Harry Potter Themes: Interviews and Articles

With the latest and final Harry Potter film opening tomorrow night (after midnight), I’ve been busily discussing J. K. Rowling’s novels and my own work of literary criticism about them, Values of Harry Potter.

Yesterday I sat down with Diana Hsieh of Noodle Food to record a 40-minute podcast. We discuss the Potter films and the basic appeal of the novels. We also talk about the novels’ values, religious themes, psychology, and politics. (Clarification: Generally one fights a dementor with a Patronus and a boggart with “riddikulus.” But, to Harry, a boggart appears as a dementor. This will make sense to you only if you’re read the books.)

Today Skeptic Magazine published my article, “Religion in Harry Potter,”for its weekly online newsletter. I review the themes of immortality, Christ-like love, free will, and faith. As readers of my book know, I recognize important religious themes in the Potter novels but don’t think they play a very large role in motivating the characters.

Last week, Boulder Weekly published my article, Harry Potter explores life’s big questions.” It begins, “Parents who take their children to see the Harry Potter films enjoy a fun family night. But unless they dig deeper into the stories, parents miss a great opportunity to explore life’s biggest issues with their children.” I touch on the psychology, politics, and basic values of the novels.

I conclude that piece, “The stories offer thrilling literature alive with dragons and magical duels. But readers miss a great deal if they ignore the rich themes of psychology, politics and philosophy. Harry never had parents able to share these discussions. Your children do.”

I hope you’ll check out the complete works!

Politics and Media in Harry Potter

How time slips by! Back in May my book Values of Harry Potter got a little media attention — and now the final film of the series opens next week!

Over at Big Media, Jason Salzman, a left-leaning bulldog of an investigator, discusses my chapter, “News Media in Harry Potter.”

Salzman has some criticisms. He doesn’t like my mention of Paul Krugman’s article on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting as an example of bad journalism. Salzman thinks I “could have come up with better examples from the spectacular archive of journalistic foibles.” He’s probably right. However, I just picked some examples basically at random that happened to be well-known to me. I don’t think readers will have much problem adding to the list.

But Salzman thinks I basically make my point that the series presents both a negative and a positive conception of media. He grants, “There seems to be an obvious lesson in the dangers of state control of the press here…”

But Salzman ends on a pessimistic note:

I noticed that Armstrong did not say the truth “will” prevail without quality journalism [though it “can”], and he’s right. You have to wonder today, with serious journalism struggling, whether enough of the truth will get out there for our experiment in democracy to have a happy ending.

So maybe the lesson in the Potter series that Armstrong lauds isn’t the one we really need. We need more books showing how the truth doesn’t prevail in the end when journalism is forsaken or corrupt. That’s where things look to be heading to me.

I, on the other hand, am thrilled and excited by the many new opportunities made possible by the blogging and social media for citizens to engage with journalists, correct reports, and even report the news. For a great example of this, one need look no further than Salzman’s own accomplishments.

For May 31, Denver Diatribe invited me to join the weekly podcast. We discussed the political themes of the novels, especially the corruption of the Ministry of Magic and the tyrannical rise of Voldemort.

Technology Catches Up with Harry Potter Magic

J. K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, came out June 30, 1997. The release of the series spans the 20th and 21st Centuries, and new technology has started to catch up to Harry Potter magic.

In the novels, newspapers show moving photographs. On June 29, 2007, a decade after the release of the first Potter novel, Apple released its iPhone, which brings constantly updated news, complete with video, to one’s fingertips. The iPhone and similar devices are much more useful and powerful than the magical papers in Harry’s world, and owl delivery seems positively primitive by comparison.

A few days ago, Technology Review published the article, “A Practical Way to Make Invisibility Cloaks” (thanks to Paul Hsieh over at Geek Pressfor the link).

The idea is that new production techniques allow for large-scale printing of “metamaterials,” largely made of metals, which could be fashioned into things like invisibility cloaks and superlenses.

