“MuggleNet Academia” Lesson 1 Is Now Available: Dive into the Brilliant Literature of “Harry Potter”
by MuggleNet · Published · Updated
We recently launched a new podcast called Alohomora! on which we recapture the magic of rereading the Harry Potter books.
Today, we are launching another new podcast called MuggleNet Academia. This new podcast will feature the academic study of literature that is found in the Harry Potter series, comparing the Harry Potter series to the great literary works through the ages as well as other academic studies found within the books by J.K. Rowling.
MuggleNet Academia will feature MuggleNet’s managing editor, Keith Hawk, and John Granger, affectionately known as “the Hogwarts Professor.” Each show will feature a special guest speaker such as professors, doctors, judges, and other experts in the field of academia as well as a guest fan who either is currently studying the subject’s particular field in college or has graduated with a topical background.
Are you beginning to ask yourself if this will be like the MuggleCast or Alohomora! podcasts? The answer is no! This is a look into the academic aspects of the Harry Potter books only.
Head on over to MuggleNet Academia and listen to “Lesson 1: Getting Serious About Series” with special guest Professor Suzanne Keen from Washington and Lee University and Rosie Morris, senior student of literature at Kent University in England and manager of the MuggleNet Fan Fiction website.
Please give us a rating and review of the show on iTunes. Your feedback is very important to us.
Enjoy the show!
Professor Suzanne Keen
Thomas H. Broadus, Professor of English
A. B. (1984), Brown University
A. M. in Creative Writing (1986), Brown University
Ph.D. (1990), Harvard University
Contemporary British fiction, Victorian novels, postcolonial literature, narrative theory, the novel in English, psychological approaches to literary study.
English 350—Postcolonial Literature
English 351—World Fiction in English
English 355—Studies in British Fiction after 1900.
English 292—Topics in British Literature
English 260—Literary Approaches to Poverty
English 234—Children’s Literature
English 232—The Novel.
Writing 100—First Year Writing Seminar: Schools of Magic
Seminar and Capstone Topics
Charles Dickens and His Circle
Thomas Hardy, Novelist and Poet
Romancing the Archive
Studying Literature in Action
George Eliot and her Times
Philip Pullman and C. S. Lewis: Rival Canons
A Comic Novel Sequence: Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time
Bread Loaf School of English (Santa Fe, NM)
Ulysses: Homer, Joyce, Walcott. 2010 syllabus.
Thomas Hardy. 2010 syllabus
Contemporary British Fiction. 2007 syllabus.
Moderns according to the Contemporaries. 2008 syllabus.
Guest editor, Narrative and the Emotions (I). Poetics Today 32.1 (Spring 2011).
Guest editor, Narrative and the Emotions (II). Poetics Today 32.2 (Summer 2011).
Empathy and the Novel. Oxford UP, 2007. Publisher’s Information. Paperback edition, 2010.
Milk Glass Mermaid. Lewis Clark P, 2007. Available through Amazon.
Narrative Form. Palgrave, 2003. Publisher’s information.
Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. U of Toronto P, 2001. Paperback edition, 2003.
Victorian Renovations of the Novel: Narrative Annexes and the Boundaries of Representation. Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture. Gillian Beer and Catherine Gallagher. Cambridge UP, 1998. Paperback edition, 2005. NetLibrary information.
[Show music begins]
Eric Scull: Hey! Josée! Wait up!
Josée Leblanc: Oh hi, Eric! I’m sorry, I really can’t talk right now. I’m running late.
Eric: Late? Late for what?
Josée: Oh, it’s because I have to go meet Keith and John Granger. I’m actually going to listen to a Harry Potter literature lesson at MuggleNet Academia.
Eric: Oh cool, that sounds awesome. Can I come with?
Josée: Yes, of course you can. Just come with me.
Eric: Okay. Let’s go!
[Show music continues]
Keith Hawk: All right, welcome to the first episode of MuggleNet Academia. My name is Keith Hawk and I am with MuggleNet, and I am here with some special guests, co-hosts: John Granger, also known as the Hogwarts Professor. John has been a keynote speaker at many conferences, has done many lectures on the Harry Potter series. And this is going to be a show where we basically discuss a lot of the iterations that are found in the book, the alchemy that’s found in the book, some discussions here and there. We’re looking at possible law, possible translation discussions. So it should be a really interesting lecture. It’s different than just looking at the books for the content of the books, but we’re actually diving into the theories behind it, how the books are written. So John, welcome aboard with us!
John Granger: Great to be here, Keith!
Keith: Yeah, great to have you. Also joining us on today’s show is going to be Professor Suzanne Keen. Professor Keen is a literary professor at Washington and Lee University. Say hello, professor.
Suzanne Keen: Hi, guys!
Keith: Great! And our student guest today comes from MuggleNet Fan Fiction. She’s been a staff member of Fan Fiction for quite a few years, has attended several events on behalf of MuggleNet. Her name is Rosie Morris. Hello, Rosie!
Rosie Morris: Hi!
