Friday, January 21, 2005

The Female of the Species, and children's books

Simon thinks that a "female" is a kind of bird. I was trying to explain that a "peahen" is a girl peacock, but what he took from that was that there was another kind of bird called a "female." When I tried to explain that Mommy was a female human, he told me that he was an owl-boy. So we've decided to let it go. I'll just hope he works this one out by high school or so.

My mother finally remember to send me a clipping she'd cut out a while back. My dissertation advisor wrote an article for the Boston Globe praising Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, and incidentally dismissing JK Rowlings and the Harry Potter series. Check it out here: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2004/06/13/childish_things/

I'm generally inclined to argue with Billy just for the fun of it (and probably for some bizarre Freudian reasons caused by generally feeling inadequate around someone that smart), but I admit, since I got it on Monday, I've been mulling over, not so much his praise of Pullman, who is a good writer, although I'm not passionate about it, but the need to critique the Harry Potter books, which seems like a general compulsion for people who talk about children's books. I think that part of this analysis is wrong, and it bears looking at. Particularly when you compare the visions of childhood and the transition towards adulthood that are presented by Pullman and Rowling. In the end, I think Rowling offers up the more radical possibilities, and perhaps a more powerful way for young readers to think about the transformation they are experiencing.

Let me say upfront that I liked both series, but also believe there is plenty to criticize in both. (On no level do I think that Pullman is the "most electrifying piece of literature in 20 years, although I do admire him.) How could I fail to adore a vindication of Milton, Blake, Gnosticism and the fortunate fall? Pullman does a truly astonishing and wonderful job of introducing a new theology, and an old new way of reading Bible to people who are unlikely to pick up Blake at random (if only because voluntarily reading something you were assigned in high school is so painful.)

On the other hand, Pullman is clearly more interested in plot than characters, and it shows. The fall is ultimately played out through the awakening and maturity of his two main child characters, Will and Lyra. But neither character really changes very much in the course of the book - or rather, Will, who begins tediously and ends that way, remains much the same. Lyra, however, changes in disturbing ways. Adolescence and the beginning of sexual awakening transform her into a clingy, whiny, passive figure, who allows Will to rescue her (finally, in a soap-operaesque moment, from a drug induced coma caused by her badly torn mother who resonates wildly and creatively from bad Mommy to good, and is much more fun than Lyra) whenever times become hard. In the first book, child Lyra is a powerful and creative actor in her own world. By the end, Will is the actor and Lyra merely clings admiringly to his shoulder a lot. I admit, as much as I'd like to be pleased that Pullman placed a girl at the center of his novels, I can't be, particularly since his vision of sexual awakening is so damned boring.

Pullman's books are often ponderous and sometimes pretentious - my cousin told me that she gave up on the third book half way through the extremely lengthy "does she or doesn't she fall" section, and I admit, I put the book down then too. And he does an extremely poor job of showing why characters care for one another - they simply do, there are no explanations. We are told that the polar-bear mercenary and other adults love Lyra, but never shown how the love developed between them. Another adult character is more than willing to die for her, and then serve her needs in hell, but the evolution of his feeling for her is hasty, awkward and often left out. If love matters, as Pullman claims it does, if passion matters, it would be nice to see some genuine love, and it creation and complexity as an actual human thing, rather than a convenient plot device.

But the reason I really like Rowling better than Pullman (besides the fact that Rowling is funny and Pullman is painfully never so), is that ultimately, Rowling believes in growing up as a fundamentally positive (although painful) process, whereas Pullman's vision is another tedious version of Wordsworth, where no one ever really gets over the loss of becoming an adult. Rowling is a radical in the field of children's literature in that she presents the process of becoming an adult as a potentially exciting adventure, fraught with terrible experiences, but ultimately a liberation from the powerlessness of childhood. It is true that her children have special powers, but their powers aren't ultimately what saves them - it is their maturity, in the best sense.

I will admit, the last book (#6) was not one of her better ones, particularly after the Fifth book, which was remarkable both for its story and for its terrific portrayal of adolescent misery. The funniest moment in _The Order of the Pheonix_ (to me, at least) involves the portrait of a former Hogwarts Headmaster berating Harry for acting like an adolescent, and for believing he is the center of the universe (which is precisely the case). The headmaster announces that this is exactly why he hates teenagers, a sentiment I can identify with both in retrospect and from the perspective of a teacher. And Harry doesn't particularly like being a miserable, enraged, bitter, grief stricken teenager. Perhaps because Will and Lyra have so many other things to do, they never actually are children or adolescents, while Rowling's characters get to experience late childhood and puberty with all its myriad joys.

Rowling's best characters are grownups, but they are grownups haunted by their own (mostly unhappy) childhoods, trying as best they can to be adults, even as watching the teenagers around them makes it a struggle. But the remarkable thing about all of the major "good" characters is that they *are* adults when it counts. Severus Snape, the malicious, troubled, troubling (and really cool) potions master who hates Harry with all his might based on an old grudge against his father, is also Harry's savior, teacher and ally on and off. I won't mention what happens at the end of Book 6, but it really is the only good thing about the most recent book - that Snape, again, has not been sanitized in his ambiguity. Compare Snape, or Sirius Black (Harry's troubled, angst riddent, tortured guardian) with Lyra's mother or father, both of whom are amusing, but who really have no reason, other than loathing for each other, for acting like such twits all the time. Lyra's parents eventually sacrifice themselves for her, on the theory that "good parenting involves doing this" but that makes no more sense than their original acts of evil. Voldemort at least fears death, something that makes a disturbing amount of sense to me, at least, and something that is fundamentally an adult, fear. Harry and his friends are learning to fear and accept it too.

The Harry Potter books present two generations of teenagers (one now grown and mentoring the next), both badly damaged by war, attempting to transform their world. They do it with full, visual knowledge of the consequences of their actions. They know they can die, they know they probably will, they are afraid, they are angry and resentful of the necessity, they do not dream of innocence, but rather of peace. Personally, I find that resonates far better in the present world than an account in which innocents save the world and lose only their true love for each other and their virginity. The former is a vision of the world in which honor and maturity are virtues to be claimed, rather than losses to be mourned, and I strongly prefer it.

Sharon

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