Apr 052012

One knows that one has a Cultural Phenomenon on one’s hands, when said Phenomenon comprises not only a Cultural Juggernaut in its own right, but when it springs forth the spontaneous roots of Cultural Inspiration. First JK Rowling created a Magickal Universe that seized the imagination of a generation with the Harry Potter books- which themselves thrilled Hollywood into producing a cycle of films unprecedented in the years of movie-making. Since then, the Phenomenon known as Harry Potter has inspired (1) a number of parody-videos on YouTube, my favorite of which is still the “Harry Potter Rap,” representing a unique form of Pop-Culture comedy-genius, as well as (2) a music-genre called Wizard Rock (which takes inspiration from the characters and situations of the books and movies), and which is the subject of a documentary called We Are Wizards, available at Hulu.com. In addition, Pop-Culture has felt compelled to create (3) a genuine form of Quidditch (which, as near as I can tell, is like lacrosse, only you have to play with a broom held between your legs), plus (in the to-beat-the-band category), (4) an actual amusement-park in Orlando, Fla. (which I continue to feel represents a severely under-utilized resource for Pagans and Wiccans, as “Wicca Day at Harry Potter World” is just too Meta to pass up).

To this corpus of kind-of eccentric creativity comes Potted Potter, a lively two-man (unauthorized) comic presentation of all seven Harry Potter books, performed at break-neck speed in 70 minutes (I assume they must eliminate some of the more minor characters). Having already performed in London and Toronto, the show’s United States debut has recently been announced, as it will begin an Off-Broadway run at the Little Shubert Theater, June 3-Aug. 12 (previews begin May 19). The producers are apparently not worried about possible legal action from Ms. Rowling, as (1) the show has already played in Britain and Canada, and as (2) parody is protected from copyright-infringement litigation, and as (3) Ms. Rowling probably has a good sense of humor. My congratulations to these two actors upon their New York premiere, sure to enliven the summer’s theatrical season (am I seeing an Event-Evening for Magick-Using NYC Pagans?); and how much more Potter-inspired creativity will we see in the years to come, Pagan Fans? Rock on, Harry Potter, rock on.

Oct 072011

The teen girl stepped confidently up to the microphone.  Taking it firmly in her hand, she poured out her love for Harry Potter in a voice that resonated with the kind of exuberance only a teenager understands:

I read about all of these wonderful things Harry was doing to fight injustice.  I thought, YEAH!  This is what you do.  You help people…

And then my Fundamentalist  school told me that I shouldn’t read those books.  They were evil.

Suffice it to say she’s not a Fundamentalist anymore.

She joined the Harry Potter Alliance, a nationwide organization that brings the values of Harry Potter into this world through charity and social action.  The founder of our local chapter explained that the idea for the Alliance came from book five in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

In that book, Dumbledore loses his job as Headmaster and is replaced by the nasty Ministry of Magic lackey Delores Umbridge.  Umbridge, supposedly a professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, teaches sterile lessons out of the textbook, insisting that there are no real dark arts to defend against.

She is, of course, wrong.  And without spoiling anything, she knows it.

So Harry organizes a group of Hogwarts students, to whom he teaches real techniques for fighting dark magic.  The secret club becomes known as “Dumbledore’s Army.”

This is the founding idea behind the Harry Potter Alliance: coming together to fight the darkness in our own world.

The Alliance has an impressive resume of credentials.  So far, they have fought 18 campaigns that run from helping the campaigning for net neutrality to helping the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The Accio Books! campaign raised funds to send books to poverty-stricken children around the world.  Wrock4 Equality fought an anti-gay marriage initiative in Maine.

Perhaps most impressive is their Deathly Hallows campaign.  This one takes on seven of the world’s most pressing problems, which – in true Harry Potter style – the Alliance refers to as Horcruxes.  As part of this fight, the Alliance has battled against the evils of:

Sweat shop conditions for workers who make Harry Potter chocolate products


Unrealistic portrayals of beauty in the media



Child slavery

Climate change

They may be Harry Potter geeks, and they would proudly admit that they are.  They do, after all, engage in real-life quidditch matches.  But after the snitch is caught and the fans go home, the Harry Potter Alliance gets off their broomsticks and uses the lessons they learned from their beloved books to go out and save the world, one Horcrux at a time.