Keith: Great! So just to kick off a little bit about what the Academia section is going to be about here on MuggleNet, we’re looking at doing a podcast like this, to start off with, once a month. We’re also going to have our little transcription elves [who] help us do the MuggleCast and Alohomora! podcasts, and they’re going to be helping us do that so we can put everything up on the site for you, the audience. And also, we’re going to feature a guest speaker, a professor or some special guest, [and] a student of literature. So if you are a student of literature and you would like to be on the show, please go to the Academia site, follow the instructions, and submit your application to us. And if you’re qualified enough, we will allow you to come on the show and speak your piece on the literary aspects of the Harry Potter series. Is that right, John?
John: [laughs] Oh, yeah. Really, this is a wonderful opportunity. All the stuff that the MuggleNet wizards are putting together for fandom is all about one thing and that’s raising the bar of the fandom conversation about the books, whether we’re big movie fans or Internet fansite mavens or wizard rock stars or fan fiction adepts. All of us love the books and we want to know more about the seven books’ artistry and meaning, how they work, and why we love them. Towards that goal, [laughs] we’re going to be talking with people like Professor Keen and Rosie who spend their lives thinking, writing, and speaking about just that, and bringing those conversations to you here at MuggleNet Academia. But that conversation is not going to be any good if those of you who are out there listening aren’t joining in [with] this discussion. And so what we’re hoping, like Keith just said, is that you’ll send your feedback on what we’re saying, suggest future shows, or become a guest yourself. And there’s a process for that. Right, Keith?
Keith: Yeah, absolutely. And we do want to have some suggestions from the audience. I got in touch with somebody [who]’s a lawyer who is a fan of the series and he wants to discuss law, and I was like, “Ooh, an insight on the law in the world of Harry Potter. That sounds interesting.” And another one for how the books are translated. So again, we’re going to have some different conversations, first is just talking about the books and what’s inside the books. We’re actually looking at the whole flow of things. So without further ado, we’re going to kick off the show.
[Show music begins]
Keith: From MuggleNet.com, I’m Keith Hawk.
John: I’m John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor.
Suzanne: From Washington and Lee University, I’m Professor Suzanne Keen.
Rosie: And from MuggleNet Fan Fiction, I’m Rosie Morris.
[Show music continues]
Keith: All right, we’re going to discuss "Lesson 1: Getting Serious About Series." John, take it away.
John: Well, everyone listening has read [laughs] these books probably too many times. Maybe not too many times. Has read many times, all right? But I’m guessing that few of us - the four of us here and all of those listening - have thought about [laughs] what the Hogwarts saga is, really. We know it’s 4,100 pages and 200 and something chapters and seven books - and you can add any other books if you want - but is it understood best as a long piece with seven installments or as seven stand-alone books that really must be read separately and then taken together? Suzanne, you’re an expert in this kind of thing, so when you think about the Hogwarts saga, do you see it as a single novel in seven chapters or do you see it as seven stand-alones with sort of a stream in between them?
Suzanne: Well, I definitely see the series as a sequence that’s a whole object that happened to come out over time, over approximately a ten-year period in those seven installments. “Chapter” is an awfully short word.
Suzanne: So I wouldn’t call it seven chapters, but I would say it’s a seven-book sequence that was planned to be read by its writer as one big story. And I think anybody who has read the book more than once can really see how things that are planted in the earliest volumes are really only brought to fruition by Rowling all the way at the end of the story. So she clearly was thinking of it as a unified work.
Keith: Well, when she started doing this, she saw the beginning. When she was on that train, she pictured the basics of the story and had the last chapter of the story written down years and years ago. But do you think she actually had the middle plots all lined up already, or did she originally want to do it as one long novel, or do you think she said, “Ah, we have to grow here. We have to learn different things and make each novel separate and then come up with a synopsis and a plot for each one”?
Suzanne: Well, put it this way. I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s a book in seven parts because the number seven, as John has demonstrated in his work, is a symbolic number. So I would be very surprised if, when she had this idea, she ever went through a period of time where she thought that this was just one book because she must have realized it was a big complicated story with many stages that she would have to work out over the course of several volumes, and I think that it was probably a creative process of planning and quite a lot of detail. Although I think we know from reading interviews while the books were still midstream that some things she said along the way, some things she had planned or didn’t end up incorporating, or things she ended up developing more than she had originally planned, so those things are always a little bit fluid. But it has the feel, when you read the whole book, the whole seven-book sequence over and over again, of something that really was intended to be read as a single big work. And I think the best analogy in fantasy fiction would be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, which we think of as a trilogy, but which he really regarded as one big story that happened to be written in installments.
Keith: Well, isn’t it actually four books, though? Don’t they include The Hobbit in the beginning?
Suzanne: Well, yeah, The Hobbit is really separate in his writing, and there’s a lot of other literary Tolkien material that we could collect around The Lord of the Rings. But the three volumes - Fellowship, Two Towers, Return of the King - really is one big story in the way that the Hogwarts chronicle or saga is one big story.
John: Well, we know this. Looking at her comments in interviews around Goblet of Fire, what you were saying, Keith, Professor Keen is, she had that book planned, but this is when she was publishing a book a year, and this is when she almost has a nervous breakdown because she didn’t plan Book 4 correctly and had to rewrite the last two-thirds of it. But we know when she released that book, she said that it was the pivot of the series and that it was the most important book of the series, in a way. And when we get Book 7, we see how 1, 4, and 7 - Stone, Goblet, and Deathly Hallows - all tie in together. So clearly at that point, even though she’s still putting each book together independently, she has a very clear scheme about the set of the books.
