Ulysses' Odyssey in Flora and Ulysses: the Illuminated Adventures

This week, my students have been discussing Flora and Ulysses, by bestselling American children’s writer, Kate DiCamillo. It’s the tale of a lonely girl named Flora, who looks out of her bedroom window one day to see a squirrel being sucked into a rogue vacuum cleaner, along with a book of poetry and some crackers.

Racing to the rescue, Flora gives the squirrel CPR and mouth-to-mouth, and brings him back to life. As they look into one another’s eyes, it is a case of instant love and recognition, and she names the squirrel Ulysses, after the vacuum cleaner (its brand is the Ulysses2000).

What has happened inside that vacuum cleaner? We don’t know for sure, but Ulysses awakes from his experience transformed into a poet. When Flora takes him home, he sneaks downstairs at night, lured by the smell of cheese crackers in the kitchen, and spends a little time at her mother’s typewriter composing poetry.

And so it goes. Flora’s mother, a romance writer, does not take kindly to her grumpy daughter’s new pet, and begins a plot to remove Ulysses from the scene (a sack and a shovel feature). Flora’s father, a sad accountant, introduces Flora to his neighbour, Dr Meescham, a philosopher from another country who advises Flora to believe in the squirrel, and to believe in whatever the world throws at her. Flora’s neighbour (the owner of the vacuum cleaner) shows up with another book of poetry, and her scientific nephew, William, who complicates the plot by befriending Flora’s mother and advising her on her latest romance novel. Ulysses saves Flora’s father’s bald head from the claws of his landlord’s cat, a wicked creature named Mr Klaus. In the local diner, Ulysses is nearly killed by a knife-wielding chef, who does not take kindly to hungry squirrels looking for donuts, and Flora saves him by sticking out her foot and tripping said chef. Ulysses writes poetry. Flora, who hasn’t been sure, learns that her parents love her. The novel closes with Flora, lonely no longer, sitting on the horsehair couch of Dr Meescham, surrounded by her friends and family, and Ulysses, who provides an epilogue which sums up the novel’s deeper meanings.

Words for Flora

Nothing

would be

easier without

you,

because you

are

everything

all of it–

sprinkles, quarks, giant

donuts, eggs sunny-side up–

you are the ever-expanding

universe

to me.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

Flare up like flame–reading Rilke to Ulysses

It’s a very strange book: sometimes so wacky that you think it’s overreaching; sometimes very touching, sometimes (often) very funny, sometimes (often) thoughtful and profound. And it’s highly literate and highly literary. The novel abounds with different kinds of writing and thinking. Flora and her father enjoy reading comic books–The Great Incandesto, Terrible things can happen, The Criminal Mind are Flora’s go-to books when she encounters challenges. Flora’s mother writes romances. Ulysses writes poetry. Tootie Tickham reads Yeats and Rilke and James Joyce. William and Dr Meescham think about science and philosophy. Dr Meescham quotes Pascal. Tootie Tickham quotes Rilke:

‘I was moved by your poetry,’ said Tootie to the squirrel.

Ulysses puffed out his chest.

‘And I have some poetry that I would like to recite to you in honour of the recent, um, transformations in your life.’ Tootie put a hand on her chest. ‘This is Rilke,’ she said.

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.’

Ulysses stared up at Tootie, his eyes bright.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

In reading Rilke to Ulysses, Tootie gives the squirrel a model for his poetry, at least that’s what I think is going on. It’s a lovely moment, sending Ulysses on a quest, a poetic journey to chase the truth. His poems are interspersed through the novel, often summing up preceding plot points, and providing much-needed moments of rest in a novel that is full of antics. We should all be so lucky to read the poetry of our animal companions.

Ulysses’ Odyssey

Ulysses’ odyssey offers a nice counterpoint to Flora’s journey of discovery. Hers is a journey from isolation to integration, from reading comics alone in her room to being surrounded by friend on Dr Meescham’s magical couch, reassured that both her parents love her, despite their divorce (the novel delicately doesn’t promise that they will reunite, but shows them united in their love for their daughter). Flora begins the novel a self-professed ‘cynic,’ guarding her heart from disappointment. Her motto is ‘Do not hope. Instead, observe,’ and is taken from the advice comic she likes to read, TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.

