Harry Potter and the seeds of political action

World Wide Wizard: The Harry Potter novels have been translated into 79 languages.

Twenty years ago today saw the release of the first Harry Potter book. The series is believed to have influenced a whole generation’s worldview. Can it help us understand current politics?

On a June morning in 1997, bookshops received copies of a new children’s novel. Initial signs did not scream “success”. Twelve publishers had rejected the book before it was picked up. The first print run was only 500 copies. There was no marketing budget.

Twenty years on, the seven-book series launched by Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold over 450m copies worldwide. It has spawned movies, plays, video games and theme parks. It made its author, J.K. Rowling, a billionaire. Harry Potter has become the defining cultural event of a generation.

This anniversary has reignited the debate about the novels’ cultural legacy. Some credit them with making reading cool again. Others, with getting adults into children’s literature. And many even argue that Harry’s universe has shaped millennials’ worldview — their “moral imagination”, as one journalist put it.

The Harry Potter books are intensely moral. They tell the story of a struggle between a liberal, tolerant “good” side and a bigoted, vindictive “evil” side. Their characters — enslaved elves, stigmatised werewolves — reference real-world political issues.

There is evidence that they have influenced the politics of millennials. Studies have shown that readers of the books are more likely to have tolerant views and a low opinion of Donald Trump.

Indeed, the divisive US presidential and Brexit campaigns have invited comparisons to the wizarding world. Signs at the women’s marches in January read “Hermione wouldn’t stand for this”. Harvard students fighting Trump’s agenda have taken inspiration from Dumbledore’s Army.

Rowling encourages this. On Twitter, she promotes liberal causes to her 11m followers. She often explains her views in terms of her novels. Thus Hogwarts is a “safe place” for LGBT students; Vernon Dursley would have voted for Brexit; Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban is worse than anything Voldemort would do.

The Harry Potter books are classics of fantasy fiction. But should they also be read as political novels?

The dark arts

Of course, say some. The authoritarian Professor Umbridge, the incompetent Ministry of Magic, the racism against mudbloodsHarry Potter may be fantasy, but it has much to teach us about society’s problems. Sadly, this is truer than ever. No wonder millennials are turning to the books to help them understand the world they live in.

Be careful, reply others. The books teach decent values like tolerance and mercy. But their aim is to tell a clear, gripping story, so they simplify things into a conflict between good and evil. They do not prepare readers for the complexities of real-life politics. Comparing Trump to Voldemort is inaccurate and unhelpful.

You Decide

  1. Are the Harry Potter novels the best ever written?
  2. Can fantasy novels tell us more about the real world than realistic ones?

Activities

  1. Pick a political topic which The Day has written about in the last month. Write a short story on that subject, in any style.
  2. Which book has had the greatest influence on you? Give a three-minute presentation explaining your choice.

Some People Say...

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

— Albus Dumbledore

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
When she wrote The Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling was a single mother living on state benefits. The novel was rejected by major publishers, who thought it was too long for children and too childish for adults. The chairman of Bloomsbury Publishing only accepted it after his young daughter said she loved the first chapter. He must be very grateful to her!
What do we not know?
In the notoriously fickle world of children’s publishing, people have tried to pin down what made Harry Potter such a roaring success. Some credit Rowling’s decision to set the books in a school. Others, her offbeat humour. Or her cast of misfit characters like Harry the orphan and Hermione the geek, with whom readers can identify. Or her sheer skill as a storyteller. What do you think?

Word Watch

Print run
Publishers only print a certain number of copies of a book at one time; this number is the “print run”. If it sells well, more are printed. Books by unknown authors tend to start with a small print run.
Billionaire
Rowling was one of five self-made female billionaires, and the world’s only billionaire author, according to Guinness World Records. Her worth is now estimated to have dropped below $1 billion due to her donations to charity.
Millennials
The generation of people born (by most definitions) in the 1980s and 90s.
Werewolves
Remus Lupin is a teacher who hides the fact that he is a werewolf. Rowling has said that he symbolises people with stigmatised illnesses like AIDS.
Dumbledore’s Army
In the novels, the Army is a group of students who meet secretly to learn spells against dark magic.
Authoritarian
Emphasising obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedoms. Trump’s critics often use the word to describe him.
Mudbloods
A derogatory term for a wizard or witch born to Muggle (non-magical) parents. They are looked down on by many “pure” magical families.