Saturday, July 28, 2007

Driving along in my Mugglemobile

Although the suspension is shot
Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ”true”: it accords with the laws of that that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from the outside.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
My copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from Amazon UK arrived on Tuesday. I've avoided the American editions because of the tin-eared retitling of the historically rooted Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the meaningless Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (The philosopher's stone was an actual obsession of the ancient alchemists, who sought it unsuccessfully for hundreds of years, hoping to use it to achieve immortality and unbounded wealth. The “sorcerer's stone” is a vapid marketing construct.)

The Harry Potter books have given me immense—if not unalloyed—pleasure. The initial volumes were especially delightful, cleverly crafted, involving, and smoothly plotted. They bogged down a bit for me as the drama overcame the comedic elements and the story turned darker. I also think the books suffered a bit from J. K. Rowling's gargantuan commercial success, since I think a good editor could have tightened some of the self-indulgent maundering in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. By that point, I'm sure, Rowling had become all but editor-proof, secure in her ability to do whatever she pleased. I still enjoyed the books and found them worthwhile, but I became conscious of struggling occasionally to maintain my forward motion. It was the opposite of the problem I had had with the earlier installments, which I found quite difficult to put down.

A tiny semi-spoiler alert

Deathly Hallows fulfilled the promise of the series with a deeply satisfying climax and conclusion. Rowling's virtues as a writer were on full display and her occasional tendency to spin her wheels was under control (coming into view only, in my opinion, during the over-long account of the furtive wanderings of Harry and his companions as he and they dithered over what to do next). The author also managed to avoid the temptation to take undue advantage of her magical milieu and resolve all of the tangled plot points by winching a convenient deus ex machina down onto the stage. I might quibble over the extremely late revelation that elves have the ability to Apparate and Disapparate under some circumstances where wizards and witches cannot, but that was a relatively minor transgression. To be fair to Rowling, it's possible she hinted at it earlier and I did not notice; she's had the big picture in her mind all along and has usually been diligent in planting clues and foreshadowing future developments. Those of us who page rapidly through her novels can easily miss her subtle intimations.

All of that said, however, there are aspects of Harry Potter's world that simply do not work for me. As Tolkien observed in his 1938 essay on fantasy, a fairy-tale's world must be “true” in the sense that it maintains an honest internal consistency. As clever as Rowling's creation is—a masterful amalgam of legend, lore, and imagination—I was too often reminded that I didn't “believe” it.

Harry is always having trouble with his glasses. They've been lost, broken, and magically repaired at various times. He's almost helpless without them. How does this make sense in a world of magic? When one can use polyjuice potion to completely transform oneself into an exact physical replica of another person, why is it not possible to alter one's lenses the tiny amount necessary to correct one's vision? You'd think there would be wizard optometrists with the ability to out-do any Muggle practitioner, even those with Lasik clinics. (I imagine a wizard optometrist could outperform a Muggle Lasik operator with a creative application of splinching, but that is just idle speculation on my part.)

Another puzzling point to me is the peculiar disjunction between the worlds of the wizards and the Muggles. It's understandable that the Muggles don't know about the wizard world that exists all about them because there are policies and magical practices in place to preserve their happy ignorance. I'm a bit nonplussed that it also seems to work in the opposite direction. Arthur Weasley, for one, is supposedly fascinated by Muggle technology and is always being surprised by their wonderful cleverness, yet he has every opportunity to soak up as much knowledge of the Muggle world as he could desire. His obsession must be a dilettantish sort of obsession, otherwise a few weeks' vacation among Muggles would clear up most of his questions about Muggle society and its devices. I wouldn't want to deny Rowling one of her richest veins of humor, but there were a number of “Yeah, right” moments when she'd depict a witch or wizard being bemused by some Muggle practice. It strained credulity.
I can achieve (more or less) willing suspension of disbelief, when I am held there and supported by some other motive that will keep away boredom: for instance, a wild, heraldic, preference for dark blue rather than light. This suspension of disbelief may thus be a somewhat tired, shabby, or sentimental state of mind, and so lean to the “adult.” I fancy it is often the state of adults in the presence of a fairy-story. They are held there and supported by sentiment (memories of childhood, or notions of what childhood ought to be like); they think they ought to like the tale. But if they really liked it, for itself, they would not have to suspend disbelief: they would believe—in this sense.
I do like Rowling's tales. Do I “really” like it, in Tolkien's sense of seeing it as “true”? Perhaps not quite. I found the world of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings more consistent internally and felt fully immersed in it while reading his epic fantasy. Rowling, of course, is setting herself the challenge of overlaying her fantasy world on our personally experienced real world. It's a bold endeavor and more susceptible to jarring us out of our involvement. That she has succeeded to the degree she has is a tribute to her story-telling skills. I doff my hat to her.

Yes, I can see my way clearly to “believing” the Harry Potter stories—in Tolkien's sense. Most of the time, anyway.


Anonymous said...

One of the big Muggle/Wizard suspension-of-disbelief killers is the fact that Arthur can handle the non-decimal Wizard money system just fine, but is confused by clearly-labeled decimal pounds.

Seriously? Dividing by 17 as second nature during financial transactions?

-Adam V.

Matthew LaGro said...

Actually, I don't think the portrayal of the money is a problem---it's not that he can't divide or make change, it's that he can't recognize the coinage quickly enough.

Here's a picture of the British coins:
Yes, they're clearly marked, but that's if you're sitting at a table looking at them. Fumbling around at the register is a different matter---especially since the sizes make no sense whatsoever. The two pound coin is about the size of the two pence coin, for example (yes, I assume they're vestigial reminders of when different denomination coins were made of different valuable metals).

The non-decimal wizard money amounts are silly, but there the intent is obviously to make fun of the old non-decimal British currency, which I'm sure had more than a few cranky adherents when it went away.

General Zia said...

The ability of house elves to apparate and disapparate was actually addressed in "The Half-Blood Prince". Dobby and Kreature apparate into the infirmary after Harry's ill-fated Quidditch match, even though it has been stated many times that one cannot apparate/disappatate inside of Hogwarts.

Zeno said...

Thanks, General Zia. One of my friends pointed that out recently, but I had not remembered it (or caught its significance).