It’s hard to imagine a children’s book that could leave Flora in this state–of cynical despair. Optimism is children’s literature’s stock in trade. Flora’s mother, who seems hard-bitten and bossy to her daughter, confesses her worries, to Ulysses (before forcing him to write a fake farewell note to Flora):

‘It really has nothing to do with you. It’s about Flora. Flora Belle. She is a strange child. And the world is not kind to the strange. She was strange before, and she’s stranger now. Now she is walking around with a squirrel on her shoulder. Talking to a squirrel. Talking to a typing, flying squirrel. Not good. Not good at all.’

Was Flora strange?

He supposed so.

But what was wrong with that?

She was strange in a good way. She was strange in a lovable way. Her heart was so big. It was capacious.

(Kate DiCamillo, Flora and Ulysses)

Of course, Flora’s mother misses the point. The world may not be kind to the strange, but where would good stories be without them? And Ulysses proves himself to be a better, truer, kinder writer than she is, and a good friend. To paraphrase E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which is the next novel we discuss in my class), ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Ulysses was both.’ Ulysses sees Flora as she truly is, and not in terms of externals or social judgements.

This all might seem rather minute, a small domestic drama, and the novel is set in an ordinary American suburb (home, apartment, neighbourhood diner). But in its very smallness, Flora and Ulysses dreams big dreams, which Ulysses sums up in his poems. Almost all of them are about roundness, and about the world. When Ulysses awakes in Flora’s arms following his incident with the vacuum cleaner, he looks into her eyes, and sees a whole world there, and his poetry throughout the novel is about the roundness and completeness of the world.

So, whether we see the novel as a mock epic (and Flora continually imposes this idea on Ulysses’ actions, viewing them as snippets from the superhero comics she loves), or a suburban odyssey, what is definitely going on is that DiCamillo takes seriously the needs of child protagonists and child readers, finding in the smallest of them, big ideas, hopes, and dreams.

Once there was a boy–and the politics of Pandora . . .

There are many glorious picture books published in Australia, and Once there was a boy is on of them. It’s a seemingly simple book that stays in the mind for a long time. It is by a wonderful artist, Dub Leffler, who is descended from the  Bigambul and Mandandanji people of South-West Queensland, and who grew up in Quirindi, not far from Armidale. He has worked with luminaries such as Shaun Tan and Banksy, and in Once there was a boy, he has created a lovely piece of storytelling that recasts a whole lot of invasion narratives into a simple fable about a boy who lives alone on an island, and a girl who visits without invitation, eats his fruit, sleeps in his bed, and breaks his heart.

Once there was a boy (image courtesy of Magabala Books)

I’ve put this book on the syllabus for my summer class Introduction to Literature through Children’s Books, because I want to talk about how intertextuality, adaptation and retelling work in storytelling. Once there was a boy, in which I can see echoes of the myth of Pandora, the folktale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the Perrault recording of the Bluebeard story, and more. It’s a really clever book–simple, rich, and resonant., with exquisite artwork.

Dub Leffler (image courtesy of Magabala Books)

How far do we go with influence-chasing, however? It’s something I’ll be discussing with the class: intertextuality is appealing, but only if it’s meaningful, and one can end up down a rabbit-hole of references and parallels which go well beyond what the author intends, or wants to acknowledge.

That said, Once there was a boy offers a take on the Pandora myth that points to its place as a cautionary ‘don’t touch’ tale. A curious little girl, who has invited herself in to the boy’s island home, looks under the bed (despite being told not to), and deals with the consequences of her actions.

The original Pandora myth ends with the discovery of Hope, trapped in the famous box, operating as a balm for the ills of the world that have been released on first opening.

