Weekly Archive
July 21, 2002 - July 27, 2002

RE: The Politics of Nostalgia

I wrote, about Rowling's use of stock characters and conventions:

What makes this interesting, to my mind, is that the particular kinds of stocks which are being used are emblematic of a literary approach to social class that is strongly aligned with a certain set of values and mores and judgements, a certain way of viewing the world, and that it is a way of viewing the world that elsewhere in the text, JKR seems to be going very far out of her way to critique and even to deride.

Dicentra asked:

What choice does she have, though?

No choice at all if she wants to write in that particular nostalgic tradition, I agree. But does her decision to write in that nostalgic tradition in the first place insert a certain political bias into the text? I think that it does. I think that JKR tries to combat it, but I don't think that in the end she is completely successful, possibly because much of the appeal of that nostalgic tradition in the first place may well reside in just those values that are embedded within it, values which co-exist rather uneasily with the author's more explicitly-stated progressive bias.

That's where I see a lot of the ambivalence slipping in. I don't think that it's a problem only to be found in the Harry Potter books. I think of it as a problem inherent to many different manifestations of "nostalgia."


She wants to critique social bias and unenlightened social values, but all she has to work with is a world that isn't ideal, even though the world is of her own creating.

The elements of the world that I was writing about, though, I don't really see as of Rowling's own creating at all. They're not elements that she herself invented. They're the conventions of a particular type of nostalgia, a nostalgia which to some extent I think may come with certain biases and values "hard-wired" in, so to speak.

I do think that Rowling has tried to reduce the bias inherent in the literary conventions that she has chosen to use. She not only emphasizes the theme of the primacy of choice in the affairs of men, but she also puts its articulation in the mouth of Dumbledore, the character most strongly marked as the voice of "Good" in the entire series. The entire SPEW plotline of Book Four is interesting not only for its modernity, but also for its complexity, its fascinating refusal to resolve by novel's end. And I also agree with Naama that Rowling pokes so much fun, and takes such pains to subvert, the "untrustworthy and/or funny foreigners" cliche that the fact that she also makes free use of this literary convention for comedic effect really does lose a lot of its punch.

In the end, though, I do not feel that Rowling completely succeeds in separating the nostalgic tradition to which her writing looks from the political bias which is embedded in that tradition. Others, it would seem, disagree on this point, but I see a great deal of tension in the text, tension between the values it explicitly promotes and those which it implicitly reflects.

As has been said, Harry has limited exposure to the people outside the world of Hogwarts, but he does bump into them occassionally. JKR could have decided to make Stan Shunpike an earnest poet something equally against type, but that's too much granularity for the role he plays.

Alternatively, she could just have refrained from giving him a stock accent.

She did not do so, of course, because such a great part of the series' appeal—for the author, I suspect, as well as for the reader—lies in the cheerful embrace of just that body of nostalgic genre conventions to which Stan Steerpike belongs.


To make Stan et al. too different from the literary tradition she's plugged into would "feel wrong" in the wrong places.

Yes, precisely! That's just the point I was trying to make. She has chosen to reference a literary tradition that not only upholds, but even requires certain social values to be represented in the text.

If the books didn't have that touch of archaism, then they would lose a great deal of their appeal, IMO. Both Lilac and Darrin have, in the fairly recent past, cited the books' "old-fashioned" qualities as one of the very things that made them like them so much. I am personally convinced that the nostalgic qualities of JKR's writing are one of the main reasons for the series' tremendous popularity.

There is nothing wrong with that. Nostalgia is appealing. It also, however, tends to come complete with a whole lot of political baggage that sits somewhat less comfortably with contemporary progressive values, and that's precisely where I see the inconsistency, and even a certain degree of authorial ambivalence, slipping through the cracks of the text.



RE: Nel Question #10: Elitism

Gulplum/Richard (which do you prefer?) wrote:

I am perhaps splitting hairs, but I don't see the books' epicentre as being "elitism" per se, but prejudice.

No, I don't see the books' epicenter as elitism either. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I see questions of elitism as being at the epicenter not of the books themselves, but of reader discontent with the books.

In other words, when readers who otherwise appreciate the series express dissatisfaction, anxiety or ambivalence about either the books themselves or their own enjoyment of them, it seems to me that the vast majority of the time, the source of this unease centers in some way around the core concept of elitism. Choice vs. Blood, for example. The role of House Slytherin. Or the more strictly class-based discomfort that both Iyer and Adams expressed in their respective articles.

