Thursday, August 27, 2009

Harry Potter in the Dragon Age

I am in middle of reading Dragonseed, the newest book in James Maxey’s Dragon Age series. It is about a post apocalyptic age in which humans are ruled by dragons. (This is one of those story ideas that sound absolutely lame, but somehow, due to some brilliant writing and character development, manages to work.) In the beginning of Dragonseed, two characters, Shay and Jandra, find a cache of old books, dating from before the time of the dragons, among which is Harry Potter:

Shay let out a grasp. Jandra looked at him. He was in front of the bookshelf.
“By the bones!” said Shay. “He has all seven!”
“All seven what?”
“The Potter biographies! The College of Spires only had five of the volumes… four now, since I stole one.”
“What’s so special about these books?” She picked up one of the fat tomes and flipped it open.
“Potter was a member of a race of wizards who lived in the last days of the human age,” said Shay.
Jandra frowned as she flipped through the pages. “Are you certain this isn’t fiction?” she asked.
“The books are presented as fiction,” said Shay. “However, there are other artifacts that reveal the actual reality. I wouldn’t expect you to know about photographs, but-“
“I know what a photograph is,” she said. …
“Photographs recorded the physical world, and a handful of photographs of this famous wizard still survive. Some show him in flight on his …” His voice trailed off. He turned toward Jandra, studying her face carefully. …
“How did Potter control his magic?”
“With a wand and words. Is this how you control your magic?”
Jandra was intrigued. Her genie could take on any shape she desired. Why not the form of a wand? Of course, she’d never needed any magic words – the genie responded to her thoughts. Still … could this Potter have been a nanotechnician? (Dragonseed pg. 78-80.)

As a historian, I find this passage to be of interest. This is a version of a scenario that I often play with my students; imagine a future historian, who knows nothing about our time period trying to make sense of a given document and constructing a historical narrative based on it. The secular version of this involves audio recordings of the Rush Limbaugh show. The Jewish version involves a stack of Yated Neeman newspapers. I have actually used the example of Potter when dealing with narrative construction. If I were J. K. Rowling and I wished to write a series of books about a boy named Harry Potter that was going to sell millions of copies, what would I put into it? I would stick things in that were out of the ordinary like magic and a world full of wizards. But beyond the obvious issue of magic there are a host other more subtle devices. To keep the story interesting the stakes most always be maximized. Harry must constantly find himself in mortal peril with the fate of the entire wizarding world in the balance; mere detention just will not do. The story should be fairly neat with a clear beginning and end. Harry should escape from the Dursleys and get to Hogwarts. Once he gets to Hogwarts he should sniff out some evidence of a foul plot. After spending the main part of the book investigating matters, Harry should walk right into the villain’s clutches, setting off a rousing climax and a happy ending. There should be a fairly limited number of characters. All the important actions in the story should be carried out by a select group of people, who the reader is already familiar with. There should not be random characters coming into the story, performing crucial actions and then disappearing. Furthermore, in order to maintain an orderly plot, there should be clear cut heroes and villains. The audience should be cheering for Harry Potter to defeat Lord Voldemort. There is no need to give Lord Voldemort a fair hearing and allow him to explain his side of the story.

In addition to the structure of the plot, there is a need for a certain amount of story logic to move things along. For example it is necessary that top secret objects be hidden in maximum security facilities that are nothing more than obstacle courses to be traversed by a group of eleven year olds. Schools like Hogwarts need to stay open despite the fact that there are mythical monsters on the loose and not act like real schools, which close down for any two bit bomb threat. Villains need to suffer from excess monologuing, thus allowing Potter to constantly not get killed. The teachers at school should be incredibly powerful to allow for any necessary dues ex machina actions and yet either be less capable of dealing with the yearly acts of villainy than a group of pre-adolescents or have the eccentric pedagogic theory that allowing children to end up in extreme mortal peril is something to be recommended. (The lack of any functional child services is also a necessary plot element.) With all due respect to Harold Bloom, this is not a weakness of the Potter series. Potter, at its heart, is an attempt to graft the hero story onto a school setting. More importantly, like almost any work of fiction, Potter operates on its own logic, which needs to be accepted on its own terms as part of a suspension of disbelief.

These elements, far more so than claims of magic, serve to tag Potter as a work of fiction. Potter engages in narrative and story logic in order to craft a story that someone would actually wish to read. The historian, as part of his arsenal, can think counter narratively. Any narrative that contains things like an organized plot, clear heroes and villains and relies on certain leaps of logic to move along can be viewed as a created narrative, as fiction. Shay and Jandra are trained to think like scientists, but not like historians. They therefore have nothing to protect themselves with once a narrative moves past some theoretical baseline of physical plausibility.

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