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Jeri Johnson and the Tutorial of Death

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I should begin by saying that I am not a Harry Potter fan – not a proper one. I’ve never bought a replica wand, or queued for the latest volume of the book. I read it first as an undergrad, so – at 19 or so – I was *far* too old and cynical to fall in love with it properly. But, at 35 I’m far less cynical, and much more in awe of JK Rowling as a writer. So when I found out she was going to be appearing as part of Exeter College’s 700th anniversary celebrations – my old college – I was pretty excited. By the time my wife (a genuine Potter fan) and I were in Oxford, queuing up outside the Sheldonian, it felt like a rock concert for nerds. We even got hand stamps.

Exeter College's crest. I am now trying to decide what Hogwarts house Exeter would be. Possibly Hufflepuff.

Exeter College’s crest. I am now trying to decide what Hogwarts house Exeter would be. Possibly Hufflepuff.

As we waited and looked around at the buildings nearby – including the part of the Bodleian where some of Potter was filmed – I was reminded how beautiful Oxford is, and how linked the two worlds – dreaming spires and the Potterverse – are in my mind, even if I’d never really noticed before. I’ve studied in the same library as Harry Potter, you guys. Though for “studied” read, “doodled for a couple of hours with a pile of books next to me”. I was not the most diligent student (sorry Jeri).


Mind you, there’s nothing in the Potterverse quite as tacky as the ceiling of the Sheldonian theatre.

The Cistine Chapel can bite me.

The Cistine Chapel can bite me. Way too restrained.

Once we were inside, the room strated filling up… and up and up. This was where I had my graduation ceremony, and I don’t remember there being that many people even turning out for their darling sons and daughters. We were warned very sternly that anyone taking photos would be EVICTED. Ditto any kind of recording. So from here on in, it’s illustrations only. Here’s my former English tutor, Jeri Johnson, who was “in conversation with” JK Rowling that day.

Jeri was an expert witness for a plagiarism trial that JK Rowling was involved in. Click this pic if you're interested in reading more about that.

Jeri was an expert witness for a plagiarism trial that JK Rowling was involved in. 

The ancient wooden double doors opened -both doors at once, the proper action hero method of door-opening. JK Rowling came in to the kind of slightly-embarrassing applause that I imagine follows her everywhere. As she joined Jeri Johnson on the stage, she genuinely looked startled, even a little scared. Maybe you never do get used to that sort of reception?


JK Rowling, Superstar.

But she might also have been a little scared of Jeri, who opened by saying that “Jo” had made her promise beforehand that this wasn’t going to turn into a tutorial. JK Rowling (it took me a moment to realize who this Jo person was) pointed out that a tutorial in front of 1000s of people was basically a living nightmare.

Pen exploded. Apologies. But I think the blue auras bring out the terror in her eyes.

Pen exploded. Apologies. But I think the blue auras bring out the terror in her eyes.

Given that Jeri could put Snape to shame with her student-filleting snark, JKR was right to be wary. But Jeri solemnly swore she was up to no tutoring.

She also pointed out in her intro that since she was interviewing such a lowly, obscure, unsuccessful writer, we should all be extra kind and sympathetic. Failure and obscurity can be tough.

But then she cut to reality, and the fact that JK Rowling changed reading for a generation of children, and a good many adults. And the topic of today’s talk would be mortality and morality in Rowling’s books. So, the light fluffy fun stuff.

Before getting into the death bit, Jeri dropped a Rowling fact that I didn’t know, although perhaps you did – she studied French and Classics at Exeter University (the “other” Exeter, Jeri snarled)… which, now I think about it, makes sense, what with all the Latin in Harry Potter.

And then to death and ethics. Jeri asked about the moral centre of the Harry Potter books. The answer: “the Dumbledore/Snape axis.” The Snape part of that interested me – that he’s an important moral force along with Dumbledore.

Voldemort, on the other hand, is the Potter equivalent of Milton’s Satan. Luckily, Dumbledore is not as much of a tool as Milton’s God, so unlike Milton’s Satan, Voldemort doesn’t end up being more likeable. Dumbledore’s flawed and human and “easier to love than God”, Jeri pointed out. Also, gay.

There’s a challenge to making goodness as exciting as evil. There’s also a challenge when it comes to pronouncing Voldemort’s name. Apparently without the t is correct, French-style. Jeri Johnson pronounced it that way in a US courtroom to an audible gasp of horror. Even lawyers on the job feel strongly about the linguistic nuances of Harry Potter it seems.

Then JKR and JJ discussed the origins of Voldemort’s name – its double meanings.’Vol’ can mean both theft and flight. So Voldemort = either the flight of death (or perhaps from it) and the theft of death. His name encapsulates his central struggle, for immortality. Death is something he’s “taking back” like the night, but it’s also something he’s running scared from. And something he creates a lot of.

