Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

I loathe the Harry Potter books – or at least I loathed the first four, eight years ago, when a friend sent me .txt files of the first four books. I read through them in one day, and found them unimaginative, morally repugnant, barely literate, patronising crap. I haven’t looked at them since, so it may be that my judgement of them as someone in my early twenties was very different from what my judgement would be now, in my early thirties. But I doubt it.

I have very ambivalent feelings about Eliezer Yudkowsky, the founder of the LessWrong group blog. He seems the brightest of the various Singularity advocates, but that makes it all the more annoying when at times he falls into what look like incredibly basic faults in his reasoning. I also find the way he collects zealous followers more than a little worrying – the computer scientist Ben Goertzel has recently reported getting death threats from people who believe (following Yudkowsky’s rhetoric) that Goertzel’s investigations into AI have the potential to destroy the universe. (Note that Yudkowsky has emphatically not made such threatts – he is apparently friendly with Goertzel, in fact – but that his inflammatory rhetoric has the effect of encouraging that kind of behaviour even if it’s not his *intended* effect).

While I’ve committed fanfic in the past, and recognise that it can be a valid art-form in the right hands, I think that it rarely *is* in the right hands – Sturgeon’s Law probably needs to be adapted for fanfic so that it reads “99% of everything is crap – and 99% of the 1% that’s left isn’t up to much either”.

So why am I up to my third reading of a(n as yet incomplete) Harry Potter fanfic novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky, which already weighs in at longer than most completed novels?

Put simply, it’s one of the funniest, cleverest things I’ve read in a long, long time. While Yudkowsky originally intended this as primarily a didactic tool, it’s a rather brilliant satirical novel as well. The basic idea is that Harry Potter’s mother’s sister, instead of marrying an abusive slob, married a professor of biochemistry at Oxford University, so when he gets adopted after his biological parents, Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres is brought up in a very loving family, surrounded by books on science and SF novels, and becomes a child prodigy in science before ever learning about magic. As a result, he sets about actually *analysing* how magic works, applying the scientific method to figuring out what’s *really* going on.

The results of someone able to actually *think* walking through this world that has no real logic to it and pulling at the loose ends lead to some remarkably funny moments, like when Harry makes the Sorting Hat become unexpectedly sapient by wondering about it, or his total destruction of the rules of Quidditch, but what makes the book work is the fact that it gets this humour from *actually taking the world in which it’s set, and its consequences, seriously* – and as a result it really does feel like the stakes in the story are high.

What helps as well is that the characterisation is so spot on. By this I don’t mean that the characters fit Rowling’s originals – they seem more-or-less as I remember them, other than Potter, but I’ve not read the books in nearly a decade. Rather they seem like real people. The most rounded characters are the child prodigies, Harry and Hermione, and I found some parts of the book almost painful to read having been a child prodigy myself, as Yudkowsky appears also to have been:

Aside from helping people with their homework, or anything else they needed, she really didn’t know how to meet people. She didn’t feel like she was a shy person. She thought of herself as a take-charge sort of girl. And yet, somehow, if there wasn’t some request along the lines of “I can’t remember how to do long division” then it was just too awkward to go up to someone and say… what? She’d never been able to figure out what. And there didn’t seem to be a standard information sheet, which was ridiculous. The whole business of meeting people had never seemed sensible to her. Why did she have to take all the responsibility herself when there were two people involved? Why didn’t adults ever help? She wished some other girl would just walk up to her and say, “Hermione, the teacher told me to be friends with you.”

But let it be quite clear that Hermione Granger, sitting alone on the first day of school in one of the few cabins that had been empty, in the last car of the train, with the cabin door left open just in case anyone for any reason wanted to talk to her, was not sad, lonely, gloomy, depressed, despairing, or obsessing about her problems. She was, rather, rereading Hogwarts: A History for the third time and quite enjoying it, with only a faint tinge of annoyance in the back of her mind at the general unreasonableness of the world.

