Lots of interpretations of the Harry Potter books are out there, some that read the books well and others that simply acts of ventriloquism—forcing the books to say what they want to hear.
But with all that, we can clearly say that the series clearly sends a message about the need to fight discrimination and narrow-mindedness, and to question assumptions critically.
Not just “Good and Evil”
The HP books take aim at simplistic ideas of good and evil, good guys and bad guys. In the real world, this means questioning day-to-day racism, sexism, and prejudice or the kind of demonization of Arabs and Muslims that is happening in the aftermath of 9/11.
On the surface level of the plot, it’s about the “good” Harry Potter and his efforts to fight the “evil” Voldemort. In a version of the David and Goliath story, Harry is smaller, weaker, and vulnerable while Voldemort seems powerful and invincible. And since Voldemort is pretty sinister—he murders people at whim, for instance—we cheer for Harry throughout.
But who is Voldemort? A devil from somewhere, come to take the earth? No: it turns out that—as with Darth Vader in Star Wars—Voldemort was never purely evil but became so under particular circumstances. Voldemort, too, had a history and was not always unsympathetic. Born as Tom Riddle, with Muggle parentage, his story shares several similarities with Harry Potter’s.
The Harry-Voldemort connection
Indeed, there’s a close connection between the two enemies throughout the books: they can feel one another’s emotions and read one another’s minds, their wands are linked together, etc. In Book 4, the bond becomes very physical: Voldemort takes Harry’s blood to inject into his veins because he needs it–or thinks he needs it–in order to take human form. In Book 7 we learn that part of Voldemort’s soul has been embedded in Harry after he tried to kill Harry as a baby.
Harry has the potential to be a Voldemort–he might be placed in Slythetin House in Book 1, and Snape convinces a skeptic like Bellatrix Lestrange in Book 6 that he did not attack Harry initially because he thought he might become the new Dark Lord. But just like Voldemort impacts Harry, his presence in Voldemort creates the possibility of redemption. Even at the very end of Book 7, it’s clear that Voldemort might be spared by actually showing remorse for what he has done. A lifeline to humanity remains for Voldemort, though he chooses not to discover it.
Harry, thus, is not simply a force for pure good but has to become fit to challenge and defeat Voldemort. Harry is full of contradictions, and sometimes his desire for fame and glory overpowers him. Harry has to learn to control his anger and rashness, and is not incapable of making wrong decisions. The so-called prophecy itself was subject to interpretation—as we are told in Books 5 and 6, it could have easily been Neville.
Indeed, Dumbledore himself starts to lose his aura of being all-powerful and all-wise, especially by Book 6 but even earlier. He starts making mistakes and misjudging things, and by Book 7 we learn that his life has been less than spotless.
And so Harry has to both learn to stand for himself and to give up false notions of individual heroism. Harry finally learns that he has to depend on others to actually win. In the early books it’s a few chosen friends; by Book 7 it’s clear that only a mass uprising can defeat Voldemort. Hogwarts students, teachers, and house-elves become a lightening rod for resistance—from the Order of the Phoenix activists to the parents and surrounding community.
Fighting Stereotypes and Inequality
Sometimes the story explicitly tells us to challenge stereotypes, as when Hermione organizes the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.). Jokes about “spew” and Hermione’s do-gooder naivite abound in the early books, but by the end it’s clear that Hermione’s basic sense of justice is crucial in order to mobilize all humans and magical creatures against Voldemort. The transformation of Kreacher in Book 7 is an excellent example: Harry must learn how to speak respectfully to him in order to win his allegiance.
This is why Dobby, the liberated house-elf, is so crucial to the emotional core of Book 7, and to Harry’s final shift from a self-centered approach to one that realizes that the battle is much larger than him.
Part of standing up against discrimiation means defending intermarriage and standing up against bigotry. Some of the central heroes of the book are “mixed” or part of mixed relationships: Harry’s mother is a Muggle-born witch, Hermione herself is Muggle-born, Hagrid is half-giant, half-human, Lupin, a werewolf, marries Tonks from the “pure-blood” Black family.
By the end, Harry, Hermione, and Ron reject racist and discriminatory ideas about “pure-blood Wizards” and stand for the rights of Muggle-born witches and wizards and Muggles as a whole, but also for the equality of other magical creatures, like elves, goblins, and centaurs, and werewolves.
In challenging Voldemort and his Death Eaters—who conduct pogroms against Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards when they come to power—the books expose the ways in which they twist terminology to suit their needs. Folks from old, wizarding families who help Harry, like the Weasleys and Sirius Black, are called “blood-traitors.” Under Voldemort’s regime, anyone can be labeled as a traitor at any moment, and locked away in the prisons of Azkaban or killed.
