Potter for the Masses
by Ari Armstrong, December 15, 2003
I know I'm a bit behind the times, but I recently finished reading the fourth Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire. The influence of J.K. Rowling, author of the series, would be difficult to overestimate. Millions and millions of kids in the U.S. and around the world are reading these books as there first introduction to serious ideas. And if my cousins are any indication, kids are reading these books again and again.
I'm quite happy about that. Indeed, part of my motivation in reading the books (before I simply got wrapped up in the story) was to see what is influencing young people these days. The themes of these stories are integrity, moral strength, friendship, and heeding the advice of Emerson: "good men must not obey the laws too well."
What I like most about Rowling is that she writes for children without infantilizing them or condescending to them. Harry and his friends face the most profound moral challenges imaginable, and they assume enormous responsibility for themselves and for doing right by others. And at 734 pages, Goblet certainly doesn't pander to the TV generations. Graduates of the Hogwarts series will have several thousand pages of good writing under their belts, in many cases long before they enter high school.
At root, the Potter books are mysteries. The plots revolve around figuring out something odd that's going on. (I don't know whether "fantasy-mystery" is a larger genre.) Rowling packs in the action, and all this to bring out quite complex themes.
A recurrent theme is the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." Numerous people throughout the Potter series, including our hero, are falsely accused of various indiscretions and crimes. At the same time, some who appear to be innocent are finally shown to be villainous. (This is typical of mystery.)
The most important theme in Goblet is exposing the evil of bigotry. Some wizards are bigoted toward "Muggles" (non-wizards) and even wizards born of Muggles (called "Mudbloods" for spite). Many wizards keep slaves known as "house elves." This subject is not sanitized. Some elves want their freedom, while others decidedly do not. Hagrid, a half-giant, experiences bigotry directed toward him, yet he is not particularly sympathetic with the plight of the house elves.
Rowling also begins her critique of government power, which I understand becomes more important in the fifth book. Some government officials are portrayed as bungling fools who would rather save face than protect public safety. Others worry themselves with the most trivial of product regulations while serious evil is on the rise. Most ominously, some government officials are themselves bigoted, and they employ dangerous and unjust means to pursue their ends.
Rowling skewers the irresponsible press. Rita Skeeter is a reporter who regularly makes up her "facts" and willfully distorts the truth. She's also vindictive: after Harry's friend Hermione tells her off Skeeter responds with a smear piece. Pretty advanced stuff for young teenagers (as well as for the rest of us).
Gandalf's spiritual brother in the book is Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the school. For Dumbledore, the truth always is preferable to lies and the right always is preferable to the easy.
Dumbledore finally takes on Cornelius Fudge, head of the Ministry of Magic, over his failure to take seriously a deadly and demonstrable threat: "You are blinded... by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius! You place too much importance, as you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!" Dumbledore concludes, "If your determination to shut your eyes will carry you as far as this, Cornelius... we have reached a parting of the ways. You must act as you see fit. And I -- I shall act as I see fit."
These are the sorts of things our children are learning. Bless J.K. Rowling for her books.