Harry Potter and the Barbarian Horde: Prof. Alessandra Grego

Student Government hosted Professor Alessandra Grego for the lecture “Harry Potter and the Barbarian Horde” as part of their Prof Talk series, in collaboration with the Fandom Club, on April 23. As an English Literature Professor, Prof. Grego is an expert on the topics of narrative, myth, and audience reception.

Professor Alessandra Grego

Professor Alessandra Grego

Grego began by saying she has binge-read the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling three times as an adult, but is no expert. According to Grego, there are three types of reactions to the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series, with members of each group referring to the others as Barbarians:

  • The first group is made up of the self-proclaimed gate-keepers of “high literature” who publicly denounced Harry Potter as a pedestrian and derivative text that did not deserve to be included in the list of canonical works of children’s literature. This group considers the readers of Harry Potter as Barbarians.
  • The second group consists of the readers of Harry Potter who are concerned at the way in which the media industry has appropriated the series of novels, turning them into a gigantic franchise with a million dollars in revenue. In this case, the Barbarians are the media corporations of the film and entertainment industry.
  • The final group is comprised of the Harry Potter fans who have taken possession of the texts and are developing and re-writing them through fanfiction. Prof. Grego argues that this group can be seen as a positive kind of Barbarian, the kind that brings new life to old stories.

The many initial criticisms that J.K. Rowling received from academia claim that a “pedestrian” fantasy story for children cannot be part of the literary canon. The gatekeepers also point out that popularity –  over 500 million copies sold today – doesn’t imply anything other than these books have infantilized adults, and these claims resonate German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s concept of culture industry. However, a quick topic search of the MLA International Bibliography database reveals that academia is actually showing a vivid interest in Harry Potter, is studying the texts and the movies from different perspectives, and taking it very seriously.

Professor Alessandra Grego

Professor Alessandra Grego

Prof. Grego argued that literature is not an easy product for mass consumption. Its effects on culture, also, are not immediate but slow-yielding over time, as discussed by German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse. However, she suggested that the energy of fanfiction writers countered the risk that the media industry, by riding the success of Harry Potter, might remove it from the sphere of literature and stop it from evolving, crystallizing it into the mono-myth theorized by Joseph Campbell – the single story that sells. “Fanfiction is mythopoetic,”  said Prof. Grego. “It creates new myths, it gives agency to myth, because there is a need for them.”

The internet is an open forum where the story belongs to every reader; fans are not just consumers, they are producers in their own right. Thousands of people read into the original texts and then create derivative content like fanarts and fanfictions. Contrary to what the gatekeepers say, these “Barbarians” don’t bring civilization back hundreds of years, but rather rejuvenate, introduce innovations, and give new inputs.

Prof. Grego concluded the lecture by saying that she is happy to see so many people bring in new perspectives and new narratives, even if they are ephemeral and unofficial and only to be consumed within the realm of the internet, where we are all “are lost and loose.”

Watch the livestream of Alessandra Grego’s talk “Harry Potter and the Barbarian Horde.”