The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix

I have just taken my family to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was not the experience publicity had led us to suppose - but it did have its lessons, all the same.

Much of the film was concerned with what happens when an institution tries to repress the individuality and expressiveness of its people. Hogwarts school comes under the baleful influence of the Ministry of Magic, which seems mainly to be informed by paranoia and is more than a little drunk on power. Through the lens of this film, one could suppose that J.K. Rowling is examining the nature of totalitarianism, everywhere.

What is telling about the people in this film is that the children do not allow themselves to be repressed forever. This too, is true to life in most countries of the world and in most institutions where repression has been exerted too long and too hard. However, it is not always the case and, in this sense, the film is not true to what can actually happen in real life. Sometimes, the people just give in and accept their repressive situation - at least on the scale of human lifetimes.

Yet, being Hollywood, of course, the children rebel and reassert their individuality. I suppose that J.K Rowling is stating here, that she believes the desire to be individual and expressive cannot be held down for too long - for when it is repressed a desire to rebel builds up and over time, there can only be an explosion of sorts. So, too, is it in Harry Potter.

A child watching this could learn the lesson that individuality is important and must be nurtured and, at times, even fought for. The children of the school fight for many things - but one of them is simply the freedom to be themselves.

Yet, there is an unconscious irony here. You see much of the Potter themes are derivative and echo other works by other prior authors. Indeed, so obvious are some of the borrowings from other works that Ainan piped up at one time: "Why is this like the Lord of the Rings?", he enquired, not best pleased.

It is like the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's has a "Dark Lord"...and Potter has a, well, a "Dark Lord". Frodo Baggins has a direct connection to the "Dark Lord" through his Ring - and Harry Potter has a direct connection to the "Dark Lord" - through his mind. Tolkien has Gollum who says "My precious." a lot. Potter has a very Gollum like figure who says "My mistress." a lot. There is a baddie in Potter that looks remarkably like the blond twins, in styling, from The Matrix...I could go on, but you should get the idea by now. Harry Potter is many things but it could never be accused of being original.

This is a pity, in many ways. Harry Potter is the most successful book series, of its kind, at any time. Yet, it is founded on "borrowing" themes and ideas present in prior, greater works. That it succeeds is only because its audience is too young to know where everything comes from - though Ainan is only 7 and he noticed the borrowings from the Lord of the Rings, himself. Usually, however, this derivativeness will pass a child by - and so it is that Potter can succeed.

So, the film left me with mixed feelings about it. One theme is important for children to understand: that the freedom of self-expression should be preserved - but the story is actually an example of the denial of that freedom. J.K Rowling imitates so many others through her work, that one could say she is a potent counter-example of free expression. It is a blow against the creative spirit to derive her works from the works of others. It is a blow against those who had the individuality to create their own original works. In this sense, Rowling works against the very theme that she proposes as central to this film. In a derivative world, the individual creator cannot be free to be themselves, without suffering the indignity of imitation.

It would be good to see more actual originality in Rowling's works. Perhaps it is just a function of being old enough to have seen and read quite a lot - but that background knowledge does make the entire Harry Potter franchise look like a patchwork quilt of other people's ideas. It is tiring to see such tired material up on the screen.

The film was unable to hold Ainan's and Fintan's attention and from about half way through they were getting restless and a little bored. Ainan is 7 and Fintan has just turned 4 - to give you some idea of whether it is right for your child. They preferred to play with each other, in the second half, than watch the antics on the screen. This is not their usual response to a film, by the way.

We shan't be going to another Potter movie. In that way, we will be expressing our freedom to choose, as advised by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and no months, or Tiarnan, seventeen months, go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:05 PM 


Blogger EbTech said...

Your standards for originality are quite high... I think there are very few people in the world who can meet them.

Speaking of children's movies and novels, do you think being exposed to so many ideas enhances or diminishes one's creativity? It' is interesting because children often play imaginative pretend games, yet their imaginations are undeniably influenced by, and in fact borrow from, what they see.

4:37 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi EbTech,

True artists meet my standard of originality. However, few "artists" are actually artists. Most are least the modern ones are.

Re. children. Yes. Most children play games influenced by tv programmes...particularly cartoons. I think, however, people vary in the degree to which they are influenced by other people. Some look to themselves for their ideas...these are true creators.

1:51 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Plagiarists... is that not a bit harsh? Only the very best can be fully original, but lesser artists can make meaningful contributions as well. Some people have a talent of expanding on the work of others, perhaps with a different perspective.

For example, Rowling did well with the Harry Potter series. Her novels use simple language that young (not necessarily gifted) children can understand, many of whom previously disliked reading. They also teach good morals to children, and encourage questioning.

The rule of originality feels like a trap... most of the things I say or do will have already been done by one of the hundred billion people who have lived on this planet. Furthermore, most of our "background knowledge" consists of other people's work.