Where does Hope lie in Once there was a boy? I think it resides in the actions of the little girl, who reflects on what she has done, and makes a profound gesture in order to heal and reconcile, giving her own heart to the little boy. It’s possible to read this book as a reflection on colonisation, whereby the girl represents the naive intrusion of colonisers, and the boy represents the place and people they dislodge and disrupt. Once there was a boy has a strong resonance in relation to the power structures of post-colonial Australia. Leffler doesn’t dwell on the challenges and problematics of reconciliation and reparation, but the meaning is clear: for true reconciliation to occur, acts of reparation need to take place.

–Elizabeth Hale

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis . . .

Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.

As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,

Puer Qui Vixit

Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)

Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.

In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.

Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin

Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.

You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.

Names

There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.

These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.

Mythological Creatures

Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.

‘Who’s there?’ Hagrid called. ‘Show yerself–I’m armed!’

And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.

‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’

He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.

‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’

‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’

‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)

The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .

Spells and Magical Latin

I’ve written before about how nineteenth-century school stories pit students against teachers in the Latin classroom. In Harry Potter, the children don’t have to learn Latin for its own sake, but in order to do their spells properly. Accio means ‘I summon,’ and is useful for calling one’s wand to one; Petrificus Totalus freezes a victim so they are unable to move until released. And so on. The appeal is obvious. Latin in these books becomes cool, a gateway to a magical world, a clue to a secret power, but also part of the wizard’s everyday toolkit. In previous generations Latin was a password to the ruling classes, and also a lingua franca that enabled communications among all sorts of different communities. Here, it’s just as magical, and teachers report that students cite the Harry Potter novels as inspiration to study Latin.

Classical Parallels and Storytelling

Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.

Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood

The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .

–Elizabeth Hale

Sort of meeting Lewis and Tolkien . . . an Oxford reverie

In my family, my father and I are the ones who read and enjoy fantasy literature, and we share and discuss our favourites, when the others are not around.  Here he reminisces about his time as a student at Oxford University, the home of three of Britain’s best-known and loved fantasy writers (C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. R. Tolkien).

John Hale is an authority on the Latin works of John Milton. Since his ‘retirement’ in 2007, he has produced many volumes, including De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8), and most recently, Milton’s Scriptural Theology: Confronting De Doctrina.

Lewis, fiction and scholarship

I read bucket-loads of Lewis at school and university. At school it was his books on religious belief. They were approved of there. I was impressed by the Screwtape Letters; their indirect technique, evil mentoring from a senior to a junior devil, was new to me and to apologetics. At university, however, other forms of belief and unbelief or doubt made more noise.

Lewis remained a presence at Oxford even after he had shifted (unfortunately for me) to Cambridge. He had founded the Socratic Club, where belief and unbelief were interrogated by a formally-appointed Socratic gadfly. (Like a medieval disputation, as I later learnt.) I found that I couldn’t breathe its combative atmosphere, and that Lewis’s pugnacity was uncongenial to serious thought about faith. I had a friend, Martin, who enjoyed the religious works more than I did, without being at all persuaded or moved by them.

Martin preferred Till We Have Faces, where Lewis retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis set it in some far country, beyond the edge of Greek or Roman territory, and told it from a strange viewpoint, that of Psyche’s sister. I mention it because I liked it too, for its deliberate strangeness. Well written, too, almost too well. Did writing come too easily to Lewis?

       He says not, in his self-life, Surprised by Joy. He says that when he began writing fiction, he was astonished by how much harder it was. To write about literature you just “switched on the motor at the place where you had left off,” and carried on, whereas to write a story needed a different power, the power which might or might not return— would just as likely “leave a man as dry as a stone.” He liked to talk of “a man,” generalizing in a bluff or hearty tone from his own experience.

        Hard or easy, I found him wonderful at almost everything he touched; but which of his books did I read when? That did change. Nowadays I admire his works of scholarship the most. Not the apologetics, nor the children’s tales, but works on the scale of his Oxford (OHEL) volume English Literature in the Sixteenth Century  (but “excluding the drama,” saddled for ever with its stuffy sub-title) which manages to be both objective and personal, funny and austere. Or works where he expounded and expatiated, to continual delight and enlightenment, like the Discarded Image and Studies in Words.

