Does Magic Stand for Privilege in Harry Potter?

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J.K. Rowling may have been writing about Harry Potter before “privilege” (and the checking thereof) became a mainstream idea, with waves of backlash and counter-backlash to its frequent use. But that doesn’t mean the concepts embedded within “check your privilege” discussions weren’t present in her seven Harry Potter books.

A blogger named Cecilia Tan went to ICFA, the International the Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and wrote a post about all kinds of fascinating discussions she heard and things she learned, from race in Marvel to gender in fantasy. One of the most interesting tidbits that has circulated since then was about magic backgrounds (as opposed to magic powers) as a stand-in for social privilege at Hogwarts.

In particular the idea of Harry (and other Muggleborns) as an under-privileged class, who arrive at Hogwarts without the advantages that the children raised with magic (with privilege) have. The privileged kids already know how to navigate the magical world, which is a huge advantage. This is akin to how kids who speak English as their first language have a huge advantage over those who don’t.

This divide between the magic-born and the rest is present in the novel. Hermione is taunted with “mudblood,” a slur that mocks her human upbringing, while Harry floats between the two worlds as someone with Wizard lineage who was raised (and horribly mistreated) by Muggles. Much of the pleasure of the early Potter volumes comes from watching Harry learn about the world of wizarding, and its privileges (owls! wands!) and rules, all from an outsider’s perspective. In this way, the novels mirror boarding school novels like Prep, in which a bewildered new students arrives at a lush old campus, and doesn’t understand the codes and advantages of the rich legacy kids who stroll around with tennis rackets and cold appraisals at their disposal. Yet Rowling, in the tradition of the best British social satire novelists, has a withering take on her county’s class system, even within the world of “magic born” wizards. Within that circle of privilege, there are other stratifications: the Malfoys as the quintessential aristocrats and the Weasleys as the warm working-class clan, with a generations-old animosity between the two families.

Rowling isn’t arguing that a wand is directly comparable to a tennis racket but instead making the point that magic (like certain kinds of privilege) is a form of power, one that can be used for both evil and good. And in her final volume, her ultimate message is that destroying evil power is better than amassing good power (Horcruxes, not Hallows). You could argue that this is a fairly radical message.

Yet any attempt to build a complete real-world allegory in the Potterverse falls apart when you consider all the Muggles who exist, happily oblivious to magic, on the outside of Hogwarts and its world. I don’t think Rowling means to say that they are an inferior race and endorse the idea of separate but equal when she posits that the wizards should just leave humans alone to their ignorance, does she? And then there are the critics who point out that Harry Potter himself is a “legacy” student who doesn’t care much about his studies, gets away with near murder because most of his teachers remember his parents, and is a star on the Quidditch field. A dumb jock, they say, not an outsider. But then, wait, that analysis misses all the social ostracizing Harry is subject to, time and time again throughout the series.

And that’s what makes it so great. Harry Potter, much like Lord of the Rings, and other fantasy series, is not easily reducible to a single ideology. I’d personally argue that Harry Potter espouses a fairly basic liberal/progressive worldview, yet I know there are critics who would put it in other political realms, from conservative to Marxist. Many of these popular series are a woven-together collection of interesting tropes and storylines that expand rather than reduce our understanding of the world, addressing themes of injustice, tyranny, and exclusion without being overly didactic. And that’s their beauty and their wide-open appeal to young people whose lives are full of injustices, but often feel very small.