Harry Potter frightens me. In case you’ve been in your box for the past week, film number six is about to come out, and all Azkaban is breaking loose amongst children and adults desperate for another fix of the boy wizard’s fantastic escapades and Alan Rickman’s sexy voice. Now, I love Harry Potter, I do. I stayed up all night reading it on my eleventh birthday, and cried at the end because according to the rules of the book I was destined to be a Muggle forever, apart from a brief period in year 7 when some fundamentalist kids tried to burn me as a witch. But re-immersing myself in the franchise as an adult and a political animal, these phenomenally popular books throw up some serious issues. Just what kind of story is it that 21st century kids are getting hooked on?
JK Rowling is in the world-building business, constructing an extremely financially successful arena of the fantastic with deep roots in a nostalgised and mostly imaginary Great British Past of lofty private boarding schools and crumpets for tea. However, her body of work ignores the essentially murderous and imperialistic connotations of the particular era that it evokes and valorises. The entire premise of the franchise fetishises primogeniture, heredity and aristocracy: the Wizarding world is a glittering ubermensch, and those lucky enough to be born into it are destined for a life more resplendent and exciting than anything the rest of us Muggles (non-magical humans) can hope for. Even the talent of Muggle-born wizarding citizens like Hermione Granger is phrased as immutable and innate, rather than meritocratic: Hermione’s parents are Muggles, but she is and has always been a Witch. We are told, time and time again, that apart from his jolly old sporting prowess there is nothing that remarkable about Harry apart from the circumstances of his birth and of his parents’ death; he is born and fated to be The Chosen One, The Boy Who Lived, acting out sequential showdowns with His Scariness just in time for the summer holidays. The Potter fantasy of the British class system is fairly clear-cut, and relatively harmless, although anyone who has attended a boarding school will be quick to point out that it ain’t Hogwarts, baby. Far more damaging is the notion that to have a happy, free life, one has to be born special. Which is presumably the basis on which the author donates to the Labour party.
The world of Harry Potter displays some limited auto-critique. There is clear-cut, negatively-framed racism inherent in the system in its treatment of "mudbloods" – those of mixed wizard and Muggle heredity. However, this crumbling caste system is nothing compared to the lot of the general Muggle population. Think about it: the Minister for Magic is appointed by undemocratically selected community authority figures, and possesses supreme executive power. Even if we graciously ignore the fact that Wizarding Britain appears to have no clear legal code or human rights provision, the relationship between the Minister for Magic and the Prime Minister is deeply disturbing: to be brief, the former controls the latter's actions whenever he (there is no evidence of there ever having been a female Minister) deems it necessary, via direct mental coercion.
This subverts the process of Muggle democracy, and renders the entire country a dictatorship with a racist aristocracy determined entirely by birth – and entirely in secret. Rowling is operating a variety of fictional cultural hegemony here: children reading the books identify with Harry, and see the exciting magical world as an aspirational space. However, they would be far more likely to be born Muggles, and be subject to an ancient, corrupt system of political and racial oppression in which they do not even have the right to their own experiences – Muggles who are witness to magical events are subject to a Memory Charm which prevents them from recalling anything that might reveal the existence of the wizarding world. As with the reorganisation of wizarding society, the difference is one of scale: Voldemort and his followers want to exterminate Muggles, the Order of the Phoenix simply want to rule by secrecy.
Moreover, though Hogwarts is in some ways a sanitised version of the boarding school environment (lacking as it does the threat of the cane or homosexual experimentation in the showers after Quidditch) this does not follow for Rowling's through-a-glass-darkly version of Nostalgic England. Wizarding Britain is a nation in which the death penalty is enacted at the request of the Minister for Magic, in which the only prison is a place of unceasing psychological torture. One might argue that these aspects of Rowling's secondary world are not intended to be desirable – that these problems somehow mirror those of the real world. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that the Muggle world is entirely unattractive: one must choose between the middle-class invisibility of Hermione's parents, or the unceasing abuse and grim industrial torpor of the Dursleys. Not a single Muggle of the few that appear in the book is either enviable or positively presented, encouraging the reader to dismiss them as a bovine underclass, excluded by birth from the brilliance and excitement of the ubermensch lifestyle.
