Sat 02 January 2021
(thoughts after listening to the episode “Victorian Realism” of the BBC’s In Our Time, originally developed as a review of “Strangers at Drakeshaugh” by Northumbrian and also a possible commentary on “Everything Wrong With HARRY POTTER Fanfictions” by Purplemist14, which is HIGHLY recommended reading for any hopeful fanfiction writer or reviewer; beginning used from the comment on Reddit)
Kingstone on Reddit said:
Realism is a quixotic quest when writing fantasy. There can be no realism in a fic about wizards.
I would slightly dispute that. I understand what he (she? Kingstone somehow feels masculine, I am sorry, if I am wrong) means, but I would like to abuse this replay to play a bit with the word “realism”. For him it seems to mean something like “story is as close to the objective reality and scientific conclusions as possible”, right?
Let me point out the literary movement of the nineteenth century called realism. Henry James is quoted on that BBC show as saying
Realism is what in some shape or form we might encounter, whereas romanticism is something we will never encounter.
Let us focus more on the story itself and not just on magic, which seems unimportant to me. Let us not think about fantasy stories at all, but let’s consider for example “Ivanhoe” by Walter Scott on the one side as a romantic story, and let’s say “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both of them are adventure stories full of suspension and drama, both them of course completely Muggle and completely free of any magic, supernatural or whatever else. I would say that the key word which differentiates them is “exceptional”. Whereas “Ivanhoe” is the novel about exceptional people (Robin Hood and his merry men, king Richard the Lion Heart, king John, historic and thus exotic knights and princesses) doing exceptional things (saving the kingdom for the rightful king among other things), “Kidnapped” has the only historic event of any notice (Appin murder) in three paragraphs and it just an excuse in background for the rest of the story, which is about two completely insignificant (sub specie aeternitatis) persons doing something completely historically insignificant: saving their lives and freedom (and inheritance for David). Realist stories (despite the bad rap they got from “Middlemarch”, Balzac and similar stuff) don’t have to be boring (jury is still out, whether the legendary novel “Mr Bailey, Grocer” supposedly written by the character Harold Biffen in the novel “New Grub Street” by George Gissing and just describing the ordinary life of an ordinary grocer could be a good idea).
I really like “History of Mr Polly” by H. G. Wells, which is beautifully written story despite being about pub-owner mixed with a tramp and history of his unfortunate first marriage. In the same way similar good realist stories are also most detective stories (from Hercule Poirot to Law & Order), and I have also mentioned stories by Arthur Ransome (probably now mostly forgotten stories about children and their small adventures during their holidays) or Kipling’s “Stalky & Co.”.
It is not only about characters and main story lines. Exceptionality is also in the characters of characters. The realist story deals with normal passions of normal people (for mzzbee stories infidelity, meaning of life, and finding a life partner). The romantic one is all about extremes: extreme love, saving the kingdom, the main opponent “[u]nscathed by the lance of his enemy, […] died a victim to the violence of his own contending passions” (Brian de Bois-Guilbert from “Ivanhoe”).
All fantasy novels and comics are in this perspective romantic stories, because all those Supermans, Batmans, Conans, etc., and the least problem they are willing to care for is saving of the whole world, nothing less.
It is slightly shocking talking about Harry Potter books with all magic as the realist ones, moreover they are all about saving the world from the potential evil overlord, true, but it is remarkable how incredibly normal (in good sense of the word) all characters are (with exception of Tom Riddle and Dumbledore). JKR managed brilliantly avoid The Problem of Peter Pevensie and the positive part of the incredibly convoluted resolution of the story (yes, the thing about the wand ownership is pure deus ex machina pulled out the author’s hat in the last few chapters of the book) is that in the end Harry is slightly battered, certainly more experienced, but quite distinctly seventeen year old young man, drop-out after the sixth year of Hogwarts, not a superhero.
I probably cannot claim that Harry Potter books are the realist adventure stories in line with “Farewell to Arms”, “All Quiet on the Western Front”, or even “The Good Soldier Švejk”, even considering that they are for teenagers/young adults. However, I would claim, that they are surprisingly closer to these than the classical fantasy (“Conan the Barbarian”, Marvel superheroes, but even perhaps “The Earthsea Cycle”), and that exactly not noticing this difference makes most crossovers and all attempts to create super!Harry are doomed from the beginning.
The realist atmosphere of the original books is perfectly kept by Northumbrian or mzzbee, and it is one of reasons why their stories are so good. It is also the reason how all Lord Potter stories fair poorly, because Harry Potter books and its characters are quite clearly middle class, inhabited by small businessmen, bureaucrats etc., not lords and ladies.
By the way, when talking about the magicians realism, I don’t want to have anything to do with magical realism of authors like Gabriel García Márquez (e.g., “One Hundred Years of Solitude”). It seems to me that magical realism is a way how to make a bit boring story spiced up by random flashes of magic. It is a long time when I read the book, so I may forgot a lot from it, and that novel as such is not the point of this essay, the magic as used in the book is. What I mean, is that the magic there seemed to me like something external bolted on the top of the story, not inherent to the universe heroes of the story lived in.