Tuesday, July 08, 2003

A.S. Byatt writes in the New York Times, with rueful regret,

It's become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called "consumable" books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's "magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."

Of course, the " 'consumable' book" Byatt considers is none other than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. With Rowling's work, Byatt contrasts Susan Cooper's superb The Dark is Rising sequence as an example of what Byatt believes children's fantasy should be - with "a compensating seriousness... a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests." Certainly, in her clear, focused language that draws out a mysterious world in which magic is unexplained and often terrifying in itself, Cooper creates a series of books well worthy of literary analysis.

Nevertheless, I disagree with Byatt's entire point. We write literary analysis of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, do we not? (At least I do!) The Morte was a " 'consumable' book" in its day, published by Caxton as a business venture. Does the Morte have a "compensating seriousness"? Does it inspire "shiver[s] of awe"? While the bloody jealousy, confusion and grief that destroys Malory's Camelot has always touched me like the cold, painless edge of a well-sharpened sword, the mere bloody confusion running through most of the middle of the text becomes a monotonous description of horsing and unhorsing, smiting and striking, with swooning, sorrowing and sighing from the random and interchangeable local ladies. (1) Malory was a soldier, of course, and wrote what he knew.

Malory's supposedly sixth-century knights wear fifteenth-century armor - which is fifteenth-century technology. Granted, there are no cannons in Camelot, but those at least are a quite recent discovery in Malory's England. Why can't a twentieth century wizard (2) ride trains and read newspapers? Must all fantasies reach back to some age of Nordic greatness where a large proportion of the magic belongs to the descendents of the Welsh who deserve their powers because they preserve their isolated farmland?

To be perfectly honest, the last rant isn't quite fair. Byatt does mention Le Guin's Earthsea series, in which most of the characters are dark-skinned and inhabit an archipelago that owes some of its design to Greece and some to Indonesia. Nevertheless, I confess that I never did feel that "shiver of awe" for the Earthsea books. Also, Cooper does make a few nods towards British multiculturalism in the Dark is Rising series. One Jamaican "Old One" makes an important contribution to the Celtic Wild Hunt in the second book, and our hero and his WASPy brothers save a Sikh boy from bullies in the fifth book. Yet...

Modern England is not Tolkien's pure Shire, nor is it Cooper's country towns and Welsh farms, nor even Philip Pullman's alternate Oxford. J.K. Rowling evokes wizards who read analogies to both the Times and the Daily Mail, take trains out of King's Cross and buy candies or pranks at stores in the village. Tolkien would be shocked at all this vulgar, bourgeois capitalism invading the pure, unspoiled England he loved. I think it's great. Rowling's world seems real... which is why it needs to be an object of analysis. The "shiver of awe", while important, is not the only thing that can be found in literature. (3)

(1) Bad Zoot! Bad, naughty Zoot! (Sorry, couldn't resist...)

(2) Chamber of Secrets takes place in 1992, 500 years after Sir Nicholas' death day. Ergo, Order of the Phoenix takes place in 1995, and Harry Potter is still a twentieth-century wizard.

(3) Thanks to Erica for sending me the link to inspire the discussion.


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