It might be argued that the revelations of the seventh novel redeem the books and reveal the system to be in need of restructuring. However, the only vision of the future society established by the newer generation of more tolerant wizards is established entirely on the grounds of marital and familial ties – there is no sign that Muggles are any less oppressed, or that the racial laws have been repealed. Nor is there any indication that free and democratic elections are now held for the Minister for Magic/Dictator of Britain, or indeed that anything much has changed other than the ages of the protagonists.
In the Harry Potter novels, racist conceptions of Othered humans are made into separate magical races -consider the long-nosed, conspiring, bank-owning goblins, for example. Even more outrageous is the fact that Rowling’s universe is phrased specifically as a racist slave economy: consider her portrayal of the obsequious, unfalteringly obedient house-elves, who seem to aspire as a race to no other existence than unpaid, unending servitude and physical torture. Dobby, the main house-elf character, is so traumatised when we meet him that he has begun to compulsively self harm, ironing his ears and fingers and flinging himself against walls for perceived misdeeds. Harry graciously frees Dobby after the elf has served his purpose in the story, but Dobby remains a liminal, damaged figure throughout the remainder of the series, transferring his slavish, servile affections to Harry, his inability to really assert his independence or form non-slavish relationship phrased as a quirk of his race rather than a tragic response to sustained abuse.
The house-elf revolution confirms Harry's, rather than Hermione's point of view on their servitude: actions are still inspired by inculcated loyalty rather than self-determination. The final section of the last novel set in the present concludes with Harry taking himself off to bed in the hope that the slave-elf Creacher will provide him with a sandwich. In the books, only Hermione Granger actually wants to free the elves from servitude. That this is phrased as absurd is, to an extent, a repulsive satire on the Civil Rights movement: after all, the elves clearly enjoy being slaves, and therefore the only reforms that can be made are those of better treatment. Hermione is ridiculed by her peers and by the world-creating writer because she does not understand the house-elves’ inherent genetic inferiority, and chooses to challenge their learned servility.
Just as integral to the world that Rowling has constructed is its complete lack of sexuality except for in the context of sterilised, heteronormative dating/marriage rituals. Rowling's controversial declaration of Albus Dumbledore's homosexuality, admitted only after her Far Right audiences have had a chance to buy and read her final book, does not redeem the Potter universe. Clearly, this author is either uncomfortable with dealing with relationships that do not end in marriage, or intends the sole queer exemplar in the text to be a former fascist sympathiser whose youthful indiscretions result in lifelong celibate penance.
The weird, heteronormative sexlessness of the Potterverse is one thing that fans of the books have directly challenged, through the medium of fanfiction and slashfiction. Hundreds of thousands of stories are held in online caches, most of them written by teenage girls, in which the characters they have grown up with multiply date, have sometimes really very graphic sex, explore homosexuality and bisexuality, exercise reproductive choice (the ‘contraceptive charm’ is one of the first and most enduring fan-inventions) and generally do all the things that they’re forbidden to do in the books. Of course, nobody reads children’s books to hear details of what goes in where – but the Potterverse is a throwback to an era of children’s literature before Pullman, Jarvis and Jacques, when the real issues of sex, gender and relationships that might affect children, issues like divorce, consent, contraception and sexual proclivity, were never discussed with them in or out of books.
Here we have a world in which people who are born special rise to the top, in which everyone gets married and has children, in which other races are subject to various degrees of legal and cultural oppression (but it's alright if you're nice to them), in which there are no gays at all (except secret ones that are very guilty about it), in which an aristocratic oligarchy has pretty much unlimited power, and in which family determines one's predispositions and destiny. Any way you slice it, 'Harry Potter' is a fethishised world of dodgy nostalgia built on the politics of reaction. The only question left to answer is: why does it matter?
Surely, Potter fans will contest, this is a children’s book and film franchise – it shouldn’t be subject to the same cultural critique as any other meme. On the contrary: we have a responsibility as readers to analyse the messages that this book sends precisely because its audience is so huge and so young. Harry Potter is exciting, in large part, because it allows everyone’s childish fantasies of oligarchy, order, genetic determinism and celibate adventure to run rampant. All young children are little fascists : they can’t help it, but in growing up,we learn healthier politics along with how to wipe our own bums and tie our shoelaces. The Potterverse – magical as it is – performs a calcifying spell upon that healthy, questioning politics. In conclusion: Accio Socialist Egalitarianism.