There are a couple of minor flaws with the book, both tiny moments when Potter’s characterisation feels off, and it seems like Yudkowsky is putting his own thoughts in – a point where Potter attributes the success of a Jewish character to his being Jewish (Yudkowsky seems to believe intelligence to be more down to hereditable than environmental factors, and is himself ethnically Jewish), and a point where Potter dismissively writes off the minor character Ron Weasley, which almost made me stop reading – at that point the author appears to have fallen foul of the all-too-common current tendency to conflate intelligence and cruelty. Thankfully, this is the *only* point where this happens, and in general both book and protagonist show a far more enlightened moral attitude than the frankly medieval morality of the original books.

Which is not to say that this Harry Potter is a paragon – far from it. He’s a very, *very* well-drawn nuanced character, with elements clearly taken from real life (his 26-hour sleep cycle sounds very, *VERY* familiar to me, and I suspect it’s something Yudkowsky has also suffered from) but without being an author-insert character. He’s fundamentally decent and thoughtful, but a decent and thoughtful eleven-year-old with few social skills.

The other major problem in the book is more forgivable, and is just that quite a few Americanisms show up – not just in language, but in assuming that British society is like USian society in ways that it isn’t (little things like having pancakes for breakfast, as an obvious example). Those won’t affect American readers at all, and will only affect those British readers who, like me, find it more implausible that British people would naturally take the word ‘pie’ to mean a sweet rather than a savoury dish than that it’s possible to defeat soul-sucking monsters with chocolate.

The science in the book is more-or-less correct, and if you don’t already know the basics of Bayesian statistics, game theory, the scientific method and various other elements of what might be called “the study of how we know what we know”, you’ll come away with a very decent gut-level understanding of the basic concepts. But you should read it because it combines that with imagination, a decent moral sense, a rare level of intelligence and some genuine writing ability.

I think, to be honest, Yudkowsky has missed his calling. His propagandising for the SIAI seems to be putting off many people who should sympathise with his ideas (such as, but not limited to, myself), while attracting a few who shouldn’t (the death threat people mentioned above). Were he to become a full-time Science Fiction or Fantasy writer he would probably have much more success both in putting his ideas across and in not putting off his natural allies. Either way, though, if you can bear to lower your status enough to read a 700+page Harry Potter fanfic, this is the one you should read…

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37 Responses to Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality

  1. Digital Imbecile says:

    This is only barely relevant to the topic, but I feel I can’t help but ask. How did you feel the books were morally repugnant? I can understand an even agree with the other criticisms, but morally repugnant? I can’t get my head round that one at all.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      As I said, I read them eight years ago, and mostly I just remember a feeling of moral repugnance, rather than what I was repelled by. However, a few general problems I remember having:
      Harry Potter is special not because of anything he does, but because of who he is – people are just born special. By contrast Hermione works hard and actually puts in the effort, but is just ‘a bit of a swot’. The worldview seems to be that some people are just more special than everyone else and deserve to have good things happen to them without effort. This is amplified by Potter being a sports star as well.
      Then there’s the whole ‘Voldemort became evil because of his fear of death’ thing. Now, that can be done very well – I’ve argued that Darkseid springs from the same motives, but I don’t think that acceptance of death is something that should be taught to children. Far better – far healthier – to teach them to rage against the dying of the light.
      They also put forward a sanitised version of the public school system, which is one of the biggest drivers of inequality in Britain, and always has been.

      All that said, please be aware that I’m talking of a superficial impression I got in one day of reading, back when 200k/s was superfast broadband and George W Bush was a popular president… I’m certainly not saying that I’d have the same views if I read the books now…

      • Digital Imbecile says:

        Those are some good points, actually, especially about public schooling, which I’m ashamed to say I never really considered.

        With regards to Potter being innately special, I’d argue that it’s more a symptom of bad writing than it is bad morals. In the later books, I think Rowling does realise that it’s a problem and attempt to engage with it, though her arguments there are far from convincing.

        In general, I’m wary of dismissing any work of literature on purely moral grounds (though obviously you didn’t actually do this), but you definitely have a point. Thank you.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I won’t dismiss works on purely moral grounds (or I wouldn’t be a fan of, for example, Cerebus) – but nor do I consider it something that should be ignored. I tend to follow Orwell in this:

          “One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.”

          I disagree with him on the specific case of Dali – and I definitely disagree that books or pictures should ever be burned – but in the general outline he’s right. I would never argue that, say, Birth Of A Nation was a badly-*made* film, but nor would I ever argue that it was a *good* one.