Rosie: It’s not just Stone, Goblet, and Deathly Hallows that work together because if you think about it, Deathly Hallows, the theme runs through all of the books. Chamber of Secrets is all about one of the Deathly Hallows, the Horcruxes, and all of that information that we really don’t get until Half-Blood Prince. We’re set up from right at the very beginning when it was still sort of considered much more of a kids’ book rather than this grand, epic saga that it became.
Suzanne: I agree, Rosie, and I think that it’s really impressive when you reread the books knowing the whole sequence, how many small details are present even in the first two novels that are going to turn out to be quite important for your understanding of major plot turns in the fifth, sixth, and seventh books.
Rosie: Well, even, yeah, minor details such as the fact that in the very, very first chapter, we learn that Hagrid has borrowed the flying motorbike from Sirius, and we later learn that that is the same night that Sirius would go on and supposedly kill Pettigrew and then get locked up in Azkaban, which obviously becomes incredibly important for the third book but is a very, very brief mention in the first chapter of the first book.
Suzanne: Exactly. Great example.
John: Yeah, I’m looking at the fallout from the series, and we talked about how this is a seven-book series but it’s one big book, and we can think about The Chronicles of Narnia, we can think about the six books of The Lord of the Rings divided into three presentation books and with The Hobbit makes seven. We can see that there’s some precedent for it, but what we see now, if we’re looking at Internet lists like “Thirty Books That Could Be The Next Harry Potter,” all of them are now multi-volume series. It seems like Rowling has almost reinvented the way we think of a novel. Now we’re thinking of it being series, chapters. Is this something that she’s brought to a whole new level, or is this something that she’s introducing that’s been done before, Professor Keen? I know you’ve studied series literature before. I mean, what is her relationship with series literature? Is she an inventor, or is she a re-inventor, or what?
Suzanne: Well, I definitely see this in the category of reinventing, reinvigorating, and reminding publishers that this can be a really lucrative kind of writing once you get a readership hooked. And I think that’s not insignificant, the fact that there’[re] lots of Harry Potter wannabes out there in the book market who happen to arise in series form or promising to be series even if they don’t live up to that. [It] tells you that the publishers are alert to the fact that this is a way of winning and keeping a buying audience, a purchasing audience. But it is an old form, there has been series fiction for centuries. It’s part of the history of the novel. I think it’s the dominant form of the 20th-century novel, and this is a late 20th- and into [the] 21st-century sequence, that is a fantasy fiction, and there have been quite a lot of series in fantasy fiction. There’[re] other genres that often have series, such as detective fiction. We all know the Sherlock Holmes stories come out as a series and as a series of series, actually, because they are stories originally, not just novels. And series fiction, I think, at least in the 20th century, has been associated both with genre fiction, of detective fiction, fantasy fiction, things that are for just regular readers who want to read something fun and not have it run out too fast, and that that taste comes to us from the 19th century when a lot of great writers wrote in series and there was a real appetite for fiction that would either be quite long in its delivery or would keep going on, book after book, the way Anthony Trollope wrote, for instance.
John: Wow, where do you even begin backing that? Rosie, jump in here any time you want. My 16-year-old daughter now is reading the Waverley novels, and these novels - this collection of books - they don’t really go from one to the other. In Sherlock Holmes, it’s not as if the books tie in - the fictions tie in - together. Yes, you’ve got Watson, and you’ve got the same cast of characters like you do in The Hardy Boys, but we don’t see them as a stream tying together like we do in Twilight, like we do in The Hunger Games. I just started this wonderful set of books called Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, this steam punk series, and these things are meant as streams, where you can’t just pick up the second one the way you can pick up any of the Agatha Christie books that have Hercule Poirot in them. This is a little different, isn’t it? That she is tying these together so the series is one stream?
Rosie: I think it’s part of the fact that it’s fantasy fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi as a genre because it involves so much world-building, because we are taking these characters’ lives and the stories into a world other than our own. Once you have created that world, it’s hard to just leave it after one book. I think there’s so much detail, especially in something like Harry Potter, that you just really want to explore it to its fullest extent. And that’s really hard to do in such a short, novel format. So having seven books to explore the world fully is a much better answer.
Suzanne: I agree, and I think that what John is pointing to in his comment is that there is a kind of series fiction, and we’re all familiar with it. I think about the Discworld books, of Terry Pratchett, that it doesn’t really matter where you get your first introduction, and you can follow those many, many novels, and in some of them it makes a little bit of difference what order you read them in, but the order is not really the predominant concern, and the sense of Discworld books ever coming to an end, is really only delimited by the life of the writer. The writer decides to stop the way Conan Doyle tried to stop writing Sherlock Holmes stories…
Suzanne: … and then got dragged back into it by fandom. A lesson for Rowling is there, I am sure.
