Friday, September 13, 2013

HPP: Meanings and Mandrakes

It's September!  The description of damp, stony smells and cold entrance halls in Hogwarts remind me of my own time in an English school, which felt a good deal like how I imagine Hogwarts.  It was one of my first utterances upon seeing it.  "Like Hogwarts!"  And I referred to it as "the castle" for those first few months.  My Welsh and English schoolmates didn't get it.

But you do, don't you?  c;

Imagining the cold air of early morning in the Quidditch field is one of the pleasures of reading Harry Potter.  In a larger sense, it's a characteristic that is probably invisible to a significant portion of its English-speaking readers.  I mean it's Englishness.  Historical castles, shepherd's pies, crisp new school uniforms, and even the slightly dark air of aristocracy and social class give it a flavor subtle yet distinct from an American novel.

Another example is treacle, a food I'd never know about if not from reading English novels.  Hagrid's treacle tarts sound pretty tasty, jaw-cementing or not, so I scrounged up some recipes for them and hope to be making some in the future: here and here.  If you've found and/or perfected a recipe, do share.

Of chapters six and seven, Masha said, "this book is doing a great job so far of bringing us back to Hogwarts without making us feel we're repeating anything," which sums my feeling up quite nicely.  Gilderoy Lockhart continues to be an affliction for Harry.  Poor boy just can't attend school in peace with his friends like a normal student wizard.  Though anyone worth his wand is going to figure that the two words "normal" and "wizard" together aren't too promising to begin with.

I can't make up my mind about whether I do or don't like Hermione's girlish crush on Lockhart.  On the one hand, it seems out of character for the level-headed bookworm with more sense than Ron and Harry put together.  You'd think she'd recognize Lockhart's insincerity right away, especially after the pixie incident.  On the other hand, the soft hidden romanticism of the sensible girl is a fiction element I've seen before, not without good results, though it usually happens much later on in the character development.  So . . . I guess in this instance, I have to concede full knowledge of character to the author.  She of all people would know best whether or not Hermione would have this little lapse in judgement due to adolescent "feels"!  And it does add a dimension of humor to the Lockhart caricature a la, "What?  Not you too, Hermione!"

Chapter 7 brought some discomfort for readers and characters alike.  Ron's curse is nothing to sniff at.  Retching is The Worst without having to throw slugs into the bargain cauldron.  It's one of those things about Harry Potter that make some people uncomfortable.  In passing, the incident fits snugly into the reckless world of wizardry and doesn't raise any eyebrows.  But when you stop to think about it, it's pretty horrid.

In a related instance, Jenna mentioned some readers' dislike of Rowling's Mandrakes.  It didn't grab my attention personally, though encountering a real, infant-like screaming creature at the end of a green stalk buried in mud would probably get me all sorts of upset.  But fairy tales have always been violent, unapologetically so.  Harry Potter, as fantasy, is heir to fairy tales.  Is there a difference in exposing children to a fleshed out, detailed novel with some violent, feather-ruffling imagery and plot?  I don't know; but I almost always err on the side of non-censorship, and that doesn't waver a bit when it comes to HP.


The other discomfort in this chapter is caused by the racial slur against Hermione.  Though we're in the positions of her and Harry about the severity of the insult, we readers, like them, pick up immediately that it is something loathsome.  The movie played out the ensuing scene in Hagrid's house differently.  In the film, Hermione offers a weak, teary smile as Hagrid comforts her.  I found that much more powerful than her book reaction, though not necessarily more realistic.

It raises a question in Harry Potter, not for the first time, of the meaningfulness of words.  Perhaps I should say meaning-ness.  How much does a word mean itself?  If the hearer of the word is ignorant of its meaning, is it still offensive?  Is meaning inherent?  Or does it depend on the intention of the speaker?  Mudblood, since it is a made up racial slur, is ideal to study when asking these questions, as we have none of the cultural or chronological biases.  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, now and going forward in our reading.  (And by no means is it a topic limited to HP.)

As promised, The Chamber of Secrets takes a sharp turn for the darker at the end of Chapter 7.  Perhaps it's symbolic that the mystery antagonist--at this point as yet only a disembodied voice--does not make itself known from the outside, but from inside Harry's own head.