          Not, of course, that I’m comparing the Harry Potter books either to Dali or to Griffith.

          • Gavin Burrows says:

            “I disagree with him on the specific case of Dali.”

            Actually, Dali pretty much was a disgusting human being if ever there was one! A Francoist sympathiser, a self-serving self-publicist, a predatory misogynist… you name it! But, as you say, he was a great artist too (at least in the Thirties) and we have to deal with that.

            Only ever saw the first Potter film, and the way he was plucked from middle class suburbia to public school derring-do pretty much alienated me. The key seen seemed to be when some stupid sentient hat proclaims him to be in the ‘right’ school House. It just seemed like a parody of the Narnia books without being a satire of them…

            Can’t comment about Yudkowsky’s book, as I haven’t read it.

            • Gavin Burrows says:

              Uh, think that should be “the key scene.”


            • Mike Taylor says:

              Odd that you should have picked on the Sorting Hat scene as one that particularly disliked. I go exactly the opposite way: if you recall, the Hat places Harry in Gryffindor rather than Slytherin, even though Harry has all the innate qualities to do well in Slytherin, precisely because Harry, knowing what he does of the houses wants to avoid Slytherin. At the end of the second book, Dumbledore uses this example to make the excellent point that (and here I quote from memory), “It is not our abilities that makes us who we are, Harry, but our choices”.

              (That point gets very emphatically, and I may as well admit movingly, exemplified by Neville in the last book.)

              I’m not going to argue that the Harry Potter books are great moral tracts (or indeed that they are particularly good literature). But not only does “morally repugnant” seem a terribly overblown assessment, I find it bizarre to zoom in a You Are Who You Are Nothing You Do Can Change That morality as an example of this, when in fact the books go out of their way to illustrate, and explicitly state, the opposite.

              • Andrew Hickey says:

                I’ll take your word for it that they make that point. Like I said, I only read a few of them, *many* years ago, and the moral (and indeed literary) judgements of 24-year-old Andrew are not the same as those of 32-year-old Andrew…

                I was saying that I had found the books ‘repugnant’ then (and I do remember that being my impression) more to emphasise how different my reaction was to Yudkowsky’s book than anything else.

                • Mike Taylor says:

                  OK, I’ll stop complaining about that throwaway comment :-)

                  What I really meant to say was thanks for the pointer to the fanfic, which I am really enjoying. It’s funny seeing a rationalist Harry dropped into a pretty well-rendered version of JKR’s world, and also nice to see the sympathetic portrayal of McGonnagal as not only tolerantly amused by Harry’s observations, but also intrigued by them.

      • Prankster says:

        Funny you should mention Bush, because that was my take on Harry Potter the first time I read it (being North American)–that Harry was essentially a wizard version of Dubya. OK, he had a rotten home life, but once he gets to Hogwarts he’s showered in riches, fame, and favouritism without having to do anything, and in spite of being a bit of a screw-up in many cases .

        The way he’s doted on by all the teachers except the EEEEEEVIL Snape is probably the most morally repugnant aspect of the books to me, and it’s really brought home by the end of the first movie, where Dumbledore imposes a completely arbitrary new set of conditions to let the “good guys” win the cup (because heaven forfend Harry and friends not win every competition, no matter how minor).

        Christopher Bird’s takedown of the last book is well worth reading: http://mightygodking.com/index.php/harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-so-you-dont-have-to-read-it/

  2. Kieran says:

    Oddly the thing that annoyed me most about HP is something more associated with fanfiction, the authorial self insert who’s always right and fixes everything but lets someone else get the credit because they’re the designated hero. Annoying in itself but when the author is female and the know-nothing heroes are male it sets up some unfortunate implications.

    The class thing is weird because Rowling does a good job taking the sting out of her Enid Blyton act by adopting the trappings of real world anti-classism, pitting the working class Weasleys and the racially mixed good houses against the aristocratic Malfoys and Slytherins. At the same time though she invents and supports this really vile fantasy racism where the wizards live in their own little world and jealously guard its secrets from anyone without the right genes.

    The fanfiction, it’s superb though yes, the author’s views are a bit unreconstructed, I was more struck by the bit about “societies which didn’t descend from Enlightenment Europe” being okay with rape and aristocratic privilege. Though I assumed the non-24 hour thing was a joke about him not getting enough sunlight, isn’t it mostly restricted to blind people?

