Harry Potter and the Precarious Use of Fiction

This semester marks the second year that I have tutored on a course that focuses on the ‘Ethical and Religious Debates in Contemporary Fiction.’  The course itself is divided into three sections: Christianity (Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack), Secularism and Science (Huxley’s Brave New World, Pullman’s Northern Lights, and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), and Judaism (Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and Jacobson’s The Finkler Question).  While I have my criticisms—what does Harry Potter have to do with either science or secularism?!—and though this year saw the tragic, yet pragmatic, removal of McEwan’s Enduring Love, we have had some success in both bringing in a good number of students and keeping them engaged with the topics.  As well, while I also find myself asking a number of questions pertaining to the implicit notion that reading fiction offers us some sort of outlet different or better than merely examining how individuals shape their religious identities in the ‘real-world’ (and how that differs from a ‘fictional world’), this is not the present forum for such discussion.

Rather, one particular moment stands out that I feel needs a bit more nuancing.  During the tutorial on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the student whose responsibility it was to present and lead the discussion spent a good amount of time discussing the ‘reaction’ of certain people to the themes found within Rowling’s seven novels.  Built on the lecture given earlier in the week that also presented a few of these responses, this student very excitedly passed out copies of a ‘fan-fiction’ recently published online by the title “Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles,” by a Grace Ann Parsons under the name ‘aproudhousewife.’ (https://m.fanfiction.net/s/10644439/1/Hogwarts-School-of-Prayer-and-Miracles)  

Since throughout this course we have discussed the uses of fiction in making sense of or examining identity constructions that are attached to particular cultural concepts (like Christianity, Atheism, and Judaism), this student was quite excited to use this particular re-telling as a cultural source for a certain type of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity.  That is, just as we can read Harry Potter to try and make sense of Rowling’s intentions (is Harry a cultural Christian, for example) this student felt we could equally use this re-telling to make sense of or examine how an individual’s re-interpretation might equally provide us with an insight on the cultural significance inherent in such a re-write.

A little background might help.

‘Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles’ is a fourteen Chapter fiction that adopts and re-imagines the storyline of the Harry Potter novels in order to make the ever-popular series accessible to a readership that might find the ‘witchcraft’ within the original offensive or dangerous. Or, as the author states at the beginning:

Hello, friends! My name is Grace Ann. I’m new to this whole fanfiction thing; but recently, I’ve encountered a problem that I believe this is the solution to. My little ones have been asking to read the Harry Potter books; and of course I’m happy for them to be reading; but I don’t want them turning into witches! So I thought….. why not make some slight changes so these books are family friendly? And then I thought, why not share this with all the other mommies who are facing the same problem? So-Ta da! Here it is! I am SO excited to share this with all of you!

Insights like this appear at the start of each Chapter, so that as we read along we’re provided with snippets of authorial intent.  In many ways mimetic of Geertz’s (1989) notion of ‘signature,’ these authorial insertions not only remind us that the fiction itself is manufactured with a purpose, but also that it exists as a representation of that purpose in textual form.  Likewise, we also find a number of inter-textual influences, provided by Biblical citations.  These act as discursive anchors, linking the author’s intention to her textual construction by means of referential correlations. For example:

