Mapping the World of Harry Potter edited by Mercedes Lackey
The Harry Potter fandom was actually my first brush with literary criticism—no wonder, since the fandom spent so much time between books feverishly picking them apart to find out what could happen next. While I don’t want to go and find it again (there are some things best left to history and nostalgia), I specifically remember an essay about Peter Pettigrew that opened my eyes to how much meaning you could take away from a text. With that in mind, I decided to pick up Mapping the World of Harry Potter (known in later printings as Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for copyright reasons, I assume) as my first foray into the pop cultural offerings of Ben Bella Books.
Mapping the World of Harry Potter collects essays by science fiction and fantasy writers about Harry Potter, all written in 2005, right after the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Essays include “Harry Potter and the End of Religion”, which examines why it’s important that Rowling’s world is completely secular, “Harry Potter and the Schooldays Novel”, examining how Harry Potter fits into the genre of a school novel, and, most startlingly, “To Sir, With Love”, about the fandom’s infatuation with a one Severus Snape. And that’s only the beginning…
Like any collection containing works by different authors, Mapping the World of Harry Potter is uneven. There are some truly wonderful pieces that made me re-examine the series, others that made me giggle, what with the benefit of hindsight and all, and others that just made me wince. Surprisingly, the piece contributed by Mercedes Lackey, “Harry Potter and the Post-Traumatic Stress Counselor” is a hot mess, essentially just listing all the ways Harry’s been tortured through the books and offering no real analysis. Some essays even get a few facts wrong; given the fervent nature of the fandom (especially at the time this collection was written), they feel a little disingenuous. There are even two works of fanfiction here—“The Proper Wizard’s Guide to Good Manners” and “Why Killing Harry is the Worst Outcome for Voldemort”. The former is a twee jab at Rowling’s worldbuilding that managed to give me a piece of headcanon to explain why wizarding fashion is static. The later is a harrowing and dark thought experiment about how Hermione will ultimately save the day; what makes it uncomfortable is how much Richard Garfinkle doesn’t like Harry. But I think the essay I don’t like the most is Elizabeth DeVos’ “It’s All About God”. While the bulk of the essay is quite sound—she makes a connection between our yearning for magic and our yearning for spirituality—the fact that she discusses fantasy as an escapist genre really makes me angry, for reasons I feel I don’t need to explain anymore.
Luckily, DeVos’ piece is presented right after Marguerite Krause’s “Harry Potter and the End of Religion”, one of my favorite pieces from the collection. In it, she contends that Harry Potter isn’t dangerous to fundamentalists because it promotes witchcraft (which it doesn’t)—it’s dangerous because it promotes the idea that one’s moral authority is oneself, as Harry’s own moral authorities (The Ministry, Sirius, Dumbledore) crumble before his very eyes. God isn’t even a player in Harry’s worldview. In short, it advocates critical thinking, which is the greatest weapon we can arm our children with. This is the caliber of essay I was expecting, and it’s only matched by James Gunn’s “Harry Potter as Schooldays Novel”, which places Harry Potter firmly into not only the literary tradition of the schooldays novel, but the context of an ex-empire. It compares the demands made on a gentleman of the British Empire with the demands made on Harry as the hero of good. I’ve often thought that part of Harry Potter’s appeal, at least Stateside, comes from sheer Anglophilia; seeing Harry placed in that context was great, especially with the imperial implications of the wizarding world. I would be remiss not to mention Adam-Troy Castro’s “From Azkaban to Abu Ghraib”, which examines Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as a tool to teach children about fascism and how to resist it. It’s worth picking up for these three essays.
But I think the most outrageous essay is Joyce Millman’s “To Sir, With Love”, which examines fandom’s sexual interest in Severus Snape. (It’s an odd thing to drop into a collection that is more or less family friendly.) While I’ll say more about this in a few months in a retrospective on the series (while I finished listening to the series last month, my review of the last audiobook will go up next spring), I hate Severus Snape. In my opinion, he died the bitterest of virgins and deserved it. So I’ve been a bit bewildered by all the Snape love, especially when it comes to erotic fanfiction. While Millman doesn’t really explain it beyond the fact that Alan Rickman is attractive and the films are hard to forget while reading the books, she does, in the end of the essay, discuss how once an author unleashes a work into the world, she has no control over how people respond to it and, most importantly, feel about it. And that, Millman argues, is the basis of fandom (in its being expressing by the writing of fanfiction). It’s a good argument, although it could be executed better—for the most part, this is a heads up that it exists, which I still can’t quite believe.
(Snape. Really, people. I expect better of the male-attracted.)
Bottom line: Mapping the World of Harry Potter is an uneven collection of essays, ranging from the thought-provoking to the lackluster to the hot mess. But the essays “Harry Potter and the End of Religion” and “Harry Potter as Schooldays Novel” make it worth the rental. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.