Roots and Mirrors: Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.  Published March 3, 2020.


Linda Sue Park must have read and loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as much as I did as a kid.

Reading about Hanna in Prairie Lotus hits some deep emotional beats I remember living through with Laura:  School trouble.  Recitations.  Hoop skirts going through doorways.  Oranges.  Dresses of fine lawn.  There’s a Laura-like character named Bess, the name that the real-life Almanzo Wilder called his wife.  Even the large-print font looks like the font of the Little House books.  Some of these similarities don’t refer to headline moments from the series, just details inscribed indelibly into memory after countless childhood rereads.

Linda Sue Park must have deplored the racism in the Little House books as much as I did, or more.  It’s clear what the white settlers of 1880s Dakota Territory thought of Native people.  The books’ brief references to black Americans are overshadowed by Pa’s participation in a minstrel show.  Asian Americans had no place at all in the books; Koreans had not even entered the U.S. at that time.  It would have been harder for grade-school me to relate to the books if Laura Ingalls Wilder had written her image of me into them.  I got off easy.

Unlike Hanna, when I was a kid, I did have an Asian immigrant mom around to teach me things.  But they were Korean and immigrant things, not the white-people American things that almost every other kid knew in upstate New York in the 1970s.

To know what they knew, I read.  I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder that American girls churn butter, sew buttonholes, wear calico, win spelling bees.  I still feel the romance, forty years later, when I watch sheep shearing at wool festivals.  The Little House books taught these stories in such nourishing detail, it felt like having a mother show me.  Those books made me.  I constructed myself according to their instructions, step by step.  I’ve never made cheese or shaved a shingle, but I have the stubbornly unshakeable impression that I know how.  Some of the cooking and handwork I do is a tribute to those books.  They lodged in my deep consciousness in a formative way.  It’s been over forty years and I still have whole sections nearly memorized.

The Little House books are fundamentally racist, and also, the way they are part of me is too ingrained and love-filled for me to eject.

Judging by Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park knows exactly how this feels.

The book opens with a covered wagon trip.  Hanna, age 14, is traveling with her white father.  Her Chinese mother is dead, and they had to leave most of her mother’s belongings behind, including her mirror.  They are moving east from Los Angeles Chinatown to Dakota Territory, where there are no Asian or half-Asian people.

The first people Hanna meets in Dakota Territory are a group of Ihanktonwan women and girls, black-haired like Hanna.  The most senior of the women, Wichapiwin, sees that Hanna does the cooking for herself and her father and gives her a root vegetable called timpsina, prairie turnip.  Hanna realizes later that Wichapiwin was being motherly toward her.

Hanna’s mother had taught her about roots, too:  in China, Hanna’s grandfather had been a ginseng merchant.  Before she died, she told Hanna that she was half-and-half, as well.  Her father had come to China from “a beautiful place, a secret place.  Called Korea.  Americans don’t know that place” (p51).

I read that and gasp-laughed at the warmth of Linda Sue Park’s magic.  I didn’t know she was going to put secret Koreanness in this American story that predated Korean Americans.  If you’d told me, I wouldn’t have been able to guess how such a thing could be managed.  But it’s so logical.  Of course Koreans traveled to China, even during the time Korea was rightly known as “the Hermit Kingdom,” very much a secret place.  And yes, when I was a small child, it was true enough that Americans didn’t know Korea.  When white kids tugged at the corners of their eyes to taunt me, they called me Chinese.  But now, an author has shown me how I can be in this American girl story after all.

Hanna’s relationship with her father is more tense than Laura’s with her parents.  He is imperfect, occasionally arbitrary, often moody with grief.  It’s fascinating how she negotiates with him, and brave of her.  His patriarchal power over her melds with his white privilege to create an unease that brings home the constant tension of Hanna’s place in society.

I deeply appreciate Park’s middle-grade handling of the sexual element to the harassment that Asian American women often face, especially half-Asian women.  Hanna’s mother warns her, delicately, that most white men think Chinese women are “for — for fun.”  Chilling.  Because actually, it wasn’t completely true that Americans didn’t know Korea when I was a little girl in the 1970s.  Sometimes, a few of them did.  Men, always, who had been stationed there.  Who would say hello to me in Korean, expecting some sort of reaction, and sometimes, “Are you Korean?  I thought so.  I can tell.”

Much of Hanna’s negotiation with her father is about creating and claiming spaces.  A new home.  A doorway big enough for women to walk through.  A sewing space where she can make her living and become independent.  She assumes, with a breathtaking matter-of-factness, that her race means she will never know romance.  The cover art for the book is a revelation:  Hanna showing her half-white, half-Chinese face in defiance and dignity.

It’s quite the unusual experience for me to feel such trust in a writer’s perspective, down to the most niche detail.  I love Hanna’s Sherlock Holmesian reading of her classmate Dolly’s brown poplin dress, using clues visible to her as a seamstress.  I love the catalogue of fabric types that I didn’t know as a child, but do now:  muslin, calico, poplin, challis, lawn.  I smiled to read the grades that Park wrote for Hanna because I think they might be higher than Laura’s.  I don’t have Little Town on the Prairie at hand, so I don’t remember what Laura’s were exactly, but I guess I wasn’t the only Asian American reader who was taken aback that some of them were so low…and that an author would admit it in print!  My favorite grade is Hanna’s 100 for orthography, a subject that Wilder omitted from her account in Little Town.  That 100 sparkles out at me like an Asian-girl wink from Park.

Having established her authority within the tone of the Little House books, Park deftly creates original material.  Especially memorable to me is Hanna’s “strange kind of revenge” on a racist classmate, one that hurts no one but feels uncannily powerful.  It’s a pure artist move.

Park also writes the kind of delicious passages about material details that are a classic mainstay of children’s literature, whether they’re Laura’s descriptions, Ellen Montgomery buying a writing desk in The Wide Wide World, or Harry Potter in Diagon Alley.  Hanna has inherited one treasure:  the magnificent box that Hanna’s father created to her mother’s specifications, fitted with dozens of compartments.  Hanna lovingly fills these spaces with hundreds of her mother’s buttons.

Rows by size.  Columns by color.  The square in the lower left corner contained the smallest white button.  Above it, she put the next size, also white.  Each square held a bigger button until she reached the top left, which held the largest white button.

In the next column she put cream-colored buttons.  Then beige, shades of brown, gray, black.  After that came the rainbow colors, red, orange, yellow, shades of green and blue, and finally violet.  Several more columns and rows held novelty buttons, shaped like animals or stars or cherries.

The buttons were pretty to look at and pleasantly smooth under her fingertips.  The orderliness of each button in its proper place was soothing.