But since we're here, let's talk a bit about elitism, shall we?

Gulplum said:

Elitism is all about hierarchical structure and one's place in it.

Yes, but the term allows for a far greater range of conceptions of that hierarchical structure than, say, classism or racism do. The very notion of "meritocracy," for example, is itself a profoundly elitist construct.

I would say that at its core, elitism is the idea that some people are just intrinsically better than others, not merely talented in some particular arena, but "superior" in a more generalized sense: more deserving, more worthy, more virtuous. The particular skill, talent, virtue, or accident of fate that one chooses to enshrine as the criteria for membership in the "Elite" may vary, but the fundamental dynamic remains the same.

Porphyria invited discussion on this issue in her framing of Dr. Nel's Question Number Ten, when she expanded on his original questions about class to include questions about other forms of elitism as well. She asked:

4. Is Harry a member of the elite, even among Wizards? In which ways is he privileged by birth, inheritance, exceptional 'natural' talent or special treatment from powerful benefactors?

Gulplum suggested:

...he is very much of the "elite" in the sense that he is considered powerful for reasons he himself does not understand, as The Boy Who Lived. He is the "elite" in that his parents were independently wealthy. He is the "elite" because he has found a place at the best School of Wizardry in the world. He is the "elite" because he is the proteg´┐Ż of the acknowledged single most powerful wizard in the world.

He is the "elite" because until Book Four, he enjoyed a direct mystical protection against Evil which had nothing to do with any of his own choices, but rather, with his mother's sacrifice. (And even this is suspect: as many on the list have pointed out, surely other mothers have given their lives for their children without any such result?)

He is the "elite" because people in authority continually make exceptions for him. He is not only allowed to own a broom as a First Year student, but one is even purchased for him -- even though he has plenty of money of his own. Dumbledore reopens a competition which is understood to be closed and concluded for him at the end of Book One, and reneges on his threat to expell him for any further violations of the school rules in Book Two. Lupin rescues him from the consequences of his violation of the school rules in Book Three. Throughout the series, various adult mentors shower him with gifts both material (the invisibility cloak, both the Nimbus and the Firebolt) and educational (special instruction from Lupin).

He is the "elite" because he has a number of unusual talents—his flying ability, his resistance to the Imperius Curse—which benefit him, but which he has in no way truly "earned."

He is the "elite" because in spite of an upbringing which ought to have left him socially crippled, he is nonetheless gifted with an innate talent for adhering to social mores.

Yes. Harry is of the "elite." In fact, given that he also seems to possess an instinct for moral virtue, one might even go so far as to say that he is of the Elect.

There often seems to me to be a tinge, or even more than a tinge, of Calvinism to the Potterverse. The text tells us that choice is paramount, but the world that it depicts often seems to be one in which strong forces of predestination are at work. We would like to believe that Harry is blessed because he is virtuous. But it is often difficult to avoid the feeling that it may work the other way around, that Harry is virtuous because he is blessed.

Gulplum wrote:

At the same time, he is anything but of the social elite.

In the world of the Dursleys? No. No, he isn't. But doesn't that very fact serve in many ways merely to accentuate and to highlight his status as the True Elite, or even perhaps of the Elect? Many of the ways by which Harry comes by the comfortable social standing that he enjoys at Hogwarts seem so very improbable for someone with his background to have managed that to my mind it far more enhances that impression of his membership among the Elect that it does to undercut it.

He is an orphan, has spent his young years in drudgery (whilst witnessing a world of plenty on a daily basis).

Not only that, but he has, or should have been, at any rate, crippled in his social development. His cousin prevented him from making any friends at school, and his guardians restricted his social interactions at home. He grew up locked in a cupboard.

