Caledonia on My Mind

In August of 2015, I made my first trip to Scotland with my youngest daughter. She was moving to the UK on a working/visa, and I went along to experience my ancestral home and visit Oxford, the home of two of my literary heroes, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Our first day in Glasgow, I wrote:
“August 16, 2015: I’m not sure what I was expecting on coming here. I was expecting to feel as though I was in a strange place. It doesn’t feel strange at all—different, but not strange.”
We spent five days in Glasgow that first trip. We stayed in an Air BnB on Queen Margret Drive, just above North Star, a small café run by a lovely couple. Every morning, I went down to the café and got coffee. I would stand outside the flat, having my coffee and smoking, while the life of the street passed by.
I wrote several pieces on that and subsequent trips to Scotland, including Encountering the Literary, A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Glasgow Connection to Harry Potter. And, of course, there are always Scottish castles.
I have been a father now longer than I’ve been anything else in my life. It’s a parent’s job to guide his or her children, but my children have guided me on adventures where I might not have gone on my own. It’s my youngest I have to thank for my Caledonian connection.

Here Be Dragons

I love dragons. They are one of my favourite mythical creatures; they are powerful, cunning, destructive, disturbing, uncanny, magical, and downright terrifying. English literature is full of dragons, beginning with Beowulf, the oldest surviving manuscript in Old English. More than this, western mythology is full of dragon slayers, including heroes from ancient Greece, such as Cadmus, Perseus, and Heracles. Dragons have literally fired the imaginations of writers for hundreds of years.
Some of my favourite characters are dragons:
• Smaug, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,
• Norbert, the Norwegian Ridged-back, from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (although he isn’t much of a character),
• Ewstace, as a temporarily enchanted dragon, from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
• and, Yevaud, from Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
You can find an extensive list of young adult books about dragons on Goodreads. Just follow the link.
As so many writers have depicted these amazing creatures, it’s difficult to find much that is new or different in the world of dragons. Recently, I discovered a new book by Brandon Mull. Dragon Watch is Mull’s latest book that continues the story of Fablehaven, a series centring on Kendra and Seth Sorenson—sister and brother—who discover their grandparents are keepers of a magical preserve, a place that houses and maintains mythical creatures. This five-book series is well worth the read.
In Dragon Watch, the first book of the new series, Kendra and Seth find themselves caretakers of Wyrmroost, one of the world’s dragon preserves. Kendra is fairykind, and Seth is a shadow charmer; together, they have the power to resist the enchantment of dragons. While written less well than the books in the original series, Dragon Watch is full of, well, dragons, so if you love these creatures, then add these books to your list.
Where I live is pretty short on mythical creatures—but perhaps not as short as you might think. I recently took a trip with a friend to visit the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. The museum is an amazing walk through the geological and palaeontological history of Alberta. Even if you aren’t’ a dinosaur person, you will find this museum fascinating. All the fossils are creatures that walked the swampy forests or swam the Bearpaw Sea that was once Alberta.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex and Edmontosaurus on display might not be dragons of myth, but looking at these fossils will help you understand why dragons, or even the thought of dragons, has so fully entered the imaginations of countless writers. They are those creatures that lie on the edges of our imaginations. They slumber in caves or under mountains; they are hoarders of wealth and of secrets. Wake them, if you dare.

Twenty Years of Harry Potter

In 1999, on a rainy afternoon in July, I was flaked out in my room reading an audio book. My kids and I had just moved in to our new house. They came home from an afternoon with their mom, and my youngest walked into my room. She heard:

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue.
“Urgh – troll boogers.”

“What are you listening to?” she asked, laughing in surprise.
It was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Correction—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. A neighbour had given me the book on cassette tape (if anyone remembers what those were), and my kid’s mom and I agreed that I would read the book before letting our kids read it. Thus began the obsession.
This June 26th marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. These books have been part of my life as a parent, an academic, and a reader for the last eighteen years.
While the Harry Potter franchise has become something of a bloated monster, I mostly simply appreciate the books as books. I’m not a Harry Potter film person, which, to some, makes me a heretic. I don’t spend any time on Pottermore, I don’t visit fans sites such as, and I don’t write fanfic—although I did think about it, once.
The books first entered my life as a parent. My kids and I read the books together, and we mostly listened to the Jim Dale recordings. By the time Order of the Phoenix appeared, you could sometimes hear the voice of Jim Dale coming from three different rooms in the house.
The night Deathly Hallows was released, my kids and I lined up at the south-side Indigo for copies of our books. We listened to the first chapter together, sitting at the kitchen table (it was now after 1:00 in the morning), before scattering our separate ways to read—my youngest and I through the rest of the night. The series gave me one of the many points of connection with my kids, and it carries a particular weight for that reason alone.
Teaching the book is another story. I teach either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets each year in my children’s literature classes, and one year, I taught a senior level course on the series. I’ve published two articles on Harry Potter, and made several presentations at conferences. The books are rich, but as an academic, I read with a critical eye—always reminding my students that I love the series, even if I question it relentlessly on a variety of levels:

Yes, Harry Potter is a Cinderella figure.
Yes, the dialogue often gets awkward.
No, the snake that appears in the first book has nothing to do with those appearing in the second.
No, Harry’s desire to kill Sirius Black in the third book is nothing more than teenage anger and adolescent bravado.
And, did you catch the major plot problem in Goblet of Fire?

