And now for some interesting thoughts on a rarely commented-upon aspect of the Harry Potter books — at least, it’s an angle that I had never come across before — courtesy of my friend and fellow Daniel Amos fan Karl Swenson:
I am a Harry Potter fan. While I won’t take the time to fully articulate why I like them so much, it is a basic fact that I, who missed the first 3 books completely, have become a complete fan. I have read all 5 books, repeatedly. This may not seem a tough feat, until you account for my daughter, with whom I have to compete for the novels. I have seen the movies and participated in many discussions, some polite and some heated, about the issues, events and concepts in the Harry Potter books. And of course I have been treated to the endless stream of articles proclaiming this or that truth about the books.
And through all of that, I have always had the nagging feeling that something is missing.
Some before me have pointed out a theological void in the books. There is no mention of churches, deities or religion, that is true. JK Rowling has very carefully kept modern theology out of her world. The only real inclusion is Christmas, but that is kept fairly secular. But honestly, in a way, the fact that Rowling prefers to keep her world somewhat secular does not bother me. There is certainly no doubt she has a clear perception of good and evil. If anything, the absence of religion at least helps us avoid the arguments of whether Harry is Protestant or Catholic.
No, I felt something else was missing, particularly in the School of Wizardry itself.
The school has little in relation to a traditional education of course . . . as one would expect. There is certainly no conventional language arts. In fact how the children all have such fairly well developed reading skills is never fully explained. That Harry, Hermione and any other muggle born children went to normal schools is certainly implied, but we never do hear about the magical primary schools. Is this a silent nod to home schoolers perhaps, as these children may have received their primary educations at home? They have history galore, as it relates to the wizarding world of course. The droning recitations are not unlike my own memories of American history. No math, though we could mention arithmancy in its place I suppose. Science is the only normal education field well represented, in Herbology (Agriculture and Horticulture in one), Potions (Chemistry of course) and even Care of Magical Creatures. It seems that most of the Liberal Arts have a firm place in this world, as one would certainly expect.
But is there no place in her world for the Fine Arts?
We have paintings on the walls that move, but do we ever see classes in painting? These are more like living photos actually, even embodying the personality of the person, as demonstrated in Dumbledore’s office, and in Sirius’ hallway. So where are the amazing artists who create these works?
No theater or acting. Now, since most wizards don’t have TVs, at least we can dispense with that drivel, and the absence of movies spares them the latest action flick a la Arnold, but where is the Shakespeare? Can the bard himself be so divorced from this world as to be unmentioned?
And music . . . we have the Wierd Sisters, but no Mozart? No choral music, no instruments? Is no one forced to endure piano lessons? We do have dancing, mentioned in book 4. But this is more like a highschool dance then a formal occasion.
What poetry we see is geared to spells, and perhaps that is as it must be, in a magic society. But it still seems a drear and sterile place which has no Longfellow or Browning.
We do have writing and journalism, but the journalism is limited to two examples: the Daily Prophet, which starts as a newspaper, but in book 5 it degenerates into a state propaganda mill, a la Pravda during the Cold War; and a tabloid, which ironically provides the lone voice of truth amidst its wacky headlines.
The reality is that all of these wonderful, moving and timeless disciplines have been completely tossed aside for modern pop culture.
The books are strictly functional and education based, with the possible exception of the entire works of Gilderoy Lockhart, which are brilliant works of plagiarized fiction. Harry, it seems, may not draw from the adventures of Mark Twain, though his and Ron’s adventures in book 2 might rival those of the lads on the mighty Mississippi. Harry will have a looking glass adventure with the Mirror of Erised, but will never share Alice’s adventures in her looking glass. And despite their deductive reasoning in all the adventures, the trio will never see Sherlock Holmes and his incredible skill in his adventures. Indeed, it seems that Harry and company will be forced to experience their adventures first hand, without the benefit of their own heroes and role models.
There is a trend building here, which is seldom discussed. What art there is seems to exist only in the commercial aspects. The music is only there because modern kids have musical groups they love, so we have the Wizarding “Spice Girls”. Sports would have been absent were it not for the need to provide a parallel to the British love of Rugby and Soccer, so we have Quidditch. Even the fantastic art in the paintings, the living history of the magic world, makes its way to the back of trading cards, and in the end is just another trick to sell chocolate frogs. And did anyone miss the obvious parallel between the Berry Bots Beans and their popular American counterpart, the Jelly Belly?
Is Rowling’s magic world merely a reflection of the muggle world around it? Assuming it is, which I find no inherent fault in, how could it mirror only the cheesy superficial aspects of society and completely miss the deeper elements of our society? Can Christmas truly be mirrored without Handel’s Messiah?
I guess what this boils down to is that it bothers me that she has created such a wonderful setting for her tales, filled with magical wonders such as living paintings, rooms that appear at need and magical adventures in amazing settings, and then diminished them to just another pop culture, void of the beauty and the true magic of Art. Real magic is in the creation of a painting or a song that conveys the emotions and passions of the artist to the non artist.
But in another ironic reflection, I suppose one should expect it to be this way. After all the growing commercialism in all aspects of the modern art world is surely and accurately reflected in her world of magic and wizards.
So maybe this is nothing to worry about at all. I guess we should be thankful that McDonald’s has not moved in on the house elves to feed Hogwarts.
But I still can’t help but feel that, while living in Rowling’s world and being a wizard would certainly be a great adventure, without Bach and Shakespeare, it would soon pale to just another story.
Unlike the Mirror of Erised, this refection is certainly not the desire of our hearts.
Karl originally wrote this essay some time ago, but today he noted that the third Harry Potter film added a couple hints of the Fine Arts that were missing from the books; in particular, a boy is seen playing a pipe in the courtyard (“just a spontaneous seeming desire to make music, but lovely regardless”), and then, of course, there is the choir that sings that “something wicked this way comes” bit from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“the first time a formal choir is implied in any movie or book”).
I don’t have much to add, myself, except perhaps this:
I know virtually nothing about the British school system, but as far as the absence of any basic education in language skills, etc., it is my impression that Hogwarts only admits (or, rather, invites) students when they turn 11, which suggests to me that the regular “muggle” schooling prior to this age — if any — is satisfactory for those sorts of rudimentary skills. Since the children in pure-wizard families, like the Weasleys, seem to have been separated from the “muggle” world their whole lives, I guess they have either been home-schooled or have been sent to some sort of primary school that was essentially no different from the “muggle” schools.