Essay: Childish Things
Some people dismiss the Harry Potter books as frivolous for the same reason Goliath disregarded David: they believe that children and anything for children are inconsequential. (See previous blog post: A Unified Theory of the Potterverse.) How could anything deep or wise come from a kids’ book?
JK Rowling depicts people with this view in a poor light in the Harry Potter series, which is like a manifesto of the value of childhood and children, toys and games and fairy tales. Dumbledore values all of these things, and uses sweets as passwords for his office. In his will, he leaves Harry, Ron and Hermione a game piece, a toy and a book of fairy tales, and he values the legacy of his Chocolate Frog Card—which comes with a sweet and is used for games—above all other recognition he has received.
The same issue of people dismissing children and things connected to childhood arises in our culture every day. The 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast was the first and for 17 years only animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. When the 2009 nominations were announced, the nominees were expanded to ten from the previous field of five. In 2001, a new award was introduced: Best Animated Feature, which virtually guaranteed that no animated film would be nominated for Best Picture again (at least, in a small field of five), even if the film were considered one of the best of the year, animated or not.
When the 2008 nominations were announced, there was a controversy over whether Wall-E was “shut out” of Best Picture, even though it was widely considered one of the year’s best films. However—it was also eligible for the less prestigious Best Animated Feature award, and was nominated for that award. People with strong opinions about this went back and forth over whether the new category was a “ghetto”.
Returning to the world of books: in August of 2000, the first three Harry Potter books had been in the three top positions on the New York Times’ fiction bestseller list for over a year, and when Goblet of Fire was released that summer, JK Rowling was probably going to take a fourth position. Before this could happen, the New York Times created a new bestseller list just for children’s and young adult books. Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ rules, the New York Times’ rules say that books cannot be on both lists; if the perceived audience for a book is minors, it goes on the children’s list.
A week before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released, Time magazine columnist Joel Stein, who usually seems to have a sense of humor, wrote, “Hogwarts fans, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid”. According to Stein, you’re supposed to “stammer excuses” when someone sees Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in your house. He wants people to claim that they’re reading it to make sure it’s okay for their kids, or for kids in general. He doesn’t want to hear anything about academics writing papers about Harry Potter, or about reading it on different levels. He rants about how Clifford the Big Red Dog can be read on many levels too, but if you read it after you’re four, you’re a moron. Stein sums up his objections this way:
A culture that simplifies its entertainment down to fairy tales is doomed to simplify the world down to good and evil.
There are a lot of people who’ve simplified the world down to “things for adults” and “things for children.” Many of them evidently also think that fairy tales are always about good and evil, black and white, which is a common misconception about so-called “childish” things: they’re simplistic, they’re for simpletons. There’s no complexity or depth. Toys, fairy-tales and games are supposedly for those who have failed to grow up.
Not everyone agrees with this dismissive point of view. In September of 2011, the Provost’s theme for the 2011-2012 academic year at the University of Pennsylvania was “The Year of Games.” To go along with this, the Penn Reading Project book (which all students and faculty are encouraged to read) was Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal, a prominent game designer. On pages 19-20, McGonigal acknowledges the cultural bias against “gamers”. She writes:
Almost all of us are biased against games today–even gamers....This bias is part of our culture, part of our language...[it’s] woven into the way we use the words “game” and “player” in everyday conversation.
...we frequently use the term “player” to describe someone who manipulates others....We don’t really trust players. We have to be on our guard around people who play games–and that’s why we might warn someone, “Don’t play games with me.”...We don’t like to be played with. And when we say, “This isn’t a game”...we mean...someone is behaving recklessly or not taking a situation seriously. This admonishment implies that games encourage and train people to act in ways that aren’t appropriate for real life.
JK Rowling created many characters with negative attitudes about fairy tales, toys and games, and created a series whose popularity alone is a challenge to this attitude. This comes through in her address to the 2008 class of Harvard, in which she said, in part:
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
Besides valuing imagination and other things “for children”, Rowling writes about issues that are not generally considered children’s fare, as if she might believe that imagination isn’t just for children and “adult” topics aren’t just for adults. In her so-called children’s books, she includes murder, torture, political prisoners, miscarriages of justice, corruption, totalitarian regimes, betrayal, terrorism, censorship, genocide and eugenics.
Scholastic entitled her first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone rather than Philosopher’s Stone, the UK title. (Because of this, I’ll be referring to it as Philosopher’s Stone throughout all posts on this blog and all episodes of Quantum Harry, the Podcast.) Rowling has said, “I was maybe a bit too compliant about that,” because she was “so grateful that anyone wanted to buy my book at all.” [Lizo Mzimba, “JK Rowling Talks about Book Four; Part 3 - ideas and inspiration” BBC Newsround <http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/tv_film/newsid_2353000/2353639.stm> (23 October 2002)]
Scholastic may have thought that children wouldn’t read a book with the word “philosopher” in the title, and that only children would read it, but a translation of the word “philosopher” is in the title of many editions published outside of the US, and this hasn’t kept millions of children around the world from devouring the books. Even a publisher of children’s books can underestimate children.
In the Harry Potter books JK Rowling defends bedtime stories, games, toys and the capacity to empathize that comes from giving free rein to imagination. There’s a constant dance between the playful and the serious; games go from metaphorical to literal wars, battles take on the characteristics of games, and toys are frequently weapons.
It’s as if she’s showing a mock war in one side of the mirror and a real war in the other–which is more of her wholeness pattern–and when the mock war turns real it’s as if Harry has gone through the looking glass; a game is no longer a game but a battle in a real war, with real casualties. Lewis Carroll’s Alice also found herself involved in a dangerous chess game, being put on trial by a pack of playing cards, and playing a croquet match in which she could literally lose her head, though these games are harmless pastimes in her world. It’s also ironic that Voldemort looks down on “inferior creatures” (like house-elves, who are child-like) and things for children, yet he hides fragments of his soul in Horcruxes, creating a very complex scavenger hunt, which is another game.
The Harry Potter books are rife with games. Game pieces are weaponry and settings for games are juxtaposed with battles and turn into battlefields. Again and again, a battle segues from a game or a battle is game-like. This quantum wholeness permeates the entire series.
Harry is not only The Boy who Lived but the youngest Seeker in a hundred years. Each game he plays is a journey of completion. Yet Harry, a consummate player, doesn’t play to elevate himself and doesn’t always play to win a personal victory.
Which is why he does win.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 1: The Kids’ Table. Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.