The Sacred Music of Harry Potter: The Hogwarts School Song

For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.

Unknown artist. Dumbledore  would  own a combustable bird...

Unknown artist. Dumbledore would own a combustable bird...

This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.

For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:

  1. Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
  2. Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
  3. Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
  4. Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
  5. Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?

Here goes!

You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

1. Context

This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.

 

2. Musicology

Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.

However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.

The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaosDepending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.


*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!

**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!

***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!

 

3. Metaphor

I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.

First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.

Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.

 

4. Personal

Owens Valley, We Love You.png

My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.

In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.

 

5. Action

Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?

I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest? 


NEXT: Ghost music...

 

My LEGO Rant

Whenever my wife and I are fortunate enough to walk through the air conditioned aisles of a Target (most recently on road trips between Santa Barbara and Sacramento in an attempt to lull our five-month-old to sleep) there comes a moment when Jess, without even looking at me and in her off-handed way, asks that I spare her the ritual of "my LEGO rant". Since I've subjected my family and many of my friends to this particular topic to no avail, I've now decided to unleash it upon the Internet, that rollicking sea of discursive opinion.

(The embryo of this rant already appeared in a previous post entitled "The Merest Set of Blocks" where I hold LEGOs up as an example of "life creating" play. The current post takes its departure from this idea, problematizing current trends in LEGOs and drawing out some criticisms and observations.)


Here it goes: LEGOs are a type of toy that allows the literal construction of Tolkienesque co-created worlds. Yet as I roam Target (Jess is probably meanwhile looking at patterned workout pants), I become concerned by what I see as a development in LEGOs that would seem to fundamentally limit the toy's creative power. I'm talking about the overwhelming presence of specifically marked, franchise characters and worlds. In other words, why all the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel comics?


I see these sets as a problem when I compare them with more basic, unmarked sets from the 90s: City, Space, Medieval, Pirates, etc. These older genres seem to offer the perfect balance of marked specificity and unmarked generality. They have enough connection to a widely-known and accepted, constructed world to give basic parameters for play, basic rules and norms. But at the same time the genres are loose enough to allow for the widest possible variation and manipulation.

Take for example the following, common City character: Body design (black with pockets and silver badge), face (smile with black shades), helmet (white with clear visor), and vehicle (white motorcycle with radio antennas and "police" on the side). All these things mark this figure as a police officer on a motorcycle. Certain generic rules come into play as soon as this concept is accepted: the "good guy" role, power relations to "bad guys" and "innocent City dwellers", the narrative of the "high speed pursuit", etc. But these rules can easily be bent, challenged, or otherwise problematized. Is he the hero? The sidekick? A husband? A father? A son? Happy with his job? Overworked and mentally unstable? Does he have a dark and obscure past? Does he have a criminal brother who pits family against justice? Is he a cop by day and freelance web designer by night? There's nothing to stop you from pretending that the cop is really a criminal in disguise. Or he's in a Halloween costume. Or he's a displaced cyborg from the future. Or a displaced knight from the past. It can be almost whatever you want! You could even insert him into another context; with a little imagination and the addition and subtraction of a few choice pieces he could be a Scout Trooper on a Speeder Bike. (I may or may not have done exactly that as a child...)

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

Specificity meets possibility. LEGOs and genre at their best!

Not so, I argue, with the franchise sets. Everything here is heavily marked. The "Indiana Jones" figurine isn't just any "good guy". He's Harrison Ford. He's a specific persona built upon a solid and controlled tradition of movies and books and video games. He has his own soundtrack. He has specific catch phrases, personality traits, and accouterments. He comes preloaded with certain relationships towards women, snakes, Nazis, his father, America, collegiate teaching, epistemology, mysticism, the use of force, etc. 

Similarly, whoever "Malekith the Accursed" is (I say as I walk through the LEGO aisle in Target perusing the available sets), he obviously has unique characteristics, a specific story and a point of view that puts him into relationship with other characters within his world. If one is unfamiliar with these things, there is a risk of using him "incorrectly". (A lesson I learned with certain "Ninjago" figurines while playing with my nephews.)