This passage feels nourishing, a calm lesson in process and pleasure.  It made me want to touch humble things and small luxuries, and put them in order.  I’m making a lap quilt in tribute to Hanna’s button box.  I tested out a few pattern possibilities, including button-like circles or embroidered lotuses.  But in the end, I chose a simple pattern, just two and a half-inch squares of calico in a grid of half-inch sashing, for my American-girl quilt.  I’ll post a final picture to this blog when it’s done.

button box quilt top

Thank you, Linda Sue Park, for taking the Little House books and showing me where the roots and mirrors could be.

Masterful by Logospilgrim

Masterful:  Severus Snape, A Jar of Cockroaches, and Me by Logospilgrim, published January 28, 2020.  Order from Lulu.com, $18.50.  Also available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Stories change according to who’s doing the reading.

The character of Snape is certainly not for everybody.  Is he irredeemable?  Brave?  Irrelevant?  A source of strength?

As Logospilgrim says in her new book, Masterful, “Those who approach him will interpret his story based on how they’re writing and interpreting their own story.”

Logospilgrim is not trying to persuade anybody to see Snape differently.  In this searing meditation, she is only demonstrating how this process worked for her:  how recognizing the self in a fictional character can anchor people through traumatic upheavals.  As Logospilgrim notes, Snape was able to leave behind his father, who shouted at his mother, as well as fight the influence of a later father figure, Voldemort, who killed another mother.  Identifying with the character of Snape strengthened Logospilgrim as she freed herself from the influences of a violent father and repressive religions.

When we first meet Snape in Sorcerer’s Stone, we are told that his eyes “made you think of dark tunnels.”

Logospilgrim asks:

Who knows what drives Severus Snape, the man who doesn’t wear his heart upon his sleeve, and at the same time, does?

Those who have gone through dark tunnels.

We know what’s on the other side, the uneven side, the third side.

We are the third side.

The third side is home to those who have known or caused damage and then, taking a second chance, consciously fought the damage and walked away changed.

Snape is on the third side.  He betrayed the Potters to Voldemort and then changed allegiance, and after that, he was able to reverse Dark Magic.

Dumbledore is on the third side.  He colluded with fascism and then fought it, and after that, he was able to reverse Dark Magic.

Harry is on the third side.  He cast Unforgivables, he gave his life for others, and he returned for others, giving him mastery of the Elder Wand.

Draco, too, is on the third side.  He passed through the barrier that required a Dark Mark with intent to kill Dumbledore, and under Snape’s guidance, he passed back out through that barrier again, giving him, too, mastery of the Elder Wand.

Most people won’t ever need to be on the third side.  Not everyone has occasion to know damage so intimately, and of those, not everyone is able to become a changed person and walk away.  It’s not necessarily better to have this knowledge; life is certainly less traumatic if you’ve never been in a position to need it.  But those who haven’t been through it may not know to trust those who have.

In Half-Blood Prince, after overhearing Dumbledore charging Harry with the task of getting a guilty memory from Slughorn that has caused enormous damage, the portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black says:

“I can’t see why the boy should be able to do it better than you, Dumbledore.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to, Phineas,” replied Dumbledore, and Fawkes gave another low, musical cry.

The cry of the phoenix heralds second chances.  Dumbledore is acknowledging that Phineas Nigellus Black doesn’t understand because he has never caused and then regretted as much damage as Dumbledore has.

Logospilgrim, noting the lack of trust that many feel toward Snape, observes, “The one who changes is immoral.”  Snape would have been easier to comprehend if he’d remained either for or against the Death Eaters, rather than both and then neither.  Dumbledore, too, comes in for a great deal of mistrust from readers because his changes make him difficult to know.

Harry, though, knew and trusted both, once he returned to life and joined the third side himself.  He honored this knowledge when he named a child after Albus and Severus.

Logospilgrim says of Snape, “Who else would have the strength to withstand the hatred that would rain down on him” after Dumbledore trusted Snape to kill him?  If you have ever endured hatred while fighting to protect yourself or others, Snape might be a useful character for you.  You might recognize yourself in Logospilgrim’s book.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women: In praise of genre fiction

Warning:  Spoilers for the film.

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women speaks from the exact moment that some of us are in, American female-identified writers 150 years after Louisa May Alcott struck it rich with this book. With a deliberate hand, Gerwig amplifies or inserts elements she considers important, and outright changes what does not serve her vision.

To understand this version, it works best to know that, like Jo March, Louisa May Alcott wrote pseudonymous thrillers to support her parents and sisters.  These lurid “sensation stories” are well-crafted, fun, and readable, even today.  They were basically genre fiction, unrepentantly trashy, and would have been considered low-status for that reason, even if written by a man.  As a woman writer, Alcott kept them her secret in a way that feels a bit similar to contemporary fandom writers putting their expertly written dark or kinky fic on Archive of Our Own, heavily tagged and protected by a pseudonym from judgmental employers or family.

Unlike fanfic, though, Alcott’s stories were written for money.  Her Transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott, was worse than useless at providing for his wife and daughters.  The stories were an outlet for Alcott’s preferred style of writing, adventurous rather than moralizing.  Possibly, the need to compensate for her father’s failures helped to overcome whatever qualms Alcott may have felt about writing unladylike pulp that would certainly not have appealed to family friends such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

In the book Little Women, Jo’s friend Professor Bhaer disapproves of her stories, she stops writing them, and she feels more wholesome after, grateful for his moral guidance.  In this film, Jo also stops writing, but she rejects Bhaer’s disapproval — an original change by Gerwig.  The film shows that Jo had made the stories “spicier” at the urging of her publisher, who maintained that “spice” would sell:  she was writing to market.  At the end of the film, when Jo brings her manuscript of Little Women to the same publisher, he tells her that the heroine must marry because romance sells, and “the right ending is the one that sells.”  But he’s reluctant to publish her story for young readers in the first place; he wants more sensation stories, believing that’s what sells.

The joke ends up being on him:  Little Women becomes, of course, a titanic bestseller.

Famously, Alcott didn’t enjoy writing Little Women or other stories for girls and resented being pushed into writing sequels by a clamoring public.  She didn’t mask this sentiment, either; at the end of her sequel Jo’s Boys, she demolished the fourth wall with an earthquake in which she declared that the ground opened up and swallowed all the characters.  Then, with a resigned tone, she amended that ending to tell the reader that every character knew perfect happiness for the rest of their lives.  That was the ending that would sell.  The whole purpose was to sell.

Greta Gerwig’s film is arguing that for Louisa May Alcott, who didn’t want to marry off Jo or write books for girls at all, Little Women was exactly the kind of mercenary, morally suspect commercial fiction that Professor Bhaer judged Jo March for writing.

This is not to put down Alcott’s classic, which conveys simple truths with undeniably good writing.  This is to elevate sensational commercial and genre fiction to the same level as Little Women.  And, even more delightfully, to grant to the genre of YA, young adult fiction, the same respect in the publishing world as thrillers written for men.  After all, it sells.

