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Regendering bedtime stories

When Michelle Nijhuis reads The Hobbit aloud to her five-year-old daughter, she doesn’t quite recite Tolkien’s original prose. There’s one major change: Bilbo is a girl-hobbit. As she explains at Slate:

You know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

Someday, when my daughter is old enough, I’ll read her some of my favorite stories. Although Kat is just two months old, I’ve already started to plan. I’ve picked out a few beloved books: The Hobbit. Narnia. Harry Potter. I’ve even considered charting out distinct voices for each main character; if I get started now, I can perfect my dwarvish brogue.

And thanks to Nijhuis, I’ve made one more decision about Kat’s bedtime stories: Bilbo must change genders. Middle-Earth desperately needs girl power—in fact, there are no female characters of note in The Hobbit. I don’t want my daughter to detach from the hobbit’s adventure—or worse, downgrade her own—because the book’s heroes are all male.

This live “translation” poses some challenges. First, it requires quick thinking. When Gandalf tells Bilbo, “You are only quite a little fellow,” for example, I’ll have to improvise a revision. Something like “quite a little person” instead? In other places, Bilbo’s reimagined gender could cause confusion. In Tolkien’s world, female hobbits are typically named after flowers or jewels: Primrose, Marigold, Pearl. Why, my daughter might ask, is Bilbo so different?

Another problem: what will my daughter think when she inevitably discovers Bilbo’s true gender? Will the weight of the world’s patriarchy come crashing down on her head? I suspect not; for one thing, she’ll know that her papa cared deeply about her self-worth—and that counts for something. And second, I hope that adapting Tolkien will train her to “rewrite” a few other inhospitable details in the world around her.

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Lord of the Re-hash

I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Sauron], but it proved both sinister and depressing. … I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot [to overthrow Gondor] and its discovery and overthrow—but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.

J.R.R. Tolkien, describing “The New Shadow”, a potential sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Authors often fall victim to their own success. They create something beautiful: a world that stands on its own. A work that neatly wraps up its loose ends. A satisfying ending to a fantastic story. But once this imaginary world grows popular, the “imagineer” faces pressure from all sides. Agents lick their lips. Filmmakers chomp at the bit. Fans froth at the mouth. They all want more, artistic integrity be damned

Many fine writers can’t resist. They revisit (and dilute) their masterworks. For example, after the mammoth success of her Harry Potter franchise, J.K. Rowling (admirably) resisted the clamor for further sequels for years. Eventually, though, she gave in—then gave in again.

Let’s be glad that Tolkien had better sense.

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Why no electronics at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts?

Hogwarts is a no-gizmo zone. The Harry Potter books make it clear that electronic contraptions simply don’t work within the magical castle’s confines. But why not?

The ever astute Hermione Granger offers an explanation: “All those substitutes for magic Muggles use–electricity, computers, and radar, and all those things–they all go haywire around Hogwarts, there’s too much magic in the air” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Fair enough; maybe spells and potions create electromagnetic interference–shorting circuits and stymieing radio waves.

But why would Potter author J.K. Rowling conjure up such an arbitrary complication? Why impose this limit? What does she have against electronics? Is she a technophobe, weaving her gizmo-hateinto the story? Consider: Rowling prefers writing by hand and resisted publishing the Harry Potter series in eBook form until just a few months ago.

But Rowling is no Luddite. Or if she is, I doubt this explains why she banished gadgets from the Hogwarts grounds.

Instead, Rowling’s writing suggests that tech has a sinister side. For example, she links modern conveniences with Muggle oafishness. Consider Dudley’s birthday from Sorcerer’s Stone: “It looked as though Dudley had gotten the new computer he wanted, not to mention the second television and the racing bike. Exactly why Dudley wanted a racing bike was a mystery to Harry, as Dudley was very fat and hated exercise – unless of course it involved punching somebody.” Here, electronics made you dull and brutish and wretched.

Another possibility: maybe Rowling wanted to preserve Hogwarts as a world unto itself. She recaptures a lost, golden age of British education–the boarding school, completely secluded from wider society. Before academies were perforated by digital communication–social networks, email, texting, instant messaging–each school was a self-contained universe. Here, the social world was all, and children could become kings, queens, and villains.

Harry Potter, then, is about rediscovered relationships–kids escaping from gadgetized distraction and plunging headfirst into the joys of actually connecting with other real people.

If that’s true, then Rowling eschewed technology at Hogwarts for the same reasons the Amish do.

These “Plain People” famously reject electricity, telephones, and computers from their homes. Often, they are lampooned for this “backwards” lifestyle. But there is purpose to the Amish people’s caution. Many such technologies threaten to disrupt the sacred cohesion of the community-at-large. The mobility that cars make possible, for example, disconnects us from our immediate neighbors. Telephones distances family members from one another. By banning such inventions, the Amish recover a relationality often lost in modern American culture.

In the same way, banning technology from Hogwarts doesn’t just make room for the wizards’ magical escapades. It also reintroduces a shared life that communications technology has banished from most modern academic communities.