In my life as a reader, the wizarding world has an immovable place. That place isn’t that of Narnia or Middle-Earth, but it’s in there. The Harry Potter books, for me, constitute an experience of shared reading—mostly with my kids. My reading life is a private world, which probably sounds odd coming from someone who teaches for a living. But the reading I do for my classes isn’t the same as the reading I do for me: the one is meant for public consumption; the other isn’t.
In celebration of twenty years of Harry Potter, I’m providing some links to other pieces I’ve written on the series.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards
The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation
The Birthplace of Harry Potter
More on Harry Potter, The Glasgow Connection

Enjoy! And if you haven’t read the series, do yourself a favour and read the first book. Consider it part of your professional development as a reader. Go ahead and hate it, but you’ll at least get a glimpse into the world many people find so compelling.

More on Harry Potter, the Glasgow connection

many people argue about influences on the Harry Potter series. I mostly think of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis. You could argue for other literary influences on the series, but such influences extend to people and places as well. One of those places, I’m discovering, is Glasgow, Scotland.
I don’t know how much time Rowling ever spent in Glasgow, but she must have visited, at least. Edinburgh, where Rowling lives, is just a short train ride away. And interestingly, the two cities share a similar rivalry to that of Edmonton and Calgary. Both are interesting places, historically and architecturally; and both are home to lovely people.
Edinburgh boasts the elephant House, “The birthplace of Harry Potter,” which I wrote about earlier this week. There’s a view of Edinburgh Castle from the window where Rowling allegedly worked on the first three books in the series. The castle, more like a fortress, is forbiddingly positioned on Castle rock above the town, and it must have figured somewhere into the series—perhaps Harry’s first sight of Hogwarts castle in Philosopher’s stone. But Glasgow has something else—two somethings, in fact.
If you walk up to Glasgow cathedral, a gorgeous medieval structure in the gothic style, you will find right next door St Mungo Museum of Life and Art. Yes, St Mungo. Mungo is the patron saint of Glasgow, died 612, CE, and it’s also the name given to the hospital in the Harry Potter series.
St Mungo’s doesn’t appear in the series until Goblet of fire, but Harry visits the hospital in order of the Phoenix. In the same book, we encounter the Fountain of Magical Brethren upon Harry’s visit to the Ministry of Magic. Here’s the description:
“Halfway down the hall was a fountain. A group of golden statues, larger than life-size, stood in the middle of a circular pool. Tallest of them all was a noble-looking wizard with his wand pointing straight up in the air. Grouped around him were a beautiful witch, a centaur, a goblin, and a house-elf. The last three were all looking adoringly up at the witch and wizard. Glittering jets of water were flying from the ends of the two wands, the point of the centaur’s arrow, the tip of the goblin’s hat, and each of the house-elf’s ears, so that the tinkling hiss of falling water was added to the pops and cracks of Apparators and the clatter of footsteps …”
Tell me the fountain of Magical Brethren wasn’t inspired by The doulton fountain, located today on Glasgow Green, first constructed in honour of queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, and set on display for the 1888 International Exhibition at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow. Queen Victoria presiding over her colonies is too much like the fatuous wizard presiding over the witch and other magical creatures to be a coincidence. You may not agree, but it was the first thing I thought as my daughter and I walked round and round that fountain.
Glasgow is a fabulous city. It’s more like home in some ways than I ever thought a city could be. It’s known as the river city, just like Edmonton, except Glasgow boasts two rivers, the clyde and Kelvin. If you visit, you can spend time at the Glasgow Cathedral, St Mungo Museum, and take a walk on the Glasgow Green to check out the doulton Fountain. Many other sites await. Then, hop a train and visit Edinburgh, where you can find the Edinburgh castle and royal Mile, which, if you like castles, is the place to start. If you don’t, you won’t ever be without something to do. And don’t forget to drop into The elephant House for coffee or lunch—and bring a laptop or pen and paper so you can write in the back room and stare pensively at the walls of Edinburgh Castle as you do.

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

If you take a bus tour of Edinburgh, you can climb the narrow steps to the upper deck of the bus and get a bird’s-eye—or sort of bird’s-eye—view of this fascinating city. You will start your tour at the Waverley Station—the train station named for the novels by Sir Walter Scott. The bus takes you up the royal Mile, and under the imposing walls of Edinburgh Castle. The bus wanders through the old town, then travels into new town, built in the mid eighteenth century under the reign of George III. And never once during your one hour bus tour will your entertaining guide say anything about J. K. Rowling or Harry Potter.
Last August, my daughter and I visited Edinburgh Castle, but we didn’t have the chance to visit the elephant House, which claims to be the “birthplace of Harry Potter.” This time, we managed it.
We took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. I always love riding the train. We arrived at Waverley Station and walked up the Royal Mile to the Castle, checking out the shops along the way. We found a Harris Tweed shop, which I had a hard time leaving—I love tweed.
We spent time in St. giles’ cathedral, which was beautiful, before going onto the National Museum of Scotland, where we saw a fascinating exhibition of Celtic artifacts. I could say much about the innumerable ways popular culture has come to misrepresent the Celts, but I’m trying to keep this post short.

