Saturday, September 6, 2008

Was Dorothy a Slytherin?

From about midway through my first pregnancy until a few months ago, a period of nearly five years, I read almost nothing unrelated to work unless it involved pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding or child care. This was extremely unusual for me. My first choice for pleasure reading is generally literary fiction or nonfiction involving theoretical or abstract concepts. But I found myself unable to concentrate enough to lose myself appropriately in a novel, and unable to wrap my brain around anything requiring thinking in abstractions. At first I attributed this to preoccupation with the pregnancy, then to hormones, and finally, after the first birth and even more after the second, to sheer exhaustion. When it continued to my youngest's second birthday, I wondered whether having babies had permanently damaged my brain. Then one day a few months ago, to my amazement and delight, I discovered that the reading (and thinking) ability I thought had been lost had all come back and actually seemed even sharper than before. Perhaps it's true that "mommy brain" is actually a good thing.

During those lean reading years, the one exception was the Harry Potter series. I hadn't read these books, though of course, since I don't live under a rock, I'd heard about them. I have adult reader friends who loved them, and whose opinions I generally respect though they have different tastes. Most are genre fiction readers, mysteries or science fiction. With a few exceptions in the fantasy realm, that isn't really my thing. But I thought the books would be easy reads and I couldn't read anything else, so I picked the first one up in 2005 around the time Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out. I read the entire series through Half-Blood Prince, becoming something of a fan in the process. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I read it pretty much in a couple of sittings, then I started the series over and read the whole thing again. And then I read it a third time. I probably would have read it a fourth time had I not discovered His Dark Materials when I was looking for a movie to watch on pay per view and ended up with The Golden Compass. (I found the movie unintelligible having no knowledge of the books, but was intrigued, read the books, and found them so interesting I ended up, after discovering my reading ability had returned, wanting to learn about the science underlying the fiction. Hence my recent readings in cosmology, astronomy and physics.)

Let me be clear. I'm not saying Harry Potter is great literature. But I still enjoyed it, and it hit the spot when I couldn't concentrate on anything that left too much unsaid. I could even find things to enjoy in the writing. I remember saying "Wow" aloud when I finished reading the confrontation scene between Harry and Voldemort in The Goblet of Fire. And the light-speed pacing of the Battle of Hogwarts scene seemed exactly right. (I also remember cringing every time a character was embarrassed. It seems Rowling could only show this through the character turning red, pink, blushing, or some other version of color flooding to their cheeks, and it often seemed this was happening every other page or so.)

Harry Potter has been criticized for, among other things, being derivative, and it's fairly hard to miss the debt the series owes to other epic fantasy tales of good versus evil. They're apparent at the highest level, as well as in the detail. At a 3000 foot level, the plot of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars movies and Harry Potter can all be summarized as: an orphaned (seemingly or truly) anti-hero (Frodo, Luke, Harry) is thrust into a situation in which he becomes the world’s redeemer from ultimate evil (Sauron, the Emperor, Voldemort), coached by an aged and powerful sage (Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi/Yoda, Dumbledore). At ground level, just as one example, the One Ring of Tolkien's trilogy and Slytherin’s locket-as-horcrux both cause negative personality changes in the wearer, are physical burdens far greater than their size, and display human-like willfulness.

But then, I challenge anyone to find a wholly original story anywhere. Being derivative, in and of itself, isn't something that should necessarily equate with bad. To my mind, a lot depends on how well the derivation is done; whether it offers anything new or just rehashes that which it is derived from, and whether it has any hint of self-awareness when it ventures into derived territory. Clueless is Emma, West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet, and Ulysses is The Odyssey but not because their authors obliviously thought they were the first to tell these stories.

The next time I read Harry Potter, likely when my oldest is old enough to enjoy having them read aloud, I'll try to remind myself to look for nods to its progenitors in the writing. I can say now, though, that I think Harry Potter does offer some new things, one of which was completely unexpected -- a new way of looking at The Wizard of Oz.

As I was reading through Harry Potter the third time, I also happened to be reading The Wizard of Oz to my oldest son. Although I've seen the movie countless times, it must have been thirty years since I'd last read the book. I don't often hear adults talking about rereading Oz the way they'll talk about rereading LOTR, the Narnia series (which I never read as a child and couldn't get into as an adult), or even Le Petit Prince. Either it doesn't compel rereading, or it's not cool to admit to.

Reading Oz again after all that time close on the heels of three jaunts through the Potter books, I identified a few obvious parallels. First, the witches in both stories can travel by disappearing ("disapparating") and reappearing ("reapparating"), and in both stories doing so requires a specific physical action of turning the body in a circle on the spot. Second, both protagonists, Dorothy and Harry, are protected through a "mark" on their foreheads originating in love. Dorothy bears the good witch of the North's kiss; Harry, the scar Voldemort razed into his forehead when Lily took the curse meant for Harry, sacrificing herself out of love for him. Third, the Winkies in Oz are a subjugated people who must do as they are told; Winky in Harry Potter is the name of a house elf, a member of an enslaved race that must obey their masters.

