Saturday, July 22, 2006

The World According to JK Rowling

A few weeks ago, I decided to read the first Harry Potter book out loud to my children, one chapter a night. They were delighted by it, so a neighbour lent us a copy of the second book. Which both my son and I read (my daughter is a bit young for a book that length).


No, not that -- the books are wonderful, the characters are so real they are a delight, and the archetypes steal your soul away. But they are supremely addictive. Getting the books out of the library for my son, I have been sneaking time myself to read them. I have just now read to the end of the 6th book. And like everyone else, I have to wait till next year for the 7th and final book to find out how Harry's quest ends.

But besides being swept up by the story, I am struck by the message, so profoundly modern and defiant, here in what's considered a children's book series.

For example, most of the series was published after 9/11. Although Rowling wrote the outline for the seven books five years before she published the first book in 1998 (?), the influence of modern events is still strong. The government (the Ministry of Magic) in the first book is a neutral and even kindly organization. By the third book, it has become profoundly evil, using evil means to fight the evil of Lord Voldemort. It uses arbitrary arrest of innocents to make the War Against Terror look as if it is achieving something. It tries to gain the approval of popular hero figures like Harry and Dumbledore, who refuse on the grounds that they don't want to be posterboys for an organization that is doing harm.

And like in the War on Terror, the evil entity has split itself into terror cells which live hidden in common objects to be awakened when needed.

But I digress... It's the theology of JK Rowling that intrigues me.

Most of the characters are archetypes, while the children/teenagers are ordinary people. This is what gives the book its power. For example, Dumbledore is the all-knowing, all-seeing wizard headmaster of the Hogwarts School, the most powerful wizard in the world, the equal of the evil Lord Voldemort. In fact, he was also the teacher of Lord Voldemort and the one who rescued the orphan from a terrible childhood. Dumbledore is the Zeus figure, the God figure, complete with long white beard, flowing robes, and a kind, forgiving but stern nature.

It's no accident that he is killed at the end of the 6th book, by a man he had forgiven and taken under his wing (Professor Snape).

At the end of Book 6, God is dead. The pain the reader feels at this event is profound. The final chapter is devoted to a funeral so that the reader can grieve.

I am dimly aware that many Christian fundamentalist groups protested the Harry Potter series because it featured magic as witchcraft (laughable, of course, because if it had featured magic as "miracles" then of course it would have all been perfectly acceptable!!). But how much more confrontational to traditional theology is the heart-wrenching death of the God archetype. Rowling does not hide the existentialist implication of this death, either:

And Harry saw very clearly as he sat there under the hot sun how people who cared about him had stood in front of him one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him; but now that was over. He could not let anybody else stand between him and Voldemort; he must abandon forever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent's arms meant that nothing could harm him. There was no waking from his nightmare, no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died and he was more alone than he had even been before.

So then what is God, what is love, what is the meaning of life in an existential, death-of-God world? The 7th book will feature Harry taking on the quest against evil alone, first by going back to his roots to understand how it all started, and then tackling the problem one piece at a time. He knows there are five pieces. He knows he might die doing it. He is struggling, like us, to find meaning.

In a typical archetypal quest, the hero must "slay" evil. And Harry himself, in the final pages, makes clear his need both for revenge for all these deaths, as he explains to his two friends:

...his eyes upon Dumbledore's white tomb, reflected in the water on the other side of the lake. 'That's what he wanted me to do, that's why he told me all about them [the horcruxes of Voldemort's soul]. If Dumbledore was right -- and I'm sure he was -- there are sitll four of them out there. I've got to find them and destroy them and then I've got to go after the seventh bit of Voldemort's soul, the bit that's still in his body, and I'm the one who's going to kill him. And if I meet Severus Snape along the way,' he added, 'so much the better for me, so much the worse for him.'

Certainly, 'killing' the evil one is a necessary part of any archetypal quest. Yet before Dumbledore is killed, on the eve of the last quest he takes with Harry, he suggests that there may be more to conquering evil than mere revenge. He makes this clear during a discussion of Harry's powers, of what he could use to destroy Voldemort. Dumbledore's [God's] statements about prophecy, power, and enmity provide a framework for meaning in a post-doctrinal world:

'But I haven't got uncommon skill and power,' said Harry, before he could stop himself.

'Yes, you have,' said Dumbledore firmly. 'You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can -- '

'I know!' said Harry impatiently. 'I can love!' It was only with difficulty that he stopped himself from adding, 'Big deal!'

