Friday, 19 August 2011

The social thematics of Harry Potter

So a mate of mine has recently become a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and in the ensuing discussion a comparison with JK's omnipresent HP series came up. My ensuing thoughts are rather too big to fit in a comment, so I figure that a blog post - amidst the current drought of them - would be a good way to go:

Harry Potter is very much a Campbellian tale of heroism, and as such heroism is positioned at the centre of the story. In this story heroism appears to be represented by Griffindor, one of the two most prominent "houses" of Hogwarts - very much a British way of doing things. Harry becomes part of Griffindor because he chooses to be so - telling the Sorting Hat he does not want to be in Slytherin - and he informs other people that this possible, thus telling people that they can choose their own destiny. So the overall message is that you too can be a hero, right?

Here's where things get messy.

The problem is, the house structure is not well defined at all. Griffindor are heroic, Ravenclaw are academic, Hufflepuff are clumsy and earnest and Slytherin are contradictory. Through her characters JK tells us that Slytherin are the house of power, but through the plot she tells us that they are the house of misuse of power and miscellanious evil. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, beyond the listed traits, are not developed at all and very much pushed to the back of the plot. This results in a straight up Griffindor vs Slytherin dynamic which unashamedly evokes good vs evil.

For the theme of choice really to have any impact, Slytherin should get a chance to redeem itself, or someone who really represents Slytherin. Sure, Snape turns good in the end, but he doesn't really represent anything about Slytherin. Malfoy tried to be used to show this - and he, indeed, would be exactly the right character to show this - but instead of choosing to fight against Voldemort and prove that he can still choose to be a hero, he instead is cast as a poor snivelling figure, rescued once again by our dashing hero. Although it's not her intention, at this point JK's essentially saying "alas, how poor the man who is born evil!" If we are to take the theme of chocie seriously then we have to see it in action. Hell, in the final movie (and the book if I remember correctly) and Voldemort is coming to Hogwarts, do any of the Slytherin pupils stand up to the dark lord and show that they can be more? No, they are just locked in the dungeon.

So yes, you get one choice, but once that's done you're fucked. You can either be Griffindor (good), Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw (nobody) or Slytherin (evil) - if you chose wrongly, you better start praying that reincarnation is real.

The themes get even more worrying, however. Rowling's story is an ostensensibly British one and as with most contempory works from these isles it is mainly concerning class. The sneering Malfoys are slimy charicatures of the upper class and the many-child hand-me-down wearing Weasleys are a portrait of working class stereotypes. Whilst the aristocratic Malfoys are, of course, evil - the only notable exception being Malfoy's mum. The Weasleys have Percy, a traitor who leaves them to get a job assisting the minister himself. Working for the man! Whilst that last point may not be serious there is certainly the theme that working class people are good and upper class people are evil, unless you are a mother.

It's in the Black household that, really, JK tries to show how the upper class can be good peopel too. The Black household is perhaps the most relevant portrayal of the traditional English upper class, actually quite poor and with a house full of memories and antiques. There is something uncomfortable about the only good posh people being poor, drawing a probably unintentional conclusion that money equals evil. Only our pure hero can resist it's corruption, and mothers.

The family unit is another big thing here. This is the most personal to ol' HP, what with his parents being visited by the reaper when he was young, and it is also perhaps the best executed theme in the story. It is really quite simple: family is good. It's not cluttered or contradictory, and simple enough to be effective without ever being a proper exploration of the idea. Family love seems to be the most powerful force in the HP universe.

Elsewhere, I've written about her treatment of otherness and slavery, so I'll just link that here to save you from the lecture.

So yeah: Harry Potter is an imaginative tale with likeable characters, but I don't see any sort of real depth. Mishandled themes, sure, and troubling conclusion, certainly, but what I'm really trying to say is that it's not worth trying to justify on a level of depth and complexity.

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