Jul 15, 2012

The Legacy of Harry Potter

Once upon a time, children’s literature used to be full of predictable moral tales and unrealistic happy endings. Along came Harry Potter, and the genre was never the same again. 
For the first time in children’s literature, HP discussed mature issues like death and depression, candidly and without patronizing. Its immense popularity meant that the bar was raised for maturity in children’s books. Its successors (many of whom, like Clarissa Clare, admit to being fans of Harry Potter) have followed suit. Artemis Fowl’s father is dead and mother deranged, Katniss Everdeen is her family’s sole breadwinner at twelve, Lyra of His Dark Materials watches her friend die, and A series of Unfortunate Events is exactly that, beginning with the death of the children’s parents and getting worse. 

 The predictable morality, the safe ending where only the villain (conveniently) dies, or is sometimes transformed (In one story of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is captured and taken to a zoo instead of being killed), exists no more. Some books have gone farther than HP by dabbling in the one field that HP left alone: forbidden sexuality. Twilight depicts a man falling in love with an infant, while in Mortal Instruments, siblings fall in love. These love stories have come a long from Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn raised his cup to Eowyn and she nodded back. 
aragorn and eowyn
Further challenging the notion that children’s literature belongs at the lower end of the IQ scale, the new writers quote a plethora of “intellectual” material that is hard to undermine. JK Rowling has an advanced degree in literature and cites Jane Austen as an influence. Lemony Snicket quotes such a mind boggling array that it is hard to keep up, but is particularly taken with Herman Melville. Hunger Games has drawn parallels to Greek myths, and even Twilight consistently quotes Emily Bronte and Shakespeare. His Dark Materials and Mortal Instruments quote Paradise Lost and the Bible, introducing a new generation to complex theological issues. 
characters in Lemony Snicket's "series of unfortunate events"
However, what has been gained in intelligence has been lost in the persona. Pre HP books treated magic with the utmost reverence, their grave and lyrical language molded on the language of real myths. Words like glorious, awe, high, wonderful, often accompanied magic, and you would be hard put to find a single joke in them. Along came HP, with Fred and George making stink bombs and pig shaped firecrackers, and Mad-eye Moody giving tips on how to avoid setting your butt on fire from carelessly placed wands. Likewise, successive writers reserve the grave voice for deaths, and use humor in the most unexpected situations.  In Mortal Instruments, a woman upbraids the adopted protagonist by saying that “the crow is forced to raise the cuckoo’s enormous, ungrateful child”. Jace’s response: “are you calling me fat?”
A prominent characteristic of this new persona is demystification. When Gandalf roused Theoden out of a decades’ long stupor, he did not use spells. Instead, he used words - normal words like awaken, behold, and watch, to heal the king in a magical ambience of thunder and lightning. All in all, a thoroughly mystical scene where you do not know (and are not supposed to know) where the magic is coming from. Cut to HP, where Dumbledore will tell you exactly what spell he used to drive the inferi away and save Harry. Rowling dragged mysticism to its deathbed by giving the details of every wand jab required for each piece of magic. The time is past when you could use hazy words like magic, hope, love, or “something out there” to explain plot loopholes. Today the slightest plot mistake could be plastered all over the internet as the next meme. (Twilight, the only modern fantasy that veers towards mysticism instead of explanation, happens to be the most lampooned of the bunch).

Once upon a time in Narnia, children could vanish into the cupboard and magically acquire a new royal manner of speaking in their fantasy land. Today, the transitions are handled more realistically. Even though death eaters address Lord Voldemort in Victorian language, Harry calls him “your boss.” Edward uses flowery, hundred year old words, but Bella responds normally. Some writers still struggle with the transition. In The Lightening Thief, Percy speaks like a normal 12 year old for most of the book. But suddenly, when he meets the god Hades, he spouts an archaic dialect. “Lord and uncle” Percy says as he kneels before Hades, leading one to wonder where he got the language, and more importantly, the body language, from. Some writers, like Lemony Snicket and Philip Pullman, deal with this problem by creating parallel universes where the rules of our universe just don’t apply.
Alternate universes mean that that with each new book, we have a new alternate world, new magical creatures and substances. His Dark Materials has external souls called daemons, Hunger Games has mutants, and Mortal Instruments has runes carved into people’s bodies. As long as the writers create everything anew, it’s fine, but when they borrow old mythologies and create variations, then comes the trouble. In Twilight, vampires are called “cold ones”, who sparkle in the sun instead of burning. In Mortal Instruments, vampires are demonic “children of the night” instead. While Harry Potter follows a traditional interpretation of witches and wizards, the Mortal Instruments calls them “children of Lilith”, an interpretation that I have not found elsewhere. Elves were tall, wise creatures in Lord of the Rings; they became tiny chatterboxes in HP; and mean shape shifters in Mortal Instruments. In Lightening Thief, the writer has created farfetched loopholes to explain why long dead characters from Greek myths (like the Minotaur), are still walking around.

