Excerpted from Hooked Up: A New Generation’s Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World by Jack Myers (York House Press, $24.95).
Chapter 7: The Hidden Messages of Harry Potter
The world of Harry Potter is fictional, but readers would be justified in arguing that Rowling’s work has a strong socialist edge and religious overtones.
In the book series, the author uses characters such as Harry’s guardian family to depict a middle-class, modern world. Harry’s family is weak and mean-spirited; wealthy characters are greedy and villainous. In the movie series, visuals like neighborhoods with hundreds of identical houses reinforce the idea of mindless conformity.
The implication is that this invented world reflects the values of today’s real world.
By contrast, however, Harry’s life at Hogwarts (a boarding school for young wizards) is a world based on competitive assessment, capitalist values and advancement through merit and hard work. Two beloved Hogwarts characters — Fred and George Weasely — open a successful business together in the sixth book. Central characters like Dumbledore and Potter are wealthy, but they live modestly.
Among the most popular book series ever published, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter has fans in every age bracket. Internet Pioneers grew up with “Pottermania” and are now in college, with those who first read “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone” at age 11 now graduating and joining the workforce. In short, most Internet Pioneers are intimately familiar with the Harry Potter books and movies, and many have had their psyches and values at least partially influenced by this series.
To date, no major research has been conducted to find out how powerful the effect of these themes has been on the development of the “Harry Potter Generation.” Much like the influence of rock music, Dungeons and Dragons or ubiquitous television, what research has been conducted is largely inconclusive — it’s simply too difficult to eliminate all independent variables from such an event.
However, the 60s generation engaged in social activism while reading works such as Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, “On the Road” and “Lord of the Rings.” This may suggest that certain popular books read during formative years have a strong influence on decisions made by the readers as young adults. So it is with the children who grew up reading Harry Potter. They are beginning to show tendencies that align with the values of the novels — but it remains to be seen whether they have those values because of the series, or if the series owes its popularity to the prevalence of those values.
Progressive Politics and Sexual Attitudes
In a 2005 Time Magazine article, Lev Grossman pointed out that the Hogwarts school is a progressive bastion: secular, multicultural, multiracial and gender-integrated. Some students and staff mourn this state of affairs, but they are the villains of the series — or at least the unfortunate products of a bigoted or otherwise backward upbringing.
In a 2005 article, Benjamin Barton of the University of Tennessee points out another potential influence — the author’s portrayal of the wizardry governmental authority (the Ministry of Magic) as a rigid, ineffectual bureaucracy incapable of protecting its subjects from any meaningful threat.
One example of the series’ progressive stance appears in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” with the introduction of an enslaved race of “house elves.” Heroine Hermione Granger tries to improve the elves’ lives through grassroots activism. This activity demonstrates her moral superiority and fairness of mind, rather than portraying her as an adolescent with a knee-jerk reaction to harsh realities. (Among others, John Rose of metrosantacruz.com, has drawn historical parallels between Hermione’s mission and that of the American Communist Party.)
Perhaps the most famous — and controversial — progressive stance in the Harry Potter universe never appeared in the books. Rather, in a post-release conference for the final installment, Rowling announced that the character of Harry Potter’s caring mentor (Albus Dumbledore) was gay. Casting a major heroic character as homosexual might be another subtle influence in Internet Pioneers’ generally accepting attitudes toward homosexuality.
From the first book in the series, Harry Potter and his friends consistently break rules and attempt to solve adult problems out of a mistrust of adult capability, intelligence and motivation. Though this behavior may be common in children’s literature, the Harry Potter series, especially in later installments, takes youthful rebellion to an arguably anarchistic extreme.
Though some Christian organizations have attacked the author for her handling of controversial issues, such as a positive portrayal of witchcraft and homosexuality, other reviewers draw a strong parallel between Harry’s story and that of Jesus Christ. In the final volume, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, the link is particularly strong. (Harry dies, spends a brief time in the afterlife, and then returns to earth after conquering death itself.) In a 2007 interview, Rowling said that the Christian allegories had always been part of her plan for the series.
However, fans and critics note that Rowling also drew inspiration from non-Christian tradition. The resulting blend is a weave of different influences that strengthens the inclusive nature of the series. Some see the Harry Potter series and its overt portrayal of magic and celebration of pagan mythology as a threat to Christian values. This is much like the protests against the Dungeons and Dragons game and “Lord of the Rings” in earlier decades.