Provided politicians and bureaucrats manage to restrain themselves from crashing our economies, technology will continue to gain ground on the magic of the Potter universe. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of science and technology, we are living in the most “magical” age of human history, in which doctors can scan people’s bones and hearts, people can quickly fly around the world, the average person in advanced economies owns self-propelled coaches, and we can take vast libraries of books and music around with us in pocket computers.

The Potter novels will always remain great literature — for reasons I explain in my book Values of Harry Potter — but technology will make the magic of the novels seem increasingly less magical. Thankfully, the deeper magic of the novels has nothing to do with casting spells or riding brooms.

What’s a Horcrux?

On the same day Atlas Shrugged came out in theaters, the seventh film of the Harry Potter series arrived on DVD. I’m very interested in both films; see my reviews of Atlas I and Hallows I.

Central to the plot of the Potter novels is the Horcrux, an object of great evil that manifests the major characteristics of the villains: viciousness toward others, an obsession with physical objects, and a pathological fear of death. I released a short video further explaining the Horcrux:

For a more detailed account, see my book, Values of Harry Potter.

Expanded ‘Values of Harry Potter’ Addresses Psychology, Government, and Media

Colorado political writer Ari Armstrong releases the Expanded Edition of his book, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles, April 21.

The new edition adds eight new essays to the original 2008 book. Those essays include:

* “The Psychology of Harry Potter,” which compares author J. K. Rowling’s personal experiences with depression to the dementors of the novels.

* “Wizard Law and Segregation,” an essay that reviews the political themes of the novels and evaluates the forced separation of wizards and non-magical Muggles.

* “News Media in Harry Potter,” which reviews the attitudes of Rowling’s heroes and villains toward media and counters criticism of the novels.

“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to return to Rowling’s magical world and review its parallels to our own world, especially in the areas of psychology, government, and media,” Ari said about his work of literary criticism.

The release date marks the anniversary of Harry’s use of a luck potion to obtain a crucial memory about arch-villain Voldemort.

The book is already available in paperback and Kindle.

Review copies (paperback or pdf) may be requested from Ari at ari (atsignhere) freecolorado (dothere) com.

For more information about the book see ValuesOfHarryPotter.com.

Themes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yesterday the Colorado Springs Gazette published my op-ed about the major themes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I briefly discuss the heroes’ fight against tyranny, the redemption stories of Dumbledore and Snape, and the lessons of the Horcruxes and Hallows for dealing with death. The article reveals some important elements of the novel’s plot, as indicated.

So far illness has kept me away from the film, but I look forward to seeing how well the film carries out the themes of the novel.

I’ve published other essays about the Potter series at the web page for my book, Values of Harry Potter. For example, I’ve written more about “Tales of Beedle the Bard,” the children’s book that Hermione reads in the final novel, and the Hallows.

Read the whole Gazette essay!

Harry Potter’s Lessons for Journalists

The following article originally was published August 6 by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

Harry Potter’s Lessons for Journalists

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Journalism plays a critical role in a free society. However, just as politicians and private individuals sometimes do the wrong thing, so can journalists sometimes get their facts wrong or act unethically. Consider a few examples from recent headlines.

After internet writer Andrew Breitbart released a video of Shirley Sherrod, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showing Sherrod making apparently racist comments, she was fired. But the video edited Sherrod’s comments out of context; her actual story was about how, many years ago (before her government job), she overcame bias to assist people regardless of race.*

During brief remarks at the Independence Institute’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) party, U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck said people should vote for him because he does “not wear high heels.” Many took his comment out of context, calling him sexist. In fact he was telling a dumb joke in response to unrelenting gender-based attacks from his primary opponent, Jane Norton.

Colorado pundit Ross Kaminsky initially reported that he could not find college records of governor candidate Dan Maes; it turned out the school’s database was faulty. Admirably, Kaminsky quickly updated his account and apologized to Maes.

Even good journalists sometimes get things wrong, and some journalists act unethically, recklessly or intentionally distorting the facts.

Fortunately, some great advice about journalistic ethics may be found in the Harry Potter series of novels, soon to gain another round of publicity from movies due out this year and the next. Journalists would do well to read the series, particularly starting with the fourth book.