Back on the topic of goodness, JKR talked about how Harry becomes more morally ambiguous as the books go on, which was part of her desire to explore what it is to be human.

JKR: “A vessel for inauthentic virtue is of no interest to me.” (And she said SHE was afraid of being schooled by Jeri?)

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly our, far more than our abilities."

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly our, far more than our abilities.”

She pointed out that Harry is a teenager, he makes bad choices. But all the same, in some ways he’s a better man than Dumbledore. Dumbledore wants power in a way that Harry doesn’t… and that’s what makes Harry, in some ways, better suited to lead than Dumbledore. The ideal leader is someone who doesn’t want to lead, for whom power has no appeal.

Harry has a heroic role placed at his door, he doesn’t seek it out. But he does make choices. Dumbledore’s line about our choices defining us is the “one line in the books I believe in wholeheartedly.”

But if that’s the moral core of the book, death also lurks at the centre of things.

JKR: My husband asked me if I’m ever going to write a book that’s NOT about death.

(“Nope,” appears to be the answer.)

Evil is defined in the books partly in terms of how characters react to death. Voldemort fears and flees it at all costs. Harry realizes that there are some things that “cost” more than death, and there are things worth more than his own life. He accepts his mortality

JKR: You master death by accepting that there are worse things than dying.

IT wasn’t all death and darkness, though. Jeri and JKR also talked about love. There was also snark.

JERI: Love is very important in the Harry Potter books, but you rarely talk about it explicitly.

JKR: That’s very incisive. I can see how you got to where you are today.

She went on to say that Harry Potter wouldn’t be what it is today if her mother hadn’t died – very young, only 45 – a few months into writing the books. It had a powerful impact on the books, she said. The mirror of erised, for example.

Other topics discussed…

  • The moral fable of the three brothers, and how using a form like that was a departure, an experiment, and something that was a challenge to fit within the complexities of a novel. Apparently it was influenced by the Pardoner’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, as well as a French fable about the devil standing on a bridge (if the name was mentioned, I didn’t catch it, sorry. Look it up and tell me?)
  • The Harry Potter Alliance, a group that works for good (in real life) and fights discrimination. JKR called this local activism, “an incredible thing.”
  • Gender – Hermione’s choice of the cloak in Deathly Hallows (?) JKR sees as a gendered choice. “Only the girl makes the smart decision.” It represents protection, she said. She fights because she has to. She’s an idealist. But also practical. “Women are creative and men are destructive” – one phrase that stuck in my mind. JKR said she sees childbirth as the defining female experience, war as the male one. I’m probably not doing the nuances justice in a bullet point. This is something that unsettled me… I’d be interested to read more of what she has to say on the topic. Oh, and she quoted As Good as it Gets. The main character in that is asked how he writes such good female characters. He says he writes them like a man then “takes out the logic.” JKR said, to write men, she unleashes less socially acceptable parts of herself. And “takes out some parts” (she didn’t say which).
  • The relationship of politics and ethics. JKR said she’s more interested in the big human themes than in politics. “Politics is the manifestation of our inability to grapple with larger themes.” (Apologies if not all my quotes are verbatim, I was scribbling as fast as I could.)
  • The Casual Vacancy – it’s about responsibility. And…”it’s not Potter. I don’t get into trouble if I tell you that someone dies at the end.” This is a book that, apparently, also reinforces Jeri’s prejudices about English society. Evil in a Casual Vacancy is about the absence of something – a vacancy in the human heart. To be a bystander is to be evil.

One topic that was discussed-but-not-discussed…”We’re not going to talk about Harry and Hermione.” (No, not even with the whole room willing  them to do so.) But they did discuss slash fanfiction and even touched on “the gay subtext of Harry and Snape.” Though these were just teases. 🙂

At the end, there were questions. I don’t remember them all. But there was one student who was squirming to be picked, and I was willing that she would.

She was wearing a Harry Potter themed jumper and waving a wand.

She was wearing a Harry Potter themed jumper and waving a wand.

Eventually, Jeri called on her. She proceeded to give a very moving speech. She was crying, saying how Harry Potter had inspired her to come over from China, to study English, how much it had changed her life and taught her love, courage and friendship.

After that, she said, “I have just one question.”

JKR responded that (after that speech) she could have as many as she liked.

So she came out with, “Does Harry really love Ginny?”

She got a massive round off applause for being that cheeky. Also, a straight answer.

JKR: Yes. I’m not going to mess around with this one. He does.

So there’s that.

Another questioner basically asked for money for her charity. That did not get a round of applause. Then a woman with MS thanked JKR for the 9 million she’d donated to an MS charity. That did.

JK Rowling is truly quite the human.

4 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on karenatstepney and commented:
    What a terrific post: thanks, Louie. Wonderful illustrations. Gifted and talented you.

  2. She’s an astounding person, sounds like it was a heck of a cool thing to go to (and love your drawings!)


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