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Book Review: Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody

By Arkady in Media
Sat Dec 29, 2001 at 11:23:02 AM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

I did get a copy of this book way before I expected to (thanks, Rusty!). As I very much enjoyed and respect J.K. Rowling's original Harry Potter books, as well as the Harvard Lampoon's "Bored of the Rings" (whose style and concept are almost certainly the model for this one), I'm a bit leery of a parodist getting involved. I must admit that I even enjoyed the Harry Potter film, despite the bits which were obviously constructed to produce the maximum opportunity for merchandising. So, I'm a bit conflicted in deciding what I think of "Barry Trotter".

Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody
Michael Gerber
2001, Fantastic Books, Chicago
ISBN 1-890470-01-5

The most important thing to remember when reading "... the Unauthorized Parody" is that, unlike its closest literary sibling "Bored of the Rings", it is not primarily a parody; it's a parody with a very specific axe to grind. Whereas the author(s?) of "Bored of the Rings" set out to softly lampoon the characters, setting and action of Tolkien's immortal epic, Gerber is primarily concerned about the impact of the massive merchandising franchise being built upon (and quite possibly supplanting) J.K. Rowling's books. This definitely moves to center stage in the latter part of the book, largely replacing the parodic aspects of the book.

A very engaging aspect of the parody, however, is in how it brings an attractive level of realism to the somewhat sanitized (despite the presence of real Evil) world presented in the original books. The wizards' joke "How many Muddles does it take to see a flying carpet? That was no carpet, that was a weather balloon!" is exactly the style of thing you'd expect real people living in Rowling's bifurcated world to come up with.

The most engaging aspect for me, however, was the surrealism. Probably my favorite part of the book is the cult of mice (worshippers of the mouse Messiah who ate the Philosopher's Scone and became immortal) which torment the human residents of the school and wage war with the tribe of bats which mug students for smokes. The mice only once appear outside of a footnote, but the presence of this unnoticed and antagonistic society in the walls and wainscotting of the school is one of the most brilliant and amusing concepts, especially when I inevitably thought of it in the context of the original books (which honestly makes it much funnier than it is in the context of the parody itself).

The biggest problem with the book is Gerber's motivation. He has trouble maintaining the focus of the parody, especially towards the end, as he gets into explicitly stating his concerns of the commercialization and franchising of the Potter books.

The most important rule of good parody (which, for example, Weird Al Yankovic never breaks) is that to achieve a truly great parody and maximum impact, Never Break Character. Weird Al's parodic songs maintain a very exact relationship to their originals, often to the point that (without the lyrics) it would be impossible to distinguish them, with no wackiness or frivolity other than that which is part of the parody itself. "Bored of the Rings" managed to maintain its focus throughout (though the parody does get listless after a while, it never wavers from its original construct).

Gerber, it seems, did not manage this. In addition to not actually sticking to one plot (and his footnote at the end is aware of this, saying that "postmodern tools in the wrong hands (i.e. mine) can be deadly"), at several points the characters essentially step out of the parody to deliver a speech. While I'll certainly admit that this could have been done well, and in such a way that it continued the parodic thread (Dork Lord Valumart's speech when he has Barry at his mercy could definitely have fit right in with the action), it just doesn't click. It's almost like those bits in some plays where the action stops and one actor steps up to deliver an aside to the audience before the play resumes; it's a technique that can work, it just doesn't seem to here.

It's possible that the heavy-handed nature of the asides is what removes them from the action so much. Another important rule for the ideologically motivated parodist should be: Show, Don't Tell. A good example here, of course, would be Swift (OK, so he was a satirist, and not a parodist; parody is reasonably a subset of satire). While he had a definite message in mind, he structured his writing so that the reader is shown the meaning by the action of the story itself rather than through being told directly. In this way, the message is presented by turning the story into a sort of parable, rather than by turning it into a sociopolitical essay.

Gerber's point, however, is that commercialization and its effects on the source material (and the larger society) are important considerations for the author of any major literary success and for Rowling's sake (and for her work's) I certainly hope that she reads this book and gives serious consideration to its message. The rest of you may want to read it too, but it's quite clear that she's the principle audience for whom it was written.

(If you'd like to look into "Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody a bit more, here are a few links:

I'm sure that as it gets more widely known, you'll see it show up in the press quite a bit; probably under a headline like "Warner Bros. Sues Parodist". ;-)


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Related Links
o an article
o http://www .barrytrotter.com
o read the first chapter
o Also by Arkady

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Book Review: Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody | 10 comments (4 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
whoops (4.50 / 2) (#6)
by Arkady on Sat Dec 29, 2001 at 04:17:00 AM EST

When I wrote my previous book review here, I'd decided to start adding a rating to them but I totally spaced it this time. So, this book should have the following rating:

Rating (of 5): 3.0 Magic Biscuits

(It's basically a bit of silliness, but the numerical rating can give you an idea of what I thought of the quality of the book, since I don't exactly come out with for/against recommendations in the review.)


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Good review, worth waiting for ... (none / 0) (#8)
by joegee on Sat Dec 29, 2001 at 10:35:13 AM EST

... I wanted to read your opinion on this since I read the first MLP submission about it. +1 FP from me.

Thanks Arkady. :)

<sig>I always learn something on K5, sometimes in spite of myself.</sig>
[ Parent ]
Backstreet Pokemon Scooter: Looney Tunes Edition (2.50 / 2) (#7)
by brettjs on Sat Dec 29, 2001 at 06:38:00 AM EST

Anyone else notice the irony in parodies which point an accusatory finger at the commercialistic aspects of fads like Harry Potter, then turn straight about and capitalize on the fads' success?

The only way to get away from this stigma of hypocrisy , as I see it, is either:

1) making the parodies free (bad idea, usually; I'm decisively pro-"giving the author a means to pay the rent")


2) doing parodies of things not currently in the public eye but still worthy of parody. This has the advantage of garnering a more valid core audience, too, since readers will buy the parody only if they are interested in the subject and not simply because it says something close to "Harry Potter" or "Official N'Sync" in the title.

In summary, "Wierd Al" = parody for money's sake; "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" = parody for the sake of commentary (and perhaps some nice cash on the side, too ;)

Weird Al (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by enry on Sun Dec 30, 2001 at 12:24:10 PM EST

In summary, "Wierd Al" = parody for money's sake; "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories" = parody for the sake of commentary (and perhaps some nice cash on the side, too ;)

I disagree. Can't there be parody for humor's sake? What about things like Mad Magazine (back when it was good)? Given that Weird Al and Mad have been around for a long time, and did not start off to make money, I think they're both in it for the entertainment value.

[ Parent ]

Book Review: Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody | 10 comments (4 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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