Harry Potter and Aristotle

Čt 15 listopadu 2018

Aristotle in the seventh and eighth chapter of his Poetics writes:

Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude … As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole. (emphasis mine)

Based on Poetics many literary critics of Renaissance and Baroque developed theory of “Classical Unities”, which then governed most of the writing from the seventeenth century onwards. Unfortunately, it rather quickly degraded into rather silly discussions about unity of time and place (which were never specifically mentioned by Aristotle as necessary, perhaps only as commonly occurring), both of which were largely ignored not only by the Greek writers of the classical Era, but by almost every other writer outside of the tight confines of the seventeenth and eighteenth century classical drama.

Sometimes the reviews of particular theatre play went unbelievably silly like when Shakespeare (who either didn’t know about the Classical Unities at all, or he didn’t care about them) was criticized that only two less known plays of his actually follow the rules and for example most of historical plays cover length of tens of years.

Perhaps because of the silliness of these discussions or perhaps because of decline of the classical education, classical unities were mostly abandoned in its original form, even more so with the rise of the literary styles completely unsuited for them. There is just no way how a standard length novel could fulfil unity of time and place. Post-Joyceeian novels drove the last nail into the coffin of the classical unities with many extremely non-classical variants of structure of style.

And yet …

In the last couple of years I read many many fanfictions on the Internet. While reading one cannot ignore how few of them achieve at least resemblance of quality of the normal literary works. Certainly, the Sturgeon’s Law, that ninety percent of everything is crap, applies, but there are some pieces of fanfiction which are rather good and it is sad to see them failing.

In the following I will not deal with the overwhelming amount of utter crap coming from graphomaniac teenagers who have problems with the basics of the English language and style, but with those few pieces of writing which are worthy of consideration and where one feels the pain of how far they reached and yet they failed to achieve the greatness.

First problem is common to almost all fanfictions longer than one chapter, and that is their excessive length. If somebody claims that with the Internet and its endless opportunities for self-publishing, we don’t need old publishing houses any more, most of these stories show how most authors are in need of the second opinion of the experienced editor. It is said that half of the success of the French author Jules Verne was in his publisher and editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, who forced Verne to cut his novels sometimes up to the half in length and sometimes completely rewrite the main plot of the novel. When Hetzel died in 1886, the quality of Verne’s novels went noticeably down. Mrs Rowling herself complained that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was published in too much haste and a way too long for her taste. For the record, that’s 38 chapters (average length of HP books is 28.43 chapters). What should one think about novels like “The Accidental Animagus” (112 chapters and it covers only the first four years of Harry’s school, another volumes have 8 chapters, and very much unfinished third volume another 12 chapters) or “The Arithmancer” series (84 and 82 chapters covering the HP series time frame, and another 5 chapters of just starting third volume; this series is probably slightly less overboard than The Animagus one)? Just to emphasize, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, the book which brought Ms. Rowling to the world-wide fame, was 17 chapters. Each of these mentioned fanfiction books contain some excellent parts, which are truly outstanding, but they unfortunately contain a lot of other parts as well.

And not to put all criticism on White Squirrel, first five percent of the current (still quite unfinished, so we don’t know what will be the final length) text of “Friends and Foes” by Northumbrian is Harry and Ginny stepping down from the bike. Really. It has later some best chapters I read from one of my beloved author (everybody must love Bobbie Beadle!), but first four [!] chapters could be either completely eliminated (detective is woken up in the middle of night by a phone call is very stereotypical, but rather useful start of the story), or if not that, they should be in my opinion at least cut to at least one third of the current size and spread later in the story.

My deep suspicion is that this excessive length of fanfiction novels are caused by the ease of writing in the computer age, lack of editors, but also crazy idea, that novels can be published one chapter at time. I know that many novels in history were written in that style, when they were originally serialized, but with existence of text editors, I believe readers expect higher quality than what could be found in some originally serialized novels (yes, Grimaud should be struck out of the Three Musketeers).

Excessive length of so many novels is by far not the biggest problem of many fanfiction stories. Of course, as you expected (or were afraid of), I think Aristotle’s unities are something which can help in producing better stories.

I think we need to return to the original quotation from Aristotle I presented above. In light of the seventeenth century discussions and fashion, it is interesting to note, Aristotle didn’t seem to say anything about the unity of time and place, at least there doesn’t seem to be anything about the need for tragedy happening in one day or just in one place (although, technically, classical theatre with very limited stage technology was probably not changing scenes much). It is a way about “the object imitated is one”. Translated to the most fanfiction stories I would say that there should be one main story, one main world-view.

Let me present here two examples of stories which I think departed from this rule to their own detriment. Again, let me emphasize, both of them are from the best fanfiction stories I read anywhere, so when criticizing them, it is more from my admiration and frustration that they were so close of being really good.

