24 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Zeitgeist

Like millions of Americans, I read the seventh Harry Potter book like a short story, in one session, within days of its July 21st release date. There are, in fact, a number of much older science fiction/fantasy classics that I haven't read, and that are worth reading, which would be much cheaper to get. For example, I have yet to read Robert A. Heilein's "Stanger in a Strange Land" (1961).

The main reason for this (and yes, reading it within hours of release is over the top), is that one of the main reasons I read science fiction and fantasy is to capture the zeitgeist of our society. Heilein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," for example, is a classic for giving voice to an emerging sexual revolution and for catching the emerging cultural counter-revolution that arose with it, conservative Christianity. But, our society has moved on tremendously from 1961 in the face of charging roles of women in education and the workforce, birth control, STDs, increased awareness of non-consentual sex as an issue, and the moving target that is conservative Christianity. What was cutting edge then, is old news now, and misses the "under the radar" and often not formally articulated observations that newer literature has about what is going on in our society.

No author has had a greater cultural impact on the first decade of the 21st century than J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Its sales are unrivaled and equally important, it has been a rare breakout book that has appealled to both children and to adult readers, to readers in Britain, the United States and the rest of the world. Rowling has achieved the rare feat of being relevant to a vast number of people at this particular time. So, it is a fair question to ask what the Harry Potter series says about the zeitgeist of the first decade of the 21st century. What we learn from this mirror, mirror on the wall is in some ways flattering, and in others troubling.

Bloodfeuds and Birthright

Perhaps most depressing is the notion that a story that at one level is basically about bloodfeuds in a society not that different in size or character from those Professor Miller writes about from 11th century Iceland, remain so relevant today.

Birth is not destiny in Rowling's world, but it is a powerful force. Not every child of non-magical parents (muggles) is herself non-magical, and not every child of magical parents is herself magincal (such children are called squibs). But, in her world, magical potential is largely something you are born with, which manifests itself by early elementary school age, not something that can simply be learned. Political bents and romantic inclinations too, while not destiny, are strongly influenced by family history.

Harry Potter's destiny is to a great extent established before he is old enough to remember his parents, and his temperment, abilities and personality all meticulously mapped to his paternity and early childhood. Similarly, Hermione Granger succeeds in her studies, not because she was fantastic teachers, but because she is so exceptionally bright. For the Weasleys and the Malfoys, social status, political views and even school house affiliations are all but predestined by family ties. There is social mobility and change, but it is decidedly the exception.

This isn't an unusual choice in the contemporary science fiction/fantasy genre. For example, Kelley Armstrong's Otherworld series, and Greg Bear's Darwin's Children series both feature exceptional characters who are born that way. The most recently release three episodes of the Star Wars movie series placed new emphasis on the inherited nature of Jedi abilities, something hinted at in the first three episodes, and also played up in the parallel books in that science fiction world (which are generally viewed as "canonical"). Indeed, the latest Star Wars series takes this ability to the point where it can be quantified with a number spit out by a quick, portable blood test.

Part of the motivation for this is that it is manageable from a plausible plot perspective. It puts an inherent limitation on the number of exceptionally talented people in a natural and plausible way. It allows for multigenerational plot lines. It turns dry geneology into plot worthy mystery.

But, it is also a choice that makes a certain amount of sense to write about now in particular.

In the late 18th, the 19th and the early 20th century the world was busy shedding the hereditary principle as relevant to modern society, as start class divisions, aristocracy and absolute monarchy were displaced by market based economic systems and democratically based political systems. There was a widely held belief that if rough equality of opportunity was provided, that rough equality of outcome would naturally follow.

The late 20th century and early 21st century, however, have seen the pendulum of conventional wisdom go the other way. We are increasingly learning that birth and early childhood do have an immense impact on intellectual ability, personality, physical health, and propensity to be impacted by mental illness. Further, a rise in "assortative marriage", has accentunated the relevance of these divided, shaping a new era of social class division on a meritocratic basis for the current generation that may validate those class divisions long after their meritocratic basis disappears.

We have gone 24 years with just three families in the White House, and if Hillary Clinton, the front runner in the party more likely than not to win in the 2008 election wins, that could stretch to as many as 32 years of Presidential rule by just three families. The power of incumbency has similarly ossified American Congressional politics, with many members of Congress serving several decade careers and sometimes having children that carry on their tradition. And, the United States is hardly exceptional here. India's national politics, for example, are even more dynastic. We've also seen monarchies either de facto created, or re-established, in North Korea and Thailand, and still relevant in the political process in both Spain and Afghanistan. The "anyone can grow up to be President" myth, while it has always been a myth, hasn't seemed so far fetched since FDR was the permanent maximum leader of the United States through the better part of the Great Depression and World War II.

