Thursday, March 17, 2011

Crucio to Critics!


Wikipedia has an intriguing article on the politics of Harry Potter, and another about religious debates on Harry Potter, describing the great variety of complaints, controversies and interpretations of the books made by reviewers. Like the Rorschach tests that use random images to draw telling remarks from viewers, interpretations of Harry Potter may tell us more about the critics than the books.

After all, the diversity of opinion about Potter is vast. All at once, different critics have blasted the series for being: conservative, capitalist, socialist, pro-gay, sexist, multicultural, anti-Christian, liberal, casteist, Satanic, Christian, Zionist, anti-Islam, Pagan and finally secular.

It is not difficult to see where some of these ideas come from. Stormfront, white supremacist neo-Nazi website, has the following complaint:

However I have just finished reading the last few books and am disappointed in the highly anti-racial, anti-nazi metaphors and underlying messages depicted in the books.... It's been clear for a while that most pure-bloods and their desire to stay that way have been depicted as evil, Lord Voldemort being the first and foremost.

Well that's probably a fair complaint! In HP the villains are Death Eaters, a secret group of rebels obsessed with magical purity. Witches and wizards may pop up among the non-wizarding community, or they may be born to wizarding families. The Death Eaters - like purity-obsessed Nazis of old - believe that pure-blood wizarding families who have not mixed with Muggles (non-magic people) are superior.

Rowling makes it clear that the Death Eater's perspective is harmful and, since there are no absolutely pure-blood families, delusional. The comparison with Nazi Germany, then, is logical. But another Stormfront member remarks:

Gay leader of all the kids, interracial kids being happy with each other, evil Aryan bad guys (Malfia, Lucius, both blond hair blue eyes), etc. All the bad guys were white with blond hair or at least white, stupid Jewish propaganda, but how can you be surprised, this is just more of the same to me now.

...And that's where we lose them. "Jewish" propaganda?

Yet some critics have drawn parallels between anti-Semite perceptions of money-hoarding Jews and Rowling's goblins, who run the Gringotts Bank. Rowling's goblins have poor relations with the wizards, partly because the goblins understand property in different terms, believing that ownership of all goblin-built products revert to the goblin maker on the death of the wizard buyer. When wizards leave goblin products like swords to their offspring, or sell it on to another wizard, the goblins feel cheated.

This moneyed minority with poor relations to the majority seems a plausible allegory for the Jewish money-lenders so despised in early modern Europe. Yet the second part of Rowling's mythology, that the goblins understand property differently, seems to have no historical equivalent.

Really it is not at all obvious that Rowling intended to depict the goblins as crypto-Jewish characters. The comparison that comes to my mind is rather the stock fantasy characters of dwarves who, in Lord of the Rings and Pratchett's Discworld series, are great metal workers who obsess over gold and treasure, just as Rowling's goblins do. (Pratchett satirises this dwarvish greed by calling one of the favourite songs of his dwarves "Gold! Gold! Gold!")

Another superficially obvious observation about Harry Potter is that most of the action takes place in an old-fashioned boarding school. Anthony Holden attacks the series in The Observor:

...The Potter saga was essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain.... Why on earth couldn't Hogwarts (the name is indicative of the reach of her imagination) have been a comprehensive, or an embattled secondary modern or a solid old-fashioned grammar - a school of the kind with which most of those millions of young readers can identify?

Why, in the weariest tradition of English children's literature from Tom Brown's Schooldays on, did she have to send Harry to a neo-Dotheboys Hall, complete with such arcane rituals as weirdly named hierarchies and home grown sports with incomprehensible rules?

To be fair to Holden, writing in 2000, the books would develop a lot later in the series, the apparently two-dimensional characters and locations filling out. Yet he ought to have had doubts even then. The students at Hogwarths are jumble of races, hardly indicative of a bygone Britain. Instead the Stormfront neo-Nazis come closer to the truth with their observation that Rowling detests their obsession with racial purity. The series would later look at disadvantaged sentient species like giants, werewolves and especially house elves, often abused by the dominant wizarding community. This is a plausible allegory for modern discrimination against disadvantaged minorities. The mighty wizard Dumbledore is also homosexual, as Rowling admitted in a later interview. This admission was greeted with outrage among some religious conservatives: Rowling simultaneously attacked as a conservative bigot and a liberal propagandist.

