Monday, November 03, 2008

Thoughts on "Harry, a History"

I pre-ordered Melissa Anelli's book Harry, a History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon, and for whatever reason it arrived early (it's not supposed to come out till tomorrow). It arrived last Monday (October 27th), just in time for my birthday. I was surprised to see it, actually. Mum handed me a package that had come, and I figured it was The Wretched of the Earth, the second of the two books which I ordered for school (and which still hasn't shown up), but no, it was Harry, a History. I was happy, though, because I had just finished my history reading that day and was looking for something new to read. Unfortunately, the history reading for Thursday took precedence over pleasure, as well as a chapter for bio, so I didn't end up reading it right away. But after I finished the bio chapter on Thursday morning, I was free to read. I probably would've started at lunchtime except that I was going to a College Republicans meeting to hear about the California Republican Party's stances on the state propositions for this week's election (which are, by the way, YES on props 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, and 12 and NO on props 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 10).

After school, though, I started, and for the rest of the weekend, it was hard to stop. But I had to work, so reading ended up being restricted to before and after work, on breaks, and on lunch. Like with Deathly Hallows (or any good book when I read it for the first time), I took my time with it, savored it. And last night, I finished it, having read it cover to cover over four days, even the notes, bibliography, and acknowledgments at the end. In my excitement over it, I posted a review on Amazon right away and commented on the fan page for it on Facebook and in the "Eagerly Awaiting Melissa Anelli's Book" Facebook group I'm a part of.

The book is awesome. I had heard teases of it on PotterCast, of course, but those barely said anything about the book, now that I look back on it. Even Sue's interview with Melissa didn't say much. I suppose they didn't want to spoil too much.

Anyway, the book filled me in on a huge part of the fandom that I'd missed by not getting into the books until January 2005, six months before Half-Blood Prince was released. I started listening to MuggleCast not too long after, and PotterCast (which I prefer to MuggleCast most of the time, since it features less goofing around and more serious discussion) came later. I believe I started listening in 2006. I seem to remember it was around Christmastime. Apparently, according to this blog, I started listening to PotterCast soon after (a post dated January 5, 2007, mentions it). I didn't have an iPod then; I had an mp3 player though so I just downloaded the episodes from the respective websites for the podcasts.

It was interesting to learn about Melissa's experiences and about the fandom in general, and I chuckled at things like finding out I was very not alone as a Harry/Hermione shipper in the pre-Deathly Hallows days. I was thinking about that at work this weekend. Why did I become a Harry/Hermione shipper? Why did I insist on it, even after Half-Blood Prince made the Ron/Hermione ship rather clear? I don't know exactly. I think it stemmed from really liking Hermione as a character and not caring much for Ron as a character. Ron, Cho, and Umbridge are the characters I can say for sure I disliked in the books. I never did like Cho, even in her brief introduction in Prisoner of Azkaban as the Seeker in the Gryffindor-Ravenclaw Quidditch match. I didn't much care for her in Goblet of Fire either (but then Goblet's not one of my favorites among the books), although I liked Cedric. The way they played with a Harry/Cho romance in Order of the Phoenix was sort of silly, especially the scene in the tea shop. And when the movie for Phoenix was coming out, they over-promoted the Harry/Cho kiss.

I pretended a certain Harry/Hermione fervor, as I recall, stating in the months before Deathly Hallows that Harry and Hermione should get together, and that Ron could be left in the cold (romantically speaking) for all I cared. For whatever reason, Harry just seemed a better fit for Hermione; she and Ron fought all the time, and for two people who fight all the time to end up together is a very overused cliché. Not that I regarded Ginny (who was touted as who Harry would end up with) with a similar negativity to how I regarded Cho. I do like Ginny. It just seemed very random that of anybody he would end up with Ginny. Yeah, he saved her life in Chamber of Secrets, but that's because she was his best friend's sister. (As Harry and the Potters say in their song "Save Ginny Weasley": "You can't take my best friend's sister...and get away with it!"). Heck, even Luna Lovegood would've made more sense. (She and Harry did seem like kindred spirits in Phoenix, and he even took her to Slughorn's party in Half-Blood Prince). But why Ginny? I will never quite understand Rowling's decision to pair her with Harry. I will accept it, since it is now canon thanks to the Deathly Hallows epilogue, but I will probably never understand it.

I also laughed at some of the later parts of the book which discuss the PotterCast tour in the weeks before the Deathly Hallows release; having listened to those episodes, I remembered a lot of the moments mentioned there.

The one chapter that really caught me off guard was the chapter "Banned and Burned," which deals with both censorship of the book by schools and Christians and Melissa's interview with Laura Mallory, a Christian woman in Georgia who has made herself infamous by her endless attempts to, via the legal system, get the Harry Potter books taken off of shelves in her state, claiming that the inclusion of witchcraft in the books could influence children who read them to practice witchcraft, and that therefore the books are evil and should be banned. PotterCast, when they have mentioned Laura Mallory in the past, have been careful to mention her in a respectful fashion, though their disagreement with her views is obvious. (Unlike MuggleCast, who has bashed her in the past and even tried to call her up multiple times while recording the show). Having heard that Melissa had interviewed Mallory for this book, I was interested to hear what Mallory had to say in her own words.

