After Ginny’s post, I’d like to return to my theme of pressure testing narratives with some concrete examples. Narrative is useful, and it’s fun, so in the previous post I was in now way suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The new Harry Potter book coming out puts me in mind of something I wrote two years ago, and I want to come back to the juxtaposition of Rowling, who writes a good tale without really doing much to make the reader think, versus an author who spins a good yarn and does ask the reader to ponder the implications of narrative – Terry Pratchett.
Terry’s two short children’s books, “The Wee Free Men” and “A Hat Full of Sky” contain more wisdom and philosophical challenges for young readers than the entire Harry Potter series of books (which probably contain an order of magnitude more words). I’m not a book snob, but the whole reason that I prefer Pratchett to Rowling is tied up in this theme of thinking about the implications of narrative.
Pratchett’s two books concern a little girl raised on a farm in the Chalk country that Terry himself hails from. In the first book, “The Wee Free Men”, Tiffany, the heroine, is called into action when the Queen of the Fairies brings her world close to Tiffany’s and begins stealing things, including children. Tiffany grows up and discovers she’s a witch in the course of enlisting some small blue men (the pictsies) – who were kicked out of fairyland for being drunk and disorderly – to help her get her stolen brother back.
You’d think with a premise like that one, Terry would be firmly on the side of unchecked narrative. You’d be wrong. Tiffany herself expresses Terry problem with believing too much in stories:
Her mother had read them to her when she was little, and then she’d read them to herself. And all the stories had, somewhere, the witch. The wicked old witch.
And Tiffany had thought, Where the evidence?
The stories never said why she was wicked. It was enough to be an old woman, enough to be all alone, enough to look strange because you had no teeth. It was enough to be called a witch.
If it came to that, the book never gave you evidence of anything. It talked about a “handsome prince” … was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called him handsome? As for a girl who was as beautiful as the day is long” … well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories didn’t want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told. …
In “The Wee Free Men”, Tiffany once again shows her propensity to question narrative as she meets the son of the local Baron whom the Queen has kidnapped months ago:
And then she told me to sing and dance and skip and play” said Roland. “She said that’s what children were supposed to do.”
Tiffany wondered about this. As far as she could see, children mostly argued, shouted, ran around very fast, laughed loudly, picked their noses, got dirty and sulked. Any seen dancing and skipping and singing had probably been stung by a wasp.
You can see why Terry is going on heavy rotation at my house, while Rowling will be there only if asked for.
That’s not to say that Terry discounts narrative. He is a storyteller after all. But he has a complex relationship with narrative, as does his main character.
For example, there was the Raddles’ privy. Miss Level had explained carefully to Mr. and Mrs. Radddle several times that it was far too close to the well, and so the drinking water was full of tiny, tiny creatures that were making their children sic. They’s listened very carefully, every time they heard the lecture, and still they never moved the privy. But Mistress Weatherwax told them it was caused by goblins who were attracted to the smell, and by the time they left the cottage, Mr. Raddle and three of his friends were already digging a new well at the other end of the garden.
“It really is caused by tiny creatures, you know,” said Tiffany, who’d once handed over and egg to a traveling teacher so she could line up and look through his “**ASTOUNDING MIKROSKOPICAL DEVICE! A ZOO IN EVERY DROP OF DITCHWATER!**” She’d almost collapsed the next day from not drinking. Some of those creatures were hairy.
“Is that so?” said Mistress Weatherwax sarcastically.
“Yes. It is. And Miss Level believes in telling them the truth!”
“Good. She’s a fine, honest woman,” said Mistress Weatherwax. “But what I say is that you have to tell people a story they can understand. Right now I reckon you’d have to change quite a lot of the world, and maybe bang Mr. Raddle’s stupid fat head against the wall a few times, before he’d believe that you can be sickened by drinking tiny, invisible beasts. And while you’re doing that, those kids of theirs will get sicker. But goblins, now, they make sense today. A story gets things done. And when I see Miss Tick tomorrow, I’ll tell her it’s about time those wandering teachers started coming up here.”
