Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 12, 2003

Potter's Missing Numinosity

I came across A. C. Douglas’s Harry Potter And The Literary Elitist a couple of days ago. His review of them is very similar to mine: “rather charming (which is, after all, only fit), even engaging (I read all four books -- some 1800 pages -- within the single span of some five days; for me a record of sorts). J.K. Rowling is clearly a storyteller of considerable narrative gift who immediately calls to mind no-one so much as the Conan Doyle of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, and a writer of a not inconsiderable fantastical imagination.”

I admit the A.C. Doyle comparison never occurred to me, perhaps because I haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes in a long time. I did read the Brigadier Gerard stories in the last few months though, and I don’t see much in common there.

Douglas goes on to add “The Harry Potter books are, for the most part, a clever and skillful patchwork of fairytale, saga, and mythological motifs and devices intelligently and imaginatively applied, with a soupçon of Star Trek and Star Wars, and a fair bit more than a soupçon of English boarding school movies cum Nancy Drew and Andy Hardy.” I can find very little to argue with in that very nicely put summary.

I find his criticism, shared with A.S. Byatt (Harry Potter and the Childish Adult) on the issue of a missing numinous interesting. I immediately wondered in what sense they mean numinous, since the first dictionary definition is simply “supernatural.” Magic is that. But Douglas seeks a “deeper mystery behind the up-front magic,” which suggests more of the last definition, “spirituality.” It’s odd, I could argue that’s there, but I agree with them that it’s not there in “feel.” By that I mean I can make a case for its presence within the archetypal conflicts, but that is an analytical case, not an emotional one, and the numinous, in the sense meant, is emotional in experience. Byatt calls it "the shiver of awe."

There are other books in the fiction genre that share this lack, but most of them are shorter works. In raw page count the Potter series is an epic. But it is not an epic in most other ways. Potter has a very short back-history and little sense of future beyond Harry himself. Fantasy epics tend to be grander in scope and have elaborate and long histories against which they are set. Tolkein is exemplar, but all the other modern fantasy series I’ve mentioned in posts below share this characteristic.

I no longer have the huge library I once did, so I can’t go pull some examples (I can search Amazon.com!), but in this way Potter fits more into a humorous fantasy group that depends on cleverness and wit more than story and world building for its success. I think Robert Asprin and Terry Prachett would be good examples of this group. But Rowling is such a good storyteller that she can sustain the tale long past where most writers would falter and look for a way to pen finit. The numinous is not a characteristic of this group (unless really wicked puns invoke chills).

Where Douglas “left with the feeling one has somehow been cheated at the trough,” perhaps I did not because I never expected the numinous, and was pleasantly surprised to find the intelligent use of archetypes and symbols. Perhaps, since I have read extensively in fantasy, my expectations were steered by previous experience with works of similar tone. While Potter climbs above those others on his Quidditch broom, I didn’t expect him to. When he doesn’t quite grab the golden snitch, I’m not surprised. I’m just surprised, and pleased, that he got into the game at all.

Posted by dan at August 12, 2003 05:00 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?