And yet, he displays none of the results one might expect from such an upbringing. Once liberated from the artificially-imposed social handicaps the Dursleys inflicted upon him, he is proved to be surprisingly socially adept. He knows how to relate to others as if by some sort of innate social instinct. Hagrid responds favorably to him not only because he is "the Famous Harry Potter," but also because he is a polite and personable child. Molly Weasley will later have the same impression of him. Draco's initial reaction to Harry in Madame Malkin's is a "testing encounter": Draco does not immediately identify him as bulliable, nor can he even positively identify his social standing. On the Hogwarts Express, Harry knows instinctively how to make Ron feel more comfortable about his poverty, and he interprets Hermione's behavior in the normative fashion for an eleven year old boy (ie, he thinks she's bossy). He can correctly identify social codes and can distinguish the socially normal (Ron) from the socially vulnerable (Hermione, Neville). These are all remarkable abilities for a boy with Harry's upbringing to possess.

Of course, we all understand that this is largely just the convention of fairy tale. The neglected child of myth is always polite, attractive to strangers, attentive to social mores, and ultimately normal. There are no socially crippled children in fairy tales, and no one at the ball ever notices Cinderella's chiblains or her cracked and chapped hands. In the world of the fairy tale, all children are "resilient."

And yet this convention sits uneasily with the far more realistic approach that the rest of the series takes towards the effects of upbringing on social interactions. Characters like Neville, Draco, and the various members of the Weasley clan all seem quite believable as the products of what we can deduce about their upbringing. Harry stands out as an exception, and I think that this discrepancy does help to foster the impression that he is not merely a nice kid, but even somewhat eerily immune from spiritual harm; that he may, in fact, enjoy something almost akin to divine Grace.


He is small and physically weak, and is constantly bullied.

He is small, and he was bullied by Dudley and his gang. But the text also really goes out of its way to impress upon us the extent to which his social status within the hierarchy of his pre-Hogwarts school was an artificial state of affairs, one imposed upon him by the Dursleys. We are told, for example, that Harry has no friends because: "Everybody knew that Dudley's gang hated that odd Harry Potter in his baggy old clothes and broken glasses, and nobody liked to disagree with Dudley's gang." (PS, Ch 2) Even his broken glasses aren't broken because he is uncoordinated or inattentive or clumsy, but rather "because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose." He's not even really all that physically weak. In spite of his size, he is in fact quite quick and agile—"Harry didn't look it, but he was very fast"—and just in case we're still operating under the misapprehension that Harry may be (God forbid) unathletic, the text goes out of its way to assure us that although he was indeed always picked last for team sports at school, this was only because all of the other children were so afraid of Dudley and his gang, and not because Harry himself was "no good."

Yeah. Thanks, Jo. We were really starting to worry.

::rolls eyes::

Once Harry is away from the Dursleys influence, of course, all this changes. At Hogwarts, he does not, in fact, register to other children as a natural target for bullying. Draco initially tries to recruit him as an ally, and there are no hints that the other students at the Sorting Ceremony or at the opening banquet view him as socially vulnerable. That's Neville, not Harry. When Harry comes in for abuse, it is due to envy, not to recognition of his social vulnerability. In terms of the hierarchy of the playground, Harry isn't at the bottom of the totem pole at all. Harry is a social normal.

Before he took up his rightful place (which is only a temporary escape as he must return to his place at the bottom of the ladder each year) he had no prospects at all.

His rightful place?

What makes us identify Harry's relatively high status at Hogwarts as his rightful place? Isn't it every bit as accidental, every bit as arbitrary, every bit as much a twist of fate, as his victimization at the hands of the Dursleys?

He holds high status at Hogwarts because his parents were famous and well-liked, because he possesses a heritable atheletic skill, because he conforms well enough to social norms not to register to other children as a victim, because he is possessed of a number of mysterious inborn talents, and because he defeated an evil wizard at the age of one -- an event which he cannot even remember clearly and which had absolutely nothing to do with his own volition.

The only way in which this is "rightful" is that we recognize that Harry is truly virtuous. We are therefore pleased to see him enter a milieu in which he enjoys higher social status. But the reasons for that rise in social status don't really have very much to do with his virtue at all. They have to do with circumstances which are for the most part every bit as much beyond his control as the circumstances which led him to occupy a degraded social position while living with the Dursleys.

The fact of the matter is that social inequalities exist and there is no way they can be abolished. The best we can do is to help to blur the lines, to make climbing the ladder easier for those who deserve it. The Durselys most definitely do not.

I tend to view this as the great fallacy of "meritocracy," the idea that it has anything to do with "merit" in the sense of moral virtue at all. I assume that by saying that the Dursleys do not "deserve" their social status, you mean that they don't deserve it because they are nasty and selfish, because they lack a sense of noblesse oblige, because they will not use their privilege for the benefit of others -- in short, because they are ethically deficient.