I'm not arguing that specificity is in and of itself negative. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others have all created rich worlds that have had a lasting effect on our culture in important ways. I'm also not saying that the mixture of genres (eg. "Indiana Jones" having tea with "Darth Vader" in a "castle" with "Iron Man" playing saxophone in the background) is impossible or undesirable or bad. The LEGO Movie in particular uses genre mixture in a particularly powerful, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque way, that reveals the need for reassessment of meta-narratives both in fantasy and reality. I am saying that the specificity of this overly-marked characterization limits the possibility inherent in LEGOs as toys. Their worlds are pre-constructed and much less open to manipulation. And this manipulation is what truly makes LEGOs great.

Co-creation vs. participation. Light generic marking vs. meta-narratives. Open vs. limited.


Obviously any rant is fraught with loopholes and problems. Perhaps I betray my ignorance of the Marvel multiverse, or my dissatisfaction with Peter Jackson's adaptation of LOTR. Perhaps I see limitations where others see potentialities. Perhaps I betray my jealousy of today's purple bricks, the pre-made "Darth Vader" helmets (I had to use the visored knight helmet for that character), the cannons that actually shoot. ("Today's youth don't know how good they have it!" says the old man.) But, also, perhaps I've touched upon something that speaks directly to the fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

What do you think?

Comps!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I've passed my comps!

Hello, horizon! (John Bauer) Not sure if the Comps are the geese flying into the distance, the horse I'm riding, or the body-sized sword slung to my side!

Hello, horizon! (John Bauer) Not sure if the Comps are the geese flying into the distance, the horse I'm riding, or the body-sized sword slung to my side!

For those of you who don't know what this means, let me elaborate. "Comps" or "comprehensive examinations" (alternatively known as "compies", "the Thirteenth Labor", "cromps", or "the Grinding Ice of Helcaraxë") are a series of capstone tests in which the doctoral candidate demonstrates a level of mastery over their academic subject. I had been studying for this event for almost a year, refreshing my general music history knowledge, paying particular attention to five specialty topics for which I would need to have deep historical and scholarly knowledge: Counter-Reformation, French Opera (Lully to Revolution), Nineteenth-Century Character Pieces, Soviet Music (Revolution to Death of Stalin), and Genre. My comps were administered over the course of four days: I spent two days writing lengthy and detailed essays on my specialty topics (A Questions) and on general music history (B Questions); a third day was devoted to score identification where I had to use sheet music excerpts to make inferences on mystery pieces' style and history; and the last day, scheduled for the week after, consisted of an oral examination with my committee of three musicologists. All in all, about 19 hours worth of comptastic excitement!

Of course, every discipline and every institution has different methods for measuring and assessing said mastery, but once passed, the candidate is declared ABD, that is, a PhD in "All But Dissertation". It's a big deal. Having emerged victorious from this ordeal here are some thoughts on the process. Hopefully they may prove helpful, not just for those of us whose comps are yet on the horizon, but for anyone considering doing something intimidating, complicated, and absolutely worthwhile.
 

  • Seek Out Guidance and Support


The challenge I faced in comps not only concerned needing to establish the scope of my project early on, but to continually assess the project as it threatened to overflow its boundaries. Any progress I made inevitably expanded my horizons, a sensation simultaneously thrilling as it showed me exciting new paths yet to take, and mortifying as it emphasized how much further I had yet to go. The only way for me not to be derailed by the details or overwhelmed by the big picture was to seek out people who could guide and support me. Doing so requires admitting your confusion, fears, and limitations, a difficult exercise that turns an academic requirement into a stretching opportunity to mature on a variety of levels.

 

  • Be Careful Who You Talk To


Just as important as opening oneself up to others for help is the need to guard against negativity. With my mental constitution pushed to its absolute limit there were enough negative voices in my own head without adding outside influences. Whether they come from well-meaning but frightened people or from outright jerks (aka mean spirited and frightened people) these sorts of comments end up being nothing but distractions from doing your best.
 

