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Playing with Language 

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What does F Scott Fitzgerald have to do with Harry Potter?

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.  F Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-up (1938)

Across the landscape of English and American literature falls the long shadow of Lewis Carroll.  High noon for puns, word play, and the ability to wrap "meaning" (whatever the heck that is) within the sweetly innocent trappings of an unserious "children's" book,  I speak of the dual classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

You might think that such puns as "Diagon Alley" (i.e., diagonally) and "Knockturn Alley" (i.e., nocturnally), or Durmstrang (playing off the Romantic Sturm und Drang movement)  are good.  You ain't seen nothing yet.  While these are amusing, they're not the strength of the Potter books (which I hold lies in plot and social commentary).

Carroll took the ordinary, turned it inside out, developed it, and exposed the weirdness and absurdity at the heart of normalcy. 

Consider the Mock Turtle's description of his school curriculum:

Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with....and then the different branches of Arithmetic -- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. 
This one sentence has more linguistic genius than all of Potter put together.  (Keep in mind, the books have many other strengths which rank with Carroll, but you want to read you gotta learn about language, and we're taking the best  exemplars.)  The genius of this lies in play -- the same sort of thing you do on a playground, only in this case with your language. The ability to choose a word with similar sound which is immediately evocative of what you want to satirize and then to do it with an entire, recognizable series, undercuts not only the education system of Victorian England, but the expectations of Alice in a rational, ordered world, and, paradoxically, confirms the boundless enthusiasm and ability of children to deal with the absurdity.  It still rings true today. Think about that.

The words sound absurd, but the meaning is perfectly understandable.

One interesting test (for those of you who are multilingual)  -- see if you can read the foreign edition and get as much out of it as you would in the English. 

With Jabberwocky in Looking-Glass this simply can't be done without LOTS of footnotes.  I've seen French, Italian, and German versions that do not come close to capturing the You can make the argument that it means nothing in English, but this is sour grapes.

It's based on the similarity of sound and the echoes of meaning that come from the act of choosing and controlling these similar words. While it's fashionable in mainstream philosophy to hold that words as sounds and words as meanings are arbitrarily linked this philosophy will not get you the right train platform for any journey.  Culturally you're not going to get parts of Alice if you haven't lived in the Anglo-American world.  The same happened to Voltaire when he tried to make Hamlet understandable to French audiences by translating it into the Alexandrian quatrains he was used to, but that's another story.

Writing about language is nothing new, but the best exponents of it have by and large been British -- consider George Orwell's 1984, where the English language itself has become the weapon of choice for the Party (and if you don't think we live in Orwell's world today, please tell me what the value of a Spin Doctor is, and why no nation or faction is without them in one guise or another).  Animal Farm itself contains one of the most memorable plays of meaning in any language -- "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."  (History buffs: The Roman Emperors cloaked themselves in the trappings of their lost Republic while usurping complete authority by making themselves primus inter pares, or "First among equals." )

Here the words sound completely sensible, and the meaning is absurd.

Moral of this story:  writing is about playing with people's heads.  Reading is about understanding that these people are trying to play with your head, still enjoying the story, and getting in on the joke.

American writers just haven't tended to play with words like this, focusing instead on dialect (and Twain was the master of this) or scathing social commentary (Twain again, with HL Mencken thrown in).  EB White's Charlotte's Web and Trumpet of the Swan are self-aware of  the power of language, but it's the same way that the advertising industry uses it:  Charlotte is literally the spin doctor for her friend the pig.

It might be that Britain as the home of English has a more natural interest in the way the language itself evolves.  If you want a concrete example, look at how integrate puns and word play are in the London Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the New York Times crossword puzzle, and you have the most concrete social and commercial example of which I speak.

The most conscious effort of all of this in Harry is not in language play but in the social significance of what can be named and what cannot -- call it name play.  While everyone in the wizarding world is afraid to say Voldemort, preferring instead the phrase He Who Must Not be Named, only Dumbledore not only says the name, but actually encourages others.  Some discussions hold this is a silly part of the books, that who would ever be afraid to say a word?  But American readers will remember the tortured gymnastics that squads of famous lawyers went through at the OJ Simpson Trial when asking witnesses "Did you ever say the N-word?"  (this is the thing that annoys most modern academics about Twain, there just ain't no such thing as politically-correct dialect).   Harry openly says the word but he himself explains it as from his having grown up outside the wizard world, not from either his acknowledged bravery (which must never be underestimated) or vain bravura.

Yet, while he learns the language of wizarding he never learns fear of either villainy or of naming villainy.

Despite the magic in Harry, Wonderland is a far more magical world, in the sense of its being incomprehensible to those not born to it.  Little can make sense in Wonderland.   We see it, realize it's a great place to visit, but surely wouldn't want to live there.  The number of Role Playing Games based on the Potter universe tells you that there's no end of people who would move there tomorrow if they could only find Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.  

But this is the entire point of the Potter books:  the Wizarding world has the exact same struggles as the Muggle world, the mixtures of virtue and vice, and privilege and need, and nobility and squalor.  In Hogwarts there are class distinctions (the Old Wizarding families) and racial distinctions (the Mudbloods and the Giants) and there is the cult of celebrity (Lockhart) that are perfectly recognizable to both the students of Hogwarts and the readers of the books.   The two worlds exist in parallel and they are perfectly comprehensible to each other for those who wish to try, or for those who straddle the divide.  To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke:  Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

So the words of Fitzgerald come full circle here -- we have seen the magic and it is us.  

Check out the next essay.

Copyright 2001 Zyg Furmaniuk. All rights reserved.  

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