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Just one more Harry Potter post...

I am happy to say I am not the only academic who defends J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series - or, for that matter, who teaches the texts at the university level. (I spell out my position on the series in my article "Harry Potter is a Hobbit: Rowling, Tolkien, and the Question of Readership" from CSL here.)

Considering that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows debuted a week ago tomorrow, I thought this would be an appropriate time to discuss the political implications of this thought-provoking series, and what some scholars are saying on this subject. The final book, I am pleased to say, ably underscores the series' consistent messages about ideas of power and responsibility. Deathly Hallows makes it clear, once and for all, that those who desire and seek power are those who are most poorly suited to wield it wisely and justly, while those who do not want power when it is thrust upon them are most likely to be good and responsible stewards of it -- and, like the classical Cincinnatus, are most likely to relinquish it willingly, rather than become tyrannical. Her Orwellian portrait of the fall of the Ministry of Magic to Voldemort's control is chilling, as has been her portrait of the ways in which the self-interested within M.o.M. ("Mom," like "Big Brother") and the press enabled Voldemort's second rise to power.

University of Tennessee Professor of Law Benjamin Barton has written about the "real Libertarian bent" of the series. I recommend his article "Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy" from the Michigan Law Review, in which he argues, "Rowling may do more for libertarianism than anyone since John Stuart Mill."

The Harry Potter and the Law issue of Texas Wesleyan Law Review is now online, as well. A standout among its many excellent articles is "Making Legal Space for Moral Choice" by Andy Morriss of Case Western Reserve University School of Law. The essays are also available in a more printer-friendly format here as Harry Potter and the Law.

Scholar John Granger, I should add, is currently hosting a discussion of the "Nazi history echoes" in Deathly Hallows on his blog.

Rowling, throughout the book series, does an exemplary job of considering the plight of the disenfranchised. Her consideration of the dispossession of the Centaurs, for example, who are facing encroachment by the wizarding community and losing land to the Ministry of Magic, and the plight of the Giants, who now, after being fought and hunted, face waning numbers and infighting thanks to forced close cohabitation with traditional enemies, swell with allusions to Indigenous histories. We should not be surprised to learn, as Hollie Anderson argues in the essay "Reading Harry Potter with Navajo Eyes" from Harry Potter's World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives , that the outsider Harry resonates with Native readers.

Last but not least, I must give a nod to Rowling's careful study of gender, by mentioning Kathryn N. McDaniel's compelling essay "The Elfin Mystique: Fantasy and Feminism in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series," which debuts next week in my new edited collection Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis . (You thought you were going to escape a commercial by yours truly, didn't you?) In this piece, McDaniel answers the question asked by many readers, "Does the house-elves’ supposed happiness with their subordinated position create a fault-line in Rowling’s liberal fantasy: are they natural slaves who should not gain liberation?" If we use second-wave feminism to understand the house-elves’ attitude, McDaniel explains, Rowling’s message is revealed as consistent with the rest of the series.

There are good reasons to celebrate Rowling's popularity, not the least of which is that, through her Harry Potter series, she is introducing the key subject of liberty for contemplation and discussion by a vast global audience.

"Really, gives a feeling for the scope and tragedy of the thing, doesn't it?"
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 27th, 2007 03:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you for all this, particularly the Barton essay.

I took a quick skim through your posts on Positive Liberty yesterday, reading your post on Native cinema just as I was finishing the first book of Lois McMaster Bujold's most recent saga, The Sharing Knife. I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on it, if the farmers in the story are frontier folk, and the Lakewalkers Native Americans. (And whether you think that's even a useful or valuable reading.)
Jul. 27th, 2007 11:33 pm (UTC)
You're most welcome! Thanks for being interested.