One of the defining characteristics of modern fiction is its visual quality – the texts read almost like a screenplay. In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, the old witch gathered thunderbolts from her garden. We hear all about their origin and power, but we never know what a thunderbolt looks like. In contrast, anyone remember the battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort, where each of their volleys is visually described? (Dumbledore binds Voldemort like ice, he shakes it off and it crumbles, he shoots something shiny, but Dumbledore produces a shield). All of the newer books contain detailed stage-direction-like passages (especially in the fight scenes); almost as if they know that a film deal is in the waiting.

 Hunger Games brings all these trends together and adds an unexpected element - reality TV. Very fitting for a generation that has grown up with reality TV. It reminds me of the famous Hawthorne experiment where researchers tried to find if higher or lower lights generated more productivity. Both kinds of light increased productivity, but productivity slumped once the experiment was over. This led to the hypothesis that workers performed better not because of the light, but because they liked the attention when being observed. The current generation, which is the most photographed generation ever, may also be the best groomed generation ever simply because their appearance is recorded and observed ceaselessly. We cannot look at a camera without a pouty duck face, and cannot walk without emulating America’s next supermodel. Like us, Katniss has grown up with reality TV - watching, learning and always knowing how to project emotions and grace on camera.  In case of Katniss, not just her looks but her entire personality is on display. No wonder, even when alone, Katniss does not relax, but continues to be noble... Would she be different without reality TV? Would she still be the same noble Katniss, or be more like the children in Lord of the Flies, who abused power in isolation?

Some of these books have been around since before Harry Potter – notably the Wind on Fire and His Dark Materials. But they languished in a small corner of the reading world – read only by diehard fans. George R R Martin wrote fantasy in a casual voice long before Rowling did, and His Dark Materials won several book awards despite competing with HP itself, but even such brilliant books could not find much popularity because fantasy simply was not as big then. Hunger games might have suffered the same fate if it had come before HP. HP’s success opened the floodgates, and today even mediocre fantasy books like Twilight are riding high on HP aftershocks. Bringing fantasy into the mainstream may be HP’s most significant legacy for the future.

Jul 3, 2012

Rendezvous at Nauvoo

My first encounter with Mormons was in a classic adventure tale called “Around the world in 80 eighty days.” The comic character Passepartout wanders into a lecture by a Mormon prophet and finds that he is the only person in the room. The elated prophet offers to convert him, but Passepartout jumps out of the room as if scalded by hot water. Ever since, I have been curious to find out why Passepartout acted so.
At my university, two smartly dressed Mormon missionaries once approached me to deliver a quiz. “What are Mormons famous for?” they asked. I guessed that it was polygamy. They laughed. “Yes, that is what we used to be known for, but it is not practiced anymore” they had replied. . Soon rumors swirled that the Stephenie Meyer, writer of the famous Twilight series, was Mormon, and the series was full of Mormon philosophy.
That made me even more curious about Mormons. I found that I could learn more about the mysterious Mormons by visiting Nauvoo, a reconstructed historic Mormon settlement.
Nauvoo was full of ancient looking houses. The town was full of missionaries who were dressed up in historical costumes, ready to guide visitors like us. 