Sep 212011

Pagan Pride Days can yield some fascinating things.  Ours was Sunday.  I spent the time promoting the Pagan Newswire Collective and shopping whenever I could.  But then I came across something that called to my Harry Potter-loving soul in this post Deathly Hallows world: one of our local Unitarian Universalist churches is hosting an event called “The Social Significance of Harry Potter.”

The event will be on September 30, at 7:00 p.m., at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim.  Co-hosted by the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that seeks social change in literacy, equality, and human rights through parallels with heroic characters from J.K. Rowling’s novels, the event will include trivia, Harry Potter inspired cocktails, and a discussion of all things Potter.  In typical UU style, it will seek to utilize themes from the series to work toward social justice.

The heroes of Harry Potter are three Gryffindors.  As members of that house, they seek justice and will fight to the death for their cause. Just as Hermione stood up for the rights of house elves and Harry sacrificed himself to save the world from oppression, the Harry Potter Alliance seeks to emulate their heroes by working toward a world without the dark presence of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.  Of course, in our muggle world the Dark Lord’s presence is seen in the evils of illiteracy, inequality, and oppression.

These are the Alliance’s enemies, and the group plans to fight them through an entertaining evening of fundraising, cocktails, and quidditch.  I’m looking forward to the fight…and a few pumpkin martinis.


Jul 182011

Harry Potter holds a special place in my heart.  Back in 2000, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was about to be released, it was barely a blip on my radar screen.  I had heard of it.  A friend had recommended it, but I had written it off.  I love fantasy, but didn’t see myself reading children’s books.


Goblet of Fire is the point where the series changes from an enjoyable, well-written children’s series into a truly dangerous, gripping, epic fantasy series.  Echoing this, a change was taking place in pop culture.  Already wildly popular with children, the boy wizard was making strong headway with adults.  An adult edition of the series was published that included a less childish cover, just so adults didn’t have to hide the book from their peers as they as they devoured Harry’s adventures.  Eventually, though, Harry smashed through this barrier and people of all ages read the books with unabashed glee.  What started as a niche fantasy series had become an international, multigenerational phenomenon.


It was perfectly timed for me.  I was working on a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in literacy and culture.  I was interested in why children, who often express a dislike for reading, will read certain stories and not others.  Harry’s story was the perfect vehicle for me to show that even children who don’t like to read will read when the material is good enough.  Secondarily, it provided evidence to dissect, data to pick apart that could answer the question, If children don’t like to read, why are they reading this?


To be honest, my thesis wasn’t great.  In 200 pages, I basically announced the groundbreaking news that kids were reading Harry Potter because it’s a damn good story.


But there is so much more to it than that.  I didn’t collect evidence to say this, but Harry Potter appeals to so many people because it so skillfully weaves relatable characters who grow and develop over time, a parallel world that speaks to our unconscious minds, mystery, intrigue, action, danger, cross-generational conflict, heroism (including unlikely heroes), love, hatred, loyalty, joy, sorrow, suspense, and lots and lots of magic.  Plus, it does all this in a setting that everyone from all walks of life can instantly identify with- school.


Christians, though some of them had to get over their fear of little witches marching their children into Satan’s hands, had literature that expressed their cherished themes of good vs. evil, betrayal, sacrifice of the innocent, and resurrection.  Pagans, above and beyond enjoying the liberal and positive use of the word “witch,” had a story about a magical world that exists unseen alongside our own, a world which we can access if we only learn to see it.


But most of Harry Potter’s market was not Fundamentalist Christians or practicing Witches. Most were something in between, and they found characters that truly fleshed out their understanding of the world.  I think most people have difficulty with the idea of an absolute good and an absolute evil, and both fantasy and children’s literature usually offers a battle along those strict lines: the good guy vs. the bad guy.  Harry Potter spends a lot of time in the grey area.


Mild spoilers ahead if you have read none of the books or seen any of the movies.


Harry doesn’t fall into the black vs. white trap.  While Voldemort is clearly evil, we are left guessing with many other characters.  One of the running devices J.K. Rowling uses is the series in the uncertainty about Severus Snape.  His loyalties are questioned throughout the stories, the answer seems to change from book to book, and the reader is never sure where Snape stands until the very end.