  1. “God is dead! Dawkins proved that. Would you like us to educate you on the Dawkins?” (Chapter 1)
  2. “Five years down the road, Harry might have been a fornicating, drug-addicted evolutionist!” (Chapter 2)
  3. “His voice had a distinctive southern twang to it that made Harry feel so safe and welcome. He knew in that moment that the Reverend was a man of God.” (Chapter 3)
  4. “It is the mark of a true, old-fashioned gentleman to respect the fact that every young woman is another man’s future wife. And we all know that it would be a dreadful, terrible sin to bring another man’s wife into intimacy.” (Chapter 4)
  5. “Harry followed Ronald with the obedience of one who does not have many friends in a new situation. Oh, what a difficult circumstance that can be—and how many believers have been led astray by those situations!” (Chapter 5)
  6. “‘Women shouldn’t not have careers because women are stupid!’ Harry shouted indignantly. ‘Women are not stupid at all! Women should not have careers because women are nurturing and loving and their gifts serve them best in the home!’” (Chapter 6)
  7. “Harry hmmed to himself. He knew that the Reverend meant well; but was it really doing members of the other hats much good to tell them that everything was the same when it wasn’t? Wouldn’t they all be happier if they knew to read the Bible and take it seriously?” (Chapter 7)
  8. “‘But what about the Constitution?’ Dean Thomas questioned articulately. ‘Doesn’t he care about the First Amendment?’” (Chapter 8)
  9. “After the prayer session; the little ones all went to their classes—there were regular math and English classes, of course—although they were of a higher caliber than one would find in a Public School—and then there were Bible Studies and Christian History.” (Chapter 9)
  10. “Dean Thomas nodded sagely and muttered to himself in disgust, ‘First they try to change the Pledge of Allegiance. Now they don’t want us to be Christians. Next they’ll be killing us all. It’s a bad time to be a true Christian in America.’” (Chapter 10)
  11. “Harry gritted his teeth. He had had enough of this! So-called feminists these days call everything sexist. A man respecting his woman and providing for her and giving her the children and home that she truly desires is called woman-hating! Such silliness can make us forget what real sexism looks like. The truth is—women are just as smart as men; and God made us as their equals; but equal does not mean the same; and when we treat men and women as being the same and tell women to go to work all day and forget about her true calling as a wife and mother; then that is the real woman-hating!” (Chapter 11)
  12. “ In that moment, the hat on Draco’s head changed into a red and yellow one with a lion on it; and the tears rolling down his face were not sad tears. They were happy tears. The crowd of onlookers burst into applause; but Harry did not notice all the cheering students and teachers. He was bathing in the love of the Lord.” (Chapter 12)
  13. “But before they could think too much about that, a car pulled into the parking lot. It did not look like the car a busy mommy or daddy would have. No, this was a small so-called eco-friendly car. Harry, Dean Thomas, and Hermione looked at it suspiciously. They did not know who would come of it, but they got the feeling it would not be someone good.” (Chapter 13)        

By deciphering the meaning within these passages in relation to the authorial intent and Biblical citations provided (Ephesians 5: 22-24; Acts 5:29; Exodus 20:4-6; Matthew 7:1; Matthew 2:16-17; John 15:19; Proverbs 16:18), we can make use of this text as a source with which to interpret a particular type of identity.  This process works in the same way as reading an ethnographic account about a particular individual, such as Crapanzano’s Tuhami or Dwyer’s Moroccan Dialogues, or like reading an auto-ethnographic account, such as Jackson’s Barawa or Ellis’ The Ethnographic I, wherein our perception of the cultural representation is made through a filter by means of the ethnographer’s position as an insider.  

This process equally dismisses the ‘falseness’ we might infer in the fact that this is a ‘fiction’ by translating the text itself into a discursive source, so that when the author has her characters argue the merits of gender subordination within a ‘proper Christian society’ by citing the Biblical passage, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord,” and Debi Pearl’s Created To Be His Help Meet, the text itself becomes something more ethnographically useful.  This is, in fact, not all that different from reading something like Harry Potter in order to make sense of Rowling’s intentions, and how the text itself has been used by readers in and out of her own culture.    

This is also, in essence, how the student in our tutorial made use of ‘Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles.’  Having been transmuted from mere fan-fiction to cultural representation, we began reading it as a discursive example of the way in which a particular individual might construct and validate her identity, as well as how that construction might alter her perception of the world and thus dictate the manner with which she might externally construct the identities of her children.  This is also, interestingly, our purpose of the course in general, only writ small.

Likewise, it is an equally wonderful example of the precarious and dangerous method of using ‘fiction’ as a source for cultural insight.  Mostly because ‘Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles’ isn’t real.  By this, I don’t mean that it’s merely ‘made-up.’  All fictions, both true and false, are ‘made-up.’  This fiction is made-up in that it is a fiction of a fiction of a fiction.  To sound less confusing, it is an example of Poe’s Law, which is defined as such:

Similar to Murphy’s Law, Poe’s Law concerns internet debates, particularly regarding religion or politics.

‘Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.’

In other words, No matter how bizarre, outrageous, or just plain idiotic a parody of a Fundamentalist may seem, there will always be someone who cannot tell that it is a parody, having seen similar REAL ideas from real religious/political Fundamentalists. 

This text is an example of an individual creating an invented individual who has created a text in a manner pursuant to the way the first individual believes the second individual might think.  In other words: it is a satire.  Evidence of this can be found in the meta-fictional exchange between ‘Dumbledore’ and ‘Voldemort’ in the conclusion:

“Aren’t there better ways to spend your time than preaching to a bored idiot who makes fun of people in the internet?” Voldemort questioned hedonistically. “Your Lord seemed to be pretty concerned about helping the people around him. Is that not his work anymore?”