Suzanne: But there are some kinds of series of fictions that are really about making that fictional world with its central characters that Rosie is alluding to and then sticking with it and extending it and expanding it, and then there’s another mode of creativity, which involves making something [that] has a formal shape that runs from beginning to end. For instance, it won’t have escaped people’s notice that these books work primarily in chronological order. They’re ordered from year to year, and the kids are growing up as the course of the book unfolds - the whole story unfolds - and that’s a shape that comes not from series fiction or from the infinitely extensible fictional worlds of fantasy, but it comes from the bildungsroman tradition, in which there’s an idea that the characters are growing up and getting an education, developing. And that epilogue, that not everybody likes, at the end of the last book…
Suzanne: … is actually a really important part of wrapping up the bildungsroman because it shows that the characters who have lived have ended up integrating with their magical society and have yielded to the next generation. And that’s a thing that happens in almost every 18th- and 19th-century bildungsroman, is that once the wandering and travels and challenges have been overcome, there’s a promise of integration with society. And that happens for our main characters and it’s fun to see. Neville becomes a professor or whatever the outcomes are. But that’s a different tradition, and it’s a tradition that has more of a built-in shape to it. And I think Rowling is working just as subconsciously with that tradition - the novel of education, the novel of development - as she is with some of the more ancient story lines of romance that very much drive her allegorical Christian allegory, which - I agree with John - is a prominent feature of the Harry Potter books.
John: I want to jump in and talk about this coming-of-age story which you’re using the proper title, is this growing up story inside the books. I suggest that more than a David Copperfield or a Great Expectations Pip piece, that these books have a specific stream inside that tradition of the schoolboy novel. Not only Tom Brown’s School Days, which is a bit of a hard read for modern readers, but I think specifically more than that, the Greyfriars books, the Billy Bunting stories or whatever, these six-year stories, not seven, but six-year stories where we see that the kid comes in. He’s the newbie. He’s usually very good at sports. We have the whole cast of characters at Hogwarts inside that tradition, and then she reanimates it by making them wizards and witches, but we have the daffy French professor in Trelawney, and Harry goes through these six/seven years. How many of us have read those books? I know that most of the English critics and our own Harold Bloom hated Harry Potter because they despise schoolboy literature. Could you say something about how she’s made this fresh and exciting by crossing genres or whatever? Because I don’t think any of us got as excited about Nancy Drew or The Babysitter’s Club or any of these things that was sort of serial fiction and coming-of-age stories - or even the Dickens pieces - as we have about Harry Potter. There’s something about this story, though, which really lifts us up and grabs us.
Suzanne: Well, that school story… Of course, it’s a prominent generic framework for what Rowling does, but she really takes something that’s quite formulaic and throws a lot of humor and invention and social satire. I mean, there’s a lot going on in Rowling that extends beyond what you would expect from a normal school story. I actually have read a fair number of school story sequences because I was a voracious reader when I was a kid…
Suzanne: … and didn’t go to a sort of exclusive private school, so that sort of world was itself a bizarre, strange, fantasy world to me since I was just going to an ordinary American grade school myself when I was reading those tales, and I want to…
Keith: Yeah, I grew up reading the Hardy Boys series, and to me they were the best. I read through the whole… at that point, I think there were 70 books and read them two or three times a piece.
Suzanne: Well, so think about Hardy Boys. A lot of what you get in Hardy Boys is actually stuff that’s happening outside of school when they’re adventuring, and they travel to different places, and I think that's just as important as the school story is as an alternative series genre that’s running in the 20th century, which you could think of as being the summer camp story or the away-from-home story, and the most famous ones would be by Arthur Ransome, and they’re the Swallows and Amazons, and like the Rowling books, they feature a fairly large cast of kids who know one another, and they’re of different ages, and they have different capacities, and so that sense that you never have an adventure that’s absolutely by yourself, that you’re on your own, that’s a difference from the bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age tradition, which tends to focus on a sort of solo individual from childhood to adulthood with love affairs and adventures in between. Both the school story and the camp story has the capacity to tell stories about how groups of people get into adventures together and save each others bacon, or trip people up, or end up actually getting into situations that are much more dire than they imagine in the first place. Those are all part of a similar, not often cited, but I’d put money on it that Rowling has read those Arthur Ransome stories that were very popular in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.
John: Well, one of the books we know, one of the authors we know she has read because she says is one of her favorite authors, is E Nesbit. And you get this sort of Five Children and It and Samiad stories or whatever that C.S. Lewis also borrows from heavily. Do you think she’s sort of crossing E. Nesbit, this five-children thing, with the usual trio of characters in a schoolboy novel?
Suzanne: Well, sure. I think that Nesbit would have to be one of the most important writers for somebody of Rowling’s generation as a reader would have absolutely been reading Nesbit. It was inescapable, and people love those books for a reason. They’re great books to read even now. Rosie, it sounded like you had something to say.
Rosie: Just that the story of The Phoenix and the Carpet was one of my favorite stories growing up as well, and I can definitely see the parallels that would go between that collection of children who have adventures that are magical and Harry Potter itself, but I guess…
John: And that’s the proof too, Rosie, you put your finger right on it. [In] The Phoenix and the Carpet, they discover their phoenix on Guy Fawkes Day, so Fawkes is named after that phoenix, so that’s really a definite tie that she’s familiar with the phoenix in that story and tipping her hat to Nesbit. Forgive me for interrupting! I’m sorry.