The Snape question is central to the first book/movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where it intersects with the story of Professor Quirrell.  In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the self-promoting Gilderoy Lockhart could never be accused of being evil, but his morality is left as an open question.  He is not bad, but his ego certainly places Harry and his friends in harm’s way.


This theme continues throughout, from escaped prisoner Sirius Black to thief/Order of the Phoenix member Mundungus Fletcher, to Professor Horace Slughorn, a good man whose one mistake may have caused the deaths of thousands.  It extends to the Potter family as new eyes examine the actions of both Harry and his father.  It even touches the saintly, seemingly untouchable Albus Dumbledore.


Real people live real lives.  While mostly good, they sometimes do bad things.  It may be an accident, a misunderstanding, a lack of proper perspective, or a necessity.  It may even be on purpose.  Still, in the real world people are complicated, not one-dimensional do-gooders.  Rowling’s books tapped into this uncertainty and brought her readers characters that were more like themselves than almost any other work of fantasy.


People have trouble identifying with a perfectly good character.  It is an unattainable, and therefore unbelievable, state of being.  Many monotheistic religions falter at this point and lose followers because of it.  Many fantasy series do too, but the successful ones include some grey characters.  The Lord of the Rings has Boromir, who tried to kill Frodo to save his own country from devastation.  The Wheel of Time has the Aes Sedai, scheming and manipulative good guys (well, girls) who try to control the hero for their own purposes.


The good vs. evil trope is just as much a part of Harry Potter as it is in those other successful works, yet most of the characters exist between the dark and the light along with everyone in the audience.  Despite being magical, the characters are real and we love them because of, not despite their warts.


And it’s also a damn good story.

Jul 172011

I just got back from the theater.  I’m not really sure I have a whole lot to stay. Last November, I said a few things about the first installment and much of what I said there still applies.

Overall, though, I wasn’t disappointed with the final movie. I suppose for all the reasons I was disappointed in the first one, the second one came through for me. When you intentionally split a story up in half like that, you take a lot of wonder out of the tale.  Star Foster posted her thoughts on the franchise ending over at Pantheon.

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I think, years from now this movie will be more sentimental than classic. I had a few problems with it, but most of those were made less of an issue because I knew this was the end. I know that after this story, there would be no more Harry Potter, period.  At various times I found myself annoyed at the darkness of the movie.  Not the darkness of the story, but the actual fact that they seemed to spend a lot of money on special effects that we couldn’t necessarily see because the movie was literally dark.  I would have liked more Neville Longbottom because he rocks.  I could have done without the epilogue because I hated it in the book but I didn’t fool myself into believing it would actually be left out. All that being said, I cried. Three times.  Because I knew this story was over.  I can only hope that one day another tale will come along and enchant this world as much as the story of the Boy Who Lived.

Nov 202010

I saw Harry Potter last night.  I am not really sure what possessed us to want to see it on opening day, but we found ourselves at the local theater for a 10:15 show last night.  This also kept me up until 1am, which is almost unheard of for me and my friends will be excited to hear that I did not fall asleep in the movie, which I have been known to do.

Overall, I liked the movie.  I think that these young actors, who have grown up on the big screen along with their fictional counterparts, have really benefited from the franchise that also boasts some of the best actors in the United Kingdom.

Below the cut is some other tidbits about my thoughts.  If you haven’t watched it and don’t want to be spoiled, I recommend not clicking here.

Continue reading »

May 072010


 Confessing to guilty pleasure, I have to admit that I love Celebrity Apprentice. I’m especially enjoying this season (Season 3) because of Cyndi Lauper, whom (1) I worship and adore as a Goddess and (2) I get a kick out of watching because she’s so superbly Noo Yawk. Her inflections, her cadence, her gestures, the way she makes her points- it’s all so Noo Yawk, it’s brilliant.

Even so, I’m still not quite sure what to make of “Muggles and Wizards” (Season 3, Episode 4, air-date April 4, 2010), available at Hulu.com. But first- some back-story on what I find to be the extraordinary occurrence of what I call the “re-magicking” of the world.

It starts with a woman. She has no money; her times are hard. She is sitting on a train when- a boy pops into her head, who says, Hello. My name is Harry Potter.

At that instance- an entire series of novels flies into her head, which (because we hopefully all recognize that this is J. K. Rowling), we all now know became a global mega-literary phenomenon.

