A Bolt of Lightning
by Philip Burleigh
The most perplexing aspect of reviewing any piece of literature is the basic question, where to begin? When examining the Harry Potter series one would be tempted to focus first on the popular culture perspective of Harry Potter that is predominantly based upon the movies. Instead I’d rather focus on the more in depth and much more pleasing aspects of the literature.
J.K.R. has followed in a very established literary/hero tradition of having her main character as an orphan. This can be traced to such noteworthy and long lasting hero’s as Hercules and Oedipus. Or, as modern as Oliver twist and even more recently the many hero’s of Roald Dahl. The story tellers are aware of not only the emotional aspects that are instilled within the reader by an orphaned child, but the inherent flexibility to the writer’s craft by the orphans condition.
The writer can control and guide the reader’s emotions by the invocation of loneliness or abandonment. The character may go through bouts of the “cold cruel world” which we must all live within and is especially effective in youth to young adult literature where these emotions and feeling of separation are most strong.
The writer can also introduce relatives that have been “lost” or other family like relations as needed for plot device or character enhancement.
It is to great applause that JKR has put little to no emphasis on the emotional aspects of Harry as orphan. She does not slip into the Oprah sensationalistic view of the lost child. She does not produce a pathetic character that demands the extremes of sympathy. She allows the reader to instill his or her own intensity and importance as to Harry’s condition.
And even though she allows the reader the freedom of interpretation she does not allow the reader to forget that Harry is an orphan. This is not to re-enforce our sympathy but often to restate character motivation. Why does Harry do what he does? Why do these things happen to Harry? It is not the imbedded fact of his being orphaned but the reasons that caused the death of his parents. Any mention of the deaths is to reintroduce the sub-plot surrounding Lilly and James’ death, not to jerk a tear from the reader.
Likewise, JKR is taking a limited, and therefore more creative, use of Harry’s singularity. The introduction of Sirius Black as Harry’s godfather is effective, practical and believable. By not giving Harry any human relationship until later in the series (the Dursley’s can not be construed in any fashion as being human) establishes Harry within the minds of the reader as a true orphan but simultaneously gives Harry a de facto family. Thus humanizing Harry to a greater degree and lessening a certain human tension within the readers. It is to be noted that until the appearance of Sirius, Mrs. Weasley filled this position of family attachment for Harry and it is perhaps for this reason that so many readers are rooting for Ginny as Harry’s love interest.
It is further noted that Harry shares many similarities with other hero’s. From his friendship with Ron and Hermione being likened to those of Han and Leia for Luke in the Star Wars series. The many similarities beg the question is JKR a copycat and taking the easy way out? Or is there something else. Obviously, it is something else.
It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun. This is as true for the writer as for anything else. An artist reveals themselves by not producing something new, but how they handle what has been done and giving it a new voice. It is by this process that Harry shares so many characteristics with other hero’s.
One comparison that I have not encountered in my readings is one that actually exists between genres. For those who read Science Fiction as well as Fantasy may be aware of the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. There was also a sequel of types called Ender’s Shadow that centers on a character called Bean. If you consider Bean and Ender as two sides of the same person than the similarities are even greater.
It is easy to find comparisons within Harry Potter at many levels, not just between main characters. For those who enjoy reading JKR will find kindred souls within the works of many authors. Pick up the Xanth series by Piers Anthony and walk across the pun filled landscapes. Just as Harry is a parcelmouth, each character in Xanth is endowed with a special talent-perhaps this is true within the Harry universe just no one has ever made the connection. If Hermione has a special talent it is that of Knowledge. The good Magician Humphrey from Xanth and Hermione must have a shared ancestor. One would wonder just what Hermione might do with Humphrey’s book of Knowledge?
Also from Piers Anthony would be the Incarnations of Immortality, if not the specific characters of the books but the societies in which they live, a world where science and magic live side by side. In Harry’s world it is a covert symbiosis, in Piers it’s overt.
Also of note would be such diverse readings as Roger Zelazny’s Amber and Madwand series, David Edding’s Belgariad, Robert Lynn Asprin’s Myth Adventures, the Pini’s Elfquest and any number of other well read and entertaining pieces of literature.
With such an extent of prior works that all deal with magic and those who use it, one would be at least surprised by the controversy that has reared concerning Harry’s use of magic. How can the cultures of Britain, America and the rest of the world embrace Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz or Bed knobs and Broomsticks and then complain and vent about Harry Potter?
Any condemnation by the Christian, or any other religious community, is going to be inconsistent at best. Do those who condemn, or even burn, the Harry Potter novels destroy their copies of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Professor Jones clearly uses magic at the end of Temple of Doom when he invokes the power of the stone.
Do they turn off or cancel the Disney Channel when they run Halloweentown, a show that clearly shows witchcraft? Or the TV shows of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed or any of the myriad of shows that include beautiful young magic users?
An intelligent and mature individual would have to ask what is the moral difference between Mickey Mouse in Fantasia as the Magician’s Apprentice and Harry Potter? Magic is magic and to single out the Harry Potters series is inconsistent and rather narrow minded.
JKR has opted to utilized the most common and flexible of all forms of magic. In the world of popular culture there are three basic forms of Magic, the ethereal, the arcane and sorcerial.
Within the technologically advanced societies there is an accepted perception that energy is contained and flows within the natural world-there is no morality that is inherent in those energies but rather in how those energies are used.
Electricity has always been present but not always harnessed. There is no morality to electricity. It can be used for good or bad. The user decides how to use the energy.
Likewise, for those who believe, there is another form of energy that is inherent in the world. The undefined and little used energy that is referred to as magic. As mentioned above these can be broken down to three basic forms.