That is all quite true. For all we know, however, Vernon Dursley may be a very good salesman. He certainly would seem to be skilled at earning money. And that is the skill that the "meritocracy" of the system in which he lives privileges, just as the "meritocracy" of Hogwarts privileges magical, athletic and academic talent.

There is no "merit" here, if you mean merit in the sense of moral virtue. In the Potterverse, as in our own, you don't ascend the social ladder by virtue of being a decent person. You ascend the social ladder by virtue of possessing whatever innate talents the particular system in which you are operating happens to value the most highly. "Meritocracy" has no more to do with moral virtue than aristocracy by blood does.

But in Harry, the two do seem to be combined -- perhaps one might even say that they are conflated. We really are, I think, encouraged to read his social standing in the wizarding world as in some way his "rightful place," as not merely socially but also ethically merited. It is not just "his" by right of a combination of inheritance and dumb luck. It is his by right of a kind of innate divine grace.

And I do find that troubling. It is yet another point on which, whenever I contemplate the series, I start to feel the ground shifting beneath my feet.



RE: Official Philip Nel Question #10: Class

A few more thoughts on Nel Number 10.

But first, a couple of tangential asides.


On the Designation of "Canon"

Pip wrote:

Could I just make my position clear here? JKR has invented the Potterverse. It is her world, and she's still creating it. If she says there are no other wizarding schools in Great Britain, then there-are-no-other-wizarding schools. Full stop.

These books are tremendously popular. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of the series' readers have not also read all of JKR's interviews. Nor do they have access to her shoeboxes full of notes. Nor can they read her mind. Nor do things like memoirs, oral statements, and authors themselves tend to live as long as works of fiction themselves do. When attempting to evaluate what a text is actually saying to its readers, therefore, I tend to prefer to look only at the text itself.

I see a great deal of ambiguity in the text on this point, particularly in the first book in the series. I find it difficult to parse either Neville's statement or Hermione's statement as reflecting the same reality that JKR's interview statement proposes. Both statements imply something quite different.

There are a number of reasons why this could be the case. JKR may have written her dialogue carelessly. She often does. My own reading might be idiosyncratic. It often is. Or JKR could have changed her mind on this point sometime between writing the first book and being asked the question in interview. Authors—yes, even those who claim that they have everything exquisitely planned—very often do change their minds in just such a fashion.


On Wizarding Education

Pip wrote:

Of course, this does rather leave us with the problem of wondering what happens to magical children who aren't magical enough to get into Hogwarts [see below for my personal opinion], but whether we choose to imagine apprenticeship-at-age-11 (which happened as recently as the nineteenth century in the UK, so not impossible that the WW should still use it), or private home tuition (possibly where Professor Lupin made his living?)...

Correspondence courses, Pip! Correspondence courses! Kwikspell!

...other, less prestigious, wizarding schools in the UK are OUT. Like it or not, they don't exist.

In which case I do think that Neville and Hermione's dialogue in Book One was carelessly written. I have heard many arguments against the possibility of the existence of other, less prestigious wizarding schools on this thread, yet I notice that no one has yet tried to argue against the assertion that the dialogue I cited does indeed imply the reverse.


On the absolute cheek of my tackling this subject at all

Pip wrote:

You could try using 'upper', 'middle' and 'working', which would be the metaphor I would use - equally inaccurate, since of course all three classes have both working and non-working members.

Yes, all right. I will do so in the future. It hadn't occurred to me that "working class" would be understood to encompass certain segments of the urban poor.

I did not assume that you were trying to be offensive; I simply assure you that I have heard 'lower class' used far too many times in a way that suggested that the speaker really did think that they were inferior. I'm sure from reading your posts that you don't - but I found reading your post objectively quite difficult because you kept using 'lower class', and that is why I mentioned it.

I apologize. I would love to be able to offer in my defense the claim that I just didn't realize that class was such a sensitive issue, but of course, I knew perfectly well that it was. I can't really deny that I wasn't being deliberately provocative. I was not, however, trying to be insulting, and unfortunately, the line between the two is a very difficult one to walk. In this case, my sense of balance was clearly not quite up to the task. I am sorry, and thank you for being so very gracious about it.


