Monday, July 4, 2016

We have to have that conversation now.

When I was a kid, probably around 10 or 11, my cousins gave me their boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I devoured them.  Then I talked with my mom about them.  Mom has an MA in English literature.  Mom's first comment, "You know," she said, "Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus, it's all Christian allegory."  This was crushing to me.  Being Jewish was a strong part of my identity, not because I was actively Jewish (we were a high holy days and Saturday school kind of family), but because most of the kids around me weren't.  In elementary school we sang Christmas carols in school choir in public school.  I remember being in a phase in fifth or sixth grade where I felt I should only say things that I meant, and I mouthed the words.  Discovering that Narnia was written to make me less Jewish was heartbreaking.  Thankfully mom didn't point out that the gnomes were crude, vaguely anti-semitic stereotypes.  This played out a couple of times.  I made her read Stranger in a Strange Land and she pointed out "the martian is a Jesus figure."  After ruining a couple of more books she suggested I skim the New Testament since a) I couldn't understand most English literature without it and b) she was tired of wrecking things for me. 

When I re-encountered Narnia as an adult, I was thankful my own kids didn't like it (or at least the ones who are old enough to have read it haven't liked it).  I didn't want to have that conversation.  You know the one, it's the one I avoid when I discuss my great love of The Who, or the times I showed Chinatown in class.  What do we do when artists we love do something stupid or horrible?

Sometimes, it's more complex than that.  What happens when artists we love, in part, because their world creation is sophisticated and wonderful and closely aligns with our own political beliefs?  And what happens when subsequent works betray those feelings of kinship and recognition?  More frequent readers of the blog might think I'm talking about Orson Scott Card who went off the deep end some time ago, but this posted is prompted by J. K. Rowling's latest revelations about magic in North America.

I should have seen this coming, of course.   She'd screwed up her history of African magic (see Tim Burke's critique here and his alternative history here).   If you need to know what's wrong with it read this by Loralee Sepsey an undergrad at Stanford.  Sepsey gets a lot right about what Rowling gets wrong.  Rowling's Hogwarts is steeped in deep understandings of British history and her background in Classics.  It's no accident that some of the key dates in Wizarding history align with key dates in British history, 1689, 1945, etc. etc..  Rowling had a life time of education to draw on. 

But with North America, at least so far, it's a disaster of old narratives.  Plymouth Rock but not Virginia, quick alliance and then no mention of Native Americans.  Nothing on slavery or the Civil War.   Imagine if, for example, the praying villages of Christianized Native Americans that were massacred by both Native Americans and colonists during King Philip's War were actually disaffected Wampanag Wizards who were covertly seeking to learn European magic?  What if Merry-Mount was actually an attempt to create a bi-racial Wizarding haven?  There's no doubt that the massive destruction of King Philip's War indicates massive wizard involvement.  And that's just New England, she ignores, not only Virginia and the Middle Colonies, but New Mexico where wizards fleeing the Inquistion clearly helped create the unique culture of Hispano New Mexico (whether those wizards were also crypto-Jews is an open question).  

Which leads to the next conversation.  What am I going to tell my daughter.  She loves Harry Potter so much, she nicknamed her little brother Dobby.  Her sig line in her e-mail is a Dumbledore quote.  She's deep.  But she's also progressive in the way her dad is, and like her dad, she is particularly aware of issues pertaining to Native America.    She's going to be disappointed.  And then we have to have that conversation, about how artists we love screw up sometimes.  And how they could have avoided that screwing up.  In this case, Rowling made some severe rookie mistakes writing about Native North America.

If anybody out there is interested they are:

1.  Native Americans are really different from each other.  There are hundreds of tribes, hundreds of languages and dialects.  Even closely related people like the Apache and the Navajo are pretty different.   The idea that Rowling has (or seems to have) that skinwalkers exist in all indigenous cultures is just wrong. 

2.  Native Americans are present throughout American history.  They are everywhere all the time. 

3.  Kinship networks matter.  Kinship based societies operate fundamentally differently from European states.  This can make history really confusing if your framework is early modern Europe. 

There's a couple of other conversations to be had too.  This is a different conversation from why I still feel guilty when I listen to The Who.  Or do we go see the movie?  Or do this change how we feel about the first 7 books (short answer, no).  And for us liberals in the audience, remember how we dismissed those critiques of Piss Christ?  Chickens coming home to roost and all that.  More on this later. 


  1. And now you know why my Justice League: 1588 is the great and glorious thing it is; because a pulp imagination and a PhD intersect so rarely.

    I do find your point of view so curious. The reason to object to Rowling is because she writes very mediocre prose.

    I also remember being shocked to discover Narnia was a Christian parable--and I had been going to a church school, so I really should have noticed. But it didn't dismay me.

  2. We can object to more than one thing about Rowling. I know her sentence level writing is bad. Ok Bad may be too strong but Lord it isn't good. That doesn't bother me. I'm a plot reader. But I loved her careful world creation (and yours!) and then this was just so..... sloppy.

  3. Bloom County ref there; saw that ...