Numinous Potter?

Dan of dislogue shares a penchant with Polytropos for prattling on about Potter. His entry sounds off from this one by A.C. Douglas, who liked the books in a general way but agreed with A.S. Byatt that Rowling is missing the �numinous�:

I’m saying merely that in each of the first four volumes I’ve read, there came a point in the narrative that fairly pleaded, cried out even, for a deft suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the outward magic . . . But instead, in each case, the plea went unacknowledged and unanswered, with the unhappy result that the books are experienced as a mere entertainment and diversion of the moment . . .

Dan helpfully stops to ask just what is meant by �numinous.� Douglas is looking for �deeper mystery behind the up-front magic,� Byatt calls for a �shiver of awe,� and Dan rightly notes that there�s something almost spiritual in those definitions � at any rate, something that seems to be governed more by one�s emotional response to the work more than anything else.

It gets thornier, though. I quibbled with Byatt when she accused the Potter books of lacking numinosity, precisely because I had experienced a �shiver of awe,� or at least a shiver of something, at those key moments in reading them. Unlike Douglas, I didn�t perceive a plea that went unanswered � whether that�s because I had a stronger emotional reaction, or just different expectations, I don�t know.

But there�s a difference between �profound emotional reaction� and numinous in the �deep magic� sense, and here I�d agree with Douglas, and Dan, and even (gasp!) Byatt. If numinous implies addressing some fundamental deeper meaning, then Potter ain�t it. Maybe �mythopoeic� is a better word than �numinous� to use here, though it�s just as fraught with different associations. Strictly speaking it means �having to do with or seeking to invoke myths,� though it�s often uttered in the same breath as �Tolkien� or �Lewis.� Mythpoeic, for me, implies fantasy that seeks resonance by invoking mythic archetypes. (My copy of Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” is lent out right now, otherwise I’d have more to say about mythopoeia and his notion of “recovery”. But I don’t want to get it wrong.) In any case, mythopoeia is not necessarily governed by the emotional response of the audience, although of course, if rightly done, it should invoke a deep reaction.

Mythopoeia implies something not just about tone or subject matter, but about plot. And that�s where I see a big difference between Potter and mythopoeic fantasy. Douglas� comparison of Rowling to Conan Doyle is apt; strip away the fantastic trappings, and the plots of the Potter novels resemble detective novels more than anything else. They are intricate, full of early clues with later payoffs, hidden identities, and logical puzzles. Even magic in Rowling�s world works under fairly predictable rules, and revelations about new curses and enchantments usually arise to provide plot complications and resolutions, not to reveal something about the underlying nature of the world. In the first book I was delighted with this simply because it was nice to see someone writing children’s lit who didn’t underestimate their appetite for story. By the second book it annoyed me because part of me was looking for mythpoeic fantasy, and by the third it was clear that Rowling’s game was something a little different, which was fine. In fact, when Rowling tries to get all big-picturey on us, as with the explanation of the prophecy at the end of Book Five, she usually falters.

Dan looks for folks to compare Rowling to, and comes up with Robert Asprin and Terry Pratchett. These fit sometimes in terms of tone, and with a fast-and-loose but still loving attention to the secondary world. Classic children�s fantasy merits some comparisons, but a lot of it (Cooper, Lewis) is mythopoeic, while the Potter books certainly aren�t. I�m hard pressed to come up with a comparison for Rowling that accounts for the mix she brings to the table. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that what she�s doing isn’t derivative at all, but quite unique.