“How can we focus on helping people; when there are people like you trying to destroy us?” Dumbledore countered astutely. 

“I told you before, that Reddit account is a joke,” Voldemort whined pathetically; but the Reverend shook his head.

“I thought that might be so at first,” the Reverend commented fairly. “But it was just too realistic.”

“How is it realistic?” Voldemort inquired uniformedly. “It wasn’t even subtle! I waxed poetic about the sexiness of neckbeards and said that Christopher Hitchens has superpowers. It was supposed to be funny! How could you take it seriously?”

Dumbledore scoffed; and he replied faithfully, “Like it or not—your little ‘joke’ is what most atheists today are like.” 

“So my Reddit account solidified your conception of atheists as a bunch of anti-Christian bigots who are just angry at God?” Voldemort solicited stupidly; and then he sighed. “Okay, you know what, this has gone too far. I’m sure that most people can tell that I’m not being serious, but if I’m contributing to misinformation and stereotypes, I don’t feel comfortable continuing this.” 

Voldemort pulled an iPhone out of his pocket; and he began to type on it. After a few minutes, he showed the screen to Dumbledore. “See this? I just made a post: ‘I am a troll.’ It is the last post I will make on that account. Are you happy?”

Yet, even when we realise the ‘false’ origins of this re-write, I still find myself unable to outright dismiss it.  Which is how I made use of it for the tutorial.  After analysing the text and concluding that it provided for us in equal measure an insightful glimpse of a particular cultural perception, I revealed to the students its more satirical origin with the caveat that it is still useful.  Perhaps not necessarily as we might have originally intended, if nothing else ‘Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles’ provides for us an example of the precariousness in blurring the lines between texts that are ‘fictions’ and those that are not (such as auto-ethnography).  It reveals to us the difficulty, even danger, in inherently trusting textual accounts, whether ‘fictional’ or ‘ethnographic.’  Because, every text/account is infected with intention, and deciphering how that intention might alter the information provided within is a difficult task, especially with fiction.  After all, we might interpret aspects of Harry Potter different from how Rowling had intended, but that does not mean our interpretation is incorrect.  Nor, at the same time, does it mean her intention is incorrect either.  

Which, as a conclusive statement, I believe adds a bit more nuance to my notion of ‘everything is fiction.’  Textual analysis is quite complex, and fraught with possible misinterpretations.  Examining and interpreting texts such as ‘Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles’ reminds us of this, particularly because without knowing the actual origins, all we have left is interpretation.  Perhaps more than anything, then, I think this example reminds us of this sort of precariousness which, in regard to the larger notion of examining culture through words on the page, is never a bad thing to remember.   

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).

Grace Ann Parsons, “Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles,” Original Fan-Fiction: https://m.fanfiction.net/s/10644439/1/Hogwarts-School-of-Prayer-and-Miracles (accessed 25 November 2014).

Debi Pearl, Created to be His Help meet: Discover How God Can Make your Marriage Glorious (Pleasantville, TN: NGJ Ministries, 2004).

“Poe’s Law,’ Urban Dictionary Reference: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Poe’s%20Law (accessed 25 November 2014).

Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).

Vincent Crampanzano, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Kevin Dwyer, Moroccan Dialogues: Anthropology in Question (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

Michael Jackson, Barawa and the Ways the Birds Fly in the Sky (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986).

Carolyn Ellis, The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 2004).

Everything is Fiction

To begin, ‘Everything is Fiction’ is not my idea.  Rather, it’s an idea that I have adopted for pragmatic reasons.  For the purposes of an introduction, the manner with which I have made—and will make—use of it in this capacity can be traced to an origin with Vaihinger’s (1935) Die Philosophie Des Als Ob, wherein ‘consciously false’ fictional explanations are seen as accepted within the absence of evidential phenomena:

I wanted to give a complete enumeration of all the methods in which we operate intentionally with consciously false ideas, or rather judgments.  I wanted to reveal the secret life of these extraordinary methods.  I wanted to give a complete theory, an anatomy and physiology so to speak, or rather a biology of ‘As if.’  For the method of fiction which is found in a greater or lesser degree in all the sciences can best be expressed by this complex conjunction ‘As if’.[1]