I didn’t like, at first, that Gerwig’s Professor Bhaer is youngish and good-looking instead of older, clumsy, and rumpled, as he is in the book.  But when I understood where the movie was going with this character, I appreciated the change:  he looks the part of the romantic interest to everyone but Jo, who is confused when everyone expects her to be swooning for him.  Then, as writer Jo compromises with her publisher and agrees to write a romantic ending for her heroine, the film dramatizes her proposed edit with an imagined, sped-up lovers’ scene between Jo and Professor Bhaer that hits all the romantic tropes — and here, again, the movie does something I didn’t expect.  It refuses to mock this contrived ending.  The swelling romantic music never tips over into irony.  The movie lets you enjoy the romance.  If you wanted this ending for Jo, the movie will not shame you.

Gerwig’s Laurie breaks with tradition in a different way:  at last, a film Laurie as real as the book original.  Mercurial, beautiful and odd-looking at once, charming to balance his irresponsible streak.  In perhaps the most of-the-moment decision of all, this film simultaneously introduces no hint that Jo might be a lesbian and leaves the path completely clear for viewers inclined to take that direction.  She wants to marry Meg, but that’s not new; that’s canon.  When she rejects her adored Laurie as a lover, she cries out that she can’t make herself feel that way and she doesn’t know why.  In the ensuing beat of silence, I could imagine the succinct judgments of countless queer people I know:  “Gay.”  If this resonates with you, check out Malinda Lo’s take on gay Jo.

In this and many other ways, Gerwig’s film reminds us:  Little Women is fiction.  It was fiction based on what the author thought would sell at the time.  If we want to, we can change it; Alcott would, if she were alive, so she could sell us the story again.  The right ending is the one that sells.  So if your Amy was in love with Laurie from the beginning, let it be so.  If your Marmee can tell Papa she is angry with him to his face, well, it’s back in style for women to acknowledge anger aloud.  If love-starved Laurie entering the March home looks like Harry Potter’s first trip to the Burrow, go ahead and write that crossover.

Jo March got the idea to write sensation stories after seeing some by a “Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury.”  What a fantastic name for a muse and foremother.  If you, too, are someone who writes both YA and scandalous stories published under pseudonyms, give a cheer for Northbury, Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott, and may your writing sell as well as theirs.

A Permanent Scar from J.K. Rowling

This author taught us that hateful speech can be an Unforgivable.  The targets of Unforgivables must defend themselves, if possible, but do not owe the caster forgiveness.  Forgiveness would not remedy the caster’s harm.  The only hope for the caster is to undergo remorse.

On the morning of December 19, 2019, J.K. Rowling broke a long Twitter silence to post support for someone who actively promoted anti-trans harassment in the workplace.

Many fans instantly recoiled.  Within hours, longtime Potter fans posted reactions ranging from the Harry Potter Alliance’s dedication to “a better, safer, more loving world for trans people” to recommendations of works by trans and nonbinary authors to the Potter Puppet Pals‘ succinct “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

Some fans felt so sickened that they knew they would have to withdraw from Harry Potter fandom.  Some said they had separated the fandom from the author long ago and planned to remain active in HP fan communities and activities, although this tweet outraged and grieved them.  Some mentioned the phrase “death of the author,” drawing on Roland Barthes’ critical theory to argue that the Harry Potter stories now belong completely to the readers; the author had forfeited ownership because she was violating the very ideals of acceptance that formed the core of her bestselling stories.

Reluctantly, I looked at the tweet itself.  Rowling mischaracterized Maya Forstater’s position as “stating that sex is real.”  That is a heck of a way to describe Forstater referring to trans women as “male people” or stating, as “objective reality,” that there are exactly two sexes, which is wrong at the most basic factual level.  Forstater has the right to say what she likes, of course; an employer also has the right not to renew her contract in order to keep her transphobic hostility out of the workplace.

Rowling’s support prioritizes someone’s desire to spew bigotry, without consequences, over the rights of people to be who they are without workplace harassment.

If the author were truly dead, in the Barthesian sense, Rowling’s tweet would not affect a reader’s feelings about the Potter stories.  But for many fans, it does.

Some fans expressed shock at Rowling; others noted, bitterly, that Rowling has always shown signs of anti-trans prejudice.  This highlighted an uncomfortable dynamic:  we’re all more sensitive to some kinds of hostility and oblivious to others, this often has to do with privilege, and discussions about this can get touchy and defensive.  We have to have those discussions anyway.

After Rowling’s transphobic tweet, can you really say “the author is dead” and read, without discomfort, the passage in Prisoner of Azkaban where Lupin coaches third-years to avenge themselves on Snape by imagining him in women’s clothes and then mocking him?  “Snape deserved it,” some people argue.  Did he?  He did deserve workplace consequences for bullying a child in ways that had nothing to do with sex and gender.  Did he deserve to be recast into a scenario with transmisogynistic harassment overtones?  Did the children deserve to be taught to channel their outrage into creating such an atmosphere?  Did the reader deserve to be told that this is an appropriate response to abusive teaching?

“Death of the author” would attribute this transmisogynistic harassment entirely to Lupin, the character.  But I can’t shut out information that way.  Rowling’s tweet changes my reading.  It makes me think that it was the author’s prejudices, more than the character, that were responsible for the gratuitous direction that Lupin’s teaching takes.  This is different from, say, the character of Snape ridiculing Neville’s classwork; I read that as the author being intentional and in control, disapproving of the character’s choice.

I wince to think that I might find many such changes in my understanding of the series on my next re-read.

I once left a fandom over irreconcilable differences.  Sixteen years later, it still feels sad.  Leaving a fandom meant losing friends and events that had become part of my life.  All that love and knowledge didn’t go anywhere.  It just sits in me, still.

I don’t want to do that with HP.  I don’t want to be so revolted by the author’s strident prejudice that I have to give up contact with the (very queer) people and events I know only through this fandom.  The author has never been present at those events.  Disinviting her now doesn’t change that.  My connections in the fandom never went through her.  They formed over more than a decade.  Could I disconnect them all, even if I tried?

Could I undo the ten months that my older child spent reading the series, the first novels she ever finished on her own, progressing from finding Sorcerer’s Stone difficult all the way to reading Deathly Hallows to herself?

Could I undo the hours and hours that my kids have spent Sorting themselves and their friends into Houses?  The Sorting panel that my younger child ran at a conference, by herself, when she was only 11?  The wizard rock songs that they grew up singing?

Could I erase my fond memories of getting through labor by imagining that Professor Snape was going to brew me something for the pain?

Could I undo telling my kids that Polyjuice Potion teaches empathy by putting you in someone else’s skin?

My thinking has become entwined with J.K. Rowling’s words, grown around them.  I don’t think I could uproot them all if I tried.  I think in terms of her stories.  When I read of trans teens and young adults who identified with her stories, then were stricken to learn that she advocated a kind of harassment that denied their very selves, the damage she was causing to these readers reminded me of something.

It reminded me of the dead unicorn:  “Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad.”

