BookTalk Event Review: Harry Potter – Twenty Years Later

Highly anticipated, June’s BookTalk event was a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and we welcomed Dr. Siwan Rosser, Dr. Ann Alston and Dr. Lucy Andrew to discuss the cultural phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series. The ongoing popularity of the books was immediately made evident by the packed Optometry building and it was a wonderful feeling to be ending the year on such a high. Our June event was not only one of the most eagerly awaited events of the Cardiff University social calendar, it was also our last of the 2016/17 season, and as a result, the evening’s atmosphere was charged and teeming with expectancy from the outset.

Siwan was our first speaker of the evening and her talk focused upon the Welsh translation of the first Harry Potter book – Harri Potter a Maen Yr Athronydd. The decision to translate Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into Welsh was not made until 2003 and that was on the basis that its popularity in English would create a readership for it in Welsh. After all, the thinking went, why wouldn’t Welsh fans want to read the story again in Welsh? The plan was to translate the complete series, but the lacklustre response to the first one meant these plans never came through. Siwan then moved to discussing why Harri Potter a Maen Yr Athronydd did not garner the reaction the publishers had hoped for from the public. For one thing, there were no attempts to disguise the origins of Harry Potter, as there are with many other English children’s books selected for translation into Welsh, the reason for this being it was already too well-known. This did not necessarily have to be the stumbling block it became; Siwan pointed out that the works of Roald Dahl are simultaneously very well-known and very popular in their Welsh translation, demonstrating a perceived preference for original content cannot be blamed for the failure of the Welsh translation of Harry Potter. The key difference between the translations of Roald Dahl and Harri Potter a Maen Yr Athronydd, however, is that Roald Dahl’s works are adapted to fit in with Welsh culture. This makes reading the books in Welsh a treasure hunt of references for Welsh readers to look out for and enjoy. Harry Potter, on the other hand, remains a very English wizard.

Siwan continued to say that the translation itself cannot be faulted, as it was undertaken by Emily Huws, a highly successful translator of English children’s books into Welsh and accordingly ‘the logical choice’. However, Harri Potter a Maen Yr Athronydd nonetheless has a very uneven feel to it and Siwan suggested this can be partially attributed to the lacklustre attempt at Welsh domestication. Usually, there is a degree of freedom within translation for the translator to play around and put their own mark on it and adapt it to the Welsh audience (again, the translated works of Roald Dahl providing a prime example), but this opportunity was not there in Harry Potter. Demonstrating the irregular effort at Welshification, Siwan displayed on the screen a list of the names of some of the characters and talked through the ones with the most evident changes. Only roughly half of the names were Welshified and it was not enough to create any sort of consistency. Siwan concluded her talk with the suggestion that Harri Potter a Maen Yr Athronydd missed the point of why any readers would want Harry Potter in Welsh: if Harry Potter in Welsh requires understanding of the broader contexts of Harry Potter in English to make sense, it therefore begs the question ‘Why bother reading it in Welsh at all, if you need to read the English anyway?’

Ann was our second speaker and remarked to begin with that it was in a lecture theatre not too far from the one in which we were all sat that she had her first encounter with the phenomenon that was Harry Potter. This was followed with the wry observation that if only she’d been more savvy as a second-year student at Cardiff University and rushed out to buy a first edition of the first Harry Potter book! Following a brief mention of the scathing criticism levelled at the books from figures such as Anthony Holden, who wrote in 2000 that the series had merit “scarcely higher than a Spice Girls’ lyric”, Ann moved to an analysis of the presentation of traditional gender roles in the Harry Potter series. The wands of Harry’s parents provided the first focus for this analysis: whereas Lily Potter’s wand was “ten and a quarter inches long, swishy, made of willow” and a “nice wand for charm work”, James Potter’s was “a mahogany wand. Eleven inches. Pliable. A little more power and excellent for transfiguration.” The gendered implications of these descriptions cannot be missed, and Ann drew our attention the crucial extra three quarters of an inch in length without further comment. The traditional gender roles are further propagated through the depiction of the Weasley family. They are both Harry’s and ours as the reader’s first impression of what a wizarding family should be – and yet Arthur sat at the table reading the paper while Molly cooks and cleans and minds the children is on the surface little different to the portrayal of those staunch exemplars of middle-class conservatism, the Dursleys. Such conservatism can be interpreted as a contradiction to J. K. Rowling’s own persona as ‘liberal Twitter Queen’, suggesting she is perhaps not quite so liberal.