'Yes, Harry, you can love,' said Dumbledore, who looked as though he knew perfectly well what Harry had just refrained from saying. 'Which, given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing. You are still too young to understand how unusual you are, Harry.'

'So, when the prophecy says that I'll have "power the Dark Lord knows not", it just means -- love?' asked Harry, feeling a little let down.

'Yes -- just love,' said Dumbledore. 'But Harry, never forget that what the prophecy says is only significant because Voldemort made it so. I told you this at the end of last year. Voldemort singled you out as the person who would be most dangerous to him -- and in doing so, he made you the person who would be most dangerous to him.'

'But it comes to the same --'

'No, it doesn't,' said Dumbledore, sounding impatient now. Pointing at Harry with his black, withered hand, he said, 'You are setting too much store by the prophecy!'

'But,' spluttered Harry, 'but you said the prophecy means --'

'If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant anything? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled?'

'But,' said Harry, bewildered, 'but last year, you said one of us would have to kill the other --'

'Harry, Harry, only because Voldemort made a grave error and acted on Professor Trelawney's words! If Voldemort had never murdered your father, would he had imparted in you a furious desire for revenge? Of course not! If he had not forced your mother to die for you, would he have given you a magical protection he could not penetrate? Of course not. Harry! Don't you see? Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everwhere do! [...]

...It is essential that you understand this!' said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake; Harry had never seen him so agitated. 'By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me and gave him the tools for the job! It is Voldemort's fault that you were able to see into his thoughts, his ambitions [...] and yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort's world, you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort's followers!'

'Of course I haven't!' said Harry indignantly. 'He killed my mum and dad!'

'You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!' said Dumbledore loudly. 'The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort's! [...] I do not think he understands why, Harry, but he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.'
We create enemies out of people by treating them like enemies, and we create prophecies out of words by following them as if they were scriptures.

And every act of love we do, even if it fails, is still part of the life that protects against evil. Ultimately, love is the only weapon we have against evil.

And in fighting against evil, we have to protect against destroying our own souls.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bears and Us

Most people would believe that bears should be allowed to live in peace out there in the wilderness. But if a bear attacks and kills a human, then that bear should be hunted down and killed.

The reason is a philosophy that says that the value of a human life is more than the value of a bear's life. A human has the right to kill a bear, but a bear never has the right to kill a human and must pay for it with its life. Moreover, humans have the right to take away the land and habitat of a bear, but a bear cannot fight back -- or else pay for it with its life.

Like it or not, this is how the majority of people think. There are levels of life in traditional Western thinking, and human beings are at the top level. Maybe this idea grew out of the fact that people hunted animals for food. But it has become a philosophy of disrespect and lack of concern for animal welfare on the planet.

Unfortunately, there are groups of people -- nations and religions -- that believe that people not of their nation and religion are like the bears. These other groups have a lesser human value. They should be allowed to live in peace; but if one of them kills one of us, then we have the right to kill them.

If they kill one of our soldiers, then we get to bomb a few villages and kill a few hundred of their people. If they kill another of our soldiers, we get to bomb their airports and invade another country. This is not wrong: once one of them killed one of us, they all lost their right to live. There is a single-mindedness to this philosophy that does not see the contradictions or arrogance of their assumptions.

These groups phrase their higher-rights status in different ways. Some call themselves God's chosen people or the one true religion, the only people that God really cares about, which gives them the right not to care too deeply about others. Some consider themselves the great sheriff of the world with an unlimited right to self-defence (such as attacking other nations for having weapons of mass destruction while stockpiling and even using such weapons themselves, or invading any country whose politics displease them or whose resources they want). Such groups refer to other nations as "our interests" rather than as "their country."

Some of these groups call the bears infidels, some call them Indians or natives or slaves, some call them terrorists. They all mean that the other group is somehow less human, has less right to exist or own what they have, than we do.

Israel has this philosophy. Revenge against anyone who kills an Israeli is considered a right. There is no limit to how far this revenge can go. To fail to seek revenge is to debase oneself down to the level of the bears. To them, Muslims are bears. So are Christians.

Fundamentalist Muslims have this philosophy. Infidels can be killed without impunity. In fact, militants believe that God welcomes such killing. To them, Jews are bears. So are Christians.

Moreover, neither group is willing to negotiate with bears.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Matthew and Marilla

I've been thinking about marriage. This is something you end up doing after going on a vacation and being together with your beloved too many hours in a day.

I've heard some little saying (probably nobody ever did say it, but it's been "quoted" so much that it's taken on a life of its own) that if marriage hadn't existed, then our culture would have had to invent it. I've tried to deconstruct this saying to figure out exactly what it means. I conclude that it's a tautology: our marriage-centred culture needs marriage.

