Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Conference

It’s time to get ready for the 6th Annual Harry Potter Conference and Festival at Chestnut Hill College. This is a big one folks, and I can’t wait to make my first visit! Join me there by registering today.

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It’s been a full year since I’ve presented original scholarship at a Harry Potter conference. So far I’ve carved out three distinct paths through the Hogwarts saga: formalist literary analysis; technological critique; and existentialism. It’s time to review this work and decide whether to extend one of these paths, or blaze a new trail.

Three Paths

My most-read (or at least downloaded) project has been “Folktale Structure as the Key to the Success of the Harry Potter Series,” an analysis of the Hogwarts texts using Vladimir Propp’s morphological theory. I’ve presented versions of this material in three different settings. I’m pleased with it, but I want to take the conclusions in that essay and apply them to new literature. I’m thinking some of the legendarium of Tolkien will be my next Propp-y project. I hinted at this in a presentation for the Mythopoeic Society at Mythcon 47: “Mythical Grammar according to J. R. R. Tolkien and Vladimir Propp: A Gesture Toward Conciliation Between Mythopoeia and Formalism.” (Note to self: get this formatted for upload!)

The connection between modern technology and magic in Harry Potter has always fascinated me – it was my first Harry Potter conference presentation and publication (thanks, Travis!). I revisited it at last year’s Leviosa! conference, which was a blast. What a great audience and conversation.

And I’ve had some continuing thoughts about building out my existentialist approach to Potter, since I haven’t seen much in the literature in that direction since I presented at “The Power to Imagine Better: The Philosophy of Harry Potter” conference at Marymount Manhattan College in 2011. That one will take a bit more time to bake.

A New Path?

So I’m thinking of forging a new path for this conference. I’ve been listening to some podcasts on Mugglecast and Pottercast, and reading some posts on Fantastic Beasts (I love the Hogwarts Professor’s roundup posts!), and that’s spurred some exciting ideas for me. As always, I welcome readers’ ideas! If you were to spend an hour of your life listening and participating in an academic presentation on Harry Potter (or cognate studies), what topics would interest you most?

Mythcon 47: Mythopoeia, Tolkien, and Propp

Our faculty have a busy summer: Prof JBH will be attending Mythcon 47 this summer to read a new paper on mythopoeia through the lens of Tolkien and Propp. The conference title and theme is “Faces of Mythology: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.” As part of his Muggle disguise, Prof JBH has managed to infiltrate the Mythopoeic Society, the organizer for the Mythcon conference.

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Here’s the title and a short blurb for his upcoming presentation:

Mythical Grammar according to J. R. R. Tolkien and Vladimir Propp: A Gesture Toward Conciliation Between Mythopoeia and Formalism

This paper sketches a framework for understanding how the radically different literary perspectives of Tolkien and the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp can be constructively compared, and the value of doing so. I will briefly explain Propp’s approach in the Morphology of the Folktale and how it can be used to explain the aesthetic satisfaction many readers experience and report when a tale conforms to a particular structure. Propp consciously disregarded questions of literary meaning, thus guilty by Tolkien’s lights of “using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence” (1947, 47). Tolkien has no truck with empirical and reductive methods like Propp’s. Propp is an analyst of form and syntax, Tolkien of content and meaning. Propp is an anatomist, Tolkien a psychologist (or poet). And yet their analyses of fairy tales converge on two noteworthy points. The first is the effect of a well-written tale on the reader. In previous research published on Propp, I have investigated his elliptical claim that his 31-function schema “is a measuring unit for individual tales” (1968, 64). It has been observed that the well-formed tale according to Propp’s scheme constitutes a cultural script marked by keen aesthetic satisfaction. The second point of convergence is on the question of origins, with both Tolkien and Propp, in their respective vocabularies, indicating the necessity of an Ur-story, a Protean form from which stories of an infinite variety of “amazing multi-formity, picturesqueness, and color” (1968, 21) have emerged under the sub-creative auspices of the “elvish craft.” Propp’s explanation is by design naturalized while Tolkien’s is metaphysical. Yet both reveal something essential to “incantation in Faërie,” a mythical grammar by which the storyteller may, if successful, wield an enchanter’s power.

Prof Hunter is drawing from the Manuscript B version of “On Fairy-Stories” published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947/1966, out of print). He is particularly enthusiastic about this paper because it will be his first attempt to build on his already-published Proppian analysis of the Harry Potter saga, which appears in The Ravenclaw Reader. It is also the fruit borne from a discussion with the Hogwarts Professor at a pub in St Andrews, Scotland four years ago. Pubs in Scotland are, parenthetically, where most good ideas originate. st-andrews-university-hotbed-of-mythopoeia

When the conference program is finalized, we’ll provide a link.

Students may use their holiday Hogsmeade pass to attend. If you don’t have a pass signed by your parent or guardian, please register online at the Mythcon 47 website. If you’ve already used your pass to attend the Leviosa! conference, then alternative routes out of school grounds are known to exist, but you can be assured that Mr Filch and Mrs Norris will be guarding them vigilantly.

Le Guin and Torah

We’ve had more than a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin enthusiasm at the school recently, and our read-through of the Earthsea books is halfway done. (We also watched Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea (Gedo senki) recently; a review will be forthcoming (trailer).)

This post is a placeholder for what may become a conference paper or journal essay. So I’m just going to put this here for us to ponder and invite all students and faculty to discuss, challenge, question, evaluate, and so on, in the comments.

Le Guin’s world of Earthsea has a strikingly Hebraic (Jewish) theme at its core: the importance of names and the creative, sustaining power of speech. First, the relevant features of Earthsea:Ursula K. Le Guin photo by Kolisch

  • Wizards distinguish between the conventional and true names of people and all beings (Sparrowhawk/Ged, Arha/Tenar, Arren/Lebannen, et al).
  • Nature is under the command of “the Old Speech, the language of the Making” (e.g., The Farthest Shore, 39).
  • Evil is namelessness; hence, evil personified and deified is The Nameless Ones (The Tombs of Atuan).

Now the relevant features of the Hebraic tradition:

    • God changes some humanly given (conventional) names to new (true) names: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel.
    • Others change given names in light of great deeds: Gideon/Jerub-Baal, Joseph/Zaphenath-Paneah, Daniel/Belteshazzar, et al.
    • Nature, “all things visible and invisible,” is made, created, by the divine logos, or power of the speech of God (on this feature the Torah is not unique to other, especially Egyptian, creation narratives).

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  • The name of God “himself,” the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “I am that I am,” is revealed to the “Archmage” Moses, to authenticate Moses’ mission to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt.
  • An ambivalence about the name of God occurs if the Hebrew God is considered as one among the pantheon of the Ancient Near East civilizations (Thales, ca 600 BCE, said that the world was full of such gods in his time). But the being revealed to Moses is unlike these other gods in that “he,” through his own name, is self-revealed to transcend the physical, space-time universe. YHWH is not a supreme being among other beings, a god of preeminent status, as one first among equals, but Being Itself, whose being is grounded in “his” aseity and is therefore self-existent. Because the divine aseity is unreachable by the human logos, or the discursive intellect, YHWH has been regarded as “the Nameless One” by some thinkers in contrast to those deities which are named.

There is much that needs to take shape here and further expound, so I welcome your comments!

Folktale Structure at Heart of Harry Potter’s Success

This paper by ASU Barrett Honors College Lecturer Joel Hunter and team of ASU students digs into the folktale structure of the Harry Potter series.