Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and Modern Society

High fantasy has a political problem, which is that magic is aristocratic. One of the most basic components to all the ancient magical traditions I know of is that magic comes from outside: you inherit it from your ancestors, or receive it from the gods. When it arrives, it separates the recipient from the rest of us. This is equally true of non-magic but basically magical heroism, like that of Achilles or Lancelot: heroes are born, or made by divine intervention. You can't become one, no matter how hard you try. So any world dominated by magical heroes and heroines is of necessity an aristocratic world, in which the chosen do great things while the masses get on with their humdrum lives. The fate of the universe always hinges on the choices and deeds of the mighty. The most the the rest of us can hope for is to be foot soldiers in the heroes' armies, Men of Gondor or Uruk Hai.

So it is hardly surprising that the creators of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were political reactionaries. Lord Dunsany was an actual lord who resided for most of his life in his family castle. H.P. Lovecraft was a racist snob sure that desegregation and immigration would destroy Anglo Saxon civilization. These men immersed themselves in medievalism partly because they preferred medieval politics to the grubby vote-getting and trade unionism of modernity. In fantasy, when the true king holds the throne, the dead tree blooms and the kingdom thrives; when the masses rise up and threaten their betters, Cthulhu is unleashed.

Which brings me to Harry Potter and Hogwarts, just now celebrating their 20th anniversary. Harry Potter was a huge part of growing up for my three older children, and I loved reading the first four books to them and enjoying the later books and the movies by their sides. I will always be grateful to J.K. Rowling for the gift of so many happy hours with my children, so many shared wonders.

But Harry Potter's world has dubious politics of  its own. (Ross Douthat has as essay on this in the Times today, but nothing he says is original: Potter fans have been hashing over these questions for a decade.) Rowling has imagined a whole world of wizardry that exists in parallel to our own, side by side but invisible to us. Wizards have amazing powers – flying, teleportation, changing shape, killing with a word – and their world is full of excitement and adventure, much of it deriving from conflicts between good wizards and bad. Though all wizards are amazing, you see, they are not all good. Anyway this all goes on beyond the ken of normal, non-magical folk, whom wizards call Muggles.

The centerpiece of Rowling's magical world is a school, Hogwarts. All the children of Britain's wizards come there, except for the few unfortunate "squibs" who are born to wizard families but lack the necessary innate gift. One of the hot political conflicts in the wizard world is whether Muggle children born with magical gifts should be allowed into Hogwarts and trained to use their power; nice, liberal wizards welcome these freaks, but bad wizards call them filthy Mud Bloods and want to drive them out. Nice, liberal wizards do not think that most Muggles should be given this chance, because after all they don't have the magical gift; no, most Muggles are better off not even knowing that the wizarding world exists.

And what socio-political system does this remind you of? Well, for some people it reeks of the neo-liberal meritocracy. Hogwarts plays the role of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale, taking in the children of the elite, along with a few freakishly talented sons and daughters of regular folk, and training them to take their appointed role as leaders of the magical world. While Muggles go to work and watch television, the magical elite battle dragons, break into cursed tombs, and war with each other for control of their exciting little world. While most of us real world folk live like Muggles, a few of the Oxbridge-Ivy League elite pick those careers that somehow combine your greatest passion with the world's greatest need, or else go to Wall Street or Silicon Valley and get rich. There is no question about their right to do this, because after all they have the magic and the training and we do not. The only matter of political importance is making sure that talented people born in the lower ranks are able to enter the elite – "Right to Rise," Jeb Bush called this during his ill-fated presidential campaign. Because domination by the elite is just the way things are.

The world of Hogwarts is gender-neutral and multi-racial, just like the new British elite. But it is still very much an elite world, in which the talented get perks and privileges beyond the ken of normal humans.

Personally I've never minded either Tolkien's politics or Rowling's. My artistic tastes have never matched my politics, and I have come to accept this. Attempts to create non-aristocratic, progressive fantasy world usually strike me as ridiculous. (Although Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus novels have an interesting take.) For me, a story can't feel magical unless it draws on old traditions, and the old traditions are aristocratic traditions. I find old Europe fascinating, which is how I ended up with a Ph.D. in medieval history. It never bothers me when the world I read about is dominated by political, social or religious ideas foreign to my own; in fact that is part of what I like about history and anthropology. When modern politics intrudes into fantasy, my suspension of disbelief is broken. If you are the same, read Tolkien and Harry Potter to your children, or to yourself. If you are bothered by the politics you should probably stay away from fantasy altogether.


Unknown said...

A few random remarks:

--while family pride, inheritance, exclusiveness, and identity are the core of aristocracy, these ideas are not peculiar to aristocrats. They can be quite demotic, and are in any case extremely ancient, more ancient than exclusively ranked society. I would say aristocracy and monarchy grow out of them, rather than the other way around. And they are part of what enable people to identify with aristocrats and monarchs in ways that many, at least, can't with mere meritocrats. Now that I think of it, I wonder if one couldn't divide people into those whose instincts make them love Tolkien, and those whose instincts make them love Ayn Rand.

--with Tolkien, it's always important to remember the hobbits. Tolkien's ideas came out of the Little England movement, and the virtuous commoner is very much a part of that.

