Oh God, It’s Finally Happened: Confessions of a Lapsed Potterphobe

In Uncategorized on November 27, 2005 at 11:03 pm

Maybe it’s just that time of year. You know, what I mean. November. Everything’s just a little bit depressing: the leaves are gone, the sun is gone, the skies are grey, real snow isn’t here yet, vacation is immanent, but not immanent enough to be consoling. And you’re tired. Deeply, achingly, down-to-your-bones, tired. Maybe I just finally got worn down. I don’t know how else to explain it.

I saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire last night. And I liked it.

I’ve been resisting Harry Potter for what feels like forever. “But it’s so good,” my friends would cajole. Smart friends. Friends with good taste in books, with opinions I trust. “It’s not just a kid’s story—really. Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down. They’re addictively good. Much darker and more sophisticated than you might think. Besides, you of all people should like this sort of thing, Jim. You read comics and The Wheel of Time for goodness sake! It’s better than all that!” And always, eventually, this last-ditch appeal to what was ultimately chalked up to my literary snobbery: “It’s very well written.”

Uh-huh. Usually I’d make that sour face I make when confronted with things that wound my delicate aesthetic sensibilities. Invariably, I’d grouse about the novels’ ugly, childish cover art. (My wife tells a wonderful story about an architecture professor who once protested the bylaw requiring him to place wheelchair ramps in front of his austere modernist buildings by declaring: “We all have disabilities. My disability is that I cannot bear ugliness.” I feel a certain kinship with this vain idiot.)

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I’d be told apropos the Potter books. “Besides, there are editions with different cover art, designed for adults.” Sigh. Occasionally, if I was feeling magnanimous, I’d pretend to give in. I’d smile faintly. I’d make noises of acquiescence to indicate that yes, yes, eventually I intended to read the books, it was only a matter of finding the time to do it. I was lying, of course. And I suspect my friends knew this, even though they were too kind (or too exasperated) to press the issue.

What was my problem, exactly? Why did I despise Harry Potter without ever having read a word of J. K. Rowling’s prose? What was it about the prospect of this little darling wizard-in-training that made me want to retch?

Well, to begin with, it all seemed a mite…precious. I mean really: Muggles? That’s fine for seven year olds (barely), but when I hear sane adults pronounce cutesy nonsense words like this, I want to tell them, politely but decisively, to kindly fuck off. Also (and this admission is not as ugly as it sounds), I’m a bit of an Anglophobe. Not a real Anglophobe, mind you. Just someone prone to knee-jerk intolerance for North American Anglophilia, which sometimes unfairly, and prejudicially spills over into an irritation with British fantasy proper. (People of Britain: I mostly love you. Okay not you, Margaret Thatcher. Not you either, Mr. Blair.) Perhaps this is my ex-colonial ressentiment talking, but I’ve come to find the Canadian and American fascination with the dream of a British childhood more than a little cloying. So when Rex Murphy’s acerbic jeremiad against Harry appeared in The Globe and Mail earlier this year, I was only too happy to have my prejudices confirmed. Suddenly, I had more fuel to add to the fire, a neat quasi-political justification for my irritation with bespectacled British wand-wielding moppets. Yes, Rex’s bombast was overblown—even I could see that. But when you develop an spontaneous hate-on for something that the herd seems unequivocally to adore, the contrarian pundit is your friend, and it’s all too easy to forgive a little hot air, especially when you’re puffing a bit of it yourself.

Problem is, as much as I hated Harry and the myth of a “magical” English childhood he embodies, I’m also a total hypocrite. You see, I bought into this myth—deeply—a long time ago, I’m still in it’s grip, and, truth be told, most days I don’t really want to be released.

When I was about eight or nine, a very close friend of mine introduced me to a book by Susan Cooper called Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), the first book in a genuinely magical British series of contemporary Arthurian adventures that also includes The Dark Is Rising (1967), Greenwitch (1974), The Grey King (1975), and Silver on the Tree (1977). Set in Wales, Cornwall, and Buckinghamshire, and focusing on six British children, the series infuses the secret world of childhood with danger and a haunting evocation of myth and legendary history that remains a touchstone for my own memory of what is most valuable about the melancholy innocence of that time.