  • Get Organized and Know Yourself


With all the moving parts that make up comps, a big part of my process involved figuring out how to organize myself and discovering how I work best. In these endeavors I found that it worked best to pick a method and roll with it. Some particulars included taking hand-written notes on lined paper, organizing my A Question notes in color-coded binders, writing out my reading assignments on a wall-sized calendar, and distilling authors onto notecards for quick reference. At the same time I would regularly assess the effectiveness of my workflow and make adjustments if I had gotten into a rut. My wife Jessica (an organizational goddess) and my colleague Luke (an insatiable optimist and pragmatist who was studying for his own comps at the same time) were essential in this regard.
 

  • Love It


In order to pass your comps you have to work very hard. It is difficult to conceptualize or evaluate the many hours that I've devoted to this monumental project over the past ten months; the strains that it has put on various aspects of my mental, personal, and social life; and the extent to which it pushed me further than I had ever been pushed before. While I definitely can't say that I enjoyed every minute of the process (my tailbone particularly disliked prolonged hours in uncomfortable chairs) comps have more than ever solidified my personal conviction that this is what I was made to do. Many of us have passions that seem crazy to others and it is in times of extreme testing that you might realize just how deep that passion goes.
 

  • Embrace Real-World Distraction


Doing something amazing and difficult naturally involves stress. It reminds you that you are growing. Yet throughout my comps process my wife occasionally marveled at my lack of completemental breakdown beneath the strain. I attribute this overall, foundational-level calm to a variety of factors, but I'd like to particularly mention the value of cultivating a perspective that sees beyond the present moment. Occasional reality checks grounded me and made me more excited and able to devote myself to studying. Just some of the most helpful distractions include:
 

  1. Pregnancy: It's hard to freak out about comps when my wife is due to deliver my first child a month after they're done! Birthing classes, breathing exercises, rearranging the house, setting up the crib, beach walks, driving my pregnant wife everywhere, attending baby showers... nothing gets you out of your own head as much as stepping up to fatherhood!
  2. Birthday: My wife planned a veritable extravaganza at our home for my thirtieth birthday which happened to fall on the weekend between the written and oral portions of my comps. Friends, family, food, twinkle-lights, a Costco cake bigger than my head... so fun!
  3. Multiple Illnesses: The week before comps I came down with a nasty cold. Then I broke out in partial body poison oak rashes due to a hiking incident from the week before that required the administering of mood altering steroids... Not fun! However, and I'm serious, it ended up helping my nerves, forcing me to relax, drink liquids, and take it easy.

 

  • Be Thankful


The night before comps I was struck by the propitiousness of my situation: I was on the brink of doing something extremely difficult, I had worked diligently towards mastery, and I felt confident in my abilities to succeed. And I knew that I had not gotten to this point alone. My present moment was due in large part to the long line of supportive, patient, and enthusiastic teachers who had encouraged and guided me along the way: family members, piano teachers, choir directors, conducting coaches, band leaders, theory professors, composers, musicologists. In their own way they helped to guide me along my way and I count myself greatly blessed at having been their student. I find that the things worth saying are rarely said often enough. Now as a teacher myself I cherish those rare moments when students articulate the difference that your teaching efforts have made on their lives.

C.S. Lewis' Dufflepuds know how to party! (Pauline Baynes)

C.S. Lewis' Dufflepuds know how to party! (Pauline Baynes)

  • What has been a monumental capstone moment in your life or an important project you see as a turning point?
  • What got you through your trial?
  • How do you take time to savor victory before plunging into your next adventure? :)

Herder's Field of Flowers

“What I would call the third natural method is to leave every flower in place and to scrutinize it there just as it is, according to era and form, from the root to the crown. The most humble genius hates ranking and comparison, and would rather rank first in the village than second behind Caesar. Lichen, moss, fern and the richest spice plant: each flourishes in its own position in the divine order.” (emphasis mine)

—Johann Gottfried Herder (1797) 

Herder here is talking about poetry.

The above quote is taken from the essay Results of a Comparison of Different Peoples’ Poetry in Ancient and Modern Times (for the full text of this short work, click here). In his day poetry was judged against either ancient Greek/Roman or 18th-century French models. However Herder argues that, as cultural products, poetry is created by human beings existing in unique contexts, and therefore reflects those particularities: “Poetry is a Proteus among the peoples.” Therefore the art’s forms, genres, and types will differ from nation to nation, language to language, and history to history.

