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Wizards in love

At a conference for Harry Potter fans and academics, the young sorcerer and his friends are portrayed in ways you'll never see in the books.

By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003

ORLANDO - The meeting rooms at the Swan Hotel at Walt Disney World swarm with witches and wizards - but mostly witches.

Scads of young women sport the Hogwarts uniform of long black robe over pleated schoolgirl skirt; older women wear tall black hats and tapestried dresses. One looser interpretation by a 20-something blond combines a witch's hat and striped scarf with a red tank and a leopard-skin mini.

It's not the newest Disney attraction. It's Nimbus 2003, the first literary conference on the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling's blockbuster series about a boy wizard.

And there are hardly any children in sight. Heidi Tandy, 32, is a Miami Beach lawyer specializing in copyright and intellectual property law and one of the conference organizers.

"I don't think these are children's books," she says. "Not anymore."

More than 600 grownups would seem to agree. Academics and fans from all over the country came to Nimbus 2003 last weekend to talk about Harry Potter. The vast majority were women, most of them ranging in age from mid teens to 30s.

The sessions focused on everything Potter: censorship, technology, geography, romance, Christian perspectives, Jewish perspectives, pagan perspectives, fashion analysis.

Literary conferences tend to be a long way from wild. For one thing, hardly anyone dresses up in costumes for them. For another, they don't often feature panel discussions of fiction written by fans in which the books' young characters grow up and have really busy sex lives. Nor do they usually feature Quidditch matches.

But this is Nimbus 2003, where the official T-shirt bears the slogan, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

* * *

The conference rooms open onto a broad hallway that is crammed with people between sessions. Someone strides toward it, someone dressed very convincingly as Harry's nemesis Draco Malfoy, right down to the slicked-back pale blond hair and the Slytherin-silver suit under the robe.

Draco rounds the corner into the hallway and pandemonium erupts, so many screams it sounds like it's 1964 and Paul McCartney just walked in.

* * *

John Granger is billed as the world's only professor of Harry Potter. He teaches an online course in the books for Barnes & Noble University, a literary symposium; he also teaches Latin and Greek to homeschooled students in Washington state.

Granger is a wiry guy with a red bow tie and the slightly manic demeanor of a man whose profession involves keeping the attention of adolescents. He is here to talk about some of the ideas in his book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter.

Granger, a devout Christian, says that because he and Rowling had similar educations - both have degrees in the classics and traditional philosophy - he understands some of the elements that structure the books.

Today he's talking about alchemy. "Unless you're kind of weird, you don't really know how alchemy works."

That business about turning lead into gold isn't the half of it. Various branches of alchemy grew out of traditional civilizations such as ancient China, Byzantium and, in the case of the Western alchemy Rowling uses in her books, Christianity.

Alchemy is a spiritual quest, Granger says. Purifying metals is a means to purifying the soul.

Granger runs through a laundry list of alchemical symbols in the Harry Potter books: mirrors and gold, swans and moons, the colors red, white and black. Big one: The British title of the first book is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, a reference to an alchemist's main tool.

The title was changed in the United States to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Rowling's American publisher said it was because Americans wouldn't buy a book with "philosopher" in the title.

"But the real genius," Granger says, "is that "sorcerer' is the trigger word for American fundamentalists." The well-publicized objections of some religious groups to the books was "great marketing."

It's also a great irony, Granger says, because Rowling is writing firmly within the tradition of the English novel, which has always been shaped by Christianity. "She didn't fall out of the sky at the end of the 20th century as a goddess, or as a demon."

Alchemy and Christianity are both about transformation, and so are the books. "Harry dies in every book and is resurrected by love."

* * *

The vendors' room is crammed with racks of velvet robes and tapestry vests, cases of silver jewelry. "Ravenclaw socks?" a woman says. "Hufflepuff? We're sold out of Slytherin."

Replicas of the wands wielded in the movies by Harry, Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, even Ron's shabby model, run from about $35 up to several hundred for custom jobs. That probably pays for the phoenix feather inside.

Out in the hall are displays of an alternative casting contest for the movies and a "Worst Harry Potter Merchandise" contest.

A couple of the casting suggestions are pretty good: Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous) as pesky journalist Rita Skeeter, David Bowie as Voldemort.

The hands-down most disgusting product: Booger glue, "fresh picked from the nose of a troll." The molded plastic cap shows Harry sticking a finger into the troll's schnoz.

* * *

Some of the presentations are scholarly and sedate, analyzing the books in the context of heroic myth, Gothic novels, bildungsromans. They stick to the canon, the five novels written by J.K. Rowling. Some fans would include the two films in the canon, as well as interviews with Rowling.

And then there are the fans, and they are legion, for whom the canon is only a jumping-off point. The other half of this conference (and it's probably more than half) is all about the fanon. The term refers to the burgeoning world of Harry Potter fan fiction, a curious and exuberant offspring of the books and the Internet.

Fan fiction got its start before the Net, back when enthusiasts of TV shows such as Star Trek wrote and circulated stories based on the characters. The stories sometimes ran in small magazines or were passed fan to fan.

But fan fic really exploded with the Web, where writers can post their stories for a much wider audience and get immediate feedback.

