Tuesday, September 17, 2013

HPP: Ghosts in the Foreground

Halloween is a delight at Hogwarts.  The feast trimmed with floating candles and glowing pumpkins, capped with the fitting and plot-launching event of a troll invading the bathroom in The Sorcerer's Stone is hard to top; but the Deathday Party nearly does.*   I know it's supposed to be boring beyond belief, but to me, it's another face of the many-sided coin that makes Halloween my favorite holiday.   Ever.**

The side-story of Nearly Headless Nick and Filch's Kwikspell course are instances of something new in this volume: side-story.  The Sorcerer's Stone was fairly linear in plot.  And that's good for the first story.  As the introduction to the series, it needs to prove itself to readers, focus on business . . . then, with the success of the first, the following installments can be consecutively more and more intricate.  The tale must first win us before it can whet our appetite for back- and side-story.  If Rowling is able to tie in all the side stories to the main conflict, then I take my head off to her; but it's not a sign of bad writing if she doesn't.

Masha feels the ghosts serve the story better in the background.  I myself like their "fleshing out" in The Chamber of Secrets, for reasons I mentioned in the paragraph above.  I don't think it would have worked as well if they'd been introduced in detail in the first book.  By bringing us into the inner workings of Hogwarts a little more, I feel the curious traveler's satisfaction.  The impression of a thoroughly thought-out world, with nooks and crannies and secret terrains, some known and not known, many yet to be mapped. . .  Or maybe I just like Gothic too much for my own good!

artist unknown, source

Over at Jenna's, the regular book club members are engaged in a discussion about a rumor of some scholar or literary critic claiming that the Deathday party is a Black Mass.  Curious, I did a little internet digging on this topic, and came up with an article from The Remnant, a Catholic newspaper loyal to the Magistrerium; in other words, non-dissenting; not your typical extremists.

The article is by guest writer Paul Girard, who writes "The whole place is dressed in black as in preparation for a black mass (black drapes, jet-black tapers, a thousand black candles, etc.).   It is indeed a parody of the Holy Mass. . ."  He quotes the paragraph in full and then argues

This table is an altar with a black velvet tablecloth, as in a Requiem Mass.  Here the fish, a symbol of Christ (IKTUS), is not only dead but rotten, exactly like God’s enemies wish Him to be (actually, there is a Greek group of Heavy Metal Rock that calls itself ‘Rotten Christ’!).  The fish represented with bread traditionally refers to the Eucharist.  The “bread” here is the “cakes burned charcoal black,” like black Hosts used in a black mass.  The night of Halloween is believed to be the night where the veil is the thinnest between the worlds of the living and the dead, but this table shows the Living Christ as a dead and rotten fish with burned hosts (meaning that the Eucharist is dead food for brain dead people), while it exalts ghosts, who are believed to be dead but who are allegedly very much alive.  The fish (i.e. the One it symbolizes) is lying flat, hopelessly horizontal whereas the wizard’s tombstone is erect, gloriously vertical “in pride of place,” like a promise of immortality.

I don't know how Mr. Girard can state unequivocally that table = altar.  That kind of assumption, I'd think, would usher in all sorts of problems in everyday life.  So credibility is damaged immediately.

As for the fish and cakes representing Christ and the Host . . . well, even Freud admitted that sometimes a sword is just a sword, and not a phallic symbol.  The fish and cakes are not the only things on the table: there's also haggis, a normally disgusting food, without the addition of maggots; cheese, known for its potent smell, especially when it is moldy; and a big grey cake shaped like a tombstone, with "tar-like icing."  The fish and cakes are chosen for similar reasons.  Fish is a food whose smell often makes people queasy even when fresh.  And cakes are regular party fare (Sir Nick is English, after all), but they can't be nice, so Rowling makes them burnt.  By then, mold, rot, and maggots were already taken.
Now, he is right that Halloween is believed to be a night when the threshold between living and dead is weakened.  The belief was adopted by the Catholic Church early on without difficulty for All Hallows' Eve.

There is no exaltation of ghosts; in fact, they are undermined at every turn and made humorous, silly figures.  Just look at Myrtle!

The "believed to be dead but who are allegedly very much alive" statement baffles me . . . does he not know the definition of a ghost?  They are paradoxes.  Like zombies and vampires, that's part of their horror.

And the erect tombstone makes perfect sense, as that is how they are usually found, as does a fish lying on a plate on its side and not standing on its fin.

Mr. Girard then de-deconstructs his Satanic symbolism and re-deconstructs it as Gnostic--er, wait Celtic--no, Gnostic--symbolism.

Finally, while he may with good reason disapprove of Rowling's literary treatment of life-after-death, the celebration of a death can't be argued from a Judeo-Christian standpoint as evil.  On the contrary, death is spoken of as a true birth, or a second birth, into eternal life; and it is widespread in the Catholic tradition of memorializing a saint on the date of his or her death.  Put bluntly, Catholics have Deathday parties all the time.

