Earlier this summer, children of all ages stayed up well past their bedtimes — until midnight — to enjoy the magical release of the latest Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Despite his British pedigree, Harry Potter resonates with Americans. Harry Potter and his friends routinely break the rules in their quest to catch the bad guy, like Western gunslingers that have to evade the law in order to see that it is ultimately better enforced. Americans are often accused of being simple-minded moralists, but — like Rowling’s novels — we are well aware of the complexity of good and evil without losing sight of the forest for the trees. Indeed, a certain kind of naïve innocence — the ability to be horrified or shocked — is the precondition for being able to recognize evil and act to prevent further atrocities.
The parallels don’t end there. Harry and his friends at Hogwarts must not only fight You-Know-Who, but also have to contend with the Ministry of Magic, a giant bureaucratic organization whose leaders are more interested in preserving their own prerogatives than recognizing the coming storm. Sound familiar?
J. K. Rowling has certainly tapped into a gestalt children reflexively empathize with and understand: Whatever comforting myths adults peddle in softer times, evil is a reality that must be confronted, albeit often with tragic and long lasting consequences. Children know that the protective fences their parents build around them are more fragile than adults are wont to admit, and that there are real monsters lurking in the shadows where grown-ups would prefer not to look. Sadly enough, most modern education is hell-bent on erasing any talk of evil and tragedy from childhood, robbing future generations of their natural moral vocabulary and resources.
Thankfully, every generation seems to come into the world yearning to be reminded of life’s central truths, and Harry Potter fulfills this need admirably in our otherwise P.C.-dominated culture.
Fantasy novels, in contrast to science fiction, have traditionally embraced these classic moral archetypes. Whereas science fiction often unabashedly embraces utopian visions or radically different futures, fantasy novels — at least the fantasy novels I recall from my own youth, from Stephen R. Donaldson to Tolkien — are in many ways implicitly conservative in tone, thoughtful, and challenging.
Tolkien’s mythology not only echoes perennial themes of good and evil, it tackles the problem of tyranny head on: Power corrupts, and no mortal can long resist the allure of absolute power. We know very little about Sauron’s history, and we don’t need to know: His lust for absolute power is archetypical of all tyrants, at all times. Lord Voldemort would’ve immediately sensed a kindred soul in Tolkien’s arch-villain.
Unfortunately, while Sauron and Lord Voldemort call to mind Shakespeare’s Richard III, most villains that are offered to children these days parallel Magneto, the arch-villain of the X-Men film series. Magneto is portrayed first and foremost as a victim — something the film never lets us forget — of the Holocaust. He has seen the evil that lies in the hearts of men first hand, and is determined to protect his own people — mutants — at any cost, including genocide against “normals.”
In the X-Men universe (and much of American academia), fear of the “Other” (racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia) is the original sin that inevitably leads to genocide, and the film’s not-so-subtle message is that discrimination engenders a vicious cycle that will repeat itself until we cleanse our hearts of its invidious effects. This is, in fact, the essential liberal fairy tale.
But is blind prejudice really the only, or even primary, source of human evil?
Indeed, X-Men: United undermines its own trite message when, in an earlier scene, Magneto tells the young, bitter, mutant Pyro that he is “a god among insects” and that he shouldn’t believe anyone who tells him differently. Perhaps Magneto has been reading Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle teaches that politics is the unique domain of human beings; gods and animals have no need for the compromises and common goals that mark politics as a distinctly human endeavor.
Compared to “normal” human beings (in Harry Potter’s world, “muggles”) Magneto draws the conclusion that he — and other mutants like him — are veritable gods, and that his powers liberate him from the conventional moral and political constraints that bind his fellow citizens.
Magneto’s experience of the Holocaust is a convenient plot device that explains away Magneto’s desire to rule without taking it seriously on its own grounds. Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam drew similar conclusions and no amount of sensitivity training — the postmodern response to fear of the Other — would have convinced them otherwise. Recognizing the permanence of evil — as a child or an adult — requires facing the fact that evil is not, or at least not only, the product of bad circumstances or insufficient empathy. It is natural fact. Children learn this firsthand from schoolyard bullies, although adults try hard to wish this initial experience away.
Rowling’s books belong to a tradition of moral rhetoric for children that strengthens and prepares them to face the reality of adult ambiguity and evil — including tyranny. Postmodern optimism portrays the problems of politics as accidental and ephemeral, coddling both adults and children from the harsh realities of politics and the responsibilities that come with liberty.
Rowling’s novels manage to tackle the problem of evil without — at least thus far — lapsing into trite sentimentalism — and for that we can be eminently thankful. The magic of her novels — like all great fantasy — is that it allows us to see our own world more clearly.
— Paul Howard is a writer in New York City.