    • Prankster says:

      To be fair, I don’t think there’s anything “genetic” about being a Harry Potter wizard, as Hermione is the daughter of Muggles (I kind of hate that word…) It’s fairly egalitarian in terms of where you originate from, but then of course there’s the secrecy aspect, which in context is troubling (and also raises the question of how, practically speaking, one becomes a wizard if you weren’t aware of the wizarding world already…)

  3. jim says:

    > but I don’t think that acceptance of death is something that should be taught to children

    I wonder exactly what you mean here – I don’t see any contradiction between acceptance of death as an inevitability and ‘raging’ against the particular fact of death in one’s own experience. No-one likes death, so of course healthy people generally try to avoid and delay death as far as they can, but that doesn’t mean they can’t accept it – the alternative would be to go through life pretending death doesn’t exist, which is obviously foolish.

    > Yudkowsky seems to believe intelligence to be more down to hereditable than environmental factors

    Which is true, as far as studies can tell us. Heredity is by far the most important factor in human intelligence, as demonstrated by twin studies.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Phrased that first part badly – I meant “acceptance” as in “Oh, well, that’s OK then, I suppose”.

      As for your second point though, you’ve argued this with me before – I don’t think the question of what intelligence *is* is well-defined enough for those tests to have much validity. I will agree that *if we define ‘intelligence’ as ‘that which is measured by IQ tests’* then there is a very strong hereditable component. Even this, though, can be very varied – for example, I get anywhere between 120 (at the lowest) and 200 (at the highest) on the IQ tests I’ve taken over the years, and the variance seems to depend on how much they’re weighted towards spatial reasoning (which I’m crap at) as opposed to verbal and/or mathematical skills. My father on the other hand has extremely good spatial reasoning skills, but is much less good verbally. (This makes Scrabble an interesting challenge between us, because he’s better strategically while my vocabulary is better. He wipes the floor with me at chess, though).

      But I’d argue that a lot of the people we think of as ‘geniuses’ – the *REALLY* bright people Yudkowsky is referring to in context (he refers to Jewish people having won 25% of Nobel prizes), are at least as much down to environmental/cultural factors as genetic – someone like Feynman, for example, tested at around 120 IQ, so at the low end of what I’m capable of. But in terms of actual measurable results achieved with his intelligence, Feynman was so far ahead of me it’s almost laughable to think of us as the same species. The difference there would be, as far as I can tell, down to environmental issues – primarily Feynman having more of a work ethic, and also not falling into bad habits of thinking.

      • Jim says:

        Oh yes, no doubt about that – environmental factors can make or break someone, or make the difference between mere intelligence and brilliance.

        And of course you’re also right that IQ tests and similar aren’t perfect measures of intelligence, so the evidence doesn’t *prove* that what we call intelligence is very strongly heritable. But that’s certainly what the evidence suggests, and I can’t see any other evidence or argument why intelligence shouldn’t be highly heritable.

        I can see lots of philosophical and political reasons why various groups don’t *want* intelligence to be highly heritable, but no *reason* why it isn’t.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Fundamentally, I don’t think intelligence is heritable, because I don’t think it’s a single thing.

          What we call ‘intelligence’ seems to me to be a label which is applied to a whole host of different things, including amongst other things the ability to manipulate symbols, the ability to make predictions of the future from information about the past, the ability to spot isomorphisms (those last two may well be the same), the ability to apply oneself to a problem, the ability to create internal visual representations of physical objects, the ability to accurately model the behaviour of others, the ability to retrieve information from one’s memory…

          Some of these may be strongly correlated with each other, but it’s far from the case that all are. Some of them definitely have a strong heritable basis. Some are learnable skills. Others seem to me to have something to do with environment.

          IQ testing has a history in eugenics, and was created to ‘prove’ that intelligence is a heritable characteristic. As a result, as it’s got to the point where there is at least a little of the scientific method involved with it, it’s also gravitated towards those aspects which seem most likely to have a heritable factor – primarily the symbol-manipulation and spatial reasoning aspects.