         Back then, aged about 21, I was in some awe of his fiction, because he himself was in awe of that kind of writing. It did come harder to him. He himself was in awe of Tolkien, and the more difficult Charles Williams, and other Inklings.

Sort of meeting Lewis

        I met him once back then, sort of. I dreamt that I met him. Like this: As a student at Christ Church, we had a tatty old common room with high window seats, on which you could look out at one of those secretive Alice gardens with high stone walls. Lewis Carroll’s former rooms were on the next floor up from this common room, in the corner of Tom Quad. In my dream, I was sitting with Lewis at that window. He said, “Got something to show you.” He rummaged in the baggy side-pocket of his old check sports-jacket, and carefully brought out a fairy, about three inches tall, wearing a pale green hazel-nut cap. End of dream. Waking up I recognized Lewis from his photograph, and the fairy from one of the Rupert books. The first one I had ever read, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, and nothing to do with Lewis. Well, no, maybe somehow it was. And how strange that the dream-encounter was set in Dodgson-land; underneath it, in fact. Allegories welcomed.

          It was some time after that dream that I met Lewis’s children’s stories. The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, borrowed from the Oxford Public Library just up the road. (A distinctively Victorian library, that one. Loved it.) I was thrilled by the Dawn-Treader! I felt Lewis had embodied his own love of Die Ferne, which he vents a lot in Surprised by Joy. Like Odysseus, too. And Norse myths of sailing to the farthermost end of the sea. In Reepicheep, the mighty-mouse idea blended with that lovely poem by Christopher Smart, about the mouse which challenged the cat which has seized his mate. (Set to music by Benjamin Britten in Jubilate Agno.) These off-centre works radiate a different joy from the plodding ones of much fiction, including workaday fantasies which show their construction.

A brush with Tolkien

           I had more time for random reading that summer (1959). I was grappling with philosophy reading, logic, which took me one hour per page. I had to read something else. I tried Dawn-Treader. Also in May 1959 I heard of Tolkien. I had heard tell of how one day, marking examination papers, he had written onto one of the scripts, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” An act of release, frustration, rebellion, who knows? He had fame outside his own subject because of it. I liked the break-out. And he was a buddy of Lewis. Lewis was “Jack,” Tolkien was “Tollers.” To each other, I mean, when meeting at the pub on Tuesdays to drink deep and debate their fictions.

        So, when Tolkien gave his final lecture, I packed in with hundreds of other people to Merton Hall. That one time, I “sort of” met him too. It was filled full, gallery and all. I had got there late, so stood at the back of the gallery. I could hear every word, then! The lecture ran for well over an hour. It consisted, entirely, of a defence of the Oxford English syllabus. Which did and must for ever start with Old English (compulsory), stopping at Jane Austen!  This did need some defending. It disappointed me. Anyhow, I was present only to hear anecdotes or indiscretions about hobbit-making.

         How curious, in hindsight, to learn that some scholars (such as my Otago colleague Alan Horsman) judged that Tolkien should have spent his last 30 years at Oxford on his scholarship; following up his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Instead, Tolkien published little except fantasy once he started with the Hobbit. Hobbitry took up more and more of his energies. And his jingly verse and philological whimsying. I have some sympathy for Alan in this! I was bored by the valedictory, couldn’t see what the fuss was about this in-house stuff, since I was studying a different subject. And, holding those views about the syllabus, wouldn’t it have been more consistent to publish scholarship? Better still, like Lewis, to divide his writing time between his two very great gifts…

Hobbit or Homer?

          For the record, before going back to Lewis:: from reading the Hobbit, I remember only Gollum, and “My precious.” And from a year later, reading the Rings, how Gollum’s fixation and identity are finally disclosed. If I remember rightly, he is a former hobbit, who has lost his skin and eyesight, and his right wits, by hunting through too many caverns for long dark ages for the lost ring of power. A moral tale, ending in metamorphosis, somewhat resembling the evolutionary pattern of species like flightless birds, or bats. Call me Philistine, but the imagination at work here does not impress me all that much.

