Monday, August 17, 2009

Wizards and Muggles in the Potter series

The Harry Potter series of books has the uncanny feature that its critics (both pro and con) routinely overlook obvious features of the Potter universe. It is as though the series itself casts a spell of blindness on its readers.

Take the relationship between Muggles and Wizards. (Muggles, for the uninitiated, are ordinary folks like you and me who are without magical power. Wizards are able to use magic with the use of a wand.) The Boston Sunday Globe recently featured a lengthy article discussing the allegedly deep religious meaning of the series. The subtitle is "How the boy wizard won over religious critics - and the deeper meaning theologians see in his tale." Along the way, the article has this to say about the place of Muggles in the series:

Some religion scholars seem most interested in the Potter series as social commentary - in particular, they focus on Harry's refusal to take part in the anti-Muggle bias demonstrated by some pure-blood witches and wizards, as well as the hostility toward giants and ghosts and other menacing magical creatures that some characters in the series evince. "One of the overall themes of the Harry Potter series has to do with race and race-based persecution," says Lana A. Whited, a professor of English at Ferrum College in Virginia and the author of "The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter." And Dalton, of Brite Divinity School, takes the argument a step further, suggesting that the series's association of tolerance with the heroic characters is a critique of fundamentalism.

"To Dumbledore and Harry and his friends it didn't matter whether you were Muggle-born, or whether you were a giant," Dalton says, "whereas clearly the Death Eaters, the evil ones, were intolerant of people who were unlike them."

But not all scholars are quite so enthusiastic. Elizabeth Heilman, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University and the editor of "Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter" says that, unlike Hermione, who adopts the cause of the house elves, "you don't see Harry Potter ever taking up a cause for the sake of the downtrodden. He's really a reluctant hero, and I'm not convinced the narrative has him effectively going beyond personal motives."

Now the most obvious characteristic of the relationship between Muggles and Wizards is its basic inequality. We can start with the names. "Muggles" is a name invented by Wizards to indicate ordinary, non-magical people (that is, you and me.) The vast majority of ordinary people have no idea that they are Muggles; they are unaware that a society of magical people has segregated itself into a largely separate world defined over against the ordinary world. This is because Wizards deliberately keep almost all ordinary people ignorant of the existence of Wizards. Nor are ordinary people aware that the border and any interaction between the ordinary and magical worlds is defined and policed by Wizards on terms determined by Wizards. These terms do not permit ordinary people entry into the Wizard world or even knowledge of its existence; should an ordinary person accidentally discover something magical, he has his memory erased (involuntarily) by a Wizard Ministry of Magic specifically charged with the task. Wizards occasionally allow ordinary people knowledge of the Wizard world when it suits their purposes (for example, when they wish help in tracking down criminal Wizards running loose in the ordinary world), but they keep this knowledge within strict limits.

The Wizard world has its own system of justice, courts and prisons. When you travel to Guatemala, you are subject to Guatemalan law, but this is not how it works for Wizards. When Wizards are in the ordinary world, they are subject to Wizard law and not ordinary law. Thus when the aforementioned bad Wizards run amok in the ordinary world, including killing ordinary people, the situation is not resolved by catching the Wizards and trying them before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. No, the equivalent of a Wizard posse tracks down the wayward Wizards and drags them back to the Wizard world for treatment by Wizard justice. What the next of kin of the dead Muggles are supposed to think is a matter of inconvenience to Wizards, but not one that demands that the Wizards tell the truth about what happened. Generally the Wizards hope that the Muggles will attribute the deaths to natural disaster and remain ignorant of the Wizard world.

When the Boston Globe article mentioned above says that Harry Potter refuses to take part in anti-Muggle bias, you might think that Harry resisted the whole Wizard-defined, Wizard-policed distinction between the ordinary and magical worlds. You might think that he objected to the policy of keeping ordinary people ignorant of Wizards, or of involuntarily erasing their memories, or of making Wizards not subject to ordinary law while in the ordinary world. Equality is only possible if everyone is subject to the same law and no one is kept in involuntary ignorance.

But that is not what is meant by "anti-Muggle" bias. The policies I have stated above are fully supported by all Wizards, both "good" and "bad", Dumbledore and Hagrid as well as Voldemort, and by most Harry Potter fans in my experience. When Hagrid, in an early scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, attacks the ordinary boy Dudley Dursley with magic in Dudley's own home, the notion that he has done something against ordinary law that might have ordinary legal consequences never occurs to him, Harry Potter, or even to the Harry Potter fans with whom I have discussed this scene. For them, since it is an assault by a Wizard on an ordinary person, it is not anything that might rise to legal categories, at least as far as the Muggle is concerned. Like a slave in the old South, Muggles have no legal standing in the Wizard world, or legal standing with respect to Wizards even in the ordinary world.