To create something fully new becomes increasingly difficult as humanity advances. Instead, we should be willing to work together. Our most advanced technologies culminated from generations of innovations.

Creativity is a form of intelligence, and thus its existence is a matter of degree. Most people are somewhat creative, just as they are somewhat intelligent (compared to most other animals and machines). We should consider how to make best use of whatever abilities people have, rather than being upset over what they lack.

We should praise the true creators, but not at the cost of discouraging lesser creators, for they can still advance society in smaller steps.

Having said that, I am certainly not defending those who knowingly present other people's work as their own! I am merely encouraging the free exchange and interplay of ideas.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hmm...I think you have less life experience of being plagiarised than I have. On too many occasions in my life, I have been directly plagiarized by people who, quite often, present themselves as being "creators" - and present my thought as their own. This has happened a little too often for my liking and indicates that my assessment of "lesser creators" is a fair one. They don't create, generally speaking...they misappropriate and, then, modify a little, sometimes, but not always. Quite often, the work is presented unmodified, in its original stolen form.

If someone cannot think of their own work or ideas and need to steal that of others...then I don't think they are actually making a contribution. If they were capable of making a real contribution, they would NEVER have to steal.

No doubt my words seem strong...but then what I have noted in life, of this phenomenon, does not lead one to be well-disposed towards it.

Yes. Rowling made some old ideas and tales, readily digestible to a new generation. She encouraged reading. Yes. However, she has also misled a lot of people - young people who don't know better - into thinking that she is rather more creative than she is. She has even been voted one of the top 100 living geniuses, in the Creators Synectics poll...which is quite ridiculous, she is not remotely what a genius is supposed to be by definition.

There are too many "lesser creators" around, claiming the laurels of true creators. Sadly, so many young people don't know any better. This is unhealthy. It means that people are not able, anymore, to tell genuine creator, from pastiche artist.

The "lesser creators" who steal from others, do the world a great disservice, since they prevent identification of where the ideas actually came from. That is a kind of crime.

Thanks, EbTech, for your views.

Re. Free exchange of ideas. There is a difference between properly crediting an idea and its author, while building on it - and simply stealing it. Too many people who speak highly of the "free exchange of ideas" forget to credit properly where their ideas came from. That pitfall must always be avoided, if one is to be fair to intellectual history - and its creators.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I should point out that there are lesser creators, who don't steal from others...but whose works are regarded as "minor" compared to those of the great creators. These creators should definitely be treated with respect, since they are bringing something new to the world, even if it is overshadowed by other more skilful, profound, adept, insightful, intelligent or creative individuals. That isn't to say that their work cannot be seen as significant on its own.

I hope I have made my plural views known.

I think people should, by all means create. However, they should also be frank about the boundaries of what is their own contribution and what is from another. If that is made clear, then there are no issues at all.

Thanks for your comment.

11:18 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Thanks for clarifying your views. I believe our different experiences of plagiarism are due in part to your greater creativity, as well as the motivations of our peers. Most people who study mathematics are self-motivated to do solve creative problems, while those who study computer science are not pressured into being original, since there is plenty of useful work for less creative programmers. Thus, neither are typically motivated to plagiarize. In addition, your description of Cambridge seems to imply a less friendly, competitive, stress-inducing atmosphere.

Re. Rowling, it's tough to decide where the line should be drawn. There will surely be a lot of works in fiction based loosely on themes such that those in Lord of the Rings and others. If an author was greatly influenced by such works, it is simply good etiquette to say so. However, is it practical to require acknowledgment for every small influence, even if the author has forgotten its origins?

It is not as if one can truly steal a work that has already been published. Except for inexperienced children, almost everyone will know that Rowling's ideas were not completely original. If they cared to know about the book's creators, it would be an easy matter to look up.

Academic plagiarism or otherwise severe plagiarism is severely penalized, possibly with expulsion. The recognized forms of plagiarism now include "self-plagiarism", which essentially means to reuse one's past ideas. Therefore, I do not think the rules need to become any stricter!

Re. the poll: people would have probably voted for Rowling even if her influences were explicitly mentioned in the books. The general public is rarely equipped to judge, so there is no need to take popular opinion seriously.

By the way, I have been upset at plagiarism on several occasions. For example, Playfish is a well-known casual games company on Facebook. They make a lot of money by recycling classic game ideas. I would not mind if they were adding something meaningful to the work; but in fact, their versions tend to be inferior. Actually, there is an overall lack of originality on that site. Even the owner of Facebook is said to have stolen it from people he used to work with.

1:26 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Yes. There is controversy about the origins of Facebook.

Re. Rowling and Lord of the Rings.

Her works are not loosely based on LOTR - they have some exact borrowings of plot and concept. Some of her central "ideas" are just recyclings of ones that appear - also central - to LOTR. I once read an account of her writing - whether true or not, I don't know - that involved her having lots of competing books, preferably "classics" of the genre, open before her as she worked...looking for ideas to purloin. I wish I knew where I read it, now...some newspaper.

