Magic is only for those born into it.
Five years on, and Harry Potter still isn’t dead. Eddie Redmayne can now be seen pulling various eccentric poses as New Wizard on the Block Newt Scamander, on thousands of screens for millions more eager fans worldwide in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The patience of every single one of them has been rewarded with the opportunity to revisit the world they love so much, but it’s not quite how they remember it; JK Rowling, on screenwriting duty for the first time since her blockbusting books became blockbusting movies, transplants the magic from modern-day Britain to 1920s New York, a bustling art-deco metropolis whose nostalgic skylines carry plenty of magic of their own, while Newt is the soft-spoken, entertainingly awkward protagonist for the first chapter of the expanded Wizarding World. The new movie touts the virtues of being oneself, and condemns retrogressive mindsets which promote the repression of individuality and openness; an old message, yet more timely than ever (despite its lack of diverse casting, but that’s another topic for conversation). What I want to talk about is why I never quite got Harry Potter, despite numerous attempts with the novels and middling enjoyment of the films. Years passed, and still I couldn’t put my finger on it – but it was within the first fifteen minutes of Fantastic Beasts when I finally figured out why. The seven-book story preaches the triumph of love in the face of overwhelming evil, and does service to that theme rather beautifully – but tragically, it’s all laid over a groundwork of institutionalised elitism and superiority. It’s a dark contradiction at the centre of a beloved property.
When we first meet the Boy Who Lived, he’s an orphan who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. The conceit is hugely Dickensian, which makes his eventual plucking from normalness all the more resonant. ‘You’re a Wizard, Harry,’ is the line you’ll hear quoted with varyingly successful Hagrid impressions, but it also masks the key problem I have with not only JK Rowling’s writings, but the eventual film franchise, and everything to do with Harry, Hermione and Ron’s journey. Shouldn’t Hagrid actually have said, ‘You can be a Wizard, Harry’? (I’d personally have gone for ‘You can overthrow the cultural imbalance inherent in the system, Harry’. Admittedly, it’s not as catchy.)
Being propelled from obscurity is a thought we’ve all entertained. What kid of a certain age hasn’t dreamt of receiving a letter from Hogwarts in the mail? That sense of being ‘chosen’ is crucial to the books’ appeal, the notion that even if your life is awful, the unexpected can still happen and change everything wildly for the better. But critically, there’s one thing that slips unnoticed under the radar of most readers of the books, and the films they eventually watched: being ‘chosen’ seemingly has nothing to do with the kind of person you were, are, or aim to be. It only has to do with your lineage, what you were born into. As an idea embraced by almost everyone, the wondrous possibility of getting into Hogwarts has acted as an enticing scent veiling the repugnant odour beneath – and it looks like it’s been largely ignored.
You see, Harry is whisked away to a magical place indeed – one of privilege. Why? Because he was born into it: he’s a Wizard by blood, and purely because of that, he’s allowed to enter a secret society excluding those without extraordinary abilities. Of course, you could be ‘Muggle-born’ – that is, born to non-magical parents – but this is still based on dormant genes which reveal themselves in later generations. And once you also realise that the majority of Harry’s experience in this society takes place in a private school – a metaphor of Rowling’s which is either hilariously obvious and knowing, or an unfortunate continuation of some subconscious train of prejudiced thought – it becomes difficult to look at Hogwarts in quite the same way again. Being British myself, this aspect will probably ring much clearer to me than it will for American readers of this article, where the Queen’s English vernacular of Harry’s academic life comes across as less a distanced, stereotyped part of secluded English culture, and more as the ideal of Britishness that’s been accepted by audiences worldwide. As a good sport, I usually find Brit characters with accents predictably based on either Prince Charles or Michael Caine more funny than frustrating – but that’s simply part of the problem when looking at the unfairness clearly apparent in Rowling’s work.
