Queer wizards, Freud and BDSM: Harry Potter in UL
The Main Building’s C1 corridor is not a place you’d normally expect to find anything magical but on Monday and Tuesday, the usually dreary grey stone was decorated with the crests of the four Hogwarts houses, the notice boards reminded students of their divination and charms assignments, and there were even sign-up sheets for the Gobstones Club and Frog Choir. Ireland’s first ever conference on Harry Potter had come, Magic is Might had begun.
They came from Canada, the United States, South Africa, Norway, the UK and possibly even Diagon Alley, judging by the ties and shirts in house colours, the distinctly magical jewellery (Was that a Golden Snitch bracelet?) and the range of opinions on house-elves. The academics, some PhD students, some completing their Master’s theses, eagerly anticipated their chance to present their paper to the largely friendly crowd. Each delegate received an ID badge proudly displaying their Hogwarts house. Most had already been sorted by Pottermore, the “official” method, that would become the focus of criticism later. Though Slytherins and Hufflepuffs sat cheek by jowl, an upbeat mood kept old rivalries at bay. Actress Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood, signed a Magic is Might t-shirt for the conference.
UL’s Dr Eoin Devereaux delivered an opening speech that, while not revealing the sociology professor’s house, confirmed his fascination with Harry Potter fandom. Dr Devereaux spoke of Harry Potter’s Irish connections and drew parallels between the work of JK Rowling and his own cultural icon, Morrissey. After gently ribbing the good people at Warner Bros, Dr Devereaux yielded the Parsons for the first panel discussion of the day. It was to be a day filled with puking pasties, dark lords, magical creatures and eager discussions.
The highlight of day one was a trial which the delegates were asked to adjudicate. Following a hearty lunch that may or may not have featured cauldron cakes and Every Flavour Beans, the conference moved to the student courtroom to hear accusations against a trio of centaurs. A fictional civil law suit was presented. One Dolores Umbridge, formerly of Hogwarts, had accused three centaurs of battery and false imprisonment following certain events in the Forbidden Forest towards the end of Harry Potter’s fifth year. While initial discussion of the evidence focused on the character of Madam Umbridge, a subject every Harry Potter fan is very informed about, a wider philosophical debate soon ensued. A Hufflepuff from Pretoria University suggested that the centaurs, like Native Americans, had been forced on to reservations and that wizard government may be illegitimate in ruling them. The potential independence of centaur society was discussed at length, and there was even a foray into the area of war crimes and culpability. Suggestions that Madam Umbridge had been raped by the centaurs was supported by evidence from classical mythology and by her subsequent behaviour. Though not much was made of Ron Weasley’s tendency to make “clip-clop” noises when Madam Umbridge was around, it was mentioned as part of the rape hypothesis. UL alumna and conference co-organiser Gráinne O’Brien suggested that Madam Umbridge deserved everything she got, while another academic considered the witch “too flat” a character for in-depth discussion.
Following the day’s final panel, which focused on breaking wizarding law, the delegates were treated to a tour of Limerick’s Hunt Museum, which was reportedly as enjoyable as a shopping spree at Honeyduke’s sweet shop.
Ms O’Brien opened the second day of the conference with a discussion of phallic symbolism. The distinctly Freudian analysis would later be contrasted with a largely Jungian presentation, the main conflict centering on whether the snake Nagini was a phallic symbol or a maternal one. Despite this, there was general agreement that Ron Weasley had “serious wand issues” deserving of a separate paper. Ms O’Brien’s ideas of Voldemort as “queer” proved a talking point, and even the suggestion that Bellatrix Lestrange might be a lesbian. A later presentation from Austrian academic Vera Cuntz-Leng dovetailed the discussion, by suggesting Remus Lupin was “like a gay AIDS victim” and his wife, Nymphadora Tonks, was “a potentially transgender metamorphmagus”, whereas characters such as Prof Quirrell and Gilderoy Lockhart were “stereotypical sissies”. Accusations of BDSM were levied against Barty Crouch Jnr and Dolores Umbridge, while Severus Snape’s bisexual longing for Harry Potter’s male gaze was Ms Cuntz-Leng’s piece de resistance.
The conference moved speedily through the issues of Horcruxes, the interaction of fans with the stories, online incarnations of the franchise and more gentle criticism of WB before making way for the keynote speaker, Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal Abbey and former headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School, referred to by conference organiser Luigiana Ciolfi as “Limerick’s Hogwarts”.
Abbot Hederman, suited and wearing a clerical collar, seemed an unlikely choice to deliver an address at a conference that had focused so heavily on queer theory and sex earlier in the day but the former educator explained the significance and usefulness of the Harry Potter books in such a subtle and insightful way that the delegates could not help but be impressed.
“Harry Potter is the most formative cultural phenomenon of the 21st century,” Abbot Hederman said, pouring scorn on critics who had derided the books as “the ultimate brain candy of 21st century morons.” The abbot drew broad comparisons between JK Rowling and Charles Dickens, as well as alluding to Biblical and classical themes that shine through. Accusing Lord Voldemort and those like him of being “necrophiliacs”, he said Harry Potter was fighting the loss of childhood and that “A new form of slavery for the imperative of economic growth should not be the basis of our education system.” While cultivating the garden of the mind, Abbot Hederman concluded that “Anyone who’s not interested in Harry Potter is not aware of what’s going on in the world.” The abbot also criticised those conservative Christians who had condemned the books as promoting witchcraft and arranged book burnings, although admitting they had never read it. He praised Dumbledore as an example of wisdom, dismissing the controversy surrounding his homosexuality. Touching briefly on the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s initial condemnation of the books, Abbot Hederman said he was “really not concerned” about what the Pope was reading.
Later panels touched on the disappointment felt by many fans on the launch of the Pottermore website, with Cardiff academic and proud Ravenclaw, Bethan Jones, discussing how users who had been sorted into what they perceived as the wrong house felt “like they’d found out they were adopted” while one user was disappointed with the rigidity of her assigned wand because she had “always thought she was more of a springy wand person.”
The final two panels also touched upon fan fiction and slash fiction though a presentation entitled “Sexualising Severus Snape”, which would have discussed Harry Potter/ Severus Snape slash fiction in greater detail, was not presented due to absence. Ms Jones said that FanFiction.net had as many as 600,000 Harry Potter fan-generated stories and the “child-friendly” controls on Pottermore were disappointing readers and encouraging them to move to fan-created sites like MyHogwarts.co.uk.
The conference was a unique event in UL and in Ireland. It attracted a majority of foreign delegates and covered a broad range of topics from many disciplines, including literature, sociology, media, design and even commerce. And though there were many things that could not be agreed, like the legal status of centaurs or Voldemort’s sexuality, the organisers can happily treat themselves to a butterbeer for putting together a unique and distinctly interesting academic event that UL may not see again for a long time.
Posted by Darragh Roche, Editor on at 12:53 pm.
Got an opinion on this article? Leave it below.