          If you want to isolate those aspects, label them ‘intelligence’, and say that when you talk about intelligence, that’s what you’re talking about, then that’s fine. But in the context of the story, Yudkowsky was talking about Nobel Prize winners, and I don’t believe there’s a Nobel Prize for Anagrams, or Knowing How Many Pieces You Can Cut An Octagon Into Using Just Three Straight Lines.

          • jim says:

            Absolutely, ‘intelligence’ is a very rough shorthand word that glosses over a great deal of very important detail. However, studies looking at intelligence have used a variety of measures, both tests (IQ is only the simplest and least nuanced – there are a great many more sophisticated measures) and observable success in education. Of course all these measures have problems, none actually measures the complex we call ‘intelligence’ completely, but all these measures give broad agreement, for the large groups we’re interested in in studies like these.

            On the whole I agree with you about Nobel winners and the like – that kind of brilliance is surely inexplicable by any mundane process like inheritance or education. There is of course a rough correlation between doing well at school or IQ tests and winning Nobel prizes, but I think the measurable-intelligence aspect is more like a precondition than a real causative factor.

            In fact, I suspect being identified as intelligent early in life might have a mild inhibitory effect on Nobel-winning brilliance, as there’s a tendency for ‘gifted’ children to be over-educated in order to win plaudits for the school, harming originality and enthusiasm.

            Feynman, as you say, is a great example – the nature of his genius is very clearly of the type I’m talking about, that is completely unaccountable, produced by some bizarre conjunction of factors that made it inevitable he’d be a great physicist. So this provides the counter-example to the conclusion neither of us wants, viz that the children of stupid people are bound to be stupid, so we shouldn’t waste money educating them. Missing out on one Feynman would hurt more than pointlessly educating millions of dunces.

            (What follows is OT, about heritability of intelligence in general, rather than in relation to the book being discussed here. Please ignore.)

            > those aspects most likely to have a heritable factor

            It’s not obvious to me how one aspect or another of intelligence or personality would be more or less likely to have a heritable factor. AS far as I understand genetics (not at all academically, but tolerably well practically), we expect most personality traits to have some heritable factor, but in many cases environmental factors overwhelm whatever genetic component there may be.

            The evidence shows very strongly that heredity is significantly more important that any environmental factor in predicting educational attainment as well as performance in specific IQ tests. In the absence of convincing arguments to the contrary, I take that to mean that in general the complex of characteristics and abilities that we call intelligence is roughly heritable. Not heritable like red hair or dark skin, because there are so many interdependent – and no doubt separately heritable – components involved, so you can’t make any predictions based on it or anything like that.

            Really that’s the heart of the question – you rightly point out that ‘intelligence’ is a very complex phenomenon with lots of distinct components working together, with different people having more or less of the various components, perhaps suiting them for different disciplines or methods of work. The actual interrelation of these parts is so complex and interdependent that we can’t work out each component, put a label on it and measure it (thankfully – I’d hate to live in a society where that were possible), but those components are still there, all of them heritable.

            All these different factors are not just interrelated in practice (all of them work together to solve real intellectual problems), they are also interrelated genetically – various effects of protein production and brain makeup and all kinds of awesome stuff – so it’s doubly impossible to predict anything about intelligence with our current understanding of genetics and neurology.

            However, what the evidence clearly shows is that on average over a large population, inheritance is more important than environment in producing intelligence as we understand the term.

        • Gavin Burrows says:

          “I can see lots of philosophical and political reasons why various groups don’t *want* intelligence to be highly heritable, but no *reason* why it isn’t.”

          Statements which are easily reversible are not necessarily particularly meaningful.

          For example, I can see lots of philosophical and political reasons why various groups want intelligence to be highly heritable, but no reason why it is.

          • jim says:

            > no reason why it is

            Well, that’s exactly the point – the evidence suggests that intelligence is highly heritable, and there’s no inherent reason (that I can see) why it should or shouldn’t be, so it seems reasonable to agree with the conclusion suggested (not proven, of course) by the evidence we have.

            • Gavin Burrows says:

              Asserting the phrase “the evidence” is hardly the same thing as providing it. It’s tantamount to saying “there’s lots of very clever people who all agree with me.”

              Gavin Robinson wrote a good piece in the most recent PEP about how ‘scientific’ studies of essentialist sex difference are generally self-fulfilling, and even when they fail to come up with the desired answer normally get misreported as though that’s what they’ve done. I’d wager the same could be said of ‘intelligence’ tests.

