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?

Leviosa – It’s On!

The big Harry Potter news this summer is that the Leviosa conference has begun! Hogwarts Prep is pleased to have Prof JBH in attendance and representing the school. Here’s a link and short blurb for his presentation on Saturday, July 9:

Magic, Technology, and Power: The Wizarding World’s Problem with Justice

Magic in the wizarding world of Harry Potter and technology in our ordinary Muggle world are two sides of the same coin. Both magic and technology enhance our natural powers. Their uses also shape our natural and social worlds. We will examine and seek to understand the socio-political effects of magic in Harry Potter – in particular, the wizarding world’s profound and systemic injustices.

Check out the full schedule to see all of the amazing programming the organizers have put together!

Dr. Hunter’s talk picks up from an earlier theme–magic and technology–and examines the social and political implications on the Wizarding World (and allegorically, on ours). He’ll be building on the presentation and essay published in Harry Potter for Nerds with new insights and analysis. Hope to see you there!Harry Potter for Nerds book cover

Prof JBH interviewed on Dumbbells & Dragons

Prof JBH, aka, Dr Joel Hunter, was interviewed by Mr Kenneth Rotter of the fantasy podcast Dumbbells & Dragons this month.

dumbbells-dragons-podcastThe topics they discuss on the show include:

  • how Prof JBH got interested in reading the Hogwarts saga
  • the books vs the movies
  • The Lord of the Rings and the importance of Sam Gamgee
  • homebrewing, choral singing, and Coachella
  • the superpower he would like to have
  • working out
  • his favorite character in Harry Potter (can you guess?)
  • the portrayal of Snape by Alan Rickman
  • the upcoming Leviosa conference
  • Ravenclaw Reader
  • parting advice for D&D listeners

Enjoy, and do support D&D by subscribing on iTunes and giving them a review! Roll a D6, gang.

In Memoriam: Alan Rickman

Rickman Snape

The faculty, staff and students here at Hogwarts Preparatory Academy extend their deepest sympathies to the Rickman family and friends, as well as friends around the world of the Hogwarts saga, on this sad day of his passing through the Veil. With the exception of Richard Harris, perhaps no other actor in the Harry Potter movie franchise better inhabited the role of a character in the book. Your vocal talent was incapable of the whiny, high-pitched tone that I always heard when reading Severus Snape, but your gifts and skill as a physical actor, showing us the internal struggles of our beloved Potions Master, and expressing the appropriate emotional range of this flawed hero, took over the character with a fidelity that is rarely achieved in movie adaptations of written works. Rest in peace. Always.

Fantastic Beasts – Teaser Trailer Released!

As our faculty busily complete their grading here at Hogwarts Prep, we wished to alert everyone as they pack their trunks and make their way back home for the holidays that the corporate studio owning the rights to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Amazon; Pottermore has the ebook) has released the first teaser trailer for their motion picture adaptation. Not much of a tease, really–“Just a smidge”–but visually rich. The cinematography in FBWFT’s New York City of 1920 reminds us a bit of (ca) 1905 Paris in Hugo. Enjoy!

St Andrews Conference Talk: Folktale Structure in Harry Potter

(Cross-posted at Joel Hunter PhD)

Unlocking Press, the publisher of Ravenclaw Reader, has posted the audio and slides of my presentation on the folktale structure in the Harry Potter series at the international conference on Harry Potter at the University of St Andrews in May 2012. I’m looking forward to participating in the upcoming webinar!

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It starts slow as some house elves were helping me get the projector set up in the meeting room.

One point that I underplayed in this presentation was how well the entire series, taken as a single tale, conformed to Propp’s fairy tale structure. It is this fact together with the different responses to the particular books in the series that supports my hypothesis in answer to the question “Why do we love Harry Potter?”

Also, I attached three additional slides at the end that were part of an updated presentation of the research that I gave at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association meeting in February 2013. The content of these slides is a direct result of the discussions I had at St Andrews with colleagues and attendees of the conference. It’s a great example of how a good conference challenges and sharpens one’s scholarship.