On the Subject At Hand

Pip wrote:

You seem to be determined [grin] to read 'real world' class systems into the WW, and I suspect that JKR does not want to import them for exactly the same reason she's made sure that 'race' is examined only by the fictional means of using the WW's attitudes to races that don't exist in RL. She's going to examine 'class prejudice' [if I'm right] by using a class system that only exists in the fictional world.

Oh, I absolutely agree that JKR prefers to explore issues of social prejudice through the use of metaphor. She does an excellent job, IMO, of managing to write the books in such a way that ethnic and racial conflicts devolve entirely on fictional divisions: muggle/wizard/squib, pureblood/muggle-born, human/elf, etc. I also agree with everything that Pip wrote (and implied) about the likelihood of there being muggle-borns holding decent positions in the Ministry, what this suggests about Hermione's prospects, and the extent to which Hermione's pronounced work ethic may be in part a result of her recognition of her own social standing. I always find it extremely difficult not to read Hermione as coded as "immigrant." Which is, of course, in a sense precisely what she is.

The reason, however, that I "seem to be determined" to read real world class systems into JKR's wizarding world is because I feel that while the author has indeed done a sterling job of writing the books so that the closely related issues of race, ethnicity and immigration all do devolve onto their imaginary analogues, the issue of class itself just...well, it doesn't quite. It doesn't quite manage it.

Naama echoed Pip's sentiments when she wrote:

I also think that JKR is not preoccupied with class struggles. I think she is occupied with the major political crisis line of our times - ethnic conflicts.

I agree that JKR is not preoccupied with class issues per se. Indeed, I suspect that it might well be her very lack of authorial focus on them that enables them to sneak their way into the wizarding world. She is obviously concerned with real world racial issues, and so they are rather strikingly absent from the books, allowing the wizarding blood metaphor to carry that weight. But class? Class doesn't seem to have been expurgated from the fictive world in at all the same way.

Pippin wrote:

By British standards, all modern wizards are middle class. Period.

Somebody might want to inform Richard Adams and Pico Iyer of that fact. They seem to have missed the memo. ;-)

Is Stan Shunpike middle class? Or are you arguing that he is not really a wizard at all, but a Squib?

Are the Malfoys middle class, do you think?

Well, maybe. Maybe they are. Certainly they're arrogant enough to have built themselves a "manor" only a generation or two ago and then to have named it after themselves. Maybe in fact Stan Shunpike is middle class, as are Algie Longbottom and Lucius Malfoy and Mr. Borgin and the Crouch family and Tom of the Leaky Cauldron. Maybe they're all middle class. But in that case, I have to say that the wizarding world's middle class is beginning to look an awful lot like the American "middle class" to me. ;-)

We can quibble over terminology all we like, but there really do seem to be class distinctions within the wizarding world even aside and apart from those which devolve on either magical talent of purity of blood. The pure-blooded Mister Malfoy speaks to the (presumably) pure-blooded Borgin as aristocrat to "trade," and while Borgin certainly doesn't like that one bit, he does seem to understand it. Malfoy is equally insulting to Arthur Weasley, but the tenor of the insult is completely different: it has very different class overtones. Stan Shunpike speaks disparagingly of Muggles, yet he does not speak as if he received a Hogwarts education. Severus Snape has a properly Latinate wizarding name, and yet he seems to feel the most comfortable in the company of Filch, and Pippin suggests that his own manner of speaking is somewhat suspiciously over-mannered. Ernie MacMillan can trace his wizarding descent back nine generations, but he also feels the need to proclaim this publicly when he knows that muggle-borns are being targetted -- a compulsion which we do not see shared by, say, Draco Malfoy.

All of these things suggest to me that there are indeed other class considerations interacting with those related to the question of "blood" within the wizarding world. There seems, in fact, to be quite a bit of overlay of real world class construct operating alongside the fictive constructs of magical talent and purity of blood.

Pip wrote:

[*even more exceptionally evil grin*] but you seem to be deciding that the trolley lady, the nice ice-cream lady, and all the other one-or-two line characters are automatically of a particular social class because they are in a service position. Think outside the box, please.