              What’s most hysterical is that you can only critique IQ tests for lack of nuance when it’s been abundantly demonstrated that they were a pseudo-scientific vent for racist and classist prejudices.

              Plus. needless to say, any exceptions are merely marshalled to support a different rule. The rare person who comes from a poor background to ‘success’ isn’t disproof that intelligence is hereditary, but instead becomes proof that we live in a fair and meritocratic system.

        • pillock says:

          Wittgenstein might point out that the perfectly-good word “intelligence” isn’t under any obligation to help us specify what we think intelligence “really is”…so I’d resist even Andrew’s reasonable suggestion that it might be many things, and counter that the problem with trying to mark it and track it might not be a problem of precision, but instead could be something else entirely. Scale, for example: since the word, the concept of intelligence as one thing, is actually extremely useful to us when we’re speaking broadly, but turns worse than useless as soon as we try to get technical with it, might as well be “soul” when we try to turn it to details. Nothing wrong with talking about “soul” in a broad sense, but who’d be fool enough to try doing science with a word like that? We give “soul” a break from those duties and it doesn’t bother us. “Intelligence” probably merits the same treatment.

      • pillock says:

        Also, what if I were to say that Nobel Prizes are a lousy yardstick for “intelligence” no matter what the word means, you know? There are all kinds of biases, here. Whenever we talk about measuring intelligence (in order to find out what it is, holy smokes!) we’re talking about getting results from tasks, but the tasks can only have the spread of results that we choose for them, and the weightings we decide on. It’s a pretty goofy way to run a railroad: if intelligence is identified in successful task-completion, and yet is still something other than just successful task-completion, then it doesn’t do any good to pile task on task on task and hope we reach some point where everybody agrees that whatever intelligence “really is” then this guy over here must have it…or we might as well agree that you can also tell how good a writer somebody is by how many books they sell. Or say that it doesn’t matter how many books they sell if we can anyway just tell if they’re a good writer or not.

        I’m not just trying to be clever with that comparison, either! Unless, that is, one can be a good writer and also be unintelligent…

  4. Kieran says:

    In any case “hereditary” is not quite the same as “genetic” and further still from “based on genes which vary dramatically between populations and I know which ones they are (they are the ones I’m in btw)”. Though it must be said, Ashkenazi Jews having high average levels of inherited verbal and mathematical ability is easily the best-supported racial intelligence hypothesis. It’s just a bit odd coming from an 11 year old, even a very precocious one.

  5. TAD says:

    To me, the Harry Potter series was just a fun fantasy story (I’ve read all 7 books). I don’t get into the morality of such things. Life is too short.

    If you want to, you can find immorality and unfairness in anything.

    Some people are just born with natural abilities that make them more talented than others. Carl Wilson was born was a more appealing voice than you or I will ever have, for example. There’s nothing immoral about that…..it’s just the way it is. I’ve probably been blessed with better health than he ever had….so maybe it’s a good trade-off, in some ways.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      But Carl Wilson having a better voice didn’t make him a better *person* – which was (possibly mistakenly) what I believed Rowling to be implying when I read the books…

      • TAD says:

        Actually, Harry was a very flawed character, especially as the series progressed and he became a full-fledged teenager. He struggled with feelings of jealousy, anger, self-pity, and all the usual teenage emotions, I suppose. He was never the moral rock of the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione)…….that was always Hermione. Harry was the supposed to be the brave one of the group and the one with the most natural talent, but he was also a bit lazy and prone to acting without thinking, and sometimes that got him into trouble. .

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    Here it is.

    “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Harry said, thunderstruck.
    “It certainly seems so.”
    “So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. “The
    Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it –”
    “Put you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have
    many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift,
    Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his
    mustache quivering again. “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was.
    “It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in
    “Exactly, “said Dumbledore, beaming once more. “Which makes you very different from Tom
    Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Fair enough – i either missed that on the one cursory read I gave the books or thought that explicit statement was outweighed by a lot of other implicit stuff. At this distance I can’t really remember which. But I’m willing to provisionally accept (subject to the unlikely event of me ever bothering to read the books again) that that part of my criticism was unjustified.

