Monday, March 28, 2005

Which Witch: Mary Poppins and Harry Potter

Having viewed Mary Poppins for the nintey-third time since Christmas and having listened to and read all the Harry Potter books over and over trying to make it easier to wait for the newest edition, I have noticed what seems to be a shared mythos. There are similarities in the way magic works and in the way the magic users behave. Similarities abound, in fact, if you look closely. And believe me I have. I no longer enjoy either for the plot; I can't anymore. I've just seen the movies/read the books, too many doggone times. In order to enjoy either one of them, I feel the need to start looking at structure, dialog, and the rules for their worlds.

First of all, both stories are set in England. Both have a shared cultural flower bed, so to speak. But I do believe Rowling is standing on the shoulders of giants, when she writes about her magical world, building on legends that preceded her work. I think what makes the Harry Potter series so enchanting is that, although there is a new and wonderous magical world for us to explore, it doesn't stray far from traditional stories and legends. It's both new and familiar. Exciting and non-threatening.

But beyond the familiar traditions, there are other similarities. Let's start with the chimney. While watching Mary Poppins with my daughter for the ninety-third time, I started thinking about Floo Powder and the Floo network. This is how wizards and witches travel in Harry Potter, but in MP, magical chimney sweeps fly up them, dance across the roof tops. They seem to recognize and know who MP is and what she is capable of, just like Bert does. They also seem capable of a bit of magic themselves, not the least of which is dancing together without appearing gay. At any rate, chimneys=magical transportation in both stories.

My friend, Big Orange, (check out his blogs:
the whimsical one and the serious one) and I were talking on the phone last night and he brought up Bert. He wondered if he was a witch of the lower arcana or some other big word. I immediately chimed in with my theory that Bert is like a Squib in the Harry Potter series. He knows about the magical world, he seems to live and work among the witches and wizards, and he seems to have a sixth sense about the approach of Mary Poppins. He knows what she can do, but can't do it himself. He is sort of what the non-magic people in MP might call a denizen of the fringe or a "marginal person." I've heard Roland Barth speak about the marginal. He explains that marginal people actually have a lot of power of a different sort because they not only inhabit the culture of the "normal" or dominate culture, in this case the muggle world, but they also live in the subdominate culture of witches and wizards. Just like HP, Bert acts as a guide and translator for the uninitiated in both cultures. He has power because he has knowledge of the rules and languages of both cultures and could use that knowledge for good or evil. Bert uses his power for good, or at least for kicks.

There are other magical folk in the MP story. It is interesting to view them doing what they do in the context of the story, but more interesting is how the muggles interact with them. Here are the characters who I believe are also magical:

  • Admiral Boom
  • Uncle Albert
  • The Bird Lady
  • Mary Poppins, of course

Admiral Boom

Admiral Boom has the power of Divination; he can sense storms brewing in the Banks's home and even goes so far as to warn Mr. Banks that he's in for quite a ride. That Mr. Banks ignores his warnings outright, in fact responds with a completely automatic, "Yes, yes, very good!" when the Admiral details his doom, tells of a denial that rivals even the Dursely's. The Dursely's are conciously in denial, though, while Mr. Banks is too wrapped up in being impressed with himself that he wouldn't recognize a prophesy of doom if ran up to him and peed on his shoes.

Mr. Banks is not the only one oblivious to the powers of Admiral Boom. No one in the story remarks on the oddity of Admiral Boom's home. Why does no one complain about the cannons? Does the architechture not scream: madman who's taken too many booms to the head? This oddity seems to be inexplicably ignored by the people who inhabit this story. Perhaps there is some form of "does-not-compute-ism" and muggles just can't deal with magic on any level. Maybe, as in HP, Admiral Boom's house is magically cloaked like the Ministry of Magic building or St. Mungo's Hospital. These buildings in HP are intentionally being cloaked, but maybe being magical in MP's world is enough to disguise them from the muggles, whether this is intentional or not. I think Admiral Boom's state of making so little of an impression on others is not intentional on his part as he seems to be doing everything he can in order to be noticed.

Admiral Boom is the source of time. Bert comments early in the movie that the world gets the time from Greenwich, but Greenwich gets the time from Admiral Boom. You may have noticed that Mr. Banks questions the authenticity (and therefore authority) of the time Admiral Boom presents as 6:00 p.m. He actually says, "a bit early this evening, aren't we Admiral?" This, I believe, is another cue to let us know how out of step with the magical Mr. Banks really is. How does Admiral Boom calibrate the correct time? Is his home full of magical gadgetry? I have a feeling he and Dumbledore are probably on the same mailing lists.

Uncle Albert

Uncle Albert is a wizard of the prankster variety, ala Fred and George. He may even represent a sort of addict in the magic world. He cannot control his compulsion to laugh and he wants others to join him. Replace laugh with alcohol and suddenly it is not so funny. Actually, MP is very exasperated when she learns Uncle Albert is on the ceiling again; she learns this from a dog, I might add. Just as it is when you first meet a drunk: they are the life of the party. Then, it gets old, especially when you are called on time and again to rescue this poor sod.

Here, Bert is involved again, but rather than magiking Uncle Albert down, which MP could probably do, he has to counter the hilarity with sadness. This counterspell, if you will, remindes me of the Patronis spell which counters Dementors in HP's world. These Dementors bring about great sadness to their victims. A Dementor attack is described as feeling like you will never be cheerful again (kind of like the way clinical depression feels). The only way to protect yourself is to access the most wonderful memory you have and use it to ward them off. Parallel stories, but oppisite I think.

