race and ethnicity in the Potterverse

Race and ethnicity are pretty weird in the Potterverse  because of the peculiar ways that fictional world overlaps with our own. This weirdness emerges frequently in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, as my friend Adam Roberts recently commented to me. What follows is an expansion of my response to Adam.

Consider Lela Lestrange: a member of a family notorious for its obsession with purity of wizarding blood, and yet also a mixed-race woman. If you were reading her story in a book, you’d be able to focus on her pure-blood status; watching her in a movie, you are continually reminded of the color of her skin and how it differs from that of the very white Scamander boys who love her.

Or think of Nagini: a Maledictus, a woman under a curse that transforms her into a snake, a woman (we are told) from Indonesia — and who is played in the film by a South Korean actress. That she is a Maledictus is the only thing that matters in the context of the story; but that may not be the only thing that viewers see.

Strangest of all, note this scene: a group of Aurors from various Ministries of Magic find themselves in the midst of a rally led by Gerrit Grindelwald. There is also among them one Muggle, Jacob Kowalski, and one might think that he would be especially frightened and endangered, since Grindelwald’s message is implicitly anti-Muggle. (Grindelwald keeps saying that he doesn’t hate Muggles, that he only wants wizards to live freely in the open — to have Lebensraum, one might say — but come on.) Yet when the camera looks away from Grindelwald, it tends to linger on the anxious face of one of our lead characters, Tina. Why is she so anxious?

The immediate and obvious reason is that she is an Auror, and Grindelwald has just announced to the crowd that there are Aurors among them. (This leads one witch to pull her wand threateningly on someone she perceives to be an Auror, which leads in turn to his killing her — an event which suits Grindelwald’s purposes very nicely, because it allows him to portray his movement as a peaceable one, its members constantly under threat from the violent policing of the magical world’s official bodies.) So Tina could well be fearful that the crowd will turn on her.

Might there be another reason for her to fear? Well, the sleuths of Potter fandom have discovered that she is a half-blood. (Their primary evidence: this.) Does that make her vulnerable among Grindelwald’s supporters? Maybe not: so far he has not sounded the pure-blood clarion the way Voldemort will later do — at least, not that I recall. His emphasis is strongly on the Magic-Muggle dichotomy. So maybe half-blood status doesn’t matter. Yet.

But then there’s this: Tina’s full name is Porpentina Goldstein, something that’s very hard to forget when she stands in a crowd of people who follow the extravagantly Aryan Grindelwald. Does being Jewish matter in the wizarding world? Do the various prejudices and racial identifications that do such powerful work in our Muggle world have any purchase among the magical? The general tone and tenor of the Potterverse would suggest not, but at moments like these….

Adam Roberts also recently pointed me to a series of poets by Phil Edwards on Rowling’s worldmaking. Edwards posits a rough taxonomy of fantasy worlds — the nuts-and-bolts, the numinous, and the satirical/polemical — and suggests that the Potterverse is “a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them.” This seems right to me, and it helps to explain why the racial logic of our social order keeps floating in and out of view. It’s a rather disorienting phenomenon.

To some extent this kind of thing happens in all Fantasy — thus the permanent tendency of readers to see The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of the Second World War, and thus also Tolkien’s endless frustration with that reading. In Edwards’s terms, Tolkien had, he thought, done enough nuts-and-bolts work to rescue his story from such easy analogies. But Rowling seems positively to court such allegorical readings — only to swerve away from them later.