Rosie: That’s okay! I think with the whole school story debate, you have to consider whether Harry Potter really is just a sole school story or whether it’s leaning more towards the epic war story [that] runs alongside, because whilst you do have all of their adventures within the school and as children, you’ve also got this epic war that’s taking over the entire wizarding world at the same [time] in the background [and] then coming more and more to the foreground as you go through the books. So the aspect of it gets overtaken by this grand epic, until the epilogue, where you’re really seeing how they’ve grown up and how the war has changed them much more than school ever did.
Suzanne: I agree, and I think that for readers later in the 21st century, who are looking back and trying to decode why this particular story got told and the way that it did, that they will notice that this was a period of time when we’d just gone through a decade, at least, of World War II remembrance - and I know, John and Keith, you will remember that period of time where every time you turn on the television there was something about Hitler on the TV because we were remembering the 50th anniversary - and then these books roll along and these books, to some degree, one element of them is a meditation on how it is that a facets society can happen inside one’s own country. How a fascist dictator can take over. And I think that kind of political, allegorical, reading is also available in the stories and that that, too, is something that Rowling owes to Nesbit, to some degree. Because not Nesbit, but a political allegorist nonetheless, situates those kids who escape into a fantasy world against quite stark economic realities that are present as a surrounding reality. I don’t know if you remember the very beginning of those stories, the father is in quite a lot of trouble, and it’s partly the exile from ordinary life. It’s not a happy escape. It’s a painful sojourn that they have to make in order to come through those stories. To think that Rowling is really thinking quite seriously about big problems, about how society recognize and resist things that can corrupt it - and those messages are - they’re both topical to the generation looking back to the World War II era and this is a British writer. British people have every reason to be very proud of how they fought for democracy and freedom in the Second War. But also, that those political problems and military problems that you’re quite right to see as part of an epic battle, have perennial issues in them that readers of any generation could identify with because they boil down to real questions about good and evil, and about ethical questions of human choices.
John: Wow. And you mention Nesbit’s politics. She’s one of the members of the Fabian socialists, and we know that Rowling is big on that because almost everybody in the original Order of the Phoenix is named after one of the Fabian socialists. I think we’re going to see a lot of that in [The] Casual Vacancy, where Rowling decides to drop the magical wizard stuff and go right into Nesbitian political commentary on our age, or whatever.
Suzanne: Yeah, and as we gather it takes place in a little country town of some kind and we haven’t gotten to see the book yet. And so her point is always that this is not something that is happening on some other continent far away. This is these political and ethical dilemmas that unfold right where you are, in your own school, in your own little town, even if you’re oblivious.
John: That goes to Rosie’s point [that] this is not like Tom Brown’s School Days, with the Billy Bunter on broomsticks or whatever. It’s because there’s this overwhelming or arching drama or battle which is yes, largely fought out at Hogwarts until the last book, but involves the life and death of the whole quality of the world and it has to be won by heroic actions inside the school. She’s drawing that parallel for students certainly, but for everybody, as Professor Keen just said. This seems to be out there somewhere. We’re fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, or whatever, but it’s actually something that is happening here in terms of your political life and how you associate with people. Really, that comment about "yes, it’s a schoolboy novel, but then it has this world-saving conflict or world-in-doubt conflict that surrounds it" gives it an entirely different feel that any schoolboy novel that I’ve ever read.
Suzanne: I’ll just tell you a funny anecdote. I was talking with a bunch of fifth graders - fifth graders are usually around ten years old, ten or eleven years old - about the political allegory and Potter, and I mentioned that one way of thinking about Voldemort was as a person who could be considered a Hitler figure, and this little fifth-grade girl, Rachel Brodie, froze in place, looked up horrified, and said, “Wait, you mean that Bellatrix Lestrange is Eva Braun?”
Suzanne: And I about fell out of my chair. I couldn’t believe this fifth grader knew about Eva Braun and Hitler's mistress. I mean the contacts are definitely there to make if you choose to.
John: Eva Braun and Bellatrix, now you’re thinking. Who’s Himmler?
Suzanne: Yeah, you could definitely peruse this. And the fact that it’s the Ministry that she puts at the center of this story. This very weak government agency seems to be really relatively easy to take over and manipulate. She’s definitely thinking about problems of governance and who owns the democracy. And the fact that the kids at school seem to have a better grasp of how to run their own society, Dumbledore’s Army off in the Room of Requirement, is a very encouraging way of thinking about the possibility [of] political change. Have I stumped all of you?
John: I was going to say, Professor Keen just stopped us all in our tracks here. I was wondering if we should be starting our Dumbledore’s Army sect here to get things going in the right direction. Rosie, you’re in the UK?
John: How are Rowling’s politics perceived? And we know she gave a million pounds to the Labour party or whatever. Is she seen as an advocate of a specific position, or is she just more [of a] “get up there and get engaged”-type person?
Rosie: I feel like I should know more about this really, but…
John: Well, as an English person who read the books, do you see an allegory about current British politics that we in the United States are blissfully oblivious to?
Rosie: I agree with the whole Second World War allegory aspect of it more than I would see the politics of today, possibly in the figures of Cornelius Fudge and the inept leaders who are more worried about themselves than their jobs should actually be. Like, Fudge is always worried about Dumbledore coming in to steal his role. And I think that can definitely be seen in British politics sometimes. But I don’t think that Jo’s role with the Labour party is particularly important. I don’t think she would ever try and use her fame or anything to sway people’s opinions in that way. She is an advocate for the Labour party and she will say her views, but I don’t think she would ever try and use Harry Potter as a soap box for that.