New Book: The Ravenclaw Reader

We here at Hogwarts Prep are pleased to announce the publication this week of Dr. Joel B. Hunter‘s essay, “Folktale Structure, Aesthetic Satisfaction, and the Success of Harry Potter” in the newly minted Ravenclaw Reader!  The Hog Prep faculty and administration are delighted to share in this milestone in Prof JBH‘s academic career, and he would like to give you more details about this fantastic new book…Ravenclaw-Reader-400px

Booklaunch page for the Ravenclaw Reader

Amazon page

This is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind anthology of Harry Potter punditry. It has emerged from the first academic conference in the UK dedicated to the scholarly investigation and analysis of the Harry Potter series. This conference was held at the University of St Andrews in May 2012 (official draft program for all of the talks and events). Scholars from all over the world, including yours truly in full Muggle regalia, spoke, listened, argued, laughed, and enjoyed the company of fellow lovers of literature, artistry, wisdom, and all things Potter. Old friends gathered and many new friends were made over the course of three days in the hallowed halls, towers, classrooms, and historical setting of the university and the quaint seaside town of St Andrews.

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Let me tell you a little bit about the book. One of the unique features of Ravenclaw Reader is its dynamic dialogue structure. This was a conscious decision of the editors and publisher to capture, as far as possible, the stimulating give-and-take of the formal talks, the Q&A sessions, and the informal discussions that erupted all over St Andrews on that crisp weekend. I had one such memorable tête-à-tête with the Hogwarts Professor himself, “the Dean” John Granger, over a pint or four at what became my favorite haunt on this visit, the Central. You can hear his version of that meeting in the promotional video for the RR.

The dynamic dialogue around my paper and research in the Ravenclaw Reader was written by Prof Gabrielle Ceraldi. “Venturing into the Murky Marshes” is Prof Ceraldi’s response essay to my “Folktake Structure” contribution. I haven’t yet seen Prof Ceraldi’s response, so you’ll have to check out it for yourself! When my copy of RR arrives–which should be any day if the owls are healthy–I look forward to reading her critique and continuing the discussion within the pages of this blog and elsewhere.

So that’s an example of the “dynamic dialogue” structure of RR: main contribution, which is a revised, often expanded, version of the contributor’s conference paper, and a close reading and critique by another Potter scholar. Cool, huh?

I wrote a response piece for the RR as well. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is my response to Dr Jessica Tiffin‘s contribution, “Learning, Understanding, Experience: Harry Potter and Pedagogy.” Just to give you a sense of the international reach of this conference, I well remember a walking tour group outing arranged by conference co-organizer Micah Snell. Our merry troupe included Fr Snell, myself and Drs Tiffin, James Thomas, and Maria Del Pilar Alderete-Diez, all presenters at the conference enjoying the cool, moist, air that bright Sunday morning on the Scotland coast. We had converged on St Andrews from South Africa, California, Arizona, and Ireland to share our academic interests in the Potterverse with attendees and the unique academic community of Potter scholars. Can’t wait for the next one!

Arch-Dean Granger, honorary faculty here at Hogwarts Prep, has put together a compelling deal for Potter fans and curious readers, which gives you unique access to some of the interactive experience, dialogue, and good times, as if you had been there yourself. Buy the book and forward the purchase confirmation email to him (john@hogwartsprofessor.com), and you’ll get back an invitation to join the Ravenclaw Reader membership site, which includes some cool freebies, as well as the opportunity to participate in webinars, presentations, interviews, and who knows what else. For all the details check out the Booklaunch link above. Nondisclaimer Disclaimer: Neither I nor Hogwarts Preparatory Academy receive any financial reward or incentive if you buy the book or take up the Hogwarts Professor on this exclusive deal. I’m promoting it to you gratis, as a friend to all of the editors and publisher of the Ravenclaw Reader.

For even more news about the launch of this fantastic addition to Harry Potter Studies, check out the Mugglenet Academia podcast with the editors of the Ravenclaw Reader as well as Dr Joshua Richards, who gave the fascinating paper on Snape as Harry’s father-substitute, which you can watch on the Booklaunch video.

So apparate, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore, or order your very own copy of the Ravenclaw Reader online, and join in this direction in the conversation on our favorite wizard saga. And rest assured, though we are eager for you to own your own copy, we here at Hogwarts Prep have a strict policy against using the Imperius curse 😉

We will be including the Ravenclaw Reader in our Hog Prep curriculum in the coming weeks and months. I leave you with the official publisher’s blurb:

In Ravenclaw Reader, an international gathering of scholars debate the literary merits and demerits of the Harry Potter series. Each chapter is conversation, with the main argument followed by a reply from another critic. Representing a wide range of critical and cultural voices, the discussion includes questions about the portrayal of education in the book, the role of Snape, the landscape around Hogwarts, the structure of the series, the Wizarding World as dystopia, the problem of the Dursleys, and the canonization of Neville Longbottom. Perceptive, incisive, and thought-provoking, this in-depth conversation will engage fans, students, and academics alike.Ravenclaw Reader sets a new standard for Harry Potter criticism.