I think that as readers, we do tend to "think outside the box" when it comes to, say, race. But JKR makes it very difficult for us to do so when it comes to class, IMO, because there seem to be so many places in the text where real world class issues do seem to be informing how the wizard characters relate to one another. Malfoy and Borgin's interaction at the beginning of Book Two, for example, simply does not make very much sense when viewed from outside of that box.


Far more recently, Pippin wrote:

Wait a minute! Part of what Rowling accomplishes with characters like Stan is to show us exactly how convenient it is to rely on those old-fashioned cultural clues and how uneasy we are without them.

Except that people aren't really at all uneasy without them, are they? I mean, what causes the unease here is not, say, the lack of distinction of accent between the Hogwarts students and the lunch trolley witch. That doesn't bother people, does it? I don't think that it does. Nor do people seem troubled in at all the same way by Hogwarts' racial diversity (well...okay, I guess that some people really are bothered by that, but for unrelated reasons).

What causes the trouble here, I think, is first that real world class distinctions do seem to keep on making an incursion into the WW, and second, that this seems so out of keeping with the way that other real world social distinctions. like racial distinctions, are never expressed in any way other than through metaphor.

We all admit that it makes not the slightest difference as far as the outcome of PoA where the heck Stan Shunpike (not Steerpike, are you a Mervyn Peake fan, Elkins?) went to school.

Oh, Pippin's onto me. I am not only an enormous Mervyn Peake fan, but I'm also secretly hoping that the real plot of the HP series involves an ambitious Stan Shunpike rising through the social ranks, committing murder and mayhem wherever he goes, while Harry Potter himself turns apolitical subversive, eventually developing a romantic fixation on his long-lost feral unbound House Elf foster-sister. By the end of Book Seven, I want to see the entire rotten system crumble to pieces. The House Cup Competition -- abandoned! The Squibs -- ruling the Ministry of Magic! Hogwarts under new administration! And the Sorting Hat burned to ash! Hah! Hah, hah, hah!

<Elkins blinks, suddenly realizing that this actually is where she'd most like for the series to go. Or...well, something a bit like that, at any rate.>

Er, yes. I stand corrected. Shunpike. Indeed.

But we are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that we don't know. We don't know how to class Stan or Ern or the trolley witch, and it bugs the heck out of us, progressive ideals or no, just as much as it would bug Uncle Vernon.

But for slightly different reasons, I think. Uncle Vernon already knows where he sits within the Potterverse's social structure. We, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea what place we would occupy within the social hierarchy of the fictive universe. The people who hold very strong views on this subject seem to me to be doing so largely as a kind of by-product of the phenomenon of reader self-insertion: "Would I, as a member of the working class, have been free to attend Hogwarts had I been born with magical talent in this universe?"

It matters to many people on such a gut emotional level, I think, not because they really care in the slightest where non-characters like Stan and Ern and the nameless trolley witch belong, but rather, because they want to know where they would belong. In that respect, I view it as kissing kin to the "where are all of the gay/devout/leftist/whathaveyou characters?" lament.

—Elkins (who thinks that Nel #10 was 'waaaaay too big a subject, as she still has three more responses to the original question set left to tackle, and just doesn't know where she's going to find the time)


RE: Historical Analogs to the WW -- "Quaintness" and Nostalgia

In message #41413, Pippin wrote:

I think Adams' analysis misses the point Rowling is making.

She then went on to post an excellent class analysis of the wizarding world, one which seems to me to be essentially in agreement with Pierre Bruno's Marxist-structuralist critique, which Adams cited and summarized in his article.

This, for example, is Pippin's analysis:

In the wizarding world, as in medieval Europe, the new system of trade is replacing the old economy based on personal holdings. . .Slytherin, who did not want the authority of all-magical families destroyed, represents a subversive conservative element within Hogwarts. . . . Voldemort, Heir of Slytherin, is trying to re-establish the old system...

And this is Adams' summary of Bruno's analysis:

Slytherin—named after the aristocratic Salazar—represents the propertied-classes and Gryffindor—Harry's house—the ascendant class of the bourgeoisie. The whole series is therefore not about the traditional struggle of Good and Evil but "the conflict between established and rising classes."

This is certainly a compelling reading, and it has a good deal of merit. Like Adams, though, I see a number of problems with this analysis. In the end, the reading of the struggle within the wizarding world as one between a landed gentry and an emergent middle class just doesn't hold up very well for me.