If you look at other massive film franchises such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and even some of the latest Marvel flicks, one theme is hugely apparent in each of them: no matter who you are, or where you’re from, you can accomplish anything. Luke Skywalker is a lowly moisture farmer thrust into an intergalactic war, and accomplishes incredible feats of bravery borne from self-actualisation (of course, in later films we discover his fate is directly linked to his bloodline, but the focus of Star Wars has always rested on themes of family and the acceptance of it). Frodo Baggins? A hobbit who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time – and yet he decides to take control of the situation, instead of relying on inherent excellence. Captain America, one of the most popular protagonists on screen at the moment, started as someone whose body wouldn’t keep up with his spirit, and through his own internal motivations, achieved a symbiosis of both. But what about Tony Stark, a billionaire born into his father’s fortune? Well, that’s the key point I want to make here: you don’t have to let your background define you, and in turn allow those stereotypes to continue just because they always have done. Tony sees the wrongdoings of his original position as effective warlord, and decides to redistribute his wealth into more positive channels – and the Iron Man suit is just a part of that personal change. Same goes for our other favourite billionaire comic character, Batman. There’s the classic Shakespeare line, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’; greatness in the first case doesn’t sound as earned as in the latter two, if you ask me.
As for Mr. Potter? While he amiably sleepwalks through his entitled existence, the core ‘anyone, anywhere’ concept that’s so elemental to popular storytelling is quietly changed, and not for the better. But was Harry’s seeming privilege ever Rowling’s intention? I don’t believe so. As many of you probably know, she came from a background of clinical depression as a single mother on benefits; it’d only be natural for her to want better for her children, fictional or not. It may also be because that while I’ve maintained she’s a great author, she’s not a great writer (believe me, there is a difference), and as a result, such subtextual notions could easily slip through the cracks from that incredible, unfettered imagination of hers. But that’s conjecture on my part, and not much to go on.
Whatever the reasons, there’s still a chance for the imbalance to be explained or rectified within the lore of Rowling’s world. There’s a line in Fantastic Beasts which references the first time wizard and witches were simply not getting on with us Non-Mags, and were forced to go ‘underground’; this would validate them building a secret community away from the prejudiced stares of Muggles. According to Rowling’s writings in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Albus Dumbledore notes that witch-hunts by the Muggles forced the magical community to go into hiding, or having to lead ‘double lives’, and by the seventeenth century, ‘any witch or wizard who chose to fraternise with Muggles became suspect’. It’s clear that Rowling is attempting to build on the race war aspects of her own fictional universe, which is commendable indeed – but it still does nothing to undo the naive, acquiesced nepotism that has seeped in. Rowling goes one step further in Fantastic Beasts, making Newt Scamander the only character who actively speaks out against the harsh partitioning of one kind of person from another. He willingly, if accidentally at first, brings along regular human Kowalski (a loveable Dan Fogler) on his adventure at the admonishment of his fellow witches and wizards. In this, Rowling has created the one hope for her universe to overcome its regularised partisanship. Does she finally recognise it, too? The problem, of course, is that Fantastic Beasts represents the past of her world; at the close of Harry’s own story, and through new play The Cursed Child, the prejudice is still intact. Magic and Muggles still do not mix. Does this mean Newt’s optimism is misplaced? Or will something happen in the planned future Fantastic Beasts movies that’ll provide it with a wider context, a commentary on the real-life, post-election world we find ourselves in today?
You don’t need me to tell you that the series of Harry Potter books, movies, and more are imperative in getting many young people – old, too – interested in fiction, in storytelling, in escapism. That’s a term I’m always wary of using, but in regards to getting lost in the creations of someone else’s mind, the Potterverse is nigh-unbeatable; the range of characters, the breathtaking construction of its world, and the tiny nuances that are found in both exhibit an imagination that has buoyed the spirits of readers (and viewers) of all ages since the start of this century, a time where cynicism is rife. Its magic is like water in a desert; it’d just go down easier if it promoted inclusivity.
It’s paramount – no, crucial – to remember that while the existence of a higher class is problematic, and something that’ll probably always exist, the individuals within it are still capable of breaking down the walls and readdressing the imbalance between perceived nobility and lack of it. It’s wrong for the Wizarding World to discriminate on that point, but in turn, it’s also wrong for us Muggles and No-Mags to return the bigotry. No one can control the circumstances into which one is born, and that goes both ways. Only in being open-minded and open-hearted, just like Harry and his friends, will we achieve the world in real life that they deserve in fiction.