John: That’s a relief. We won’t see Harry standing for MP somewhere. [laughs]
Suzanne: Though we know he wants to be an Auror.
John: That’s right, maybe she can get him in there somehow. Suzanne, the word “novel” means "something new," and can you tell us, really...? Because here we are. If you are listening to this show, your life has largely been hijacked by a series of fictional novels, long stories or whatever. And most of us know very very little about not just this series format but how novels in general sort sprang up. And they say it’s not that old of a form though we had longer stories and epic poems and stuff. What is the modern novel, where does it come from? That PhD thesis, then. Expand on that and tell us in a way how Harry Potter is taking the novel in a weirder, different direction.
Suzanne: Well, historically the novel, at least in the English tradition, is a long narrative, prose, work that is different from the thing that was long, narrative prose that was before it, which was to say the romance. And novels are 18th-century forms. They tended to be a little more interested in ordinary and everyday life than the romances had been which were interested in more unusual people including magical people. And so in a way, Harry Potter is a reiteration of a hybrid that we’ve had throughout the tradition of the novel, from the 18th century forward, where there are elements of this old-fashioned storytelling that admits magic and the supernatural and bigger-than-life beings and species like dragons and giants. Those are all very old ingredients of romance, which mixes in with the novel. The building model, which I said earlier, is one of those 18th-century forms of really focusing on the life of an individual growing up and integrating with society is one of the tasks of an 18th-century novel. So when I think of Harry Potter, I think that the genius of the books was that it created a new audience for novel reading. Not so much that in [and] of itself is a brand-new thing. We can see its roots, as we’ve discussed earlier, in many different sub-genres of novel and genre fiction. But it caught the imaginations of a generation of readers. Starting with kids in the school yard, because it’s not often remembered that this is a series that started it with word of mouth success with kids recommending to other kids that “you’ve got to read this story.” That’s how it took off. It didn’t have a really large print run in the first volume. I think about 1,000 copies, 500 of them for libraries.
John: Really, 500?
Suzanne: Yes, so that’s a very, very small number of copies for a fiction print run. Really, it was a runaway success because of reaching a readership, and then it formed that readership who then grew up with those books. You meet people who stopped reading them at a certain point, but many of those readers read all the way through. They’re now college or university age, the ones who grew up with the books as they came out, and we’ll then have to sort of see in the future whether younger generations of readers also embrace the whole series because the series actually grows up in its sophistication and difficulty as the books advance as well. Yeah, Rosie alluded to that earlier. The first couple of books really are kids' books, but you get to the end, and it’s like, "How is this not an adult novel?"
[John and Rosie laugh]
Suzanne: It’s gigantic. It’s demanding. It’s disturbing. There’s all sorts of stuff in it. It’s what’s greatest about children’s fiction that I think draws a lot of readers to children’s fiction, that it can grapple with such big issues. But that’s not so much that the books themselves made something new but that they created, in the real world, a new audience for fiction and reminded people that reading about a world other than their own could actually be an incredibly fun, invigorating, community-building experience because we’ve all had the opportunity to make friends through Harry Potter. John and I are friends through Harry Potter. We would have never met one another had it not been for our mutual love of these books.
John: I’m delighted to think of you as a friend, Professor Keen. I think you’re wrong, though. I think she has created something new in these books, exactly what you’ve mentioned, she’s created this audience that has grown up with these books and you’re experiencing them in the classroom. I’ve been to Washington and Lee, and I’ve met some of these people [who] are very different [from] the people [whom] I grew up with, and I think they’re very different, not only because of the Internet and all of these things but [also] because they’ve grown up carrying these books around in their backpacks and in their hearts. They have a different capacity for story. I can remember reading Thomas Mann in college and being incredibly stretched by these giant narratives. I thought of myself as a geek and a guy who’s read a lot of long books or whatever, but I found Thomas Mann really hard to get through. Buddenbrooks and Magic Mountain are long, long books. I don’t think your students have that problem.
Suzanne: Yeah, I agree.
John: Am I wrong in that?
Suzanne: I think the Harry Potter generation loves long books, and they enjoy things that go on. I’m thinking of the daughter of a colleague of mine who teaches at [the] University of Miami, and she’s a teenager. She’s in high school right now, huge Harry Potter fan. Sophia Schulson is her name. And she recently has read Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which is not one of the super-long Dickens novels, but a great one, she’s read Hugo’s Les Misérables, and she’s also reading the George RR Martin novels.
[John and Rosie laugh]
Suzanne: And so that gives you a sense of what happens to the Harry Potter readers, they’re looking for stuff that’s big, they’re looking for stuff that’s juicy, they’re not averse to reading low-brow fantasy fiction. They’re perfectly happy to read something that other people say is great, that’s popular, and so they’re less snobby than maybe people in my generation of readers, we were all trying to cut our teeth on James Joyce or Thomas Mann.
