Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic

I’m going to write a few posts about Harry Potter in anticipation of seeing the latest, and final, film.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 Alyssa Rosenberg has a good list of the political lessons found in the Harry Potter books and films. I can’t help but take issue with her #3, however:

3. Bureaucrats are heroes. Whether it’s Mr. Wealsey’s unheralded service in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, or the lessons of Kingsley Shacklebolt’s time as an auror that made him a strong leader of the Order of the Phoenix, and later, Minister of Magic, bureaucrats are often heroes in Rowling’s universe. When the bureaucracy’s corrupted by people like Dolores Umbridge under Voldemort’s rule, it’s a genuine tragedy.

I’m not sure about this. It strikes me that a good portion of the time Harry and Dumbledore are actively disobeying and undermining the bureaucracy which is often slow, stubborn, and mired in denial. Even item #5 on Alyssa’s list – a critique of Cornelius Fudge’s character – helps bore this out. And the arch-bureaucrat Arthur Weasley comes off as more an exception to the rule, though his fascination with all things Muggle puts him at odds with his role as an investigator with the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office.

Harry Potter is not a story of the evils of bureaucracies either, but it is often about breaking the rules. The Ministry of Magic is nothing if not a collection of often arbitrary rules and the petty people who seek to enforce them. In some ways the resistance to the Ministry by both the Hogwarts academic institution and the Death Eaters is oddly similar. Both Dumbledore and Voldemort hew to older rules, to more ancient traditions, and neither can be trifled to adhere to the political whims and bureaucratic red-tape of the Ministry. They do so for very, very different reasons obviously, but they do so nonetheless. Harry is cut from the same cloth.

In the end, the bureaucracy fails and it is the rule-breakers who must come to the rescue – time and time again, right up to the bitter end. If anything, the books help show us that bureaucrats should not be relied upon and that individuals and civil society must be turned to when government becomes too self-serving or corrupt to carry its own weight.

The Potter books are not anti-government, either. Rowling is a liberal and the books are filled with liberal values of tolerance and equality. But they are realistic portrayals of the many ways that power corrupts even well-meaning institutions and actors. Dumbledore’s character is perhaps the most powerful of all in these books, and he constantly turns away from power, even though that costs him his life.

Are there more political lessons in these books that are missing from Alyssa’s list? What do you think?

And will you be donning your wizard’s robes this weekend?

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40 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic

  1. There’s a reason most Potterheads use, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” as their opening line.

    > They are realistic portrayals of the many ways that
    > power corrupts even well-meaning institutions and
    > actors. Dumbledore’s character is perhaps the most
    > powerful of all in these books, and he constantly
    > turns away from power, even though that costs him
    > his life.

    Yes, this. Well, as realistic as a portrayal you can have when your subjects are all wizards.

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      • Oh, sure.

        The dance in Potter (or any other fantasy fiction) is to plausibly deny the heroes the mystical power to fix everything, while still making the mystical power of the paranormal interesting to the story. Rowling does a good job of this in the Potter series, mostly by *not* teaching us too much about magic. Which is funny for a series that takes place almost entirely in a school, but she makes it work.

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      • C. S. Lewis wrote an excellent essay (published, I believe, under the title “On Other Worlds”) about the unique space fantasy occupies in literature as a way of illustrating certain elusive moral values. It’s a fantastic defense of the genre by one of its better writers.

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  2. 6. Inherited wealth can be corrupting. Clearly, the obnoxiousness of the Malfoys is crying out for a good, hard progressive taxing. On the other hand, can you imagine Voldemort at a Tea Party?

    I am unimpressed by this lesson (though I personally loathe inherited wealth) as the entire premise of the books is “inheritence is destiny” (like that other series in the 70’s about wizards a long time ago in a galaxy far far away).

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    • But it’s not.

      I’ll give Rowling credit for this plot twist; Harry is the chosen one not because of the circumstances of his birth, but because Voldemort chose him.

      A refreshing bit of original take on prophecy in an otherwise fairly boilerplate bit of fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Harry Potter books, and I think that J.K. has a fine writing style, but they’re hardly the most original thing ever written.

