Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fra' Ghoulies an' Ghosties an' Lang-Leggedy Beasties

'I've always defended Harry Potter', Marion the curate told me this morning, 'but now I'm not sure ...' She was referring to a BBC documentary she'd seen last night about the background to the books, which included an interview with author JK Rowling at the new exhibition at the British Library, 'The History of Magic'. The show includes items such as Ms Rowling's notebooks as well as magical paraphernalia from across the centuries, among them some of the ritualia I found so queasy when we saw them at the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, all hanging off the hook of the Potter series (and the timing of Halloween). Ms R wasn't alone on screen: alongside her were members of a family who claimed they were 'fourteenth-generation wand-makers'. This would take their profession back into the mid-17th century, and that doesn't seem that likely to me. Wands seem to come into vogue with the 19th-century magical societies, and you don't see illustrations or read descriptions of magical practitioners from earlier times, cunning men and village wart-curers, using wands (unless there's some confusion with the rods employed by dowsers). Rowling apparently looked increasingly uncomfortable, and felt compelled to contribute, 'Remember that I made all this stuff up. It isn't real.'

Well she might wince. The British Library puffs the show with the lines, 'Have you ever wanted to delve into divination or ponder the peculiarities of potions? Now you can ...' The film the Library has released to accompany the display promises that 'the gargantuan Ripley Scroll' will show visitors 'how to make a Philosopher's Stone', which of course it won't, because there is no such thing, and still less is what the Scroll purports to tell you how to make anything like the Philosopher's Stone of the first Potter novel. Oh, what a killjoy I am sounding. Of course this is all just marketing and will be a long way removed from the inevitable staidness of the show itself, but what's being marketed is unreality.

Conservative Christians make this whole argument ridiculous by implying that every child who picks up a Potter novel or goes out with a group of friends dressed as Spiderman, assorted pirates or ghosts, is going to be invaded by the forces of the Enemy, and in doing so they blind us to the fact that they have half a point, which I think I am only beginning to appreciate. If there is a force of evil active in the world, it can only work through us. Our fears, desires, miseries and delusions are its raw material and it cannot manufacture them on its own: it needs us to offer them up. The near side of the fantasy universe of Harry Potter is fun and at its deepest a narrative of courage and loss; on its far side, though, is unreality and unreason, a universe which functions according to occult rules - as good as none, in other words - a realm of madness. Fourteen generations of wand-makers. I heard complaints on the radio recently about the cruelty of some commercially-available Halloween costumes, and cruelty and madness have a relationship, too. This all takes place within a consumerist economy which is by nature amoral and tends to escalate whatever tendencies are at work in it.  

The BBC website yesterday reminded me of Ghostwatch, the notorious spoof documentary about an investigation of a haunting in a suburban house. I remember seeing that on Halloween in 1992 and, before an allusion to something that I knew was untrue alerted me to the fact that the programme wasn't real, I was as unsettled and disturbed as anyone by what I was apparently seeing and hearing. One young man, of course, was so unsettled that five days after the show was broadcast he killed himself, unable to escape the constant thoughts of ghosts. He had fallen into a vortex of fear from which reason could not rescue him. This, and not any supernatural incursion, is what it means to come into the grip of the Devil. 

Provided the pumpkin lanterns and the cut-out bats and ghosts hanging in festoons are a tiny dose of fear that inoculates us against the disease, all well and good. But it could be that sometimes they light the way to a country where there are no landmarks, where we do not know where we are, where there is nothing but unreality and reasonless waste, and we are right to dread going along that path.

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