Introduction to Society, Morality and Harry Potter

Posted on March 14, 2011 by

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I am going to blog at length, over many, many posts, about Harry Potter. Please do not leave this blog on this account. I have my reasons. This will be cool, I promise. If nothing else, I’ll say some cool, trendy stuff about terrorism. And I’ll make sure my blog posts are less than 50% Harry Potter for the duration of this blog series on Harry Potter. After that, I can assure you it will be far less than 50%.

If you haven’t read the Harry Potter novels, I can’t guarantee this will be interesting for you. Don’t worry about it; there will be lots of other cool stuff on this blog that will not require you to read several thousand pages of children’s literature.  If you’re in the process of reading the Harry Potter novels or plan to get around to it someday, be warned that there will be heavy and unashamed discussion of spoilers all over the place. Sorry, but I need to talk about Snape killing Dumbledore for this to work and I even need to talk about Snape actually being a good guy and killing Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s own orders. And about Voldemort killing Snape. And about Harry naming his second son Albus Severus after Dumbledore and Snape. Oops. Sorry people who care. I need to talk about all of that.

Before I begin, I need to put out some disclaimers in the form of a description of my extent of Harry Potter fandom.

I am not a Harry Potter superfan. I cannot quote passages of the book verbatim, I don’t know lots of trivia, and I didn’t play for my University’s Quidditch team, though I know many people who did. I never went to a bookstore at midnight dressed as Neville Longbottom to purchase a new entry in the series and I never dressed as Neville Longbottom and went to see the opening of a Harry Potter film at midnight on its opening day. I’m not here to defend Harry Potter as a work of literature of the highest order (as I’ve seen many of my peers in university do), and the thought of the Harry Potter theme park in Florida makes me want to puke.

This is what I have invested in Harry Potter: my parents bought me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a gift when it first became popular in the United States in 1998. I was nine years old and I had not heard of the book before, but I started reading it and immediately fell in love. I finished it quickly then sat in as my parents would read it, a chapter at a time, to my seven year old brother before he went to bed. I would reserve a copy of each successive novel as they were published and read them the week after they were released, usually at the Boy Scout camp that I attended and later worked at as a counselor. That’s pretty much where my level of fandom of Harry Potter ended.

Right now I’m going to take a break from discussing my past with Harry Potter and lay out why I’m choosing to write about these novels for children at all. I think that the seven Harry Potter novels and their peripheral works can be a source of a lot of insights about the first decade of the 21st century. But so could a lot of things. Here’s why I’m using Harry Potter as a tool to understand various real-life cultural phenomena:

1. Large audience: Almost everyone in my generation (and many, many older folks too) has read the Harry Potter novels and seen the films. This means readers have a higher probability of already having a working knowledge of Harry Potter than almost any other contemporary work of fiction.

2. Large but finite source material: Another advantage Harry Potter has over other bodies of fictional work is its finitude. 7 books, 7 movies, 3 minor related works. To be sure, there are other Harry Potter-related things I could use, from fan fiction to licensed merchandise to J.K. Rowling’s barf-inducing verbal explanations of who all the characters married. But for the most part I’ll just be sticking to the books themselves, and won’t really be mentioning the movies much either. The elegance of working with only 7 books, a rich and large body of material that is nevertheless self-contained, makes writing about Harry Potter much less daunting a task. For comparison, I could have written about the X-Men, which, while it has many interesting themes, the complexity of the X-Men corpus of work and the difficulty involved in getting even a reasonably high percentage of that work in my hands makes that a job for a very dedicated comic book collector, not for me.

3. Harry Potter is written from a progressive but not political perspective. Let’s face it: Harry Potter is not a political work. Certainly many people have written about the political aspects of Harry Potter, but this is more because the book is so incredibly widely read and influential than anything else… and as I mentioned above, that’s why I’m writing about Harry Potter too. Sure, Harry Potter has its moments of political allegory – the strong Grindelwald/Hitler parallel comes to mind – but it is fundamentally a fantasy story that uses parallels with real-world society in order to enhance its verisimilitude, and not a political allegory that uses fantasy elements in order to enhance its entertainment value. And while J.K. Rowling writes from a more progressive and subversive perspective than, say, Stephanie Meyer, she’s not exactly an avowed anarchist, atheist, radical feminist, or whatever other label we might be tempted to give her based on aspects of her fiction. If nothing else, her “then everyone lived happily ever after by marrying each other and having children” ending for the series should prove that pretty conclusively. Still, there’s enough meat on the bones of the Harry Potter novels to make a pretty strong case for a classical liberal, anti-security state reading of Harry Potter, so that’s what I’m planning to do, pointing out possible faults and weaknesses of Rowling along the way.