The notion in the series that an underclass of house-elves isn't all that interested in freedom, even when a vanguard of a social revolution is pushing for it on their behalf, is similarly an uncomfortable one against the backdrop of a strong creed of equality that seeems to be losing steam.

Indeed, the very notion of a wizarding world highly segregated from the general public, while good for versimilitude, contrasts sharply with almost all of the recent "contempoary fantasy" writing by American authors, which features supernatural creatures co-existing in a much more integrated fashion with the larger modern society.

Guidance to growing children from teachers, parents and community members is still relevant in Rowling's world, but their role in providing moral guidance dwarfs their role in fostering ability.


At a situational level Rowling presents a comfortable, humanistic moral framework that emphasizes the personal responsibility for the choices you make, your responsibility to look beyond yourself, the way that duty arises from the love you feel for those around you, tolerance, and empathy. Her characters manage to make it through seven lengthy volumes of difficult moral decisions without Ten Commandments, divine guidance, or even more than the sketchiest formal moral code.

Indeed, in most respects, the series is critique of using ends to justify means with high level moral theory, of conservatism, of blind adherence to social class (even though class distinctions are, in her world, on average, real ones), and of unfair authoritarianism. On the other hand, it contains almost no real criticism of great wealth per se. While the Weasley's who are salt of the Earth morally wise are economically struggling, while many of the powerful conservative families in the book are economically well established, many characters with considerable wealth don't seem to be corrupted by that wealth. Libertarians in her world usually come down with the good guys, not the authoritarian and elitists bad guys.

Anything that draws up life scripts for largely secular living (there are Christmas and Easter breaks, and Halloween celebration, but all of the decidely ceremonial deist variety), is a plus, even if those life scripts are in a fictional context. Better good kids than godly kids.

Love, Family and Women

Science Fiction and fantasy are growing up. While the protagonists of the Harry Potter series are aged 11-17, this series, like a lot of recent science fiction and fantasy writing, has lots of well developed characters who are adults or even, gasp, parents or grandparents.

Part of what makes a good share of the subplots compelling is that Rowling takes young love, with all of its ups, downs, false starts and hard won lessons learned about relationships seriously. She emphatically rejects the notion that there is some firm divide between puppy love and serious adult courtship, and she likewise has the patience to allow relationships to develop gradually, leaving readers hanging on the slowly declining uncertainty of the relationships involved until the marriages and baby carriages arrive near the end of the saga. The epilogue also has those baby carriages start to appear at a pretty advanced age (mid-20s), particularly for a society like hers in which your formal education ends at 17 or 18 years old, followed immediately by adult life, although this is probably as much a matter, again of censor influence and target audience of internal plausibility.

This is a breath of fresh air in fictional media climate that has to a great extent been so focused on censorship limitations about what shouldn't be said, to the point that a sense of "sex is bad" grows pervasive.

Offering examples of positive, but not tremendously idealized relationships between young men and women is a valuable contribution. Almost all of us are going to spend most of our lives paired off (sequentially, if not monogamously), and the vast majority of us are going to start that adventure at the ages that Rowling's characters do, rather than than waiting until we are adults legally. Rowling, of course, due to her targete audience, does not herself go explicitly beyond "snogging" and heavy petting, until there is a marriage in hand, but this airburshed physical sexuality is quite sufficient to get to the relationship issues that physical sexuality creates.

Also, in line with the zeitgeist, is the role of women in the series. The series certainly rejects the notion that there aren't important differences between men and women, and revels in the tensions that those differences create to the point of stereotype. But, while gender distinctions are there more strongly than in much science fiction and fantasy (and I don't recall any homosexual themes at all in the text), these distinctions do not exclude women from any professional roles although gender may influence how those roles are handled. Also, none of the marriages in the book, even the hard core middle class British muggle Dursleys or the (bad guy) death eater families, are profoundly patriachical, in the sense that family decision making authority is vested solely in the man, nor are their any arranged marriages -- women may be different in marriages, but exploitation of women in relationships is strictly short term. There are home makers, but those home makers are influential in their famililes, not order takers.


While one normally doesn't think of a moderate message as being powerful, ultimately that is what Rowling's world offers. It is practical, non-dogmatic, and marks the large society's increasing discomfort not just with rigid distinctions on the basis of gender and ancestery, but also with counterfactual unwillingness to recognize the vast impact of gender and ancestery, on average, if not always in individual cases.

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