August 29, 2007

Penny Dreadfuls?

Category: Literature :: Permalink

In his recent article on the last Harry Potter book (which, I warn you in advance, contains many spoilers), Alan Jacobs compares the Harry Potter books to the old penny dreadfuls.

A little more than a hundred years ago, a number of British educators, journalists, and intellectuals grew exercised about the reading habits of the nation’s children. The particular target of their disapproval was the boy’s adventure story—the kind of cheap short novel, full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism, that had come to be known as the “penny dreadful.” Surely it could not be good for children to immerse themselves in these ill-made fictional worlds, with their formulaic plots and purple prose; surely we should insist that they learn to savor finer fare.

G. K. Chesterton, however, wrote “A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls,” pointing out that the things these books contained are also found in great literature and arguing that the “penny dreadfuls” are actually more ethically sound than a lot of the things that more sophisticated people read:

The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared … . The average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets.

In his review, Jacobs goes on to speak of the Harry Potter books as penny dreadfuls.  After all, as he says, “It is a story full of exotic locations and narrow escapes from mortal peril and false friends and unexpected acts of heroism; it is a story which suggests that courage is splendid and fidelity noble.”  And near his conclusion, he writes:

It should be obvious at this point that the Harry Potter books amount to something more, far more, than your average penny dreadful. But they belong, firmly, to that moral universe, even as they expand it beyond what we might have thought possible. Many years ago Umberto Eco wrote that the greatness of Casablanca stems from its shameless deployment of every narrative cliché known to humankind: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” The Harry Potter books are like that: every trope and trick of the penny dreadful raised to the highest power and revealed in all their glory.

I love that Umberto Eco quotation, and I appreciate what Jacobs is saying.  He is certainly a perceptive reader of Rowling’s novels.

And yet I do wonder if it’s really fair to put Harry Potter in the category of “penny dreadfuls.”  The Hardy Boys books could easily fit in that category, although they’re probably tamer than some of the books Chesterton was speaking of and Frank and Joe themselves were perhaps more restrained that some of Chesterton’s heroes.  But these books are full of adventures to be faced with pluck and courage.  And yet there’s virtually no maturation taking place in the entire series.  Each book presents a set of adventures, a set of challenges, a mystery to be figured out.  But that’s it.

On an adult level, virtually any novel by Agatha Christie could be seen as a sort of grown-up “penny dreadful.”  Hercule Poirot does not change.  He doesn’t mature and grow.  Nor does Hastings.  Nor does Mrs. Marple.  They’re always the same and only the mysteries they solve change.  For that matter, all the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, which are almost the same novel anyway, while certainly not “dreadful” in any sense, are similar to the penny dreadfuls in that they simply present a series of (highly enjoyable) incidents.

But Harry Potter is far different.  Yes, the Harry Potter books can be classified as “genre fiction.”  They are fantasy novels.  They are also school stories, which is a genre unique to Britain where public schools are boarding schools.  But a novel which is genre fiction is not necessarily the same thing as a penny dreadful.  The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel, but it’s a far cry from the Hardy Boys or the adventures of Dick Deadshot.

And the Harry Potter novels, it seems to me, are far closer to The Lord of the Rings than they are to any of the penny dreadfuls of the past or present. 

One way of getting at the difference, it seems to me, is through something C. S. Lewis says in A Preface to Paradise Lost when he compares Homer and Virgil.  Virgil has a much bigger sense of time than Homer does, Lewis says.  More than that, he is interested in the turning points in history, the points of transition.  Homer and the Greeks were focused more on the timeless; Virgil is interested in the changes that make history.  Lewis writes about the Aeneid,

In a sense he [Aeneas] is a ghost of Troy until he becomes the father of Rome.  All through the poem we are turning that corner.  It is this which gives the reader of the Aeneid the sense of having lived through so much.  No man who has once read it with full perception remains an adolescent (p. 37).

Furthermore, Virgil, unlike Homer, is concerned with vocation, the kind of calling that is both duty and desire and that drives me to leave behind things they might otherwise love: “To follow the vocation does not mean happiness: but once it has been heard, there is no happiness for those who do not follow” (p. 39).

Virgil thus took a great step forward:

I have read that his Aeneas, so guided by dreams and omens, is hardly the shadow of a man beside Homer’s Achilles.  But a man, an adult, is precisely what he is: Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy.  You may, of course, prefer the poetry of spontaneous passion to the poetry of passion at war with vocation, and finally reconciled.  Every man to his taste.  But we must not blame the second for not being the first . With Virgil European poetry grows up.  For there are certain moods in which all that had gone before seems, as it were, boys’ poetry, depending both for its charm and for its limitations on a certain naivety, seen alike in its heady ecstasies and in its heady despairs, which we certainly cannot, perhaps should not, recover.  Mens immota manet, “the mind remains unshaken while the vain tears fall.”  That is the Virgilian note.  But in Homer there was nothing, in the long run, to be unshaken about.  You were unhappy, or you were happy, and that was all.  Aeneas lives in a different world; he is compelled to see something more important than happiness  (pp. 37-38).

Perhaps the application to the penny dreadfuls and Harry Potter is already clear.  The penny dreadfuls are Homerian, if you will.  They simply tell of adventures and derring-do.  They are boys’ literature.  But Harry Potter, like The Lord of the Rings, is much more Virgilian, even though it deals with a boy.  It deals with him as someone growing up to become a man, someone bound by a vocation which is both duty and desire and which is more important than mere happiness.

But let me go a step beyond Lewis: Greater far than Virgil is the story of Christ, the epic which is Scripture.  I was struck as I read Lewis’s chapter by some of the similarities Lewis traces between Virgil’s approach and some Scriptural themes, which was part of Lewis’s point.

And yet it strikes me, too, how much more mature the story of Scripture is than even the story Virgil tells, for it is not simply the story of the great hero who follows his vocation in spite of tears, grows to maturity, and then attains a glorious triumph and the establishment of an eternal city.  It is the story of the great hero who suffers and dies en route to that victory, whose suffering and death is that victory, the great hero whose true heroism consists in his laying down his life for his friends.  Virgil doesn’t yet know that sort of self-sacrifice and to Homer’s heroes it would be reprehensible, the mind of a slave, as it was even to the Roman culture at the time of Christ.

And that is the story that Harry Potter is closest to: certainly not Homer or the penny dreadfuls with their brave heroes and derring-do and one set of adventures after another, not even Virgil with his teary-eyed hero stoically aiming at his destiny, but the story of Christ.  Unlike the penny dreadfuls, these novels are one consistent whole and that whole is a story of maturation and Christ-like self-sacrifice.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:23 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Penny Dreadfuls?”

  1. The Bound Dragon » Blog Archive » More on Harry Potter as a Quality Read Says:

    […] Harry Potter and the Penny Dreadfuls […]

  2. Glenda Says:

    Your steel trap mind has hit the nail on the head again, John! I agree that the Harry Potter series is closer to scripture than a “penny dreadful.”

    You and I have discussed the sense of “homecoming” in the LOTR, and I think Rowling’s epilogue conveys some of that same sense with its focus on family.

  3. Charles Chambers Says:

    Thanks John and here, here!

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