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Hogwarts and Multiculturalism

November 25, 2010

Some Christian apologists like John Granger[1] and Travis Prinzi[2] have been over-enthusiastic in claiming Christian basis for the Harry Potter series. In fact, much of the symbols and signs in the series indicate towards a secular, multicultural world where religion plays a very marginal and personal role, if any. The public space in the wizarding world is dominated by non-religious secular ethics with pagan motifs abound. Paganism cannot be called religion as such as it has no founder, no one true book, no prophet, no particular beginning and no divided humanity.[3] In fact, just like Hinduism, it is a way of life. Using pagan motifs does not make the series religious. But it does make a point: the Christian hatred of everything pagan and non-Christian is absolutely not shared by Rowling. We know this by her own admission.

“Of course, Hogwarts is a multi-faith school.”[4]

When she herself admits that Hogwarts is a multi-faith school it would be vain to claim her world as promoting Christianity or any other religion. In an interview to the Time Magazine in 2007, she expressed that she does not want to promote one religion over another.

“The values in the books, she observes, are by no means exclusively Christian, and she is wary of appearing to promote one faith over another rather than inviting people to explore and struggle with the hard questions.”[5]

Her statement is supported by the content of her books. Hogwarts does not have an official religion. Nobody is bound to follow a belief. The students are all from different backgrounds, races, cultures and nationalities.

Lee Jordan is black. He is one of the most important Gryffindor students. He is the announcer for Gryffindor Quidditch team and is a staunch supporter of Harry. Like every other Gryffindor, he fights against the forces of Voldemort in the Battle of Hogwarts.

There is the member of the Ministry of Magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt who is also black and whose action in the seventh book saves the marriage party of Bill Weasley.

Cho Chang is Chinese by race. She enjoys a brief relationship with Harry in the fifth book, but then separates from him and keeps pining for her former boyfriend Cedric.

Patil twins are Indian and Hindu. One is in Gryffindor and the other is in Ravenclaw. At the ball, in the fourth book, Harry gets to dance with Parvati Patil, when he cannot think of anyone else. And of course, there are Caucasian white students, who are the majority. Just like the modern reality in Britain where many students from India, Pakistan, Africa and China are studying, Hogwarts also has students from all over the world.

In addition, we do not find any mention of church in her books. Through the entire length of more than four thousand pages she does mention the world ‘church’ even once. Similarly we do not find any temples, synagogues or mosques in Hogwarts. This shows a secular, multi-culturalist world and not a religious one. But that does not mean that her world is devoid of morality. She thinks that it is perfectly possible to find morality and ethics without any help from religion. She thinks that the moral paradigm of the world of Harry Potter is ‘blindingly obvious’.[6] But this does not mean her characters derive morality from religion.

“Rowling’s religious agenda is very clear: she does not have one. “I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity. I wasn’t trying to do what C.S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it’s perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God.” And now she climbs into a pulpit of her own, and you can tell how much this all matters to her, if it weren’t already clear from her 4,100-page treatise on tolerance. “I’m opposed to fundamentalism in any form,” she says. “And that includes in my own religion.””[7]

She takes special care to distance herself from C S Lewis, the Christian apologist and author of the Chronicles of Narnia. Christian enthusiasts often compare her work with that of C S Lewis, but when she distances herself from him publically, there is little credibility in claiming her to be his successor. The religiosity of Lewis destroys the fun for Rowling.

“Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn’t even read all of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There’s something about Lewis’ sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex,” Rowling says. “I have a big problem with that.””[8]

Lewis confirms to the sexophobia of the Church. His characters are virtually sexless and the ones who find it are discussed in hushed tones and are punished. Susan who is said to have found sex is excluded from the Heaven of Narnia by the Christ figure of Aslan. This irks Rowling particularly. She does not view herself as a religious preacher, and in this she is very different from Lewis who was a Christian peddler.

“And unlike Lewis, whose books are drenched in theology, Rowling refuses to view herself as a moral educator to the millions of children who read her books. “I don’t think that it’s at all healthy for the work for me to think in those terms. So I don’t,” she says. “I never think in terms of What am I going to teach them? Or, What would it be good for them to find out here?””[9]

Lev Grossman remarks that the genre of fantasy literature is very conservative but Rowling’s books are not. The world of Harry Potter is very different from the world of Narnia. The world of Harry Potter is our own world. It is just not perceivable to Muggles like us. Narnia is an entirely different land. It reflects the Christian belief of C S Lewis that something Christian and religious has to exist apart from the mundane world of humans. Again, it distances Rowling from Lewis and Christian fantasy writers. Her world exists side by side the real world and shares a lot of its vices along with its virtues.

“The genre tends to be deeply conservative–politically, culturally, psychologically. It looks backward to an idealized, romanticized, pseudofeudal world, where knights and ladies morris-dance to Greensleeves. Rowling’s books aren’t like that. They take place in the 1990s–not in some never-never Narnia but in modern-day Mugglish England, with cars, telephones and PlayStations. Rowling adapts an inherently conservative genre for her own progressive purposes.”[10]

It is true that she has molded the genre for progressive purposes, in which she herself believes. In a very clear statement Lev Grossman sums it up all.

“Her Hogwarts is secular and sexual and multicultural and multiracial and even sort of multimedia, with all those talking ghosts. If Lewis showed up there, let’s face it, he’d probably wind up a Death Eater.”[11]

Grossman not only distances Rowling from Lewis, but asserts that the kind of man Lewis was would be a villain figure in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. When asked about symbols, Rowling expressly denies that her characters have Biblical parallels, further distancing herself from a religiously-oriented genre.