I don’t think I can find anything better than those last two sentences to describe my attitude towards the proper evolution of narrative.
In the second book, Tiffany hires herself out as an apprentice to another witch in order to learn the craft. Importantly, even though she proved superior to many older witches in beating the Queen in the first book, she is sent to study with the slightly goofy Miss Level, not with the world’s greatest witch, Mistress Weatherwax. She’s sent to Miss Level to learn something, and learn it she does. Tiffany shows us why she is special.
That’s another major problem I have with Rowling’s writing that Terry throws into sharp relief. It’s the idea that mediocre student Harry is somehow so special. Why that never shines through in any real areas of his studies (with one exception that does not fit Harry’s pattern in his other classes at all) is a mystery to me. Somehow just passing time in school and some magical (pun intended) self discovery makes Harry great. That does not pass my willing suspension of disbelief filter.
Terry’s not buying that, either. In the first book, Tiffany is lead to think by the itinerant witch finder, Miss Tick, that there is a school for witches. One that will bring out her full potential for her, so that she can go on to greatness. By the end of the first book, Tiffany realizes that she has to do the work:
“Is this where I learn about the witches’ school?” said Tiffany.
There was a moment of silence.
“Witches’ school?” said Mistress Weatherwax.
“Um,” said Miss Tick.
“You were being metapahorrical, weren’t you?” said Tiffany.
“Metapahorrical?” said Mrs. Ogg, wrinkling her forehead.
“She means metaphorical,” mumbled Miss Tick.
“It’s like stories” said Tiffany. “It’s all right I worked it out. This is the school, isn’t it? The magic place? The world. Here. And you don’t realize it until you look. Do you know the pictsies think this world is heaven? We just don’t look. You can’t give lessons in witchcraft. Not properly. It’s all about how you are … you. I suppose.”
That brings to mind the Asia Times articlethat prompted me to write about this subject last time:
What accounts for the success of the Harry Potter series, as well as the “Star Wars” films whence they derive? The answer, I think, is their appeal to complacency and narcissism. “Use the Force,” Obi-Wan tells the young Luke Skywalker, while the master wizard Dumbledore instructs Harry to draw from his inner well of familial emotions. No one likes to imagine that he is Frodo Baggins, an ordinary fellow who has quite a rough time of it in Tolkien’s story. But everyone likes to imagine that he possesses inborn powers that make him a master of magic as well as a hero at games. Harry Potter merely needs to tap his inner feelings to conjure up the needful spell.
That’s not much of an underlying message, when one comes to think of it. When asked about Harry Potter, a tale with no philosophical richness if ever there was one, Madeline L’Engele replied:
I read one of them. It’s a nice story but there’s nothing underneath it. I don’t want to be bothered with stuff where there’s nothing underneath. Some people say, “Why do you read the Bible?’’ I say, “Because there’s a lot of stuff underneath.”
Now personally, I’m probably quite attracted to Terry Pratchett’s work because a lot of what’s underneath his stuff is pretty libertarian in its bent. The evil Queen in the first book is a leftist:
And what there was about the Queen’s voice was this: It said, in a friendly, understanding way, that she was right and you were wrong. And this wasn’t your fault exactly. It was probably the fault of your parents, or your food, or something so terrible you’ve completely forgotten about it. It wasn’t your fault, the Queen understood, because you were a nice person. It was just such a terrible thing that all these bad influences had made you make the wrong choices.
But Terry also has a good sense of what’s really motivating people. In his world, witches are mostly doctors. One of the logical flaws which bothered me most deeply about Rowling’s world was this: I’ve often considered that medicine is one of the chief drivers of technology. People want to live longer and healthier lives, and we do, if one looks at the disease incidence in generations past. But Rowling’s magicians could have protected themselves from threat and provided a huge boon to mankind in ages past by sharing their miraculous medicine. Why not?