4. A few other reasons which are fairly self-explanatory but I thought I’d mention: Harry Potter is written in my native language. The action of the Harry Potter novels takes places in the 1990s and the books were written in the late 1990s/2000s, making possible the work’s immediate cultural relevance. I found no other commentary on Harry Potter point out the same themes with the kind of scope and detail that I wanted.

With those reasons in mind, I’ve identified some possible stumbling blocks for this project:

1. I am not British. I am American. For some reason I never thought that this impeded much of my understanding of the Harry Potter novels, beyond the superficial things like having to look up what treacle was when I was 12. But when I re-read the novels with an eye to their social and political structures, I realized that not being British was a severe handicap in dissecting the novels. Obviously there are problems involved with reading Harry Potter “too American.” Sure, I think that there are strong connections between the political climate of the wizarding world and post-9/11 politics (and, to be sure, there are) but will I overstate those similarities or talk about them in terms of only American politics?

But the bigger problems arise from broader cultural differences, many of which are deep-seated and historical. For instance, where I am tempted to think of House-Elves in terms of African slaves in the new world, a British reader would probably be more inclined to think of them in terms of Victorian-era servants.  Bill Bryson spends much time in his new book At Home discussing the different customs for servants in Victorian Britain and Victorian America. Long story short: British people employed vastly more servants than their American counterparts. There was a servant culture in Britain that did not exist in America. And so while it seems silly to me that Ron, Mr. Weasley and so many others in the Harry Potter novels take the conditions of servitude for House-Elves for granted, it might seem significantly more convincing for British readers. So while both British and American readers of Harry Potter will probably draw comparisons from House-Elves both to African slaves and to a historical social underclass of servants, there will be big differences in emphasis.

2. I’m going to miss things and make mistakes. I have the texts of the novels to work with, but I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the books. What’s more, the Harry Potter Wiki (Wikis being usual source of encyclopedic knowledge of a well-followed body of fictional work these days) is poorly executed and most unhelpful. What it should have is a comprehensive timeline of exact dates, etc., for the events in the book. What it does have is speculative writing about Horace Slugghorn’s physical fitness and a lot of still images from the Harry Potter movies. So it falls upon me, then, to work out the connections of time, date, and place in the novels and I’m sure I will miss some things. I will be trying to do as much fact-checking and comprehensive research as I can, but my time for this project is, of course, limited. If I miss things or make errors, I would love for you to contact me either directly or in the comments of posts and I will correct these as best I can.

Those are just two problems I thought of while writing. The actual number of problems is, of course, myriad. I’ll close this post with a brief account of how this series of blog posts came about.

I hadn’t read any of the novels since their publishing until I started taking a German class, and began to listen to the German language audiobooks of the novels as a way to improve my German. I figured they would be good choices because I was already familiar with the plot and they feature lots of proper nouns that would remain untranslated. And while listening, I got thinking about the social assumptions made in the fictional world of Harry Potter – they’re not ones that people necessarily make in the real world – but they seem natural in Harry Potter, perhaps because it’s fantasy, but perhaps also because these assumptions are attractive to readers. Perhaps because these assumptions are right (morally). That’s what I’ll ultimately be arguing, at least in some respects, for these future posts on Harry Potter, though I’ll be taking all sorts of detours to discuss genre, allegory, film adaptation, fictional world-building, etc.

This post is long and expository. It’s boring. And I haven’t talked about Harry Potter at all. But bear with me. This is going to be cool, I promise.

I leave you with this teaser: If Voldemort wanted to be immortal so badly, why didn’t he just make a sorcerer’s stone, or buddy up with Nicolas Flamel and use his, and live forever without ripping his soul up and being evil?

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Posted in: Literature