If it's crap ... We'll tell you
This is something I've pondered on quite a lot. I read the Harry Potter series, just like most other people who grew up with them, or had children who did, and quite quickly picked up on J.K. Rowling's ultimate point; racism is bad. My discovery of course shocked the literary world. Despite the fact that the Death Eaters, their message, and the whole theme of blood purity was all very old hat to me as a history student (Hint: Rowling just used Nazism), I decided that, while the metaphors were thin, perhaps it was a good thing that children were been given something that provided the message in a fun way. After all what could be better than telling a generation of kids that being racist is evil? Rowling was teaching the world that basing your views of a person on race, stereotypes and prejudice was wrong.
You see, everything about the Potter books works perfectly until you look past the hysteria and unconditional love pointed to the series. Once you look under the bonnet (or 'hood' to my American readers) and begin to tear apart the engine, things are quite rotten at the core (I dunno what the core of an engine is so perhaps this metaphor was ill chosen on my part). For this blog I'm going to finally tear into this beloved series and expose what has bugged me from the moment I really began to think about Harry Potter and his epic quest to destroy Hitler/Voldemort.
Dean Thomas gets perhaps the strangest description in the opening book. The first time he's described, mentioned even, he's described as "a black boy, even taller than Ron". Now, I wouldn't dream of telling someone how to write their book, or tell their story, but what I will say is, if the entire moral of your story is that race shouldn't be considered important and shouldn't make up the basis of your opinion of someone, then making it the first thing we learn about a character seems a bit problematic. What's the most important thing we learn about Dean? Not his attitude or his personality, but rather, his race. This is the first thing Rowling thought we ought to know about Dean Thomas, as if it should tell us something important about him. Why that? I don't know. Perhaps it was because she wanted to point out how not white washed Hogwarts was, by showing us one black guy. After all, all of the principal characters, and the secondary ones too, up to this point were simply described by vague appearance and name. Rowling assumes they were white, and presumably most people did too judging by the casting in the films, and the lack of backlash. Had Rowling described Dean as being "a dark skinned boy, even taller than Ron", there would be less to talk about here. After all, saying something is dark(er) is just a description. It would be odd of her to draw attention to the skin tone of one or two characters but at least it wouldn't be describing them along racial lines. Saying someone is black is describing by race, not by skin tone and also drawing attention to the fact that, unless explicitly stated, everyone else is not black. The black people have to be pointed out. Even those who are not white are given names which can leave us in no doubt (Cho Chang, the Patil twins et al).
Seamus Finnigan ('Finnigan' being the American spelling of the word) is the young Irish boy, one of the few not British children in Hogwarts (the only one mentioned at least). First, it's spelt Finnegan in Ireland, only Finnigan in American contexts and second, and far more importantly, Seamus Finnigan is an insult. "What?!" I hear you scream, "Surely you're being overly dramatic. Seamus is comic relief, and just a fun simple character. It's not like he's harking back to age old British Imperialist stereotypes of Irish people as bombers and drunks!" "Ah ha!" I respond, seeing you've fallen into my cleverly placed trap. Seamus Finnigan is comic relief because he's there to be laughed at, not with. Whenever Seamus tries to perform some complicated magic, it explodes in his face. This is present in both films and books. In Goblet of Fire (Film) there's even background talk of him trying to turn water into wine (always the drinker ey?) and it exploding in his face. Now, I'm not as familiar with the series as I could be, but I'm certain this piece of dialogue is based on a line from one of the books as well.
Just to give a little bit of context to those of you without a degree in Irish history or literature, here's a quote from a writer in the early 1840s:
"It is well known that the character of an Irishman has been hitherto uniformly associated with the idea of something unusually ridiculous... The habit of looking upon him in a ludicrous light has been so strongly impressed upon the English mind, that no opportunity has ever been omitted of throwing him into an attitude of gross and overcharged caricature, from which you might as correctly estimate his intellectual strength and moral proportions, as you would the size off a man from his evening shadow. (Basically English people represent the Irish as well as a long, evening shadow represents a man's size. Just in case you got stuck on that)... every act [is] the result of headlong folly... [In] English literature, there the Irishman was drawn in every instance as the object of ridicule, and consequently of contempt; for it is incontrovertibly true, that the man whom you laugh at, you will soon despise."