The most interesting of these parallels, however, is the one that casts a rather strange light on Dorothy.

The Mirror of Erised (Erised being "desire" mirrored, or spelled in reverse), central to the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and discussed in later books as well, shows the viewer the deepest desire of his or her heart. The viewer need not be, and generally isn't, aware that this is what the mirror is showing. I thought about the Mirror as I read my son the part where the four companions each have their private audience with Oz the Terrible.

In The Wizard of Oz, Oz appears to each of Dorothy and her companions in a different form that reflects an innermost desire, but with a twist. Each different appearance shows what the next companion to have an audience with Oz most wants to see.

To Dorothy, the wizard appears as a giant head, the Scarecrow’s desire for a head full of brains. To the Scarecrow, who sees Oz next, Oz is a beautiful maiden, obviously the Tin Woodman’s desire for a heart so he can fall back in love with the Munchkin girl he was to marry. To the Tin Woodman, next in line, Oz is a horrible monster, a frightening appearance that evokes the Lions sought-after attribute of courage. And to the Lion, Oz appears as a self-sustaining ball of fire, which evokes Dorothy’s deepest desire, to depart life in Oz and phoenix-like, return from the flames into a new life back in Kansas. Each companion, after getting a debriefing from the one to see Oz immediately before him, expects to see Oz in one of the forms already experienced and is to some extent banking on it. Here's L. Frank Baum's description of what the Tin Woodman is expecting before he goes in to face the monster:

He did not know whether he would find Oz a lovely Lady or a Head, but he hoped it would be the lovely Lady. "For," he said to himself, "if it is the head, I am sure I shall not be given a heart, since a head has no heart of its own and therefore cannot feel for me. But if it is the lovely Lady I shall beg hard for a heart, for all ladies are themselves said to be kindly hearted.
Where it got really interesting was when I realized that each of Dorothy's companions, had they been spirited out of Oz and into Harry's world, fairly could be assumed to have been sorted into a different Hogwarts House based upon their primary character attributes. Each character's associated attribute is the one he mistakenly believes is lacking in himself and coincides with his heart's deepest desire, which he will ask Oz to provide: Scarecrow/Ravenclaw ("Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure"); Tin Woodman/Hufflepuff ("just and loyal"); Lion/Gryffindor (bravery; and by the way, the house emblem is a lion). The only House not represented is Slytherin, known for its cunning and ambition. And for turning out the most dark wizards of any House.

What of Dorothy? Would she have been a Slytherin? I think the answer might be yes.

If Dorothy hadn't been misaligned through a weird literary equivalent of a substitution cipher, she'd have seen Oz as fire; idiomatically, a fire in her belly -- a passion -- an ambition -- in this case to return home to Kansas. It is this ambition that drives her from the moment she lands in Oz, and she shows no end of resourcefulness in its service along the way. She bargains with her companions for their company and the skills they bring to the party by offering to do what she can to get Oz to help them get what they most desire (the lion is welcome to join, for example, because his presence will scare away other wild beasts). Here's what she thinks to herself after listening to the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman debate whether brains or heart are better:

Dorothy did not say anything, for she was puzzled to know which of her two friends was right, and she decided if she could only get back to Kansas and Aunt Em, it did not matter so much whether the Woodman had no brains and the Scarecrow no heart, or each got what he wanted. What worried her most was that the bread was nearly gone, and another meal for herself and Toto would empty the basket. To be sure neither the Woodman nor the Scarecrow ever ate anything, but she was not made of tin nor straw, and could not live unless she was fed.
Not that it's always inexcusable or even selfish to look out for number one. If you're a mom, or even if you've only had one, you can't really blame Narcissa Malfoy for her single-minded focus on saving Draco even if it meant betraying the Dark Lord. Her loyalties are with whoever can help her most, as are those of most Slytherins. Look at all the Death Eaters who gave up on Voldemort and built new alliances after his seemingly inexplicable defeat at the hands (head?) of a one-year-old. Dorothy has the same tendencies. Here's what our heroine thinks after Oz is exposed as a fraud:

Even Dorothy had hope that "The Great and Terrible Humbug," as she called him, would find a way to send her back to Kansas, and if he did she was willing to forgive him everything.
There are many more such examples, but I'm not going to make more of an undergraduate thesis out of this than I already have. Suffice it to say, the case can be made.

This doesn't mean I think Dorothy is evil. She remains one of my favorites from childhood, particularly when she's Judy Garland. But not all Slytherins are evil. Some are just banal. And some, like Severus Snape, are heroes in disguise.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole thought experiment for me was wondering whether Jo Rowling had any inkling that she'd thrown this aspect of a classic heroine into relief when she penned her own books. Those of us who've studied literature, and who've sat in creative writing workshops helpless as the living crap is kicked out of our brainchildren, have experienced the weirdness of a reader pointing out something that, uncannily but definitely, is present in the writing -- though not at all part of the conscious creative process. My guess on this one is a big fat goose egg. But isn't it pretty to think so?


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