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      • I’ll give Rowling credit for this plot twist; Harry is the chosen one not because of the circumstances of his birth, but because Voldemort chose him.

        Because I haven’t read any of the books and haven’t seen either of the two parter finale, I could be wrong about the plot.

        I was not talking about inheritted wealth, but rather genetic (and varying degrees ubermenchen) inheritance. Harry gets chosen by Voldermort, but is able to repel him due to some innate power* – something he *is*, not something he *does*

        The whole series is about a bunch of people that are simply ‘better’ than other people. True, a prime conflict is that the good guys are basically about ‘muggles are people too’ and the bad guys are not, but the former group’s views are still essentially based on noblesse oblige, and not drawn from any core Enlightment Liberal values (i.e. ‘all [persons] are created equal’).

        *this is the part of the plot it looks like I’m wrong about based on your post, if the circumstances of Potter’s parents’ death are more fully revealed in these last two movies.

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  3. I tend to dislike the search for lessons in works of fiction, not because they aren’t ever there, but rather because too often the debate about the merits of a work of fiction get reduced to judging the value of the lessons it allegedly provides. As Flannery O’Connor observed, this reductive reading is all too common in Catholic circles (which I frequent) because a large number of Catholics (and I imagine others) don’t know how to read fiction. They read it only as affirming or not affirming their worldview.

    Okay, with that caveat out of my system, let me throw my hesitation aside and draw a political lesson from Harry Potter: human fulfillment comes not from the exercise of power, but the giving of love.

    Yes, this lesson affirms my worldview.

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    • Tolkien genially detested CS Lewis’ allegory. Why can’t a good story just be a good story, with heroes and villains, fate and good luck and perseverance and the whole panoply of attendant characters?

      I despair of moralizers and lesson-drawers: they are the very death of storytelling. They certainly ruined the Bible for me, or tried to. It wasn’t until I came in contact with the Jewish tradition of scholarship that the Bible was un-ruined for me. Give it a go sometime, especially if you don’t buy into all the rubbishy religious dogma and cant surrounding that wonderful book of literature. You might be surprised. There are some fine stories therein contained.

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      • Kyle & BlaiseP –

        Listen, I’m all for reading stories as stories and not reading too much into them. In fact, this is typically how I read stories and it’s not until long after the fact, until long after they are well-digested, that I even attempt to draw any lessons from them. This is why I am a horrible critic and could never do literary analysis.

        But after the fact, it can be fun to talk about a book, to find lessons in it or swim in the opinions of others for a while. There is a difference between seeking meaning and over-analysis.

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        • Agreed. I’m not anti-lesson-drawing, but against reducing a story to its supposed lessons. As I too frequently come across this kind of reductive reading, my initial response is typically (and perhaps unfairly) knee-jerk and negative, which admittedly was how I first reacted to Alyssa Rosenberg’s post, even though she wasn’t expressing this kind of reading. Apologies for being a killjoy.

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          • The cherry tree blossoms for only a short time, and this is seen as a symbol of life’s evanescence, but that doesn’t mean that someone intentionally bred cherry trees that would blossom for only a short time because they specifically wanted to create a symbol of life’s evanescence.

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            • PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

              Which didn’t stop Twain from explaining that “Huck Finn is a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”

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  4. With the understanding that some bureaucracies are necessary, and if run well they are beneficial to society, #3 above is true. Honest and hard working folks doing beneficial tasks are heroes, period.

    The examples of Mr. Weasley and Mr. Shacklebolt as heroes rings true – of the people in the Ministry of Magic, they are two who recognized what their jobs were, and performed them with no motives except to do their jobs well. They had no desire for personal gain or political drive, unlike the bureaucrats who were flagged in the stories as being evil or incompetent (Malfoy, Umbridge, Fudge).

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    • I don’t think we can lump the aurors in with other bureaucrats. And really, even if you come to the books with the opinion that bureaucrats are doing the hard thankless work of heroes, what in the books themselves supports this reading?

