Harry Potter and the philosopher

Last Wednesday, on Radio 4’s ‘Points of View’ programme, Roger Scruton delivered the most spectacular misreading of the Harry Potter books I've yet heard.

He began by defending JK Rowling against critics who accuse her of writing ‘low-brow literature’ and ‘cardboard characters’, saying that the books have ‘touched on real and universal sentiments’, praising her ‘genius for inventing characters that engage the ordinary reader’s sympathies’ and adding that her plots have ‘few if any loose ends’.

But apart from that he found little to admire.

He divided children's literature into two categories, firstly ‘… stories addressed specifically to the child’s state of mind’, exemplified by the Grimms' fairy tales, in which frightening monsters are vanquished by primitive magic (though the Grimms' tales are not actually like that) and, secondly, literature that introduces the child to the complexities and ambiguities of the adult world, exemplified by Lewis Carroll's Alice and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. He placed Potter in the first of these categories, seeing the stories as reducing everything to a simplistic battle between good and evil, the former prevailing over the latter by the mere wave of a wand.

He then complained that the world view embodied in the Harry Potter stories has escaped the world of the child and is now seeping into the adult world, leading people to believe in the magic of socialism. ‘People are starting to live in a kind of cyber-Hogwarts’, he said, ‘a fantasy world in which goods are obtained simply by needing them, and then asking some future Prime Minister to wave the magic wand’.

He lamented the lack of religion in Harry Potter's world. Magic, he asserted, is not the same thing as religion and spells are not the same thing as prayers. The latter, he claimed, are somehow more advanced or mature than the former. Religion is grown-up, magic is childish. The rationale for this distinction is that magic aims to give its users control over the world whereas religion acknowledges our lack of control over it. I’m not convinced.

To reinforce this idea he claimed that the medieval church contributed to the emergence of the scientific world-view through its condemnation of alchemy. That's a new one on me. The transition from alchemy to modern chemistry occurred late in the history of the scientific revolution and was the result of the accumulation of experimental facts that were found to be inconsistent with alchemical theories. The church had nothing to do with it and was rather an impediment to the development of the scientific world-view.

Actually, I think Harry Potter falls into a third category. One not confined to children’s literature. It’s a story about our own place and time relocated to an unfamiliar setting whose very unfamiliarity enables the story’s message to be conveyed more clearly unencumbered by spurious details.

Gilbert and Sullivan's ‘The Mikado’, for example, is nominally set in Japan but is in fact a satire on the British upper classes. Disguising late 19th century England as a far away land about which the audience knew nothing enabled the satire to be more penetrating. Similarly, the characters in Richard Adams' ‘Watership Down’ are nominally rabbits but are also recognisable human types and (according to Wikipedia) the book explores themes of exile, survival, heroism, leadership and political responsibility, informed by the author’s experiences in the second world war.

Just as The Mikado is not about Japan and Watership Down is not about rabbits, Harry Potter is not about magic. The fantasy world in which it is set is merely a backdrop in front of which real people deal with real problems. In Harry Potter’s case, resisting a brutal tyranny. The magic in the stories is tightly circumscribed. It can only achieve a limited range of effects and requires great skill, which has to be learned. Voldemort isn't a simplistic one-dimensional villain who is purely evil without any complexity. He’s a recognisable amalgam of someone like the Kray twins and someone like Hitler or Stalin. That is pretty bad, but its also realistic. There are people like that. Rowling tells his back story at great length to explain how he got that way. The books explain why many people supported him and how he seized power, aided by sympathisers in the ruling class and bureaucrats more interested in their own careers than in doing the right thing. He was eventually defeated by flaws in his own character and by the fact that he couldn't retain people’s loyalty by fear alone. Similarly, the story's ‘heroes’ are not purely good. They have their own faults and shameful episodes in their pasts. That doesn't sound to me like a simplistic case of scary monsters vanquished by benevolent parental magic.

The message of the Harry Potter books isn't that we can all have an easy life through the magic of socialism, it's actually one that Sir Roger would approve of, namely that oppressive regimes cannot endure.

© Copyright 2017 Howard J. Rudd all rights reserved.