It is “a monstrous thing” to hurt “something pure and defenseless,” very young readers taking in stories of love and acceptance and being formed by them.

What have trans people done to deserve this from Rowling, this completely unprovoked breaking of her social media silence that nobody asked for?

McGonagall cries out to the Ministry workers attacking Hagrid, “Leave him alone!  Alone, I say!  […]  On what grounds are you attacking him?  He has done nothing, nothing to warrant such –”

Lily says to James of teen Snape, “Leave him ALONE! […] What’s he done to you?”

And James tells her, “It’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean…”

That’s what Rowling is defending when she tweets #IStandWithMaya:  the desire to attack someone who has done nothing, just because they exist.

And then, when Lily defends Snape, he calls her “the unforgivable word: ‘Mudblood.'”  Yes, it’s Rowling who equates the gravity of hateful words with crimes like torture, enslavement, and murder.

He knew the dangers that faced Muggle-borns.  He knew the philosophy behind that particular slur.  He called her that name.  Rowling must know, has no excuse not to know, the dangers of anti-trans prejudice.

With sorrow and resignation, I have to recognize that with her words denying the reality of trans existence, she has committed an Unforgivable.

She herself taught us what must be done after an Unforgivable.

Lily tells Snape, “I’ve made excuses for you for years.”  Over 20 years, Potter fandom has dealt collectively with Rowling’s fat hatred, with the racial tokenism in her stories and the dismissive racism in the Ilvermorny backstory, with the marginalization of any queerness in her books.  The bitter dialogues between fans about how long it takes some of us to acknowledge these things reminds me of Dumbledore in King’s Cross:  “Did I know, in my heart of hearts, what Gellert Grindelwald was?  I think I did, but I closed my eyes.”

I don’t think I closed my eyes, but I drew my own boundaries, uncomfortably.  After all, one does not have to approve of a creator to study their works.  I know what I think of Thomas Jefferson, but I am not giving up my love for the Declaration of Independence, nor my claim to its contents, even though they were definitely not written with my Asian American cis female self in mind.  I draw the line somewhere different in each case, based on how to preserve my own love in life.  BBC Sherlock produced an astonishingly racist episode called “The Blind Banker,” which I decided to ignore while embracing the rest of the series.  When I learned some things about Marion Zimmer Bradley, though, I couldn’t do that.  The Mists of Avalon was formative for me as a teen, the version of the Arthur legends that is canon for me, and I don’t want to give up my memories of loving that mind-opening book.  But if I reread it now — even though the author is, in this case, actually dead — I would see, in her fiction, disturbing traces of the horrifying things I learned about her as an adult.  I decided that I will keep that book, not throw it out, but I will not open it ever again.  Not if I want to preserve both my ecstatic teen reading experience and my adult knowledge of the author.

I don’t want to give up my love.  It was real, and it formed me.

Lily tells Snape, “I can’t pretend anymore.  You’ve chosen your way, I’ve chosen mine.”

On the day of Rowling’s tweet, in a mailing list email, the Harry Potter Alliance wrote, “We know that trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary, and that affirming and respecting people’s gender is kind, loving, and literally saves lives.  We know, too, that a story and a community this big and this magical belongs to all of us and always will.  To our trans community: we love you, we see you, and we will continue to uplift your voices and stand with you.

With those words, the HP Alliance parted ways with Rowling.  They chose the many trans and nonbinary members of the HP fandom over the author.

According to the story that Rowling taught us:  when someone casts an Unforgivable against you, their guilt is not your burden.  You are not required to forgive them, although you certainly may, if that is right for you.  But your forgiveness is your own business and does not absolve them.  They have damaged or even split their souls, and the only remedy is remorse, their own true and full recognition of the harm they have caused.

The soul of Rowling’s story is love, acceptance, protection.  For me, the author’s anti-trans prejudice has the effect of splitting this story’s soul.  I will look in, periodically, as Dumbledore did with Snape, to see if this author ever shows signs of remorse, as long as I have natural curiosity about it.  If my curiosity fades, that will be okay, but I will not push myself to ignore her or her work as long as I feel interest.  I don’t think it harms my soul to retain, as belonging to myself free and clear, every bit of the love I have ever felt because of this author’s creations or the people I met because of them.  I don’t think it makes the ideals in her stories any less true because she cannot live up to them personally.  It certainly doesn’t make Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts any less rich and compelling, and I will continue to delve into them.  I am as thankful as ever to witness the growth of her oeuvre in real time, the way I always imagined readers felt about serial releases from Charles Dickens.  I am as fascinated as ever that the success of Harry Potter has given the world an international shared text, a common story, which has been especially useful in the past few years as political allegory.

We didn’t ask to be scarred by the words from her prejudiced tweet, but we will have to deal with that wound for as long as Rowling’s work is part of our culture.  According to BuzzFeed News, on the day of the tweet, Rowling’s publicist declined GLAAD’s offer of an off-the-record conversation with members of the trans community.  I doubt this will be the last such offer.  I hope someday she accepts.

ETA:  Many thanks to Lynn Roy for pointing me toward this valuable Twitter thread from ScienceVet about biological sex! 

J.K. Rowling, Giftedness, and the Ghost of Ravenclaw

Notes from a talk delivered at LeakyCon in Boston, MA, USA, on Saturday, October 12, 2019.  A shorter version of this talk was delivered at the Harry Potter Conference of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, PA, on Friday, October 18, 2019.  Posted by request.

Good morning.  I’m going to be talking about a few aspects of how the seven-book series deals with the topic of giftedness.  I looked into the education of Hermione, which led to the portrayal of Ravenclaw, and eventually, to aspects of the author herself.  This last part I did cautiously, since I know it’s delicate territory. But what I found added such richness and dimension that I decided to include it, with as much love as I could.

The whole series is about a special school, so there is some equation of magical ability with giftedness.  But we soon find out that there are all kinds among wizards, too. The opening chapter pits Dumbledore’s style of giftedness against Voldemort’s, when McGonagall says Dumbledore is the only one Voldemort was frightened of.  Dumbledore replies, “Voldemort had powers I will never have,” and McGonagall says, “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”  Dumbledore deflects that compliment.  Rowling is playing a truly long game of foreshadowing here; we won’t find out why he doesn’t think he deserves it until the end of the seventh book.

Some other gifted people we hear about:  Gellert Grindelwald. Quirrell, of whom Hagrid says, “Brilliant mind. He was fine while he was studyin’ outta books but then he took a year off ter get some first-hand experience. . . . ”  Barty Crouch, Sr., who speaks “over two hundred languages.” According to Sirius, “Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorized the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark Side.”  Snape can Occlude the (self-proclaimed) world’s greatest Legilimens and, as an “imaginative” but “dodgy” teen, surpassed the author of his school textbook as a potioneer. In all of these cases, these people’s extraordinary powers forced them to confront moral issues beyond what most people deal with, and generally speaking, they did not always do well.  Or, as Dumbledore put it, “Being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”

Perhaps the purest embodiment of the potential creepiness of genius is Ollivander, who makes Harry shiver when he speaks reverently of Voldemort’s evil powers as “terrible, yes, but great.”  Ollivander is sorry that Voldemort destroyed Harry’s family. But his curiosity about absolute degrees of magical power keeps breaking through and overriding his moral considerations. This is, of course, what you want from someone whose calling is to see the true nature of each customer, without judgment.  But Harry isn’t sure he likes this person.