Nonetheless Richard Adams from The Guardian repeated many of those complaints about Hogwarths and Potter's conservatism:

To the delight of the Daily Telegraph, the Harry Potter series is a priceless advertisement for traditional English public schools. Hogwarts is little more than the Rugby of Tom Brown's Schooldays with spells added. An indication of how closely it fits the archetype comes when Justin Finch-Fletchley tells Harry: "My name was down for Eton, you know, I can't tell you how glad I am I came here instead. Of course, mother was slightly disappointed."

Rowling herself makes the very reasonable response that the boarding school was useful to further the narrative by taking the children away from protective parents.

Apart from that, of course Hogwarths is a marvellous location for the series, heavy with history that leaves the building riddled with secrets and potential for adventure. The complexity of Rowling's plot only becomes clear in the later books, as does the role of Hogwarths in shifting that plot forward. Hogwarths is pleasing to the reader precisely because it is so radically different from the locations most of us experience. Readers in bland housing estates and multistory apartment blocks can move instead to a world denied to them: a world of comforting tradition, history, excitement and magic. The opulence and dusty history of Hogwarths compels in the same way that the monarchist fantasy of Narnia did. That is, Hogwarths makes Harry Potter excellent escapism.

Another complaint by Richard Adams is the alleged sexism of the series:

While women make up many of the main characters, they receive little attention. Even Harry's friend, Hermione Granger, is a well-worn stereotype: the middle-class "girly swot" who tries to talk Harry out of taking risks. It's no surprise to learn that her parents are dentists. The only times Harry competes with women as equals - Cho Chang on the quidditch pitch and Fleur Delacour in the triwizard tournament - he defeats them both. All of the central evil characters and senior authority figures in the books are men.

This allegation of sexism is also voiced by Christine Schoefer in Salon:

Harry's fictional realm of magic and wizardry perfectly mirrors the conventional assumption that men do and should run the world.... Harry, of course, plays the lead. In his epic struggle with the forces of darkness -- the evil wizard Voldemort and his male supporters -- Harry is supported by the dignified wizard Dumbledore and a colorful cast of male characters. Girls, when they are not downright silly or unlikable, are helpers, enablers and instruments. No girl is brilliantly heroic the way Harry is, no woman is experienced and wise like Professor Dumbledore. In fact, the range of female personalities is so limited that neither women nor girls play on the side of evil.

But, you interject, what about Harry's good friend Hermione? Indeed, she is the female lead and the smartest student at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. She works hard to be accepted by Harry and his sidekick Ron, who treat her like a tag-along until Volume 3.

Schoefer again writes this in 2000, before the series was finished, so she lacks the full picture. In any case, her complaints seem reasonable at first. The hero is male, as is the villain, Voldemort. The school headmaster and both Ministers of Magic are male.

Yet Schoefer's analysis lacks subtlety, for female characters feature in important roles throughout.

First, note the mixed-sex quidditch teams, where boys and girls compete in a highly physical, occasionally dangerous, sport as equals. Team captains may be male or female. This stands in stark contrast to the segregation of boys and girls in sport that I experienced in school, and which dominates most sport today.

Hermione, who Schoefer derides as a goody-goody, is often shown to be correct, and not just in bookish knowledge. In the Deathly Hallows, Hermione shows strength and perseverance, refusing to join her boyfriend Ron when he abandons their quest against Voldemort. Hermione is highly principled, her goody-goody behaviour born of a thoughtful sensitivity to right and wrong.

She also is the only one of the three with the wisdom to understand the dangers of power. Given the choice of an all-powerful wand to cast terrible spells, a stone which revives the dead, or a cloak of invisibility, Hermione chooses the latter. Ron and Harry go for the wand and stone respectively, both indicating their immature desires to control the uncontrollable. (Were Hermione in Lord of the Rings, she would have urged the others to destroy - not use - the One Ring.)

Her aside, the books have a number of other worthy female characters. Luna Lovegood is an unpredictable and initially friendless character who emerges as an unlikely hero in the later books. Luna suffers from bullying, but shrugs off her unpopularity with indifference. She, probably more than any other student, is individualistic, a loner strong enough to wander away from the herds of friends. She is also one of the few students who strays from her Hogwarths house, Ravenclaw, to spend much of her time with a rival house. She is courageous, sometimes solitary, but loving.

