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In Class With Oona Eisenstadt: "Ritual & Magic in Children's Literature"

In Class With Oona Eisenstadt: "Ritual & Magic in Children's Literature"

In preparation for today’s class, Professor Oona Eisenstadt has assigned students to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the wildly popular series. In this class, titled Ritual and Magic in Children’s Literature, they also have watched an hour-long lecture on YouTube by ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain on “Harry Potter, St. Augustine and the problem of evil.

Beginning the class, Professor Eisenstadt summarizes Augustine’s theory that evil has no independent existence—instead, it is the privation of the good. Than she discusses 20th-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s ideas about the “banality of evil,” made famous in Arendt’s book portraying Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann as a small-minded bureaucrat, not some grandly sinister figure.

And that launches the class discussion (edited and adapted here) of how author J.K. Rowling depicts evil in the Harry Potter books.

EISENSTADT: One of the things Rowling is doing is setting up at least three models of evil. One is Voldemort. Another is the Dementors. And a third is the Ministry of Magic, particularly as person- ified in Delores Umbridge. Is one of these a better picture of evil, more convincing, or do they all fit?

MARCI: I think Voldemort. He makes a sequence of choices that lead to evil. I can’t separate who he was from what he’s become. For the Dementors, I don’t know if they just exist in and of themselves as evil—we have no explanation of how that kind of creature came about. With Voldemort we have a full picture of how evil kind of comes to life and the places where he is continuously broken and makes the wrong decisions and chooses against love. I think he’s the best picture of evil because we know exactly how it started and we know every time when he failed to step up to the plate.

EISENSTADT: OK. That’s good. That’s useful.

ALI: I think of the ministry. What’s interesting about them is they’re not that evil at the beginning and by the end they’re Voldemort’s little minions. You can see how just because they’ve become part of this system—they’re going to be on whoever’s side’s going to win. You can compare that to the people who knew what was going on in the Holocaust and didn’t do anything about it or the people who played small roles. You can see how you can take an ordinary person who’s just like anybody else and see how they can follow that path.

EISENSTADT: Yep, yep.

SARAH: With the Dementors, we don’t ever see what they are, let alone what they come from. The picture of just evil incarnate in the Dementors is harder for me to grasp than the idea of people who are trying to obtain power and do it by following Voldemort.

REBECCA: I feel like Voldemort, as far as convincing goes, he’s the most lucid form of evil ... Voldemort seems to be this picture of pure evil, actual evil. The Dementors are sort of like a spiritual evil. Members of the ministry have evil, they act in evil ways but they are not evil.

EISENSTADT: So Voldemort, like the Dementors, suggests a theory of radical evil where evil is a thing in itself, rather than being something that is caused by human conditions. Rowling does have a long account of Voldemort’s childhood, and you see that he’s a product of dysfunction, that he was abused at every turn.

But Rowling also shows us Harry. She has to show us Harry was abused in a pattern that is almost the same as Voldemort’s abuse to bring responsibility back into the equation. Because when you give an account of evil as merely a result of someone’s upbringing, you take away responsibility. She borders on it— there’s some ideological part of her that wants to say all evil comes out of a bad childhood. But she makes Voldemort’s childhood similar to Harry’s so as to say, ‘but he made his own choices, he’s still responsible.’

You’re veering back and forth between an account of evil as dysfunction and desperate attempts to reintroduce choice and responsibility. Aristotle says all men aim toward the good. So why do they murder someone? To get something that they want that they think is good. There aren’t many people who stand up and say ‘I want to be bad.’ They’re just confused and deluded and have their priorities wrong. Rowling is saying ‘yes’ to this, but she’s also saying ‘no.’

The Professor

At Pomona since 2004, Oona Eisenstadt is the Fred Krinsky Professor of Jewish Studies and assistant professor of religious studies. She earned her B.A. and Ph.D. from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

Class Description

Many children’s stories describe a passage from immaturity to individuality and responsibility, and facilitate such a passage in their readers. Our purpose is to arrive at a critical awareness of how the stories work, and to speculate on the residue they leave on our reli- gious sense and hermeneutics.

Reading List

  • Natalie Babbit, Tuck Everlasting
  • J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
  • Enid Blyton, Malory Towers
  • Jean de Brunhoff, The Story of Babar
  • Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet The Spy
  • Lisi Harrison, Massie
  • Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Egypt Game
  • C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Last Battle
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
  • Lois Lowry, The Giver
  • Ann Martin, The Truth About Stacy
  • Leslea Newman, Heather Has Two Mommies
  • Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
  • Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons
  • J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  • Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
  • Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Pomona College Magazine.

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