Magic is Might: et in Dystopia ego

I’m moving on with my series on the Ravenclaw Reader, a collection of papers on the world of Harry Potter delivered at a St Andrew’s University conference in 2012 and now tidied up and published this month. The sixth chapter looks at the wizarding world as a dystopia. The substantive paper is by Sarah Cocita Reschan (about whom I can glean nothing certain from Google), and the response by Amy H. Sturgis. I repeat my moan that a collection of essays such as this really does need do say something about its contributors.

The main paper picks up an interesting and important theme. Reschan suggests that from the death of Cedric Diggory at the end of Goblet of Fire onwards we see the world being disclosed as a dystopia. She sets this in the context of other dystopian literature, but especially some young adult ones such as the Hunger Games series, arguing that one of the differences in Rowling’s narrative is the presence of the magical intertwined with our mundane Muggle one.

Harry’s double existence in the magical world and the ordinary one, and the crossover nature of Voldemort’s activities encourage activism in the day to day world. In brief, Harry, his friends and his allies come to define and discover themselves in opposition to the gathering gloom, and through this narrative the reader is encouraged towards activism. She concludes:

The dystopian aspects of the Harry Potter series not only help readers understand themselves in an unbalanced world, but encourage them to be actively involved in making their society better. (p.135)

Sturgis’ response draws on a wider range of young adult dystopian literature to introduce a greater complexity to the discussion. She also suggests that the near utopia Reschan suggests Harry encounters in Philosopher’s Stone is scarcely utopian at all. Both authors make some valuable observations, to which I would wish to add a couple of things.

First, I agree with Sturgis about the earlier books: the dystopian elements intrude far earlier than Reschan allows. Harry arrives at Hogwarts when the world is still in a state of fragile and fearful peace, insufficiently sure of its stability even to speak Voldemort’s name. The world cannot face and name its fears honestly. In Chamber, we see, for example, the willingness of the ministry to take Hagrid in to custody with no evidence, but merely to satisfy public opinion. The racism of magical or Mudblood becomes overt. And the power of money and corruption intrude on Hogwarts with Dumbledore’s (temporary) sacking.

In Azkaban we see not only that an innocent man has been imprisoned, but that no-one would trust the evidence of 13 year old children. We see the treatment of Lupin as a werewolf deepen the issues of blood purity. And above all we see the Dementors, and Dumbledore’s anxiety over them voices our own suspicions. All that before we reach the book whose ending Reschan identifies as a turning point.

As the story develops, we are seeing two things simultaneously, I think. One is the regrowing influence of Voldemort and / or his supporters. Th other is Harry slowly having his eyes opened to the reality of the world he now inhabits. It parallels growth through adolescence, for as well as becoming aware of the problems of the media, politics and justice in his own personal experience, he also becomes aware of the complexity of people. Dolores Umbridge complicates his view of what a corrupt person is. Severus Snape complicates his view of what a courageous person is. He also loses his adult support to the point where he must make his own decisions: not only does Sirius die, but he has eventually to come to terms with Sirius’ treatment of Kreacher. He has to lose the idealised image he had of his father, and recognise that his father’s behaviour in Snape’s memory is reprehensible. And he has to lose Dumbledore, who is the north star which guides his adventure. It is not just that Dumbledore dies, but that he is revealed to have been flawed in quite painful ways.

I think the theme that unites this, and in many respects holds the series together, and is exactly what comes to prompt and guide Harry’s determination to resist dystopia, is that he has to discover both a true vision of the world as it is, and to continue to love. He is to name He Who Must Not Be Named not only as Lord Voldemort, but as Tom Riddle. He is to see the feet of clay below Albus Dumbledore’s greatness, and the wounded heart of love beneath Severus Snape’s viciousness, and to be able not only to remake the dystopia – not into utopia which is a fool’s dream, but into normality – but to name his second son Albus Severus Potter.