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  5. Lesson 3a: if a supernaturally powerful evil wizard is coming back to life and trying to take over the world, bureaucracy may operate too slowly to prevent it, necessitating that prophecied chosen ones and their allies go around it.

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  6. I may see the movie. But only once I have finished reading A Dance of Dragons (and probably after I have spent an hour thrashing on the floor in the agonies of R.R. Martin withdrawal when I hit the end of the book).
    I can see how it was cut into two books. A Feast for Crows has all the drear and Dance of Dragons has all the fire (though I’m dying to know what happens with Sansa).

    But on topic: One thing that’s struck me about the wizarding world; isn’t it sortof an NRA dream? I mean every person is essentially in posession of the equivalent of a gun of some size or other. You’d think people’d be more polite. Also the movies treat magic as essentially gun like; in the last one for instance Harry&Co were hiding behind a lunch counter as spells wizzed by and spattered against their cover.

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    • Well, not really – wands are all-purpose tools, used for loads of everyday tasks. And the fact that it’s very difficult to actually perform the Killing Curse successfully [fake!Moody says in Goblet of Fire that his class of students “could all point your wands at me and say the words, and I doubt I’d get more than a nosebleed] means that it’s not equivalent at all.

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  7. Institutions in general won’t fare very well in the Potterverse. The press is stupid and sensationalistic, the Ministry’s main concern is to hide unpleasant truths, even Hogwarts has many incompetent and useless instructors, and is taken over by miscreants both before and after Dumbledore’s death.

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  8. I also take issue with Alyssa’s second point:

    2. Universal health care is pretty much a necessity. Can you imagine what Neville Longbottom’s financial future would be like if he had to pay for his parents’ long-term care at St. Mungo’s? Magic’s an incredibly dangerous business, and whether you’re getting all the bones accidentally removed from your arm or getting bitten by a giant snake, it’s lucky that St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries appears to operate along the same lines as the National Health Service.

    Certainly, universal health care exists in the wizarding world, but its existence isn’t a message. The books were written by a British woman. Universal health care is a fact of life Britain [as it is in every developed nation outside America]; it’s no surprise that it would be transposed to the wizarding world.

    To my view, the major political lessons of the books are:
    – Wealth and social influence are a corrupting force on government, with the Malfoys being the most obvious example.
    – Poverty is not a moral flaw. In fact, valuing one’s principles over worldly success is a virtue. Contrast Arthur and Percy Weasley.
    – Authority should not be admired for its own sake (probably the primary lesson of the Percy Weasley storyline, and a trait Hermione is rapidly cured of by her friendship with the less rulebound Ron and Harry.)

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  9. It always struck me that a big difference between the Harry Potter world and the world we inhabit is how unconnected the greater wizarding community is. With the exception of the Triwizard Tournament and Quidditch World Cup, it seems that Great Britain’s wizards live a life of their own. This seems especially frightening as Voldemort and Co. begin to take over, leaving only the outnumbered folks at the Order of the Phoenix t o fight the coming nemesis. Where are the other wizards of the world to assist? At least in LOTR the disparate groups banded together to fight Sauron, even though they were not traditionally allies. If something of this magnitude happened in our universe, we’d jump to NATO, call a meeting of the G20, issue proclamations of unity, etc, whether that be for better or worse… But, alas, all’s well that ends well.

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    • I’d call it an ironic reflection of fiction from across the pond where only America and americans can save the world from various forms of global threats.

      Also, in the end Voldemort is not even a global threat yet, he is the leader of the opposing side in a civil war.

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  10. For all the political lessons in Harry Potter, it’s perplexing how little actual politics there seems to be in the wizard world. The Minister of Magic seems to be elected, and the Ministry is sensitive to public opinion, but nobody ever votes for anything and there’s no change in government during the seven-year timespan of the books. Instead, the Ministry seems to be a self-contained bureaucracy more or less divorced from electoral politics.

    What’s the deal? Do wizards vote in British elections? Did John Major award a portfolio to Cornelius Fudge?

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  11. I seriously wonder about anyone who is going to divine serious political lessons from a tween fantasy novel. It is about what would expect from a lefty blog.

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