Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and Modern Society
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.