Amorphous Intelligence

The Wand in the Stone: Harry Potter and the Social-Equality Allegory

Posted in Cinema, Current Events, Humanism, Humor, Literature, Logic by amorphousintelligence on November 15, 2010

Recently [Author’s note: that adjective was more accurate last year when I originally wrote this—AI], I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the seven-volume epic by J.K. Rowling.

I realize I’m quite possibly the second-to-last person living to do so (which is why I don’t feel too inclined to point out this review does contain spoilers, but only for that one dude, who probably can’t read anyway). But at least I finished it. And before the corresponding movie (which was wisely done in two parts). Now that I’ve read all seven, my thoughts:

It started off weak.

By the time I clued in to the enormous popularity of the books, the first movie was already released and the fourth volume was in print. Following the herd, I saw the cinematic adaptation…and enjoyed. Not necessarily in my top 50…but enjoyed.

Naturally, it was about that time I felt if I was going to amount to anything at all in this fast-paced, cold, unforgiving world, I had to read the Harry Potter books—or otherwise with certainty be left in the cut-throat, fantasy-world dust trampled mercilessly underfoot.

So I read the first one…first. It was kind of a letdown. I’m not saying it was bad. Just with all the built-up hysteria, it ended up seeming like a pretty straight forward, simple narrative for the youngsters; not the complex, brutal, and—so far—untouchable Lord of the Rings’ reincarnate I was envisaging. True, it had smatterings of clever wordplay (“Diagon Alley”/“diagonally”). But in the immortally pithy words of music-critic Simon Cowell, I was like, “So what.”

To be fair, I reminded myself there were more stories yet to come. I couldn’t honestly critique until I’ve read all.

So I trudged on, usually neck and neck with the release of the corresponding theatrical interpretation. Sometimes I read a book before the motion picture; sometimes after. And each tome progressively got thicker, more complex, more mature, and, frankly, better. (The movies don’t necessarily progress that way, but such is the curse of the inflexible time-limit of the cinematic format.) By the time I was on the third or fourth volume I started to comprehend the public’s hype. From there on, the books’ waxed pleasurably, and I was hooked.

My mind started to grasp minor metaphors: Harry Potter as an archetype of the young King Arthur; and the mighty wizard Albus Dumbledore? An archetype of the great wizard Merlin (the wise, powerful, white-bearded old-man being a typical archetype of many a story, including, but not limited to, Gandalf, Santa Claus, or the ubiquities God). I read somewhere or other (probably in Wikipedia) the understatement that Rowling is fond of T.H. White’s children’s tetralogy The Once and Future King (whose first book published in 1938 is the familiar The Sword in the Stone, which was more like the sword in the anvil on the stone, and is, obviously, the same upon which Walt Disney based his classic 1963 animated film).

White is by no means the first to write about the Arthurian legends. But he may be the most popular and influential for the past century. His influence on Rowling (not to mention Monty Python; and perhaps Bernie Taupin/Elton John; i.e. The Candle in the Wind) is apparent when comparisons are drawn—and I don’t just mean the obvious use of her initials as her penname: “T.H.,” “J.K.” Both stories largely take place in the English country; in and around an ancient castle furnished with four-poster beds, paintings that animate to life, and surrounded by deadly forests; with wizards, witches, & mythical creatures surrounding the plot (ogres, griffins, unicorns, dragons, talking trees, giants, etc.); and themes vacillating between times both ancient and modern.