The first studied item is “Strangers at Drakeshaugh” by Northumbrian. He (or she?) is probably generally my most beloved fanfiction author of all, and most of his stories are just awesome. I have in my brain another essay about the style of magician’s realism, which is rather strange and absolutely awesome thing, and one of few paths which can lead fanfiction to the levels of the generally good literature. However, there are things lacking. First of all, this story is one of the examples of excessive length, story could be helped by severe cutting through it. Apparently the author was so excited by his new family(-ies), that he spend just too much time enjoying talking about Charltons and Potters, and the beginning of the novella before the main story picks up is a bit boring.

But that is a minor problem in my opinion. The worse problem is that the author hasn’t managed to keep the story unified. Generally the story is written from the point of view of Jacqueline Charlton, the mother of one of two families the story is about. They are complete Muggles (well, it is probably a little bit more complicated, but that’s not fully revealed in this story, and it will get even more complicated in the sequel “James and Me”) and so they at the first do not suspect anything unusual when apparently rather well off London family of Potters move in to their Northumbrian valley and buys a deserted farm house (called Drakeshaugh [Drakes-hoff], hence the name of the story). Only later they are bit surprised how strange these strangers are: they have no electricity in their house, no TV, but their relatives and friends are coming regularly and obviously with ease from quite long distances all over the UK. Moreover, the father of the Potter family, Harry, is very secretive about his work, and only after couple of strange slip-ups and weird statements, admits his job is covered by the Official Secrets Act, and he is probably somehow working for Intelligence or something. Even more interesting is that he is somehow involved in the investigation of the nationally famous series of brutal murders called “Werewolves murders” (all deaths happen on full-moon), and so this story is also a bit of a detective story. However, investigation is just in the background and main focal point of the novella is just family life of Charltons and Potter, and their troubles with their children and such.

And then suddenly during the story there are seven chapters scattered which are from the wizards’ point of view. Some of them are probably necessary (in the end obviously the case cannot be truthfully explained to Muggles, so at least in this novella the narrator never learns what actually happened, and it would be too disappointing I guess if even reader wouldn’t learn), but some of them seem more like the author couldn’t resist writing down an idea even when it breaks the flow, style, and world-view of the text. One of the Aurors, who is a passionate lover of the Goth subculture (or punk, I don’t understand these enough to be able to distinguish), is killed in the action. During her funeral where most Muggle participants are dressed so extravagant, that wizards and witches are conspicuous by their normality, she arrives as ghost to the surprise of few Muggles who could see her. A lovely one-shot story, which would work very well on its own, doesn’t seem to have any reason to exist as a part of “Strangers”.

There is another from-wizards-point-of-view chapter (surprisingly narrated by a Muggle policewoman who however works as part of the Auror unit as a Muggle Liaison Officer), which suggests it would be probably possible to write whole novella at least partially as two interwoven stories narrated by two ladies, one from the Muggle, other from the wizarding world point of view. It could probably work, and Northumbrian have already written this type of story narrated from two interwoven points of view (“Hunters and Prey”, one of the best stories he wrote), but it doesn’t happen here, and instead of creating some new structure, these chapters just break up unity of the main story.

The second story which suffers from this disease of not keeping unity is also otherwise really good story, already mentioned above, “The Accidental Animagus” by White Squirrel (according to “PotterFixWeekly” it is him). It is strictly speaking alternative universe story, but it generally loosely follows Harry Potter books. Abused five year old Harry just couldn’t take it any more, and when Vernon Dursley actually beats him (up to that point he usually had left any physical violence for Dudley to administer), Harry runs away using accidental magic. However, he not only switches off lights and destroys all obstacles which stand in his way (starting with the door to his broom cupboard), but also unlocks his ability to be animagus cat, and spends next two months as a small kitten wandering through Southern England. The weather is getting cold, too close to winter to make life outdoors comfortable, so he starts to look for a family, which would take him in. And one day, still as a kitten, he finds house in a garden, where a girl of his age with brown bushy hair sits on a bench reading a book. She smells somehow nice to him (we later learn, that cats can smell magic), so he tries to be friendly with her. When she asks him what’s his name, he changes into a small boy to answer her, and hilarity ensues. Grangers decide (even knowing he might be pursued by bad wizards) to adopt him, and so he grows up in a nice loving family with super-smart albeit a bit bossy sister (one small difference from the canon is that they also train in karate since age of six, so this Hermione is actually physically very fit and later plays as a substitute Chaser for Gryffindor).

