Grappling with ‘Harry Potter’ on the series’ 20th anniversary
Pop culture anniversaries are thick on the ground these days, but one we marked this week stands out. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published 20 years ago, which means that an entire generation has come of age with J.K. Rowling’s seven-part “Harry Potter” series, the movie adaptations, a play and various Web iterations as one of their dominant cultural experiences. And since that generation also grew up at a time when television production was ramping up and the Internet was making previously inaccessible culture easier to access, “Harry Potter” plays a particularly outsize role as a generational touchstone.
I’ve read Rowling’s novels repeatedly since their release, including in a marathon rereading of all seven novels over one long winter weekend several years ago. There are a lot of things I appreciate about the books, among them Rowling’s Dickensian tendency toward names that express an emotional onomatopoeia, her mastery of boarding-school dynamics and the character arcs of Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom and the collective Weasleys. As a critic, the thing I respect most about Rowling’s work is the way her prose and ideas mature as Harry Potter’s mind does: Harry’s walk into the woods to face his inevitable death in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” makes me weep every time I read that passage, no matter how familiar I am with the outcome.
But my experience of “Harry Potter” is no longer the purely private thing it was when I was 12, or even when I was 21 and picked up my pre-ordered copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle and stayed up all night to read it in one sitting. Cultural consumption is increasingly a public process, and now that I’m a professional critic, it’s my job. The act of caring about the books, poring over them and finding meaning in them has become an indicator of a certain set of ideas. And as much as I love “Harry Potter,” and as much as I look forward to sharing Rowling’s novels with another generation of readers, I do feel ambivalent about the way the series has been turned into a political touchstone.
I recognize that this use of the novels is probably inevitable: In an increasingly fragmented media environment, “Harry Potter” is the increasingly rare cultural language that we can assume everyone will speak. And unlike, say, the unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe, which use political issues as a gloss, Rowling’s books are genuinely concerned with political and civic concerns: How do you safeguard the integrity of your institutions? What role does the press play in shaping public opinion? What is the balance between informing citizens about threats to national security and panicking them unnecessarily? How should highly educated people treat the workers who make their lives comfortable? What obligations do people with special abilities have to those without them?
These important questions are both integral to the plot of “Harry Potter” and relevant to all of us even when we don’t understand ourselves and our values to be under existential threat. Fans of the franchise have successfully pushed to make sure that products associated with it live up to Rowling’s stated values. And developments in America, including attempts to discredit serious journalism, the degradation of our institutions and the return of ugly, racist rhetoric to the public sphere, certainly make some of those concerns feel more sharply urgent.
But even as a progressive “Harry Potter” fan, I’ve felt a certain queasiness over the political revisions and uses of the series in recent years.
My objection isn’t that the series is childish, which is an argument Rowling herself anticipated: As Albus Dumbledore tells Harry, “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. … That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic is a truth he has never grasped.” Instead, it’s that “Harry Potter” is an imperfect metaphor for our given moment. And trying to make it a mere instrument of politics has a way of reducing its power as literature.
The process of turning “Harry Potter” into a political instrument is one that Rowling herself has played a hand in. Among the many world-building tidbits she has revealed since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was published, Rowling has said that she thought of Dumbledore as gay and that the brainy Hermione Granger could very well be black. These insights are often greeted as proof of the series’ liberal values, though I’ve always found them a bit more depressing than enlightening. Saying these things after the fact, rather than making them part of the text of her novels, is a way for Rowling to accrue credit for choices she didn’t actually have the courage to make a part of her story.
More specifically, the use of “Harry Potter” as a metaphor for the Trump administration in the United States seems to spring from the same impulse that branded a resurgence of civic engagement “the Resistance.” As I’ve written before, I’m not particularly partial to that formulation, which treats normal acts, such as calling your representatives, marching in protest or donating to candidates or causes, as somehow radical. Treating Donald Trump’s democratic election as if it’s the equivalent of Voldemort’s covert seizure of power indulges the same urge to portray the people who oppose the administration as glamorously embattled, a wise chosen few who can see more clearly than others and are taking the necessary steps under extreme threat. It’s radical chic that, by defining normal acts as radicalism, shrinks the sphere of routine civic engagement.
Maybe I’m being a little sour. But beyond the aptness of this particular literary metaphor to this specific set of political circumstances, there’s something grating about our present tendency to take “Harry Potter,” and many other works of fiction, and contort them to match our present circumstances as precisely as possible. I believe that art is political but that its greatest political power comes not in the moments when it’s subordinated to an existing movement, candidate or agenda, but when it flies above the moment and helps us see things from a different perspective.
The relevant questions we can draw from “Harry Potter” in this moment aren’t whether Trump has horcruxes hidden in his hotels or whether British Prime Minister Theresa May is Dolores Umbridge.
Instead, we should ask how brave we really are, how much we’re doing to support the people who are with us in the struggle, what value we place on a free and independent press, and whether we’re sacrificing the most vulnerable to protect ourselves. Great literature helps us see ourselves and the world more clearly, rather than bathing us and it in a romantic, obfuscatory glow. The best respect we can show for “Harry Potter” on the series’ 20th anniversary is to let the novels transcend the times, rather than shackling them to the present.