Harry Potter And The Dilemma Of The Left

I like Harry Potter.

They are not the best children’s book I have read, of course. The book of Russian folk tales I read as a boy of seven or eight holds that position. As an adult, I read Satyajit Ray’s children’s stories and I think they absolutely rock. Roal Dahl is pretty good too.

Liking Harry Potter has become a bit of an embarrassment if you are on the left, given the off-putting hype and merchandising and branding.

My point is simple. Ignore the hype. Ignore the media buildup. Ignore the branding. Ignore the staggering sales. Ignore all this – not easy, I admit – and what remains?

What remains is a charming tale of an orphaned boy. Harry Potter lives with his horrid relatives, a poor, abused child, forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. His fat and obnoxious cousin torments the boy, drawing encouragement from his equally horrid parents. Harry Potter is trapped in a life he hates, but one he has no chance of escaping.

Till he discovers he can do magic. He is summoned to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, where young wizards and witches are taught the tricks of the trade. In Hogwarts, Harry meets friends who love him, but he also discovers a dark secret about himself. His parents, Harry finds out, did not die in a car accident as he had believed all these days, but were killed by the evil wizard Voldemort.

But he discovers another, equally frightening truth about himself: that he is perhaps the only one who withstood and survived Voldemort’s powerful evil magic. Harry, then, is the chosen one: it falls upon him to defeat and neutralize Voldemort. Each book in the series chronicles a new battle between the two magical geniuses.

Nothing like this has ever been seen in publishing history. Even simply the Indian figures are astonishing. Reports have it that the book sold 100,000 copies in 24 hours. To put that in perspective, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things sold, I am told, some 5,000 in the first month. There is a veritable Harry Potter industry at work. Shops and malls all over the world are full of Harry Potter stuff – pencil boxes, bags, toys, lunch boxes, water bottles, caps, T-shirts, cups, you name it – all trademarked, of course. And there is, besides, the equally hyped and anticipated film series.

Young Harry Potter, from being an endearing and somewhat bewildered boy, has been turned by marketing sharks into a commodity. Today, Rowling is richer than the Queen of England.

All this hype is unfortunate, since it prevents us from enjoying the Harry Potter saga for what it is: a good tale well told.

Given the fact that it is a series, there are ups and downs in quality, but it has not been a downward spiral. In fact, the latest Harry Potter is actually one of the best. This is amazing, given that Rowling surely writes with the knowledge that she will be judged by a million of the most exacting critics. Children.

Rowling has flair and she refuses to ‘dumb down’ the books because she is writing for children, or because she now has a global readership. While writing the first book, she told herself that she would write it as if she was writing for herself. She stuck to the decision, with wonderful results.

The books are as enjoyable for adults as they are for children. They bring alive a world that is magical in its ordinariness. Wizards and witches look just like you and me, some are bright and talented while others try to cope with learning disabilities, some are generous and warm while others are mean and selfish. The magical world is a part of our world, just around the corner, visible to those who care to see it.

The basic values the books uphold are positive and even progressive. Unlike most British boarding schools, Hogwarts is co-educational. In fact, the best student in class is a girl, Harry Potter’s friend Hermione. She is also muggle-born. Students come from several racial and ethnic backgrounds, and one of Harry’s classmates is Parvati Patil. Remarkably, Quidditch, the sport that drives the school mad – and at which Harry is a natural – is played by girls and boys on the same team.

Rowling has been accused by one reviewer as revealing ‘leftish social prejudices all too typical of the British intelligentsia’. Evidence of this is seen in the fact that, for instance, Harry’s insufferable uncle is a brutish capitalist, director of a company that sells drills. Similarly, the mean and nasty Draco Malfoy, Harry’s rival at school, is both rich and aristocratic.

On the other side, Harry’s friends, the Weaselys, are sons of an underpaid and gentle bureaucrat at the Ministry of Magic. There is also a basic sense of right and wrong in the stories. Harry Potter is a person with honour, who sometimes breaks rules, but only when he believes that there is a greater good to be achieved.

Remarkably, again, given the rise of religiosity nearly all over the world, the Harry Potter books are free of religion. Not only religion in the organized sense of church and clergy and the rest, but also the very idea of god is actually absent in the books.

These are deliberate choices made by the writer and reveal her worldview. But these ideas are not thrust down our throats. Instead, they are woven seamlessly in the story itself, with humour and liveliness, which is what makes them acceptable to children.

There is a section of the Christian right wing in the United States and Europe which has been clamouring for the removal of the Harry Potter series from public and school libraries. According to them, the books promote magic and sorcery among children. And now, of course, the Pope has added his two-penny bit by condemning the series.

This is ridiculous. Children’s literature the world over has used elements of fantasy and magic. Such literature, provided it is not otherwise vile, helps the child expand her imaginative horizons.

I live in India, and grew up reading all kinds of strange, magical, weird, fabulous stories. Panchatantra, where animals and human beings share a language; Ramayan and Mahabharat populated by gods and demons; folk tales where all kinds of magical and fantastic events take place.

The discomfort with Harry Potter on the left stems, from what I can see, two roots. One, the hype, the marketing, the branding, all this makes those on the left react instinctively warily. For good and obvious reasons. It appears to me, though, that while we should of course be wary of all that, we should also not start seeing a conspiracy where none may exist. After all, we know of other cases where progressive, or even in some cases revolutionary, works or symbols have been taken over by corporate sharks.

Think of Picasso, Neruda, Brecht, or, the ultimate revolutionary symbol cannibalized by the market, Che.

In all these cases, we do not abandon these figures or condemn them. We reclaim them.

But these are figures on the left. Rowling is not. And this is the second reason for some on the left feeling uneasy with Harry Potter.

By modeling Voldemort on Hitler, Rowling shows she is against fascism. However, she has been criticized for her ‘failure to recognize that fascism and liberal capitalism essentially come from the same ideological strand; that fascism is merely a form of liberalism in distress’.

By this logic, of course, all writing except that which passes the most stringent revolutionary test will have to be condemned – and that would include the works of Tagore, and Marquez, and Kafka, and Mahfouz, and a thousand others.

The more serious error in this analysis is, however, a political one. While fascism often grows out of liberal capitalism, the two are not the same. Historically, the left has been the most valiant fighter against fascism, but the left has not succeeded if it has confronted fascism alone. On the contrary, the left has been smashed wherever it has stuck to a sectarian line.

In the struggle against fascism, the liberal democratic centre has to be our ally. A fickle ally, an ally that is self-serving, that is in many ways profoundly anti-people, opportunist, and given to machinations, an ally that resents us as much as we mistrust it, but an ally nevertheless.

Losing sight of this basic political fact plays into the hands of fascism.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director and playwright with Jana Natya Manch, India’s best-known radical street theatre company, and works as editor in LeftWord Books, New Delhi (www.leftword.com). He can be reached at deshsud@rediffmail.com.

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