The Bird Lady

This woman is someone who MP admires very much. I'm not really sure why and I'm not sure if the story is not clear about it or If I just start to fade at this point in the movie. Perhaps the Bird Lady is akin to Hagrid: she has a special commraderie with animals. Maybe she was an old teacher of MP and showed her how to speak with and understand animals. She is also virtually invisible to Mr. Banks, who when compelled by his children, squints across the plaza to register her presence and then to denegrate her importance. Hagrid has a similar effect on muggles. Again, I'm sure there is a point to all this "feed the birds" nonsense, there must be to carry snowglobe around depicting the scene, but it is lost on me. Perhaps I can't see the magic. Perhaps it is merely a plot device to cause tension between the bankers and the children: the most opposite of opposites that ever opposited.

I would like to talk about the bankers. They are very similar to the goblins in HP in their dress and demeanor. That's all.

Mary Poppins

This woman, in the language of Harry Potter's world, is most definately a witch. She is handy with potions (see the customized cough syrup). She can charm objects into movement (see cleaning the nursery). She can fly/levitate. She can speak with animals, she can carry many items of a wide variety of sizes in her carpet bag, even the illogical floor lamp. She can also charm people. She can get overexcited children to sleep with one song. One song. It takes me two stories and 5 songs to get mine to sleep. The entire Banks household, excepting of course Mr. Banks, are cheered by her presence. They are captivated by her spell. Mr. Banks suspects her of bringing chaos into the order of his home, which is true, I guess. It's more of a revolution against his rule of law and order, I think. He hasn't yet learned the lesson that being joyful is better than being in control of everything. I suspect that she is the best Nanny Witch there is.

In HP's world, however, I'm sure she would have to answer to Mr. Weasley in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office over many of her actions. Although, she does a good job of covering up her powers to the muggles by denying that any of it ever happened and writing it off as childish fancy, even to the children she experienced magical things with. Really, who would believe a child over the nanny in those days? She is a very powerful witch and does some amazing things. I wonder if she appears on any of those Famous Witches and Wizards cards you get with a Chocolate Frog.

She and Harry are parallel but opposite. She is accomplished in her craft and in her culture. He is just learning both, although he has great potential, especially in defense against the dark arts. She is respected and above reproach. He is respected by a small circle of people, famous to many, but easily scapegoated. She is very good at potions, Harry is not so much. She has confidence, poise, and vanity. Harry doubts himself and wishes to blend in more. Although he can get caught up in himself, I seriously doubt he would ever refer to himself as "Practically perfect in every way."

As you may be able to guess, I have been driven to comparative literature through shear repetition. The appitite of a three-year old to see something again and again knows no bounds. As I make deeper grooves in my memory of the fairy tales and legends I see repeated in their many shapes and sizes, I continue to be amazed by the creativity. Just as Tolkein started with his home and built a legend for his country, so did Rowling. She used her home, late 20th century England and picked up the legend and turned it like a kaleidescope. The messages are the same in these works: goodness and joy and fun are more important than work and rules and compliance or blind alligience to authority. It's really quite fascinating and I'm even more impressed with her work as I start to look at its structures.

Either that or I'm just going batty with the reruns.

By the way, I'd like to leave you with this syllogism:

  • Most stories are written by creative people.
  • Most creative people don't care much for rules and the people who follow them.
  • Therefore, most stories contain lessons such as: break the rules, play, thumb your nose at authority, express yourself, etc., etc.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Speaking of Beavers...

Every great weekend has a catchphrase (see post title) and this one is no exception. I realize that it is early Saturday morning and for most people, it is usually the kick-off and not last call. But due to babysitting issues, my weekend started yesterday morning and ends in about 4.5 hours.

We had a great time last night reuniting with friends I haven't seen for over a year. Everyone is settling comfortably into their thirties and are much more relaxed and mellow than they used to be. Everyone except for the one who was still 29. She began to bemoan the fact that she would be thirty soon. All of us were like, eh, it's no big deal. I added: "You know, your thirties will be so much better than your twenties because you will realize how bad your twenties sucked."

As I said it, I realized what a relief it was to admit that my twenties weren't the best time of my life. Here's why:

  1. No experience, therefore, lousy jobs.
  2. Spiraling in and out of depression due to many life-altering decisions must make in twenties.
  3. Parents still seem like authority figures; I still acted like teenager.
  4. High mobility/no permanent residence.

My thirties are wonderful due to the direct opposite of the above statements. I think that my thirty-something friends would probably agree that it feels like you've got a firmer grip on the reins of life by the time you hit, say, 32.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Winter Seagulls

I am fortunate to have a job. I am lucky to have an office rather than a cubicle. I am blessed to have a window that is not sealed shut. The best thing about my workspace is that sometimes, when it is quiet, I can hear the call of seagulls outside my window; a novelty that has yet to lose its charm.

I'm not a beach person and the sound of the seagull does not tug at the memory of days wiled away at the seashore. To me, the seagull’s song is both foreign and familiar. I've spent the past six or so years landlocked and I've recently returned to the home of my Alma Mater on the shores of Lake Erie. Seagulls were all over the place back in my college days as they are today. But since I didn't grow up near the shore, seagull song reminds me more of my movie-memories of the beach: pirates, castaways, thoughtful reflection that leads to action, and seaweed-entwined lovers.

I loathe the actual beach, but I love experiencing the beach virtually in literature and film. The imagined smell of the salt air, the breeze, the waves wetting my feet, and the call of the seagull; these things live in the ideal of my memory, free of the grit and smell of a real beach. Because most of my memories of the seashore are rooted in fantasy, hearing a seagull calling while I am at my desk feels somehow magical. It's almost as if I'm walking down the street and I see a unicorn nuzzling the lawn in front of my house or I’m driving past the wash-and-wax and catch a glimpse of the workers drying off a dragon. It is one of the intangible benefits of my job: magic in the mundane.