What is meant by "anti-Muggle bias" is the fact that sometimes Wizards are born of ordinary parents. When this happens the Wizard is introduced and admitted to Wizard society where, unfortunately, some Wizards hold a bias against Wizards born of non-magical parents, calling them "Mudbloods" and the like. The Mudblood "controversy" has a farcical quality about it, like the "old money" rich holding a bias against "new money" rich. Harry Potter and Dumbledore are insufferable because they are like the "old money" rich that nobly holds no bias against new money, it never occurring to their pure souls that they don't think the servants deserve rights or the vote anymore than do any of the other rich.

The situation is all the more ridiculous in the case of Hermione Granger, the advocate of the "cause of house elves" mentioned in the article above. What is fascinating about Hermione is that, alone among the three major characters, very little mention is made of her parents. Harry Potter's parents are dead but he makes retrospective acquaintance with them and discovery of their characters is a major part of the plot. Ron Weasley, Harry's other best friend besides Hermione, has Wizard parents who are significant characters in the action of the story. But Hermione's parents are barely mentioned in the thousands of pages of text.

The reason Hermione's parents are absent from the plot is that they are ordinary people, and therefore subject to all the general restrictions Wizards place on Muggles. They cannot visit or know anything about the Wizard world, except for the inevitable knowledge that there is a Wizard world and their daughter attends a school in it. Imagine a school that invited your daughter to attend, but told you that you could never visit, or know what goes on there, or even know how your daughter gets there. Nor can you ask for a demonstration of what your daughter learned at school, since Wizards are forbidden (normally) from using magic in the ordinary world. Your job is to write the check and demur from asking any inconvenient questions.

The archetype of "good Muggles", the Grangers know their place and dutifully send Hermione off to Hogwarts every year with no questions asked. Hermione reminds one of the college kid who agonizes over the fate of Tibet while ignoring her house-bound grandmother. It would have made a much more interesting story if the "elf rights" silliness were dropped and the Grangers given a more prominent role. Instead of spending every summer with Harry and his self-pity, why not a summer with Hermione exploring the pernicious rules the Wizards have set up with respect to Muggles? Does Hermione struggle with the fact that Wizard law does not permit her to tell her parents all the fantastic, life-threatening adventures she has had at Hogwarts? Or of the fact that she is at the top of her class and what it means? Suppose Mrs. Granger is a weak old woman who can barely do the housework. Is Hermione tempted to use magic to assist her in violation of the Wizard law? Wouldn't Hermione be a far more interesting character if the focus was on her decision to challenge Wizard law by using magic to assist her ordinary parents? This would make Hermione more genuinely Christ-like than any of the putatively Christ-like characters in Harry Potter, but more on that later.

Good Muggles, like good servants, do what they are told and do their job in the background, seen and heard as little as possible. Even the British Prime Minister is treated in peremptory fashion. The Wizard Minister of Magic (more or less the Wizard equivalent of a Prime Minister) occasionally needs to talk to the ordinary Prime Minister. He does so by magically appearing, unannounced and uninvited, in the Prime Minister's office. The idea that the Prime Minister is not at the beck and call of the Minister of Magic, and that the latter should get an appointment like anyone else, naturally never occurs to Wizards. The Minister of Magic tells the Prime Minister only the minimum of information necessary and generally leaves him in state of puzzlement. The Prime Minister has no way to call the Minister of Magic should he discover the need; communication is always a one-way street from Wizards to Muggles.

"Bad Muggles" get uppity and do not accept the place assigned to them by Wizards. They are seen and heard way too much. The most prominent bad Muggles are the Dursleys, Harry's relatives and the ordinary family in which Harry Potter is raised. The Dursleys are involved with the story because Harry Potter is dropped on their doorstep as an infant by Dumbledore, with written instructions concerning what they are supposed to do with him. Again, the notion that the Dursleys might have some say in their involvement with Wizards, or that their taking in Harry should be a matter of negotiation, is not one that occurs to Dumbledore. He has decided that the Dursleys are the best place for Harry to be raised and that is the end of it. The Dursleys place is to do what they are told without question, and like it.