    • Prankster says:

      Well, sure, but what about all the other kids who don’t seem to be allowed to choose their house? It’s made pretty clear that “brave” kids go in Griffindor, “smart” kids go in Ravenclaw, “empathetic” kids go in Hufflepuff, and “ambitious” (and THEREFORE EVIL) kids go in Slytherin. (Does Rowling ever present us with a “good” Slytherin? I realize that the house members are going to look out for each other–which I guess could be seen as an implicit criticism of the system–but Slytherins seem to be consistently portrayed as cartoonishly evil, which is a problem for me.) There’s a very strong “us vs. them” mentality in regards to the houses.

      I realize that Rowling tries to overtly make her themes positive and generally laudable, but there’s a lot that’s implicitly regressive and morally dubious as well. Some of it comes from the fantasy tropes she employs–the simplistic good vs. evil (where evil is ugly and inhuman) conflict, the hero’s journey crap. Combined with the tribal nature of Hogwarts, the way certain teachers (including the principal) favour Griffindor, and Harry’s supposed inborn awesomeness, it’s hard not to feel that the message about “choices” only applies to the Homeric hero-type. With a very few exceptions (Snape, Draco and maybe Neville), everyone else is locked into their roles.

  7. jim says:

    The most likely explanation for all the above in the Harry Potter books is simply that they’re really bad. No doubt some of the themes you’ve all seen in the books say something about Rowling’s own views or subconscious feelings, but a lot of them sound like the everyday product of really bad writing: the ‘everyone […] locked into their roles’ apart from the hero and a few key others, that’s absolutely down to Rowling’s sheer incompetence as a writer. I haven’t read any of the books, but this trait you mention is a certain hallmark of a really bad writer. Again, the business of Potter winning everything and doing well at every pursuit without trying: that’s a textbook example of Mary-Sue treatment – Rowling wants everyone to love her and shower her with praises, so in her book the Mary-Sue character(s?) get that treatment. To a reader it’s sickening and unreal, but to Rowling it’s heartening, because it’s really her winning all the prizes.

    But none of this reflects on Rowling’s view of the world at all, just on her complete lack of skill as a writer.

    For an example of how poor characterization and turgid writing can sometimes be indicative of the author’s own views, see the Left Behind series, where the way women are written and discussed in the book is extremely telling.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I remember them being badly written, but enough people whose judgement I trust on literary matters disagree with me that I’m willing to believe I’m wrong – like I say, I read them so long ago it almost seems like a lie to say ‘I’ read them at all…

      I take it you’ve read Fred ‘Slacktivist’ Clark’s utter demolition of the Left Behind books? I’ve been reading his Left Behind Fridays for more than five years now, and he still finds new bad things to say about them…

      • Prankster says:

        You’re not wrong. I’m not sure who’s saying that the Potter books are well-written, but they’re workmanlike at best. I’m hardly the only one who thinks so, either: Rowling’s gotten plenty of criticism from that angle. Including from my grandmother.

        • pillock says:

          They’re not good, but they’re not actually incompetent either…it’s not like we’re talking about anything as enervating as Dan Brown. They’re sort of a hodgepodge in just about every way they can be, which I think is really the root of their appeal…but it’d be unfair to say Rowling has no ability at all. Getting people to turn the pages is a skill of its own, and if nothing else she’s managed to encourage all kinds of children to be unafraid of tackling 800-page books!

          I’m not sure I’d go as high as “workmanlike”, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot to actively despise, here, and she’s certainly done some good with what she’s got.

          Passing grade. Which is more than many deserve.

      • jim says:

        Indeed. I’m a great fan of his analysis, especially as he’s qualified to discuss the literary and the theological imbecility of the authors.

    • “I haven’t read any of the books, but …”

      Aaaaand right there was where I lost interest in your opinions.

      • jim says:

        Well, unless it’s a very strange experimentally writing style, the faults described above are enough. The facts might be falsely stated, in which case my conclusions are of course worthless. But if the above commenters have indeed read and correctly recalled the books, then I’m pretty safe in saying Rowling is a terrible writer.

  8. pillock says:

    Ha, so I finally read that whole HP thing, and it was pretty fun! But, uh…did anybody else sometimes get the feeling they were reading Colin Wilson’s “The Mind Parasites”…?

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