Harry Potter and the Banality of Evil

I resisted the Harry Potter juggernaut for a long time, partially because of my age, mostly out of willfulness (“Ain’t no best seller list gonna tell me what good readin’ is!” I reasoned). But when I finally fell, I fell hard, reading the entire Potter saga in the past year and a half. The fact that that was an easy task testifies to one of J.K. Rowling’s greatest strengths: she’s a page-turner, through and through. Each of her stories is propulsive, building to the point where you say, “Just one more chapter, and then I’m going to bed” and find yourself still reading three hours later.

That’s not to say Rowling is a perfect writer. Her emotional moments, while sincere, are often too on-the-nose, and her supporting characters are typically limited to their one note. Over the course of 4,100 pages, Hagrid, Dean Thomas, and Professor McGonagall fill the same roles, without any real sense of growth or indications of an internal landscape.

Of course, at the scale Rowling is working at, it’s impossible for every character to be fully fleshed out. In any case, while the characters may suffer from lack of detail, the world they inhabit is fully realized. Hogwarts and environs ranks up there with Oz and Middle Earth as a self-sustaining world, one that seems to always exist just outside the range of our vision.

It is a tactile place, made real by the richness of her imagination, which has conjured a living tapestry of rules, assumptions and bureaucracy that holds her creation together. It only makes sense that the Ministry of Magic has an Office of House-elf Relocation, and the same goes for Albania having its own Quidditch team and the worst grade on the wizard scale being “T” for Troll.

The series also avoids the pitfalls of fantasy cliché. Harry is a chosen one, true, but he’s savaged in the tabloids and seems to be a solid B- student. Prophecies exist, but they don’t pull the narrative inexorably in their wake—most of the time Harry and his friends don’t know what the hell to do next. While Hermione is off researching in the library, Harry goofs off or finds himself in detention for shooting his mouth off. As the series progresses, he becomes surly and self-absorbed, like every teenager. He doesn’t know how to relate to his first girlfriend; she ends up dumping him.

While Harry is the namesake of the series, though, and the setting is the star, the glue that holds it all together, rendering it plausible, is Dumbledore. He serves as our guide to the proceedings, emphasizing the high stakes of Harry’s battle with Voldemort while punctuating the tension with his penchant for the absurd. He also gets the series’ best lines, leavened with the patience and good humor that establish him as the ubermentor he’s supposed to be.

“Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”

“What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrel is a complete secret, so, naturally, the whole school knows.”

“Harry, I owe you an explanation,” said Dumbledore. “An explanation of an old man’s mistakes. For I see now that what I have done, and not done, with regard to you, bears all the hallmarks of the failings of age. Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young…and I seem to have forgotten lately.”

Dumbledore provides Rowling with a stand-in to accentuate the series’ peaks and valleys. At lighter moments, he laughs first and loudest; at low points he gives voice to the surrounding despair. And there are plenty of low points for Dumbledore to mourn. The series becomes progressively grimmer as it proceeds, with the joys of magical discovery giving way to the paranoia and senseless slaughter of internecine warfare. In his review of the most recent Harry Potter film, Roger Ebert laments this change in tone, saying:

“Whatever happened to the delight and, if you’ll excuse the term, the magic in the “Harry Potter” series?…”Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” still has much of the enchantment of the earlier films, but Harry no longer has as much joy. His face is lacking the gosh-wow-this-is-really-neat grin. He has internalized the secrets and delights of the world of wizards, and is now instinctively using them to save his life.

There will come a time, I fear, as we approach the end of the series (one book and two films to go), that Harry and his friends will grow up and smell the coffee. They weren’t trained as magicians for fun. When they eventually arrive at some apocalyptic crossroads, as I fear they will, can the series continue to live in PG-13 land? The archvillain Voldemort is shaping up as the star of nightmares.”

What Ebert seems to miss is that the darker turn of the series has given it increased moral heft. Voldemort’s secret war provides an opportunity to explore defiance and collaboration, courage and cowardice, the bitter fruits of sacrifice and its utter waste. Above it, it espouses the primacy of free will. Dumbledore sums up the ethos of the series when he says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

The central conflict is black and white to us—no reader is going to side with Voldemort—but it’s firmly grey within the Potterverse, as the authorities in charge have a vested interest in covering up the news of his return, and the media is complicit in the cover-up, throwing tabloid trash onto the front pages to distract from the darker happenings. Rowling clearly echoes fascist pasts, but the parallels to the present are bold and instructive.

“This is a civilized sort of fantasy world, where the evil forces find it easier to take over the bureaucracy and keep the trains running on time than to just wipe everyone out and stand gloating over the ashes, like so many evil fantasy overlords seem to want to do,” says Tasha Robinson of the Onion A.V. Club. “Most of the wizarding world is oblivious to most of what takes place in this series…life continues for most of them in spite of the secret tribunals and executions and murders.” Voldemort is perfectly content to use the existing levers of power to achieve his goals.

A common criticism of Rowling, and one that often extends to the genre as a whole, is superficiality. Her books entertain us, naysayers claim, but they lack substance, dissolving immediately after consumption, like spun sugar. These criticisms overlook the investment she places in the moral lessons at the heart of her work. If she’s helped her readers—many of whom are children—discover not just the foul heart at evil’s core, but the banality with which it works in the wider world, it will be difficult to dismiss her books as mere entertainment. Instead, they will be a service to us all.

Update: For a look at my impressions on the Harry Potter books before I’d read the series, check out “Harry Potter and the Half-Priced Hooker” at FLYMF.com.