Consistency in Two Traditions of Fantasy, Part 2: The Deathly Hallows

A Second Possible Consistency

In Part One of this discussion, I introduced the problem of appreciating different kinds of consistency in fantasy literature and then I elaborated the planetary correspondences of The Chronicles of Narnia as an example of a fantasy series which uses a different kind of consistency than a logical one. Now, I am not going to argue that L. F. Baum also had planetary correspondences in his work, or that the Harry Potter franchise has some hidden theological depths. What I want to suggest, though, is that each might have something more like a thematic or atmospheric consistency in place of a logical one.

A painting of a thestral

Carol Smith, “Harry Potter-47”

I think it is worth making a distinction between two ways in which that might be true. First, it might have achieved such a consistency which is easy to overlook if you aren’t primed for it; Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, according to Ward, Are an example of this. Second, it might attempt such a consistency but not have achieved it. What I mean by this is that various markers in the text suggest a sort of consistency which it aims at but a careful examination of the text will nonetheless reveal it was not successful. In that case logical consistency of the sort at which G. R. R. Martin excels would not necessarily be the best standard by which to judge the text; however, the best standard by which to judge the text is some other kind of consistency at which it also fails.1 In such a way it might be analogous to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which really doesn’t work in the sense of logical consistency: the population distributions and the modes of agriculture, resource extraction, and economics are all impossible or at least seriously implausible. However, Tolkien does a sufficiently good job of making all of the cultural aspects look coherent that this is easy to overlook. So it might be more accurate to say that these other texts might be better judged by different standards of consistency than it is to say they are consistent in different ways, because they may have failed to meet those different standards of consistency.

I don’t know about you, but I find this an unsatisfying place to stop. I still don’t really have any idea what standard of consistency I might apply to, for instance, Peter Pan. One place to start might be to read a variety of criticism about Peter Pan or about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, see what sticks out, and then re-read the books with those new ways of seeing them. For example, I know some discussion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass reads them as Carroll’s riposte to rival mathematicians; that might be a place to start. Though that project isn’t at the top of the list of my priorities, I think I might attempt it soon. But in the meantime, I will try to talk in a very cursory way about Harry Potter, which I have read more recently and more frequently than the others.

Back to Hogwarts: Whimsy and the Deathly Hallows

One thing that Rowling excels at is delightful, whimsical details: magical confectionaries, wizard’s textbooks, bizarre and somewhat impractical charms, outlandish potion ingredients. In these details she seems to be drawing from a few traditions, namely Hallowe’en specials and decorations on the one hand and British boarding school fantasies like Diana Wynne Jones or E. Nesbit on the other.2 (It is nearly impossible to imagine that she’s unfamiliar with Tolkien or Lewis, but neither seem like significant influences; I have a hard time detecting any particular familiarity with fantasy writing otherwise.) But more important than her influences is that these details are so much fun. It really is a pleasure to read these silly things! They are unexpected, in some cases outrageous, and create a general sense that magic is marvelous—though, personally, I find that sense dissipates somewhat as the series goes on and the magic becomes somewhat more mechanical, technological. I really cannot understate the degree to which that whimsy can be a delight, and the fact that it is grounded mostly in a very few things—British boarding schools, cauldron-and-broomstick witches, a bit of Classical mythology, standard storybook fairy tales, maybe a bit of the Victorian and Edwardian fairy craze—means that it is consistent in its aesthetic sensibilities, if not in how it all works together as a system. Indeed, my suspicion is that the fecund whimsy of the Harry Potter series made it impossible to systematize: Rowling added so many delightful details she got off the top of her head in the first book that by the second she couldn’t make a system of it even if she wanted to.

But there is also another level of consistency beyond a surface aesthetic that I suspect might exist, though I’m not sure. Rowling habitually makes creatures out of psychological phenomena. (I am stealing this argument from the bits of Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter that I have been able to read on Google Books, though I was well aware of specific examples beforehand.) For instance, boggarts are externalizations of anxiety: they are able to appear as whatever neurotic fear haunts you. Those characters who confront boggarts seem to be scared and even paralyzed by the boggart even though they know it is a boggart, no matter how implausible it is that a giant spider or an abusive teacher will step out of a china cabinet. That’s the way it is with anxiety: plausibility is irrelevant. Dementors are externalizations of depression, sapping from those around them the will to live, at the absolute worst rendering their victim catatonic; since they devour happiness, Sirius was only able to overcome them by some grim purpose which escapes their notice. There are non-creature examples of psychological externalizations in the Mirror of Erised, which shows a viewer what they most desire, and Amortentia, which smells like whatever makes you happiest.

