Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Harry Potter and the Inequity of the Wizarding Educational System

In part one of this (at least) three part series, I discussed Quidditch's several shortcomings as a legitimate sport and offered several tweaks that would make it a truly proud and noble game.  In this installment, I feel it necessary to discuss the atrocities committed each day by the faculty and staff at Hogwarts, the racism inherent in the system, and the apparent lack of attention given to special needs students.
A glaring issue that comes to mind in the Hogwarts educational machine is the House system.  First year students don an old pointed cap called the Sorting Hat, a magical device which reads the children's minds and sorts them into one of four Houses that were each founded by one of the four founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Godric Gryffindor's house supposedly values courage, bravery, nerve and chivalry; Rowena Ravenclaw's house values intelligence, creativity, learning and wit; Helga Hufflepuff's house values hard work, patience, justice and loyalty - though Hufflepuffs are treated as rejects in the novels; and Salazar Slytherin's house values ambition, cunning, leadership and resourcefulness and - oh yeah - blatant Naziism.
You see, the wizarding world is fractured into a hierarchy.  The echelon of this hierarchy in which you are born essentially determines the course of your life forever.  The hierarchy is as follows:

Fig. 1: You can debate all you want where Mudbloods and Squibs belong in this hierarchy, but this is how I see it.  And I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

Purebloods are magical people descended from two parents with magical abilities as well.  Half-bloods are born to one magical and one non-magical (muggle) parent, but happen to have magical abilities.  Mudblood is a largely derogatory term for any person born with magical abilities to two non-magical (muggle) parents.  Some pure bloods, including the followers of Voldemort, look on Mudbloods as thieves: people that have somehow stolen the secrets of magic thought ought to be cast out.  A main character, Hermione Granger, is referred to as a Mudblood by members of the Slytherin house due to her being born to two decidedly unmagical British dentists.  If ONLY British dentists could work magic.
Squibs are a trick of magical genetics and are considerably rare.  They are the non-magical offspring of two wizards.  So rare are they in fact, that I can only recall two squibs mentioned in all the novels: Argus Filch and Arabella Figg.  Squibs apparently have some privileges not granted ordinary muggles.  Argus Filch is the spying, curmudgeonly custodian at Hogwarts.  Arabella Figg recognizes a Dementor attack and is allowed to enter the Ministry of Magic to defend Harry in court when he is on trial for using magic in the vicinity of muggles – an offense carrying a penalty of expulsion from Hogwarts.
Muggles are all non-magic people.  Salazar Slytherin and his adherents believed that muggles were inferior to wizards and ought to be enslaved.  In fact, when the Ministry was infiltrated by the Death Eaters (followers of Voldemort) and a puppet state instituted, a statue called “Magic is Might” was erected.  A direct quote from the text helps us here:

“A gigantic statue of black stone dominated the scene.  It was rather frightening, this vast sculpture of a witch and a wizard sitting on ornately carved thrones…Engraved in foot-high letters at the base of the statue were the words MAGIC IS MIGHT….Harry looked more closely and realized that what he had thought were decoratively carved thrones were actually mounds of carved humans: hundreds and hundreds of naked bodies, men, women, and children, all with rather stupid, ugly faces, twisted and pressed together to support the weight of the handsomely robed wizards.”

Fig. 2: Was the goddamned wizarding world so oblivious to have missed the fact that World War II and the Holocaust happened?