So two secondary characters, one not British and the other deliberately not white, barely developed over the course of seven books and eight films, are described as being black in the case of Dean, and of being a drinker who creates explosions wherever he goes in the case of Seamus. I'm sorry, but that's just hypocritical. All this guff about judging people by their choices in life, not by their blood, or their heritage, is the central point of the story and yet these two characters are haphazardly developed along nothing but racial lines and very old stereotypes. Rowling doesn't even bother practicing what she preaches.
But both these boys attend a bigger problem; Hogwarts school for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where the students are segregated into separate zones where they live according to their predetermined characteristics. This is the place run by forward thinking Albus Dumbledore, a man who consistently tells Harry that what we are born as doesn't matter so much as what are the choices we make in life. This is also the school where people born without magic are forced to become janitors. Argus Filch, is a Squib (a person born of magical parents, but with no magic). Is he given the job of teaching Muggle Studies? After all, who would be better qualified to teach it than a man whose life must be surrounded by the non magical aides of electricity, motor vehicles, tax reports and various household appliances? A magical person of course! But perhaps it's the Board of Trustees who block Filch's potential teaching career, that would make sense since they seem to be beholden to Lucius Malfoy, a know racist. Of course after everything everyone says about Dumbledore it seems odd that he wouldn't be capable of pushing something like that through.
But maybe he couldn't, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. He does, after all, get a job for a half giant and a centaur, both of whom are discriminated against for their bloodlines and race. But he does get them a job, two non-humans... What makes them so different from Filch? Oh yeah, they have magic. In fact, the only way to become a pupil at the school is to have magic in you, something which is an inherited trait! This is a school which only caters to magic users. It doesn't teach English, Maths, Geography, French, Spanish, Biology, Business or Economics. Hell, the spells that they do learn are all in Latin, and they don't even learn that! So clearly bloodlines and inheritance does matter. If you don't have the magic, you're not getting in through that school door. Dumbledore was wrong when he said it was the choices we make that matter.
But there is Hermione Granger. You might think I'd forgotten about her, but actually this has all been carefully planned out. Hermione Granger is the daughter of non magical parents, a pair of dentists, and an extremely intelligent woman to boot. She does extremely well in everything and has a strong desire to free the enslaved elves of the wizarding world. You might say she throws a spanner in the works as a diligent worker, who earns what she has, but in reality, she doesn't change anything. She would if she were to become the hero of the piece, if all her earned knowledge and massive good luck in being born a witch lead her to defeat Voldemort. But instead all her knowledge makes her an adviser to Harry Potter, the Boy Who Live. The hero. Who gets everything he has, obtains almost every victory, because he was born into the right family.
Harry Potter starts off born into the right family. In the first book it's made clear that going to Hogwarts is quite expensive. Ron can't afford to have his own things, and instead gets it all from his older siblings. Harry, having no hand-me-downs to inherit could have gone to school, at 11, with presumably massive debts. Luckily, his parents were filthy rich. And I mean filthy rich. They have their own vault filled with gold. Harry could have skipped school and bought an island to live on, and he'd still be rich. But he goes to school where every one of the adults comment on how much he looks like his father, except for his eyes, "You have Lily's eyes." This earns him friends (like Sirius, who is told he's acting so close to Harry because he thinks of him as James) and enemies, in Snape. In his first year he becomes the youngest Seeker ever; he is described as a natural on the broom despite having had no contact with one before, and is even allowed to play on the Gryffindor team, despite their being stringent rules against it. How does Harry become so talented? How does it become so good without even training? Oh, that's right, his father was a legendary Seeker. For a second there I thought he might have to have worked for that. He does buy the broom out of his own money though doesn't he? No? Bought for him is it? Right. And the Invisbility Cloak? That, now that, he goes through a long, desperate struggle for which tests him in ways... oh yeah, that's just given to him because it belonged to his father. The first book might as well be called James Potter and the Will.