Though differentiated from an ‘hypothesis,’ which can be verified as either true or false, Vaihinger’s use of ‘as-if’ depicts a special kind of fiction, something unverifiable, but that appears to be ‘as-if’ it is.  As Fine (1993) deduces: “if we knowingly retain a false but useful hypothesis, we have a fiction.”[2]

This is close to my usage, but not exact.  In fact, I might borrow even further from Kliever (1979) and Miller (1997).  The former defines this sort of fiction as such:

Given the linguisticality and historicity of human existence, all reality claims are fabrications or constructions.  ‘Facts’ are symbolic constructions which have been established as reliable representations of a world that exists independently of all human imagination and intervention.  Fictions are not simply symbolic constructs which have yet to be verified.  They are not hypotheses whose truth remains in doubt for the present.  They are symbolic constructs which cannot be verified and hence cannot be true.[3]

The latter, who actually uses the term ‘everything is fiction,’ divides the notion into four parts:

‘Everything is fiction’ may mean at least four distinct things: (1) simply that all human knowledge includes constructs; (2) that all actual, or even all possible, such forms of knowledge are nothing but constructs or fictions, and that data, if any are admitted at all, are always just projections out from that fiction; (3) that our most fundamental categories of possible experience are such constructs, so that reality itself can be nothing but fiction; and (4) that scientific fictions are ultimately no different from literary fictions. Arguments for (4) tend to merge with those for (2) or (3).”[4]

Likewise, we can look at other individuals, such as Anderson (1983) or Cusack (2010), who use ‘fiction’ in the sense of ‘imagined communities'[5] or ‘invented religions.’[6]

For my intentions I will be stealing from each of these.  From this point forward, and in this context, ‘EVERYTHING IS FICTION’ means two things:

  1. Meaning, such as ‘reality claims,’ all derive from stories.  Stories are how we communicate.  They function on dialogue and interaction, and it is through interactions with others that we begin to understand ourselves.  Stories are how we shape our lives, make sense of disorientation, and re-orientate ourselves in the face of disappointment or triumph.  Religion, history, culture, science, and philosophy: all of these are products of stories.  However, because stories function on dialogue and communication, stories are also discourse.  Therefore, stories are neither true, nor false, neither fiction, nor fact.  They are just discourse, and can only be perceived and examined as such.
  2. As discourse, stories are constructions, so that the meaning or ‘truth’ sourced from within them is dependent upon discursive contextualization.  In this way, much like how Kliever or Miller depict all claims of reality or all human knowledge as ‘fabrications’ or ‘constructions,’ translated herein, ‘fictional construction’ does not mean something ‘made-up’ or ‘false.’  Rather, it means something ‘made-from’ or manufactured as well, what Geertz refers to as ‘faction,’ a precarious portmanteau that depicts even the most objective of ethnographic texts as “imaginative writing about real people in real places at real times.”[7]

As the title of my Doctoral Thesis, ‘Everything is Fiction’ is meant as a critique, in both meanings of the term.  It represents a direct and nuanced analysis of ‘fiction,’ treating texts clearly ‘made-up’ as if they offer cultural insight in equal measure to ethnographic ones.  By doing this, the phrase also denotes a criticism of the manner with which we willingly trust or authenticate these sorts of ‘objective’ and ‘true’ accounts, regardless of the fact that they too have been constructed by an author who, like his or her equal the novelist, has designed the text out of his or her imagination.  Textualized culture is still filtered, no matter how objective we are, and it is this notion that underscores my belief that ‘everything is fiction.’

Everything is based on a story, stories are based on discourse, and discourse is always constructed.

Just as I determine in the Thesis, and just as I’ve drawn-out here, the following Posts will be stories.  They will be both fiction and non-fiction, true and false, made-from and made-up.  They will be constructions based on perception and created via interpretation.  Just like the Thesis, they will be an attempt at perceiving discourse through a particular lens, through the precarious notion that equally considers: ‘if everything is fiction, than nothing is.’

[1] Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If:’ A System
of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, C.K. Ogden, trans. Second Edition (London: KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, TRUBNER &: CO., LTD., 1935), xli.

[2] Arthur Fine, “Fictionalism” (Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 18, 1993), 8.

[3] Lonnie D. Kliever, “Polysymbolism and Modern Religiosity” (The Journal of Religion, Vol. 59, No. 2, 1979), 189.

[4] Eric Miller, “Literary Fictions and As-If Fictions” (Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1997), 429.

[5] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

[6] Carol M. Cusack, Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction, and Faith (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010).

[7] Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 141.