Dumbledore is Death

Dumbledore, by Mary GrandpréA theory that…wait for it…this is the Holy Graal…J. K. Rowling herself has said, “It’s a beautiful theory and it fits.”

Mugglenet captures JKR’s tweets. Read about it at Time, Hypable, and The Daily Dot.

Consider:

  • He had possessed all three Hallows.
  • At King’s Cross he welcomes Harry with open arms.
  • He is the only wizard Voldemort fears. What does the name Voldemort mean again?

Well done, Harry Potter readers (do you doubt that it was a reader who noodled this out?). Go canon.

Time to explore the implications of this identity and write a few lines of parchment…

Alchemy in the Harry Potter Series

Lily-smallJ. K. Rowling has confirmed that alchemical symbols are (at least one) key to understanding the characters in the Harry Potter series, their relationships with one another, and their actions.

In an entry entitled “Alchemy,” she explained that [Hagrid and Dumbledore] take on a symbolic position in Harry’s life, and it’s all to do with ancient beliefs around colour.

See more on Pottermore. The Hogwarts Professor is vindicated, as are those who have studied and analyzed Harry’s saga with these literary and metaphysical tools.

World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin (2)

Part II of my mini-series on how artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.

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In Part I, I introduced you to my two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: “elvish craft” and “translucence.” We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish.

In this post, I want to take a closer look at the property of the Nna Mmoy language that allows their people to create stories and poetry like nature creates life. Le Guin calls that property translucence.

But first I want to return to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” for a moment to forge a tighter connection between his “elvish craft” and Le Guin’s translucence. Tolkien calls the elvish craft a “special skill,” one that requires “labour and thought,” is put to the “difficult tasks” of “story-making in its primary and most potent mode,” and when realized, is a “rare achievement of Art.” Unlike the Nna Mmoy, creating stories that satisfy our “ancient desires” does not come easily to us. It seems far from the easy, everyday construction of our ordinary speech. (I emphasize ‘seems’ because in the last post in the series, I’ll suggest that it need not be, that our language is closer to Nna Mmoy than we may realize!)

Tolkien rummages around his conceptual toolkit for the best way to describe the elvish craft:

We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above, but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. (…) To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. (…) Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight….

Enchantment is the term that Tolkien uses to describe what is involved in the narrative art that “commands Secondary Belief” (belief in the Secondary World because of its artistic authenticity, inner credibility, and fulfillment of deep human desires). An enchanting (enchanted?) story is a Secondary world-building story “into which both designer and spectator can enter” and experience “shared enrichment” as “partners in making and delight.” Have you experienced that as a spectator (reader)? Have you felt the efflunariaects of the designer’s (author’s) enchantment?

If you have, then the author’s use of the language, his diction, was translucent. So that brings us to Le Guin’s idea. Talk of properties is rather abstract, so I’m going to break translucence down a bit. First,

A line of poetry can be translucent, as it were, to another meaning it could have if it were in a different context. The surface significance allows a possible alternate significance to register at the same time (167).

The example she gives shows that she’s not talking about double entendres (Breaking: stolen painting found by tree! Details at 11). Rather, it involves a slight adjustment to the original phrasing:

[I]f a syllable changes in one word, then “the crickets are singing in chorus in the starlight” becomes “the taxicabs are in gridlock at the intersection” (167).

This is, admittedly, a made-up example from the visitor’s supposed knowledge of Japanese. Note well that the two meanings both concern the mundane world. This kind of double meaning I’d call two-dimensional. Adjust a single syllable, and your statement can branch in two different ways, but their meanings remain in the plane of the concrete world of the bodily senses. They do not overlap or stack on one another with figurative or multi-referential senses. The figurative, the metaphorical, the allusive…these make language three-dimensional. They create depth.

But Nna Mmoy is more complex than the two-dimensional example.

[E]verything you say in Nna Mmoy is like that. Every statement is transparent to other possible statements because the meaning of every word is contingent on the meanings of the words around it. Which is why you probably can’t call them words.