We ended our day with dinner at The elephant House, the “birthplace of Harry Potter.” I know that Rowling spent time in a café working on the first book, but I also know that calling the café the “birthplace of Harry Potter” is something of an exaggeration. I have read that she started writing the book while living in Spain, and I also read that she had the idea for the book while riding a train in England.
When I visited Oxford last summer, the tour guide on the bus claimed J. R. R. Tolkien wrote most of Lord of the rings sitting in The Eagle and Child—a ridiculous, if quaint  exaggeration. First of all, he had a job and a family, and he probably visited the pub a couple of times a week. However, you understand why these places want to lay claim to such writers. Its business, for one, and it’s a way to perpetuate myths about the writers we love. The problem with such claims is that they misrepresent and romanticize the lives of these authors.
Rowling no doubt spent time in The Elephant House working on the book about the boy wizard. However, I won’t for a second believe that she was sitting in the back of the cafe, gazing out at Edinburgh Castle in the distance, when she suddenly got the idea for Harry Potter. Of course, if by birthplace the elephant House means the protracted, painful labour of writing a book, then I’m more willing to accept their claim. Whether it’s actually the birthplace of Harry Potter or not, it was nice to sit and have dinner in the cafe. My daughter had beef casserole, and I had haggis, neeps, and tatties, which is haggis, turnip, and potatoes. A lovely way to end an interesting day.

When Marking Student Essays Just Isn’t Enough

Teaching at a university like MacEwan means time spent teaching, preparing to teach, and marking stuff students write because of what you teach. Marking takes more time than anything else, and most academics I know gripe about it, but it’s mostly people just complaining about a job in order to blow off steam. If I dug ditches for a living, I’m sure I would complain about the ditch.
Another part of my job as an academic is to write stuff about kid’s books. At the moment, the authors about whom I’m most interested in writing include Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and Montgomery. Academic writing is different from any other writing I do. Like any form of writing, it’s hard. But it’s hard for particular reasons—some of which have to do with the time it can take, and some of which have to do with trying to sound smart when I’m not always sure what I’m talking about. It’s a learning experience every time. It can also be intimidating to write about authors who were both formidable academics in their own fields. J. R. R. Tolkien was a teacher, philologist, and medieval scholar, and C. S. Lewis was a teacher, tutor, medievalist, and Christian apologist. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to follow Tolkien and Lewis to one of the Monday meetings of the Inklings at The Eagle and Child in Oxford—to sit, smoke, drink a pint of beer and listen to this group of friends talk and argue about life, writing, and literature.
If you are interested in fantasy, like me, then you’ve probably thought about why so many things in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books remind you of Tolkien and Lewis. Wondering about this connection forms the basis for an article I’ve recently had accepted by a journal in the UK—The New Review of children’s Literature and Librarianship. I’m hoping the article will appear later this year. Here’s a short excerpt.
If academic writing puts you to sleep, then skip the excerpt and ask yourself some of these questions: is Dumbledore just another version of Gandalf? Did Rowling get the expression “you-know-who” from Lewis’ The Last Battle? And why do Rowling’s house-elves seem like domesticated versions of Gollum?
From: Finding a Place on the Literary Map: Harry Potter, Secondary Worlds, and Post-Potter Fantasy
(by me)
Tolkien and Lewis’s influence on Rowling extends to the details of the series as much as it does the archetypal and heroic substructure of the genre. Harry’s invisibility cloak, the gateway onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters, the basilisk, the Whomping Willow, the giant spiders, the Horcruxes, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even the character of Dumbledore himself represent points of intersect with both Tolkien and Lewis. For example, Dumbledore is not simply the generic wise old man of the fairy tale. He recalls Tolkien’s Gandalf, albeit more humanized and more playful, and as Tosenberger suggests,” Dumbledore is “the world’s most powerful and respected wizard, a complex, brilliant, and benevolent man, and one of the major characters in the series—and he is also gay” (201). Dumbledore’s sexual orientation aside, he clearly recalls the wise old man of the fairy tale, in addition to his resemblance to Gandalf in terms of his power, depth of knowledge, and general inscrutability.
 As a hero, Harry reinscribes heteronormative representations of white masculinity, but he also redefines the traditional limits of the fairy tale hero and subsequently pushes the boundaries of secondary world fantasy. Harry is the archetypal hero. He does not embark upon a quest proper until the search for the Horcruxes in The Deathly Hallows, but he encounters trials in various forms throughout his six years at Hogwarts. The series of tests beyond the trapdoor in The Philosopher’s Stone, the encounter with Tom Riddle in The Chamber of Secrets, and the Triwizard tasks in The Goblet of Fire all constitute tests of Harry’s character and abilities.
A brief extract, but you get the idea. Next time you sit down to read any of the Harry Potter books, think about how much of what Rowling did was grounded in the works of these two literary giants. Happy reading.