And in the midst of all these morally ambiguous, gifted adults, we have the education of Hermione Granger, whom Remus Lupin calls, nervously, “the cleverest witch of your age I’ve ever met.”

It all starts with “books and cleverness.”

You know the scene I’m talking about, right?  First-year Hermione has just brilliantly gotten Harry through Snape’s logic puzzle that contained deadly poisons and is about to drink down a potion that seals her decision to leave him to a fight that he might not survive.  Hermione tells Harry he’s a great wizard, he mumbles that he’s not as good as she is, and then this 12-year-old girl disavows her gifts: “Me! Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and…”

Did anyone else find that passage painfully self-effacing?  Was anyone else surprised by it?

One of the trickiest things for me about that line was that in this male-centric story, Hermione was the girl sidekick I was identifying with, and hearing her put down her own giftedness  hurt.  I hadn’t seen any evidence to that point that she devalued books and cleverness, when they were clearly such sources of joy for her.  I figured the author was trying to make the point that heroism is attainable for anyone, not just top students. I wondered, though, about putting that message in the mouth of the character who faced hurtful ostracism because books and cleverness were so fundamental to her true self.   

I couldn’t help thinking…  They come to your house when you’re 11 and say, Those things you can do, that no one else can do?  We’ll take you to a special school where everyone else can do them, too. And then Hermione goes there, and… those promises don’t come true.  The children here are just as frustrating as the ones at home. And they laugh at her. I wondered, Where is Hermione’s anger?

I started looking at what this author had provided for Hermione by way of support for this character’s giftedness.  Which felt like a ridiculous way to put it, thinking of the author as responsible for the well-being of a character according to my concerns…but in an incredibly detailed story about the education of children, it is on topic to take note of where the author is directing the reader’s attention.  We’re supposed to notice that Harry needs friends, that Neville comes from an overbearing home, that Ron is self-conscious about money.  What do we do for the girl who arrives at school having memorized the textbooks? The one who Rowling, gifted writer and former Head Girl, acknowledged was based on herself at the same age?

When we look closely, we can catch glimpses of evidence, through moments when Hermione’s life is visible on the periphery of Harry’s story, that the Hogwarts staff recognizes Hermione’s need for an independent study track.

The first hint of this comes in Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry sets Hermione spying on Snape.

“I’m sorry, Harry!” she wailed. “Snape came out and asked me what I was doing, so I said I was waiting for Flitwick, and Snape went to get him, and I’ve only just got away.”

That would have been the last we heard of that, but later, Harry worries that his friends might get expelled for accompanying him through the trapdoor.

“Not if I can help it,” said Hermione grimly. “Flitwick told me in secret that I got a hundred and twelve percent on his exam. They’re not going to throw me out after that.”

It’s a startling moment.  So teachers communicate with her in secret, in a way that they never do with most students.  She’s almost like a peer of theirs in the mature way she keeps quiet about this status; she wasn’t going to say anything about it.  The word “grimly” makes an impact, too. For Hermione, studies are a matter of life or death.

Snape generally ignores Hermione, when he can.  This will be his basic policy toward this student for the whole time he is her teacher, although he pays the price for ignoring her when she exploits that tendency in order to set fire to his robes, steal from his stores, or sneak past him to retrieve Harry’s Invisibility Cloak.  But when we get to the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we find that he has designed the potions puzzle as a custom-written final exam for her first year.

So he has been paying attention to her, after all.  He’s observed the way her mind works. He foresees that she will be with Harry until the very last stage.  With Hermione in mind, he has brewed the potions, selected bottles, and composed the rhyming verse. This is what it looks like when Snape teaches her, at last.

So Hermione comes upon the puzzle, and wonder of wonders, it relaxes her: “Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.”  She and Dumbledore share this trait: smiling with genuine happiness when they get to use their brains, even when they’re in mortal danger.  We see Dumbledore do this in the cave when he detects Voldemort’s boat: “‘Oho!’ said Dumbledore happily,” while Harry is staring at corpses.  Hermione “beams” this way, too.

Then she takes a long drink of the potion Snape has brewed for her, shudders, and tells Harry no, it’s not poison – “but it’s like ice.”  It is a chilling message:  she solves the puzzle and the potion tells her that she, with her books and cleverness, is not the protagonist of this story.  She turns around and leaves.  

In her second year, Hermione’s independent study track includes defense against Slytherin’s monster, which is trying to murder Muggle-borns like herself.  She discovers what the monster is and how it travels, she brews Polyjuice Potion and strategizes a covert operation, and when her half-blood and Pureblood friends seem reluctant, she tells them angrily that she is going to continue to fight for Muggle-borns.  She’s attacked for being a minority and this causes her to fall behind on several months of schooling, confirming her worry that Muggle-borns have to work harder for rights that others take for granted.  She needs to make up this time if she’s going to have a chance at survival, as her academic adviser knows. In an almost throwaway line, tucked into a humorous paragraph about choosing classes for third year, we see that “Hermione took nobody’s advice but signed up for everything,” setting the stage for her Time-Turner year.

McGonagall gets Ministry permission to sponsor Hermione’s third-year independent study track, the year she learns how exhausting it is as a minority to take the same time as everyone else to do twice the work.  We even get a grim but funny joke about Hermione missing out on Cheering Charms because she’s sleep-deprived, highlighting the psychological toll it takes. Her independent studies include paralegal work for Buckbeak’s defense and Jane Austen-style sleuthing about Harry’s Firebolt.  In her coursework, though, this is the only year Hermione’s Defense Against the Dark Arts studies suffer because of the teacher Dumbledore has hired for the year.  She’s usually able to work around teachers and keep up on her own, but this year, she fails part of her final exam, which brings me to the topic of Lupin vs. Snape as her teachers.

On two fronts, I have wondered:  where is Hermione’s anger? Where is her anger at the classmates who name-call her but cannot keep up with her, so that she must sit daily through coursework at a pace that is profoundly unsuited to her?  And I’ve wondered, where is her anger at Snape, who ignores her or insults her? Except for that one time he kills Dumbledore, she never seems to hold a grudge against him.

In book 3, while Harry and Ron aren’t talking to Hermione, she lets loose once.  They can’t guess what ails Lupin and she shoves by them and says, “Tuh.” I’ve heard people say Ron and Harry are not particularly observant, but I don’t think that’s it here; nobody else guesses, either.  It’s that Hermione is gifted and remarkably restrained about not expressing frustration with her peers.