Well, no kidding. We've made family synonymous with marriage. And family is the backbone of a civilization.

But are family and marriage necessarily connected? If marriage hadn't existed, would we really have had to invent it? Or would we have had a completely different culture with a different style of family?

I titled this blog Matthew and Marilla because Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert were the elderly brother and sister who adopted Anne in Anne of Green Gables. I try to imagine an unmarried brother and sister pair successfully adopting a child today. The notion of family has evidently changed in these 100 years. I question whether these changes are healthy.

Before I go any further, I just want to toss out polygamy. I'm not supporting polygamy here. Polygamy is dysfunctional wherever it occurs in Western society. It's about power and exists where there is cultural coercion against women. I realize those cherubic polygamist Mormon women with their toothpaste-commercial smiles do TV interviews about how nice it is to live with all the sister-wives. But I note that there is always a Mormon man standing somewhere close by to make sure they say what they're supposed to say.

Moreover, if it's so nice to live with all the sister-wives, then why marry the goofball at all? Polygamist women never talk in the interviews about their relationship with him.

Because there is none. End of story.

Besides, there's the math problem. If some guy gets 20 wives, then there are another 19 guys who don't get anyone. There's no getting around that problem. This is not a real-life solution.

And it's icky.

However, the idea of the group of women raising children together is a powerful one for women. (I don't know what it does for guys.) The single family dwelling is oppressive to female parents, since it parcels us off from each other and sends us to the loonybin. It takes a village to raise a child. Marriage breaks down the village into mcnuggets.

The tribe and the extended family have melted away, and with them, the wider community of women (and men) that used to be central to the notion of family. Somehow over the past two centuries, families have been whittled down to just two people and their biological offspring. My question: how sustainable is this as a family unit? Can two parents really do it alone, raising kids and staring at the same face every morning? Just what percentage of marriages can withstand this kind of pressure?

Maybe the polygamous ladies have a point. It is great to live with other women and share the duties of the day. However, those women don't all have to be married to the same dork to get this community (a point they never raise in the TV interviews, and none of the dickbrain reporters ever have the presence of mind to ask).

The Mosuo people of Southeastern China don't have our notion of marriage or our notion of family. A Mosuo person is married to their mother, sisters, and brothers and live with them all their life. They have sex whenever they want, with whoever they want. The Mosuo culture is the ultimate "free love" lifestyle, but with a heavy family ethic.

The Mosuo culture is matrilineal and matriarchal: heredity is determined by the mother's line, and all property is owned by women. Children are raised by the mother, the uncles and the aunts. Women do most of the work of farming and fishing, and the men do the hard labour. But in exchange for not owning anything, the men are pretty much free otherwise. For this reason, they are generally happy. The Mosuo are known for singing and dancing a lot, and family strife is almost unknown.

Mosuo women are not taught abstinence or sexual inhibition. They can take on lovers from other households (provided the matriarch determines that they are not cousins). But when they don't want to be sexually active, they don't have to be. Among the Mosuo, relationships last as long as they last. No one expects a lifetime commitment. In fact, even living together is rare (usually only practiced when the man is from outside the culture, because he doesn't have a home). Most of the women practice only "walking marriage" -- that is, in the morning, the man leaves to go back to his house, no bad feelings.

PBS ran a documentary recently about the Mosuo. I was struck by how happy, energetic, confident, and radiant these young women were. They knew they had power over their own lives, and they knew they had the love and support of their biological families all their lives. There was no pressure to find a man to start a family. There was no pressure to make a relationship work. There was just a lifetime of support and security.

One young woman interviewed was in a relationship with a man from Beijing. She said freely that she would be heartbroken if their relationship broke down. But she would never leave her family to go live with him in the city. This was her family and her life. A man was, well, just a man. There would be others.

The Mosuo have an overwhelming duty to family and to children. But they don't have marriage at all. In fact, they see marriage as antithetical to happy family life.


Our culture took a turn somewhere early on toward patriarchy and patrilineality, and then later to smaller and smaller family structures, and finally to elevating marriage to the level of shrine.

Has it helped us to live happily ever after?

As for me and my husband, we've decided to take independent vacations from now on. With that decision, we're both suddenly much more interested in holidays. I have an idea of an annual Mothers and Daughters camping trip. My husband and son will go off and do a guy thing. I think we'll all be happier.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

BBC Read

BBC editorial on Israel and Palestine -- go here. The editor's message to both sides of the conflict is that force doesn't work.

Gee, I wish I'd thought of that!