Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Confessions of a Certified Slytherin

27 Apr

Someone who (at age 21 and a half) has read the Harry Potter books innumerable times and been to every midnight showing since Order of the Phoenix is, probably, a little old to be signing up for a kids’ literary enrichment website.  Most of my peer group are the same way–I can walk into almost any classroom on campus and make a comment about the Muggle civil liberties infringements brought about by the International Statute of Secrecy to general agreement and outrage (seriously, don’t Obliviate spells strike you as incredible invasions of privacy?).

So why did we all sign up for Pottermore?

Two words: Sorting Hat.

For over a decade now, almost an entire generation of readers have been wondering what house they would be placed in, should they have been the lucky recipients of a Hogwarts letter to save them from the trials and tribulations of fifth grade and its mixed fraction computations.  Putting on a magical old hat that reads your mind and tells you about the deepest parts of your personality would be super creepy when you think about it, but way cool.  The closest thing we Muggles have to that sort of insight is psychotherapy, and, I assure you, that may be creepy and unnerving, but it’s definitely not fun.

As the series unrolled, I began to resign myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have been a Gryffindor.  Or if I were, I’d be like Neville in the early books (before he got super badass and faced down Voldemort and friggin decapitated Nagini).

Of course, I had the consolation of relative surety that I wouldn’t be a Hufflepuff either.  I mean, no one has ever accused me of being “warm” or “kind.”  Whatever that means.

I expected Ravenclaw.  Because you see, friends, academic elitists aren’t made, they’re born.  And I’ve been correcting people’s grammar since I learned how to read.*

But as you may have guessed from the title, I’m not an eccentric, quirky, non-conforming Ravenclaw.  I’m not a noble, self-sacrificing Gryffindor.  I’m not a cheery, loyal Hufflepuff whose badger mascot is a little less lame now that the honey badger no longer has to give a you-know-what.

I’m in the house of You-Know-Who.  The house of magical racists and dungeons and snakes that turn people to stone.  I’m a Slytherin.  And as good ol’ J.K. says in her video intro to the sorting process–the decision is final.

The thing is, after a moment of stunned silence as I sat in front of my computer, I realized that it makes absolutely perfect sense.  For more than ten years I’ve avoided seeing it because, despite J.K. Rowling’s insistence that Slytherins aren’t all bad, we’ve never actually seen a good one.  Pottermore tells us Merlin was a Slytherin, which is cool, but as an historian, I’ve got to say that it’s doubtful King Arthur, Camelot, and Merlin ever existed.  It’s probably a myth some woebegone Slytherin made up so her housemates would feel better about themselves.

I should have seen the warning signs long ago, but I refused to look the basilisk in the eye.  It’s done now, and my metaphorical magical heart has turned to stone.  Some of you, dear readers, might be like me: fearing to know your true self.  Maybe you’ve been designated a Slytherin; maybe you’re afraid to put on that hat.  The following is for you.

A Guide to Accepting Your Serpentine Heritage

1. Would you describe yourself as cunning?

The first time Harry and Co. hear the Sorting Hat sing its sinister, sibilant song, the part about Slytherin goes like this:

Or perhaps in Slytherin/ You’ll make your true friends,/ Those cunning folks use any means/ To achieve their ends.

You, like me, may prefer to imagine yourself as a frank, open, straightforward person.  Certainly not deceitful in any inherent sense.  But think back to your past: at any point in your academic or workplace life did you do something like this?

A girl I know–I’m not going to give any names, but she writes some second-tier sci-fi/whatever else blog on wordpress–went to a Catholic high school.  She was diligent, hard-working, and hid her contempt for certain classmates with impressive grace and aplomb.  She had almost all of her classes with the same 20 or so girls, all of them smart, all of them hard-working.  But one in particular annoyed this friend of mine.  That girl was pathologically hard-working.  Like, obnoxiously diligent.  And my friend didn’t like being shown up.  One week near the end of their senior year, my friend’s teacher told the class that there were some extra assignments for those who wanted some points to shore up their grades.  Both my friend and the other girl had better-than-perfect grades in the class.  But that other girl said that she’d do the assignments anyway.

My friend, as I said, didn’t like being shown up.  She knew that the other girl, let’s call her Mary, because she was freakin’ perfect, would get all sorts of brownie points for being pathologically diligent.  My friend tried to explain to Mary that there was no reason to do the additional essay or whatever but no, friggin’ Mary was going to do it anyway.  My friend considered doing the extra work too, simply to keep pace.  But then she realized something: this new assignment wasn’t extra credit.  It didn’t go on top of the grade; it just got averaged in.  Which meant that someone whose grade was already an A+ could actually suffer a net loss in points by doing an extra essay that could only get her an A.

My friend encouraged Mary to write the paper.  My friend didn’t.  And my friend got the highest grade in the class.

Oh, and did I mention?  This was religion class.

