Sunday Salon ~ Harry Potter and the Medieval Morality Play

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOne of the questions that I was asked to consider this week as I worked my way though the material I’ve been sent on The Comedy of Errors was what, if any, examples I could think of amongst current ‘literature’ that continued the traditions of the Medieval Morality Plays in a modern form.  The suggestion made in the text was that of the Western with its (normally) diametrically opposed good guy versus bad guy.

Well, as you will know if you’ve read the last entry here, I’m beginning to develop a habit of arguing with the materials that I’ve been sent and I wasn’t too sure about this response either.  I can see the good guy, bad guy argument, but it seems to me that a much more fundamental issue where the Morality Plays are concerned is the question of choice – do I choose to be good or do I choose to be bad and if I choose to be bad is there any hope of redemption.

With this in mind, I toyed for a while with the idea of Star Wars and the choices which Luke and Darth Vedar have to make, but then I suddenly realised that in fact there was a much more obvious answer, Harry Potter.

The question of choice is central to the Harry Potter sequence.  It is there from the very beginning when Malfoy approaches Harry on the train and tries to recruit him to the forces of evil.

‘You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter.  You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort.  I can help you there.’

Harry rejects Malfoy’s offer of ‘help’ and reinforces his choice under the Sorting Hat.

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, ‘Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.’

‘Not Slytherin, eh?’ said the small voice.  ‘Are you sure?  You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that – no? Well, if you’re sure – better be GRYFFINDOR!’

Just in case we haven’t realised the importance of this choice, Dumbledore makes it very plain when Harry agonises over the similarities between himself and Voldemort and questions whether or not the hat has made a mistake.

‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  ‘Which makes you very different from [Voldermort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Throughout the sequence the importance of choice is emphasised again and again.  Think, for example of the moment in the Shrieking Shack where Harry chooses not to kill Wormtail and the consequences inherent on that choice.  And, of course, we are reminded of it right at the very end as Harry says goodbye to his son, Albus, on the platform at King’s Cross.  As Albus agonises over the possibility that the Hat might place him in Slytherin Harry tells him,

‘if it matters to you, you’ll be able to choose Gryffindor over Slytherin.  The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.’
‘It did for me,’ said Harry.

So, if the question of choice is central, then what about the question of redemption?  There we have to turn to Snape.  For if ever there was a character in literature who has turned his back on the bad, given himself over to the good, despite what it costs him, and who is eventually redeemed by his actions it is Severus Snape.  And, he does it without any expectation of reward.  Indeed, he refuses to allow Dumbledore to tell anyone of what he has done and why.  But, in the end he is willing to give his life for the child he loathes, the son of the man he hates, because of love, because Harry is also the son of Lily Evans.  He is redeemed by his action and has his final reward.  The last thing he sees as his life drains away is the one feature that Harry has inherited from his mother, her beautiful green eyes.

Realising the link between Harry Potter and the Medieval Morality Tales has made me think again about the value of those earlier texts.  I read several during the week and to some extent passed them over as not particularly relevant to me or to the current world, mainly, I suspect, because they are placed in such a strict Christian context.  However, when I think about what they are saying through the context of Rowling’s work I find myself acknowledging that the medium is not always the message.  That sometimes the medium can get in the way of the message.  Whatever tradition we come from, whatever our cultural perspective, our choices are what define us and the idea that we can be ‘redeemed’, that we can recognise the folly of earlier choices and do something to put those choices right, is for me at least, serious grounds for hope.

Published in: on October 25, 2009 at 10:47 am  Comments (6)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOh Lord!  Sorry I haven’t been around these last couple of days.  My nightmare scenario happened at a preliminary meeting over at Stratford.  There was a major accident on the motorway on the way home and as a consequence the hour journey took nearer three.  And, as a consequence of that, my adrenalin problem kicked in and, well let’s just say you don’t want to know about the rest, because you really don’t!    I console myself by the fact that if things really do become impossible this is a degree that can be done by distance learning.  I don’t want to do it that way, but if I have to I will.  Nothing much to report from the meeting (this week and next it’s more administrative stuff than actual teaching) except that everyone seems formidably clever and incredibly confident.  I know enough about students to know that the latter, at least, is 90% bravado.  Most of them will be shaking in their boots as much as I am.

But, I did get a good tip from one woman to whom I spoke about a very good audio version of Richard II, which in the light of what we were talking about last week concerning the way in which Shakespeare’s audience would have listened to a play, I thought I would explore and see if just listening made a big difference.

The version about which she was so complimentary was the BBC Radio Production with Samuel West as Richard.  I’m not certain if those of you who are reading this outside the UK will know Sam West’s work, but let me just say that when I heard this existed I had to come home and discover if it was available anywhere because anything with West in it is a must in this household.  In fact, it is because Sam West is his namesake that Samuel Bear wants to grow up to be a Bear who is an actor. (Amongst many other things.  Samuel Bear is a Bear who wants to do everything; preferably yesterday.  Sometimes, living with Samuel Bear can be exhausting!)

The link I’ve given you is for the Audible Company.  I discovered them last week after deciding that I wanted to do more listening.  For £7.99 a month you can have one download whatever the actual price.  Sometimes that means a saving on shop bought CDs of over £50.  A deal not to be sniffed at.  We have already had our discounted download for this month and I’ll tell you about that another day, but as this Richard is only £8.99 I’m going to treat The Bears and we are all going to the theatre this evening.

I think Audible must have originated in the US, so if this is as good as my new colleague suggests then when I report back maybe you will be able to get a copy there if it appeals. I wonder, are there other companies like this around?  If anyone knows of any I’d be glad of a link.  As it is we have already decided on next month’s discount.  Little Dorrit is available at about 15% of the price I would have had to pay in the shops.  Our long winter nights with tea, scones and Dickens are now assured.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 9:39 am  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ A Different Type of Listening

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult.  Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened.  (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)

Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’  These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’  They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.

For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening.  But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening.  I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends.  I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema.  Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear.  I am not an Elizabethan.  This weekend I have wished I was.  It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.

So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through September, here is mine.  In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it.  I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those.  There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years.  While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener.  If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties.  Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (16)