Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (4 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: four different types of world-building have been identified – the “nuts and bolts” without any underlying message, the “numinous”, the “parasitic” (political/satirical/utopian/etc) and #4, “bits of all of the above”. On further reflection some type #4 worlds have been found to be asking numinous questions, suggesting it’s not the world-building itself that matters so much as what the world-building is about. What of Potter?

What are the Harry Potter books about? The apparent thematic unity and continuity of the seven books seems to mask a whole series of overlapping stories, introduced, developed, suspended and resumed at different stages. In order of appearance:

  1. The Cinderella Factor. A mistreated orphan turns out to have magical powers beyond the comprehension of his surrogate parents, who can never hurt him again (although they do go on annoying him for quite a while). Book 1 (mostly)
  2. The Power Of Love. He survived because of his mother’s death! She died because of love – and her death gave him the power of love! His killer couldn’t kill him – but by trying to kill him, he put the power of evil in him! But he in turn put the power of love (which he had because of his mother’s sacrifice) in his killer, which means that if he dies (properly) then his killer will be killed too! But the power of love will actually keep him alive (again), because… well, anyway. That. Love, sacrifice, death; love, sacrifice, death… love. Books 1, 2 and 7 (mostly set up by the end of book 2)
  3. Handsome Devil. She was an ordinary girl – with a talent that could turn heads! Soon there were two guys interested in her, both with aristocratic backgrounds; one was a shy intellectual whose family had fallen on hard times, the other a popular athlete. The athlete was wealthy and well-connected as well as being popular, but he was also an arrogant bully – could they really be happy together? There was only one way to find out! Later, she heard that the shy intellectual guy had gone to the bad, but she always thought he had a good heart. She wondered if he ever thought about her. Books 3-7
  4. Noblesse Oblige. Their position had been sadly misunderstood. They didn’t bear anyone any malice; they simply wanted things to be the way they used to be, and a little respect for the position they rightfully occupied. These new campaigners had seemed to have the interests of people like them at heart. How were they to know that they were signing up for hatred, violence, thuggery and all round bad manners? One really did find it all quite regrettable. Books 4-7
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (incorporating Harry Potter In The Penal Colony). Who can our hero trust? His friends – perhaps – but nobody else: not the government, not the authorities which do the government’s bidding, not the press which dances to the government’s tune, not the elites who pull the government’s strings behind the scenes, and definitely not the government. Everyone (literally everyone, even his so-called friends) is out to stop him doing what he has to do – sometimes because they’re evil, sometimes because they’re stupid, but mostly because they still trust the government. Wake up, people! Books 5-6
  6. We Could Rule The World. They were young! They ran green! They kept their t… sorry, I’ll start again. They were young! They were powerful! They were finding out new things about themselves and the world – and each other! If they realised their capabilities, what could stand in their way? Not the law, not the rules made to bind inferior people, not death itself! How could it go wrong? Book 7

##2 and 3 are the main plot lines here; #1, #5 and #6 are mostly localised to one book each, and #4 is very much a sub-plot. #1 is a fine plot for a kids’ book (specifically, this one), but it was never going to sustain a seven-book series. Neither was #2 – as (by all accounts) Rowling discovered herself towards the end of the second book, when she realised that she’d basically set the scene for the final confrontation. (It’s worth mentioning here that the initial working title for book 2 was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) An awful lot of the plotting of the rest of the books is driven by #3, the past-tense Lily/James/Snape plot, together with its satellite Snape/Lupin, Snape/Sirius and Snape/Dumbledore sub-plots; these plots are remarkable in that almost every event in them is told in flashback, including several events that had taken place within the time of the books. The same goes for most of #6, the Young Dumbledore plot, which is further reduced in intensity by being told mostly in hints and asides – but then, its overtones of gay fascist occultism would probably have overbalanced the book if it had been built up more. (That said, the pay-off of the entire series comes with the climactic collision of plots ##2 and 6 – and it is nicely done and genuinely powerful.)

As for the other two, plot #4 – the Malfoys’ sub-plot – is interesting but under-powered and woefully under-developed. From the moment that the school house of Slytherin was introduced – fairly early in the first book – Rowling was faced with a series of questions about “Slytherins”:

  • Are they all devious, self-centred law-breakers? (Not like Harry and his friends, eh readers?)
  • Are they all personally arrogant and cruel?
  • Are they all from ‘old wizarding families’ and proud of it?
  • In fact, are they all massive snobs and (wizarding-equivalent-of-)racists?
  • More specifically, are they all enemies to Harry and Dumbledore?
  • Crucially, are they all going to abandon Hogwarts when push comes to shove?