I realize that that sounds kind of horrible.  But don’t judge my friend too harshly for her “cunning.”  What she did can be seen negatively, but that’s the easy answer.  If you really think about it, while her motives were hardly pure, her reasoning was perfectly sound.  My friend wasn’t going to waste her time with something that couldn’t benefit her.  Mary was so caught up in her single-minded work-work-work attitude that she didn’t actually stop to think about what was in her interest (I’m going to guess that Mary’s a Hufflepuff).  So you see–cunning isn’t evil: it’s about achieving your goals.

And speaking of goals…

2. Do you have any plans to take over the world?

Or at least, your little piece of the world?  You don’t need to build a giant laser on the moon and try to blow up the earth to be ambitious.  And besides, that’s horribly cliché.

From the Sorting Hat’s next song:

And power-hungry Slytherin/ loved those of great ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with a little ambition, you know.  It’s not all throwing money around and waving silver-headed canes in people’s faces like the Malfoys would have us believe.  Ambition takes determination, hard work, intelligence, and long-term planning.  You have to imagine what you want to be in five, or ten, or twenty years and have the discipline to make those dreams come true.  And you know why Slytherins are good at that?  I’ll tell you why: because, unlike the namby-pamby other Houses, we don’t call them “dreams.”

We call them plans.

3. Do you care about people’s bloodlines?

In its final appearance in the books, the Sorting Hat gives us this even less flattering portrait of the serpent House:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those/ Whose ancestry is purest.”

Okay… not going to bother with that part.  “Pure-blood” talk gives me the creeps.  Let’s just admit that, as a House, we’ve turned out an unfortunate number of seriously nasty characters and be done with it.

Conclusion

The point is, brother and sister Slytherins, that while we may get a bad rap, we just need to own it.  Not the Death Eater stuff, obviously, but the cunning and ambition.  That’s not a bad thing.  It’s more effective than the abstract intellectualism of the Ravenclaws, and do I really need to insult the Hufflepuffs again?  I mean, their House ghost is the Fat Friar and they live in a cellar next to the kitchens.  What else is there to say?  As for the Gryffindors, well, I’ll just quote a badger friend of mine:

“Gryffindors are like Hufflepuffs, except bro-y.”

Well said, friend.  Well said.

*As a side note, and further evidence that I would make an awesome Ravenclaw, I can still distinctly remember at least two years before I learned how to read and write.  My older sister, 2 years above me, was making my mother cry with her staged readings of “The Giving Tree” (friggin communist altruist hippies).**  Meanwhile, I got my hands on a little pink-and-white notebook wherein I would make scribbles and try, to no great avail, to inscribe them with meaning.  I was so jealous I wanted to papercut my sister with her precious book.***

** I apologize.  I worked a summer at the Ayn Rand Institute.  Sometimes this stuff just comes out.

*** Oh god … I totally am a Slytherin.

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“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman: The Anti-Harry Potter?

7 Sep

In this bleak and empty wasteland of the post-Harry Potter world we live in, it’s inevitable that any book about twenty-somethings at a school for magic will come under the closest scrutiny. That would be daunting for most fantasy writers, but in “The Magicians,” author Lev Grossman relishes in the prospect.

His characters are us—college students who grew up in the pages of Hogwarts, Middle Earth and other classics of fantasy lit (including a Narnia-like universe called Fillory, complete with talking animals and thinly veiled religious allegories). And naturally, just like us, their expectations of what magic should be like are colored by these books. Quickly, they realize that they (and consequently we too) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Click for the original article in the Crimson White, the University of Alabama's campus paper

Quentin Coldwater is a genius. He, unlike a disturbing number of Hogwarts students, has more than a fifth-grade education in the traditional three R’s—which is all for the good at a magical college with a broader curriculum than the Hogwarts’ spell-casting of made-up Latin, wand-waving and jazz hands.

Magic at Brakebills Academy requires calculus, a working knowledge of quantum physics and proficiency in the very necessary languages of Estonian, Bedouin Arabic and Old Church Slavonic (just to name a few). Plus, giant spiders in the woods are nothing compared to the inter-dimensional Beast swimming up from the depths of the multiverse to devour students alive in the middle of class. In other words, practicing magic is actually kind of hard.

And that’s not the only difference. Brakebills, for one, is American. Located in upstate New York, the school caters to the uber-nerds, super-geniuses, hippie Wiccans and hipster intellectuals of the country. People like Quentin, our anti-hero, whose first reaction to the revelation that magic exists and he could be a magician (“wizard,” you know, is so passé) isn’t the wide-eyed wonder of a ten-year-old Harry Potter.

This is a world-weary high school senior we’re talking about, the kind who makes arch allusions to quidditch and the Anglophilia of American prep schools, quotes Borges and Cervantes alongside Star Trek references, whose professors curse often, turn their students into geese for a semester, and sanction a shocking amount of on-campus alcohol use, and whose headmaster tattoos battle demons into his students’ backs the night before graduation.