[John and Rosie laugh]
Suzanne: But they’re much less snobby and they’ll read just about anything if somebody recommends it and it captures their attention. But then they’re also much less daunted by the big books, and I’ve found that in teaching Dickens, that Harry Potter generation readers are very game to take on the big, hefty, dark Dickens, like our mutual friend, which, earlier readers have found a little challenging. What do you think, Rosie?
Rosie: Well, I can safely say that I am part of the Harry Potter generation. I’m 21 now, I’m just finishing up my last year at the University of Kent, but I picked up the first book when it was still in its first print run. I’ve got the Philosopher’s Stone copy with the back image isn’t Dumbledore.
John: Oh my goodness!
Rosie: I know.
Suzanne: Put it in a safe immediately.
John: I was going to say.
Rosie: Keep it very safe.
[Rosie and Suzanne laugh]
Rosie: I’ve literally grown up with these books since I was six, since I was reading by myself. I’ve been part of this fandom online, especially through MuggleNet Fan Fiction, where I think fan fiction often gets quite a bad rap because it’s seen as quite lowbrow. It’s seen as not being able to come up with your own characters, but some of the stories on [MuggleNet] Fan Fiction are amazing. They are using the Harry Potter world in a way that is completely different from Jo’s own writing but has its roots in there and has its own amazing story lines and amazing creativity that people can come up with. But, at the same time, I am doing a literature degree. I’m doing English and comparative literature, so I get to look at literature from all around the world and all time periods, so I’ve read books from ancient Mesopotamia right up until a vampires module I was doing last time on Twilight and everything in between, so I’ve done George Elliot, Middle March, I’ve done a lot of Dickens, I just love reading in all sense of the word and I can safely say that Harry Potter has helped along on that path.
Keith: Let me ask you this question: Do you think the serious writings that are out there, a lot of them are based, like we were talking about with Harry Potter, maybe the James Bonds and Nancy Drews and all that, that the characters don’t grow. It’s all basically just the same character, the same timeline, versus something like Harry Potter where the characters grow over seven years. Even The Lord of the Rings is really a trilogy, but how long does the trilogy take place in actual time? The whole thing probably takes a couple of months for the whole series to be done.
Suzanne: Well, I can think of some great examples of book that I bet Rowling knows. For instance, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain cycle, which is a five-book sequence, which follows two main characters as they grow up. It is a wonderful version of this bildungsroman structure in a fantasy fiction, an alternative world fantasy fiction, based on Welsh mythology. Beautiful books. And so there are other books out there that have some of these qualities, and I think that one of the great things about a Harry Potter reader like Rosie is that, having read Harry Potter, that reader looks around to find something more. And there’s a lot of great stuff out there to fill that appetite for something more. And, of course, some of it, they’re not going to be satisfied with. I think it would be pretty hard to go back to Nancy Drew, having cut your teeth on Rowling. When I was a kid, the thing we all read was the Little House on the Prairie books, and that was a very different starting point. I wonder, now, there’s a huge vogue for memoir and writing that is actually life writing, stuff that is not fictional. I wonder if part of that has to do with the fact that people who grew up reading Little House on the Prairie, there’s a lot of fiction in those stories, but they believed them to be true stories about real people. And that’s a sort of different strand of reading that also cultivates readers and communities in a way that we can see as a parallel to the way that Rowling’s fiction has really encouraged us to think about the special powers of an imaginative alternative fictional world.
Rosie: I think you can definitely see that kind of thing in Harry Potter as well. I mean, the characters in Harry Potter, despite being wizards, are incredibly believable. They are the school boy characters. They are the children [who] grow up and face the same hardships as any normal teenagers. They just happen to do it in a wizarding school. But I think you can definitely see that most Harry Potter fans are drawn towards really good characters and really good plots. Things like the John Green book, The Fault in Our Stars, which has been at the top of the Times Best Seller list for a long time. That is a relatively short time period novel. It’s a stand-alone novel. But its characters and its heart and its plot are what makes it so great.
Suzanne: I’ll have to tell you a story about that. I love that book. My students pressed it on me, and they said, “You have to read this.” My son had read it, and he had also given it to me a couple of times and put it by my bedside so that I would read it, and I hadn’t read it. I thought, "I don’t want to read this book." So I start to read it while I’m on an airplane, and I finish it while I am still on the airplane, with the result that I am crying, sobbing, in public, on the airplane. And this poor person next to me, this woman thinks I’m having a nervous breakdown. She’s like, what’s wrong with her? She’s like weeping uncontrollably because of that book. It’s a very affecting novel.
Rosie: When my teacher read it she was on a bus and she was weeping, too, on a bus.
Suzanne: It’s so embarrassing!
Rosie: It seems to be a common thing.
John: I’m so glad I’m hearing this conversation. If I see people on public transportation now…
Rosie: They’ll probably be reading the book.
John: … having emotional crises, I’ll think, oh, it’s just this book.
Suzanne: It’s a terrific book, and it’s a great example of a novel, like Rowling’s work, that has a linguistic level of, this is not writing that doesn’t stretch your mind at all. There’s a lot of fun with language, in the way that in Rowling there’s so much fun built into the names and all the jokes, and the verbal texture of the novel really makes it fun to read at the level of fun to read the sentences. Green is really a terrific writer.
Keith: Well, let me ask you this. In closing up the conversation, I wanted to ask: Do you think as of now that J.K. Rowling the works of Harry Potter, is one of the greatest literature series that is written today?
