Book report: Harry Potter

I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but last weekend I finally finished the Harry Potter series. If I haven’t mentioned this project, it might be because I’ve been trying to avoid knowing anything about the plot in advance, and the easiest way to ensure that seemed to be to avoid bringing it up.

The first Harry Potter novel was published in the US in late 1998. I was a freshman in high school, and had very little interest in anything marketed for middle schoolers. Harry Potter was for kids; I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson and Vernor Vinge. (And Xanth…)

Maybe I’m finally old enough to be secure in my oldness. Nobody’s going to confuse me for a middle schooler if they see me reading Harry Potter on the plane.

More detailed thoughts below.

The series starts as a very silly world-building exercise, lots of fun for a children’s book but nothing too deep for adults. The first few adventures seem mostly like excuses for derring-do and inventive new versions of traditional magical tropes: wands, broomsticks, goblins, gnomes, ghosts, castles, elves, mermaids, and more. The mystery to solve changes but with luck, quick wits, and pure hearts, Harry and his friends save the day.

Then something changes. Having built her world, Rowling puts it to use to make a statement, and from then on the series is allegory and commentary. Her villains, it is revealed, are genocidal racists, obsessed with purity of blood, inspired by a 1940s German movement whose leader killed many people who he regarded as subhuman, until he was defeated by the British.

The allegory is almost childishly thin, but then, this is still a children’s book. Our heroes battle the forces of evil for a bit, and then something changes again: the forces of evil gain the upper hand, and take over the government.

This is not a children’s book anymore.

In the last segment, Harry Potter becomes a story about waging a campaign of armed insurrection (and political assassination) against a fascist regime built on mass surveillance, government control of the media, and support from unscrupulous elites and depraved masses. Its message is clear: bureaucracies are vulnerable to capture by evil people, and at some point the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of tyrants.

None of this is presented as a matter of moral ambiguity or hard choices. For the heroes, the end justifies the means. (Along the way, our heroes also rob a bank, disrupt court proceedings, poison some entirely innocent people, and get a bunch of henchmen and allies killed.) It doesn’t hurt that the villains have no advocate: no one ever offers a defense of their aims or views. They’re Just Evil.

In adult fiction, I would usually be disappointed in a novel with such flat antagonists. I really want to know what Voldemort and his followers seek to gain. Some kind of immortality, presumably, but how? And why is Dolores Umbridge so mean?

In Harry Potter, somehow it’s OK. Maybe it’s because anyone who rallies young adults to revolution against ethno-nationalism gets a free pass from me.

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