Harry Potter and the Complicated Identity Politics

Be warned: Elements of the plot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are revealed below, though not the ending.

What are the politics of Harry Potter? The rift in the magical world described over the course of J.K. Rowling's epic pits the young wizard and his companions against the terrorizing, fascistic Lord Voldemort, who seeks to "cleanse" the wizarding community of "mudbloods," those witches and wizards born into non-magical families. Parallels to the Holocaust and other genocides and apartheid regimes are easy to draw. Just as we're eager to hear that Hitler was part Jewish, or gay, or suffered from a terrible sexual dysfunction, Potter fans eat up the revelation that Voldemort himself had a Muggle, or non-magical, father.

Rowling, though famously tight-lipped, has used her personal website to draw explicit comparisons between her mythological universe and 20th century history. A young reader wrote to Rowling to ask, "Why are some people in the wizarding world (e.g., Harry) called ‘half-blood' even though both their parents were magical?" She responds:

The expressions "pure-blood," "half-blood," and "Muggle-born" have been coined by people to whom these distinctions matter, and express their originators' prejudices. ... If you think this is far-fetched, look at some of the real charts the Nazis used to show what constituted "Aryan" or "Jewish" blood. I saw one in the Holocaust Museum in Washington when I had already devised the "pure-blood," "half-blood," and "Muggle-born" definitions and was chilled to see that the Nazi used precisely the same warped logic as the Death Eaters. A single Jewish grandparent "polluted" the blood, according to their propaganda.

Rowling describes her surprise at learning her own fictional creation mirrors historical reality. Whether we believe this stance or understand it as a pose for the benefit of young readers, Rowling clearly intends her audience to see the moral predicaments in her novels not as "far-fetched," but as quite relevant to a troubled world.

Thus, some critics have been tempted to read Harry Potter as a commentary on the 21st-century struggle to contain global terrorism. But Rowling began plotting the series in the early 1990s, and four of the seven books were written and published before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The series, therefore, is less a critique of Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib (echoes of which many readers see in the Ministry of Magic's cruel Azkaban prison) than a meditation on the challenge of diversity, that conundrum at the center of modern societies.

But Rowling's ideology cannot simply be described as anti-racist, for as strongly as she condemns racially-motivated violence, Harry Potter remains a classic work of fantasy. And fantasy is a literary genre intent, above almost all else, on the reassuring order of classification and categorization, of blood lines and inheritances.

Though we're meant to abhor Voldemort's obsession with "pure" blood lines, father-to-son inheritances are crucial to fulfilling Harry's destiny as savior of the magical community. The "Deathly Hallows" referred to in the title of the seventh book are three medieval magical objects made by pureblood brothers and thought to allow their owners to avoid death. Toward the end of the book, Harry learns he is the rightful heir to one of the hallows and can access the two others as well. So the boy wizard tasked with fighting the pureblood ideology is himself a descendent of one of the most prestigious families in magical history. The plot device is too conventional to be ironic, and fits squarely within the fantasy tradition of ascribing high-born histories to even the most humble heroes. Think of Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Like Tolkien, Rowling depicts a variety of magical species in addition to human wizards. Tolkien unabashedly racialized his magical beings; Tall, pale Elves spoke a beautiful Latinate tongue; little Hobbits were simple, fun-loving, loyal folk; and dark-skinned "southern" human tribes sided in battle with orcs, savage creatures no better than animals.

Rowling's world isn't all that different. A magical species called Veelas are high-born, fairy-like creatures who seduce men and possess unnatural, silvery-white beauty. Over the course of the books, the young wizards do learn to respect house elves, a species in slavery to human masters. Yet even in freedom, the elves' personalities are depicted as fundamentally servile. A rather pathetic elf named Kreacher feels his subordination so keenly that when he fails in tasks assigned to him by Harry, he beats himself to a pulp. We're meant to feel sorry for Kreacher, but elves have no agency -- they owe even their liberation movement to humans.

The position of women in the narrative fits this vision of prescribed social roles and hierarchies. Harry's heroes -- his school headmaster, godfather, and various magical sporting figures -- are all men. His dead mother, the Muggle-born Lily, is portrayed as the source of love and sacrifice in his life, while his late father, James, was daring, brash, and heroic. The books do strike some blows against gender stereotypes, portraying brave female warriors, a number of uncommonly cruel and violent female characters, and, of course, Harry's best friend Hermione, a heroine because of her ability to turn academic acumen into practical magical solutions. But on the whole, Rowling's wizarding society conforms to boringly conventional gender roles. Dads, like the loveable Mr. Weasley (father of red-headed sidekick Ron), go off to work while steadfast moms stay home cooking, cleaning, and rearing large families. Magical education doesn't begin until the age of 11, so witches are also tasked with full-time parenting and educational responsibilities over young children, Rowling clarified for a curious reader at her website.

The best window into how Rowling subtly critiques, yet ultimately hews to, a fantasy script dependent on stereotypes culled from real-life racism is the acrimony between humans and goblins, an important plot device in book seven. Goblins in the series are humanoid beings (they can mate with people) skilled at forging metal and protecting valuables. Harry and Ron distrust goblins, but the naïve Hermione reminds them that wizards have been cruel to goblins throughout history, provoking bad behavior from the creatures. Against his better instincts, Harry cuts a deal with the goblin Griphook: In exchange for help in obtaining a magical object deep with a protected vault, Harry will give Griphook a valuable medieval sword he has inherited. But Harry soon learns goblin ideas of ownership are different than human ideas; while people believe they own an object once they pay for it and can pass it to whomever they like, goblins believe a valuable object must be returned to its creator -- often a goblin -- upon its purchaser's death. Thus, Griphook steals the sword from Harry without fully upholding his end of the bargain. The ultimate judgment is that whole categories of creatures, even those whose blood is intermingled in the human race, cannot be trusted.

Of course, one could make the argument that Rowling is "color-blind;" her minor characters sport a variety of ethnic names -- Anthony Goldstein, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang. But even as Rowling attempts to neutralize race by presenting a diverse cast of young wizards, she creates a world in which some beings are born into stereotypes they cannot overcome and that render them inherently inferior. This is, unfortunately, par for the course in the fantasy genre, in which pretend humanoid species have too often been used as a cover for our reactionary assumptions about different types of real people.

The hierarchical, patriarchal undertones of the fantasy genre will likely be lost on children caught up in Harry's quest to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. The series is great fun, and I wouldn't deny anyone the pleasure of reading these books. But the politics of Harry Potter, while broadly anti-authoritarian, are far more complicated at the level of individual identity, and cannot be described as progressive. Perhaps this is why science fiction is ultimately a more radical genre than fantasy. While fantasy looks backwards for its myths and mores, sci-fi looks forward. So here's hoping the next J.K. Rowling washes her hands of Tolkien and, perhaps in her next series of books, popularizes Madeline L'Engle instead.

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