I got the chance to talk to a 13-year-old Harry Potter fan yesterday, a cousin-in-law whose life is officially over because she’s going to be in Rome when the seventh Harry Potter is released. By the time she gets back to the US, everyone will have already read it.
The pleasure I got from launching into my ‘Harry Potter is a spoiled brat who gets everything handed to him’ routine and the further horrified looks it engendered from her and her 10-year-old sister was a tad unseemly, I admit. But during the conversation, I learned that neither girl has ever met an adult who has had anything negative to say about JK Rowling or her creation.
Now, lest you think that I’m wasting a blog entry making fun of two sub-14-year-old girls, let me get to my point. The elder of the two cousins met my diatribe with an impassioned discourse of her own, and I was amazed that chief among the virtues of Harry Potter that she cited was, loosely “the way JK Rowling uses Latin roots to make up new words to teach you things.”
While she is a particularly precocious 13-year-old, this sudden unbidden invocation of my previous blog rant made me suspicious. I remember loving lots of things about books at her age, but clever roots was not one of them. I do remember saying things like that, though, especially whenever a teacher was within earshot, because I remember well that that’s the sort of thing that adults would praise you for if you said. It’s not enough to say, “I like Harry Potter because it has a plot full of mysteries and cliff-hangers,” or “I like Harry Potter because I’d really like to live in a world with magic spells in it.” You need something more intellectual sounding if you want to wow the adults.
It’s very similar to how certain members of my generation will talk about the “mythic structure” and “universal archetypes” in the Star Wars movies when pressed on why they’re popular. There’s a cottage industry in explaining to people why their guilty pleasures are actually rigorous intellectual exercises and thus thoroughly respectable, because many of us are just afraid to admit that we like things because they are exciting and fantastical.*
This is why I find JKR’s “clever Latin roots” for her spells to be just so much fake learning and intellectual rationalization. And worse, the kid who is praised for recognizing that “Confundo” is at the heart of the “Confundus Curse” is being done a disservice, when she could instead be introduced to a perfectly good English word like “confound.” And I don’t buy the line that kids need to get to confound by way of confundus, that they won’t enjoy learning unless they’re tricked into it, and so on.
Indeed, it’s confounding to find people praising JKR for putting Latin in her magic language, but not talking very much about the English in the narrative language used in the actual text of her books. I just grabbed the first Potter book from the shelf and read through the first ten pages. The only word in the entire stretch that might have given a young reader a moment’s pause was “tawny,” used to describe an owl. Everything else is described in extremely conversational, thoroughly mundane English. Delightful linguistic flourishes are few and far between in the non-magical text. There’s not a word that would confound the young reader into deeper thought about the complexities of language.
I must admit, however, that I was remiss in my previous post. I let my research into the phenomenon of Potter etymological guides peter out as soon as I found a couple of jokes, and thus I came away with the impression that these guides were mostly just weird fan activity. In actuality, the cleverness of Rowling’s magical etymologies is one of the highly touted points in the guides to teaching Harry Potter that get circulated to schools and parents by Scholastic Press and Barnes and Noble. I didn’t quite realize how widespread it was until my encounter with one of Harry’s target demographic.
JKR has done a magic trick with her magic “Latin-derived” spells. She’s convinced teachers around the world that these little “teachable moments” (in contemporary educational lingo) are somehow superior to encountering English in the wild. She’s given them caged tigers and the teachers are acting like they’re on safari.
For the record, when pressed to give an example of a clever etymology, my 13-year-old interlocutor offered, “Draco Malfoy … Draco means evil.” This misunderstanding is no doubt brought to us by a Harry Potter vocabulary list floating around a classroom somewhere that doesn’t bother to point out that it’s the “mal” that means “evil,” a point that would probably be driven home by more malice, malfeasance, malevolence–heck, even some malnutrition–and less slavish adoration of the cleverness of Malfoy.
*And before you shout at me, let me reiterate that I fully support the enjoyment of the exciting and the fantastic and wish that we all felt a little less embarrassed about it.