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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Guest Editorial: Dahl, Rowling, and the Difference between the Literal and Serious.

Dahl, Rowling, and the Difference
between the Literal and Serious.

Guest post by Reecey.

One of the recurring trends I see in the Harry Potter fandom is that people treat the early books as though they’re meant to be taken just as seriously as the later ones.

This has a few unpleasant side effects in terms of how certain characters are viewed by fandom, but what the hell’s going on with Severus Snape is better suited to an editorial spot of its own.

Suffice to say for the moment, his behaviour is largely attributable to the topic of today’s post, because in those early books he’s akin to a Miss Trunchbull or Miss Hardbroom. A severe character who is cruel but never taken to task for their behaviour.

Miss Trunchbull, in particular, is possibly the most extreme example of this archetype.

She has an iron maiden with broken glass inside called the Chokey that she puts children (especially little girls) inside as punishment.

In the real world, a woman like this would never be allowed to be in charge of children yet she’s the headmistress of a school in the world of Matilda.

Another extreme, and Dahl penned example, would be Spiker and Sponge. These two are the awful aunts that James (of the giant peach fame) was sent to live with after his parents died in a freak escaped rhinoceros accident.

(Incidentally, his full name is ‘James Henry Trotter’. Do you people not see?! Do you not have eyes?)


They beat him, made him do chores and he had to sleep in the attic.

While more extreme than the behaviour of the Dursleys in Harry Potter, you can see the clear similarities.

This may very well be why the admission that what the Dursleys did to Harry was child abuse came so late, and why social services never did anything about it (although the not great actions of teachers and the fact that the Dursleys are middle class probably have a lot to do with it).

The ridiculous attitudes of the Dursleys and their frankly insane behaviour, is a very Dahl-ish construct. It’s an extreme situation to drive in the protagonist’s background. Just like the endless cabbage in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is there to go ‘loooook, he’s pooor!’, the whole ‘cupboard under the stairs’ thing is to go ‘hummmble beginnnings and awwwwwfuuuuuul famillllly, loooook how spoooiled Dudley iiiiiis’.

Hell, Dudley’s like some fat British version of Veruca Salt.

Not as rich and not as American, and ergo not with quite so much of a stupid name,
although 'Dudley Dursley' is pushing it a bit.

By the way, consider this: Harry has dead parents and is sent to live with his awful aunt, just like James and just like Miss Honey.

The question remains, how awful was Roald Dahl’s aunt?

So, with these comparisons drawn, to the meat of the issue.

Characters like Miss Trunchbull, Spiker and Sponge, Miss Hardbroom, the Dursleys and Severus Snape aren’t really intended to be taken seriously.

For the latter two, not for the earlier books at least.

Now, this doesn’t mean not taken literally.

You aren’t supposed to take the cupboard under the stairs or the Choky as some kind of hyperbolic metaphor for what the characters are actually doing. But you aren’t supposed to write tumblr posts about how they’re terrible, terrible people. These actions are there to illustrate the archetype, you’re not really supposed to take it as seriously as you would someone in, say, Crime and Punishment.

This is such a problem in Harry Potter because characters that you are intended to take seriously get introduced later on, like Professor Umbridge. She’s archetypal, yes, but she’s also very much representative of the conservative (big and small ‘c’) notion of physically punishing children and crushing dissent.

The idea isn’t to make a point excessive for impact, the idea here is to reflect a personality that appears in real life but in a setting that allows it to do as it pleases.

With Snape and the Dursleys, a lot of their very worst behaviour occurs earlier on in the series, but they’re judged on those actions in the same way that characters whose worst behaviours appear in the later books, like Umbridge and James Potter.

Snape: Basically just Miss Hardbroom with a rooster and bad hair.

The tone of these books changed over the course of them being written, which is no bad thing. J.K. Rowling was a fairly new writer when she started and improved as she went along, finding that a more serious and darker tone better suited the story than the Dahl-apeing style that she’d started with.

The problem comes when readers refuse to admit this and treat the mashup of the Worst Witch and the works of Roald Dahl that the first few books really were and insist on reading them all as though they’re the Deathly Hallows. Which isn’t fair to the characters, isn’t fair to the story and isn’t fair to Rowling.

As Harry matured, so did the narrative, and it behooves us as the readers to recognise that. Just as it behooves us to be sensible enough not to take everything in a book one hundred percent seriously or expect a teenage boy whose life is under threat and has to worry about saving the world to pay attention to the sexual orientations and gender identities of everyone around him.

Seriously, he has better things to do.

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