Those “stupid, ugly faces” belonged to muggles.
So let’s review.  Hogwarts School has a house founded by a racist eugenicist that still adheres to a doctrine that renounces entire populations based on their pedigree.
Even Ron Weasley, Harry’s best friend, is quoted as saying: “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin.”  And the Sorting Hat’s song in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix goes:
“Said Slytherin, ‘Let’s just teach those
Whose ancestry is purest.’”
For centuries the school has bred wizards that value ethnic purity and racism.  Is it any wonder that the most dangerous threat to the entire wizarding world, including the extended world outside of Britain, was educated and trained by the staff at Hogwarts!  If Hogwarts were to completely sever its ties to Salazar Slytherin and actually preach the values of embracing people of all backgrounds, the tragedy of Tom Riddle’s transformation into Voldemort and the ensuing battle of Hogwarts could’ve been entirely avoided.  Countless lives could have been spared with simple educational reform.
This of course brings up another important flaw in the Hogwarts system.  There is apparently no place or even tolerance for witches and wizards of special needs.  Now here I completely disregard the fact that Hogwarts does not educate Squibs.  This in itself shows a level of elitism.  Several courses offered at Hogwarts have absolutely nothing to do with magic!  It is understandable that Squibs may not be able to complete courses such as Charms or Defense Against the Dark Arts, but what in the world prevents a person incapable of performing magic from learning:

  • Herbology
  • Astronomy
  • Potions
  • Muggle Studies
  • Study of Ancient Runes
  • History of Magic
None of these courses require magic; just a will to study and a love of learning!  And yet, the racism inherent in the wizarding world relegates Squibs to essential second class citizenship.  Filch is made a custodian.  Arabella Figg's credibility is brought into question during judiciary proceedings simply because of her being a Squib!
But what about students with learning disabilities not related to their genetic origins?  A great example of what happens to them exists in the books.  Rubeus Hagrid is the groundskeepers at Hogwarts and spends a few semesters as the Professor of Care and Keeping of Magical Animals.  Hagrid is known for his simple intellect.  And because of his inability to defend himself logically, he is framed and expelled from school because he was falsely accused of unleashing a Basilisk from the Chamber of Secrets in the school.  Hagrid is denied an education.  He is forbidden from practicing magic.  He is given a menial job.  Ultimately Hagrid is forced to hide his wand in an umbrella.  And rather than having the privilege of riding a broomstick, the preferred method of locomotion for wizards, Hagrid must use an enchanted muggle motorcycle to travel.  HE IS TREATED LIKE A MUGGLE.  And as we have already well established, being a muggle is essentially a crime.
And what of disabled wizards?  Arianna Dumbledore, the sister of Hogwarts' headmaster, was traumatized as a child and was incapable of controlling her magic.  On one occasion, she lost control of her magic, causing an explosion that killed her mother.  Rather than treating Arianna and offering her assistance, she essentially made a prisoner in her own home.  Because Hogwarts doesn't offer any sort of special education, Arianna would have been locked away in St. Mungo's hospital for witches and wizards.
Now, please don't get me wrong.  I'm not calling JK Rowling an elitist, a racist or a eugenicist.  I'm simply pointing out how all-pervasive racism is in Harry Potter.  And perhaps it makes the series all the more interesting.  But seriously folks, how could any school in its right mind in the modern era allow Slytherin house to continue existing?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Harry Potter and the Inanity of Quidditch