Claude Monet c.1873 "Poppy Field near Argenteuill" For some reason I feel impelled to yell "Watch out for bees!"

Claude Monet c.1873 "Poppy Field near Argenteuill" For some reason I feel impelled to yell "Watch out for bees!"

But how is one to make sense of this all this confusing, won't-stand-still, lost-in-translation difference?

Herder would argue (and modern cognitive scientists would agree with him) that our natural mode of evaluation tends to stack the deck in our favor, ensuring that our own interests come out on top. “Everybody assesses and ranks poets according to his favorite notions, according to the fashion in which he got to know them, according to the impression that one or another has made on him.” The trouble begins when mere personal preferences turn into totalizing value judgements that build institutional and cultural hierarchies that perpetuate “the classics” at the expense of “the little people”.

What can we do to avoid this poetic confirmation bias? Here are my thoughts on what Herder (with a little help from George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien) brings to the table.

1. Leave every flower in its place

Perhaps we should not be so fast to uproot our favorite flowers and build institutional, hierarchical canons around them. Perhaps we should not be so hasty to pull up what we consider weeds for the upkeep of those systems. Perhaps we should allow for some breathing room that focuses more on savoring and less on judgement. In The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald explains that upon finding a primrose blossom Princess Irene “would clap her hands with gladness, and unlike some children I know, instead of pulling it, would touch it as tenderly as if it had been a new baby, and, having made its acquaintance, would leave it as happy as she found it... She would go down on her hands and knees beside one and say: ‘Good morning! Are you all smelling very sweet this morning? Good-bye!’ and then she would to to another... There were many flowers up and down, and she loved them all, but the primroses were her favourites.”

2. Scrutinize it just where it is

Analysis should always attempt to be emic, that is, from the point of view of the subject, rather than an etic approach that applies outside, objective standards. This requires much more effort on our parts; in some cases learning a new language, extensive background reading, or living in a foreign country are required before we can begin to understand our subject. (The metaphor of marriage or a different, close relationship would come in handy right here.) Some might say that Herder is here an “isolationist” who would have us view each flower in a vacuum. I would say that this emic effort, rather than tossing out interconnectivity, gives us the time and space to come as close as possible to understanding something before we draw any comparisons or conclusions.

3. Each flourishes in its own position in the divine order

What would it be like if a divine order, a Creator, had made all the world including us humans? What if this Creator looked upon his creation with grace and patience, declaring that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (according to Herder’s context of European Christianity)? How might that leveling, egalitarian idea change the way we wield our power of human order upon our own sub-creations (to use a term of Tolkien’s from On Fairy Stories)? Perhaps we would feel less pressure to so blind-sightedly uphold our personal canons. Perhaps we would feel less of a need to keep the unknown at arm’s length. By all means we should study, do research, be critical, make judgements, argue passionately for what we believe in. But the concept of a divine order simply reminds us of our own mortal limitations, of our need for humility in the midst of zealousness, and of our ability to both use and misuse our powers.

Rackham,  Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  (1906)

Rackham, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)

Lastly, Herder is not just talking about poetry.

He is talking about humanity (Humanität). For him poetry’s use of language makes manifest the very souls of a people. In the end Herder’s ideas translate into a worldview of patience, grace, and empathy. 

Sources:

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin, 2011.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories" in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 

Crying Wolf

Even while school activities have continued to mount (classes starting at Westmont, finals nearing for UCSB summer session) I've continued to ride the sweet, sweet wave of fairy tale criticism that has been become nothing short of a hungry passion. This has been expressed particularly through interaction with the research-collaboration-project blog Subverting Laughter, a truly wonderful chapter-by-chapter exploration of MacDonald's Light Princess from a variety of angles and approaches. I've also been reading Jack Zipes' Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion which is challenging and thought-provoking at every page. I originally picked this one up for it's chapter on George MacDonald, but, now that I'm going through it from the start, it's amazing to consider the broader, cultural ramifications of fairy tales in terms of how they "civilize" people, or teach them to acceptably integrate themselves into society.