All teasing aside, the author of the article seems like a sincere and concerned individual, but his knowledge as as scholar of literature is highly questionable.  His interpretation of symbolism is a stretch to say the least, and in all instances are taken out of context.  A paper written by me in such a way wouldn't have passed my professor's scrutiny in graduate school.

Moving on.

I do feel a little sorry for Filtch, since his is a society that seems steeped in prejudice for non-magic users.  Would the Malfoys be more accepting of a Squib than a Muggle-born wizard?  And why aren't Squibs, people born to magical families who can't use magic, just called Muggles, as people born to non-magical families who can use magic are called wizards and witches?

Good old Hermione gets things moving again with her questions in history class.  The back-story of the founding of Hogwarts is effortlessly woven with plot.  (See second paragraph.)  I took my time with this part of the chapter, and much pleasure in reading it.

*  Sir Nick died the year Columbus "sailed the ocean blue"!
**  Yes.  Better than Christmas.  I know!



  1. I bet the Malfoys would be vile to a Squib, because a Squib puts to the lie their tenet that blood is what matters in determining (wizarding) worth. To acknowledge Squibs is to say that pure wizarding blood is not the ultimate factor. They wouldn't like that!

    1. That's kinda what I thought! Thanks for the clarification. c:

  2. I love your analysis of the Black Mass commentary! Especially the part about how Catholics have Deathday parties all the time. ;)

    1. Pretty much every day of the year, amIright? And then there's Lent, which is a whole Season of death!

  3. Also, it's awesome that you love Halloween so much! My family didn't celebrate it growing up, so I get a lot out of it now. Easter is still my favorite holiday all-around, but part of that's for Easter Vigil, which shares with All Hallows' Eve a strong connection to matters of life and death and afterlife. :)

    1. For a long time I was favorite-holiday-agnostic. I wouldn't say outright. But then one day I just came out of the closet, and was like, "Well, it IS my favorite holiday!" Not the same thing as the most important holiday, mind. c;

      Also, Hallows' Eve wouldn't be Hallows' Eve without its place in the liturgical year and the its connection to the seasons--so you could say without the other holy days, it wouldn't be my favorite out of them!

  4. Haggis represents the brains of all Christians, rotted by the idiotic beliefs they share and robbed of all individual thought, while the cheese is clearly a mockery of the promised land "flowing with milk and honey"; since cheese in fact comes from milk but does not flow therefore it's presence indicates that God's promises are vain. Geez, Christie, learn to read critically ;).
    -The Neglected Husband

  5. Well, you can't just go piling anything you feel like on a table (altar)!

    I like the ghosts, but I can't help but feel like it creates a little bit of a problem to see them up close. Having ghost characters -- why do some dead people get to communicate freely with the living while all the rest are stuck being Regular Dead and can't so much as coax a Ouija board to spell out HPPPY BRTXDAY HARERY one time if you don't count the numbers and all the times Dudley was obviously just trying to make it swear.

    And it's hard for me to buy that Harry would find himself surrounded by talking dead people and not ask if any of them knew anything about his parents. I mean, obviously the ghosts would just scold him for assuming that all dead people knew each other. But to me it seems out of character for him not to try.

    1. It is problematic, when you put it that way--what makes the difference between regular dead people . . . like the SPOILER scene with SPOILER at the end of the seventh book . . . and ghosts. For me, I can suspend disbelief because ghosts fall into the spoof-stereotype category. At least in this book. Sort of like, when your'e a little kid and you draw ghosts as sheets with three holes in them . . . and then when you get older, you learn what ghosts really are and that if they exist, they probably don't look like white sheets. Case in point, it never even occurred to me that the Harry could ask about his deceased parents. But perhaps I'm not as critical a reader, for all my puffed-up English major talk! And when you said it, it was so OBVIOUS, to ask ghosts--other dead people--about your deceased parents. So perhaps my mind tried to bridge the logic gaps and that's why I tend to think of the ghosts as kitschy monsters, like Lockhart's Transylvanian vampires.

  6. hello! I love this project and have been following for a bit. I decided to give my thoughts to your question regarding squibs. It seems to be that since magic is generally not used in the presence of muggles, but can be so with squibs, that identifying one as a squib is basically saying "non magical person who is a part of our world, therefore can do and discuss magic in front of". It just seems easier to say a squib, though. Just my own musings on the matter. :)

    1. Hi, Raquel! Thanks for joining in! I like your insights. It is a significant difference between a squib and a Muggle--although someMuggles do know about magic, like the Dursleys and the families of Muggle-born wizards. But I suppose that even those Muggles can't have magic done in front of them, according to the Ministry--right?


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