The first, the common magic that flows through everything and can be used by those who are attuned would be the Ethereal. This is the power which is harnessed by the wands, the staves, cloaks and spells and is available to all those who can and wish to use it. In the world of Science Fiction it would be likened to “the force” within the Star Wars universe.
(Of particular note is a cross over of concepts between Potter and the aforementioned works of David Eddings. The concept of the “will and the word” is of particular interest to the Harry Potter universe. The book “Where there’s a Wand there’s a Way” may well exist in the Potter world but we have seen on several occasions that a wand is not necessary to accomplish magic. There have been several incidents of magic with no defining instrument, such as when the glass at the zoo disappears. JKR says that when magic is uncontrolled or chaotic this is possible, more than likely she means that there needs to be some focusing element required to do more advanced magic.
This brings to light the questions of the wands and how the focus the powers ethereal. The strength of the wood is the containing element, the stronger the wood, the greater the level of power that can be controlled. The core of the wand is amplifying element. The power of the user is shunted into the core for amplification and defining. How one moves the wand and what words are spoken operate as a form of defining the power.
A simplified analogy would be to compare the magical process to the world of computers. The wizard can be compared to a modem on the computer world, he/she acts as a gateway of the ethereal power into the world. The wand could be construed as the motherboard. The devise that gives the power direction and containment. The spell would then act as the software, the item that causes the power to take a recognizable and useful shape.
How does this all figure into the concept of the “will and the word?” Simple, it is all the same thing. In Mr. Edding’s novels the characters can gather their will and focus the ethereal power and then use the “word” as a focusing devise. Harry’s world operated roughly the same way.
It has never been demonstrated in any of the novels but a well read fan would have to wonder what would occur if a first year student picked up a wand and simple said a spell that they had heard but were unaware of what the intent of the spell was? If Harry picks up his wand, gives it a “flick and swish” and says “Incognitum” without knowing in the least what it means, will he in fact change his appearance?
This begs the question, does the word of the spell hold power in and of itself, or, does the knowledge of the student and their attempts to focus the power create the desired effect? Chances are it’s the latter. And if so, then the concept of the “will and the word” come into effect.
If Harry is ever caught without his wand, this does not by necessity dictate that he helpless, he is only without one tool for focusing his power. He could open doors, levitate feathers and any other spell just as effectively by learning to use his mind as the focusing element rather than using the wand. The wand is just an easier tool to begin with and supplies the students with the knowledge and confidence needed to advance to further stages of magic use.
(As a further aside is the question of whether Harry is the heir to Griffendor just as Riddle was the heir to Slytherin. After having read all the views on the topic at MUGGLENET.COM two basic observations seem to be missing.
The first is the question of the wands. Harry has a wand with a feather from Fawlks and so does Riddle. The wand chooses the wizard. So if one wand would choose the heir of Slytherin, then perhaps its brother would choose the heir to Griffendor.
Second, and more importantly, we as the readers have been educated several times at to the four founders of Hogwarts, but there is someone else to whom Harry may be a descendant.
It is little known that Merlin had a teacher, Blaise, that taught him the arts of the magic ethereal. Likewise, it is to be presumed that the four founders might well also of had such a great and insightful teacher. Perhaps they had so much respect for their instructor that they named their school after him. Perhaps Harry is the heir of Hogwart?”))
Second would be the power granted by greater forces. These greater forces being commonly known as gods or deities. If you are a disciple, priest or follower and pray for assistance and the power is given or granted from this faithful affiliation is referred to as the Arcane.
These are the two most common types and appear in any number of works and media. But Terry Prachet defined the third in his Discworld series. In his series he allows that the powers Ethereal must have a source. He supplies a person that is a human gate of the magic that allows the power to flow into the world. The source of the magic is title a Sorcerer. So being aware of this distinction I include it as a footnote to the other two major types of magic.
Having a basic understanding of these conventions allows the educated reader to understand that to take moral exception to the Harry Potters series is the same as being morally indignant at turning on a light and activating electrical power.
Once the reader understands that there is nothing immoral nor unchristian within the world of Hogwarts it allows a greater enthusiasm and deeper level of entertainment.
This is all truly and fully a moot point because any definition or parameter to magic and the uses of magic are imaginary. In the real world I have been unable to find any proof of existence of magic of any time and anyone who takes moral objection to imaginary power or an imaginary anything is way to uptight and needs to come down and smell the mandrake.
At the time of this writing book five is looming on the distant horizon and there is some controversy as to how the longer book will be received. I can only presume that those who believe that a longer visit to Hogwarts or a greater telling will find the readership daunted are not readers themselves. These predictions can only be made from those who find literature to be a thing of the past, or perhaps fill their days with alcoholic beverages in abundance while barking at their favorite team as the crash bestially across the field. Or perhaps by those who are overly concerned with the dating habits of inconsequential celebrities. Neither group can conceive why there would be those who not only pick up books and actually read them, but also enjoy them and eagerly anticipate the next volume and gladly embrace a longer story.
In concluding this I would like to invoke the spirit of Mark Twain. To paraphrase he says “when writing, the difference between using the right word, and almost the right word, is the difference between a lighting bolt and a lightning bug.” It is no small coincidence that JKR chose the lightning bolt to be Harry’s symbol. It is my great pleasure to ensure you, our dear Ms. Rowling, that instead of a tiny flittering light you have most certainly filled each and every page with lightning. With the argent glow and the supreme power of the sudden strike. And like a bold of lighting you leave your readers with an after image that pulses long after the power goes away.