Book Review: Hog’s Head Conversations: Essays on Harry Potter (Travis Prinzi, Ed.)

Hog’s Head Conversations: Essays on Harry Potter

Travis Prinzi, editor

Zossima Press, 2009.

The state of scholarship on the Potter series has been absolutely flourishing in the past few years, particularly since the release of the final book in 2007, and the truly interesting thing is the proliferation of this scholarship outside of the established publishing means of the academy. Most of the substantive, central works are independently published, standing on a side apart from traditional academic and university publishers (though there have been a few books published in the mainstream).

This independently minded move in such scholarship has seen the rise of a plethora of new literature critics and analysts, most of whom made names for themselves in the last decade by blogging or otherwise writing for the Potter community, rather than for academics specifically. Among the best of this new generation of scholars is Travis Prinzi, whose 2009 book Harry Potter and Imagination set a new standard for Potter scholarship.

Prinzi now follows his own book with a collection of essays in Hog’s Head Conversations: Essays on Harry Potter, in which Prinzi has gathered substantive essays by many well-known scholars not just of Harry Potter, but renown Inkling scholars as well, such as Colin Manlove.

What is truly nice about most of this scholarship, directed as it is to fans and the Potter community, is that they are actually readable. They generally avoid the style of academia, rendered as it is in prose so dusty it has contracted dry rot. This collection maintains this tradition of eminent readability, generally speaking, and the essays that are rendered academically, or are otherwise oriented towards academic subjects, are shunted to the end of the collection. Particularly offensive on this level is Ryan Kerr’s essay on Tom Riddle’s diary from Chamber of Secrets, an essay seemingly devoid of life and energy and which attempts to interact with Structuralism, Reader Response theory and others, using Riddle’s diary as a cipher. And this has been recent academic scholarship’s fatal flaw; it has a narcissistic tendency to use literature only as a jumping point to discuss itself, academia, and its currently vogue theoretical fashions. Kerr’s essay tries to find justification in the text, but reads Chamber in ways closer linked to the old Medieval allegorical method than to textual analysis. The evidence from the text is rather forced in most places, but then again, the point of the essay is not Harry Potter but academic theories about literature and its interaction with the reader. Not all of what Kerr says is bad, but he would have done better to simply discuss theories themselves, rather than try to disguise it through a vague (and, frankly, forced) reading of the Potter books.

Similarly problematic is Gwendolyn Limbach’s essay on Ginny Weasley, which critiques the Potter books from a radical feminist position – a project destined to result in a negative critique of the books, since Rowling is not a radical feminist (and really, when have radical feminists been pleased with the depiction of women in any fiction?). I have been disappointed generally with the state of social and gender evaluations of the Potter books because none of them seem able to approach the texts without either trying to cram their own agendas into the books or complaining that the books fall short of said personal agendas. Only Prinzi’s own Harry Potter and Imagination began to transcend this trend in these areas, and his book still fell sharply short of the goal. Limbach’s essay  is replete with phrases like “homosocietal,” “erotic triangle,” “sexual economy” and this whopper of a sentence: “Before [Ginny] is allowed to truly attempt the disruption of paradigmatic dichotomy, Rowling forces her into a noncombatant role that is not quite Beautiful Soul, but still emphasizes the maternal aspects of that paradigm,” (184).

It is clear that these essays are oriented not toward the Potter fan, but fellow academics, and their writers fail to overcome the obtuse prose and verbal spaghetti of the ivory tower. This being the case, one is forced to question about the appropriateness of their inclusion in a collection advertised towards the normal person.

But if you were growing concerned about the value of this collection, fret no longer. The symposium is an excellent resource for anyone seeking to further their knowledge of “what is going on” in the Potter novels. Readers will especially appreciate Colin Manlove, James Thomas’, John Granger’s and Amy Sturgis’ essays. Manlove and Thomas focus on the literary value and worth of the Potter books, considering the question of whether they are great literature as well as great fun. Manlove, renown and prolific Inklings scholar, concludes that we see in the Potter books “no less than the sort of architectonic skill and subtle unity we trace in say Chaucer, Spencer or Shakespeare,” (9). Thomas concludes that “I prefer the Potter books over those of Tolkien and Lewis and that I consider them superior literary works,” (39). Granger’s essay analyzes the larger scope and meaning of the two epitaphs to be found at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, and his conclusions, as usual, are captivating and, very likely, right on the money.

Sturgis’ essay, “When Harry Met Faerie,” is – for me, at least – the true highlight of the collection, despite some strong contenders, because she undertakes the task of demonstrating that the Potter novels qualify as genuine fairy tales as defined by G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien, using the writings of both on fantasy to show how precisely the Potter novels fit their own definition. Rounding out the second half of the essay, Sturgis then argues that the Potter series shares inherent thematic ties to Lord of the Rings, following a close reading of the text to demonstrate that in the deepest and most important thematic core, both Rowling and Tolkien share precisely the same concerns with death, bereavement, magic, redemption and eucatastrphe. She then completes the essay by answering the complaint that there are too many adult fiction themes in books ostensibly for children via C. S. Lewis, who argued that adults who are interested only in “adult” matters suffer from an acute sense of arrested development. A marvelous response to those who bear complaints of the books being too violent, too gross, or too childish.

All in all, a fine collection of essays that have managed to yet again increase our collective knowledge of the depth and majesty of these fine Harry Potter books, and if you have any interest in the “deeper things” of the novels, by all means this is one of the books to get. And if you are some form of critic of the books, whether literary, theological, moral or otherwise, you cannot remain a critic of these books without first answering the essays delivered here.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: