"Harry Potter" And Magical Realism

Detail from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" book cover, published by Scholastic. Scholastic

This column was written by Daniel Nexon.

As the seventh and final installment in J.K Rowling's "Harry Potter" series hits bookstore shelves this weekend, the frenzy over the young magician and his chums appears set to reach even more spectacular heights. Scholastic, "Harry Potter's" U.S. publisher, ordered a first-run printing of 12 million copies, which may be the largest in world history. The series has already sold 325 million copies worldwide and been translated into 66 languages. And the "Harry Potter" films — the fifth of which was released last weekend — have grossed more than $3.8 billion globally. As a franchise, "Harry Potter" thrills its fans, annoys some prominent literary critics and generates large sums of money for its author and corporate backers. And its evolution holds any number of lessons for publishers, marketing executives, and other members of the industrial-entertainment complex. But in the course of its spectacular rise, "Harry Potter" has become more than simply a commercial success story: It has become a global phenomenon.

"Harry Potter," in fact, functions something like a Rorschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxieties about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not "Harry Potter" indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism. Some Swedish commentators decry what they perceive as "Harry Potter's" Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality. In Turkey, we find a significant discussion of "Harry Potter" that pivots around issues of Turkish civilizational identity: whether Turkey is part of the West, the East, or a bridge between the two. A few Turkish writers have even asserted that controversies over "Harry Potter" in the United States demonstrate how Turks are more "Western" than Americans. And in Russia, a country whose concern over international status and prestige becomes more apparent each day, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta created a minor firestorm when it claimed that the film visage of Dobby the House-Elf was a deliberate insult to President Vladimir Putin.

More fundamentally, reactions to "Harry Potter" highlight the worldwide character of clashes between various forms of traditionalism and modernism. To many religious conservatives, "Harry Potter" represents yet another assault by the mass media, public institutions, and other manifestations of secular culture against their traditional values. In the United States, Russia, Thailand, and Australia, some Christian conservatives have condemned the books for, among other things, promoting occultism and Satanism. Harry Potter and his friends, after all, use magic and witchcraft, not only as part of their everyday lives, but also as part of their struggle against the forces of evil. Christian critics of "Harry Potter" argue that the Bible makes clear that all magic stems from demonic sources. By teaching children that witchcraft is acceptable and by encouraging them to play with wands and cauldrons, Harry Potter risks seducing them away from Christianity and into occult practices. It may even, the argument goes, bring them into contact with the very real demons that haunt our world. According to the American Library Association, Rowling's books were the fourth most challenged library books from 1990-2004, and the most challenged from 2000-2005.

Members of other religious movements also find fault with "Harry Potter." The series is enormously popular in Indonesia, the Gulf States, and many other Islamic countries. But the Wahhabist tradition, as Peter Mandaville, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and Patrick Jackson, associate professor of international relations at American University, have noted, strongly opposes "various esoteric and mystical practices that . .. entered popular Islamic practice." For Wahhabists, those who practice such "heterodox" forms of Islam amount to "magicians and witches." Thus, it comes as little surprise that some Wahhabist authorities, as well as adherents to other conservative Islamic traditions, view "Harry Potter" as promoting paganism and undermining Islam. Although the specifics of the doctrinal objections differ from their Christian counterparts, the parallels remain striking.

Moreover, the reception of the books also reveals a number of important dimensions of globalization. Americans increasingly see themselves as objects of economic globalization, whether in the form of "outsourcing" or the impact of Chinese imports on U.S. manufacturing. But we still tend to think of cultural globalization as synonymous with "Americanization." The "Harry Potter" books — with their distinctively British boarding school setting, slang, and cuisine — provide a subtle rejoinder to such impressions and subvert the equation of globalization with relentless homogenization.

In fact, "Harry Potter's" worldwide popularity owes much to the deliberate and inadvertent adaptation of the series to meet local tastes. The Chinese editions translate aspects of the western folklore in "Harry Potter" into Chinese mythological traditions. Translators of the books wrestle — often unsuccessfully — with how to convert faithfully Rowling's extensive use of puns and idioms into other languages. Unauthorized "sequels" in China and India explicitly recast "Harry Potter" in local settings and using local plot devices. (In the Indian fake novel, for example, he makes friends with a Bengali boy and tours India.) Fans produce a worldwide stream of fiction set in the Harry Potter universe, each extending elements of the novels to reflect their own interests and preferences. For all its often crass commercialization, "Harry Potter's" success owes something to a process of hybridization familiar to scholars of cultural globalization.

The "Harry Potter" books lend themselves well to real-world political debates, because their plots themselves intersect with a surprising number of themes in real-world politics. The evil Voldemort and his Death Eaters, both in their organization and tactics, bear a striking resemblance to transnational terrorists. Their hatred of the impure — particularly those "mudbloods" who, despite their magical powers, lack wizarding parentage — and thirst for power genuflects in the direction of fascism, whether of the traditional or, as some might see it, the "Islamo-" variety. The Death Eaters, at least in the first six books, hide among the general wizarding population and strike with relative impunity against an often hapless Ministry of Magic with its bumbling bureaucrats and politicians. The former Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, spends the last years of his tenure denying and downplaying the Death-Eater threat. "Harry Potter" heroes fight back by forming their own clandestine organization — the Order of the Phoenix — and, when necessary, bending the rule of law as they seek to defeat Voldemort's bid for global mastery.

Harry Potter, however, is no Jack Bauer. For those concerned about sacrificing civil liberties and democratic values to the war on terrorism, Rowling has much to offer. Innocents frequently find themselves imprisoned in the dreadful dungeon of Azkaban, which some might read as the Potterverse's own version of Guantanamo Bay. A wide variety of miscarriages of justice mark the novels. Albus Dumbledore, the moral center of the first six books, often deplores the excesses of the Ministry during the first and second struggle against the Death Eaters. He also condemns the legal inequalities that permeate the wizarding world.

The books tackle not only issues of inequality, but also of multiculturalism. Class antagonism, prejudice against mudbloods, and intolerance of non-human species abound in Hogwarts and the broader wizarding community. Rowling's witches and wizards, however, display almost total indifference to Muggle racial categories. Rowling strives mightily to present a consistent moral vision of equality, but as critics such as Debra Thompson, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Toronto, note, she often seems to inadvertently endorse essentialist notions of racial differences. Such tensions, of course, are also endemic in real-world manifestations of multiculturalism and racial politics.

Such themes reflect, at least in part, what we might term the "partially globalized" character of "Harry Potter's" world. Divisions of the Ministry of Magic concern themselves with regulating imports. The Ministry, for example, standardizes cauldron thickness to prevent dangerous and inferior goods from flooding the market. International bodies and legal regimes govern aspects of wizard behavior. The Quidditch World Championship parallels Soccer's World Cup; it simultaneously affirms national differences while providing a focal point for cosmopolitan sporting competition. The Triwizard Tournament that forms the centerpiece of the fourth book, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," aims to establish ties "between young witches and wizards of different nationalities" — sort of like an Olympics with flying broomsticks.

At this point, however, the global "Harry Potter" phenomenon has outgrown the specifics of the books. Entrenched as they now are in the public consciousness, the characters have become symbols — abstract representations rather than the specific products of Rowling's imagination. Thus, during his 2002 election campaign, for example, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende proudly embraced comparisons between himself and Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter to help promote his image as, according to Agence France Presse, "reliable and upright but not stuffy." But, when the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, described Balkenende as "a mix between Harry Potter and a worthy burgher, a man in whom I detect no trace of charisma," it strained relations between the two governments. Liberals in the United States, for their part, affix bumper stickers such as "Republicans for Voldemort" and "Cheney-Voldemort '08" to their cars. Voldemort may be fast on his way to becoming a general symbol for evil.

Perhaps one day, then, soon-to-be-defeated senators will justify a war not with reference to J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" but to J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter." Indeed, the world might be a better place if future politicians and Supreme Court justices look to Harry Potter, rather than "24'"s Jack Bauer, for guidance on the legitimacy of torture. But it will be a long time before we know if Rowling's creations achieve the status of global political currency. It may happen. After all, from Indonesia to Taiwan, the United States to Iran, and Russia to India, "Harry Potter" is already part of the globalizing process, with all its complexities, tensions, and possibilities.

By Daniel Nexon
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