         Much greater power is to be found in Homer understated, back near the beginning of recoverable fiction. When the suitors are slain by the bow of Odysseus, their spirits flee away like bats in flight, squeaking, trizontes. They are flitting off in a colourless half-life to Hades, where even the greatest spirits —like Achilles, who has spoken with Odysseus during the Nekuia, the book where he travels to consult the dead—loathe to be, only partly alive after their vibrant lives of earth. The mythological imagination coheres, and convinces. Is it because we have gone back to its wellspring, the oral composition and bardic performance?

Kindly but not cosy—Lewis

         A little later, 1962 I think, I tried Tolkien’s long tale. Thrilled at first, I read the Rings late into the night in order to finish, despite this being the week of final exams. An imprudence! Was I growing up or eegressing?  That was the high watermark of my liking and enjoyment. Lewis’s tales have lasted better. Or I haven’t binged on them. He undertakes secondary epic more lightly, at less portentous length, and with a different kind of density. He has the same philological density. Spirits that glint sidelong in the bright air are eldila, singular being eldil. And in other ways the secondary epic is thought through with less sweating over it than Tolkien. Lewis more lightly touches it in, to the depth required in each moment of his story— as it intensifies towards the end in Dawntreader It was always a sport. Tolkien turned professional after being enjoyed as an amateur.

           I don’t know whether I prefer Lewis because he enlivened tales which were his own with assorted myth, not only classical, or because Tolkien stood closer to a different body of myth which he knew better and then aped. But Lewis’s characterizations engage actual growing-up feelings better. Myths help: Argonautic voyaging rather than clunky sword-fighting (taken ad absurdum in those movies). Lewis is kindly but not cosy, unlike Tolkien.          

          What does let it down, for me, is the metaphysics, in a word, Aslan. Tolkien does the opposite, beneficially: no benign spirit presiding and intervenes, and instead a supernatural of evil, as if evil not good was the ruling norm. The metaphysic you get in Henry James. Rather than either of them, leave the tale-telling to Robert Louis Stevenson.

         All in all, nonetheless, Lewis is the great all-rounder of English letters in his century.

John Hale

“Dobby is Free!” The House Elf as the Spartacus of the Wizarding World

Anna Mik is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, completing her thesis on the representation of mythical creatures in literature for children and young adults–especially on the ethical conundrums they present for young minds to think about. Here, she talks about Dobby, the house-elf famously freed by Harry Potter (with advice and encouragement from his friend Hermione Granger). Could it be that Dobby is a Spartacus of the Wizarding World?

This paper is an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019.)

“Freedom or death” – those three words are famously inscribed in popular culture and associated with the historical figure of Spartacus. This seemingly simple and concise combination of words defining the basic privilege of every creature and the final moment of its existence, reflects the tragedy of struggle for eleutheria (liberty), a goal beyond which there is nothing but death.

1 “Spartacus” (1960), dir. Stanley Kubrick (source: cineserie.com)

Gaining freedom almost always comes with the ultimate price. In antiquity, with its own variations and differences, slaves were treated as objects and their masters’ property. Although the vision of ancient slavery seems distant, until recently this phenomenon was very close to our times, both in Europe and in the United States (of course, in different than ancient forms). People of African descent were treated as objects or animals as well, and had to fight for their rights which still are not respected in some parts of the world. The echoes of its presence can still be heard today, including, maybe surprisingly, the literature for our youngest readers.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for example. To some extent J. K. Rowling explores slavery through her presentation of creatures placed very low in the wizarding hierarchy. House-elves inhabiting the world of Harry Potter have one function assigned to them: to serve wizards without payment or any kind of appreciation. They wear the worst kind of rag they can find and do not own any property. The major schoolbook History of Hogwarts does not even mention the existence of the house-elves, even though: “Elf enslavement goes back in centuries”, Rowling, 2000: 198); They are evidently excluded from the main discourse, as their presence is not appropriately acknowledged, in wizarding education nor in their political affairs.