And what do Ms. Rowling’s books do (whether intentionally or not)? They encourage their readers to imagine themselves as Witches and Wizards- to pretend in their minds that they possess Magickal powers.

Then cue to Warner Brothers Studio (once-home to James Cagney and Bette Davis), who thought, Hey- these books will make great movies! And so, beginning in 2001, we have had the Harry Potter film series- which equally invites its viewers to use their imaginations, to pretend that they have Magickal powers, and that it is they having all of these incredible Magickal adventures in the world.

Then (and here’s the thing), as we found out on Celebrity Apprentice- Universal Orlando Theme Parks and Resorts is opening its newest attraction: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!! (It opens June 18, 2010; here is the address of their web-site, which is pretty cool and a neat little Harry Potter experience all by itself).


So the point of this new theme-park is to “immerse” oneself in a 3-D replica of the Harry Potter world- to be surrounded by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter- to have a physical environment (here’s the thing) in which to pretend that Magick is real- to pretend that you yourself are a Wizard, with Magickal powers.

First a book: within the privacy of its pages- an imaginative fantasy that asks the reader to have faith in Magickal ability.

Then: a series of movies- a visual fantasy that asks viewers collectively to awaken their minds to the idea of Magick.

Now: a new theme park at Universal Orlando- a huge, physical background against which to indulge in the fantasy of “living” in Harry Potter’s Wizarding World for real.

Doesn’t it seem as if the universe keeps generating newer vehicles to encourage people to open their creative minds to the idea of Magick?

Which brings us to Donald Trump and Celebrity Apprentice- in the episode cited above, he tasks the women’s team (Tenacity) and the men’s (RockSolid) to produce two experiences, in order to introduce some young, hard-core Harry Potter fans to Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Basically- and this is what I find so interesting- The Donald instructs the Celebrities to put together an experience that will Initiate these youngsters into Wizarding. “And make sure these kids have a great time doing it!”

So both teams put together what (in terms of Archetypal Symbology) count as Confrontational Initiation-Journey/ Life-Altering Ritual Ceremonies. To wit:

In Tenacity’s Wizarding-Introduction experience- the kids are ushered into a room. Sharon Osbourne (cloaked in a wizard’s robe) greets them at the door. “Welcome, young Wizards- welcome!”

The youngsters sit and Selita (wearing a witch’s hat) addresses them, welcoming them to a “world like no other,” and cautioning them, “don’t be afraid!”

Then Sharon instructs the “young Wizards” to “enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter” and guides the kids one at a time through a Dragon’s mouth that has been constructed.

Inside the kids are led through a sort of Labyrinth. They first meet Cyndi, who is being all brilliantly kooky: “Muggles and Wizards! Muggles and Wizards! Don’t look at me, don’t look at me!” (Everybody inside the Labyrinth is of course dressed up in Wizard’s robes as well.) Cyndi directs the kids onto Olivander’s, where they will be chosen by their Wand.

Maria meets them here: “Welcome to Olivander’s, welcome to Olivander’s!” Summer (hiding behind the wall) starts popping Wand-boxes out of the wall and then Maria “discovers” the Wand that has chosen the kid. “Is THIS your Wand?”

She gives the Wand to the kid- and this light that they have rigged up shines on the kid and this fan blows on their face for a moment and there’s this music- and each kid gets their own Magickal “Here is my Magickal Wand- WAAAAAHHHH [music-background] moment.”

Then the kids come out and Holly (dressed in a robe) congratulates them on “completing the forbidden journey” and invites them to help themselves to sweets and snacks as a reward.

The men’s team was not quite as well-organized as the women’s, which is why project-leader Rod was fired. The environment was as impressive- they ushered the kids into a small castle-replica- but the execution did not go off as well. (Rod pumped too much smoke into the castle; the kids noticed that the Sorting Hat’s answers appeared to emanate from the large tree in the corner that looked suspiciously like Goldberg in a costume, rather than from the Hat, and patiently explained afterwards that the Sorting Hat does not divide into “Classes,” but “Houses.”)

So the women’s team won. But what is basically going on here, Pagan readers? These Celebrities are devising Initiation ceremonies for these young Harry Potter fans, to welcome them into the World where Magick is Real. On Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, no less.

See what I mean about the universe just keeps finding newer and newer ways to introduce people to Magick?