In the second book, Chamber of Secrets, Harry seeks out a mysterious killer who turns out to be a giant snake. Fair enough, it is a magical school after all. So, how does he find out what's going on? That's right, he learns the secret language of the snakes and then devises a plan to rescue his friend's sister using the powerful sword of Gryffindor! What? He doesn't learn anything? Oh that's right, he's inherited that language from Voldemort. But the plan... oh, Dumbledore's? But Harry did run into the Chamber himself and face grievous wounds which only his skill with magic could heal... the phoenix healed him? And flew him out? And this was what Dumbledore did to rescue him, not his own plan? Okay, I think we're all beginning to see the pattern here right?
Harry's entire story is made possible because he inherits or is given everything; the Marauder's Map which comes in handy so often, he overhears everything because he has his inherited cloak and his skill with a broom comes from his father. He barely needs to train to play. After these though? Think about it. Everything, and I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g Harry does, he does with the help of something he's inherited. Not through his own skills. He doesn't enter the Tri-Tournament, progress or win without Moody/Crouch practically forcing him through. He doesn't hold off Voldemort at the end through his skill with a wand, but rather because he inherited Voldemort's essence causing him to be chosen (never choosing himself) by the brother of Voldemort's wand bringing on a stalemate wand battle.
No matter what the situation, Harry Potter's inheritance comes into play. And I know, Harry's mother is Muggle born just like Hermione. But really, the most important part of Harry's inheritance comes from his father's side (yet again). Harry takes each of the Deathly Hallows one by one. Only one though by anything that could be considered action. After all, he's given both the Cloak and Stone, leaving only the Elder Wand to be taken by force. One of the few times Harry actually earns anything in the series. The allegiance of the wand therefore passes to Harry, who confronts Voldemort. The wand then kills Voldemort when he tries to use it. Harry doesn't even try to defeat Voldemort, but instead the wand does it. What a hero. It is even implied, though never explicitly stated (as far as I can remember), that Harry may even be related to the Peverell brothers who created the Hallows in the beginning.
What does all this mean? Well, ultimately, that Harry Potter's blood line is the most important thing about him. After everything, it's the things he inherits through blood that keeps him from dying and keeps him from losing/dying. Remember in the first books how Voldemort couldn't touch him? Was that because of Harry's choices in life? Nope. It's because his mother died for him, and he has her blood.
The point of the series is that choice is what matters. And to a certain extent this is played out. Voldemort chooses to try and kill Harry, thus destroying himself on several occasions. Dumbledore chooses to give Harry every bit of help he can and ultimately saves him and forces him to win on several occasions. But neither of these two are the heroes. Time and again, Harry's bloodline comes to the forefront. Harry gets into school, gets his status as Seeker, defeats Voldemort on several occasions, has powerful friends, all because of his parents and his heritage. Meanwhile, Hermione, star child that she is, doesn't. Hermione earns her knowledge, her skills and her victories, modest though they may be, through her hard work, her determination and her skills. Hermione can only reach so high in Rowling's magical world.
Harry wins because he's Harry, and he was born who he was not because of his choices. Rowling writes of an inclusive society, one in which there are a pair of Indians, a Chinese girl, and Irishman and a black guy, but their presence is to dispell (see what I did there?) the idea that this community of magically privileged, inherently superiour, isolationist magical people, could be a very socially conservative right wing society. If you take out the minor, secondary characters who are described by race, you lose no plot, no story, no three dimensional characters. But in including them, Rowling can't write them in a way which develops characteristics, except in the case of Seamus, who is honestly offensive.
All of Rowling's trumpeting of the evils of blood policies in politics is somewhat undermined by her constant use of inheritance, both magical and otherwise, to determine who her characters are. Dean is black because that's the race he was born to be. Seamus is a two century old racist caricature because he was born Irish, and Rowling doesn't seem to have noticed that that's not okay anymore. Harry's our hero, because he was born to the right heritage. None of this makes Rowling a racist of course, but rather it undermines her position, and that of her work. Perhaps it's safer to say she's simply a little naive or maybe just lost the run of herself as the books got bigger. Or maybe it's simply that she didn't really understand what she was saying to begin with.
I just needed to get that off my chest while the topic was still hot. Thanks for reading.