“…obviously, Dumbledore is not Jesus.”[12]

Her characters are round. They have faults and they commit mistakes. Unlike orthodox Christians, she is not obsessed with the idea of purity.

“I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world.”[13]

Christianity has been historically obsessed with the idea of ‘purity’. It has burned countless women on stake just because they were a little less ‘pure’ than what an ideal Christian should have been. Rowling makes a meaningful departure from this high pedestal and invests her characters with many faults. Characters like James Potter and Snape would be unimaginable for a Christian writer like C S Lewis. They would be damned for ever.

In a scholarly study, University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton remarks that:

“Rowling may do more for libertarianism than anyone since John Stuart Mill.”[14]

This mirrors the secular, multi-culturalist beliefs of J K Rowling. She acknowledges to be leaning towards the Left and supports the Labor Party and its liberal agenda.[15] Her childhood heroine was Jessica Mitford, whom Rowling describes as a ‘self-taught socialist’.

“My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter [Jessica Rowling Arantes] after her.”[16]

Hermione, whose character is largely autobiographical,[17] is devoted to progressive issues, showing Rowling’s liberal commitment.

“Hermione began her post-Hogwarts career at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures where she was instrumental in greatly improving life for house-elves and their ilk. She then moved to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement where she was a progressive voice who ensured the eradication of oppressive, pro-pureblood laws.”[18]

Her admission of Dumbledore being gay further confirms her liberal agenda which calls for a tolerance of homosexuality. Melissa Anneli makes this point:

“Jo Rowling calling any Harry Potter character gay would make wonderful strides in tolerance toward homosexuality…. By dubbing someone so respected, so talented and so kind, as someone who just happens to be also homosexual, she’s reinforcing the idea that a person’s gayness is not something of which they should be ashamed.”[19]

Rowling was criticized severely by many orthodox Christians for calling Dumbledore gay, but she stood her ground. She believes that any kind of external authority should be resisted and supporting the tolerance towards homosexuality is just such an act.

“Authorities, in the form of individuals and institutions, do exist in the Harry Potter universe. But Rowling makes it clear that it is unwise to obey a rule or follow a leader just because they are authoritative.”[20]

In her universe no outer authority should be left unexamined. People should decide for themselves. This is how her characters act.

“Harry decides the most critical ethical questions for himself. The nature of good and evil is not defined for him by religious teachings; “evil” is not spelled out as the Satanism of Christianity or the dark half of a Zoroastrian-style duality theology, or any other clear, easy-to-recognize dogma. Instead Harry and all the other characters assess for themselves what is “right” and what is -wrong.” As the story progresses, Rowling does draw a clear distinction between which characters she considers to he good and which bad. However, no reason is given to justify a person’s inclusion in either category; apparently it is considered self-evident, to both the characters and the reader. (Except, of course, in the case of intentionally ambiguous characters.)”[21]

James Morone makes a very important point. He says that the world of Harry Potter is not conformist, but anarchist.

“Magical headmaster Albus Dumbledore practically awards bonus points for breaking rules. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is unruly, even slightly anarchic. Harry’s classmate Hermione ‘had become a bit more relaxed about breaking the rules,’ writes Rowling near the end of Philosopher’s Stone, ‘and she was much nicer for it.’ There’s more than a touch of anarchy when all the students sing to their own tune. In her books, the kids are the central agents of their own lives. They make choices. Weigh judgments. Wrestle with freedom.”[22]

A writer aiming to spread the message of Christ would not want his world to be anarchist. He would want order and law, confirming to the Christian ethics. The world of Harry Potter is far from conformist; it is anarchist and resolutely refuses to be classified under any moral-system derived from religion. It rather stresses on deriving morality on one’s own.

To sum it up, Hogwarts is a secular, multicultural boarding school with liberal and progressive values. It is not religious; it is not Christian. It promotes the culture of tolerance and promotes many pagan symbols which are not actually religious but bring the long slandered pagan civilization of Europe and Britain into focus again.

 


[1] Granger, John. Looking for God in Harry Potter. New York: SaltRiver. 2006.

[2] Prinzi, Travis. Harry Potter and Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds. New York: Zossima Press. 2008.

[3] McColman, Carl. The Complete’s Idiot’s Guide to Paganism. Indianapolis: Alpha Books. 2002. p. 14

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[20] Lackey, Mercedes. Mapping the World of Harry Potter. Dallas: BenBella Books. 2006. p. 57.

[21] Ibid.  p. 64

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2010 9:58 PM

    On the surface the works of rowling have all the ingredients of paganism because it quashes all the cherished beliefs of monotheism.

    However there is a deeper question : Can the fantasy world of rowling survive the evils in a real society ?
    Pagan societies have sustained for centuries becauese they were built on strong foundations. Hindu society has been able to surive onslaughts by various forces because its warriors (kshatriyas) defended dharma which was understood by sages(brahmans).

    Does harry potter really know what he is protecting or is it merely an emotional patriotic surge ?
    Are we being too quick and judgemental in confusing this liberal multicultural work as a pagan work ?

    Nevertheless, a nice blog 🙂

    • December 7, 2010 12:27 PM

      It does quash all the cherished beliefs of monotheism.

      And of course its not a perfect system. Its jut a story and no story can reflect truly the complexities of real life. It would of course collapse if tested in the real world. But it is not the point…

      Its beyond human power to imagine reality. What’s important is the point which Rowling makes, consciously or unconsciously… and it is not Christian

      And of course it is a multicultural work. I have repeated again and again in many of my posts that is a secular, liberal and multicultural world…

      Paganism is no religion. It is a culture and once one gets this… its easy to reconcile the multiculturalism of Potter’s world with its pagan ethics.

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