The hero of White’s story, “the Wart” (a.k.a. King Arthur), like Potter, was orphaned and raised by relatives who treated him as less important than their own son, Kay (whose loose counterpart in the Potter stories could maybe be Dudley). Wart was friends with the pet owl named Archimedes; whereas Potter had a pet owl named Hedwig. Archimedes was Merlin’s pet bird; Dumbledore’s pet bird was the phoenix named Faux. Wart lived at and was educated in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage; Potter lived at and was educated in the castle Hogwarts (itself having the name “Wart” in it). Wart had the opportunity one day to morph into a fish and swam in the mote around the castle; Potter one day grew gills and webbed appendages and swam as good as a fish in the lake adjacent to the castle. Wart morphed into a peregrine Falcon one day, a thrush another, learning how to fly; by comparison Potter also learned to fly, whether by broomstick, enchanted car, hippogriff, or a dragon. Another day still, Wart spent time as a snake speaking snake talk with another fellow legless reptile; Potter spoke fluent parseltongue (snake talk) and frequently inhabited the body of Nagini, Voldemort’s personal pet serpent. On that same day, Wart spent time in “a secret chamber;” whereas Potter spent time in “the Chamber of Secrets.” And a different day altogether, Merlin used his magical powers on himself and Wart to instantly swirl them both to a different far-off place (teleportation; White calls those who do this “apparators”); Dumbledore and Potter also instantly swirled to different far-off places, whether by touching port keys, going through the flu network or, as most closely resembles White’s story, by what Rowling calls “apparition.” When Wart pulls the sword from the anvil (on the stone), it is pointed out how it chose him; by comparison, Potter’s wand, it is explained piecemeal throughout all seven books, chose Potter. The three main protagonists, close friends, and quarreling lovers of White’s stories are Arthur, Guinevere, & Lancelot; using a similar dynamic, in Rowling’s stories it’s Potter, Hermione, & Weasley. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at one point famously retrieved the near-unbreakable sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake; similarly, at one point Potter and Weasley retrieved the near-unbreakable Sword of Gryffindor from a lake. When Potter, Weasley, & Granger retrieved the horcrux that was a gold cup, it seemed reminiscent of King Arthur and his Knights in search of another gold cup, more famously known as the Holy Grail. White’s slimy character Mordred (whose name sounds morbid since it literally sounds like the word “morbid”) could easily have been inspiration to Rowling for such comparatively slimy characters as Snape (sounds like “snake”) and the Malfoys (similar to “malfeasance,” i.e. wrongdoing or evildoing; not to mention the morbid name Draco which is Latin for dragon, though some have suggested Rowling meant it to connote with the ancient Athenian ruler Draco and his cruel Draconian laws). In White’s stories, King Arthur married Guinevere who was called Ginny by her closest friends; Rowling’s stories end with Potter also marrying a Ginny, which was the nickname derived from her true first name: Ginevra.

Although fantasy is not my favorite speculative fiction, at times I enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, and The Once and Future King. But I feel more comfortable about the genre if I know the author is aware it is make-believe and doesn’t think this kind of supernatural magic exists in the real world (such as the case with the realist Phillip Pullman). And I’m even more comfortable if the author at least sort of tries to hint at that to their readers. (Although J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew their respective stories were make-believe, they thought of them as allegories to reality when in fact they are mostly allegories of mythologies. At least Lewis was open about the allegory; Tolkien denied his was—but, like the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Gandalf the Grey was risen from the dead as the more powerful Gandalf the White. Need I say more?)

Although on the surface the Potter stories don’t seem it, the more I read the more I was of the opinion Rowling is (like Pullman) mostly on the side of reality. One example to illustrate this is Hermione Granger, which character I suspect Rowling has written, perhaps, as a reflection of how she envisions herself when she was that age: a studious know-it-all, adept in sound logic. If we can truly infer Rowling’s view of reality through the prism of her descriptions of Granger, there is a superb example in chapter 21 of Deathly Hallows when she is reading from The Tales of Beedle the Bard out loud to Potter, Weasley, and Xenophilius Lovegood. Potter seems surprised about the book’s personification of death. Granger responds, “It’s a fairy tale, Harry!” Perhaps Rowling knowingly saved the use of that simple expression for her final Potter book to remind her devout fans to apply it themselves to her books lest they get too piously carried away in delusion. These stories are only fairy tales, not to be taken literally.

