Category Archives: harry potter

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  

defining love in an 8th grade english class.

I think it is a very small contingent of people who go into secondary english education and want to teach in a middle school.  Most of us dream of opening the literary eyes of high school students–the kinds who are past the stage of their hormones being new, the kinds who are starting to think critically about the world around them and their future in it.  Before I ended up at my school, I think I applied to every high school in Manhattan, none of which were looking to hire me.  Through a friend of a friend, I rode the train to Brooklyn for the first time a week into the school year for my interview and figured teaching middle school was much better than day-temping and evening-barista-ing I’d been doing for months.  That was almost 8 years ago and every year I get reminded why 8th grade students are amazing–and this year’s reminder is, not surprisingly, rooted in the epic-reread-bookclub of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (uber-nerds see this).

Every student chooses one of five books to read with me at some point during the school year.  Last year we had so much fun in the book club that I decided it was definitely worth it to do again, even if there wasn’t a movie release to celebrate along with it.   That brings me to this week.  (I’ll be talking across some of the best plot and character moves in the series, if you haven’t read the series yet and you don’t want to ruin your life, I wouldn’t read anymore.  Then I’d go out and start reading. Anyway.)
{usually I wouldn’t pick a movie picture
for a post about a book, but I do love the
movies and I think Alan Rickman is
brilliant.  Am I right, Nora?} 
Severus Snape is barely present in person in the last book of the series, though he is all most readers are thinking about after the close of book six when he committed an act of violence that broke the heart of every reader: either Dumbledore was wrong about him all along (and at the time, the very idea of Dumbledore being wrong about anything was unthinkable) or his trust in Snape had roots in something we did not yet know as readers.  I spent a significant amount of time between finishing The Half Blood Prince in July 2005 and starting The Deathly Hallows in July 2007 repeating to myself: I trust Dumbledore.  I trust Dumbledore.  I think that reading the backstory at the end of The Deathly Hallows is one of my favorite excerpts that I’ve ever read: Snape sacrificed himself, his pride and his ideas for love.  
In our book club we starting talking about how the character of Snape redefines for the reader that love, as demonstrated in entire series, is not about what someone else can do for me or how someone else can make me feel, but self sacrifice.  I watched as these 13 year old minds began to turn this around in their minds and all of a sudden they begin to discuss the other places in the book where this is present.  The first one that came to mind was, obviously, Lily Potter sacrificing her life for Harry, which is something that gives strength and power to Harry throughout the entire series.  We discussed that our empathy for Narcissa Malfoy begins when we see her begin to doubt Voldemort out of love for her son and ultimately chooses to risk her life in betrayal at the end of the series.  And then there is sweet Dobby who sacrifices everything. 
Love means sacrifice.  Love means self-forgetfulness.  And there is nothing better than hearing this from 8th graders, believed by many to be the most self centered age group in America.  

On Harry Potter and Another Reason Why My 8th Graders Are the Best. Seriously.

Cover Art by Mary GrandPre

Rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my students pre-movie was one of my favorite experiences as a teacher.  Epic conversations came out of our meetings, which were a safe haven to bring out each members’ inner nerd (I say that in the best of ways, children.  I think the inner nerd is the best part of anyone.) as we discussed character arcs, endings, losses, loves.  I have challenged each of the members of the book club to post an epic book response in the coming week about what moves their hearts the most in the series.  Obviously, I cannot wait to read them and I’ll write my own epic post as well. But to help them remember all the glory we discussed–and for it to get all the other Harry Potter fans I know thinking as they reread/watch the movie, I thought I’d post some of their brilliance/some windows into our discussions here. Do not read ahead if you have not finished the series, as our discussions looked at the entire series story arc. 

One of my favorite comments presented in all of the book clubs was when a student said: “I love the passion of Ron, Harry and Hermione–and how they have a quest and something to believe in.” I responded with the idea that I think that we can have that in our lives, though sadly without broomsticks and spells and apparating.  But, I teared up a little with the conversation that followed. What do you think?

On Dumbledore.
How even as readers, we (and the characters) didn’t feel safe after the end of Book 6. What does this say about the character of Dumbledore? Are there equivalents in our world?

Is it ok to be young and stupid? How do we carry the layers of our pasts with us into adulthood? How do we deal with the flaws of those we look up to? What does all of this teach us about what it means to be human?

Should adults trust children with difficult truths or wait until they have “come of age”?

Do you learn by someone telling you what to do or experiencing it for yourself? Do you agree with the way Dumbledore let Harry learn many truths for himself?

Dumbledore and Grindelwald went in completely different directions after their young adulthood: Grindelwald sought more political power, while Dumbledore went into education.  Which do you think is more valuable?

On Snape.
Is Snape the true hero of the series?

Consider his presence at the Deatheater meetings in early Book 7.  What do you think is going through his mind? What kind of complexities exist for him? If he hadn’t known Lily, would he have truly wanted to be there?

What do you think Rowling is suggesting by the fact that Snape was changed through love? What kind of foil does James Potter play–for Snape, for Lily, for Harry?

In what ways are Harry, Snape and Voldemort similar and different?

