Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: A New Trio for the Hogwarts Library.

Pazdzioria, John Patrick and Snell, Micah, eds. Ravenclaw Reader: Seeking the Artistry and Meaning of J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga. Unlocking Press, 2015. ISBN 9780990882107.

McDaniel, Kathryn and Prinzi, Travis, eds. Harry Potter for Nerds II: Essays for Fans, Academics and Lit Geeks. Unlocking Press, 2015.
ISBN 9780990882114.

McCauley, Patrick. Into the Pensieve: The Philosophy and Mythology of Harry Potter. Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2015.
ISBN 9780764349454.

Reviewer: Louise M. Freeman

It has been more than eight years since children gathered in bookstores for midnight release parties celebrating the last of the Harry Potter books, and more than four since they donned their robes and cloaks for the premiere of the final Deathly Hallows film. Rowling’s wizarding world continues to intersect with our own, but through media other than books: the theatrical sequel Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the adjunct movie series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which will chronicle the 1920’s-era adventures of one of Harry’s textbook authors. Yet, even as the Boy-Who-Lived’s original fans have entered college—and for some, graduate school—they have not forgotten the books that started it all, nor permitted their professors to forget. Enthusiasm for Harry Potter has expanded from bookstores and internet fan sites into the ivory tower, where it is growing stronger, smarter and perhaps even earning some begrudging respect. As evidence of this, three academic books exploring the literary merit and scholarly impact of the Harry Potter books were published in October 2015. These three volumes make clear that, much as the trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione were always the focus of the Hogwarts saga, the seven book series will always be the bedrock on which serious Potter scholars build their work.

The Ravenclaw Reader is clearly aimed at the most erudite Hermione’s of Potter readers. Its goal was to bring the best work of the St. Andrews University 2012 conference, A Brand of Fictional Magic: Reading Harry Potter as Literature, to a wider audience. What sets this volume apart from typical conference proceedings is the attempt to convey a taste of conference discussions, along with presentations. The editors accomplish this by including, after each of the ten essays, a response by another scholar, not necessarily in rebuttal to the essay—though some, like Pazdzioria’s response to MacKenzie’s “The Roots and Rhetoric of the Forbidden Forest” (p. 75) clearly use the opportunity to respectively disagree—but to extend the discussion, or offer a new, complementary perspective. The Reader also includes four appendices of research tools and raw data from Chapter 5, Hunter’s “Folklore Structure, Aesthetic Satisfaction and the Success of Harry Potter” (p. 93) and an extensive, 30-page bibliography of other scholarly work on the Potter series, complied by Langworthy.

The strength of the Ravenclaw Reader is, not unexpectedly, in the high level of scholarship seen in the essays and responses. The topics are varied, from essays focusing on individual secondary characters like Neville Longbottom and the Dursleys, to examinations of key themes like death and knowledge, to connections to other literary genres such as traditional folklore and modern young adult dystopias. Richards takes on the extremely complex character of Severus Snape, arguing that he functions as an ogre-father. Tiffen sees the proliferation of ineffective teachers and unbalanced curriculum of Hogwarts as a reflection of a troubled modern educational system, while Granger closes the volume with a summary of the theses he has explored in depth in several earlier books (2004, 2007, 2011)—that the unsurpassed appeal of Rowling’s books arises from her extensive use of Christian symbols, literary alchemy and ring structure. I found myself wishing I had read a few of these essays prior to submitting my own Potter papers. The editors describe the Reader as “an attempt to nurture scholarship that deepens our appreciation of Harry Potter as literature” (p. vi) and in that goal, they clearly succeed.

Where the book disappoints is in the space devoted to supplemental material. Hunter’s essay provides a rich and data-packed application of Propp’s formalist literary theory to the structure of the individual Harry Potter books, arguing that the appeal of is at least partially the result of adherence to the traditional folklore formula. It is hard to imagine what added benefit anyone but Hermione—or perhaps the rare Muggle scholar who wants to duplicate the study—would find in reading the appendix material. The problem with published bibliographies is that they are out of date as soon as they are written; a quick glance at the list found nothing published after 2013, in a book that came out in late 2015. Happily, the editors provide the URL of the bibliography at Cordelia Rémi’s website (, which is more frequently updated. If the editors had simply provided website addresses for Hunter’s supplemental material and the bibliography, they would have freed up 100 extra pages, enough to publish four to five more conference papers and responses. Given the quality of the ten essays that they selected, additional chapters would have made for a far more satisfying volume. It would also have been nice to have some biographical information on the essay writers, including their academic affiliations.