And when Snape serves as Lupin’s substitute teacher, and heaps insults on Lupin for teaching the third-years things that he’d expect first-years to know, and calls Hermione an insufferable know-it-all for interrupting his insults with attempts to provide helpful information:  Hermione turns red and cries, but she doesn’t get angry. She even reprimands Ron for calling Snape a bad name.

Perhaps this is because Hermione agrees with Snape.  She’s too nice to say so, and far too community-minded, but she’s on the same page he is — 394, to be exact.  For once, instead of Hermione having to endure learning at the pace of her classmates, a teacher is expecting them to learn at Hermione’s pace.  Of course she’s the only one to do the assignment, and she gets out of it exactly what he intended.  Snape seems like just the kind of gifted person who should not be teaching introductory classes because he was practically born knowing how to do things and thinks most people are somehow faking it for obstinate, mysterious reasons when they have to take actual time to learn new material.  But his teaching style turns out to be so well-suited to this child that it even outweighs his charming personality. I think she might have found it refreshing that someone else thinks a first-year should know this material.

When I looked at Hermione studying under Lupin, I found, to my surprise, that he was a worse teacher for her than Snape.  Unlike Snape, Lupin understands the process of learning and gears his instruction to the general class level, making him a better teacher for the majority.  It would have been one thing if he simply neglected to make provisions for Hermione’s needs as a gifted student, but he does something more damaging: he actively suppresses her learning.  He teaches that exemplary class on boggarts through active practice, the opposite of “books and cleverness” or Umbridge’s policy of reading the theory only, and several students get practical experience in banishing boggarts, but the text draws our attention to the fact that two do not.  Lupin gives Harry and Hermione points for answering questions correctly even though they have not tackled the boggart.  

We get an explanation later about Harry:  Lupin knew Harry would have been bothered by this pointed exclusion, and explained that he was afraid Harry’s boggart would be too frightening for the others to see.  But we never get an explanation for why Hermione doesn’t get a turn, although the author includes Hermione saying aloud that she wishes she had. If we look at the scene, Lupin intercepts the boggart when it approaches Harry, it turns into the moon, then instead of calling on Harry or Hermione, Lupin calls Neville for a second turn.  Did Lupin take instruction time away from the gifted girl, assuming she could afford to lose it, in favor of a student who has special needs of a different sort? If you have gifted students in your life, you know that this is something that does happen: sometimes gifted students don’t even receive the same basic attention given to most of the class, or are expected to give up their own class time to help tutor their peers, and this results in gaps in their own learning.  Hermione outright fails the boggart portion of her final exam that year.

Or did Lupin step in because he was threatened by Hermione’s insight?  Later, in the Shrieking Shack, he asks, “Did you realize that the boggart changed into the moon when it saw me?”  Did he flinch in class at the thought of being seen by this perceptive child, so that he suppressed part of her education due to his own fear?  This is also something that happens to gifted students in real life. It’s counterintuitive, but the only thing we see Hermione learning in Defense Against the Dark Arts that year is not from the kind teacher but from Snape.

Hermione has three independent projects in her fourth year:  S.P.E.W., the Yule Ball, and the fight against tabloid journalists.  For gifted students, especially, the issue of attractiveness can be a loaded one, as Snape can attest.  Once Hermione reigns as the belle of the Yule Ball, at the midpoint of this seven-year timeline, she becomes impervious to taunts about her looks.

Fifth year is when Hermione’s independent studies most notably place friendship and bravery before books and cleverness.  She asserts, to the shock of Harry and Ron, that resistance and activism are “much more important than homework.” She sets up a guerrilla training camp, recruits an instructor, and demonstrates that censorship doesn’t work but underground journalism does.  Amazing. We get continued evidence that the actual teachers see her almost as a peer when McGonagall talks to Harry about Umbridge’s welcoming speech, on the memorable occasion that she offers him a biscuit. He says something almost insightful and she eyes him “for a moment” and says, “Well, I’m glad you listen to Hermione Granger at any rate.”  Hermione must have discussed the speech privately with McGonagall already.

Sixth year is the year of Snape, and therefore Hermione gets no independent studies or any special notice at all.  We learn that he only accepted “Outstanding” students into his N.E.W.T. Potions class, a piece of information that’s a bit of a relief — if this grumpy prodigy has to be in a classroom at all, he should probably only ever teach students who, like him, don’t need to learn the basics.  Hermione, though, has a miserable, rotten year in which she is trounced by both Harry and some “Half-Blood Prince” person in Potions, gets no House points for mastering nonverbal magic, is wrong about everything to do with Draco, and watches Ron date her roommate. She gets, at most, partial credit for coming close to identifying the Half-Blood Prince.

Seventh year, though, Dumbledore assigns her an independent study in Ancient Runes, and her senior project gets published.

Rowling addresses the issue of Hermione’s giftedness directly when Hermione invents the communication Galleons for the DA.  The others greet the coins with “a blank silence” and Hermione is “rather disconcerted,” feeling a classic sort of confusion familiar to many people who don’t know if they’re coming across as clever, obvious, or simply crazy.

“‘Well — I thought it was a good idea,’ she said uncertainly, ‘but…well, if you don’t want to use them…’”

To Hermione’s relief, Terry Boot, a Ravenclaw, demands to know why she isn’t in Ravenclaw, with her brains.  So the Galleons must have struck the others as a good idea, then. Thank goodness. She explains that the Sorting Hat almost put her there, “but it decided on Gryffindor in the end.”

We can see why Hermione ended up in Gryffindor, but any attempt to understand why someone did or did not get Sorted into Ravenclaw is impeded by the fact that Rowling, the queen of world-building, is uncharacteristically muddled when it comes to this Hogwarts House.

As many of us have noted, Ravenclaw is the most nebulously depicted of the Houses.  Are we blue and bronze, or blue and silver? Are we eagles or ravens? Are there any Ravenclaws in the Order of the Phoenix?  It’s almost as if, when it comes to Ravenclaws, there’s an attitude of, “Who cares?” When it’s time for Harry to hunt Horcruxes, he can rattle off items with precision except for the vague descriptor, “something of Gryffindor’s or Ravenclaw’s.”  The other House artifacts are valuable and treated as such: the ring and locket are treasured, the glowing cup is in a vault, the sword is celebrated, but the tiara is a piece of crap. It’s described as battered and tarnished, shoved amongst mountains of garbage atop the bust of an ugly old warlock in a wig.  

After the books were finished, when Rowling started identifying the Houses of more characters, do you remember the reader outcry against all the villains being Slytherin, and how, at some point, Rowling started to assign questionable or villainous characters to Ravenclaw, instead?  Lockhart, she said, was Ravenclaw; so were Trelawney, Ollivander, and Quirrell. I wonder if she originally meant Quirrell to be a Slytherin; after the Welcoming Feast, Harry dreams that Quirrell tells him to go to Slytherin and the other people in that nightmare — Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort — are all Slytherins.