Rowling is not in the habit of acknowledging her influences...she is in the habit of seeming to be the origin of all her work (hence her propensity to sue a lot over protecting "her" work).

"Self-plagiarism" is a very funny idea. I marvel at the ingenuity of the concept: Mr. X...why have you been stealing from Mr.X? Great stuff.

9:01 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

I may have slightly misunderstood before. Since originality and plagiarism are not clear-cut black-and-white matters, please allow me to clarify my views.

To give an example: as a computer programmer, there are many standard techniques which I am expected to know and use regularly, as are all programmers. These could be powerful algorithms that someone else invented. In general, it is not practical to attribute every such thing we make use of in our code. If we borrow more heavily, or from a more recent work, then proper attribution would be more appropriate. Similarly, in fiction writing, most authors borrow from classic themes and ideas which have become standard in their respective genres. They may write imaginative novels, although some of the underlying themes would vaguely resemble past literature. This happens even subconsciously, because ideas are formed in large part by experience.

Rowling may have entered a bit of a great area here. Since she borrowed considerably from specific works, it would have been simply good etiquette to mention her conscious influences. While failing to do so may be considered slightly disrespectful, I do not think it is a serious crime.

Finally, if an artist (or anyone for that matter) can produce greater value or entertainment by building on past works rather than starting from scratch, then is it wrong for them to do so? Advanced society thrives on reused and enhanced inventions. After all, there is a good reason why patents expire after some time.

So... I don't know. Perhaps we *almost* agree after all. It is hard to draw the line in an objective manner.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Rowling's example is one that is rather bothersome. She has built great wealth and great fame on almost entirely second hand ideas. She has done so very adroitly - but that doesn't change the fact that nothing much that she has written could be said to be unique to her and her alone. However, most of her readers don't know this. They think her half way to being a God of creativity. This would be funny were it not so sad for those she has "borrowed" so extensively from.

When she is dead and gone and is no longer around to issue law suits, I am sure, very, very sure, that her reputation will be sharply reassessed (if in that age, people place any value in creativity and originality - which I sincerely hope they do, otherwise it will be a bleak time indeed).

It is, in my view, also a waste of time, to see again, what once was seen, under the banner of another author, another film, the same tale retold and resold, as if it were new. Why not invest the time, the energy and the creativity into doing something new?

12:09 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Hmm... after a bit of research, it appears Rowling "borrowed" more ideas than I had suspected. It is strange then, that she has been reported to feel emotionally attached to her characters, as if they were her own.

It is true; creativity is not sufficiently encouraged in today's film industry. Profit is such a concern that new ideas may be turned down in place of something "tried and true". The same holds in many other parts of the entertainment industry, such as music and video games. Independent artists, such as authors, do retain most of their freedom.

Regarding self-plagiarism, I immediately know which author to accuse: Dan Brown! His novels are very interesting to read the first time, but become very predictable once you are learn his pattern. He should try a different plot structure once in a while!

4:18 PM  
Anonymous David Johnston said...

Originality is over-rated. If being derivative was good enough for Shakespeare, it ought to be good enough for J.K. Rowling. Oh, and freedom of expression is not the same thing as originality.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you David, for your comment.

I am somewhat surprised that you have not understood my post, above. Perhaps you do not have the experience of or understanding of different political systems, to get it.

It is simple. In places where there is little freedom of expression, people fear to express themselves, as a result, little that is original is produced: all conforms to the expectation of the system, lest any deviation be punished. Thus, there is a DIRECT connection betweeen freedom of expression and the abundance of originality. In Singapore, there is little freedom of expression - and there is also almost no originality. The two are, in my view, directly and causationally related.

Shakespeare was not derivative overall. Yes. He used plots and "histories" from elsewhere...but his use of language, his poetry and expression of ideas were highly original and very sophisticated. J. K. Rowling on the other hand, steals everything important element that goes into her books, from elsewhere. They are a patchwork of derivation. So, too, her language is not original. She is not a great coiner of original phrases, thoughts or means of expression. Thus, there is no aspect of her work that can be said, truly, to be original. It is, actually, both offensive and somewhat revealing of your state of knowledge of Shakespeare to compare him to Rowling.

The only thing Rowling and Shakespeare have in common - two things actually - is that both are human and both are famous. Only one was a writer.

One day, however, they will be very different. You see, unlike Shakespeare, four hundred years after her death, J K Rowling will be utterly forgotten. So will "Harry Potter". Not one person alive will have a clue that she ever existed. Why? Because nothing that truly derivative will be looked well upon by posterity.

In that time, four hundred plus years from now, however, Shakespeare will be as well known then, as he is today...perhaps more so, if Mankind improves in the interim.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Correction: "JK Rowling...steals every important element..."

4:40 PM  

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