As much as J.K. Rowling invites the reader to despise the Dursleys by making them mean, stupid, petty, vindictive and - worst of all - fat, I admit to taking an instant liking to Vernon Dursley, Harry's uncle. Virtually alone among ordinary people, Vernon refuses to kowtow to Wizards. When Hagrid shows up shortly after Harry's tenth birthday, demanding that Harry be turned over to him, Vernon refuses, leading to the magical incident with Dudley I mentioned above. Ordinary justice is, of course, on Vernon's side, since he is the de facto father of Harry (and by the Wizards' own choice, not his own!) and therefore has the right, not to mention the responsibility, to make decisions about Harry's future. Vernon doesn't like Wizards and thinks Hogwarts is a waste of time. The book presents Vernon as small-minded but, then, it is the prerogative of a parent to be small-minded. Dumbledore should have thought of this possibility before dumping Harry on Vernon, but then it never occurred to Dumbledore that Vernon might not simply submit to orders issued by Wizards. My respect for Vernon only increased as the series went on, as he consistently refuses to play the "nice Muggle" no matter how much the Wizards intimidate him with magic. The more Rowling insists that he is lacking in any virtue, the more I root for him to stick it to the Wizards.

The Globe article goes on to discuss the comparison of Harry and Dumbledore to Jesus Christ:
Eisenstadt sees Dumbledore and Harry, in different ways, as Christ figures - perhaps Harry representing the human Jesus, and Dumbledore the divine. And she posits that the New Testament depiction of elements of the Jewish community is represented by the goblins (unappealing bankers) and the Ministry of Magic (legalistic and small-minded).

Since we are casting parts for the New Testament, what part are the Muggles assigned? This brings up a basic problem with viewing the Potter series through a Christian lens. The New Testament has no place for the division of humanity into separate worlds based on talent or natural ability. It has no parallel to a self-segregated world of "extraordinary people" who live an existence deliberately disconnected from the "ordinary" mass of humanity. This is Gnosticism, not Christianity. In fact, we might say that Christ came in part to challenge such distinctions. But, supposing that such division can be sustained in Christian terms, what would be a legitimately Christian relationship between the magically endowed Wizards and ordinary Muggles? Hagrid gives a tissue-thin rationalization for why Wizards do not use their power to assist Muggles - "they [Muggles] would always be wanting magical solutions to their problems." Thank goodness that Christ did not have such an opinion with respect to his own miraculous power. Christ came precisely to use his power to serve the poor, humble and unknown, even though He knew it would cause him to be overwhelmed with crowds wanting miraculous solutions to their problems.

The Harry Potter series departs from the mainstream tradition of Christian-inspired literature by making Harry himself magical. Generally the hero of the Christian story is an ordinary fellow who encounters magic as a form of grace; as Cinderella is not magical but is graced by a fairy Godmother, or Snow White and Rose Red discover a prince hidden in the form of a bear. The heroic Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings are as unmagical as they could possibly be - the perfect Muggles. But they encounter grace through the magic of Gandalf and the elvish queen Galadriel.

The Hobbits imitate Christ the way Mary did; not by exercising a miraculous power that they do not possess, but by acting with a faith, love and humility that allows the grace of God to work through them.

Since Harry Potter, unlike Frodo Baggins, Cinderella, Jack from the Beanstalk, Mary or St. Francis of Assisi, is born with extraordinary magical power, for him to imitate Christ means something different than what it means for Frodo to imitate Christ. He must put his magical power to the service of the poor, humble and ordinary. But Harry never uses that power to challenge the pernicious distinction between Muggles and Wizards the way Christ used His miraculous power to give voice to the poor and forgotten and to challenge the rules of the Pharisees. Harry accepts the conventions of the world as given to him by the Wizard authorities; whatever "Christian" impulses he might have are restricted to the extraordinary world of Wizards and do not extend to the broader world of Muggles. At best, Harry is a good pagan who does not think Wizards should abuse Muggles, but it never occurs to him that the extraordinary (Wizards) are actually called on to serve the humble (Muggles), the way the magical Gandalf served the ordinary Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. It never occurs to Harry that the real problem with the Ministry of Magic is not that it prevents him from terrorizing Dudley Dursley with magic, but that it prevents him from helping ordinary folks like the Granger parents. The Christian "inversion of values", by which the talented and superior do not live for themselves ala Aristotle, but are called to serve the plain and ordinary, is the obligation Christ revealed to the world; any series that does not recognize this obligation can't claim to possess a Christian sensibility. But the possibility of this inversion never occurs to any Wizard in the Harry Potter series, from the evil Voldemort through to the good Dumbledore.


Unknown said...


EdT said...

You muggles just never get it!