Dumbing down to Dumbledore

I don’t think of myself as being that much of an elitist culture snob, but I do have standards. I never gave in to Harry Potter-mania, for one thing. I did read part of the first book and thought it seemed like the kind of thing I might have enjoyed when I was eight years old. Good for the kids. Why any teenager, much less any adult, would want to read them was a mystery to me. I think I remarked at the time that I’d rather look at porn because at least its fantasies were post-pubescent.

Nevertheless, after about the third book in the series Pottermania officially became an adult phenemenon. Whether this was kidult or hipster culture coming to its full fruition, I don’t know. But it’s depressing. The current fad for adult colouring books is less worrisome, as at least that has an arts-and-crafts or therapy angle to it. Why grown-ups would want to bury their heads for hours in brick-like children’s fantasies is something else. Escapism yes, but escape from what? An adult world?

Leaving that question aside, I come to Stacy Schiff’s recent book on the Salem witch hysteria The Witches: Salem, 1692. What does this have to do with Harry Potter? Very little, or more likely nothing at all, I would have thought. But as an author of popular history Schiff knows her audience and so introduces the boy wizard into a chapter titled “The Wizard.” At the beginning of this chapter we are told of an investigator into the accusations of witchcraft in Salem who saw the whole affair as typical of the devil’s business, something which was “managed in imagination yet may not be called imaginary.”

This seemed like a fairly innocuous observation in itself, though one pregnant with danger.  A footnote, nevertheless, is provided by Schiff to help the reader with a modern paraphrase:

Or as Dumbledore assures Harry Potter: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

No reference is given for the Harry Potter quote, perhaps assuming that we all know which book (or film) it comes from. Neverthless, I found it to be remarkable. In the first place because I wouldn’t have thought any gloss on the text necessary, especially one that jumps forward over three hundred years to snatch a platitude from pop culture. But more than that I was amazed that in a semi-scholarly work such as Schiff’s Harry Potter would be brought in not just as a cultural/intellectual touchstone, but as an example of universal wisdom.

In an earlier post I talked a bit about how every culture has its sacred texts, works that are part of the collective consciousness. One suggestion I quoted in the post was that The Wizard of Oz (the movie, not the book) was one of ours. Perhaps Harry is next.

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