after entering Hogwarts and choosing to rebel from his family in the way most calculated to horrify them). Tom Riddle, Snape and Harry are all, essentially, half-bloods (I’m aware Harry’s mother was a witch, but she came from a Muggle background, and the parallels between these three characters are obvious), and all orphans, and it is their reaction to this that really drives the narrative of the series. Riddle clings to half-remembered tales of his wizarding ancestors’ glories, and in the process becomes inhuman, Snape succumbs to self-hatred, choosing bigotry because it’s easier than examining his soul (except when he has a change of heart, but I’m getting to that), and Harry, in a sense, is left to clean up the mess caused by the choices of these other two half-blooded wizards.

The point Rowling is making is that in life, we all have to make choices, and when we make the crucial choices, we are bound by our families both blood and chosen. We have an upbringing we can accept or reject in making such choices, but any outcome will be influenced by our upbringing (and the beliefs it instills). Dumbledore chooses Grindelwald, and then spends a lifetime making up for it. Tom Riddle chooses, and becomes Lord Voldemort. Sirius chooses, and spends a lifetime extending his middle finger to the Black family. Lily Evans chooses James Potter, and then chooses to sacrifice herself for her son. Snape chooses, and chooses bigotry before Lily, only to be unable to accept the ultimate outcome of this choice – and so he does something odd for characters in this book: he chooses again. He chooses to change sides, hated by all, trusted by none (save Dumbledore), alone. His redemption is not entirely convincing. He does not become a nice person. He does not really renounce his objectionable beliefs. He lives beset by contradictions: he did the right thing to save a dead woman, and ends up sacrificing everything in order to save her son (whom he despises).

Ultimately, it’s this struggle to escape the sins of the past that makes the series so powerful. Rowling’s is a world where history is heavy, constraining and ever-present. To quote Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, ‘the past is always tense’ in the Potterverse. The sins of the father (and the mother, and the grandfather, and the second cousin once-removed) are repeated and passed on, and never properly dealt with. It is only when several characters make incredibly difficult choices that they take responsibility for this history and things are made right.