--it's interesting that many aristo tales feature the hero whose ancestry is obscured, and so he is initially subject to hostility from the court crowd--until the true worth of his heritage shines through--a neat combination of up-by-the-bootstraps and family legacy. In this sense, Harry is Parzifal.

--I get the impression from your posting history that you are, in fact, rather bothered by family exclusiveness and aristo snobbery. I remember a post in the last six months or so where you held up aristos no longer being able to have their servants beat up commoners as one of the great achievements of democratic modernity. So I would submit that it's not strictly true that you are "never bothered" by ideas different from your own. :)

--Thinking of that last point, I'm struck that the modern fantasy tradition we've all read is very much a British one, with a British view of aristocracy that really glamorizes the whole idea of good, kind noble who knows how to treat his inferiors with respect, even affection, and sacrfices for the good of the whole. This is part of what differentiates Aragorn from Boromir, as well as the lesson Boromir learns, and is very much a Little England idea. In France and Spain, positive bonds between masters and servants are often treated as the province of beloved fool characters, like Don Quixote and Sancho, or Jacquouille and Godefroy in Les Visiteurs. (In Spain there's also a topos of the solemnly good but distant lord and his omnicompetent, manly-man commoner guardian.)

John said...

Interesting point about how aristocracy is one sort of pride in one's own lineage, one's own people; that probably is one reason why people are so accepting of aristocracy and of family dynasties like the Bushes.

Yes, the English tradition makes much of virtuous commoners, and Tolkien very deliberately made his hero a very modest sort of gentleman. There is a strong Christian strain here. But good commoners of course don't question the order and are very happy when the true heir becomes king.

In a modern political context I *hate* aristocracy. But in reading fantasy I much prefer it to all the attempts I have encountered to create some sort of non-aristocratic magical world.

Unknown said...

The Book of the Dun Cow?

Part of the issue is genre or mode. Epic is an essentially aristocratic genre, certainly in the mainline western tradition. But comedy is not. The decidedly comic, non-epic Discworld novels, I think, would qualify as non-aristocratic. Other than Lady Sybil, and Death and his family, I can't think of any positive aristo characters. There's Lord Vetinari, but he seems to me more of a benign dictator than a monarch of the Right Sort--in fact, several plots revolve around hidebound aristo ninnies trying to overthrow him because he's not the Right Sort. Hilarious hijinks ensue.

John said...

Hmm, I forgot The Book of the Dun Cow, which I loved; it dropped off my list partly because women I have recommended it to said it was horribly sexist. And yes there are lots of humorist fantasy novels that are not very aristocratic. But they will never match epic fantasy in my heart.

The one pc fantasy I really love is the last installment of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea, The Other Wind. Some of you may not know that LeGuin added two later books to the original trilogy. Tehanu, in 1990, which I did not like for just the reasons we have been discussing, and then The Other Wind in 2001. I *loved* The Other Wind but I don't recommend it much because you can't really read it without reading Tehanu, which I found preachy and irritating. Incidentally I also love The Left Hand of Darkness, which is at its heart a feminist experiment, but one that I think works brilliantly; it is generally classed as science fiction, though, so I would set it aside from this discussion.

If you don't know Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus, that is an interesting approach; magic is controlled by an aristocratic ruling cabal of the usual sort, but much of the story is set among the resistance movement of non-magical commoners bent on overthrowing them.

pootrsox said...

A hearty second to your recommendation of Left Hand of Darkness.

I know I read books 4 and 5 of Earthsea but do not really remember them. But then I tend not to be a huge fantasy reader. I wonder if that stems in part from some not-quite conscious recognition of the the elitism (and often sexism) inherent in most fantasy novels.

Oddly, for years in the 60's and 70's I had a subscription to Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine... where I read Steven King, among other authors, and of course Venus on the Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout. (Balanced by a subscription to Analog, where I read Dune.)

Straight science fiction (SF, *not* "sci fi," to true afficionados back in the day!) seemed to have less of an issue with the elitism, and indeed often showed the failures of both aristocratic and meritocratic elitist systems. But when SF became bizarre rather than straightforward, I lost my taste for it.

Shadow said...

Le Guin is one of my favorite authors. I found The Dispossessed ifascinationg with an interesting critique of anarchic and statist societies. Strong points that there can be no such thing as an anarchist society and that democracies can be authoritarian.

Alfred Bester wrote Stars my Destination and The Demolished Man, two late 1950's SF novels on many top 10 SF lists. Both are good psychological stories that wreak of the sexism of the times. I haven't come across too many books that are quite so dismissive of women.

I admit to being a fantasy fan. There's a lot of good Fantasy out there now, great storytellers telling great stories with sophisticated characters living in fascinating worlds. The genre is quite alive. And there are some great female characters in the genre too. Not the warrior queen who challenges all comers, but females who use their wit, intelligence, stealth, and political sophistication to not only survive but thrive in male dominated societies.


-- The many strong female characters in the Great fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson.

-- The lead female characters in Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive series.

-- The princess turned queen (and a number of other strong female characters) in the Anthony Ryan's Raven's Shadow series.

-- Arista in Michael Sullivan's The Riyria Revelations.

-- And the female leads in any of N.K. Jemisin's series. (Jemisin narrates one of her female lead's chapters in second person.)