Harry Potter rules the fan fic universe. The biggest fan fic site, FanFiction.net, has more than 83,000 Harry Potter fics. Several sites are devoted only to Harry Potter fic, such as FictionAlley.org.

Some of the fan fic is good, some is very good, and some is dreadful. Some of it is for kids, but most is not. Fan fic is the domain of older teens and adults.

A lot is what's called slash: stories about the canon characters that put them in sexual situations, ranging from the mildly erotic to the downright pornographic. A lot of slash portrays gay sex. Strictly defined, the term slash refers to stories with gay sex. Stories about a male character and a female one are "het slash."

At Nimbus2003, Slash is the subject of a couple of not-so-sedate sessions led by Catherine Tosenberger, a graduate student in children's literature and folklore at the University of Florida.

If the stereotypical grad student in folklore should be wearing Birkenstocks and a long flowered frock, Tosenberger didn't get the memo. For her Friday talk, "Don't Tell the Grownups: Subversion in Harry Potter Text and Fandom," the tall, auburn-haired woman wears a spaghetti-strapped, polka-dot minidress.

She ups the ante Saturday for a talk on incest themes in fan fic, showing up in a red lace bustier under a mannish black jacket.

In front of standing-room-only crowds, almost all of them young women, Tosenberger tosses out scholarly references and risque one-liners with equal aplomb.

She makes the point that the steamy sex in fan fic is not found in the canon. Indeed, the remarkable chastity of Rowling's teenage characters may require more suspension of disbelief than all the dragons and spells.

But, Tosenberger says, Rowling does hint about sexual awakening. "I think of Chamber of Secrets as being the book about puberty.

"That whole beast in the plumbing thing, come on. It's sending you messages and you don't know what they mean. To figure it out, you have to go in the girls' bathroom and open something and go down a long tube. . . . And Ron, with his poor broken wand!"

Fan fic gets explicit about those messages. The fans who write it, Tosenberger says, are not passive consumers of entertainment; they're committing "hit and run acts of cultural seizure."

During Tosenberger's discussion of incest themes, a hand goes up in the audience. A tall, slender girl in her mid teens asks, "Couldn't the whole Draco-Lucius ship (fanon shorthand for relationship) be related to Margaret Mead's theories of marriage alliance?"

Tosenberger grins at the anthropological interpretation: a good student. The girl goes on. "You know, the idea that incest evolved as a taboo among the elite because they needed to make alliances with outside forces."

"Very good," Tosenberger says.

The good student is Madeline Klink, a 16-year-old Sacramento, Calif., high school student known in fandom as Flourish. She is a presenter on two panels, probably the youngest at the conference.

She has been writing fan fic for four years and is a co-founder of FictionAlley.org. "I started at 11 as an X-Files lurker," reading fan fic based on the show for a while without contributing any herself. "Maybe it was strange, because I got my sex education in X-Files fandom."

She began writing fan fic at 12, with a story (not slash, she says) about Harry and Hermione. Now she's deeply involved not only in writing but in workshops and other forms of feedback for fan fic writers.

Her mother is with her at Nimbus 2003, and, she says, her parents support her writing. "Their attitude is if we're old enough to be interested in and understand something, we're old enough to do it."

* * *

The Wizarding Nightclub is supposed to rev up at 9 Friday night. It's the only event that requires attendees to leave the Swan and cross a small lake to the Dolphin, its sister hotel. Just before 9, the sky begins to rumble. Bolt after bolt of lightning shakes the windows; a blinding rain lets loose.

A TV weather bulletin warns of a severe storm, a "mesocyclone" with 6,000 lightning strikes in the last hour, 60 mph winds and the potential for tornadoes. Hailstones rattle on the balcony of the room. The TV screen sizzles and rolls.

Apparently Voldemort is ticked off about not being invited.

* * *

Early Saturday morning, Erin Fitzpatrick, Lani Watson and Christin Wendt munch pastries while they wait for the Gryffindor class picture to be taken. The three are in full Hogwarts regalia: white blouses, gray sweaters, pleated charcoal skirts, knee socks and long black robes, worn open. Their ties are Gryffindor scarlet and gold.

The three came from California for Nimbus 2003. Watson and Wendt, both 19 and college students, are from Fullerton; Fitzpatrick, a 17-year-old high school student, is from Yorba Linda.

Fitzpatrick has never been this far from home without her parents, she says. "This is my senior present."

They are here for the canon, not the fanon. They shake their heads with disapproving expressions worthy of Hermione Granger at the mention of fan fic.

"We like breaking the books apart," Wendt says.

"We always do it ourselves," Fitzpatrick says, "but it's interesting to hear some college professor do it."

Watson says part of the charm of the books is Rowling's meticulous planning of the whole series: She spent seven years mapping out the plots.

"The more times you read them, the more you see how things are interwoven," Watson says. "You read some little thing and then find out six months later it's huge."

"Gryffindors! Gryffindors, class photo!" calls a woman in a velvet gown. The California Gryffindors hustle out into the sunshine.

- Contact Colette Bancroft at bancroft@sptimes.com or 727 893-8435.

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