I am a sucker for a good book, especially stories that are steeped in their own…history. There is one part of me that lives firmly ensconced in reality where I constantly think about our own past and its public component, but then there’s this other half that becomes engrossed at made-up worlds and marvels at how writers are able to create complete visions filled with music, art, and culture all through the written word. And when that vision integrates a mythology with heroes and morals like our Greek/Roman/Etruscan/Hindu myths it is all the more fantastic.
When those books end up on the big screen, I find myself thinking about how the director’s imagination measures up (of course, no movie is ever quite as satisfying as a book for me). That being said when the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out I was floored.
I’m not the most critical movie watcher. Generally, I’ll always try to find a reason to justify sitting in the theater for 2.5 hours (Though Avatar, the 3D is the only thing that saved you.) Anyway…when I saw Harry Potter 7 (Part 1) a few weeks ago I realized that the strength in the narrative came from J.K. Rowling’s ability to create a wholly believable world. When reading the books the reader is bombarded with the tools of the historical trade to tell the story–and each step hearkens back to something that had been prophesied not only when Harry Potter was a young boy, but even further back through the veil of mythology.
What are some of the key primary sources we use in writing about the past? Objects, written sources, art, music. Material culture includes things like jewelery, funerary objects, items from everyday life that ultimately create meaning for an individual, a community and a nation. In terms of the written word we look to the text in the form of diaries, newspapers, and books for contextual clues.
So in order to understand the wizarding world of Harry Potter we are pulling from the stories told in the last six books, but Rowling also pulled together tools of historiography to tell her story.
In terms of material culture we have the standard trappings of the witch or wizard, but more specifically there are the Horcruxes–magical objects that hold individual pieces of Voldemort’s soul, objects that hold an overarching meaning for him due to their connection with his own mangled past with Hogwarts. Then we have pieces from Harry’s own past–a golden snitch which holds his key to survival, the diary of Tom Riddle, and the three Deathly Hallows.
Of course this final chapter of the Harry Potter saga is not bereft of textual sources. Dumbledore’s last will and testament plays a role in setting the three on their journey, not to mention the actual gift to Hermione–The Tales of the Beedle the Bard which adds yet another rich layer to the world. Then we have the book written by Rita Skeeter, which uses (albeit doctored) oral history from Bathilda Bagshot to put together Dumbledore’s past connections to Grindlewald a history that is also told by Elphias Doge. Competing sources of the past, both with kernels of information that are hidden by the other individuals bias. To some extent the last Harry Potter book finds Harry, Ron and Hermione playing the historian and try to suss out the means to destroy Voldemort in the end.
I think one of the additional strengths of the story, and why it resonates with some many, is how it emphasizes the importance of place and that subsequent connection to a community, family, and a people. I know that the sadness I felt (both in the book and the film version) of going back to Godric’s Hollow is directly related to knowing the ‘historical’ moment that happened there. I loved how in the book at the home of Harry’s birth there is a monument to the sacrifice–and how those pilgrims have written of their connection to the events that occurred there. This isn’t all that different to the writings at Abby Road near the Beatles studio, or the guest books at any major historical site around the world. Good fiction, often makes connections to reality. (As an aside, I also love how cemetery markers provided Hermione with a clue re: the Hallows. As a primary source, gravestones can tell you a lot about the people who lived there).
As I mentioned, part of the reason my blogging has been slow the last few months is because of my participation in National Novel Writing Month. I tried to integrate some of my favorite things about history (material culture, landscape analysis, and mythology) with a kernel of a story. While I’m not sure about how successful I ended up being (while I hit 50k words, the book isn’t done) I did gain a new appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, and of course J.K. Rowling. I definitely recognized that history isn’t just about revealing fragments of the past, but about trying to engage with and embrace the whole story–in the fictional and non-fictional realm.
On a side note, here is my work blog post from PreservationNation.org. If you didn’t know already the Historic American Landscape Survey turned ten this year. I also took a trip to Baltimore to learn more about preservation efforts by Baltimore Heritage, Inc.