Hogwarths itself was founded by three great wizards and a witch. That only one quarter of the founders were female may be seen as sexist, yet it compared favourably with reality: Eton was founded by one man, King Henry VI, and today still educates only boys. The inclusion of the female founder Helga Hufflepuff indicates that Rowling's magic world was historically more equal than ours.

Another major character is Ron's sister Ginny. One-dimensional and shy at first, Ginny develops into a defiant young woman motivated by aggressive loyalty, known for her prowess in sports and magical combat. She, Hermione and Luna are members of the DA, a secret student body designed to share defensive magic knowledge for fighting off Voldemort, and together this mixed-sex organisation fights a number of major battles with adult Death Eaters. There is no sense that female witches are less capable with magic or less determined in conflict than their male peers. While gender disparities exist among the adults, it seems largely much less obvious among the students.

Meanwhile the male authority figures become gradually more flawed and complex as the series develops. The apparently all-knowing Dumbledore is exposed as a former bigot, drawn to dark magic by his lust for power. Young Dumbledore justified his immoral acts in terms of the "greater good". Rowling mocks the power-hungry instinct of several male characters: is she pushing for something deeper, a critical look at the obsessive drive for power that motivates our (mostly male) dictators and politicians? Perhaps not. Among the Death Eaters are powerful and murderous women as well as men. Perhaps the second most powerful Death Eater is the brutal Bellatrix Lestrange, a woman of such power and malevolence that I find it difficult to see real-life equivalents in the governments of Nazi Germany or Stalinist USSR.

Rowling's world, with its male hierarchy, reflects some of the sexual inequality of ours, but the fantasy is probably quite a bit more equal than reality.

A final complaint is easier to shrug off: that Harry Potter promotes Paganism, even Satanism. This is easy to dismiss in casual terms for the simple reason that I know dozens of people who read and love Harry Potter, and none of them are Pagans or Satanists.

Rowling's witches fly on brooms, wave magic wands, keep black cats and toads: these are all stereotypical images of witches familiar from Halloween costumes or Scooby Doo. They're also rather removed from true polytheist Pagans: in Harry Potter religion takes a back seat. Rowling's wizards never worship Pagan deities; instead magic is treated as a science. Hogwarths, meanwhile, is culturally but not religiously Christian, celebrating Christmas as a tradition-laden secular holiday with no mention of Christ.

Rather than takings its cues from religion, Rowling's magic inherits the legacy of fictional fantasy magic. The result is obvious: over 400 million books sold, with The Deathly Hallows selling 2.7 million in the UK over its first 24 hours, yet the highest estimated Neopagan numbers for the UK that I can find are 250,000. Clearly Harry Potter is a lousy recruiting device.

But claims about Potter deliberately seeking to indoctrinate children to Paganism or Satanism are just absurd, particularly when the final book demands a rather obviously Christian sacrifice, coupled with a Tolkienesque appreciation for the dangers of power. I emailed Professor of History at the University of Bristol Ronald Hutton, an authority on historical paganism and magic as well as modern Neopaganism, to see if he had noticed any uptick in Neopagan numbers since the rise of Potter. Prof Hutton's response:

I have myself seen no evidence that J. K. Rowling's novels encourage Paganism. They are perfectly compatible with Christianity, though also with many other systems, as they preach a powerful set of ethics rather than a form of religion.

In any case religious objections seem particularly bizarre to an old fantasy fan like me, having spent my childhood pondering the works of Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Ursula le Guin, Pat O'Shea and the like. Today I do not pray to The Horned God! Magic in fiction has been around for centuries, with Pagan converts relatively few and far between.

Where people seek to find narratives, biases and hidden messages in literature they will find them. Harry Potter is a good example simply because the critics are so diverse, the alleged meanings and messages so many and so ludicrous. A great many other works also undergo shallow analysis, sometimes accompanied by complaints of moral outrage. Some critics seem determined to find evidence in literature that reinforces their own prejudices, forgetting that the main goal of fiction is pleasure, not propaganda. To all of these unhappy folk: CRUCIO!

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