Suzanne: I certainly think that this series is an enduring contribution to the English novel in the 20th century and the 21st century, that there would be no way to write legitimate literary history in this period, in this turn of the century, this turn of the millennium period, without acknowledging the signal importance of Rowling’s work, especially in turning around an era where there was less and less literary reading going on, and bringing a generation that has already changed the nature of the reading public to be a group of people where there is more and more reading going on. And that is a huge, significant contribution to the future of the novel.
Keith: Will people be discussing this a hundred years from now?
Suzanne: I think people will be reading them. They may have to work a little harder to find friends that also know them. Who knows what it will be competing with?
Keith: I guess I’m saying, Dickens has lasted throughout the ages. Everybody knows The Christmas Carol is one of his great works. And Narnia has certainly survived, Tolkein’s lasted sixty years. So I’m just saying, will the Potter series be out and around and popular to children starting at ages eight on up, and then the fans that are 80 years old can still enjoy them? Do you think that will still be happening years and years from now?
Suzanne: I think it’s a pretty safe bet that people are going to be reading J.K. Rowling in 100 years.
Keith: So then could we literally call this a literary classic?
Suzanne: We can call it canonical.
John: [laughs] Here’s a question. Every one of our guests… Because we hope this is going to be a series itself here, this program. I want to ask every one of our guests how has Harry Potter changed the way you read or think about books? Or has it not changed the way you think about books?
Keith: I’ll start that one off. It hasn’t changed the way I think about books. I just dive into something I like, and it’s there, and I can go back to it safely. I don’t dive into things that I’m not familiar with, normally. So it hasn’t changed me in that way. However, with that said, I am starting to read The Hunger Games now. Yeah, I guess it has opened me up into more of a series reading versus just a novel reading.
Rosie: This is a difficult question for me because I don’t really remember a time before Harry Potter.
John: [laughs] That’s right, Generation X! That’s wonderful. Seriously, at least you identify yourself as a Harry Potter-shaped reader.
Rosie: Definitely. I’m definitely a fan of fantasy fiction. I think I always was before. I think I loved magic and dragons and that kind of thing.
John: I have a specific question for you because you’ve read very broadly and you understand - you have your origin, your imagination was largely shaped inside Hogwarts - do you read books? A marvelous critic said that Jane Austen isn’t most important because you understand the books before her as leading up to her as you cannot not even understand those books except in the wake of Jane Austen. She becomes a lens through which you see all the books that came before her.
John: When you’re reading George Elliot, and you’re reading Nesbit, or you’re reading these Babylonian texts or whatever, are you looking at them, do you think, consciously or not through the lens of Harry Potter? When you first read Macbeth, did you see the witches and say, “Oh, here they are! There’s the prophecy!”
Rosie: No, I can definitely separate things that came before Harry Potter as I guess leading up to Harry Potter rather than seeing it through the Harry Potter lens. I can see tradition in Harry Potter more than I can see Harry Potter in the tradition. Does that make sense?
John: Very good. Yes, yes.
Rosie: I can look at Macbeth and everything and see how it has influenced Jo’s writing, and I’ve always been very interested in the idea of the literary canon and of intertextuality especially, so I definitely like making connections between myth and legends and all that kind of thing within literature. So yeah, I think Harry Potter is a nice supplement to the literary canon.
Suzanne: Now, what I would say is that the big change that Harry Potter brought to me, since I read it as an adult, was that it changed the people [whom] I like to have my conversations about books with, which is to say an ever-changing population of people ranging in age between 18 and 22. They have been so marked by their reading experience of Harry Potter that they bring qualities to the study of literature that readers even ten years older than them just didn’t have. So I’m just eternally grateful for the rejuvenation of reading that has occurred in the world that I move in - the world of booklovers and book discussers and people [who] write about books - by this wonderful, sort of opened-minded appetite for fictional worlds and the characters that move around in them.
John: That’s wonderful, Professor Keen. I’d want to just restate something you said earlier, that Harry Potter may not have changed my way of reading - I was sort of hit over the head with the four levels of reading with my education - but what it really did was expand the number of friends that I have that I can talk about the widest variety of things with, from politics to theology and literary things. Here we are, the four of us, what is our common bond except for Harry Potter? What a life-expanding experience that has been, beyond just the reading.
Suzanne: I agree.
Keith: Well, I’ve got to say, that was a great thing, a good discussion on the series. John, Professor Keen, and Rosie - thank you very much for all your time today. Hope we all learned a little bit and enjoyed the show. So from MuggleNet Academia, this is Lesson 1. We look forward to the next lesson, which will be probably in three or four weeks, and we will be inviting new students to join the show.
[Show music begins]
Keith: So again, if you are interested in being a part of the show, please go to the MuggleNet Academia site, follow the instructions, and send us an email, and we’ll go through them and see if you can have you join us, and we’ll have another great discussion just like this one. I also want to thank Theater Nation for putting our music together for us. So for MuggleNet.com, I am Keith Hawk.
John: I’m John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor.
Suzanne: I’m Suzanne Keen at Washington and Lee University.
Rosie: And from MuggleNet Fan Fiction, I’m Rosie Morris.
[Show music continues]