The most important metaphorical externalizations might be the thestrals, which are symbols for the acceptance stage of grief. We learn in the books that only those who have died may see them, but Harry saw his mother die as an infant and yet cannot see them until after he has reckoned with witnessing Cedric’s death. When confronted with this plot hole in interviews, Rowling has clarified that they can only be seen by those who have accepted that what they saw was someone’s death, something Harry was not able to do as an infant.3 This is a logical inconsistency but it is metaphorically appropriate. And it pertains directly to a central theme in the books: the moral conflict between denying death and accepting it. Two of the series’ titles refer to death-denying immortality devices: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The villain seeks both in his quest for immortality. But the characters struggle with it, too: the protagonists so thoroughly will not accept Buckbeak’s or Sirius’s deaths that they are willing to turn back time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry’s late-series descent into adolescent angst is precipitated by Cedric’s death in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and exacerbated by Sirius’s in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And this is just the highlight reel: a close analysis of many passages in these books would reveal the acceptance of death and the denial of death as recurring themes. What I pose as a hypothesis, then, yet to be tested, is that an opposition between death denial and death acceptance might even constitute a structural principle. I’m not sure of this, though, nor whether Rowling succeeds. I would have to re-read the series. I am skeptical that she entirely achieves it, however, because Harry Potter survives the end of the series; its thematic development might require that he die at the end, and stay dead.

Kinds of Consistency

So that is an outline of what another kind of consistency in Harry Potter might look like: a consistent whimsical aesthetic drawn from a few familiar sources and/or a consistent metaphorical externalization of psychological dramas, especially the conflict between death acceptance and death denial. With luck this example, and the example I elaborate about The Chronicles of Narnia, will help those of you familiar with fantasy in the vein of Barrie, Carroll, and Baum discover kinds of consistency in them. And if you have any ideas about that, please—please—speculate about them in the comments.

I have some last things I want to consider before I close.

First, I suspect that this post might pair well with my previous post, “The Oblivious Nerd in Three Constructs.” Logical consistency in fantasy seems like an analytic concern; whimsy and symbol seem like the opposite.

Second, it is not always necessary to choose between logical consistency, clever whimsy, and symbol. Take this passage from Max Gladstone’s Ruin of Angels, sixth in the Craft Sequence:

No one liked High Sisters—not the sisters themselves, not the blank-faced guards, not the kids in featureless grey jumpsuits worn through at the knees from kneeling, each suit boiled to kill lice before it was passed to the next kid in line. Everyone here would rather be somewhere else […]. Izza didn’t know much about the faceless guards, but she was pretty sure they’d rather be somewhere else too. Then again, you never knew. Some people liked not having faces.

It is a joke, of course: at first the reader doesn’t expect the guards to be literally blank-faced, but rather to wear a blank expression and to act so impersonally that they are all interchangeable from the inmates’ perspective. Then Gladstone flips it for you, indicating that the guards literally do not have faces while on duty. It’s a cute joke and makes the High Sisters detention centre more disturbing. However, this aesthetic and symbolic touch does not need to come at the cost of logical consistency because, although Gladstone does not make this particular bit of magic clear, he has explained so much magic so mechanistically at such great length that the reader has no reason to expect he couldn’t do so in this case. The Craft books are full of this sort of thing.

Third, I have not touched on how any of this relates to genres other than fantasy. Fantasy, however, isn’t a self-contained tradition. It cross-pollinates rather obviously with both science fiction and horror, which push towards, respectively, the well-explained and the unexplained, logical consistency and logical impossibility. (The best-known example of logical impossibility in horror is probably Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries, but I think that’s probably the most garish and least effective example; think instead about how the killer in slasher horror manages to move about the house, perhaps through floors or walls, in inexplicable and indecipherable ways.) But fantasy is also related to a number of other genres which popular audiences are less likely to think of or to have heard of or to consider genres at all: mythology, folklore, fairy tale, fabulism, magic realism, and surrealism. I have found it very difficult to articulate what is going on in the last three of those genres that distinguish them from speculative fiction as it is generally understood, but it has something to do with writerliness versus readerliness, a distinction which I think would be well introduced into popular discussions about fiction. (Writerly writing calls attention to the fiction’s status as fiction; readerly writing does not, promoting a more immersive experience.) That is not something I want to tackle here, but it does relate: for instance, the way magic realism handles internal consistency is not only entirely unlike fantasy as we typically understand the term—they are not the same thing at all—but relies (I suspect) on a writerly-versus-readerly distinction which I have never seen articulated in popular discourse and which I have significant trouble articulating myself. If you have any knowledge of this issue, please feel free to discuss it in the comments as well.

1. I am relying on an argument that I have not yet made, unfortunately. It is my position that you can discern from each text, to a limited extent, the standard by which it might most fruitfully be judged, though of course a person is free to judge it by other standards regardless. I have tried to write out that argument but I found the process boring, so I’m only about halfway through. I suppose writing this post is an incentive to finish that one.
2. I am being a bit flippant here, but I am finding it hard to pin down the tradition which holds that witches fly on broomsticks, wear pointed hats, and use make potions in cauldrons using eye of newt. Macbeth plays a role, certainly, but this sort of depiction appears all over: idioms, jokes, television specials, advertisements, and so on. I would appreciate input on this.
3. On the evening of my father’s death, my brother said to me, “I guess we can both see thestrals now.” I felt then and still feel now that there is something very powerful about that, that there is a real difference between having seen a loved one die and not having seen a loved one die, that I can’t really articulate.

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