In 2003, the word muggle was offered a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Now, this is perhaps not the honor it once was, considering that the English language consists of nearly ONE QUARTER MILLION individual words that have been borrowed, invented, conquered and bastardized.  But this word, muggle, was added due to its use in a beloved series of books collectively known as the Harry Potter Septology.  Having worked in the children's section of a library for some 5 years, I inevitably had to read the entire series.  I even had the privilege of reading several books in the series before their official release dates, which is something I probably shouldn't mention given the sensitive nature of highly popular book releases.  At first, I was highly skeptical of the series, perhaps due to my natural aversion to sensationally popular fads - because I'm apparently a dirty fucking hipster.  But some thousands of pages later (in an exceptionally quaint font, I might add) I was completely enamored with the series.  Like all great works of literature, Harry Potter isn't without its flaws, however... and I now see fit to share some of the pitfalls and plot holes that have bothered me since I've read the books and seen the movies.
But... why now?  Why am I suddenly griping about Harry Potter after all these years?  Why am I acting the Johnny-Come-Lately?  Well, I just happen to be watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone right now.  Also, my most popular blog entry of all time combines television shows that began in the 1960s.  So... here we go!
Item 1: Quidditch
The sport of quidditch makes NO FUCKING GODDAMNED SENSE WHATSOEVER.  I can already hear the bellyaching of hardcore Harry Potter fans.  "But BillChas, Rowling explained quidditch later in the series!  Just look at --"
"BULLSHIT!  She explained nothing!  And you are an IDIOT and a REPROBATE if you still cling to the idea that quidditch is anything but page-filling nonsense!"
In the sport of quidditch, two sides compete to score the most points.  If only it were that simple.  Each team consists of seven players who are constantly riding broomsticks.  Three chasers try to catch a ball called a quaffle and throw it into one of three rings on either side of the field for 10 points per goal.  The three rings are guarded by a goaltender called the Keeper.  Now, as if this sport weren't dangerous enough, these wizards who apparently have no regard for human life also release two enchanted balls into the air whose sole intent is to BLUDGEON people off of their brooms.  That's right!  There are two things flying around on the field with the expressed intent of hurting people!  Fret not, for each team is equipped with two players called Beaters, whose job it is to knock away these death-balls, quaintly named Bludgers.
Now if all this seems too much to understand, at this point quidditch is kind of like soccer, hockey or handball, only with flying around on broomsticks and - oh yeah - balls that are trying to kill you flying about as well.  Score the most points and you win the game?  Oh, but did I mention there isn't a game clock?  That's because the way the game ends DOESN'T FUCKING MAKE SENSE.
On each team is yet another player named a Seeker.  It is his or her job to find a small golden ball with wings with the adorable name of Golden Snitch.  Why is this Golden Snitch so important?  Well, that's because the moment that a team's Seeker catches the Snitch, the game ends - AND THE TEAM THAT FOUND THE SNITCH IS AWARDED 150 POINTS.
Did your head explode?  If so, I apologize.
So all that flying around, dodging death balls, scoring points, and basically putting yourself in constant mortal peril is rendered entirely pointless because of a little golden ball words 15 individual goals with a quaffle.
Later in the series, perhaps due to an enormous volume of hatemail, JK Rowling tried to explain away the problems with quidditch, namely:
  1. Catching the Snitch is the only significant event in quidditch and renders all the goal scoring and Bludger-dodging unexciting and pointless.
  2. A Seeker whose team is losing by more than 150 points SHOULD NOT CATCH THE SNITCH.
She explained that world-class Seekers whose teams were getting creamed would often catch the Snitch as a matter of personal glory.  You can imagine how the Seeker who catches a Snitch under such circumstances would be treated in the locker room.
"Yo, dude... why did you catch the Snitch back there?  We scored like 40 points in 3 minutes and were making a comeback."
"Oh... I just wanted the glory.  It's like... a matter of pride."
"You know what?  Fuck you, dude.  Just... fuck you."
Just today, I was discussing these very grave problems with quidditch with my wife.  And in a matter of minutes, we did something that neither JK Rowling or her editor were capable of doing with 7 books worth of ret-conning; we made quidditch almost kind of make sense!  And let's face it - it's a made up sport from a book about a magic teenager.  The sport CAN be slightly ridiculous without turning into the inane FARCE that it inevitably turned out to be in the actual books.  Here are a few suggestions of how to make quidditch make sense.
  1. Have the game end after several Snitch catches - perhaps 3 or 4 - each catch being worth significantly less than 150 points, say 50.
  2. Add a time limit.  Catch the Snitch as many times as you want for 150 points each time.  But at the end of the theoretical time limit, the game ends!  Simple.  Elegant.
  3. ...and my personal favorite... Time limit.  If at the end of regulation time neither side has caught the Snitch, the Quaffle is ruled dead, all Chasers and Keepers become Seekers, two more Bludgers are added, and it's an all out war to catch the Snitch.
That is a decidedly more sensical... and in many ways more AMERICAN form of quidditch.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of this series on the problems I have with Harry Potter.  Next entry?
Harry Potter and the Inequity of the Wizarding Educational System.
And then part 3...
Harry Potter and Making Everyone Related to Everyone; or Ret-Con Gone Wild