If the Ravenclaw Reader is meant for Hermione types, Harry Potter for Nerds II, with its bright red cover and more playful tone, is a book that brings to mind Ron Weasley, or perhaps his fun-loving brothers, Fred and George. Like Ravenclaw Reader and Prinzi’s first Harry Potter for Nerds (2011), this book is an edited collection of essays. If anything, the topics are more diverse than those of the Reader; several chapters focus on more obscure characters of the series: Madam Pince, Kendra Dumbledore, Arabella Figg and Argus Filch. If the Ravenclaw Reader chapters are print versions of scholarly talks, some of the Nerds II essays read more like more formal versions of fan blog posts, albeit posts by very thoughtful and dedicated readers. The more relaxed tone comes through best in the biographies of the writers, where, in addition to their academic credentials, we learn things like which Hogwarts House they were sorted into and who has named pets for Harry Potter characters.

The lightheartedness of the Nerds II volume does not in any way diminish its scholarly merit. Many of the chapters (such as librarian Alison Jones’ essay on Madam Pince) were, like the Reader essays, extensions of conference presentations, and the commitment to quality academic work comes through. Dr. Amy Sturgis of Lenoir-Rhyne University and Signum College’s Mythgard Institute contributed to both Ravenclaw Reader and Nerds II, while several writers for the first Nerds volume (Granger, Hunter, Pazdzoria and Prinzi) served as respondents for Ravenclaw Reader. Secondary students and undergraduates writing term papers, graduate students working on theses and established scholars will all find plenty of well-conceived and well-researched papers in Harry Potter for Nerds II.

Interestingly, both Ravenclaw Reader (Reschan, p. 121) and Nerds II (Swank, p. 157) include essays documenting the latter Potter’s books descent into a type of dystopian fiction. But, just as the Weasley boys occasionally were better at thinking outside of the box than Hermione, some of the Nerds II essays delve into more creative and unexpected applications of Potter scholarship than those seen in the Ravenclaw Reader. Some examples include Sturgis’s exploration of a Native American connection to Dumbledore’s mother Kendra, Strand’s examination of Quidditch’s symbolism in the series and Orazi’s look at the comical aspects of the Hogwarts ghosts.

Finally, since the Nerds II collection was not limited to papers from a literature conference, it can more freely explore other disciplines, such as history, economics and political science, and their relationship to Harry Potter. Biondi provides a look at Order of the Phoenix through the lens of John Locke’s Treatises of Government, McDaniel compares Dumbledore’s Army to the White Rose Society—a German student resistance group that arose during World War II—and Young examines the economic forces of the wizarding world in her essay on work. With the exception of Chapter 8, Burson and Burson’s account of their fandom involvement and advice about forming a Harry Potter fan club, which, while a lively read, lacks the scholarly content of the rest of the volume and seems out-of-place in this collection, Nerds II provides a rigorous, yet accessible, resource for anyone seeking Potter scholarship that is both serious and enjoyable.

One thing that cannot be escaped when reading Nerds II and Ravenclaw Reader is the relative lack of emphasis on the series’ title character. Those volumes include chapters devoted to Snape, Lupin, the Durseleys, the House-Elves, the ghosts, the Squibs, Madam Pince, Kendra Dumbledore and even non-living constructs like Quidditch and the Forbidden Forest. There is no chapter that focuses primarily on Harry. That all changes in McCauley’s Into the Pensieve: The Philosophy and Mythology of Harry Potter. This is a very different book, single-authored rather than a collection of essays, and thus has a much more deliberate focus. That focus is on Harry’s journey, his growth and what it teaches us about our own life’s choices. So, if Ravenclaw Reader is Hermione’s book, and Nerds II Ron’s, Into the Pensieve seems to be written for Harry, and readers who identify with him.

