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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The politics of Harry Potter

    Justyn DillinghamEditor-in-Chief
    Justyn Dillingham

    Since the “”Harry Potter”” phenomenon comes to an end in two days with the release of the seventh and last book, which brings the young wizard’s tale to what author J. K. Rowling mysteriously calls a definite end, it’s worth stepping back to take a fresh look at it. After all, even as the world has gotten more and more crazy about Harry, critics have deplored him.

    There are, of course, the Puritans who believe that Harry is an indoctrinator of Satanism, but they are safely ignored. But then there are the critics who have been telling us for years that Harry Potter is not only bad for our kids, but also bad for the rest of us.

    Novelist A.S. Byatt, in an essay called “”Harry Potter and the Childish Adult,”” argued that Rowling’s books are essentially “”comfort”” reading. Children like them because of “”the fantasy of escape and empowerment,”” and adults like them because of their plainness, their lack of genuine “”mystery.”” Adults who like Potter, Byatt declared, cannot imagine anything more fantastic than “”soaps, reality TV, and celebrity gossip.””

    Anthony Holden, a Shakespeare biographer, deems the books “”patronising, very conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a Britain which [never] existed,”” as well as “”mindless”” and “”sentimental.”” Liking Potter, he snorted, means refusing “”to put away childish things.””

    For the great critic Harold Bloom, children are not liberated by the “”Potter”” books, but dumbed down: “”Their eyes simply scan the page. Then they turn to the next page. They are invited to avoid reality, to avoid the world and they are not invited to look inward, into themselves.””

    It is an odd list of grievances. Rowling is somehow guilty of being both too fantastic and not fantastic enough, of avoiding “”reality”” and also depriving us of “”real”” magic by making Harry’s world too realistic.

    The truth is that all these critics are using the Potter books to condemn something else. Byatt dislikes them because she dislikes our modern world. Bloom dislikes them because he thinks our time would be better spent reading Jane Austen. And Holden dislikes them because he thinks we should be buying his books instead. What is it that they are missing?

    The secret of the “”Harry Potter”” books is that they’re not really fantasies at all. The wizarding world, with its ministers and headmasters and businessmen, is simply another version of our own world. And Harry’s adventures are far from “”escapist.”” For proof, let’s look at “”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,”” the fifth adventure, which hit theaters last week.

    At the close of the fourth adventure, Harry made the horrifying discovery that Lord Voldemort, the evil sorcerer who killed Harry’s parents and whom the entire wizard world lives in fear of, has returned. Voldemort, incidentally, is not a supernatural being but a one-time student of Hogwarts (the wizards’ school that Harry attends) who destroyed his soul in order to gain power over others. In other words, far from being a creature of fantasy, he is the very sort of villain you are most likely to encounter in real life.

    In “”Phoenix,”” Harry finds that no one believes his story. The wizarding world, reading the sensational tales about him in the tabloids, dismisses him as a crackpot and a liar. Even some of his friends are giving him strange looks. A direct commentary, perhaps, on those who live on “”soaps, reality TV, and celebrity gossip.””

    Yet the Ministry of Magic, the government of the wizarding world, is not satisfied with merely discrediting Harry. They send a new professor to Hogwarts to straighten it out: Professor Umbridge, a smiling, unassuming-looking bureaucrat whose most threatening gesture is to cough politely.

    Armed with the boundless authority of the Ministry of Magic, firing off one arbitrary, repressive proclamation after another, gathering a loyal army of snitches around her, forbidding students to practice magic, she becomes the new headmaster of Hogwarts – a soft-spoken, cheerful tyrant.

    Under the tyranny, a curious thing happens to Hogwarts. It becomes a community – not merely a student body, which exists only as long as there is a school to justify it, but a real community, terrorized by a dictatorship. Because the students can no longer look to the school for wisdom and authority, they must rely on themselves. In the face of enforced ignorance, Harry organizes private classes to teach students the skills they will need to fight Voldemort. The choices we make when left to our own devices, Rowling tells us, matter deeply.

    Rowling is not sentimental, and the fellowship does not last; it is, in fact, betrayed by a member. (So much for “”the fantasy of escape and empowerment.””) It remains to Hermione, at once the most diligent student and the most rebellious, to use her wits to overthrow the tyrant.

    But it is indeed the same group, reduced to its essence, that battles Lord Voldemort’s henchmen at the end of the story. Had the students simply accepted arbitrary and bullying power in the form of Professor Umbridge, they would have lost in the struggle with Voldemort.

    This is anything but a “”conservative”” story. The message it gives children is in fact a radical one; it tells them to, as Edmund Burke said, “”snuff tyranny in every tainted breeze.”” The students accept the legitimate authority of Hogwarts’ real headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, but they refuse the arbitrary authority of a bureaucrat. It is a profoundly moral message, but it is by no means an “”escapist”” one.

    And this is merely the outward struggle. The real struggle in “”Phoenix”” is within Harry himself. Troubled by the sort of romantic longings and fierce, contradictory rages familiar to any teenager, he is prone to losing his temper and acting brashly. At one point he confesses to another character that he fears he himself may be as evil, deep down, as Lord Voldemort. Does this not invite the reader to “”look inward, into themselves””?

    Children who read the Harry Potter books will learn that they must think for themselves, that they must be courageous in the face of tyranny, that their own actions matter tremendously. Far from being a “”childish”” message, this is a message that most adults have never learned.

    Justyn Dillingham is a senior majoring in history and politcal science., and is the editor-in-chief of the Arizona Summer Wildcat. He can be reached at

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