Politics, Literature, and Harry Potter
This is the second of two essays (both published in rec.arts.books) offering different perspectives on the Harry Potter phenomenon. You might want to read Good and Evil, Fascism and Hogwarts first.
In my essay, “Good and Evil, Fascism and Hogwarts”, I explored the socio-economic background of the Rowlings’ secondary universe and made some rather jaundiced comments about the magic users and their relationship to ordinary humanity. The essay has an air of plausibility; the thesis is tenable. None-the-less it quite wrong headed.
The essay establishes (purports to establish) that the society depicted in the Harry Potter universe is, to use the cant of the age, politically incorrect. Of course it is. Political incorrectness (to use the cant of the time) is a standard, almost necessary feature of the fantasy genre.
Fiction set in a time not our own will, in the nature of things, not be politically corrrect if it is at all honest as literature. The characters will have the dreams, ambitions, and values of their own time and place.
This political incorrectness is inevitable in genre fantasy, aka extruded fantasy product (EFP). EFP is set in medievalloid (to coin a word in a debased currency) backgrounds. As such it needs must be politically incorrect. One cannot have royalty and nobility without an off-stage exploited peasantry.
The Harry Potter saga is not genre EFP; it has a modern setting. Why then, one might ask, is it also politically incorrect? More to the point, why is political incorrectness popular? A simple answer is that “good versus evil” makes for strong, simple plots. More than that, children (and even adults) like stories of good versus evil. Even the mavens of political correctness like to cast the world in terms of good versus evil, albeit with their own slant on who is good and who is evil. This preliction is part of the human condition.
My essay, GAEFAH, entirely misses the point when it points to the magic folk as “an unsavory lot”. Clearly, they reflect they have the faults of the larger society that they are embedded within. Equally clearly, it is Rowlings’ choice to make those faults visible. There is a good bit of social commentary slipped into the stories, e.g., Harry’s persistant errors in perceiving who are “the good guys” because of his prejudices, the exploitive features of the society (Hermione and her house elves), class consciousness, and the willingness of the authorities to use horrid expedients (the dementors). Rowlings is not exactly subtle in her social commentary but she may be too subtle for the mavens of political correctness.
Be that as it may, literature and politics do not mix well. The famous feminist slogan, “The personal is political”, is noteworthy for its falsity. The essence of the political perspective is the elimination of the personal in favor of the institutional. The strength of literature lies in the illumination of the personal.
Finally one of the charms of the series is that the stories are a mirror to our own society – a magic mirror if you like. The magic users are us (an English “us”, at least) with the fun of ordinary features of life recast as being magical.
This page was last updated January 1, 2002.