As I mentioned earlier this month, I started a re-read of the Harry Potter series this summer, and I fell in love all over again. One of my favorite things about the series is that while it’s an easy, comfortable read, there’s plenty to make you uncomfortable. Despite his (generally) good intentions, Harry is not the most reliable narrator, and so all of the descriptions of characters and events are colored by his perspective. This is something I think many critics forget; Harry’s beliefs don’t necessarily reflect Rowling’s, and so when it comes to the ethics of the series there’s an intriguing question about where Harry’s ideas end and Rowling’s begin.
For instance, there have been lots of comments that the good characters are always thin and conventionally attractive while the villains are always ugly and/or fat. Harry tends to describe his enemies in negative terms, while overlooking his friends’ flaws. Harry’s assumptions are at the forefront of the novels, and while many of his biases are revealed and directly commented on, many are not. I think it adds to the realism of the magical world– it has its own prejudices, political problems, and injustices, just like ours does. And I kind of love that.
One of the best examples of this is Dumbledore- Harry is reminded often throughout the series that he should trust Dumbledore implicitly, and since Harry is “Dumbledore’s man” throughout the first six novels, the reader isn’t given much reason to doubt Dumbledore’s apparently benevolent means of fighting Voldemort. However, Rita Skeeter’s expose opens up a massive can of worms about Dumbledore’s intentions and methods, which makes Harry (and the reader) downright uncomfortable. Harry eventually accepts those questionable decisions and remains “Dumbledore’s man,” but should the reader follow his example?
I took a class on Harry Potter my junior year of college (one of the many reasons I loved being an English major), and when we discussed Dumbledore’s questionable motivations and actions the conversation was heated. Most of the class was horrified by the suggestion that Dumbledore was anything but a kindly father figure– despite the fact that he let Harry fight Voldemort as a child, espoused Grindelwald’s blood purity ideals (albeit briefly), and manipulated all the other characters. Since I didn’t have the same emotional connection to the series (after all, I’d only read them 2 or 3 years before) I thought it was a really interesting discussion and wasn’t emotionally traumatized. (I told you the discussion was heated).
I’ve tried to remember that while I read the books, and think about the uncomfortable things a little more seriously. I talked about food and the role it plays in the series in my last post, but I think there are some really interesting questions about the political power structure– i.e. the relationship between the Ministry, the Daily Prophet, and Hogwarts, and the Order of the Phoenix, the Muggle/Mudblood/ House-elf/ Non-wizard/ racism commentary, as well as Dumbledore himself.
I also love the commentary and additions made by fans of the series. I think some of the best commentary on the books is made by Tumblr users, believe it or not- I love seeing the alternate universes, headcanons, and interpretations. I particularly like Brigid Vaughn’s art and commentary on the series; she’s one of many questioning the assumed races of the main characters, and adding diversity in a way that still matches the books’ character descriptions and personalities. (You can see some of her Harry Potter-themed art and other Tumblr posts here, and all of her art here.) I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way to depict the characters, and I think the different interpretations only make the books richer.
What do you think of the series? Do you like the commentary and debate, or would you rather just enjoy the books at a simpler surface level? Personally I have a feeling that I’ll be thinking about the story with the little boy living under the stairs any time soon.