I am fascinated by your point re: The Sharing Knife. I can't account for the fact that this didn't occur to me, because know you mention it, I can see this interpretation. There's much to recommend it: the mutual distrust, the lack of information (on both sides, to some degree), the farmers' dismissal of Lakewalker "superstition" paired with the Lakewalkers' frustration at the farmers' "ignorance" of the land they work, the challenges inherent in getting either side to appreciate what the other does (I'm thinking particularly of Dag's defense of the farmers' healing when he was hoping Fawn could be apprenticed - we do it this way, they do it that way, but they both have things to recommend them). The idea that it took intermarriage to at least suggest a possible reaching out on both sides also fits. I'm just thinking out loud here. I need to mull this over, but I really believe you're onto something, and it could make for a compelling reading...
Jul. 28th, 2007 06:43 am (UTC)
This review on my friends' list was what pointed it out to me. What also struck me was that while so much fantasy has a mediaeval or quasi-mediaeval European setting (including her own Chalion books), this was without doubt an American fantasy - about American land, and American people. I couldn't think of anything else like this. Perhaps Stephen King's Dark Tower sequence (tho' I haven't read all of them), and of course books like Desperation and The Stand are deeply informed by a sense of the scale of the American landscape.
Jul. 29th, 2007 02:37 am (UTC)
Excellent. Thank you so much for the link!

I would add American Gods to the list - though written by a Brit (Neil Gaiman), it's thoroughly informed by the American landscape. Perhaps it's extra perceptive because it's from the point of view of an outsider, in that sense. And it's brilliant.

I'll have you know that, thanks to you, I now have a brand new copy of The Stand. I won't have it read in the next 12 hours *g*, but I do plan to read it soon. I'm looking forward to it.
Jul. 29th, 2007 02:32 pm (UTC)
American Gods is something I've had on the to-be-read pile for some time now - I need to dust it down and read it. (Once I've finished Always Coming Home, actually - another candidate for an American fantasy?) Geoff Ryman's Was gives another outsider's perspective.

I'm always anxious when someone follows up a recommendation so I do hope you enjoy The Stand! I've plugged that book so often I feel Stephen King owes me at least a drink. It's one of my favourite books, and not just because there's a heroic sociologist in it :-)
Jul. 27th, 2007 04:18 pm (UTC)
All very excellent points! Mind if I pimp this out a bit?
Jul. 27th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much! I'd be thrilled - I appreciate it. :)
Jul. 27th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
I followed up the links you gave and was amazed at the level of literary critique given to the series. I enjoyed John Granger's blog as it had some fascinating discussion, but each and every analysis had something worth chewing over!
Jul. 27th, 2007 11:27 pm (UTC)
It's amazing! I appreciate the fact that the series is being recognized as worthy of study now (as opposed to the "let's wait a few generations and see if it becomes 'a classic'" mentality). Sometimes I wish I had a few more hours in the day to chew over the great insights in these analyses. Ah well, that's the good kind of problem to have, isn't it? :) Thanks for checking out the links!
Jul. 27th, 2007 08:20 pm (UTC)
If I were at all into polyamory, I would *so* offer to be your girlfriend!

Talk academic fandom to me, baby!!!!! =D
Jul. 29th, 2007 02:39 am (UTC)
If I were at all into polyamory, I would *so* offer to be your girlfriend!

And if I were at all into polyamory, I would *totally* take you up on your offer! I was just at apexdigest fangirling your cover art for HebrewPunk, as a matter of fact. Squeee! That's going on my "must buy" list. :) You rule!

Jul. 29th, 2007 04:12 am (UTC)
One also could make libertarian arguments for the treatment of goblins along with the other non-humans you mention (although the goblin legal theory of possession seems curious at best). Rowling shows how easily people adapt to oppression, in the sense that the wizarding general public and workers at the Ministry of Magic uneasily but with little objection continue their daily lives under several terrible regimes. The character of Dolores Umbridge would make an interesting article in itself.
Jul. 30th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
Rowling shows how easily people adapt to oppression, in the sense that the wizarding general public and workers at the Ministry of Magic uneasily but with little objection continue their daily lives under several terrible regimes.

Excellent point!

You're quite right about Umbridge deserving a study all her own, as well.

Jul. 31st, 2007 02:23 am (UTC)
Deathly Hallows makes it clear, once and for all, that those who desire and seek power are those who are most poorly suited to wield it wisely and justly.

Quoting here, "Those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it...to summarize the summary of the summary, people are a problem." ;~)
Aug. 8th, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
"people are a problem"

*snort* ! :P
Aug. 8th, 2007 10:49 pm (UTC)
Well, it's true.
Aug. 8th, 2007 11:23 pm (UTC)
Very true!
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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