This reminds us not only of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany and Russia or the anti-black racism of the US (the Death Eaters are hooded like the KKK) but also of the false detentions and imprisonments after 9/11 of Arabs and Muslims, not only in Guantanamo but also Brooklyn and Paterson.
Voldemort Exploits Existing Divisions
It’s important that Voldemort and his followers do not create the idea of bias but build upon existing prejudices in the wizarding community. A prime example of this is the attitude of Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic towards Muggles and non-wizard magical creatures before Voldemort takes over (centaurs, goblins, elves, etc). When Harry first enters the Ministry of Magic in Book 5 he is critical of the statues there that represent witches and wizards as being superior to all other creatures.
The rot that Voldemort represents, therefore, is not a threat from outside but one from within the society itself. Again, this undermines the idea of absolute good and absolute evil, as there’s a spectrum of opinions between the two. There’s a level of understanding, for instance, for people like Draco Malfoy who might not be nice but are still seen as victims of circumstance when they fall in with Voldemort.
Challenging the Reader
But the books do not only give us clear, explicit messages. Sometimes they force us to rethink what we previously thought in order to demonstrate what it means to be confronted by a unexpected truth. Keeping us in the dark and withholding crucial information from us, they often limit our knowledge strategically and show us how we may also be falling to assumptions.
The central figure here, of course, is the character of Severus Snape. While there is no question that Snape strongly dislikes Harry’s father, James, and his godfather, Sirius Black, there is also no question that by the end of the story he is completely exonerated as a servant of Voldemort. He turns out to be a double-spy, allegedly spying on Dumbledore for Voldemort, but actually spying on Voldemort—and keeping him out of his mind at the same time. Confronting the hatred and dislike of everyone, he travels a difficult path of acting like a Death Eater while challenging Voldemort under his very nose.
But Snape is not the only example of such a twist on the level of narrative. In Book 3, Sirius is assumed to be the one who betrayed Harry’s parents–by other characters and by the reader. The Malfoys and Sirius’s haughty, “pure-blood” family turn out to be less-than-willing supporters of Volemort when all is said and done. These twists in character keep the reader vigilant about assuming too much.
Limits of Harry Potter
The HP books sometimes slip up. Limited by a long legacy of adventure-writing that uses simplistic notions of good and evil, the books sometimes fall into stereotypes despite themselves.
For example, after all the attempt for complexity, we still have the light/dark imagery associated with good/evil. Voldemort is still the “Dark” Lord—like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings and the “dark side” of the Star Wars series. Actually, Star Wars is a great comparison: simply making the Luke-Anakin story more complicated didn’t stop the completely racialized portrayals of Jar-Jar Binks, the Federation officials and others.
Similarly, for example, the HP books combat the idea of discrimination and try to include non-white characters (Cho Chang, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Parvati and Padma Patil, Dean Thomas, Lee Jordan, etc.) But the books are quite uneven in their treatment of these characters, and they remain, as usual, marginal. The central characters must be, for some reason, white. Though Dumbledore’s Army is composed of all races, for example, but only Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Neville, and Luna get to go to use their skills in the heroic battle at the Ministry in Book 5.
But all books have their blindspots and are reflections of society and its contradictions. We can still investigate, however, what the books achieve within their limits — and the HP books, among all of the fantasy books that our society deems to be “epic” (Star Wars, Tolkein, Narnia books, etc)– push the envelope on this question. Especially on questions of gender equality. Though still limited by certain notions of “women get their power through motherhood and sacrifice,” female heroes like Hermione, Tonks, Lily Potter, and Mrs. Wesley stand out.
The model that HP gives us in terms of questioning assumptions and fighting discrimination is fantastic in terms of both its genre and its post-9/11 time period, when many a movie and novel tried to capitalize on Bush’s “you’re with us or you’re against us,” attitude.
That said, blurring the boudaries of good and evil does not mean that the HP series is about moral relativism or lack of principle. It’s not at all against taking sides.
But the side that it chooses is for equality and understanding against bigotry. The sides are not drawn up by cultural or tradition or race, but by principles of solidarity and equality.
Everyone that battles discrimination and prejudice sides with Harry. Everyone who gives into it and divides people into hierarchies supports Voldemort. Harry, Hermoine, Ron, and Dumbledore admit that Voldemort is a product of weaknesses in the wizarding community, and they not only seek to defeat Voldemort but the ideas that gave rise to him.
That’s why it’s such a thrill to see the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army organizing against Voldemort in Book 5, to see the new student leadership of Neville and Ginny in Book 7, to see Kreacher come out at the end to lead a contingent of house-elves against the slavery that Voldemort’s “pure-blood” ideology represents.
So take sides. Fight battles. But fight the right ones–and know that individuals are not born on one side or other but can shift and make the right choices.