Academics gathered in Scotland on Friday to discuss hot literary topics including the racial politics of goblins, the canonisation of Neville Longbottom, and Beedle the Bard as mythopoesis in the Chaucerian tradition. Welcome to the UK's first conference on Harry Potter.
Entitled A Brand of Fictional Magic: Reading Harry Potter as Literature, the conference brings together 60 scholars from around the world for a two-day event hosted by the University of St Andrews school of English. Billed as the world's first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text, almost 50 lectures are lined up, with academics taking on issues including paganism, magic and the influence on Rowling of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Shakespeare. Seminar titles range from "Moral development through Harry Potter in a post-9/11 world" to "Harry Potter and Lockean civil disobedience".
Organiser John Pazdziora, a doctoral candidate in St Andrews' English department, is adamant Rowling's seven children's books merit an academic conference. "These are the most important, seminal texts for an entire generation of readers," he said. "In 100, 200 years' time, when scholars want to understand the early 21st century, when they want to understand the ethos and culture of the generation that's just breaking into adulthood, it's a safe bet that they'll be looking at the Harry Potter novels. As literary critics, as academics, why on Earth wouldn't we want to come to grips with these texts? There's so much here to talk about, culturally and critically, that a two-day conference really can only get the conversation started. People will be reading and writing and studying Harry Potter for years to come."
JK Rowling's seven novels run to 4,100 pages, so the books will easily be able to sustain serious academic discussion over the two-day conference, added Pazdziora.
"We've got nearly 50 serious academic critics talking about these texts, each of them is finding something different to talk about, and frankly, we're barely getting started. In any good literary text, there is so much depth and meaning to discover," he said.
"As I said in my welcome today, in fact, the Harry Potter novels are their own Platform nine and three-quarters, as it were. Run into them, and there are countless fascinating worlds opening up in front of you. So, yes, we're talking for two days - and we've hardly scratched the surface of the richness and complexity of what is truly a significant children's literature text."
John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, was less convinced. "I'm not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups," he said. "It's all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study."
Mullan speculated about whether the conference was a result of those who enjoyed Harry Potter as children now reaching an age where they could apply academic criticism to Rowling's work. "Perhaps that has happened," he said. "But why do universities have conferences? It's to attract attention to themselves as dynamic places. St Andrews has taken a bit of a gamble here. Is all publicity really good publicity? They will get attention for having a Harry Potter conference, but I don't think it's going to give them the reputation of cutting edge cultural analysis they might be hoping for."
He professed himself "amazed" that the academics participating had time to do so. "They should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that's what they're paid to do," he said.
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