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Debating Themes and Lessons in Harry Potter

July 20, 2011

I’ve really dug reading Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog on culture, but I had a knee-jerk negative response to this post of hers in which she draws some political lessons from the Potter novels.  I tend to dislike the search for lessons in works of fiction, not because they aren’t ever there, but rather because too often in my experience the debate about the merits of a work of fiction gets reduced to a debate about the lessons it allegedly provides.  A fictional work is good if it affirms my worldview, bad if it doesn’t.  Rosenberg wasn’t making this kind of reductive reading, and neither are all others drawing lessons from Harry Potter, but I remain somewhat hesitant to join in the fun, if only because of the bad taste these discussions have left me with previously.  Not that my hesitation always hinders me.

I prefer to speak of the themes of fiction rather than the lessons, even if the author has clearly intended to impart lessons to the reader.  Rosenberg has a point in a follow-up post about politics in pop culture, but Amanda Marcotte does as well:

I will say I have one small criticism of Alyssa’s post. She relies heavily on Rowling’s real life activism and views when it comes to extrapolating the themes in “Harry Potter”.  I’m uncomfortable doing that.  Often writers use political ideas they don’t agree with as themes because they work with the story.  Joss Whedon is an atheist and a liberal, but “Buffy” and “Firefly” have religious and libertarian ideologies as themes, because within the work, those ideas are more evocative.  I still like both works a lot, and again, I maintain that ideological tests of art are just a bad idea.

Fiction is about flesh and blood actions, and so it incarnates the moral, the social, and the political because human actions have these dimensions.  Many authors undoubtedly have something to say about these actions and their thematic aspects, but that doesn’t give us logical passage from the world created by the author to the author’s personal views about the real world.  A fictional character may give expression to a lesson the author intends to convey, but it is not always the case that fictional characters speak for authors, even authors who wish to teach a lesson.  Harry Potter isn’t J.K. Rowling.  Nor are all her heroes combined.  They’re their own people.  Otherwise, they’re not characters. They’re elaborate mouthpieces.

Or maybe they’re metaphors of the antichrist. I can’t discount that possibility.

Oh wait. Yes, I can.

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3 Comments
  1. July 20, 2011 4:03 pm

    The Harry Potter films definitely grapple with moral struggles of good vs. evil but I didn’t notice any political messages in the movies per se as I far as I could tell.

    Do you think that Harry Potter distorts Christianity? Is this why you can discount the possibility that they’re are metaphors of the antichrist in the books/movies?

    It seems to me even if Christianity is distorted in the Harry Potter movies it is still possible for Voldemort to symbolize the Devil and Harry Potter to symbolize Jesus.

    • July 20, 2011 5:00 pm

      Harry Potter would have to be about Christianity for it to distort it (or present it accurately), but I wouldn’t interpret the novels in this way. Harry makes decisions and undergoes trials that Christians recognize and associate with the Christian story, and similarities between the Rowling’s fantasy and the Gospels may have been intentional, but that doesn’t make her works about Christianity or its aspects. The Boy Who Lived isn’t akin to Aslan. It’s an autonomous world that, like all fictional worlds, borrows from the imagery and symbolism of our world.

  2. Kerberos permalink
    July 21, 2011 7:42 pm

    I’ve occasionally wondered whether Saruman the White represents the Pope – in which case, Isengard = Vatican; orcs = the clergy. I doubt it.

    The US fondness for turning Tolkien’s books, or even Rowling’s, into a sort of Holy Writ full of hidden depths, leaves me cold :) This is how Homer’s works were treated. These two modern fictions function as sacred texts – the attention paid to their every detail would put a rabbi to shame :) At this rate, there will be internecine schisms over whether Balrogs have wings, excommunications for raising questions over the inerrancy of the Red Book, and expeditions to discover the true site of the Barad-dur. Just as happens in Fundamentalism today.

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