To me, Ollivander is the quintessential Ravenclaw.  He is intrigued by the possibilities of channeling Voldemort’s power through exceptional wands, but he also tells Harry he is sorry to say that he sold the wand that scarred him.  So it’s not that he’s completely amoral; it’s that he can simultaneously be moral and amoral, which is, I think, more chilling. We can’t be certain whether he’s going to have a conscience or immerse himself in value-free pursuit of pure knowledge.  Maybe this is why the world finds Ravenclaws creepy! The thing is, there’s nothing about being able to appreciate pure knowledge that precludes our having consciences and strong morals. 

But looking at Quirrell, Ollivander, and Lockhart, it’s clear that Rowling’s Ravenclaws come pre-installed with intellectual curiosity, but morals or conscience are optional.  Quirrell says he did once have “ridiculous ideas about good and evil,” but when he met Voldemort, he changed his mind to believe, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. . . .”  

Ollivander says that “the idea of the Dark Lord in possession of the Deathstick is, I must admit . . . formidable,” reminding Harry that he had always been unsure of how much he liked Ollivander:  “Even now, having been tortured and imprisoned by Voldemort, the idea of the Dark wizard in possession of this wand seemed to enthrall him as much as it repulsed him.”

Lacking conscience but still brilliant is how Rowling portrays Voldemort.  Dumbledore tells Harry, “Never forget, though, that while his soul may be damaged beyond repair, his brain and his magical powers remain intact.”  No wonder I get the sense that Rowling mistrusts Ravenclaws.

In a fandom where many readers are especially invested in the concept of the “death of the author,” which holds that stories must be understood without regard to the intentions or life circumstances of the author, it can be fraught to admit to looking to the author’s life and psyche to shed light on how the text came to be the way it is.  I tend to be quiet about doing so, mindful of how important “death of the author” is for some fans who want to retain a connection to the Harry Potter stories while feeling disagreement with the author. But for this topic, I decided to go there and see where it takes me, because in my view, Rowling demonstrates quite vividly that it is illuminating and rewarding to consider the author when engaging deeply with a piece of fiction.  I’m going to talk about a few instances that convinced me.

Most iconically, Rowling packaged the Harry Potter stories with information about herself and her intentions:  it’s part of the story that she was a single mother, humbled to be struggling and dependent on assistance instead of making a splash as a writer, the way she and others always expected of her.  We know her grief over her mother’s death informed all of the series, and that she longed to see and speak to her mother again, as Harry longs for his lost family. She wanted us to know these things, and I know I welcomed the way they enriched my understanding of the books, of her characters who rail against the burden of caregiving and then are ashamed of their ungraciousness.  I am not sorry that this background informs my reading.

Here is some other information about the author that has only deepened my understanding in a way that I welcome.  We know, partly because Rowling’s own father betrayed her by selling information to a tabloid, that she survived domestic violence in her first marriage; we heard her say, in a subsequent interview, that she was replicating family patterns she had learned as a child.  This information made me understand the Fidelius Charm as a magical version of what we Muggles call a “safe house.” We know that Rowling’s mother blossomed in her job working for a chemistry teacher Rowling disliked, who was one of the inspirations for the character of Snape.  This information helped me understand the complex dynamic of someone, in adulthood, revisiting their view of a teacher who had been cruel to them as a child but had been a friend to their mother.  

This background enriched my reading enough that I found it worthwhile to keep looking.  I had wondered why Rowling chose to write James and Lily marrying and becoming parents so young; I stopped wondering when I learned that Rowling’s parents had been that age when she was born.  When I first read in Deathly Hallows that Snape had seen Lily’s joyous ability to fly, I wasn’t sure if Rowling meant that her character actually, literally, flew — until I learned that her mother’s maiden name was Anne Volant, the French word for “flying.”  In a series that is so deliberate about the magic of names, and especially the names of mothers, learning the full name of the author’s mother enriched my understanding in a way that I would never want to give back.

The biggest gut punch came when I learned that Rowling’s father is named Peter James Rowling.  I resisted thinking about that for a while; it was too much. But I could not in any way make myself believe that this author, in particular, gave two major characters the same names as a family member by accident or coincidence.  I had wondered why James Potter was so difficult to find in the stories.  We get unflattering memories of him as a student, and we hear of his goodness as a young man, but when we see him as a father, he’s barely there:  when Voldemort kills him, unlike the complex view we get of Lily’s death, “James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut.” We get a much more vivid portrait of Peter Pettigrew, making me wonder if Rowling wrote different aspects of her view of her own father into these two characters, one despicable, one heroic but elusive.

After making these connections, I couldn’t help wondering if considering the author might also help me gain insight into the portrayal of Ravenclaw House and why it’s so much more nebulous and ambivalent than the other three.  With HP, Cursed Child, and Fantastic Beasts, this author has given us Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff points of view. She hasn’t written a Ravenclaw story. What if it’s Ravenclaw, not Slytherin, that is her shadow House, the House of aspects about herself that frighten her, or that she wants to repress?

We meet the ghosts of Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff houses on Harry’s first night at Hogwarts.  Seven years and literally a million words later, on page 613 of Deathly Hallows, Harry asks Nearly Headless Nick this astonishing question: 

“Who’s the ghost of Ravenclaw Tower?”

I know some people like to rib Harry for times he’s unobservant, but in this case, I’m going to attribute this lacuna to the author, rather than the character.  

Nick points out a “young woman with long hair,” a ghost Harry had “passed several times in the corridor, but to whom he had never spoken,” who raises her eyebrows and drifts away through solid wall when she sees Harry looking at her.  According to Rowling, she had written this ghost into the series twice before, but never identified her, once in Harry’s first year as “the ghost of a tall witch,” once in Harry’s sixth year as “the ghost of a long-haired woman,” with no indication that they were meant to be the Gray Lady, or indeed, even the same ghost both times.  Page 613 of the final book is a supremely odd moment to be introducing a brand-new character, the last one until the Epilogue: Voldemort has begun his attack on Hogwarts, students are streaming out to safety, fighters are taking their stations. Is this really the time to be making introductions and wheedling information out of someone who is elusive, even for a ghost?

But Harry needs to find the Ravenclaw diadem, which Flitwick describes as “long since lost” — “Nobody has seen it in living memory!”

The Gray Lady confesses, with profound shame, that she stole the diadem from her mother because “I sought to make myself cleverer, more important than my mother.  I ran away with it.” I’m not sure Rowling intended this comparison, but we have found, at last, another force so powerful that it survives beyond death, just as love does:  guilt. She’s been so ashamed about something she did centuries ago that she can’t rest in peace. She confesses to Harry that she told Voldemort where to find the diadem: “He was . . . flattering. He seemed to . . . to understand . . . to sympathize. . . .”  Even as a ghost, she craved relief from this guilt.