  1. Loved this!!!! And I'm totally jealous of your English school! You're so right about the subtle differences between English and American novels, too.

    I found "Mudblood" kind of hard to wrap my mind around, since it invokes none of my disgust factors whatsoever. Racial slurs are so--"radioactive"--is one of the better words I've heard used to describe the phenomenon--that if someone said one I know around me, my hair might stand on end. But while the connection between dirty blood and racism makes sense logically, I have trouble getting it from my brain to my emotions. If that makes sense.

    1. Muggles aren't a race, are they? I can't think of a proper analogy to the muggle-born wizard, other than what Masha mentioned about a the hippy born to conventional parents. But magic is a trait/ability, not a philosophy or interest. I'm sure there's scholarly literature on this topic; I'm going to ask Google. c;

    2. P.S. It does make sense. I wouldn't clap my hands over my son's ears if someone used "mudblood" in his presence, but I almost certainly would involuntarily do so if they used a real-world racial slur. I don't even like to type it out.

      But is it general consensus that makes a word bad? Like for English people "bloody" is curse akin to the f-word, but Americans throw it around no problem. And there is a movement trying to get mainstream society to acknowledge "gypsy" as a racial slur. But you and I don't cringe at the sound of it, and people with Gypsy blood like Masha use it readily.

      My professional, scholarly opinion is: it's complicated!

  2. It seems to me that the "power" of a racial or cultural epithet depends largely on how powerless or despised the subject of the word is. The "N-word" is still a charged term in our society, but epithets that were once hurled at Japanese, Chinese, Italians, or Irish folks aren't. The latter terms are not POLITE, but they don't electrify a crowd. I think that the reason people don't care as much about them (even enough to use them) is because the Japanese, Chinese, Italians and Irish are not particularly oppressed or despised. They aren't even disadvantaged (especially in the field of math scores). They have no reason to feel threatened.

    "Mudbloods" is charged for wizards because their world still retains the memory of powerful people who wanted to get rid of "mudbloods," and everyone knows that there are plenty of ordinary wizards who would join the persecution.

    1. Thanks Anna, that makes it clearer for me.

      So, to reiterate, the racially charged word loses effectiveness the less vulnerable a race is in the society in which it's used.

      Makes a lot of sense.

  3. I would agree with Anna, with the caveat that it's less actual powerlessness and more how powerless or despised the subject sees itself as being which may or may not be a reflection of reality. I'm thinking specifically about the term 'gypsy' which affects slur-conscious non-gypsies but doesn't faze most Gypsies themselves at all. As some of the most conventionally powerless and despised people in the world, they ought to feel threatened by it's use. Actually the wizarding world's choice of words is interestingly similar to the Romany division of 'races' - which essentially amounts to Gypsy, non-gypsy (varying words all dismissive at best, which reminds me a lot of the term 'muggle' - as it can't really be considered an affirming term, and half-blooded gypsy.

    I missed Jenna's mention of the mandrakes! Have you seen the mandrake scene in Pan's Labyrinth? Way Creepier!!!! Mandrakes rock..;)

    1. She referenced it only in passing.

      As for Pan's Labyrinth, that really did bother me--which speaks well for the movie because it made an emotional connection for me. When are you going to walk us through the sacramental aspects of PL, Masha? c;

    2. you know..that would be a really fun post! I think I'll have to buy the movie :)

  4. Personally, I kinda hate the movie version of that scene (of course, I'm ambivolent about the films as a whole, but that's another story). The trouble is that Hermione, at this point, really shouldn't react strongly to the slur. It's a cultural thing, not something she would pick up in a book (and even if she did, the full conotation and emotional impact would have been lacking). Ron, on the other hand, has lived in the Wizarding world all his life and so feels the full impact of the attack. His violent reaction on her behalf and subsequent angry justification is a key character moment for him.

    1. Did you read the books first?

      The book does make more sense in this scene, especially with the knowledge of that comes from reading them; the movie version of this scene resonated with me emotionally.

      I neglected to give Ron his due praise for his conduct in this seen, though! Bless him! I like him a lot.


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