There are many things in this story, which are very good. This is one of stories, which try to avoid people behaving like idiots just to keep plot going (which unfortunately happened even to Ms. Rowling), and most of the time it manages to do so. Of course, people do mistakes and behave in anger, but for example, Harry & co. just don’t run to the midnight duel provoked by Draco Malfoy, because that would be silly. Also, given the change in universe, there is no Harry’s deep distrust of authorities and working relationship with his adopted parents (and the same goes for Hermione, of course), so parents are very much part of planning and generally are part of the world kids live in. Even though story (with some exceptions) more or less loosely follows the main plot points of the Harry Potter books, the author managed to make people actually communicate and not behaving that much irrationally.

The main deviation from the Harry Potter books is in the third year. Given that Harry is a cat animagus, it is not that much surprise, he discovers in his first year just after few weeks of living together with Ron in one dormitory, that the Rat is an animagus and catches him. Great Wizengamot hearing follows, where Sirius Black is acquitted and Peter Pettigrew is to every reader’s satisfaction sent to Azkaban for life. This happens in fan fiction stories quite often (because everybody hates Peter Pettigrew so much), but usually it leads to bizarre convoluted stories which don’t make much sense. Special trouble is usually the third volume, which is obviously all about catching Sirius Black, but here the author found a good solution (and as usual, the originally story is always better than just rewritten canon). He just dropped that theme altogether and created his own story: Fenrir Greyback invades England (he was hiding somewhere in Eastern Europe before) and with his pack of werevolves terrorizes both Muggle and wizarding world in the same time when Wizengamot discusses controversial law on the control of werevolves drafted by Dolores Umbridge, and you can probably easily imagine just how horrible it was. The whole school year ends in the double-ending: brutal battle with the pack of thirteen werevolves in the Hufflepuff Common Room (which as everybody knows has so laughable protection that even transformed werewolf can get through it), and political battle in Wizengamot to push through law providing legal protection for werevolves. Probably, because the author wrote his own story and he didn’t have to write into the plot made up by Ms. Rowling, this third year is probably best written year of all covered Harry’s years.

Another temptation avoided by the author, which could end very poorly (and yet I have read stories like that) is that it turns out membership in Wizengamot is hereditary and Harry is the head of the Potter noble family. There are two sides of this idea. When thinking about possible political organization of the small community living in hiding for centuries, it is quite possible that some kind of parliament (local council) with seats at least partially hereditary could happen. That’s from the theoretical/sociological point of view. However, from the fanficiton author point of view, everybody who tried to dabble in the Lord Potter and Lord Malfoy usually ended up with disaster. Original books by Ms. Rowling are very much middle-class in their nature, and all attempts to spread too much of nobility, Lords and Ladies, duels, arranged marriages, could very easily lead to completely destroying the atmosphere of the original books [1]. (“Lord Malfoy, would you please pass salt to Heiress Greengrass, Scion Longbottom is in the way?” … that’s just too cruel punishment for one’s sins.) Even here White Squirrel managed to tone this down and make all business with students as nobles believable. However, the author stresses strongly on the idea of small size of the wizarding community in England (just ten thousand, even less than what’s assumed by the fanfiction essays I found on the topic), and the size protects enough Gemütlichkeit to be still more bourgeois than feudal.

Another important trait of the story is that the author has tendency to include wizarding politics, and he does a very good job with that. It makes the whole universe a way more logical and rational. Also, it tries really hard to embed magical world in the real world history, so Mr. Granger celebrates when Mikhail Gorbachev abdicates (and he is told that there is a Konstantin Jugashvili, the Dark Lord of Leningrad, who stood behind the Soviet power). Mr. John Major has one small role in the story to play (and putting completely incompetent Minister Fudge in line), although they miss that during their first visit to the Diagon Alley couple of streets away the same John Major stood on the steps of the Downing St. 10 announcing the Iraq War. Also, one of the large subplots relates to the 1994 Rwanda genocide (which was caused in reality by the Dark Lord Kinani Ngeze and his nundu). Related to that is the author including also international point of view, which is very nice, because the wizarding world of the Harry Potter universe is usually horribly English-centric and ignorant of the world around.

One tiny complaint to the general feeling of the book. English are really more reserved than your average American (Australian, I don’t know where the author is from). Their stiff upper lip may be not that stiff lately as it used to be, but still this story seems to me to have just too much hugging, crying, sniffling into another’s arms, etc. And yes, I can happily imagine, that after Harry had his emotional moment with Snape (after returning from the Heavenly Heathrow), he could kill the pathos by delivering the message from his father. That’d exactly fit. There is a possibility Snape would kill Harry, but most likely he would feel the duty of every Englishman to accept a joke (even when he doesn’t), and he would just laugh it out.

I have already mentioned, that it very much not succeeded in the “brevity is a sister of talent” department. I would blame serialized writing of the story, but sometimes it feels like author tried couple of times to achieve some idea, or sometimes perhaps he just started subplot which didn’t lead anywhere so it just stands there alone (Harry meets Dudley in an amusement park, just what Aristotle’s “visible difference” that chapter was meant to make?).