We started going into the buildings one by one. At the first building, two middle aged ladies pointed out a showpiece made of hair. “The Mormons never wasted anything” our guide told us. “They collected all their wasted hair and made art of it.” The hair was intricately twisted and braided to form a very attractive pattern, and I could see that the hair was of different colors, so it must have come from different people. 
The next place we went to was called the Family Living Center. Different corners of a huge hall were teeming with different activities of a typical Mormon family. Cotton did not grow in the harsh winters of Nauvoo, so they grew hemp instead. It would take two full years before the hemp could be cured and made into strings. It had to be painstakingly hacked and spun on a spinner before clothes could be made of it. They used natural colorants like walnut for brown, onions for yellow and cochineal for red. 
They had to use substances like salt and vinegar to hold down the color. They also raised sheep for wool. Fabrics that mixed linen and wool were called linsey-woolsey, and they were considered to be items of luxury!
Beside the spinners was a model of an ancient kitchen. The back part of the oven jutted out of the house in a semicircle, so it was called a bustle oven. (A bustle skirt is an old fashioned dress that had its hip jutting out to give a full skirt). Baking was not as simple then as it is now, the Mormons had to use their hand to gauge the temperature. If they could hold their hand next to the over for five seconds, then it was the right temperature to start cooking. The oven would be sealed with a wooden door that was soaked all night in water so that it wouldn’t burn. As the first batch is cooked and the oven gets cooler, they would put in smaller things like muffins and cookies! And since they had no yeast in those days, they used fermenting potato to raise their breads. 
fireplace on the left and oven on the right
The candle section was next. Candles were expensive, so the Mormons made their own. First of all, animal fat was repeatedly boiled in water and its impurities were removed. Then they would take strings, tie a stone on its end, dangle the other end from wooden sticks, and dip the strings in the fat. The strings would have to be dipped many times, maybe 300 times, to get a good sized candle. The candles would have to be stored in a secure place, because the animal fat attracted mice.
hanging candles after dipping them
                The weaving and pottery sections were much like what we would see in Nepal. But the barrel making was a piece of complicated workmanship. First of all, the wood is cut along the grain in exact shapes, and rubbed to make it concave on one side and convex on the other. It is laid out to dry in the sun so that it doesn't shrink after the barrel is made. The drying may take months. Then the wood pieces are all fit snugly inside a metal hoop, without any nails. The two ends are hammered in, and a hole is made on one of the ends for a tap to pour the liquid out.
ingredients of a barrel

We next went to the gun maker’s house.
gunmaker's equipments
Though there was a lot of interesting gun making equipment, what impressed me most was the cellar. Once you open trapdoor on the kitchen floor, you could climb down a ladder and right there was a well - so convenient. The cellar was used to preserve food because it was so cold. 
trapdoor to cellar
Throughout our tour, each and every missionary introduced themselves to us by name, and asked us about ourselves. We soon got tired of repeating the same conversation over and over again, especially since the missionaries were from all over America and did not know our city, and we had to explain each time. They also asked us how long we were planning to stay, and were disappointed that we were there only for the day.  I wondered why anyone would want to spend longer than that, until a missionary told us that mostly Mormons went there to find a spiritual connection to their ancestors, and often stayed for multiple days. And then I understood why several of them had been asking us if we were Mormon.
The Mormons seemed to be very focused on family. Almost every missionary worked family into the conversation. The candle maker emphasized how candle making was a family effort, the rope maker put three ropes together and told us how they were stronger than one, and the barrel maker told us that a family is held together just as the barrel hoop keeps the barrel together. 

ropes of different thickness
Finally, we attended a play about the history of Mormons. We learnt that Mormons had first settled in Nauvoo and were later ostracized by the community for practicing their faith and calling themselves “God’s chosen ones.” Eventually, their prophet led them to Utah, which is now the major Mormon settlement in US.
They seemed determined to rewrite the popular version of the history, because in the parting scene, one faithful worried that “people will say we were cowards for moving.” But others convinced him that this was not so, and their parting song’s chorus was “we went willingly o, willingly we went o o.”
play being performed
It is rumored that the Mormons were driven away because of their prophet’s involvement in conspiracies and their practice of polygamy.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the play did not dwell on these issues. Apparently, today mainstream Mormon Church takes care to dissociate itself from these issues, and those who practice polygamy today are a minority sect. Recently, an American book called “Sister Wives” based on reality TV made a splash in the media, because it is about a polygamous family. Four wives would not be remarkable in some parts of the world, but this family is White, American, and Mormon, proving that polygamy is still practiced in small religious pockets of America.
The Mormon’s faith in their religion was the single most important thing that I carried away from Nauvoo.  The original town had been destroyed, but reconstructed by faithfuls, making it the largest reconstructed town of its type in America. The missionaries who guided us were all there for 18 months, volunteering their time just to support their faith.  One lady told me that she flew in from Canada every year just to cook for young volunteers. I remembered the missionaries at my university had told me that when young men and women were nineteen years of age, they were encouraged to go out into the world and preach their faith. Though it was not required, most complied. Faith can indeed move mountains, but probably I was not expecting such an ardent display of it in the heart of America.
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