For one thing, I feel that the text draws such strong parallels between the larger scale political struggle and the Gryffindor/Slytherin rivalry that it is virtually impossible not to read the two as inextricably connected. But surely it is Slytherin, and not Gryffindor, whose values more accurately reflect those of an emergent trade economy, is it not?

Ruthlessness, ambition, cunning, a certain willingness to cut corners, a penchant for "cheating," which is to say, for breaking the traditional rules of engagement in order to ensure personal victory -- those aren't the values of a land-based aristocracy at all. They're the values of the city-state, the polis. They are "Machiavellian," which is to say, the values of the trade-dependent Renaissance states. They are also the values of those who hold power within an education-dependent beaurocracy. They're the values of the urban or the palace politician, rather than those of the rural land-holding aristocracy.

No, if any of the Houses seems to me to represent the ancient land-holding aristocracy, then that would have to be House Gryffindor. Even the language in which the Sorting Hat phrases Gryffindor values—"chivalry" rather than, say, "generosity," "bravery" rather than "courage"—is suggestive of a feudal conception of honor. The values that House Gryffindor represents aren't the values of an ascendant middle class at all, nor are they the values of the literati. They are the values of a warrior caste.

Furthermore, they are the values which seem to prevail within the wizarding world as a whole. It is not only the members of House Gryffindor, but the entire wizarding culture which places a high value on bravery and daring, while holding Slytherinesque strategies in low regard. Draco Malfoy is not proud of himself when he is accused of having bought his way onto the Quidditch team. He is shamed and angered. And he doesn't like being accused of cowardice either.

Pippin wrote:

Voldemort, Heir of Slytherin, is trying to re-establish the old system: his followers are sworn personally to him, and are rewarded in kind rather than in cash. His politics are those of feud and vendetta. His preferred contest is the duel.

I hardly see these values espoused only by members of House Slytherin. They seem to me to be the values of the wizarding world as a whole. The Pensieve mob at Crouch Jr's trial in GoF exemplifies the politics of feud and vendetta, as do Lupin and Black in the Shrieking Shack, where it takes the Muggle-raised Harry to prevail upon them to abandon this aesthetic in favor of a more contemporary notion of judicial due process. In CoS, students from all four houses are sufficiently interested in learning to duel to show up for Lockhart's duelling club, and in the first book, Draco plays off of Harry and Ron's presumably "Gryffindorish" preference for the duel as a ploy to try to get them in trouble. Harry receives aid from Fawkes and the Sorting Hat at the end of CoS by means of his personal devotion to Dumbledore: it is not his fidelity to an abstraction that helps to save him, but rather, his loyalty to Dumbledore as a person, as an individual leader.

If this is the "old system" (and I agree with Pippin that it is), then the "new system" against which I think it must be compared is not the value system of House Gryffindor, but rather the value system of the muggle world itself. House Gryffindor is indeed more sympathetic to and welcoming of this population, and it has been ever since the days of the founders. But the values of the muggle world are nonetheless not at all, as I see it, really the same as those of House Gryffindor.

When it comes to the class basis of the Gryffindor/Slytherin rivalry, I tend to agree more with Richard Adams, who writes:

...the distinguishing characteristic of the Gryffindor house is bravery -- a more noble image than the competing Dursley representation of the middle class world, with its company cars and televisions. More importantly, it is Voldemort who is reacting against the status quo acceptance of Muggle blood. The conflict between them is not between a rising middle class and a declining gentry; rather it is a civil war among a ruling class over how it treats its members, whom it admits into the ruling class, and how it treats a lower form of life, the non-magician Muggles.

Even more specifically, I tend to view this conflict as one between an increasingly dispossessed and resentful beaurocratic aristocracy (Slytherin), and a far more socially mobile warrior class (Gryffindor), which managed to wrest control away from the earlier aristocracy some thousand years ago and whose values have since come to predominate within wizarding society as a whole.

The real world historical analogy that I always see here (and I admit that this is very likely due to my own educational background) is not eleventh century Europe, but the late Roman Empire, in which the older aristocratic Senatorial orders had been superceded by the military class, in large part due to the military's meritocratic nature and its ready acceptance of "new blood" in the form of provincials, freemen and "barbarians."

