Reviews 2016

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter. Ed. Cynthia J. Hallett and Peggy J. Huey. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 193 pages. $80.00 (hardback).

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter, edited by Cynthia J. Hallett and Peggy J. Huey, belongs to the Palgrave Macmillan "New Casebooks" series, which, as Martin Coyle declares in Series Editor’s Preface, "presents brand new essays specially written for university and other students," and aimed to "introduce the reader to the innovative critical approaches to the text or texts being discussed in the collection" (vii). This general mission statement serves as a rather efficient characterization of the book’s target and overall concept, providing context for the diversity of subjects explored in particular chapters as well as the variety of theoretical approaches adopted by their authors.

The collected essays deal, in order of appearance, with: the cultural significance of food in Harry Potter; the books’ indebtedness to the genres of fairy tale and Bildungsroman; the relevance of abjection and the uncanny in the dramatizations of the series; its involvement with deterministic philosophy; the ethical models it affirms; the practice of ascribing occult affiliations to the novels; the ways they explore themes of political activism, bi-racial experience, medical practices, and motherhood; and finally, the gravity of the authorial intervention in the construction of Albus Dumbledore’s sexuality, and the negotiation of authority between J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter’s fan base. The cross-section of the presented perspectives and topics seems understandable in light of the publisher’s introductory remarks, while the theoretical complexity of the essays is kept on a student-friendly level, with the analyses focused mostly on their primary material and introducing the needed theoretical concepts in the background.

Nevertheless, target readers might have found a more extensive insight into the logical structure of the volume helpful, as Hallett’s "Introduction," apart from commenting on Harry Potter’s overall cultural impact and positioning the collection in its context, offers a rather limited commentary on the criteria guiding the selection and arrangement of texts. Moreover, the presence of occasional mistakes, e.g. the wrong spelling of Jane Austen’s name in the "Index" (200) or a faulty incorporation of a quotation into the text (66), testifies to the book’s need for more profound editorial attention, which, for some chapters, would have been especially beneficial. For instance, "Bewitching, Abject, Uncanny: Other Spaces in the Harry Potter Films" by Fran Pheasant-Kelly seems slightly overloaded. It deals, among others, with abjection, the uncanny, Nazism, transgression, animism and anthropomorphism, ghosts, automata, time travel and memory, incorporating all those issues into a reading of the films guided by the theme of terrorism and post-9/11 trauma, which, however, remains unacknowledged in the title. Even though the significance of the listed subjects to the essay’s main argument is identifiable, a more selective but focused discussion might have proved more efficient in conveying the progress of the reasoning.

The title of Em McAvan’s "Harry Potter and the Origins of the Occult," in turn, does not reflect the specifically American context of the presented argumentation, which relies on the socio-cultural impact of Puritan heritage, and the history of religion in the U.S. Potentially problematic is also the structure of "Magic, Medicine and Harry Potter," and the mode of discussion adopted by its author, Clyde Partin. As a representative of medical sciences, Partin approaches Rowling’s fiction from a perspective which is undoubtedly original and productive in a way reserved for innovative, interdisciplinary studies. Simultaneously, however, it may be misleading for a reader taking first steps in the field of literary criticism, because the chapter seems to be taking some liberties with the conventions of textual analysis. It is more preoccupied with tracing particular motifs in the source text than establishing connections between the findings. It also treats the established restrictions in criticism of fictional constructs rather loosely, e. g. basing some arguments on simple parallels, or referring a document from the extratextual reality directly to a fictional context (144). Moreover, on two occasions Partin slightly misrepresents data from the analysed novels (136, 140). Thus, while a contribution unconfined by rigid formulas of literary criticism may have a lot to offer in a diversified collection aimed to "provide students with fresh thinking about key texts and authors" (Coyle vii), the editors’ task should be to guarantee the consistency of the whole volume with its declared function of a study aid for student researchers. Otherwise, an inexperienced reader is, with some probability, exposed to a risk of using a structurally problematic chapter as a model when developing their own critical workshop.

None of the above remarks is intended to depreciate the collection in its entirety, as all presented essays offer original insights into the Harry Potter phenomenon and definitely add to its cultural significance, signalling a variety of research perspectives waiting to be developed. The book’s novelty becomes all the more admirable when considered against the extensive pre-existent literature on Harry Potter, as confirmed by the "Further Reading" section, in which the editors have included 16 monographs, 6 collections of essays, and 4 teaching resources. Chapters such as, among others, "Wizard’s Justice and Elf Liberation: Politics and Political Activism in Harry Potter" by Marcus Schulzke, "Dumbledore’s Ethos of Love in Harry Potter" by Lykke Guanio-Uluru, or the already mentioned contribution by Em McAvan, combine relevant and inspiring claims with balanced and well researched analysis, offering solid support for further scholarly efforts. Still, critical distance might be recommended when using the collection in the classroom or as a study aid.

Agata Zarzycka
University of Wrocław, Poland