J.K. Rowling and a Morality Tale for Modernity

Having just finished the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, I want to record some thoughts about the “shape” the series has taken, and how Rowling’s work fits into, and comments upon, the modern condition. I’ll try to do so without “spoilers,” since I know many folks haven’t read book 7 yet or at least haven’t finished it.

It seems clear to me that Rowling’s series will have an enduring place in both the fantasy and children’s canons, in much the same way that Tolkien does, and for many of the same reasons. Naysayers aside, Rowling has created a deeply imagined world, and although she may not have actually written a grammar for Parseltongue or endless volumes of back history notes, the world itself is rich enough to interest children and adults alike as long as the genre itself remains part of our shared cultural heritage.

Her legacy as more than fantasy, more than children’s literature, however, depends entirely upon the relevance of her themes to the concerns adults face in our society — as with so much literature. And I need to add that I discuss Rowling along these lines only because she herself appears to have invited such comparisons by writing a series rich in historical parallels; by writing a morality tale steeped in modern life.

As I finished Rowling’s final book in the series, I was reminded immediately of Richard Rorty’s commentary upon Orwell’s historical legacy:

Orwell’s best novels will be widely read only as long as we describe the politics of the twentieth century as Orwell did. How long that will be will depend on the contingencies of our political future: on what sort of people will be looking back on ours, on how events in the next century will reflect back on ours, on how people will describe the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cold War…..Someday this description of our century may come to seem blinkered or shortsighted….Our descendants will read him as we read Swift — with admiration for a man who served human liberty, but with little inclination to adopt his classification of political tendencies or his vocabulary of moral and political deliberation….In the forty years since Orwell wrote, as far as I can see, nobody has come up with a better way of setting out the political alternatives which confront us. Taking his earlier warnings against the greedy and stupid conservatives together with his warnings against the Communist oligarchs, his description of our political situation — of the dangers and options at hand — remains as useful as any we possess. (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 169-170).

One need not have read the seventh and final book to understand the shape of Rowling’s allegory (but naturally, the force of it becomes much clearer as one sees the details of Voldemort’s return and rise to power). I do claim, though, that Rowling has done a superb job in describing a particular phenomenon: the ordinariness and mundanity of tyranny’s origins.

The Lord of the Rings may inspire us, and we may see in it the quintessential struggle between good and evil, but very little of Tolkien’s morality tale is of much use to us today. We simply do not describe modern life the way Tolkien did, and thus in Rorty’s words we read him as we read Swift. Rowling’s tale, on the other hand, was crafted precisely to describe us. The Wizarding world is palpably our own, with an overlay of magic — but even the magic is law-like and “ordinary” (i.e., wizards must work for basic necessities, and cannot simply conjure food or shelter).

Most importantly, over the course of the series, but especially from book 4 onwards, we are treated to a compressed history of 20th century absolutisms. Dark power has reigned in the past, but was conquered by an alliance of the good. Years later, people are tired of grand struggles and appear more than ready to dismiss all the signs of evil’s return. Vested interests combine with those who simply wish to protect their skins (e.g., the Malfoys), or are in denial (e.g., early Dolores Umbridge?) to wield the power of media, the state, and peer pressure to deny that anything is amiss. Those who preach vigilence against the return of evil are dismissed as fools or worse. Only a few are truly committed — either to evil or to fighting its return. And because most are simply seeking “the quiet life,” the actual battles, when fought, are the province of a tiny minority who fight on behalf of their different visions of society.

I’m not claiming that Rowling literally replays the history of the 20th century for us in the Harry Potter books. She doesn’t. But, at least to me, there are elements (especially in the final book, which I won’t spoil) which recall the Nuremburg Laws, Hitler’s rise to power, and to look for wider parallels, the search for “purity,” whether racial or national. Nor are the triumphs of the left ignored: Hermione’s long-standing crusade on behalf of house-elves (even more critical in the last book) mirrors the 20th century civil rights movements and its cultural offspring, with the message that democracy and freedom depend upon equality and inclusiveness. The latter point will sound like a bit of a stretch, until Book Seven.

Clearly it’s possible to read the Harry Potter series without hearing serious echoes of Kristallnacht. But for an adult, with basic familiarity with 20th century history, it seems difficult to read the series and ignore its essential point: our vulnerability comes from complacency and comfort, but so does our security, because only our relative abundance and our freedom of speech allows us to expand our moral universe to include those traditionally excluded: the Muggle-born, house-elves, goblins, and giants, and in our world, those of different colors, beliefs, and cultures.

Rowling has written the morality tale for modernity, and indeed likely for our “post-modern” century as well, because “evil” in our world tends to come in the same form as hers: the belief that purity — of one sort or another — is the cure for our dissatisfaction, and that diversity, hybridity, and difference are weakness. As long as we continue to describe our struggles and dangers in the same way, as long as those who seek to destroy liberal democracy (in the broadest sense of the term) do so in the name of a hypothetical, “pure” state of religion, culture, or race, we will still have much to learn from J.K. Rowling.