Imagine getting a royalty check every time someone is called a “Good Samaritan” or “Prodigal Son.” Go to an RV park and you’ll see one of these stickers…
I remember camping for quite a while until I realized it was a nod to Jesus’ famous story. Imagine inventing a character that is part of our vocabulary–2,000 years later.
In Joe Jackson’s “The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy,” the narrator debates selling his soul to live forever in music or stay in the moment, loved by one person calling from the next room…
When Harry Potter was first banned in school districts, the “children’s literature” was linked to the devil–promoting magic or God. It was surprising the objections parents and school-boards would have to the story of a young man resisting temptation and placing himself in direct conflict with evil promises of immortality in exchange for a soul. It sounds like a pretty familiar tale of someone else explaining the importance of choice–and reminding even the prodigal son that there is always a chance for salvation.
Harry and Huck
Mark Twain’s famously banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also appeals to all age groups and can be read at the various points in a reader’s life–each reading producing a different meaning.
Often the second half of the novel is discounted as silly, adventure-filled page-fillers with Tom Sawyer popping in, but by the time he arrives, Huck has already transforming into a tolerant adult who didn’t see Jim anymore as stolen property. Huck, pretending he had died to fool Jim, realized that Jim loves him dearly as a friend and didn’t care if he was re-captured or died in his grief.
“En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.”
Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.
As the novel moves forward, Huck, like Harry, matures through his prejudices until the very end of their journey when he finally is able to see how much more of a friend Jim is than Tom.
Time-Turning: Revisiting Books One and Seven
On a recent solo drive for 11 hours, I was accompanied by the talented audio-version of the Harry Potter series narrated by Jim Dale. It had been just over six years since I sadly finished the seventh book, knowing it was over. I mourned the end of the amazing series that charmed readers of ages 10 to 100. As a jaundiced English major, I was impressed that each book possessed twists I didn’t see coming–each one carefully placed far in advance by J.K. Rowling, such as a rat with a missing toe in book 1 turning into a supposedly-dead traitor, Peter Pettigrew, at the end of book 3. Then, when the “gift” of a new hand in book 4 executes Pettigrew in book 7, I stand back and applaud this amazingly crafted plot structure.
So, in the same span of time as Harry’s years at Hogwarts, I look back upon the lessons learned. And after a refresher course of revisiting the first and last books, I begin to truly understand the subtle social impact that Harry Potter may have–particularly in the important demographic of now-25+ year-olds who are becoming firmly planted in the workforce and in the electorate.
“The Greater Good”
There is a subtext of social-responsibility and conscientiousness that has no choice but to be felt after 10 years of publishing–particularly in books that are re-read so, well, religiously.
Hariett Beecher Stowe’s portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposure of the meatpacking industry’s greed and abuse of workers in The Jungle, illustrate how fiction can create a much more real world than reality’s headlines can.
No reader wants to pick up a a seven-book lesson on tolerance. And like Ron teasing Hermione’s SPEW-obsession of house-elves’ rights, it takes thousands of pages for all of us to get on board the equal-rights train.
Quaffles and Snitches: Our Easy and Hard To Find Prejudices
Harry Potter is orphaned at one year and placed in an emotionally abusive home. His aunt and uncle don’t tell him the truth about his “freakish” parents or his true heritage. Aunt Petunia represents the worst in neighborliness, spying on her “friends.” But as easy as it is to make fun of the conservative middle-class Dursleys, Rowling boldy continues to expose prejudice in every character.
As much as Vernon Dursley cannot tolerate the magical humans, the wizarding world also looks upon the non-magical as sub-intelligent. From Mr. Weasley’s adoring but still patronizing “Bless-Thems” to the amoral execution of muggles, half-bloods and sympathetic blood-traitors, Rowling exposes the endless levels of bigotry inherent in all of us.
Even within the action-packed Gringott’s robbery, Harry and Ron are fighting their innate distrust of Griphook, the goblin who first escorted Harry to his vault in the first novel. Griphook also cannot trust the humans and both plot to double-cross the other–taking advantage of loopholes naturally present in their inter-species communication gap. I have admired, with each book, Rowling’s courage in dismantling of her hero and constantly exposing his flaws. And to introduce treachery and distrust in her protagonist so near the end is brave indeed.
Dickensian Names for Eternal Characters
It is likely that 75 years from now these readers, including my 10 year-old nephew Nate who just finished the series, will be unable to hear some of my favorite names from the series and immediately think not of their characters, but instead, like the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son, their characteristics.
- Albus Dumbledore: A bumbling, googy name for a brilliant man who doesn’t take himself that seriously, but in Book 7 we learn of his own journey through prejudice and selfishness
- Severus Snape: An easy name and guy to hate, who is revealed as being even more severe on himself
- Sirius Black The multi-punned name of a dark dog, but also a character a little too serious to the point of moody obsession
- Luna Lovegood: Someone branded by all as crazy but whose unconditional trust in her friends and forgiveness of transgressors creates is a wonderful role-model
- Dolores Umbridge: Educational “reformer” with a political agenda, insensitive to all but “her kind”
- Cornelius Fudge: Good-old-boy sports-icon turned bureaucrat who realizes, too late, that he is in over his head and his back-slapping incompetence allowed the fox into the hen house
- Stan Shunpike: Simple-minded, pleasant working-slob, manipulated, like the fearful masses, into doing the bad-guys’ business.
- Barty Crouch, Sr.: Conservative rule-follower, impressed with himself to the point of Fortune 500 CEO status
And of course…
- Lord Voldemort: A self-important anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle, who detests his common name, his muggle father and mort-ality.
Charles Dickens’ commentary on the industrial revolution lives through his characters. The impoverished orphan Oliver Twist still seeks “more” and the financier Ebenezer Scrooge reminds us each Christmas of our greed and our opportunities.
And unlike the unwise Tom Riddle and the unknown “Man Who Wrote Danny Boy,” these folks will outlive us all–and perhaps give society a little piece of its soul.