Some church leaders from mainstream religions (Catholic, Islam, American Protestant) have asked church members to avoid reading the books. These leaders claim that the books actively encourage children to experiment with the occult. In the United States, several schools have banned or challenged the value of the book. In addition, an inside White House source claims that Rowling has never been recognized for enthusing millions of young readers specifically because of the concerns mentioned above.
No legitimate source believes the hysterical fringe reports of sinister, subliminal, or intentionally hidden messages within the Harry Potter novels and movies. However — like much fiction — the books communicate an underlying philosophy that has influenced many young readers who came simply for the story. Whether or not that philosophy could be called “sinister” depends on how it is interpreted.
Nevertheless, such attitudes toward the iconic influences of Internet Pioneers lead them to distance themselves from traditional institutions. Instead, Pioneers depend more on their own opinions and role models. As Internet Pioneers form their own religious and political standards, the influences of Harry Potter, Nickelodeon, Pretty Little Liars and Family Guy will be stronger than the establishment standards of religion, politics or schools.
Racism, War and Corruption
Rowling has publicly stated on multiple book tours that she wanted to incorporate many horrors of the real world into the world of Harry Potter. (Rowling formerly worked for Amnesty International, resulting in her awareness of such horrors.) Thus, the characters and — vicariously — the readers are exposed to these darker parts of human nature.
From the start of the series, racism, class discrimination and abuse of power provide a backdrop to Harry’s adventures.
The death and suffering of war take center stage by volume four of the series. As the power of character Lord Voldemort and his “Death Eaters” escalates, their policies become eerily similar to those of Nazi Germany and other cultures that engaged in ethnic cleansing. The young heroes of the series react with horror and grief as they try to prevent or minimize the effects of such evil. Their confrontations serve as a vehicle for an exploration of morality and rules in an unjust society.
Harry Potter and the “Occupy” Movement
“For the greater good” is a quote right out of Dumbledore’s journals about his exploration of dark wizardry — and a quote from the journals of many real life utilitarians. As a powerful and politically influential wizard, Dumbledore’s crimes include involuntary manslaughter, assault, high treason, endangering minors, smuggling and blackmail — and those are just the infractions that he admits to.
Harry and his friends behave in a similar vein. In the first book, they use aggressive magic to temporarily paralyze a friend. Rule-breaking becomes law-breaking early in the series. By the sixth book, Harry is using “unforgivable curses” — magic spells so terrible that their use can be punished with execution. Still, Harry and the other heroes are never punished or even asked to account for their choices. Generally, the responsible adults simply wave away their behaviors as understandable given the circumstances.
The contemporary “Occupy” and “Anonymous” movements are strongly in line with themes of social equality, socialist political ideals, a utilitarian definition of just action and a mistrust of authority and institutional structures. They ignore the lines of state and nation, focusing instead on human issues many members consider larger than any individual culture or group. In short, these movements share much of their core values with the values espoused in the Harry Potter series. Heroes Hermione, Ron and Harry would fit right in at an “Occupy” encampment. Other characters like Fred and George would proudly hack large corporations to expose their dirty laundry and embrace the WikiLeaks philosophy.
Future Tech Imagined
One way in which the Harry Potter books are almost certain to impact the near future is in the directions taken by technology. The Internet owes some of its existence to the imagination of science fiction writers. Much of our space program is indebted to Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury for the inspiration that launched its ongoing success. Steven Spielberg’s films A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report share visions that are becoming increasingly realistic.
Author and futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote in “The Singularity is Near” that the types of magic seen in the Harry Potter series will be everyday sights within the next few decades. He didn’t mean actual occult magic, but rather the technological capabilities of a rapidly developing human race. As Kurzweil points out, technology that could simulate magic will be part of daily lives within a few short years — and Internet Pioneers inspired by the Harry Potter series will be the young scientists who bring those technologies forward.
Medical nanotechnology will allow healing that looks and feels like magic both in terms of its capacity and its time frame. As cloning and genetic technologies advance, it’s difficult to rule out any possibility. The influence of Harry Potter is likely to emerge in every aspect of society.
Although it’s hard to quantify exactly how much J.K. Rowling’s world-changing series will affect the personalities, politics and morality of young people today, it’s almost impossible to argue that it hasn’t already. As this cohort grows older and initiates change in the world, the inspiration and influence of these popular novels will continue to be evident.