Doré's illustration for Perrault's  Le petit chaperon rouge . 

Doré's illustration for Perrault's Le petit chaperon rouge

One of the themes that has jumped out at my through these activities is the symbolism of the wolf, its uses as a villain, as moral watch-dog, as devil, as splanchnon, and as a symbol for ravenous, devouring hunger. Here are some thought-provokers from this past week:

 

Zipes, Chapter 2: Setting Standards for Civilization through Fairy Tales: Charles Perrault and his Associates:

  • (Talking about "Red Riding Hood" in its earliest, oral, folk tale manifestation, before Perrault used it for his own cultural purposes.) The brave little peasant girl, who can fend for herself and shows qualities of courage and cleverness... proves that she is mature and strong enough to replace her grandmother. This specific tradition is connected to the general archaic belief about witches and wolves as crucial for self-understanding. Hans Peter Duerr has demonstrated that "in the archaic mentality, the fence, the hedge, which separated the realm of wilderness from that of civilization did not represent limits which were insurpassable. On the contrary, this fence was even torn down at certain times. People who wanted to live within the fence with awareness had to leave this enclosure at least once in their lifetime. They had to have roamed the woods as wolves or 'wild persons'. That is, to put it in more modern terms: they had to have experienced the wildness in themselves, their animal nature. For their 'cultural nature' was only one side of their being, bound by fate to the animallike fylgja, which became visible to those people who went beyond the fence and abandoned themselves to their 'second face'." In facing the werewolf and temporarily abandoning herself to him, the little girl sees the animal side of her self. She crosses the border between civilization and wilderness, goes beyond the dividing line to face death in order to live. Her return home is a more forward as a whole person. She is a wo/man, self-aware, ready to integrate herself in society with awareness.

MacDonald, Photogen and Nyctaris:
 

  • Watho: There was once a witch who desired to know everything. But the wiser a witch is, the harder she knocks her head against the wall when she comes to it. Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself -- only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel. She was tall and graceful, with a white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.

Padel, In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self:
 

  • In darkness we see what we cannot see in light. Darkness is the unknown... Darkness is where we are most likely to encounter gods. And where we meet their prophets... Fundamental to Greek ideas of prophecy, and of the mind, is the idea that knowledge can be found in, and from, darkness... Like the Sirens' song, passion is destructive but illuminating.


And just because it sprang to mind, Mumford and Sons, Whispers in the Dark:

  • You hold your truth so purely,
  • Swerve not through the minds of men
  • This lie is dead
  •  
  • This cup of yours tastes holy
  • But a brush with the devil can clear your mind
  • And strengthen your spine
  •  
  • Fingers tap into what you were once
  • And I'm worried that I blew my only chance
Van Gogh's The Starry Night  (1889) —all a swirl.

Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889)—all a swirl.

 

The way of talking about the wolf in these contexts reminds me of Ruth Padel's investigation of the splanchnon: as a place of blackness; the embodiment of emotions, hunger, personality; the crossroads between beast and god... I feel like we don't have characters like this anymore... Maybe Gollum, or Severus Snape... There is a contradictory loss of innocence and gain of awareness and strength... And the witch Watho consumed and lost to the wolf within herself... the awakening of hunger and power, but the need to overcome it... Jack Zipes continues to show how fairy tales, from Perrault to Disney, have continued to try to downplay the presence of the wolf, the need to contend with it, favoring instead a wholesale suppression of all that could potentially ruin us and threaten society's stability... Our culture continually downplays psychological therapy, one of the few remaining arenas where we are given room to contend with our inner wolves... Paul Angone in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties points out that those who don't deal with their wolves and grow out of them, tend to grow into them... With Watho-like results?...

And how is music wolf-like? St. Augustine explores music's discomfiting and otherworldly beauty, "a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy..." Does/can/should music also be poured forth in the emotion of the wolf? Can music provide a relatively safe place to explore these realms? And what music?

What do you think?

