Magic and Mormons: A Thought Experiment

by Nicole
Posted March 26, 2012 • 7 comments

It was Thanksgiving break of 2001 when I first saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with my mom and her friend. They had both read the first book; I had not. The movie was fun and magical. I enjoyed it.

At that time I was volunteering as a mentor for a teenage girl who had told me she found Harry Potter “boring.” I laughed out loud. Everyone had been gushing over the unique characters and the imaginative world. During my study abroad to London in summer 2000, one of my classmates woke up before dawn and waited outside a bookshop to get her hands on one of the first copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

How could such a phenomenon be considered “boring”?

I soon found out. I started reading a borrowed copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone not long after I watched the movie.

It was boring.

I only managed to make it through the first thirty pages. Now maybe it’s because I had just spent the last four years reading Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hamlet (over and over), and Edgar Allen Poe that the young adult genre voice bored me so much.

But I have another theory: as a novice writer J. K. Rowling felt that she needed to explain every little thing in her magical wizarding world. She knew she had to incorporate the exposition somehow, but it was revealed through conversations and explanations that felt like every reader must be the eleven-year-old Harry Potter looking for answers.

She repeats this awkward exposition in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when after a charged exchange in the Dudleys’ household, Rowling reveals, “Harry Potter wasn’t a normal boy. As a matter of fact, he was as not normal as it is possible to be. Harry Potter was a wizard —a wizard fresh from his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” She follows up this moment with Harry’s reminiscence of Hogwarts: ghosts, classes, spells, and Quidditch—with an unclear parenthetical description of the mechanics of the sport. (Imagine someone describing American football in a dozen words.) Rowling also makes a similar move in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Harry Potter is special; he’s a wizard.

It’s not until the fourth book in the series that Rowling realizes her audience will either intimately know and love her magical wizarding world or be okay to step into the middle of an unfamiliar space and let the story take them there.

Writers who wish to explore the complex world of Mormon culture may find themselves a similar situation. Uniquely LDS characters and settings may seem as eccentric to non-LDS readers as Dumbledore and Hogwarts are to muggles. So instead of easily stepping into Diagon Alley or, for that matter, an LDS sacrament meeting, writers feel like they have to describe, often in pace-killing detail, the quirks of the space, whether that means emphasizing that there are no muggles in sight or explaining that the plastic cups of whatever being carried by adolescent boys are what many Christians call communion.

In her article in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Irreantum, Helynne Hansen describes this as “Mormonism 101.” She specifically examines Elna Baker’s memoir The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Baker stops her narrative several times to explain Mormon practices, such as wearing temple garments, the plan of salvation, and the LDS emphasis on chastity. Doug Thayer’s Hooligan actually delays beginning the story while he describes the ward boundaries and layout of 1930s Provo before explaining how the collective “Second Ward Boys” behave in and out of church.

While it may be tempting to hold the audience’s hand when exploring an unfamiliar landscape, a writer who assumes his or her audience is unable to accept the unusual or look up more information about unique traditions or practices can actually discourage some readers. However, LDS writers do have other options.

Eric James Stone’s Nebula Award-winning short story “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made,” for example, gives readers the opportunity to explore the world of the story and LDS beliefs in tandem. Maybe it’s because Stone knows he’s writing to a science fiction audience who knows as much about the LDS religion as they know about the giant plasma-based Swales that inhabit the center of stars. Maybe it’s because Stone is more interested in describing the details of the story he’s created rather than the religion he lives.

After all, careful readers will always do their homework. Or simply get caught up in the story while the meanings of peculiar traditions and practices unfold. And in the end the richness of the world will linger.

7 Responses to “Magic and Mormons: A Thought Experiment”

  1. Nicole says:

    By the way, lest you think I’m an elitist naysayer, I have read and enjoyed all seven of the Harry Potter books. Eight years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter, reading Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare, or even Poe was exhausting and impossible. J. K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket kept me literate. In 2007 I dressed up with my brother and sister and went to the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows release party at Borders. It was amazing.

  2. Saskia says:

    I’m from the Harry Potter generation (yay me!) so I read the first books as a kid and wasn’t bothered by the halting steps into Harry’s world. And now when I reread them, I’ve already been sucked in by the magic so it doesn’t bother me now either.

    Good post. I’m prepping a course on Mormonism and American culture these days, and I’m trying to find novels and stories and films for them to read and see that offer enough Mormon elements but don’t explain every single thing. That is what wikipedia is for.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    I completely agree with you, Nicole. We need to can the exposition. Audiences aren’t stupid. At least, not the audiences I want us to go looking for.

  4. Brian Davidson says:

    One thing you don’t consider here is that oft times it’s the editor who demands the repetetive exposition. Ironically, in readingthd Harry Potter series, whenever I encountered on of Rowling’s heavy-handed asides, m thoughts always turned to her editors – not to Rowling herself. “Oh, they’re making her explain again.” Same things happens to all authors, to a greater and lesser degree. I’ve picked the same tells out of books by one of my favorite authors – John Steinbeck. Whether or not the asides are seamless depends on the authirs’ skill and their urge either to listen to the editor or ti buy them off quickly.

  5. Brian Davidson says:

    Sorry for the typos. Tablets aren’t the best for text entry.

  6. Nicole says:

    Brian, it’s funny that you mention editors pushing writers to explain their worlds. I’ve noticed that, too.

    But it reminds me of when my husband was working on his MFA. He was in this fiction workshop with a bunch of other creative writing students. He wrote this beautiful cycle of extremely short stories (nine stories around 250 words each) about immigration based on the Jewish liturgical calendar. Everyone kept saying, “I don’t feel like I’m part of your audience,” or “You need to explain more about this,” and stuff like that.

    Now I was on the other side of the conversation. At the same time I was in a 21st century American literature class. My class was all about analyzing and figuring out the meaning of these historical allusions and unexplained beliefs. As literary critics, our work is to figure out all of the details of a work and analyze their significance.

    Fortunately, James’s short story cycle,”Sojourners,” found a home at Drash, a small-press literary magazine. Drash nominated him for a Pushcart Prize this last winter. They called it the most literary piece their magazine had ever published.

    Maybe they knew the Jewish liturgical calendar well enough to feel confident in the piece, but I think they were also willing to do their homework.

  7. Merrijane says:

    Last night, I watched a PBS production about Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, the “king and queen of Yiddish theater.” I understand very little about Jewish traditions beyond what’s available in pop culture, but I still enjoyed it so much. The performers assumed everyone knew the sorts of things they were talking about. It made me feel like I was included as part of the “in the know” group. But I guess there’s a lot more Jewishness in pop culture than Mormon-ness. Perhaps that’s the reason Mormon writers feel the need to explain–although I wish they wouldn’t.