Much bigger problem in my opinion is that again the author didn’t manage to keep focus on his main story. Until the end of the first or second year the story is clearly rewrite of the Harry Potter books with some special additions. The main hero is Harry, and although Hermione is certainly a way more important than in the canonical books, still the story is talked manly from the Harry’s point of view, and (fortunately) Hermione is not here to take Harry’s glory (like in some films, ehm). Then there is in my opinion brilliant third year with werevolves, and then suddenly the unity of the story goes down the drain.

Suddenly, the end of the second year passes us, and in the chapter 62 the book completely changes and not for more concise. Suddenly, Carrows are running all over the Europe, Edward Greyson runs from Australia to Siberia, and there are plenty of completely unrelated stories which are competing for our interest. It is obvious that the author fallen for the trap of superhero literature and needs even badder anti-hero than the previous one, so in the end there are four (or five?) supervillians of the Voldermorts calibre being fought by additional Grand Sorceres (mentioned Edward Grayson is one of them), but it certainly doesn’t explain why the story changed in its character so much.

Moreover, in order to introduce these additional characters, there are plenty of smaller stories which are completely unrelated to the main one. Some of them would work very well as independent stories. For example, in the first part of the Chapter 75, Edward Grayson cuts through the jungle to find a muggle-born wizard in the local native tribe, which could (and should) very well stand out on its own as a single-shot. If Professor McGonagall thinks her task to inform muggle-borns is difficult, then she should try to find her muggle-borns in the jungle of South America with machete, tropic helmet and all that jazz. It could be a lovely one-shot even better because of its non-European location, which is so rare, but I wonder whether it contributes anything good to the main story of the Animagus.

Another similarly problematic story is the chapter 83, “The Battle of Gisenyi”. Again, it is perfectly written short story of the magical battle, which would perfectly stand on its own as a one-shot. Moreover, contrary to the previous one, this one has an obvious important function for the whole story. One problem with the persona of Albus Dumbledore in the canon is that everybody talks about him as a biggest wizard walking the England (or Scotland), the only one Voldermort is afraid of, but we almost never see this magical power in practice. The only exception in books is The Battle of the Department of Mysteries, and even that is rather brief and I am afraid not enough. This is one very few exceptions where the films are better than the books just by their nature, it is very obvious there that battle is in fact the most advanced magical duel of whole series. It seems to me that this power of Albus Dumbledore is one place where Ms. Rowling seriously failed in the task “Show, don’t tell”.

So, I welcome very much that there was an occasion for Albus Dumbledore to show his real power, I am just unsure whether it was worthy to break whole continuity of the story for that. Couldn’t this be just part of the current chapter 84, with Hermione reading and explaining to their parents article in The Daily Prophet (NOT from Rita Skeeter, just some random East African correspondent, or English Hitwizard sent with ICW forces)? It would convey the message as well, and kept the story more united.

And when I am saying the story should be unified, it doesn‘t necessarily mean, it should have one united plot, or one storyline. Tolstoy's “War and Peace”, Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, all these novels certainly don't have only one plot, but they are stunning mesh of tens of subplots. The difference from the Animagus is that they are of this character all the time from start to finish. They have their own unity, and they don't change it.

The Animagus starts as Harry Potter-style novel, basically story of small group of children going through their school, like my brother characterized Ms. Rowling’s novels, “something between Kipling’s Stalky & Co., Arthur Ransom’s children stories, mixed with a bit of Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ for action, and perhaps even Hercule Poirot for the mystery solving”, all of which are rather (using musical analogy) chamber music. And then suddenly in the beginning of the fourth year The Animagus switches without warning to the Beethoven’s Ninth or the Bach’s Mass in B minor. It just doesn't work well together.

So, for example, Draco’s subplot of discovery of true character of his family in history is perfectly in line with the Stalky & Co., Edward Greyson in the Amazonian jungle or Barty Crouch jr. flattering La Panthera in the Mayan temple are too much in my opinion.

Also, on slightly unrelated and more personal point, I don't like to see the story from the point of view of Voldermort & Co. (or the Riddle's conversations with Ginny). Harry didn't know it, and we shouldn't know it as well. However, here it is perhaps just my own personal preference, not so sure about that. I didn't like too much of Saruman in “The Fellowship of the Ring” as well (and there was a way less of him than La Panthera in the Animagus).

This is just my brief theory of Aristotelian Unities, or how to make stories a way more homogeneous and I believe more enjoyable.

[1]Royal Ward” by Catstaff comes to mind, it can be accepted only if it was meant to be a parody, but for that it seems to be running little bit long (again, 53 chapters); its prequel “Hatal Fart Attack” by Corwalch is however a true parody and a real piece of beauty.

Category: literature Tagged: review harryPotter