Thursday 22 January 2015

The Weasleys

Ginny Weasley, long awaited girl.
It's big family week on Edinburgh Housewife, not because I want to rabbit-punch our sovereign pontiff (I don't), but because I am laid low by a nasty cold and wish my own big family were around to bring me tea and snacks.

For the record, I have read Francis's entire statement (as one does) and I find only two objectionable things: his use of the crude anti-Catholic smear "like rabbits" and his holding up of a mother of eight for ridicule. I think he would have got his point across much better if he had mentioned a penniless man who refused to learn NFP and badgered his wife for sex-on-demand despite A) her ill health or B) really not being able to feed the children they already had. This is probably a reality for millions of women across the developing world, and if the Holy Father had mentioned him instead, the Catholic blogosphere would not now be covered with bunny pictures.

Mind you, I rather like the bunny pictures. I also like all the witty remarks about bunnies B.A. and I have been exchanging. My guess is that married Catholics across the world are making flirtatious bunny remarks to each other this week. Perhaps there will be a baby boom in October as a result. Outraged relatives and neighbours will hiss, "I thought Pope Francis said you weren't supposed to be like rabbits", and the married couple, sleepless and exhausted, will giggle foolishly.

My nasty cold rather discourages bunny behaviour, but it does not prevent me from working on my Polish. And so I have been reading and listening to Harry Potter i Komnata Tajemnic, which is the Polish version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I have got to the chapter called "Nora" which turns out to be Polish for "The Burrow", the name of the Weasley home and also, er, what rabbits live in. Oh dear. I cannot get away from rabbits today.

Harry Potter has long been a focus of Catholic controversy, and this has always mystified me, since no-one has seizures over the magic-filled Oz books. I find the early HP books wonderfully inventive and well-written. J.K. Rowling has a clver sense of contrast, inviting us to compare Harry's nasty uncle and aunt and their one spoiled child with the generous, sprawling, cash-strapped Weasley clan.

The Weasleys are a traditional family with a father in a civil service post, a mother at home, and seven children, two of them grown up and employed by the time the baby is 10. The youngest Weasley is the only girl, which I suppose is an explanation to those who need one. ("WHY did the Weasleys have so many children, Mummy?") A much more amusing explanation is that the Weasleys, so red-haired and all, were not only wizards but Roman Catholics. Their religious faith being at odds with their wizard world, they made a bargain with their consciences, and lo.  On the other hand, maybe they just like children. They certainly embrace Harry and also Hermione, whose mother possibly prefers drilling teeth to raising children.*

If J.K. Rowling were a Catholic--she isn't, she's Church of Scotland--her critics might have taken her to task for the happy fecundity of the Weasleys and accused her of Catholic propaganda. Nasty little Draco Malfoy is an only child, and we are invited to condemn his sneers at the Weasleys for having "more children they can afford", not to applaud them.

The Weasleys also embody traditional male and female characteristics. Mr Weasley is the sole breadwinner (unless Charlie and Bill send money home) whereas Mrs Weasley cooks, cleans, launders and shouts. Bill prospects for gold. Charlie wrassels dragons. Prefect Percy plots to become Minister of Magic. Fred and George are famous for their pranks and go into business. Ron is sports-mad and wizard (ha ha) at chess. Ginny begins her school career as a damsel in distress and ends it as female romantic lead. (Yes, J.K., we know Hermione ought to have married Harry, just as Louisa M's Jo ought to have married Laurie. Too late now. )

I note, however, the more classically Protestant/Anglican Christian names of the father (Arthur) and children. "Molly", of course, is a diminutive of Mary. Maybe Molly is the only Catholic parent. Maybe my Catholic theory is a bit of a stretch.

The good, impecunious Weasleys are a contrast with the wicked, rich Malfoys. (Weirdly, by the Malfoy's own standards they are the same "class", being Grade A pure-blood wizards.) Their poverty is also a contrast to Harry's inherited wealth. This is quite a good thing from a literary point of view, as it mean Ron has a struggle between envy and loyalty, and Harry has something else beyond his control to feel badly about.

Reading the Harry Potter stories with strict attention, in two languages, reveals how dark they really are. Six year old children may find it funny that Harry is forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs--and my parents do have a cupboard under their stairs  big enough to house a child--but Child Protective Services would not find that funny at all. It is also not funny to adults that eleven-year-old Dudley is obese, thanks to his greed and his parents overfeeding. Of course, this provides another useful contrast, for Harry is thin. In fact, by the Chamber of Secrets, he is actually starving. And this is again helpful for underscoring the superiority of the Weasley family, for shortly after Harry is rescued from his abusive uncle and aunt, Mrs Weasley dishes up "eight or nine" sausages, three fried eggs and bread and butter.