A word in our language is a real thing, a sound with a fixed form to it. Take cat. In a sentence or standing by itself, it has a meaning; a certain kind of animal (…). As distinct as a pebble. Cat is a noun. Verbs are a little shiftier. What does it mean if you say the word had? All by itself? Not much. Had isn’t like cat; it needs context, a subject, an object.

No word in Nna Mmoy is like cat. Every word is Nna Mmoy is like had, only more so, much more (167-8).

Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine that you had none of your handy nouns with which to express yourself! Now this lovely image:

A Nna Mmoy syllable only has one written character. But it’s not a pebble. It’s a drop in the river.

Learning Nna Mmoy is like learning to weave water (168).

Needless towater-drop-by-cloki say, such a language would be extraordinarily difficult to understand, for the simple act of referring to something, of assigning a name, of defining, does not exist. Or rather, nouns and names exist, but they work like the multifunctional verb had. Not surprisingly, the visitor to Nna Mmoy had the easiest time communicating with the young children:

Their children’s words are more like our words, you can expect them to mean the same thing in different sentences. (…) Learning to read and write is a lifelong occupation [for the Nna Mmoy]. I suspect it involves not only learning the characters but inventing new ones, and new combinations of them–beautiful new patterns of meaning (169).

The translucence of their diction is inherent to the Nna Mmoy language in its most superficial form, but exploiting the textures of meaning available from its semi-transparence requires lots of practice. Conversation, speech and writing would be the central activity of their society.

Then they’d gather, along in the afternoon, under the trees, and they’d talk and laugh, having one of their long, long conversations.

The talking often ended up with people reciting, or getting out a paper or a book and reading from it. Some of them would be off reading by themselves, or writing. A lot of people wrote every day, very slowly, on flimsy bits of the paper they make out of cotton plant. They might bring that piece of writing to the group in the afternoon and pass it around, and people would read from it aloud. Or some people would be at the village workshop working on a piece of jewelry, the circlets and brooches and complicated necklaces they make out of gold wire and opals and amethysts and such. (…) I finally realised that some of the pieces of jewelry were sentences, or lines of poems. Maybe they all were (169-70).

gold-circletBeautiful! Their spoken and handmade arts converge in their meaning and use. And how consistent with what Tolkien calls an “uncorrupted” enchantment (see above): “it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight.”

The visitor hypothesizes that the Nna Mmoy invented such a language to compensate for the poverty of their environment. The world of the Nna Mmoy was engineered by their ancestors to be absolutely safe. “They took a great complex pattern and simplified it to perfection. A nursery room safe for the children.” And because the Nna Mmoy have no cultural memory of their ancestors, they do not share in or understand the common, darker side of the human condition: suffering, conflict, violence, natural dangers. They are world poor, as Heidegger might say. They use language to reintroduce “endlessly complicated, infinitely rich” patterns back into the world.

If you follow the logic here and apply it to our world, you’ll see why the literal, surface meaning has so much importance to us. We live in a world that is rich to explore, full of wonder and danger. Our openness to the world in both body and mind gives us the capacity to experience the full range of its delights and terrors. We don’t need a language like the Nna Mmoy to experience the “endlessly complicated, infinitely rich”…our world already is that. We simply have to live in it.ring-barahir-allyedfrown

Now let’s turn back to Middle Earth for a moment. The Nna Mmoy way of life is a lot like that of Tolkien’s elves. Do I need to say anything more than silmaril? The ring of Barahir? Anduril, the reforged Narsil? The feasts in Rivendell and the long evenings of song and poetry?

But Middle Earth ecology and culture has not been stripped down of its complexity; it’s a lot like our own world, full of pleasures and pains, fears and joys. With Elves in particular, there is also the weight of history. They are immortal and much of their culture is devoted to remembering their past. That’s a lot of story to tell. Here’s the key: the translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the language itself; the translucence of the Elven language originates in their history. For any language to have translucence, it must have complexity and variety. The Nna Mmoy diction and grammar is their only source for this. For Elves it is their world and history. They weave the inner world of experience and the outer world of nature, society and individuals into stories and songs. Their handmade crafts are of a piece with their verbal culture. Their elegant language has to be sufficient to express their experience with embodied immortality.

And now I’ve set you up for the final post in this series: how translucence works in our stories, how our two-dimensional language obtains its depth in new dimensions of meaning. How we are enchanted by the best stories in the way Sam Gamgee is moved hearing Gildor Inglorion’s company of elves sing:

Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean (Fellowship of the Rings, 92).

Stay tuned for Part III!

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