It’s rare for me to disagree with my friend Ross Douthat as strongly as I do when reading this column. Alas, Ross has fallen under the malign influence of Spotted Toad, who in turn has fallen under the malign influence of all those people — cited in both those posts — who think that the right way to read the Harry Potter series is as an allegory of current partisan politics. Ross and Toad accept that essential premise of allegorical reading and merely tweak the algorithms to yield different results. And those results are slightly less bad interpretations of the series than offered by the kind of person who thinks it wickedly subversive to sort Theresa May into Slytherin.
Ross’s view — see his last sentence for a summary — is that the Potter books are “ultimately childish” because they do not serve as a nuanced and subtle Statesman’s Manual. But that critique only makes sense on the prior assumption that books are fundamentally about our own political order, especially the formation of its ruling class. And that’s not a very good assumption.
The chief problem with the idea that wizards somehow stand for the ruling class, and that Hogwarts is therefore the equivalent of Eton and Harrow, or Harvard and Yale, and that the exclusion of Muggles from Hogwarts represents the ways that the ruling class policies its own boundaries and keeps the riffraff out, is simply this: the wizards don’t rule the Muggles. They have as little to do with the Muggles as they possibly can; indeed, many of them are willing to live in uncomfortable circumstances, in conditions that look like sheer poverty, rather than try to make their way in the Muggle world.
And that in itself should be a strong hint of what — if we must allegorize the wizarding world of the books to our own everyday reality, which for the record I deny — a much better connection would be: art and music.
Think about it: In childhood, Harry finds that he has certain interests and gifts that his bourgeois family find weird, useless, and even disgusting — not gifts at all but some kind of perversion. Then, at the cusp of adolescence, he discovers that there is a whole world out there of people who share those gifts and interests, and who believe that, though only some people intrinsically have what it takes to pursue such matters, the ones who do have it must work hard to fulfill their gift: talent must be enhanced by disciplined craft. The vast majority of people who seek such mastery come from families that also value it; very few lack that supportive background in which the requisite abilities seem both natural and praiseworthy.
Because people who lack that family background don’t quite act right, talk right, look right, they can be disdained in spite of their gifts, and can find themselves feeling excluded — or at best treated as second-class citizens — both by their bourgeois family and their new, supposedly enlightened community. But in general that community is built around a shared commitment to what they all believe in, and all can do: their disdain is typically turned outward, towards those outside, those who Just Don’t Get It. They reject all the trappings of that contemptible world: they don’t want its money, they don’t want the false prestige it offers. They mark their alienation from that world by where they live, what they eat, perhaps above all how they dress. When they appear in the bourgeois world they are immediately recognized as weirdos, but they don’t care. They don’t care because they know what really matters.
Hogwarts isn’t a school for the ruling class; it’s an arts school. The series isn’t about the One Percent, it’s about the artsy counterculture.
And that’s if you insist on reading the books as political allegory. I don’t insist on that, and indeed, I’d prefer not to, because frankly, in our hyper-politicized environment that’s how people interpret almost everything. It’s a hazard for us all, not just for political columnists like Ross. I’d suggest an effort to redirect our attentions to what the books are really and directly about, which I think we can achieve by looking at the two epigraphs of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The first is from Aeschylus:
Oh, the torment bred in the race,
The grinding scream of death
And the stroke that hits the vein,
The hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
The curse no man can bear.
But there is a cure in the house,
And not outside it, no,
Not from others but from them,
Their bloody strife. We sing to you,
Dark gods beneath the earth.
Now hear, you blissful powers underground –
Answer the call, send help.
Bless the children, give them triumph now.
The second is from William Penn’s More Fruits of Solitude:
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
Such matters, while often absent from “adult” novels in our time, are anything but “childish.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.