The foreignness—the Englishness—of Cooper’s setting was important. It made for a kind of grave play, a serious innocence that is more difficult (though not impossible) to achieve in North American settings. And of course, behind this feeling is the sense of historical depth—the deep temporality of Celtic myth and Arthurian legend—that animates the entire proceedings and which is unavailable within a North American scene. At the time, the English settings of Cooper’s fantasy were somewhat estranging, making my identification with the children in those stories incomplete, opening a gap that—phenomenologically-speaking—gave me a taste of melancholy separation from childhood that I would later experience as an adult. Ultimately, the gap created by the foreign British setting expanded. In adult memory, the geographical distance between myself and those children came to stand for the now unbridgeable temporal distance between past and present. Nostalgia, it would seem, is amplified when it concerns geographically distant adventures.

This dynamic, I suspect, is not unique to my experience and perhaps reveals something about the insatiably nostalgic Anglophilia of US and Canadian readers, about that strange overlap between childhood and Great Britain in a certain “North American” imagination. (Scare-quotes around “North American” are necessary because clearly this “imagination” cannot be attributed willy-nilly to some sort of transcultural North American groupmind. And of course one could provide other, more depressing reasons for the continued prominence of British fantasies centered on the heroic destiny of white children in the context of “global culture,” but it’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m trying not to bum myself out unduly.)

So how could I have loved Susan Cooper without ever giving J. K. Rowling a chance? Are their fantasies really so different? Or is it just that I’m too old to be moved by children’s stories (even sophisticated, well-written ones) that can, at best, only remind me of my own (more perfect) memories of the distant geography of childhood?

Well—for starters, they do seem different. Very different. Arthurian legends and enchanted objects in the English countryside are one thing. Schools of wizardry with preciously-monikered professors that turn into cats are quite another. And I genuinely don’t “get” the English boarding school setting of the Potter books. What the Potterverse seems to lack—from my totally uniformed point of view—is privacy. There may be a belfry where Harry can go hang out with the owls, but the adventures themselves do not appear to perform the fundamental Peanuts-like excising of the adult world that marks what are, for me, the most pleasurable childhood stories. (Granted, I don’t think Susan Cooper does this completely either, but the private nature of magical tutelage in The Dark Is Rising is fundamentally different from the Grand Hall setting of Hogwart’s Academy, from what I remember.) And yes, I probably am too old to have any unmediated or uncritical experience of new children’s fiction. If it can really take me back to Cooper’s Wales, then I’ll happily hitch a ride, and perhaps I can suspend my disbelief for few minutes. But if the fit isn’t quite right, it’s liable to make me cranky. At least, that’s what I thought until last night.

Yes. I liked Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It’s a sweet, well-made movie. It ably captures the awkwardness of adolescence (especially the abject horror of the school dance), and it generates more emotional involvement than I was expecting—partly because the characters themselves are appealing and partly because it so ingeniously exploits the symbolism of its material. The final image of the departing students from other schools, with the boat sinking below the sea as the carriage drawn by winged horses rises into the clouds is sublime. Quite simply one of the loveliest images of death and transcendence that I’ve seen in a little while. (The ascending carriage seems almost to become a coffin.) Likewise, the movement through the maze with its terrific grail imagery and the climactic encounter in the graveyard with a scary, noseless Ralph Fiennes are magnificent.

Granted, I still haven’t read any of the books, and quite frankly, am unlikely to embark upon that 4000-page quest anytime soon. At this stage, I’m more likely to be able to sustain a hit of nostalgia from the spectacle of film than from a 500-page doorstop anyway. I have, at least, stuck my pinky toe into the bathwater at Hogwart’s and found it, on the whole, more inviting than I expected. Whatever its darkness (and certainly the promise of a “darker” installment of the fantasy appealed to me), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an optimistic story. Like Susan Cooper’s eerie recreation of the Arthur legend, it is a work of Romance—that genre that is at the root of so much storytelling, if not of story itself. Sometimes, for better or worse, such a return to myth is exactly what one craves. Especially in the bleak days of November.

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