On top of this, Pratchett realizes that magical power would tend to corrupt:
Witches didn’t fear much, Miss Tick had said, but what the powerful ones were afraid of, even if they didn’t talk about it, was what they called “going to the bad”. It was too easy to slip into careless little cruelties because you had power and other people hadn’t, too easy to think other people didn’t matter too much, too easy to think that ideas like right and wrong didn’t apply to you. At the end of that road was you drooling and cackling to yourself all alone in a gingerbread house, growing warts on your nose.
So how does Pratchett marry the two themes? Well, Tiffany gets sent to study with a witch who does not get much respect. When she asks Mistress Weatherwax why, she gets this answer
“Because she likes people,” said the witch, striding ahead. “She cares about ‘em. Even the stupid, mean, drooling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of servant. Now that’s what I call magic – seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on. It’s sittin’ up all night with some poor old man who’s leavin’ the world, taking away such pain as you can, comfortin’ their terror, seein’ ‘em safely on their way … and then cleanin’ ‘em up, layin’ ‘em out, making ‘em neat neat for the funeral, and helping’ the weeping widow strip the bed and wash the sheets – which is, let me tell you, no errand for the fainthearted – and stayin’ up the next night to watch over the coffin for the funeral, and then going home and sitting down for five minutes before some shouting angry man comes banging on your door ‘cuz his wife’s havin’ difficulty givin’ birth to their first child, and the midwife’s at her wits’ end and then getting up and fetching your bag and going out again… We all do that, in our own way, and she does it better’n me, if I was to put my hand on my heart. That is the root and heart and soul and center of witchcraft, that is. The soul and center.”
The juxtaposition of Star Wars and Harry Potter in that Asia Times article struck me for another reason. I do find an adolescent fascination with gizmos at the heart of both Star Wars and Harry Potter that accompanies the “believe in yourself” mantra. In many ways I think that Rowling is the George Lucas of Fantasy – and both are stuck in an adolescent state of mind that is attracted to glittery objects and facile worldviews.
In Rowling’s world, if wands are so essential to magic, one wonders how magical folk discovered that they were magical in the first place? Terry Pratchett has no truck with this logical fallacy:
And Mrs. Earwig” said Mistress Weatherwax, her voice sinking into a growl, “Mrs. Earwig tells her girls it’s all about cosmic balances and circles and colors and wands and … toys, nothing but toys.”
She led the way to the well in her back garden, looked around on the ground, and picked up a stick.
“Magic wand,” she said. “See?” A green flame leaped out of it, making Tiffany jump. “Now you try.”
It didn’t work for Tiffany, no matter how much she shook it.
“Of course not” said Granny. “It’s a stick. Now, maybe I made a flame come out of it, or maybe I made you think one did. That don’t matter. It was me is what I’m saying’, not the stick. Get your mind right and you can make a stick your wand and the sky your hat and a puddle your magic …. Your magic … er, what’re them fancy cups called?
“Er …. Goblet” said Tiffany.
“Right. Magic goblet. Things aren’t important. People are.”
I can find no statement as profound in any of the Harry Potter books. When you lay Rowling’s over-reliance on gizmos over the “use your inner talent” pop-psych crap, you get dreck, according to Spengler in the Asia Times:
It may seem counter-intuitive, but complacency is the secret attraction of J K Rowling’s magical world. It lets the reader imagine that he is something different, while remaining just what he is. Harry (like young Skywalker) draws his superhuman powers out of the well of his “inner feelings”. In this respect Rowling has much in common with the legion of self-help writers who advise the anxious denizens of the West. She also has much in common with writers of pop spirituality, who promise the reader the secret of inner discovery in a few easy lessons.
I tend to agree. Does the “rely on your inner feelings” message hold up to real world scrutiny? No. Miss Tick said it best:
“Are you listening?”
“Yes,” said Tiffany.
“Good. Now … if you trust in yourself …”
“… and believe in your dreams …”
“… and follow your star.. .” Miss Tick went on.
“… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Good-bye.”