Like the subversive reactionaries of House Slytherin, members of the old Senatorial class enjoyed hearkening back to a nostalgic view of their own past status as a warrior elite, while simultaneously opposing the actual warrior values of the real warrior caste which had come to supercede them. Also like Rowling's "pure-bloods," the Roman Senatorial class was crippled in part by a declining birthrate (In CoS, Ron makes the claim that if wizards hadn't married muggles, they would have all died out), exacerbated by an unwillingness to admit "new men" into its ranks.

The ascendant Roman military, on the other hand, gained power and vibrancy in part due to its inclusive policies and emphasis on skill and ability, rather than on blood. In this respect, they were like House Gryffindor, which while it may not be doing too well in that House Cup competition at the time of the series' opening, is nonetheless clearly in control: House Slytherin is mistrusted by all of the other houses, Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts, McGonagall is his lieutenant, and as a newcomer to the entire culture, Hermione immediately identifies Gryffindor as the "best" of the Houses. (Presumably she received this impression from _Hogwart's: A History,_ which would seem to be THE history text available to students within the culture -- and which would also seem to have been written by the cultural winners.)

Pippin wrote:

What Rowling seems nostalgic for is not the old ruling class per se, but the virtue it once espoused: nobility of spirit, the desire to protect the weak without exploitation.

Rowling's ideal seems to be a synthesis of the two systems, ancient and modern. She would like to see the idealism of the old chivalric system as represented by Gryffindor House preserved as a shelter for those who need it, but combined with the mobility and meritocracy of the new.

I would agree with this statement (although I'm afraid that I'm just cynical enough to find it impossible to believe that the ruling classes have ever truly exemplified those ideal virtues. Historical record does tend to suggest otherwise).

I also, however, see a good deal of nostalgia for the late nineteenth century in JKR's writing, and I don't see this nostalgia as limited only to the idealized notion of the past as a country where people have a strong sense of noblesse oblige. ;-)

Much of it seems to me to be a far less intellectualized form of nostalgia than the ethical idealism described by Pippin's excellent and well-reasoned essay. To my mind, JKR's nostalgia seems to represent more of a kind of inchoate yearning for the stability of relatively recently departed social structures and hierarchies. I view it as kissing cousin to the "frontier nostalgia" of the aesthetic that we often refer to as "Americana," or to the nostalgia many people in this country feel for a softened and idealized vision of the Old South. And like both of these forms of nostalgia, it comes complete with some rather unsettling political and social implications which even the best-intentioned often find difficult to remove.

I am reminded here of Daniel Harris' essay "Quaintness," which is to be found in his quirky collection of cultural essays, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism.

Harris wrote:

If historians seek to know the past intellectually, those who revel in that most ahistorical of aesthetics, quaintness, seek to know it sensually, not through knowledge but through atmosphere, stripping it of facts and mining it for sensations. Quaintness focuses squarely on the physicality of Olden Times, on their creature comforts, and is therefore set more often in the nineteenth century than the Middle Ages, which bring to mind cold flagstone floors and drafty, smoke-filled dining halls draped in mildewed tapestries, whereas the nineteenth century conjures up images of toasty Christmas interiors, brisk sleigh rides, and cups of piping hot cocoa. Quaintness reproduces the past selectively, editing out its discomfort, inconvenience, misery, stench, and filth and concentrating instead on its carnal pleasures, its 'warm and homey feelings.'

That, to my mind, is a very apt description of the type of archaism we see in the izarding world, particularly at Hogwarts. Intellectually, it may represent an authorial yearning for idealized myths of departed ruling aristocracies, but on a far more visceral level, I tend to view it as mainly a yearning for a combination of social stability, coziness, and security that we may think of as a more generalized nostalgia, a yearning for the quaint, for "past-ness."

Just as the nostalgia of quaintness seeks to edit out physical discomfort, it also seeks to gloss over those political realities which are part and parcel of that image, that sense of "atmosphere," that feeling of "past-ness" which we define as "quaint" and which nostalgic writing like JKR's seeks to reproduce.

Harris wrote:

Quaintness is also an aesthetic of clutter because it represents different periods simultaneously. Its chaotic the outcome of its historical fallaciousness, its scrambled sense of chronology, which mixes together disparate epochs and cultures, collapsing time like an accordian.

Sounds like Hogwarts to me.