Harry Potter


"An Improbable Sequel: Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower"

by Stephen Kinzer ("New York Times," May 12, 2001)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. - Millions of books after Harry Potter became the most beguiling wizard of the modern age, scholars have welcomed him into the temple of Muggle academia.

"If you look closely, you see a lot of Arthurian components," said Heather Arden, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who has drawn parallels between J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories and classic medieval legends. "So much of it fits into wonderful ancient patterns."

That a best-selling children's book would be the subject of scholarly attention isn't a surprise; after all, academics have delved into the finer points of everything from Martha Stewart to table salt. But this engagement with the modern world is a hallmark of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, a yearly conference held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which attracted Ms. Arden and about 3,000 other scholars earlier this month. For an academic conference it is remarkably unstuffy. There is no vetting of papers, and a platform is open to almost anyone with an idea.

One of the big ideas this year was the persistence of medieval archetypes in popular culture. In addition to Harry Potter, the scholars discussed the Hobbit series of J. R. R. Tolkien, which is considered to have been modeled on themes from medieval literature, as well as the continuing resonance of medieval figures ranging from Merlin to Thomas Aquinas. There were a dozen papers about Joan of Arc, and half a dozen about that equally extraordinary woman, Hildegard von Bingen.

"We're talking about models and frames of reference," said Paul E. Szarmach, director of the Kalamazoo-based Medieval Institute, which organizes the congress. "If you take a psychological view, there must be medieval bits in the template of human understanding. We're putting ourselves back into the Arthurian story. That accounts for the popularity of Tolkien and Rowling."

For medievalists, the patterns and ideas from the Middle Ages - the period that stretches from the end of the fifth century to the middle of the 15th in Europe - are still valuable tools for understanding today's world.

Jonathan Gil Harris of Ithaca College, for example, gave a dinner speech comparing Hannibal Lecter, the most famous cannibal in modern cinema, to Shakespeare's similarly inclined warrior, Titus Andronicus.

"He wasn't working in a vacuum," Mr. Harris said. "Especially in his early plays, he was drawing on dramatic conventions that can be traced back to medieval forms of theater. The Hannibal Lecter films use this form that Shakespeare transmitted, which is to keep pushing something in your face until you say, `This is too much.' "

Shakespeare is not normally considered a medieval figure, but Mr. Harris and a handful of other scholars have managed to establish what he called "a Shakespeare Bantustan" at the Kalamazoo conference, specializing in medieval influences on Shakespeare's work.

One of the favorite subjects this year was Tolkien, himself a medievalist. This marks a turnaround of sorts for Tolkien, an Oxford philologist who left several academic projects unfinished but created one of the 20th century's most beloved fantasy lands, Middle Earth, populated by Hobbits and other magical creatures.

Tolkien liked to spend evenings drinking beer while singing viking songs in their original languages, and some of his colleagues considered him less than fully serious. After his death in 1973 one colleague lamented the loss of "a very fine medieval scholar who might have done so much more work of lasting value."

Jane Chance of Rice University said experts had compared Tolkien's first fantasy work, "The Hobbit," to the Beowulf saga, and his later trilogy, "Lord of the Rings," to the works of Spenser and Malory.

"Tolkien refashioned the old medieval epics into what we now call fantasy literature," Ms. Chance said. "He's the bridge figure who updated the genre. Harry Potter is infused with the Middle Earth ethos, which is about the ordinary or smaller man who goes on to win great victories."

In keeping with the conference's informal atmosphere, the professors who discussed Harry Potter assumed roles as witches on the faculty at Hogwarts, the school where he studies wizardry. Their paper was in the form of a dialogue about Harry's proposed senior thesis comparing Hogwarts to the court of King Arthur. The professors, Ms. Arden and Kathryn Lorenz, started by noting physical similarities like invisible doors, magical animals and the use of parchment, sealing wax and coats of arms. From there they turned to thematic devices like the ease with which characters move between normal and abnormal worlds.

"Like Arthur, Harry is destined to make an exemplary stand against the forces of evil and chaos," Ms. Arden said. "The phenomenal popularity of the Potter chronicles may be linked to the way they reflect the underlying attractions of the Arthurian world. They give their readers a picture of a wonderful community centered on a superhuman leader and made up of exceptional individuals of whom the hero is the most exceptional."

And that explains the continuing hold that medieval themes have on people, she added. "The hero himself, whether Arthur, Percivale or our own Harry Potter, shows us that a seemingly ordinary orphan child can turn out to be an exceptional person. Perhaps the greatest quality shared by Harry and the Arthurian hero is to show us the power of imagination to transform the established boundaries between things and people, to show us the possibilities of other worlds."