In the character of Rita Skeeter, the Potter novels offer a great example of how not to do journalism. Skeeter makes up quotes, takes comments and events out of context, and illegally listens in on people’s private conversations. She cashes in on Harry’s popularity by writing distorted, sensationalistic stories — just as many media outlets do to real-life celebrities.

In the fifth Potter book, Order of the Phoenix, the Ministry of Magic grows corrupt, controlling Hogwarts school and manipulating the Daily Prophet, the major newspaper for wizards. The Minister of Magic becomes paranoid, fearing Harry and his allies while ignoring the real threat of the evil Voldemort. Thus, the ministry leans on the press to vilify Harry and ignore Harry’s evidence about Voldemort.

During this period, Harry and his friends learn to read the manipulated media “between the lines” for tidbits of real news, and Harry also reads the Muggle (non-magical) news for hints.

Over the final two books, the Ministry falls under the control of Voldemort, a vicious tyrant. It is during this period that the controlled media function as the propaganda arm of a dictatorship. Harry’s allies use pirate radio to communicate news of the resistance.

Many of Harry Potter’s lessons for journalists, then, are negative: don’t be corrupt like Rita Skeeter, and fight government censorship and control of media.

However, the Potter books also offer a constructive vision of journalism as a means to tell the truth. During the period of Ministry corruption and censorship, the editor of the Quibbler, a usually-unreliable tabloid paper, agrees to publish an interview with Harry, a first-hand witness to Voldemort’s return to power. Harry’s friend Hermione Granger conscripts Skeeter to write the account and for once report the truth.

When Skeeter complains that nobody takes the Quibbler seriously, Hermione replies that many readers are smart enough to tell the difference between good reporting and bad, whatever the source. She points out that the Prophet’s stories have “gaping holes” in them, leaving readers hungry for “a better explanation of what happened.”

Thankfully, in our part of the world, media remain mostly free from government manipulation. Citizens can help keep journalism honest by doing their own research and writing letters, op-eds, and blog posts. Citizen journalists need only recognize that they are ethically bound by the same rules of fair play and contextual reporting of all the relevant facts.

Ironically, despite the Potter novels’ constructive view of journalism, a 2008 paper in the American Communication Journal blasts the novels for their allegedly “extremely negative depiction of journalism” that “could have an adverse effect on child readers.”

The paper takes quotes out of context and omits important facts about the novels, thereby committing exactly the sort of errors the Potter novels warn against. You can read Ari’s complete rebuttal of the paper at http://tinyurl.com/pottermedia, located at the web site about Ari’s book, Values of Harry Potter.

The ultimate message of the Harry Potter novels is simply this: the truth matters. To get at the truth, we must consider all of the relevant facts, avoid temptation to omit uncomfortable facts, and consider the full context of a story. If we pursue the truth, whether we are professional or citizen journalists or consumers of the news, we can help build a better, more just society.

* The original video released by Andrew Breitbart does include a segment from Sherrod about changing her mind about not helping a white farmer. Breitbart’s post also includes the following addition: “Correction: While Ms. Sherrod made the remarks captured in the first video featured in this post while she held a federally appointed position, the story she tells refers to actions she took before she held that federal position.”

Harry Potter’s Constructive Journalism

A 2008 paper from the American Communication Journal argues that the “extremely negative depiction of journalism” in the Harry Potter novels “could have an adverse effect on child readers.”

Nonsense, I reply. The Potter series actually offers critical lessons about journalism, including how it can be subjected to government censorship.

I have published my new essay, “Harry Potter Series Maligned by Media Article,” over at the web page devoted to my book, Values of Harry Potter.

I hope you’ll read the entire article. Here I want to briefly excerpt the piece. The background is that Hermione Granger (Harry’s friend and ally) wants Rita Skeeter to write up a truthful interview with Harry for publication in the Quibbler, a publication Skeeter mocks:

Hermione persists in her view that journalism can and properly does serve to tell the truth to the public. She tells Skeeter, “Well, this is your chance to raise the tone of it a bit, isn’t it?”

Skeeter replies that nobody will take an article in the Quibbler seriously.

