• Gregory Loselle

Incipit! At last!

Well. An evening away is often a good thing. As promised, I took a nap after my last entry, then listened to the final chapter in the fourth book of the Potter series, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. It was a relief, certainly, after the previous chapters: it placidly tucked in loose ends, and concluded the story as best it could. Even if it sent Harry back to the Dursley's for the summer (for the second time after a liberation had been promised from his summer servitude--and more on that, and on them, later), it concluded what had become a book which had just staved off narrative collapse--just!--before it could end. And more on that later, too.

So now on to the long-planned activity, a consideration of the start of the series and, in many ways, the start of this blog project in earnest:

When we begin a children's story, originality is not generally the first thing to come to mind. In fact, a glance through the genre, with its constraints of simplicity and directness in consideration of a young readership, will rapidly confirm not only the prevalence of a direct and naîve voice--as a conscious choice--but a startlingly similar approach to the elements of fiction. Even if we shake off the "Once upon a time" of the Grimm Brothers, an afternoon spent reading their corpus of folktales will be less a transport to a world of wonders than a study in repetition: the same structures, the same situations, the same characters--give or take a distinguishing detail--will cross the pages until, at last, the vision blurs. Small wonder that archetype is the most-employed lens through which we discuss them--and that is, at least partly, what an anthology is for.

(This is also true outside the realm of books and stores for children. There are those who've theorized that all of literature may be reduced to a few simple plot constructions, and have written books to that effect. I had a student once who, told of this, fought me over the truth of it even as I produced several works on the subject. The issue was not whether it could be said, but whether it was so--but that is another argument. Some students, young and old, reduce learning to a question of personal belief, to the detriment of their growth. I believe this young man imagined himself heroically true to his own powers of perception and his intellect, and resisted out of loyalty to his platonic conception of himself. Last I knew, he was an restless member of Mensa, the self-congratulation society prone these days to radical right-wing conspiracy-mongering, and I imagine that he will eventually make some lucky woman a wonderful first husband.)

While I have every intent of subjecting Harry and his adventures to the reductions of Freud and Joseph Campbell in some future entries, that is not today's task. Let me just point out that generalizations like these above needn't be true. While much written for children conforms rigidly to expectations of what a child's story should discuss--as if by moral imperative--there is conversely no field of literature so wildly bent on willful rule-breaking as is literature for children. In fact, the tension between what we expect and what we read, if we read widely, is so very strong that any list of the most-often-banned books is likely dominated by works which, some seem to fear, might find their way into the hands of their intended audience.

(We might also pause to consider why we no longer seek to ban books for adults. I know many, many more adults I would spare the shocks of challenging literature, for fear of stimulating the pangs of growth in an otherwise carefully-ordered mind, than children whom I'd upset temporarily for the sake of future growth. Cruel is cruel, after all.)

But it has to be admitted that Rowling introduces us to Harry and his story yet-to-unfold with the most trite materials: a sleeping suburban neighborhood, a baby left on a doorstep, a few well-wishing onlookers who discuss the child's future in baiting terms of concern, and a giant on a motorcycle falling out of the sky.

That last, atypical element is important, since we could spend a comfortable volume's intellectual effort in tracing the antecedents to the action of the opening of the Potter series--the cast-away child, the dully safe neighborhood: it manages to make Moses meet Dickens on the cement-slab front porch of John Cheever--but for the specific reason we're likely to continue to read. At the outset, Rowling is careful to dress up the most hackneyed elements of her tale with carefully-described exotic details, the purpose of which is to disrupt our complacency in the narrative at its start, and to hint at wonders to come. So we are told, immediately and subtly, that the cat watching the scene is not a normal cat (it is, in fact, Minerva MacGonnegal, one of Harry's future teachers--eventually, perhaps, the lone sane voice at her place of employment); we see Albus Dumbledore, in full wizardly traveling regalia, laboriously turning off each streetlight nearby to mask Harry's arrival (however, if this were true magic, would he be using a humorous parody of a cigarette lighter--a device no wizard would need nor be likely to know by sight, if we rely on other passages in the story that show wizards and witches struggling with telephone use and raptly exploring kitchen appliances? perhaps one ought not to look too closely for consistency in a book whose plot is driven by magic); and finally, when Harry arrives, it's in the arms of a giant, who himself appears by dropping out of sky on that suitably gigantic motorcycle.

In contrast to the doldrums of its setting--the babe left on the doorstep is not abandoned by a servant or anonymous benefactor, much less a struggling mother--he arrives in the most elaborately-conceived, ostentatiously original manner ever devised to complete an act familiar since the discovery of the infant Oedipus. And that is the point.

We will continue to read precisely because all of this rich fantasy cloaks a story with which we are already familiar--even young children know that the child on the doorstep will struggle into a future that will reward him for heroic effort; that he will depart from the familiar surroundings of home, discover his true identity, and finally resume his proper place; that he will battle evil and succeed. The magic, always, is in the details, and that is precisely what Rowling gives us here--though, for the moment, it might be worthwhile to consider that the details are also in the magic. It's never in the broad outlines of a tale that we find the greatest interest.

©2019 by Gregory Loselle

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