I won't launch into the one-child Malfoys who, given their obsession with blood purity, family prestige and intermarriage, probably had infertility issues. (Oh, say! That's why they sneered at the Weasleys. Envious as hell!) No, the one-child family that epitomizes money-clutching lack of generosity is the dastardly Dursleys.

Almost everyone in the Harry Potter books is obsessed with name brands (e.g. the Nimbus 2000), but the Dursleys are the very soul of grasping consumerism. They are also deeply wedded to the notion of the nuclear family, having cast off Petunia's (also Muggle) parents entirely and socializing only with Vernon's rich sister Marge, who prefers dogs to children. Although they are not hurting for money, and Petunia stays at home, the Dursleys have elected to have just one child, upon whom they lavish ridiculous amounts of presents. They begrudge every penny they spend on their nephew, to the point of feeding him as little as possible.  Why they were not afraid of Social Services checking up on them, never mind Dumbledore, is a mystery to me.

Quite obviously Dudley Dursley would have been better off had he had to fight various brothers and sisters for his parents' attention and learned to accept living with limited resources. But I am afraid this was always going to be unlikely, for as we know from their treatment of Harry, the Dursleys are incredibly stingy. Interesting that they would give Dudley everything except a brother or sister to love.

So I continue to be mystified that some Catholics think the Harry Potter books are a portal to hell when they underscore that generous poverty is better than impoverished riches, big families can be happier  than small families, and self-sacrificial love for others is the answer to just about everything.

*Of course, she may have married late.


  1. What about the fact that Snape killing Dumbledore at the end is presented as a good thing?

    Personally I don't think the Harry Potter books are all that great once you get past the first book (Although I do agree with you that the Weasley clan is FANTASTIC! :) ), but I don't have problem with the witchcraft, or most of the things that Catholics tend to have issues about with these books.

    I do have other issues with it as a kids book, but the biggest thing for me is Snape killing Dumbledore at the end. That's their grand solution? Really? Does nobody see how wrong that is? Especially in a society that already sees killing people as a viable solution to certain problems, this is hugely problematic.

  2. Ha! You're right about that but Catholics were complaining LONG before then!

  3. When you look at it as a literary solution, though, instead of a "killing people can be okay" thing, it echoes the theme of self-sacrifice throughout the novels, starting with Ron putting himself in harm's way during the giant chess game so that Harry can checkmate the king. How far you can go with that is indeed an open debate although Catholics have a clear answer. Well, sort of clear, I heard the story of an American soldier who shot his buddy from a treetop because the was being skinned alive by the Viet Cong. This soldier became a priest. Well, war makes for hard cases. I suppose that's what I would tell a child troubled by the whole Snape-Dumbledore thing. (From a literary point of view, JKR wants to end her book with a bang, and she wants to preserve Snape as a baddie until the BIGGEST BANG EVER at the end.

  4. Honestly, I don't think the fact that someone became a priest after committing a mercy-killing really proves anything. How is this different from the doctor who euthanizes a patient who is dying from a horribly painful disease? People can become saints after having done bad things, but that doesn't mean that the bad things that they do are good because they are saints.

    (Although, I’m sure his culpability was probably less. I’m talking strictly about what he did here, not how much he might be culpable for it.)

    Certainly, there are very hard cases, and the principle of double-effect can come into play in them (For example, a doctor could administer what might be lethal doses of morphine to a patient, with the intention of easing their pain, even if it has the side-effect of killing them. However, giving them poison, or shooting them with a bullet, is different, because you are directly intending to kill the person in order to relieve their pain.), but you can never, ever licitly directly, intentionally kill an innocent person, even in order to bring about a greater good. (The CCC has a lot more about this, but I don't have time to look it all up now. This paragraph might be helpful, though.)

    CCC 1756 says that there are ‘acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good might result from it.’

    Ron putting himself in the position where he might be killed is vastly different from Dumbledore having Snape directly kill him, morally speaking. I can risk my life going into a burning building to save someone, but I can’t ask my best friend to kill me if I’m being burned at the stake.

    And certainly Catholics have a clearer understanding of all this than non-Catholics do, and I’m sure that she meant it to be in a continuing spirit of self-sacrifice. But that doesn’t make it right, and honestly, I think it’s a fault of our society that she would see it so. (After all, plenty of people applauded that young woman out in Oregon who killed herself after she was diagnosed with brain cancer this past fall. If she had done it in a spirit of self-sacrifice, not wanting her husband to have to suffer with seeing her slowly die of cancer, would that make it right? People can do bad things for noble reasons, certainly.)

    Our society really no longer acknowledges that there are things that are absolutely wrong to do, no matter how good your intentions might be, or how much suffering you might relieve by doing so.

    And in children’s literature, I think it is crucial to reveal evil for what it is. You can portray evil, but you can’t end up saying that it’s okay. Literature is a much more formative force in children’s lives that people tend to think. I’m not saying that kids who read it are necessarily going to go out and kill someone because they think it’s going to have a good effect :), but I do think that what people read and see in movies does subtly effect their views, even if they don’t realize it.