2 House-elves (source: Pottermore)

How to liberate an elf

Nevertheless, there is a way to liberate the house-elf: by giving them a piece of clothing. Usually they consider this act the worst tragedy—emphasizing the fear that can come with freedom. But in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) Harry develops a significant connection to one of the house-elves.  He is named Dobby, and is the only of his kind that dreams of eleutheria and despises his wizard master (the snobbish Lucius Malfoy). After defeating Lord Voldemort once more, Harry gives the elf a sock and finally Dobby is free!.  From now on the creature openly admires the boy, and even though he is now freed of any obligations towards wizards, he promises to stand by Potter’s side at all costs. 

Elves’ connection to enslavement and clothing brings us back to the fairy-tale tradition, where those creatures served humans, in exchange for clothing or food. Such depictions are common in many folk-tales (also in Poland) but probably the most popular one would be the version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Elves and the Shoemaker (first trans. to English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as: The Elves). In this tale the elves make shoes for a Shoemaker at night, to a point when (depending on the version) the man frees them by giving the creatures a piece of clothing. The Shoemaker does that to pay his debt, which might make us wonder–does Harry do the same thing?

Is it possible that Harry frees Dobby out of guilt for the pain that wizard society caused the house-elves? We do not read about such a motive in the book, nonetheless, it might have been one of the options. Or maybe – which is most likely –  he only did it out of pure sympathy towards Dobby, combinded with a need of revange on Malfoy house. Either way, one more question remains – why only Dobby was freed, why not other elves, who also suffer from slavery and wizards’ oppression?

3 Dobby with a sock, freed from the Malfoys (screenshot)

Hierarchy and relationships among magical species

Dobby’s humble attitude towards the wizard reflects the hierarchy and relationships between magical species – elf-servants and wizard-masters. Even though house-elves have a great magical power, they cannot use it without their owner’s permission (Rowling, 1998: 27). The system of supremacy is also supported by the notion that only wealthy families with long wizardry tradition have house-elves, as a form of luxury and legitimacy of authority (Rowling, 1998: 28). This fact also reflects the well-known historical concept of enslavement, a privilege of the rich and mighty.

The only advocate among wizards and witches that stands for the elves and wants to include them in the social discourse is Hermione Granger. Mocked by her friends, despised by elves for destroying the status quo, she is convinced that changing their work conditions will serve all members of the wizarding community. She is the first one who actually acknowledges their subservient position and openly defines their status as slavery (Rowling, 2000: 112). While others think that house elves like to be “bossed around” and are “not supposed to have fun”, Hermione believes in the potential of elfish revolution. 

At the end of the series Dobby dies while rescuing his hero, Harry Potter. On the stone of an improvised grave, the wizard carves the words: Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf. (Rowling, 2007: 389).  A consolation for this sad moment could have been the words of Spartacus from Stanley Kubrick’s production: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” Dobby might be the next embodiment of Spartacus’ spirit, eleutheria in pure form, a creature, who, in order to achieve such state, had to die.

The long way ahead …

There are some parts in Rowling’s Potter-writting where the allusions to the real-life slavery are very clear and obvious. However, what is a little bit worrying, is that Rowling does not push this issue further: we do not know if the revolution of house-elves ever takes place, whether there are any more creatures inspired by Dobby’s thought, or whether there are some other wizards or witches besides Hermione that actually recognise the problem of elf-slavery. It might be possible that Rowling believes in her readers more than in her characters, and that the house-elves will influence young minds – to be aware of social patterns threatening the freedom of less privileged creatures – not only humans.

Probably there is a long way ahead for the other house-elves to gain freedom and sustain democratic order in the wizarding world. Yet, it is not far from impossible. As Michel Foucault reminds us:

“Liberty is a practice… The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions of law that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘liberty’ is what must be exercised… […] The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (Rainbow 1984: 245)          

Anna Mik.