Saturday, 9 January 2010

Harry Potter: Part 5 - 'Our' world, the Muggle world, and the Magic world

Suman Gupta writes in Re-Reading Harry Potter that the Muggle world, as presented in the books, is absolutely not analogous to 'our' world - the world in which you sit reading this blog, the world in which readers all over the country read the Harry Potter books. He argues that "the Muggle world is presented within the embrace of the Magic world, and presented so as to draw the reader away from it and into the Magic world" (p. 89). That is, the Magic world is constantly superior to the Muggle world, and never seen as having any real value in itself except as a point of comparison to the Magic world. Invariably, when such comparisons are made, the Muggle world is seen as inferior. (A quick example from the most recent film: Slughorn, on disovering that Hermione's Muggle parents are dentists, asks, "And is that considered a dangerous profession?" Hermione responds with a faintly humorous anecdote about her father being bitten by a patient, but compared to the very real dangers Hogwarts and the Magic world are facing from Lord Voldemort and his minions, this seems pretty ludicrous. Even in levels of danger, the Muggle world just doesn't cut the mustard.)

Simulaneously, Andrew Blake sees the popularity of Harry Potter as related to the rise of 'Cool Britannia' in the UK from 1997 onwards, with the landslide election of Tony Blair - who, he notes dryly, conspicuously brought his Fender guitar into No. 10 along with the rest of his furniture. The books become a kind of manifesto for professional creativity and hip urban lifestyles (The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, pp. 46-66). By comparison, John Major's nostalgia for "warm beer, shadows on county cricket grounds, and old maids cycling to church for Sunday communion" (Blake's words, p. 23) no longer appeared "timeless" as Major claimed, but out of touch and old-fashioned.

I think both arguments are true. Fred and George Weasley do represent the creative use of magic both to mock authorities (by allowing students to escape lessons with fake injuries), but also to protect the good (at the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, we are told that they now do a profitable sideline in selling protective magical gadgets to those who fight against Voldemort). As the war grows more serious, the action is relocated from the country boarding-school, Hogwarts, to the metropolis - in Deathly Hallows, Harry leaves suburbia and breaks into Gringotts and the Ministry of Magic to further his progress. This is presented as a natural rite of passage: he describes how he is going to leave Hogwarts at the end of the sixth book, as it seems to be the only way of making a real difference. In order to search for the Horcruxes, he has to travel. (Compare the easy travelling allowed by Apparition, Floo powder, broomsticks and Thestrels to the horse-and-cart or foot travel available to most people until midway through the twentieth century: modern mobility is very much at the centre of the wizarding world.)

For this, he visits the now pretty much extinct Godric's Hollow, where his parents died sixteen or so years before. He has a chat with 'Bathilda Bagshot', who turns out to be a dead body being controlled by a snake - proof if ever we needed it that the countryside is no longer a fit place for wisdom to reside. The countryside woodland areas where Harry, Hermione and Ron hide during their planning sessions in Deathly Hallows - and the Burrow, of course - are places of retreat, somewhere for respite and thinking time, not action. Occasionally this peace is disturbed, when the Death Eaters myteriously get wind of their location, for instance - until it turns out that their use of Voldemort's name broadcasts their whereabouts as effectively as Morse code. This is an unnatural threat to the tranquility of the countryside, and once they learn how to hide properly, things improve. They can receive the pirate radio station that updates them with the progress of the resistance movement (is it just me that thinks of Charles de Gaulle's defiant radio broadcast from London in 1940?), but to face the real enemy, they must venture into the city.

Let's look briefly at the first chapter of the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, just to cement the opposition of town and country - and Magic and Muggles, modern and old-fashioned. We are in Little Hangleton, location of the Riddle House and Frank Bryce, its elderly caretaker. There is a strong sense of community - "the villagers", "the Little Hangletons", "the whole of Little Hangleton" all act as one, and they are contemptuous of the "rich, snobbish and rude" residents of Riddle House - clearly the lords of the manor. News about the murders and subsequent arrests, when it comes, is first heard in the village pub, the Hanged Man. The gossip spreads quickly. References are made to World War II as a reason for Frank's oddities - Frank appears to have been a bit shell-shocked, and consequently lives as something of a hermit.

