Non-Accredited Book Reviews: JK Rowling.

Rowling, JK. The Tales of Beedle the Bard. London: Bloomsbury, 2008.

“[Life’s] terribly simple. The good-guys are stalwart and true. The bad-guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats and we always defeat them and save the day. Nobody ever dies… and everybody lives happily ever after.” ~ Giles (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

It seems fitting to preface my (extremely short) critique of Rowling’s book, so prominent in pop culture, with the above quote, also culled from the popular media — if only because it nicely contrasts Rowling’s work.[i]

I appreciate that Rowling wrote Beedle the Bard on behalf of her charity, the Children’s High Level Group, and the stories are, in fact, entertaining. [ii]  She does offer a consistent explanation for the stories’ contemporary social values of tolerance and inclusivity (a comparatively lacking quality in western fairy tales actually dating from the 16th century): Beedle “rather liked Muggles, whom he regarded as ignorant rather than malevolent; he mistrusted Dark Magic, and he believed that the worst excesses of wizardkind sprang from all-too-human traits of cruelty” (xiii). [iii]

What bothers me, however, is Rowling’s seeming desire to want to demonstrate the complex relationship between good and evil (presumably the reason she kept Wormtail and Kreacher alive in the series for so long), and yet her simultaneous insistence on narrative tactics like the following:

Influential wizards of the day, such as Brutus Malfoy, editor of Warlock at War, an anti-Muggle periodical, perpetuated the stereotype that a Muggle-lover was […] feeble and pitiful. (15-16)

In case we miss the point, a later note reveals that “by coincidence, a descendent of Brutus Malfoy […] Mr Lucius Malfoy [wrote] […] I do not wish my son to be influenced into sullying the purity of his bloodline by reading stories that promote wizard-Muggle marriage. (40)  In case we miss the point again, the book recalls that Lucius Malfoy was “Lord Voldemort’s Favourite Death Eater” (41), by which we gather that seemingly-innocuous “by coincidence” is meant to be read with all the irony we can muster.

The relationship between good and evil is infinitely complex, then.  Unless your last name is Malfoy: that’s a monolithic evil that can withstand five centuries, no matter how mixed everyone else’s heredity has become.

Which pretty much sums up my disappointment at the last few books: here was an opportunity for a popular children’s genre to demonstrate — as children grew up with the books — the increasing complexity with which we have to read the world.  By the end of book seven, however, even with the sacrifice of popular characters, evil was wholly defeated (seemingly forever), all the right people got married, and school houses remained divided (presumably in competition with one another).  And the Gryffindors?  Well, they’re still smarter and braver than those sneaky Slytherins.

At least Buffy gets the irony right.

End Notes:

[i] Rowling’s work. Also because I need to exploit this rare opportunity I’ve given myself to cite references from pop culture.

[ii] entertaining. If a bit too explanatory of the rules of the world Rowling constructed in the Potter series: I’m not sure children around the world really bothered about the subtle differences between “transfiguration” and “animagi”.

[iii] cruelty. But does asserting that Muggles are ignorant perpetuate the dominate wizard-subordinate Muggle power relationship? I wonder…

8 December 2008 ~ St. Catharines

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2 thoughts on “Non-Accredited Book Reviews: JK Rowling.

  1. While what I’m about to pose does not excuse Rowling’s monolithic summary of good and evil, it is still worth considering. Maybe the reason we so often group notions of “good” and “evil” into these two very distinct colours is that children are not nuanced enough to comprehend that gray does in fact exist. Yes, this does presume that many of her readers are too stupid to understand, but still, for a child is it not easier and simpler to make these types of groupings clear and whole so that the child is better to understand the plot/narrative.

    While I certainly agree that she could have easily written a more sympathetic Malfoy, the above idea might be her excuse for such thinkings.

  2. Yes, but then children grow up with this series: for many readers, years will pass as they get through the books. One hopes that they are learning to read the world in a more responsible and nuanced manner (and books are one of the means they learn this, perhaps one of the safest environments in which they may do so).

    As a contrasting series that leads children gently, and with good humour, into the complex relationships adults face, I offer the Series of Unfortunate Events, which infuses a deceptively simple and repetitive (but repetition is also a tool of learning) narrative with these “real” relationships.

    My problem with Rowling’s work is that it pushes towards the grey areas (why else have Harry learn that James and Sirius were bullies, or, conversely, learn sympathy for Severus and Draco?), but she reasserts, in a huge and final way, those monolithic qualities at the end of the series, suggesting complexity only exists during hero narratives and times of peril.

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