Into the Pensieve differs in content and tone from the other major work on Harry Potter and philosophy, Baggest and Klein’s edited book of essays (2004). McCauley, a philosophy and religion professor who has co-taught an interdisciplinary colloquium on Harry Potter for several years, has uncovered multiple examples from the series that are helpful in illustrating philosophical and theological concepts to his students. Much of the book is devoted to sharing those illustrations. His premise is that “Harry’s story also charts the intricate progression of human character as it develops over a great deal of time and through a tremendous variety of circumstances and experiences” (p. 12). The narrative of Harry Potter, which cumulates in Harry’s final decision to seek and destroy all of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, including himself, is an example of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or final fulfillment of one’s internally determined potential, or personal calling. Harry’s eventual success in summoning his stag Patronus evokes the father-symbolism of Paul Tillich and Joseph Campbell, in that its appearance allows Harry to “step out of the role of the protected and into the realm of authentic and courageous self-determination” (p. 24).

Immanuel Kant receives considerable attention, as his “radical freedom” is illustrated by the oft-repeated theme of choice in Harry Potter. Immoral choices, such as Peter Pettigrew’s decision to betray the Potter’s, Umbridge’s decision to torture students, Xenophilius Lovegood’s decision to turn Harry over to Voldemort and even Molly Weasley’s decision to kill Bellatrix Lestrange (a scene that typically garners great applause) are the result of disregarding Kant’s categorical imperative, and deciding that certain lives—usually one’s own or the lives of their loved ones—are more worthy of protection than others. Harry, by defeating Voldemort with his signature defensive Expelliarmus spell, defeats evil without sacrificing that imperative.

As in Nerds II, there is one chapter that interrupts the flow of this book with seeming incongruence: Chapter 11 on violence against women. It’s hard to complain too much, however, because this is such a fascinating and unexpected chapter. McCauley picks up on several minor, yet disturbing, instances of violence against female characters that can be interpreted as symbolic or actual sexual assault, including the necklace attack on Katie Bell, the abduction of Umbridge by centaurs and the assault by Muggles on young Ariana Dumbledore. Despite the gender-equalizing and woman-empowering effects of magic and wands in the wizarding world, McCauley argues, “Every major plot line in the Harry Potter series is initiated directly or indirectly by the long-ranging impacts of violence on women” (p. 140). This chapter takes on new meaning for those who have read Rowling’s fiction for adults, A Causal Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike mystery series, where violence against women is central to the narrative. McCauley’s observations should be of great interest to scholars viewing Harry Potter through the feminist lens. Thus, even though this chapter gives the impression of an unrelated journal article tucked into a philosophy textbook, it remains a worthwhile addition.

Into the Pensieve could also benefit from an index, which would help both students and professors who want to use the book as an aid to understanding specific philosophical concepts. Apart from that, McCauley has given us a fascinating insight into his own evolution as a teacher, and shows in detail how Harry Potter made him more effective. Most importantly, he shows us how readers can glean moral guidance from the example of Harry’s story. Not all of the wisdom in the series is spoken by Dumbledore.

In their introduction to the Ravenclaw Reader, Pazdzoria and Snell remind us, “The link between popular mania and critical analysis is too little acknowledged.” All three of these volumes, though different in approach, emphasis and tone, emphasize that much remains to analyze in the original Harry Potter book series, and demonstrate the  quality critical thinking that can emerge from such analysis. As such, these volumes should all be of interest to students, to scholars, and to fans of all generations. The Hogwarts library continues to expand.


Baggett, David and Klein, Shawn, Eds. (2004). Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts. Open Court Press.

Granger, John. (2004). Looking for God in Harry Potter. Tyndale House Publishers.

Granger, John. (2007). Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. Zossima Press.

Granger, John. (2011). Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle. Unlocking Press.

Prinzi, Travis, Ed. (2011). Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics and Lit Geeks. Unlocking Press.


Louise M. Freeman

Volume 19, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, July, 2016

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