What is the true value of sacrifice? How did it change Snape? What other characters sacrifice? Was it worth it? What about in our lives? What other literary characters do you know who sacrifice and what was the result?

What do you think Rowling is saying about government? Racism? What connections is she making to history?

What is the definition of evil? Is there anything human left in Voldemort? What do you make of the changes of heart that we see in book 7 (Dudley, Narcissa, esp.) ? What is the difference between Bellatrix and Narcissa?

What do you think about Draco?  What do you think about Dumbledore’s final act of grace towards him?

Consider Hermione’s loneliness in Book 7. How has she changed since we first met her?

There were some fierce debates about Ron in class 813 and Harry in class 804. What do you think of these two characters and how they have changed?

Why do you think JKR created Ron, Harry and Hermione to be on the fringe of the social life at Hogwarts?

There is a lot of loss across the series.  Why do you think Rowling wrote the story that way? Do you have specific opinions about particular losses?

What inspires Neville’s character change?

My students are brilliant. 

Harry Potter is just too big for a blog.

I was mortified when I realized that I haven’t written on this blog since September 30th.

It’s definitely not that I haven’t been reading, but I think it’s because I’ve been reading so much for school: my students have all created their own reading blogs and since it’s so early in the process I feel compelled to read them all 93 every week, which has been happening over my Saturday morning tea rather than writing about my own reading experiences, per usual (which must change). I’ve also been preparing for the book clubs that are starting up in my classroom. This is the first time I have attempted to be in book clubs with students all year long.  A little crazy.  My brain has been consumed lately with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  While my reading focus has been on what my students’ book club experiences will be like, I also realized that there are depths to be mined in old Harry Potter.  I’ve been overwhelmed by all of my thoughts that I have no idea where to begin, and this has snowballed as I’ve been reading multiple essays in Harry Potter and Philosophy and Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays.

That being said, I’m currently looking to reinvent some healthier rhythms that don’t involve quite so much work *and* I promise I’m on a mission to draw some serious conclusions about Harry Potter (though, I can say that I’ll be rereading this series for the rest of my life, so I suppose I don’t have to discover them all now).  For now, here are some of the biggest Harry Potter threads going in my brain (please do not continue reading if you have not read the entire series, and on that note, if you haven’t read this series, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for):

  • The fact that since we are able to be inside Harry’s brain, Rowling brilliantly creates a narrative in which most readers begin to trust all of Harry’s thoughts and the conclusions he draws, especially about Snape, and especially in retrospect in light of the ending of book 7. 
  • “In book II, Dumbledore tells Harry that the essence of one’s character is defined by what one chooses to do rather than by any inherent ability…by Dumbledore’s standards, is [Snape] not an even greater hero than Harry?” (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • “Both Snape and Black complicate a black and white moral schema. Where Snape forces the reader to accept a bad person who chooses the side of good, Black forces us to acknowledge the potential for violence and ruthlessness that can exist in a good person.” (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • The character arc of Neville Longbottom, and the development of Harry, Ron and Hermione, obviously. 
Tomorrow the Harry Potter 7 Reread book club begins their “pre-club” thinking work…developing the narrative arcs of the first six books in order to provide a foundation for our approach to book 7. My guess is that my conclusions won’t be totally drawn until I’ve talked all this through with my brilliant students.  My hope is that I will be posting on the other aspects of my reading life before then, though. 

More thoughts on Dumbledore: How he encourages my belief in God.

If you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, do not read this. Please. I beg of you. If you haven’t already read the Harry Potter series, read them. Please. I beg of you.

Anyway, everyone knows about the cultural event that occurs just one week from today: the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I day cultural event, because no other series has caused children to read hundreds and hundreds of pages. No other series has caused both young and old to absolutely fall in love with it. I’ve been rereading the series the past few months in order to prepare for it’s release, and to gather more thoughts about the character of Snape. I’ve tried to find hidden or forgotten insight as to his true character.

On Wednesday night, or I suppose Thursday morning, I finished “The Half Blood Prince” at 12:30 am. I knew the end of the book. I remembered it as Harry and Dumbledore are searching for the Horcrux near the end of the book. But then the truth of what happens hit me hard, and I still have the emotional scars to prove it. Crying, I laid in my bed, wide awake. I listened to music. I tried to read online–anything to get my mind off the reality of what the inhabitants of the magical world just experienced: Dumbledore’s death. Sigh. Even typing it out hurts my heart.

I realize that many people may believe that this is over the top; after all it is only a story. But the bottom line of my life is that it is never just a story. There is no one else like Dumbledore: no one with his power, his wisdom, his ultimate belief in love, his discerning care for even Malfoy. So the only thing I can do is refuse to believe that he was wrong about Snape. There has to be more than what we know or are capable of understanding. There has to be.

This kicked me in the rear this week when I realized the absolute faith I have in Dumbledore might be greater that the absolute faith I have in God. I know God. I know his charcter. I know his actions. Why can’t I, then, trust in Him with all my heart? Afterall, even though I hate to admit it, Dumbledore is a fictional character. God is real. Real real.

Among other things, that is what I want to work on: trusting in the Rock who is my God…and letting my passion for story and heroes roll over into my passion for Him.