Just as we were beginning to despair at having the stars knocked from our eyes, however, Ann about-turned and began to point out that despite its outwardly conservative presentation, one of the earliest and most enduring lessons of The Philospher’s Stone is to teach children to challenge authority. Books are a powerful symbol and it is hardly a coincidence that in the immaculate Privet Drive, the books are untouched, which Ann suggested aligns the dreadful Dursleys with that other appalling family of children’s literature – Roald Dahl’s Wormwoods. The ongoing implication is that those who don’t read are blinkered and lacking, an encouraging message to the children who would have been reading the text. This is reinforced further when the first place Harry goes after receiving his invisibility cloak is to the Restricted Section of the library, seeking out knowledge forbidden to him by the adults within the pages of books.

And yet, in another twist characteristic of the winding path upon which Ann was leading us, she pointed out that the written word is not presented as infallible. The defamation of Sirius Black and other instances of misreporting from the Daily Prophet seem especially pertinent in our current climate of #fakenews. Far from being a reinforcement of traditional values, Ann proposed that the Harry Potter series repeatedly encourages children to question what adults are telling them. It is a “rebellious call to arms”, the key message of which is to encourage children to think for themselves. Ann ended her talk by recalling a popular placard that circulated following the Women’s March in January 2017 – “When Voldemort is president, we need a nation of Hermiones”.

Our final speaker of the evening was Lucy, who took to the stage in full Slytherin regalia to speak about the extra-textual afterlives of Harry Potter, and the fan-culture that now surrounds the series. She had brought with her a selection from her own personal collection of items which might demarcate her as a fan, and she began by asking how many people might consider themselves a fan of the Harry Potter series. Once varying degrees of fannish-ness had been established, Lucy then asked what it was about the original series that compelled so many people across the world to engage in such a broad array of fannish activity, from buying the merchandise, to dressing up, to contributing creatively through fanfiction and fanart. Lucy’s suggestion was that the variety of ways in which fans have engaged with the series is about fulfilling unmet diversity needs.

Discussion then moved to J. K. Rowling herself, it being impossible to consider the world of Potter and his associates without their creator. Lucy drew out questions upon the nature of authorship, as Rowling has maintained a great deal of control over the afterlives of Harry Potter, through Twitter, Pottermore, the expanded Fantastic Beasts film franchise and additional texts such as the Hogwarts Library series and The Cursed Child stage production. The Cursed Child in particular has been viewed as a means of taking back control from the fans, overwriting the enormous amount of fanfiction that projects into the characters’ futures and saying definitively, ‘This is what happened.’ This throws up questions of how much an author should involve themselves in the afterlives of their texts, and when it is appropriate for the author to step back. Rowling is perhaps alone among authors in her continued presence in the world she created and in the control she continues to exhort over her creations – despite it now having been ten years since the publication of the final Harry Potter book!

Moving into the Q&A, questions covered such diverse bases as the generational divide between fan experiences, the changes the publishing world has undergone in the twenty years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone made its first ripples, and the influence of popular 1950s genre of children’s books that were set in a boarding school. One question, enquiring whether the use of Latin and Greek as derivatives for the spells remained consistent across translations, ignited a flurry of text-checking across the room.

Finally, following a raucous round of applause, the last BookTalk event of the 2016/17 year drew to a close. Anthony and Jamie had a few words to say in thanks, both to our speakers and to those whose loyal attendance has meant BookTalk has become the thriving community it is. That audience members continued to mill about, chatting with each other and   the speakers suggests that they were perhaps as  reluctant as we were to end what had been a consistently brilliant series of events.

 (Image credit: Jim Kay)