This is a recognisable post-war village - which doesn't seem to have modernised much beyond the 1950s, by the way (Blake reckons the Weasleys are also characterised as a typical 50s family - p. 65) - and it is compared extensively to the upper-class Riddles. I've written before about the analogy between Slytherin and the aristocracy, so I won't go into this, but it clear enough whose side we are meant to be on.

Then something bizarre happens. The report of the Riddles' deaths comes back, with "a tone of unmistakeable bewilderment" and "frustrated police", because there are no marks on the Riddles' bodies, only expressions of terror on their faces. Immediately we know that this is the work of magic - probably the same spell that killed Harry's parents. But the Muggles don't know this, and what small indication we get of scientific inquiry here doesn't help them in the least. They are ignorant and helpless. (Ditto the Muggle PM at the beginning of HBP, whose scientists can't explain the mysterious collapse of a bridge or an enormous hurricane - which we as readers know to be the work of the Death Eaters.)

Now the villagers, and Frank, are objects of real mockery. "Old Frank" is "devoted" to the empty house for no good reason. He reacts to intruders by "brandishing his stick and yelling croakily at them" - small fry for someone who is about to be murdered by the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all time. He wakes up with his bad leg stiff, and decides to make up a hot-water bottle to try and soothe it. (No modern painkillers or magical Pomfrey-potions for him.)

Then he goes into the house, and is immediately confounded by what he overhears of Voldemort and Wormtail's conversation. For instance:

Frank inserted a gnarled finger into his ear and rotated it. Owing, no doubt, to a build-up of earwax, he had heard the word 'Quidditch', which was not a word at all.

This is a classic example of dramatic irony. We know that Quidditch is not only a word but a sport, and exists in a magical world of which Frank is entirely ignorant. The additional "no doubt" increases our glee: whilst he is busy being sure about his own narrow-mindedness, we have access to this exciting, privileged world where hot-water bottles aren't needed for sore legs at all.

It goes on in this fashion - our understanding of what is happening increases in direct proportion to Frank's confusion, until he realises that Voldemort is a killer and knows, with basic and accurate instinct, that he is evil. But it's too late. He remains out of the know right to the end, as he is screaming so loudly he does not even hear the words of the spell that ends his life. At which point "the boy called Harry Potter" wakes up.

Frank, the ignorant, along with the other residents of Little Hangleton, drops brutally out of the story, but we are allowed to continue because of our previous, privileged knowledge, our awareness that these events are closely connected to things we have seen of Harry Potter already. Although we cannot do Magic, we are far closer to the Magical world than the Muggle world (which, given the Muggle world is largely represented by the Dursleys, is probably just as well).

Not only is this a kind of snobbery towards 'normal' people -as Blake puts it, Mondeo Man and Fiesta Female (p. 25) - but it repeats exactly the hierarchising effect of the Hogwarts house system. We are not all equal: some have the fate of the world more snugly in their palms because of their innate ability. (A paper by C. E. Sleeter from 1993 ('Power and Privilege in White Middle-Class Feminist Discussions of Gender and Education'*) defines privilege as the unearned and taken-for-granted advantages gained by being born into a particular group. If that isn't an apt description of the Magical world, I'd like to know what is.

The Harry Potter books are certainly snobby, despite their intensive insistence on basic equalities and the awfulness of prejudice. There's too much more to say for this one post. No doubt more will follow later.

*In Gender and Education: Ninety-Second Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. S. K. Biklin and D. Pollard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). As the titles suggest, I encountered this whilst on a rather different line of research - but it's a useful definition nonetheless.