Not to mention that the central theme of the book is a whole lot more complicated than the clear-cut battle of good and evil we, the Harry Potter generation, have come to expect. Brakebills students are cynical, sarcastic and hardly heroic. They’re college kids, after all, with unlimited power and no small amount of post-traumatic stress disorder from battles with monsters out of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmare. In “The Magicians,” Quentin and his cronies discover, as he says, “the horror” of getting what you wish for.

Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” (2009) is the anti-Harry Potter, a story that riffs on contemporary expectations of fantasy tropes and heroes. In its characters and plot, however, the novel is completely original—a trend that only continues in Grossman’s sequel “The Magician King,” just released last month.

This is a book you will devour, so get excited. But maybe not too excited. In keeping with the spirit of Brakebills and its denizens, try, at least, to affect an air of indifference. Hold your “retro” Kindle 2 casually aloft in one hand with the hip lassitude of the youthful literati, and just pretend you don’t wish that you too could be one of The Magicians.

 

“The Magicians” is available in that old-fashioned pulpy stuff called paper, as well as ebook form on Amazon, for $12.99

 

Readers might also like:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke; A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin; The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross; Johann Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

Eclasius Jortac and the Goblet of Fire (Review The Quest for Nobility)

23 Nov

The Quest for Nobility takes the classic coming-of-age narrative and brings it a new spark with engaging, empathetic characters and the spark of both science fiction and fantasy elements.

Most of my generation are debating the quiddity of Quidditch this month, as our childhood slowly comes to a close with the release of the first part of the seventh installment of that oh-so-obsession-worthy Harry Potter series.  It’s the beginning of the end of the end, I guess.

And maybe I just have Potter on the mind–it’s that time of year; I spent a whole lot of time in the midnight premiere line of Tuscaloosa’s lovely, highly inefficient Cobb Theater–but I do think that there’s something reminiscent of the Golden Trio in our new young heroes: the daring Darius Telkur, his clever twin sister Dyla Telkur, and their shy, gangly friend Eclasius.

When last we spoke of the feudal future, I predicted that Debra L. Martin’s and David W. Small’s novel The Quest for Nobility would be a cross between Dune and the War of the Roses.  I was wrong.

Martin and Small do create a world of dukes, duchies, and plenty of rival factions (there’s all sorts of fratricide going on).  And the fragmented Kingdom of Otharia even has a particularly unpleasant fellow named Nils, who works as resident assassin for a Baron determined to destroy the family of a liberal-thinking Duke.  Not to mention a young heir in exile who happens to be a telepath.  I mean, I imagine that’s exactly what Frank Herbert had as a summary for his first draft.  Political conspiracies, social metaphors, and–as the Bene Gesserit would say–wheels within wheels of plot complications were at the very heart of Dune.

These are not the strengths of The Quest for Nobility.

The vaunted praises heaped upon the late Duke Telkur (read Leto Atreides I) for his dangerous democratic ideals come across as  heavy-handed, and the plots against his children are child’s play.  As a history major, I was particularly irked by the misuse of the terminology of the aristocracy.  Here’s a guide for anyone who hasn’t taken a Renaissance history class, or watched an episode of The Tutors:

A Duke is addressed as “Your Grace.”  A Baron can be called “My Lord,” but call a Duke “My Lord” and you’re apt to be flogged.   Finally, “Royal” cannot be applied to anyone besides a king, a queen, or their children (and since Otharia hasn’t had a reigning king in over a century, even the Telkur twins aren’t royals–yet).

In any case, some of the details that would have made the aristocratic politics aspect of the novel believable are missing in The Quest for Nobility, but overall that’s a rather minor nitpicking sort of thing from a militant history student.

The story of Darius, Dyla, and Eclasius is readable, enjoyable, with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments.  None of that comes from back-room scheming: all of it has to due with the excellent characterization of the three young heroes, our own extraterrestrial Golden Trio.

The Quest for Nobility is strongest in the scenes between the three friends and traveling companions.  And because I’ve always believed that the characters are the most important driving force in a story, as I reader I could overlook a missed “Your Grace” just for the pure pleasure of experiencing Eclasius’s embarrassment when his telepathic friend Darius reads some inappropriate thoughts about Dyla in his baby-blue eyes.  When dealing with the interpersonal dynamics and relationships of the three teenage protagonists, Martin and Small are peerless.

This is where Potter mania comes in.

A young man on an epic quest has been the staple of good storytelling since the beginning of human history (I’m not bloviating here–go track down Gilgamesh, Telemachus, or Moses).  Maybe it’s something in the collective unconscious.  Or maybe it just makes a good story: Harry Potter’s seven-year-long journey kept an entire generation glued to the page for an entire decade.

The Quest for Nobility takes the classic coming-of-age narrative and brings it a new spark with engaging, empathetic characters (literally, Dyla’s an empath), and the spark of elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Not to mention, there really is a mysterious crystal goblet.