I won't go too much into detail about what she said (since the book is not yet out officially) but I will mention my reaction to what she said (trying to remain respectful). I must say Mallory takes her faith very seriously and has strong convictions, which one might consider admirable. I daresay I have never taken my faith as seriously as she. But then, I have never cared for extreme fundamentalist Christian views. I grew up going to a Baptist school (and Baptists are very fundamentalist), but the church I went to with my family was an Evangelical Free church, which while still conservative is not as fundamentalist (you can read more about it here). I do not know which denomination Mallory is a part of (the book said that she was not part of any one domination growing up), although I do know the Southern Baptist denomination is popular in the South. The way she talks about God speaking to her, and also about seeing this vision, makes her seem somewhat Penecostal to me.

One thing that shocked me was that Mallory had said that books like Harry Potter LEAD TO SCHOOL SHOOTINGS. I kid you not. The actual quote from the book (p. 189) says: "In October 2006, six months after that infamous school hearing, Laura made some of her most explosive comments about Harry Potter to date: that books that promote evil, like Harry Potter, promote a culture in which tragic school shootings occur, like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which two students opened fire on their class and killed thirteen people." WHAT?! That just sounds shocking to me that she would even dare to say that. I remember quite well when Columbine happened. April 20, 1999, was a Tuesday and I remember I was home. I think it was before school. Suddenly a report came on the radio that something had happened in Littleton, Colorado. Since my dad grew up in Littleton, my parents turned the radio up. That was how I found out about the Columbine shootings. I remember that, even though I didn't know anyone involved or anything, I felt sadness. (I had similar feelings about 9/11). Why would someone do such a thing? Much later, I saw part of a TV program that detailed the incident and the investigations that followed. I could hardly watch it, remembering how awful it was from the news reports, and from reading the books about Cassie Bernall (She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall) and Rachel Scott (Rachel’s Tears: the Spiritual Journey of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott) that came out not long after the incident. (She Said Yes was based on the initial report that Cassie had been asked if she believed in God and responded "yes" before being shot; this has since been shown to not be the case). I should mention that I did also see the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine, which mentions the shooting (I don't actually like Michael Moore; I had to watch the film for a class).

For Mallory to suggest that books like Harry Potter promote school shootings just blows my mind. While what you read, see, and so on can influence your behavior most definitely (those reading this might recall the famous allegation that playing violent video games influenced the actions of the Columbine shooters). But to say a book that includes witchcraft (which, remember, Mallory views as evil) promotes a tragedy like Columbine seems like such a non sequitur.

As for the idea of witchcraft being evil, Mallory gets the grain of that idea from the Bible. Multiple times in the Bible, we are told not to practice witchcraft (and various other forms of the occult, tied or not tied to witchcraft). Indeed, Saul in particular gets in a heap of trouble for calling up Samuel's spirit using a medium. It is condemned both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. I have actually read a very excellent Christian book on the subject called Dewitched: What You Need to Know about the Dangers of Witchcraft and Wicca. That book was not all "fire and brimstone" (the term for people who condemn sinners of every sort immediately to hell just because of their sin, without considering the possibility of redemption and/or forgiveness) but in a very understandable way addresses the main practices and beliefs of those who practice witchcraft and Wicca and what we can do as Christians when faced with these practices and beliefs. It's written technically for teens, but I got something out of it.

So, as a believer of the Bible, I believe what it says to be true, and this includes the fact that practicing witchcraft and the occult is wrong. In fact, in my story Darkly Bound, those shown to use "occult" powers are the bad guys, namely Shea and Jago. Even Nightshade, whose powers derive from an "occult" curse, is considered evil, whereas the powers Avalon has normally are used for good, like in fighting against Jago (twice), using postcognition to try to determine Terrence/Jago's identity, and precognition that allows her to anticipate the attack on Ryan's grandfather Barnaby. (Also, although it is not mentioned in this story, I had originally planned that Avalon, when she realizes in the morning what she has done as Nightshade, uses her telekinesis to return stolen products anonymously).

But practicing witchcraft and reading about a magical school are two different things. Magic has been part of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales for centuries. Heck, we even studied Edith Hamilton's Mythology in Mrs. Burnworth's senior year English class at Tri-City (a Christian school, remember). Nearly every classic Disney movie contains magic, mainly because they are based on those folktales and fairy tales of old (examples include Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast, all based on old fairy tales, and the more recent Arabian Nights-based Aladdin trilogy). One -- Fantasia -- even focuses partially on a sorcerer's apprentice (played by Disney icon Mickey Mouse). And Harry Potter isn't alone among fantasy series with magic that are acclaimed by Christians. There is, of course, the more overtly Christian Chronicles of Narnia series, as well as the not-so-overt (unless you read The Silmarillion's Ainulindalë, or Music of the Ainur, as well as other parts of The Silmarillion, and see the Christian parallels) Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was promoted by Christians as well as non-Christians when interest in the series re-ignited with the release of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Well, actually Narnia is not so obvious, because I was working at Loaves and Fishes at the time the first Narnia movie was released, and I got asked at least a million times how Narnia was Christian, and thus many times I got to go on a geeky spiel of my knowledge about Narnia and Lewis in response.

Actually, I was talking with Papa about this chapter the other night, and he mentioned Narnia, and I commented that I would be curious to know what Mallory thinks of Narnia, a clearly Christian series that also contains magic.

That chapter aside, I did enjoy the book immensely and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Harry Potter or knows someone who is. I definitely recommend it to people like me who aren't long-time fans or are fans who are not well-versed in the fandom, as it will definitely educate you about the intricate thing that is the Harry Potter fandom.

Well, that's all I can think of to say. I may blog on other things later today.

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