I know, I know – does Harry Potter really need defending? Well, I’ll get to that.
First of all, hat tip to Jeffro for picking this up on his Google+ page. ClarkHat of former Popehat fame periodically includes nerdy bits and bobs like SFF books and movies in his tweets. Recently, he went off on Harry Potter.
You can read the whole chain here. Now that’s fine. And I have also noticed that there are many on the left who seem convinced not only that everything in politics can be accurately compared to Harry Potter or Star Wars, but that those who disagree with them are Voldemort/The Empire/The First Order.
I’m going to leave Star Wars alone for now, as my thoughts and feelings on that particular property are tangled and complex. As for Harry Potter – yes, JK Rowling is a leftist. That in and of itself isn’t, or shouldn’t, be disqualifying to those of us on the other side of the political spectrum.
After all, Asimov was a leftist and he wrote lots of great stuff. Ok, perhaps he’s a bad example, as Asimov is also much-maligned in certain conservative literary circles. How about Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock? Of course individual tastes vary, but these two are honored by broad swathes of pulp and classic SFF fans. And you know what? Lefties.
Now one might argue that Leiber and Moorcock didn’t push their politics in their works. I’ve only sampled a smattering of each, but I believe I can safely say the influence of their own values and beliefs was no more obliquely impactful on their storytelling than it was in Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Hell, in Leiber’s Gather, Darkness!, the “good guys” are a bunch of faux-Satanist revolutionaries fighting against the evil Church. If you think Harry Potter is subversive and riddled with liberal messaging, I say this – at least the story is coherent and well-written, and the insidious messages well-couched.
For my part, I don’t think Harry Potter preaches liberal values. Sure, there are messages about inclusion and diversity, but these are only harmful ideas when taken to the extremes, which we can observe today in the modern Left. Dumbledore being gay? This was something Rowling commented on outside of the books. The great wizard’s sexuality was of no importance to the story and was rightly left alone in the text.
As to Clark’s takeaway, I fail to see how this is unique to Harry Potter. Children’s literature is littered with “special” children who have adventures. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe features four such. A Wrinkle in Time does, as well. It’s no sin to conjure up an imaginary world in which you are special, privy to some magical powers or swept up by fortuitous and extraordinary circumstances. And Rowling was hardly the first to image what a children’s school of magic would be like.
Harry Potter has such a long and fleshed out universe that you can look to draw any number of lessons from its text. There are plenty of conservative ones ripe for the picking, as well!
How about Ron’s twin brothers Fred and George, who drop out of school and start their own small business, which through hard work develops into a wild success?
And although Harry is financially well-to-do, thanks to his inheritance, and a celebrity to boot, what is it that he really wants? We’re shown that. Above all else, he wants a family. His wealth and “specialness” is beside the point. And as HP pointed out (see below), once you venture down that path, LoTR isn’t all about the “common man” as the hero, either.
From those hardcore fans of the pre-80’s stuff, we often hear that too much SFF today lacks action and romance. Well Harry Potter has both. Granted, the series blazes a path from children’s story to young adult, to (arguably) adult fantasy, so you won’t find too much romance in the earlier books. But as the story progresses, it’s there.
Incidentally, another complaint I’ve seen of late is that too many SFF covers feature people standing around just looking cool, without any kind of action or interesting activity going on. Well, there are a few of those in the HP series, granted. But then there have been a lot of dynamic ones.
I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t really get the ideological divide on Harry Potter, and I think it’s a flawed perspective. Sure, we can pick apart the messages a given story may or may not tell; as readers and critics, that’s what we do. But not everything in a story is a hidden nugget of gold or a landmine to be discovered. Great writers concern themselves with telling good stories foremost. It’s natural that to some extent their values will shine through. But I also believe that truth is observable in the imperfect, and we can find conservative messages even in “liberal art.” Beyond that, I’m content to separate a creator’s politics and works.
Brian Niemmer offers a different viewpoint on this conversation over at his blog.
Update: After some conversation in the comment section, I just want to add a note to make sure I’m not misrepresenting Brian — he says that he agrees with Clark on a micro level regarding the tendencies of liberals to prefer Harry Potter and conservatives Tolkien, but is not suggesting that all Harry Potter fans are entitled snowflakes or anything of that nature. I probably should have engaged with him on social media to confirm that he wasn’t indeed adopting such a facile position, and for that, mea culpa. I don’t think Clark was really making such a broad generalization either, but I still think it’s a topic worthy of discussion.
Anyway, a certain comment on Brian’s blog posted by anome stood out to me:
Exactly. We decry the expulsion of many of the great classic and pulp writers from modern SFF. Is the answer, therefore, to shun and batter down the stories told by those we don’t like, regardless of the quality of their works? I too am wary of being thrust into the “gatekeeper” role, and of those who would install themselves into it. But I suppose when you write reviews and share your opinions, it can become a tricky act.
The bottom line for me is this – there’s no accounting for taste, and we all like what we like. There are some who prefer newer or older works, or confine themselves to a particular genre or subgenre. To each his own. I just personally find it in poor taste to categorically dismiss something without having given it a chance, or to mock those who enjoy something you don’t (within reason, of course; feel free to mock me for the many hours I’ve squandered playing Mount and Blade).
I have a feeling I’m going to garner a reputation for being that contrarian jackass who rips on his allies as often as his antagonists. Sorry, friends. Brace yourselves for the post in which I explain why you’re all wrong about Star Trek Voyager, which was actually the best of the Star Trek series. It’s coming.