    Anyway, I have to get back to work now, but I do think this is a fascinating conversation! :) Thanks!

    1. Sorry-I just realized how scattered this reply was. :) My mind is all over the place sometimes. Yikes!

    2. Not at all! I thought you were very clear--with footnotes!

    3. I actually think that as a whole, the books reject consequentialist, ends-justify-the-means moral reasoning. "For the Greater Good" is Grindelwald's slogan; the implication that while Grindelwald kills thousands under this banner, Dumbledore sees Grindelwald's moral calculus for what it is and comes to his senses.

      And yet, Aberforth, who in Dumbledore's own estimation is the more virtuous brother, sneers that after all those years, Dumbledore never quite escaped the flaws of consequentialist reasoning.

      In any case, Harry, not Dumbledore, is the hero of the series, and JKR gives him an undoubting, non-consequentialist moral sense. I feel very sure that Harry would never have killed Dumbledore. Harry refuses to kill even when his own life is in peril. This tendency exasperates Lupin (at the beginning of book sever) but Harry doesn't back down. In the end, even in the final confrontation with Voldemort, Harry uses the disarming spell, NOT the killing spell. It's Harry's moral sense that saves him and enables him to sacrifice himself, thereby saving everyone from Voldemort. Dumbledore is quite right when he says that Harry is the better man.

      Hm....but all this probably goes over the heads of the children who read Harry Potter. Perhaps you're right that they should be saved for high least.


  5. I've always thought the Weasleys were Catholics, long before I even became a Catholic and knew anything about the Church teachings. (I didn't know any Catholics prior to conversion.)

    To me, British Isles red heads = Irish and Irish = Catholics.

    I think the overarching themes and symbols in the books are very Christian, but some Catholics and Protestants could never get past the witches thing.

    (Sorry if I double posted, my initial comment disappeared and didn't look like it had been submitted.)

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this defense of these entertaining books!! I don't understand why people get all upset about the wizardry and magic. Lord of the Rings, anyone?? Narnia??

    The Snape/Dumbledore thing bothered me too. My high school students persuaded me to read the books, so when I finished we had a little chat about that. They insisted that it HAD to happen that way or, or, or...My response was "Maybe in J.K. Rowling's world it had to happen that way. In God's world it does not. God has even better ways that we will understand in the end, even if we don't now." Whaddaya know, they understood that.

    Because they are so absorbing, and get so dark so quickly, I wouldn't recommend them below high school. But my students loved finding parallels between HP and the Christian story. Some of it was a stretch, sure. No, Harry Potter isn't of the caliber of LOTR or Narnia. But it's an entertaining story with some fine themes. Thanks for elaborating on them. I think I enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed reading the books!

  7. ^You sound like an awesome teacher, Diva. :-)

    I am glad you like these books, Seraphic. And they are full of Christian themes. I was not interested in them at all as a kid because I am originally from a town known for such things (I've self-censored, but you all can probably guess)*, and I was sick of it. But as a college student I found a book by a Greek Orthodox man, Looking for God in Harry Potter, that discussed the Christianity that went right through them. (And he had been reading them to tell his daughter why she wasn't allowed to.) It's pretty incredible, actually, and in retrospect I agreed with Jo Rowling, who remarked at one point she'd thought the Christian symbolism was obvious.

    This explanatory book came out before Deathly Hallows, and we discussed it at length at this author's blog (HogwartsProfessor). None of us were thrilled with it. But I think it is a good discussion point, and in addition to Diva's point, I think we can say that notice how pretty much all of Dumbledore's careful plans didn't quite work out, and it was better that they didn't (if Snape had been the master of the elder wand, then Harry couldn't have defeated Voldemort at the end, for example). And the flawed nature of Dumbledore calls into question a lot of what he was willing to do for his results (while he seems to be a gambler with the ends and means, Rowling doesn't seem to endorse the idea that any means would be justified for an ends).

    And on to the Weasleys, well, I just love them. My parents' fortunes improved, but I remember being six kids, two parents and my grandma in a 3 bedroom house (with a 4th bedroom a converted family room), and then 7 and 8 kids, a grandma, a great grandma, and two parents in a bigger but still quite full house. And even with a bigger yet house, we always shared rooms. There are some experiences you just don't get without a crowd around a table, or sharing a bed. The Weasleys make me feel cozy on the inside, and after remarks and dirty looks starting around the 5th of us, it was good to see a positive portrayal of a large family int eh face of it, even in the face of the quite common snobbery of having more than they could afford, as if people are just another line in the budget book. I feel a bit like a Weasley, even without red hair, and more girls than boys. :-)

    *I am now quite interested in the history, and reading documents from the trials and era, it makes me mad that a travesty of history has turned into a marketing point.


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