Operation: Trilingual

A few weeks ago I had my second language learning coaching session with The Everyday Language Learner's Aaron Myers, a birthday present generously given to me by my family. During our first session we talked about directed and motivated ways of breaking through with German, but now I am at the point where I must say "bon jour" to an old friend: français. This will be the fourth time that I've set out to learn French, a language with which I've had an on-again-off-again relationship since elementary school. Back then, I was intrigued by the luxuriant sounds of the language and inspired by my ancestry to francophone Canada. Today I continue to delight in the sounds and the heritage, with the addition of UCSB requiring it for Musicology, the possibility of my PhD work focusing on the 1800s, and close familial co-learning: my brother lives in Europe and speaks it, my sister will eventually move to Ottawa and should speak it, and my wife wants to speak it.

So my question for Aaron was how to resurrect French while maintaining German. It can be done. One must be organized, inspired, and willing to repeatedly assess whether or not they are working in the direction they want. With help from Aaron, my ESL trained sister, and LucidChart here's what I came up with to help me make this work (click on it to make it bigger):

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

Here's how it works:

     Input: Language comes at you, flies like a ninja into your ears or eyes! I see two different types of input.

          The first (A) I call Narrative/Music. This is when you immerse or inundate yourself in listening or reading, not really stopping to look up words or checking grammar, just getting with the flow of the story and noticing the cadence of the sounds. (It's what babies do for a good three years.) Because you're not stopping, you develop contextual skills (that intonation sounded like a question, these people must be angry with each other, etc.) to help piece together what you don't get the first time. I'm not at the stage where I can just listen to German radio or watch a French documentary. That would be drowning, not inundating. For me, that means using materials I know pretty well in my mother tongue, using my prior knowledge to fill in the blanks and enjoying the story which I can anticipate and enjoy from a different perspective. At this point, my German listening consists of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series in audiobook form (I'm just starting book 2, Prinz Kaspian von Narnia) and reading consists of short Wikipedia.de articles on composers. I have not figured out yet what I want to do in French, though the audiobook Harry Potter et l'école des sorciers and Perrault's Contes de la mère l'Oye are definite possibilities. I've written a bit about contextual reading in this post on parallel texts.

          The second type of Input (B) I call Word Culling. The Narnia books are a very good level for me; I'm getting about 80% of the words and can fill in the rest with prior knowledge. The 20% I'm not totally sure about becomes an extremely manageable stockpile of words that I can focus on: isolate them, look them up, put them on a flashcard system (I use Anki) and be sure to catch them when I review a chapter or reread an article. I love the bite-sized-ness of this system because it has a high level of exposure, high level of story/enjoyment, and a low level of flipping through a dictionary. But the best way to review these words I've found is...

     Output: You have to dish it out! This is the hard part for me, especially with the horrible dance that some languages produce: is that noun feminine? what sort of preposition is that? is the verb a verb of motion? what's the adjective ending? Here's what I'm working on: I take the words that I've culled from Input B (notice the arrow) and I use them as my wordlist to write or speak. If I just learned the word for "accompaniment" I write a short paragraph about what it's like being an accompanist who accompanies with an accompaniment... Perhaps I send it in to Lang-8 and get some feedback on how that's going. Or I have what I like to call Free Speaking in which I improvise sentences out loud, usually about what I'm doing or have done or will do: Numi, we are walking on the street; I ride my motorcycle to work and the clouds are cold and wet, etc. It feels pretty silly, but it is the only way I will improve in output. You've got to babystep before you can laufen. When you use these culled words this way they morph from flashcard words you didn't know to speech acts that are linked to specific places, situations, and contexts. I'll never forget that in German you pretty much always need to use an adjective when you say the word "wind" (cold, chilly, humid, scorching, etc); according to an editor at Lang-8, it's just funny without it. Then I use this knowledge to better understand my Input (notice the other arrow), catching it when I review sections that I've culled, and catching it faster when I encounter it during other narrative/musical moments.

So that's my method. I'm pretty happy about the diagram and how it reinforces itself. It's like a perpetual motion machine of glorious language learning awesomeness! Let me know if this idea is helpful, what materials you see yourself using in Input, or ways it could be better!

Tchüß!

Salut!