Given the plot mechanics set up in the first book, the answer to the first question pretty much had to be Yes, but the answers to the next three didn’t need to be as uniform as they are (viz. “yeah, pretty much”) – and the answers to the last two certainly didn’t need to be a resounding Yes. (Or “Yes, with one solitary exception, who may (in the words of Dumbledore himself) have been Sorted too early”.)

Plot #4 – “aristocrats belatedly regret involvement with reactionary thugs” – enlivens the seventh book in particular, and it’s certainly believable; it has a nice Third Reich quality to it, if that’s not too odd a phrase. But glimpses of human sentiment and human weakness at Malfoy Manor are thin gruel as far as addressing the Problem of Slytherin goes. After all, the Problem of Slytherin is ultimately the Problem of Good and Evil – if you’re born with an inclination to arrogance and selfishness, are you bound to go to the bad, or can you become a good person by doing the right things? To put it another way, if you have evil within you, can you save yourself through deeds, or will your own actions inevitably drag you further down? The books tend to suggest that bad people do bad things and good people good things, and that’s that; Slytherins are pretty much damned, while Dumbledore’s Army represents the Elect (hi Ken!). But the theology of Potter doesn’t bear too much examining, if only because the books’ uneasily post-Christian framing (“God rest ye merry hippogriffs”, indeed) has given us a world in which evil is definitely real but divine grace isn’t. The books’ only firm suggestion is that you can save yourself through an act of will, at the age of eleven, by talking to a hat. (Yes, I know it’s a special hat.)

Plot #5, lastly, is just weird, particularly from an author with Rowling’s background and politics. When Half-Blood Prince came out, an American legal academic wrote what purported to be a review of the book; the article’s titled “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”, and it traces a right-Libertarian critique of government through the series. It can be argued, using positions deriving from “public choice” theory and/or the Law and Economics school, that the main function of government in contemporary society is the perpetuation of a caste of government bureaucrats, parasitic on the real productive forces in society; that these bureaucrats’ main aim in life is to preserve their role and their importance; and that interacting with government bureaucracy in any way is likely to be a negative experience, with outcomes ranging from time-wasting up to licensed theft, imprisonment and murder. The “Half-Crazed Bureaucracy” article shows how well these criticisms map onto Rowling’s portrayal of the Ministry of Magic and its representatives; it then goes through the defences that are put up against such a negative view of government, showing that Rowling’s narrative demolishes every one of them. Is government bureaucracy just a thin layer of professionals implementing democratically-decided policy? Plainly not: Dolores Umbridge has all but unlimited power and exercises it as she pleases. Can bureaucracy be reined in by democratic political accountability? by judicial oversight? by the press and public opinion? No on all counts: there is no democracy in the wizarding world (Fudge and Scrimgeour are appointed, not elected, although it’s far from clear who did the appointing). The courts are represented by the blatantly rigged Wizengamot – and wizarding public opinion, despite all the magical fact-finding resources that its members might be expected to have at their command, is routinely whipped in whichever direction the government chooses by the hopelessly untrustworthy Daily Prophet. The Ministry of Magic is judge (Fudge), jury (Wizengamot) and executioner (Umbridge), all in one. If all else fails – as, in book 5, all evidently has – will the dedication and professionalism of individual government servants enable them to resist the corruption of office and protect the public from their less scrupulous colleagues? Hardly: with only one exception, every Ministry of Magic employee we meet is a sycophantic careerist, an amoral hack or an outright fascist, and the exception is the likeable but ineffectual Arthur Weasley.

In short, by the time Harry has met – and been disappointed by – Rufus Scrimgeour, the Ministry of Magic has been utterly discredited, and discredited quite specifically by subjecting it to the narrative equivalent of a thoroughgoing right-Libertarian critique. Which, as I say, is a bit weird, knowing what we know about Rowling. The author of the article – who didn’t – notes that Rowling (a) lived on benefits for a while before (b) becoming mind-bogglingly successful by her own efforts, and concludes that she probably believes in individual self-help and hates the government bureaucracy which mistreated her and other welfare claimants; he further suggests that a Libertarian, anti-government mood was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of writing (viz. the mid-2000s), citing in evidence an article suggesting that Tony Blair’s government was declining in popularity. The fact that it wasn’t government in general that was unpopular in Britain, but quite specifically that government, escapes him – as does the even more inconvenient fact that Rowling was and remains one of that government’s more prominent supporters. But that just makes this plotline, and the passion which appears to have gone into it, all the more baffling.

NEXT: so what is it all about, then?

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