Hermione’s reply is noteworthy:

Some people won’t. But the Daily Prophet’s version of the Azkaban breakout [in which Voldemort’s followers escaped from prison] had some gaping holes in it. I think a lot of people will be wondering whether there isn’t a better explanation of what happened, and if there’s an alternative story available, even if it is published in… an unusual magazine — I think they might be rather keen to read it.”

… Hermione’s views of journalism are precisely the opposite of what Sturgill’s paper claims the series promotes. While Hermione rightly recognizes the dangers and shortcomings of government-controlled media, she also recognizes the crucial role journalism can play in relating the truth to the public. …

Without Skeeter’s assistance, Hermione could have found another writer to cover the story, or she could have written it up herself. In our world, citizen journalists often write letters, op-eds, and blog posts to advance a story. While [the cited] paper claims that Skeeter is the only “journalist of any consequence” named in the series, this is wrong: Hermione also functions as an important journalist — a citizen journalist — in this case.

Read the entire essay.

Values of Harry Potter Goes Kindle

I just drove to the local coffee shop, which thankfully leaves on its wi-fi even when it’s closed, and purchased a copy of my book, Values of Harry Potter, in the Kindle edition for my iPod Touch. I wanted to make sure it is functioning properly as a Kindle ebook. And it is fabulous.

Now that Amazon has built a Kindle application for the new iPad, I figure the Amazon format for ebooks will remain a major part of the market. (Amazon has also released Kindle software for the PC and Mac, and rumor has it that Amazon will start selling its Kindle machines at Target stores later this month.) So creating a Kindle edition of my book seemed like the obvious move.

I am also in the process of creating other digital versions of the book, which I will sell as a package, free from digital rights management. (As a consumer I regard DRM as extremely annoying, counterproductive, and insulting, in that DRM presumes that without it I would behave like a criminal.) I have already finished the HTML version (which I hand-coded). I am working on a hyperlinked pdf in InDesign. I also hope to produce an ePub version of the book, which is trickier than one might think. Apparently I can create an ePub version from InDesign, but I doubt it will feature the sweet functionality of my HTML version. Therefore, I may try to convert my HTML file to an ePub, which I suspect will be a real pain.

My plan is to sell a zipped file with all three digital versions for the low, low price of $7.95, the same as the Kindle price. I’ve always thought it was stupid for stores to make consumers choose among different digital versions; why not provide all the formats and let the buyer use the one most convenient for a given occasion and device? (Obviously, Kindle users may wish to buy the digital package and then send one of those files to their Kindle device, though this is a little more complicated than simply buying the Kindle version.)

Having now read large parts of two books on my iTouch, I can say that I vastly prefer to read a book digitally than on paper. I can slip my iTouch in my pocket and take it with me wherever I go. (This is not possible with the iPad.) I have to make a special effort to take a paperback. I can fit many books on my iTouch. I can hold my iTouch, and flip pages, with one hand. With the iTouch I can toggle between a book and my notes, and I don’t need to carry around pen and paper. The only disadvantage to the iTouch is that its battery can run low. The only reason I will ever again buy a paper book is if I find it used for significantly less than what I can buy it for digitally (or if it is not available digitally).

The way I formatted my ebook makes it especially useful. I’m particularly proud of two features:

1. For the Kindle and HTML version of my book, I included page numbers in brackets to match the pagination of the paperback. That way, people who want to cite my book somewhere can find the standard page numbers in the digital edition. Every publisher should do this.

2. My ebook contains hundreds of internal links (as well as links to external documents). The contents and chapter headings link back and forth. The notes link back and forth. Page numbers listed in the index link to the relevant pages. People who don’t care about any of that can just ignore it. But for any sort of scholarly use, such internal linking will be quite useful, I think.

Preparing the book for Kindle was relatively easy, once I had the HTML version completed. Indeed, Amazon prefers HTML files for conversion to the Amazon format. Aside from the fact that the conversion process added some unnecessary indentations in the text, the process went smoothly. (Thankfully, Amazon offers a preview of the converted file, though this preview does not activate the internal links.)

On the whole, I am absolutely thrilled that books are finally joining the digital parade. And I am pleased that my own little book is marching proudly.