Granger goes on in that same chapter to demonstrate her reasonable grasp of logic when she asks Lovegood how the Resurrection Stone could be real. “Prove that it is not,” he curtly and matter-of-factly answered. Lovegood’s belief in the Resurrection Stone is based on the logical fallacy dubbed argumentum ad ignorantiam; that is, the argument from ignorance, or the appeal to ignorance (which can be read about more in-depth here, here, and here). This fallacy is often summed up with the phrase, “You cannot prove a negative.” What that means, is, negative (or non) existence of evidence is not evidence (or proof) of existence; or, the converse, as Carl Sagan famously said it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” These are ultimately statements of inconclusiveness—not proof either way. Statistical probabilities can be inferred, however, depending on the subject matter. For instance, the existence of life beyond earth and the solar system, though currently no direct evidence exists, many scientists consider not necessarily plausible but at least statistically probable based on the extrapolation of circumstantial evidence (i.e. we know life exists in this solar system, we know there are billions upon billions of other galaxies and stars in the seeable universe that obey the same laws of physics we do, and we now have direct evidence some of those stars have planets similar to ours in the “Goldilocks Zone”). Lovegood’s Resurrection Stone, like Russell’s Teapot (below), however, while their existence may or may not be possible, the lack of even circumstantial evidence makes them statistically improbable. With that in mind, Granger calls Lovegood out on his argumentum ad ignorantiam (though, alas, without calling it by name):

But that’s—I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of—of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!

Rowling via Granger seems to be channeling the well-known parable called Russell’s Teapot. It was explained in 1952 (five years before the first human-made object was launched into earthly orbit—Sputnik 1, 1957—nine years before the first human in outer space—Yuri Gagarin, 1961—and thirteen years before the first spacecraft flyby of Mars—Mariner 4, 1965) by scientific philosopher Bertrand Russell:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Nonsense, indeed. Or, as Granger smartly noted with Lovegood’s rationale for his belief in the Resurrection Stone, “completely ridiculous!”

If Rowling truly is a realist, then, why write stories about unreal things? Answer: I think she simply utilizes fantasy as a hook; as sugar to help the medicine go down (to borrow a phrase from another Disney movie). It’s a means of conveying a coming-of-age story; and a brilliant tactic to get the younger generation—who are used to stories being presented via the multisensory, multimedia formats of TV, movies, and video games—to simply learn to enjoy the written word; and to recognize the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white.

No doubt Rowling enjoys the notoriety and enormous wealth, too. But I suspect her primary motivation was at first the sheer joy of writing stories. With success, that may have shifted to her concern of combating declining literacy, which is a noble cause. She seems to have made a sizeable dent in that arena, too, to which I applaud her.

But it wasn’t until the sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, that I finally clued into a much deeper message—something more profound that, I suspect, Rowling has been trying to convey in these stories all along, whether consciously or not.

I realize now these stories are an allegory for real-world conflicts of social inequality and discrimination of races, ethnicities, and minorities; inhumane treatments of animals (the non-human kind); and the social injustices of, perhaps, this planet’s worst nationalistic conflict: World War II, Hitler, and the Nazi regime.

Allow me to explain:

The stories loosely divide the characters into two groups, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” or the socially fair and the socially unfair. This division is also reminiscent of the Allied Forces (good guys) and Axis Powers (bad guys) of World War II. The protagonists of the story, although not without faults, largely are fighting for equality. Whereas the antagonists of the story, though not necessarily in lockstep (or goose-step?) or even in alliance with one another, are fighting for power for specific groups of people at the exclusion of others; i.e. discrimination.

I will list three examples that I think demonstrate my points:

1) The family that raised Harry Potter, the Dursleys (being “muggles”—or non-magical—who would roughly be part of the antagonistic group), constantly make negative remarks about wizards and witches, the group our main heroes of the story—Potter, Granger, & Weasley—belong to. This sub-plot is a constant theme of tension, particularly in Potter’s life. It serves as a microcosm of the much larger macrocosm throughout this fictional world of tension between muggles and magicians (not to mention the tensions between humans, giants, centaurs, dragons, dementors, succubi, spiders, werewolves, merpeople, goblins, etc.). And it strikes me as suggestive of the real-world tensions of racism in all its various forms. Potter serves as the epitome of a minority group of one born as a magician, of which he had absolutely no choice, forced to be raised by the majority group of muggles who dislike magicians, epitomized by the Dursleys. If Potter himself was the one in power, he would love more than anything for magicians and muggles to get along in harmony and equality, but he’s forced to live with discriminatory treatment under the hands of the bigoted majority entirely because of his magical…race? ethnicity? (Rowling seems to think of magicians as a race as the stories use the phrase “the magical race.”)