Could it be that the author identifies with the Gray Lady, hating that she had once thought herself, with her intellectual promise, cleverer and more important than her mother?  At the end of book 7, is the author, like book 1 Hermione, disavowing “books and cleverness” in favor of greater things? I almost think that’s a stretch, but I find it hard to dismiss entirely, especially when we learn that Helena Ravenclaw was attacked by a possessive would-be lover.  The consideration that makes it most difficult for me to dismiss is the intense sense of shame and ambivalence around this part of the story, long past the point in the plot when we expect a whole new development to interrupt the momentum of a thunderous finale.  When Harry hears the Gray Lady’s story, he thinks, “— here at last was a secret he and Voldemort knew, that Dumbledore had never discovered.” The battered, tarnished old diadem is shoved into the cathedral-sized city of unwanted garbage, the collective guilt of centuries; and the Gray Lady stammers and whispers her shame to Harry in bitter and defensive tones, her urge to confess struggling against her cold desire to keep her shame secret; and the author who had regrets about her late mother and had once survived domestic violence showed, I think, enormous ambivalence and reluctance in being unable to finish her cathartic epic without blurting out, at the very last moment, that she had written a faint trace of a long-ago past version of herself into the books, although she had only been able to bring herself to write this ghost twice, nameless and voiceless and nearly invisible.  As if the author, herself, had felt too ashamed to show this part of herself to Dumbledore, but had only been able to confess it to Voldemort and then shoved it into the Room of Requirement like something dark or broken.

Rowling’s saga was almost over.  She was running out of Horcruxes.  Harry, Dumbledore, and Ron had already had the opportunity to destroy a Horcrux and confront something in themselves; another two were reserved for Hermione and Neville. 

Who killed Ravenclaw’s Horcrux?

Maybe if she hurried and dragged a part of herself out of its obscure hiding place, the part she could barely think about and couldn’t even always articulate in fantasy, there was still time for Harry to help her destroy a Horcrux and face something of her own.

Here’s how that Horcrux dies:

“A bloodlike substance, dark and tarry, seemed to be leaking from the diadem. Suddenly Harry felt the thing vibrate violently, then break apart in his hands, and as it did so, he thought he heard the faintest, most distant scream of pain, echoing not from the grounds or the castle, but from the thing that had just fragmented in his fingers.”

I hope this brought Rowling some peace.

Dumbledore takes up the story from here, talking to Harry from the afterlife about the damage he caused by seeking to set his clever self above being a caregiver for his loved ones.

“You cannot despise me more than I despise myself.”

“But I don’t despise you —”

“Then you should…  I resented it, Harry…  I was gifted, I was brilliant.  I wanted to escape. I wanted to shine.  I wanted glory. I loved my parents, I loved my brother and sister, but I was selfish… Trapped and wasted, I thought!  And then, of course, he came…. Grindelwald. You cannot imagine how his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me. Master of death, which we took to mean ‘invincible.’”

After the death of Ariana, Dumbledore refused the post of Minister of Magic:  “I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation.  I was safer at Hogwarts. I think I was a good teacher…”

That’s such an understatement, it’s almost funny.  Of course, Dumbledore was the greatest of teachers.  But it wasn’t the magic he most longed to cast. He didn’t have the internal ability to limit his desire for power, so he had to establish teaching as a form of self-protection, a way to keep himself occupied away from power.  He explained something similar to Harry in his sixth year:

“’You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!’ said Dumbledore loudly. ‘The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!’”

Dumbledore was remembering his weakness for power when he deflected McGonagall’s praise for being too “noble” to assume the same powers as Voldemort.  Of course, Quirrell was wrong when he said, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”  Harry said as much when Voldemort boasted during the final battle that he had “performed magic that Dumbledore himself never dreamed of.”

“Oh, he dreamed of it,” said Harry, “but he knew more than you, knew enough not to do what you’ve done.”

“You mean he was weak!” screamed Voldemort.  “Too weak to dare, too weak to take what might have been his, what will be mine!”

“No, he was cleverer than you,” said Harry, “a better wizard, a better man.”

Having once permitted his giftedness unchecked rein, having once put no limits and no protections on his ambition for invincible power and then having grieved endlessly for Ariana’s death, as well as the fascism he encouraged in Grindelwald, Dumbledore limited his destructive power by turning his genius to teaching, to spreading love and protection and gifts to others.

I hope Rowling is at peace with the Ravenclaw aspect of herself.  She did, after all, come to reign over the world with her giftedness, but I don’t think she used it to set herself above others.  I think she found ways to build her genius into the warmth of her children’s stories and her work with Lumos and other foundations, spreading love and protection and gifts to others.

Eulogy: J.K. Rowling’s love letter to Europe on NoBrexit Day

The Guardian printed a letter by J.K. Rowling, among others, from A Love Letter to Europe:  An outpouring of love and sadness from our writers, thinkers and artists, published October 31, 2019, the date that Boris Johnson had designated, unsuccessfully, for Brexit.

Rowling’s letter gives us a few more glimpses of the author we know from her writing.  For example, we get another detail confirming her father’s resemblance to the Vernon Dursley school of British manhood, suspicious of all “foreigners” on a micro and macro level.  When he visited her in France during her exchange studies, it was her job to attempt to explain to the French waiters that “bien cuit in his case meant there must be no pink at all in the middle of the steak.”  Oh, dear.

This excerpt brings to mind the clarity and painfully sweet quality of Sirius and Remus in HP, recounting memories of the Marauders from their mid-thirties perspectives:

We all have shining memories of our youth, made poignant because they’re freighted with knowledge of what happened later to companions, and what lay ahead for ourselves. Back then we were allowed to roam freely across Europe in a way that shaped and enriched us, while benefiting from the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known.

Her phrase, “the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known,” is a grief-stricken eulogy for the Pax Europaea, that time after World War II that creates the stage for the Harry Potter stories, a peace that is disintegrating as we watch in distress.  If her wording sounds familiar to HP readers, it may be due to the echoes of Harry’s thoughts when he first saw Dumbledore’s corpse:  “there was still no preparation for seeing him here, spread-eagled, broken: the greatest wizard Harry had ever, or would ever, meet.”

The grief for the end of Britain’s membership in a unified Europe does feel a bit like the death of Dumbledore, the wizard who came to hard-won maturity after a battle in 1945 and influenced the rest of the 20th century with his polyglot, peace-enforcing, always diplomatic worldview.  The end of the age of Dumbledore feels like Ollivander’s description of the Elder Wand’s prominence:  “Yes, it is perfectly possible to trace the wand’s course through history. There are gaps, of course, and long ones, where it vanishes from view, temporarily lost or hidden; but always it resurfaces.”

Goodbye to a flawed, kind, powerful time of goodness.  All right, then.  There’s work to be done and we don’t know yet how this story turns out.