On the 26th of June, 2017, the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter, and in particular, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was marked in a variety of celebrations around the world, at bookstores and libraries, and in some places, public lectures at university campuses, such as the event held at four o’clock in the afternoon, at the exact time the first book was published and released, at The University of Newcastle’s Ourimbah Campus. It was quite an academic event, as it was a public lecture, and it was very enjoyable, especially as fairy tales and children’s literature is an area I am very interested in.
This event was a public lecture, entitled Fairy Tale and Fandom, and through four speakers – Dr Caroline Webb, Rebecca Beirne, Dr Elizabeth Kinder and PhD Candidate, Nicole Shipley, who spoke on various aspects of Harry Potter in the fairy tale tradition, its fandom, the way images work and how gender is represented through Harry.
Dr Caroline Webb had, for me, the most interesting lecture, though all were interesting. I enjoyed hers the most as children’s literature and fairy tales are the area I am most interested in, and in particular, retellings of fairy tales, and the use of fairy tale motifs in children’s fantasy literature. Harry Potter takes on the Cinderella story for six chapters – an orphan, living with foster parents who treat him like a servant, who make them cook the breakfast, and sleep in a cupboard under the stairs – the sleeping arrangements illustrating the last vestige of servitude in a modern world where the kitchen is the hub of activity for Aunt Petunia, and where she deems it suitable for Harry to be in there to cook for Dudley’s (or her Ickle Diddykins, as she calls him though there is nothing little about him) birthday, so she can focus all her attention on her son.
The lectures given were quite academic in nature, especially Caroline’s, and she was very passionate as this is her area of research and teaching in the university. Like Cinderella, Harry is at first passive and acted upon – Hagrid takes him to Diagon Alley and gives him his ticket to Platform 9 ¾, Molly Weasley helps him through the barrier. Yet once at Hogwarts, Harry becomes less passive, and acts for himself whilst at school. From here, it breaks away from the fairy tale tradition and extends beyond the happily ever after of an escape, however temporary, from the Dursleys.
There was one theme that cropped up in each talk – the idea of Harry as the hero and how he became a hero, and fits into that role. Caroline mentioned that upon entering the Wizarding World of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts, Harry becomes the retrospective hero – he is celebrated for something he never knew about, something he didn’t seek out, – but all the same he is a hero, and always has been to the Wizarding World – Harry’s experience of becoming this hero is plagued throughout the book by self doubt, as referenced by Nicole Shipley, and presents him as an atypical hero who does not fit many of the traditional masculine attributes of a hero, because, as Nicole suggests, he first and foremost, a human who cares about people and craves love and family – something that is often missing in male heroes, or is at least not always a consideration. When thinking about Caroline and Nicole’s lectures in combination, Harry’s character is shown to be imperfect, but still fitting in as a hero – just in his own way and on his own terms. However, Caroline’s focus on the fairy tale aspects of the story do not go into as much detail in terms of gender as Nicole’s lecture does.
Once at school, Harry is celebrated by students, and most teachers, and perhaps even favoured by Professor McGonagall, because instead of punishing him for flying without permission, she awards him with a broomstick and a place on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, and with house points for taking on a mountain troll instead of punishing him for disobeying a direction from Dumbledore. However, she does not favour Gryffindor in the way that Snape favours Slytherin, and is also harsh on rule breaking at times, and fair in punishments and rewards. It is through Hogwarts and this world that Harry finds his place, and as Caroline says, a way out of the physical and emotional disconnect he experienced with his aunt and uncle.
The second lecture had a focus on fandom and fan-made media, introducing us to the term transmedia – telling a story or story experience across multiple platforms. Rebecca mainly spoke about this in general terms, relating to how fans interact with the story in different ways, and what this can mean to them, and how they write their fanfiction. This transmedia phenomenon allows for the creation of complex worlds stemming from the original text, and the question of whether the fans actually own the story is a difficult one to answer. In a way they don’t, because they haven’t created the world and the characters – JK Rowling has and I think that needs to be respected and she needs to be respected as the author. A fan can own a physical copy, and own any transmedia texts they create, but at the same time, they do not have the same ownership over the origin story as the author. This is complex because many would argue that once the story is out there, the author no longer owns it – yet it is only the author who can alter the story if she wishes, whereas a fan needs to create their own story to explore something not explored in the story. I believe there are different ways to own a story, and it’s not as simple as stating that fans own it just because it’s been published. I think it is a lot more complex than that.
The world of fandom that Rebecca talks about has been spurred on by the creation of Pottermore and other games and collectables associated with the creator, and franchise owner for fans. Even though the computer games follow the story and get the same outcome, fans can act as characters in the story in their own way to get to this goal. The lecture hall was filled with fans, some dressed in house scarves and shirts, some dressed in robes or as specific characters – Harry, Hermione, Luna, Moaning Myrtle and Sirius Black, whereas others weren’t dressed up, but still keenly interested in the lecture, and eager to celebrate the anniversary.
Dr Elizabeth Kinder looked at the specular world of Harry Potter and the role that images play – whether in the Mirror of Erised, and the magic involved that allows Harry to find and get the stone, based on his desire not to use it and do the right thing, to moving photographs and portraits that adorn the castle, and the confusion that Muggle images, such as Dean’s poster of West Ham, give wizards, showing Ron prodding the poster to try and make the players move.
These portraits are shown as having their own agency, and ability to show emotion – and become important later in the books, with Phineas Black’s portrait, although, and rather disappointingly I think, this was not given any attention in the movie, even though I felt it was an important aspect that should have been included. Not many movies do much with the portraits , except with the Fat Lady in the first three, most notably when Sirius Black tries to get into Gryffindor Tower in book three.
It is interesting that neither the books nor the movies touch on how a portrait of a deceased headmaster appears in the office in Hogwarts – as they appear upon the death of a headmaster, as in the case of Dumbledore, it would be interesting to know if there is a process. This specular world is one that is not always explored and is simply accepted as a part of the Wizarding World – like many other aspects of this new world for Harry, where Ron simply shrugs as if to say well, it just is that way. And because of the lack of explanation, as a reader, you are forced to suspend your belief and like Harry, just accept it. I think this is what makes these books so magical – that not everything is explained, that sometimes the characters and the readers just accept it for what it is and continue reading. Without this suspension of belief, the experience that the speakers at the public lecture were talking about would not exist as we know it.
Finally, Nicole Shipley’s talk on gender and Harry’s way of being male was also interesting and complemented Caroline’s. In short, she surmised that Harry, rather than being the typical male hero, free from flaws and imperfections and not distracted by love of family usually, is simply a human. He craves love and a family, he has self doubt and is not physically perfect – he is skinny and small with glasses, and yet, he is sporty and strong, and capable of finding a way to be heroic without compromising his humanity, a way of being male with compassion and feeling – aspects not typically associated with the male hero. As the final talk, I feel it summed up what the others had been saying, but in particular, Caroline’s, and together, these lectures gave a great insight into the world of Harry Potter that might otherwise go unnoticed.
As a book that started out for children, it has captured the imagination of adults as well, as has gone from being “just a kids book” to one of the biggest reading phenomena in the world today. Because all adults have been children, we can identify with Harry, self doubt and compassion and a desire for a family are not limited to the world of children. The twentieth anniversary shows that there has been a longevity of Harry Potter.
Between each presentation, there were trivia questions that just about everyone could answer correctly, a costume competition and after the lecture, a screening of the first film, which I had to miss out on to get somewhere else, but it was an enjoyable afternoon all the same. It was nice to celebrate it with friends and catch up with Caroline, and I hope to see more events for the other books in the coming years.