2) There is the cause that the lead heroine of the story, Hermione Granger, takes up beginning with volume three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and is carried over into the proceeding books. She is of the very minority opinion—even her own best friends are not terribly supportive—that house-elves are treated not only unfairly, but inhumanely. She starts up an organization to counter this, called SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). This, to me, smacks of at least two organizations in the real world in the last couple of decades fighting for more humane treatment of animals, whose acronyms bear much similarity: The SPCA (Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and perhaps PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals…er, I mean, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

(Though I myself prefer humane treatment for animals, I’m not a fan of PETA’s tactics as lead by Ingrid Newkirk, who seems to be more interested not in equality—which alone might be pushing the matter a bit far—but placing animals in greater importance above humans, which I don’t agree with. My animal sensibilities are more in alignment with the SPCA, a division of the Humane Society. We should strive to treat animals humanely, but they are not necessarily equals. Whether in the real world Rowling is more of a PETA or SPCA supporter, I know not.)

3) This third example is the biggest source of conflict throughout the story and hits me as quite connotative of the Allied Forces versus the Axis Powers of World War II. The dark wizard Lord Voldemort, the pinnacle bad guy of the Potter stories, seems to be an allegorical character for German chancellor and dictator Adolph Hitler, largely perceived in the real world as the pinnacle bad guy of the twentieth century. Voldemort raises an army of Death Eaters whose sole mission seems to be to use whatever means possible, including murdering innocents ruthlessly, to have ultimate power over everyone else. The criteria that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has set to join his army seems to be 1) having magical powers, and 2) be a “pure blood,” meaning none of their ancestors can have been muggles (i.e. non-magical). This last criterion, being the most stringent and socially unfair, is, oddly, at odds with Voldemort personally, who, as it turns out, is a “mudblood” himself, an epithet often thrown at Hermione Granger. (While Voldemort is of mixed magical race or ethnicity—i.e. one parent being magical, the other muggle—Hermione was born with magical powers even though both of her parents are muggles. This pejorative “mudblood” is a recurring insult throughout the stories, especially as frequently invoked by the school bully Draco Malfoy, who later joins alongside his father as one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.) The power-hungry contradictions of Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters can be likened to the power-hungry contradictions of Adolf Hitler and his army of Nazis. Hitler, as it is well known, wanted a Germany and ultimately a world controlled by what he thought of as the pure “Aryan race,” a sub-race of the larger Caucasian race. He is most notorious for the systematic execution of those not of his pureblood race, particularly the attempted genocide of the Jews, a race which, apparently, Hitler himself—like Voldemort—had ancestral ties to.

A couple more thoughts that also support my points but are of much minor themes in the stories and not expressed in allegory: Clearly having Hermione Granger as the lead heroine of the story, Rowling, a woman herself, was interested in showing that the female population should be viewed as socially equal and as capable in many if not most areas to the male population. Surely this has not gone unnoticed by many girl readers. And lastly, by revealing during a Q & A that in her mind Albus Dumbledore (without question the pinnacle “good guy” of the stories and seemingly without a married partner) is a homosexual, Rowling seems to be expressing, albeit timidly, her support of antidiscrimination and social equality for those of minority sexual preference; i.e. gays, lesbians, etc.

To recap, the Harry Potter books are, on the surface, fun coming-of-age fantasy stories, perhaps most inspired by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, understood to be works of fiction (“It’s a fairy tale, Harry!”) They progressively get more mature, complex, deeper, and better with each volume. They have inspired a whole new generation to simply love to read, and have overtly taught them the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white. (And the discussion of God and religion, unlike White’s stories, are seemingly absent from Rowling’s pages. Without quite crossing the line into the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, it is reasonable at least to ask if this silence is a timid, covert commentary by Rowling? While a professed Christian herself, does she regard those beliefs as personal and to be kept discreet? Perhaps fundamentally unnecessary for the good society at large?) But in conjunction with that, the real genius of these tales is they serve as allegories of the current real world which has been and continues to struggle for social equality, antidiscrimination, and justice for all.

As a secular-humanist, that’s a cause I can stand behind. And I bow down to Rowling for having subtly and covertly influenced (perhaps) a whole younger generation to think this way—even if they are not fully aware of it yet, and while simultaneously being under the radar of those who are opposed to such social fairness.

Such is the advantage of metaphor and allegory. (There are disadvantages, too, like misinterpretation. But that’s a different story altogether.)