Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Spoilerific Discussion of Race/Species and Harry Potter...

I warn you now- I'm going to be talking about Harry Potter here. I'm going to be talking about Harry Potter book 7. If you haven't read it and you don't want it spoiled a little bit, you might want to stop reading now. I'm not planning on giving away any major secrets, but I'm going to talk about the ending, and I'm not going to be held responsible for ruining the book for other people.

I'm not kidding.

Still here?

Last chance.

Okay. If you're still reading, I assume you're either fine with spoils or you've already read the book.

Over in this thread at Thinking Girl, there was some talk about how the world of Harry Potter (or, at least, the wizarding world) don't seem to have race issues- they have species issues. From the standpoint of the story, that's great- it lets the author play around with and discuss bigotry without directly pointing fingers at her readers- it can let her raise awareness and get people talking about issues of racism through the analogous treatment of the magical creatures in her world. I don't think that's particularly controversial, and I think that it works well- seeing how the wizards treat the centaurs, goblins, and the house elves as second-class citizens has pretty clear parallels to the treatment of non-whites in the muggle world.

I really appreciated the way that Rowling was handling this through most of the books- There were characters with varying levels of prejudice against the magical creatures, and the creatures themselves had differing levels of animosity towards wizards as a result. I thought it was really well thought out and executed- I loved that even the "good" characters were still guilty of speciest attitudes, in the same way that even well intentioned and progressive people are guilty of racist and sexist attitudes sometimes.

I was feeling this way, right up through the end of the last book. Now? I have to be honest, I'm a little annoyed. All the way through the books, she's made it clear that This Is A Problem. She had Hermione start SPEW, and she made it really clear through Hagrid that the poor treatment of the centaurs was leading up to a potential war. It was very clear that there's a double standard, and that it's sort of a dark splotch on the wizarding world. I kept waiting for something to happen- and then she just lets the whole thing fade away.

By the end of the book, the house elves join the battle, but nobody but the SPEW members gives a second thought to the ways that they're treated. The Goblins still get cheated. The centaurs join the battle for no discernable reason, despite the fact that their grievances are never even acknowledged.

And it's not like there weren't plenty of opportunities to have species/race discussed. I don't expect Harry Potter to solve all of his world's problems, but even a simple understanding of what is happening and the acknowledgement that it's wrong would have been a good start. Take, for example, the point when Harry makes the deal with Griphook to break into Gringotts. There, Bill warns Harry about making a deal with goblins, explaining that they have very different ideas of ownership, and that Harry would do well to remember the strained relationship between wizards and goblins.

At the beginning of their deal, Harry's bargain with Griphook is that he'll give the goblin the sword of Gryffindor back if Griphook will help them break into one of the vaults. Harry knows that they really need the sword to destroy the horcruxes, though, and plans on keeping the sword until after they destroy them, at which point he will give the sword back to the goblins. Hermione rightly points out that this isn't fair, and it's clear that the goblin will see this as welching on their deal. Instead of having Harry and Ron realize that this is true, and that it's just another example of a wizard backing out of a deal with the goblins (like Lugo Bagman did), Rowling has Harry lose his grip on the sword and has Griphook grab it and run away with it.

That was particularly unsatisfying to me- it felt like a copout. Harry had every intention of cheating Griphook out of his end of the deal, and rather than have Harry deal with the consequences of this action, or having him come to the realization that it would be wrong to cheat the goblin, she created a situation where Harry never has to think about what he's planning on doing. She gives him an out from dealing with the very significant species issues that he's confronting. In the end, Neville pulls the sword out of the sorting hat, anyway- which means that Griphook wasn't able to maintain possession of the sword, but she never addresses how this effects human/goblin relations, which are, from all appearances, pretty strained.

Like I said, I didn't expect Harry to solve the problem of speciesism in the Potterverse, but I really expected some kind of progress to be made. I expected some characters who "didn't get it" to... well... get it. There are some minor instances of characters who might have gotten it- Bill makes a comment of being friendly with a few goblins (although I don't take that very strongly, since he works closely with goblins in his position at Gringotts, and his comment stank strongly of the "I'm not prejudiced against group X, why... I have friends who are X!" sort), and Ron brings up the house elves (which is negated by the fact that he was one of the founding members of SPEW, however reluctantly). It would have been nice to see Harry understand his mistreatment of the goblins, or maybe have some of the characters call someone on using slurs against the centaurs, or... I don't know... anything, really.

Ultimately, the issue of species just seems to have faded away. For all that Rowling repeatedly brought it up, it never really takes priority, and there's absolutely no real resolution in terms of action taking place. As far as I can tell, by the end of the book, the wizarding community still treats the magical races like lesser beings, and status quo has been maintained. For me, that aspect of the book was particularly unsatisfying, and I really wished that she had made a bigger deal out of what was happening there.


Chrissy said...

Yes! Even if Harry didn't solve the species problem right then - I mean, he was trying to put an end to Voldemort, and that's a pretty big job without adding more to his plate - the epilogue would have been a GREAT place to show that changes had been made. 19 years later, and there could have been a mention of elves - Harry could have told Albus, "Yes, son, I'm sure you'll be a good wizard no matter what, and don't forget to tip the house elves at dinner - they don't work for free, you know." It would have been easy to give us a hint, but all we get is marriage! children! and that just didn't jive with me.

Really, I liked the book. Loved it, in fact. And I had no problem with what was included in the epilogue - only with what was left out.

Anonymous said...

How do we know Griphook didn't return the sword to the hat intentionally?

Roy said...

Well, we don't, but what, in the book, would suggest that Griphook would even consider doing such a thing?

His last act in the book is lying to his fellow goblins about what was happening, and pinning the blame entirely on Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Harry can tell that Griphook didn't trust any of them at all when he's grabbing the sword, and it's repeatedly stated that goblins don't trust the wizarding world one bit. We could make the assumption that he voluntarily returned the sword, but I don't see anything in the text that would suggest such a thing- rather the opposite, really. All indications would suggest that he'd be pissed about the sword being taken back by wizards. At least, that's how I saw it.

EG said...

I hear what you're saying, but I do think we have to give Ron's change of heart more weight--he may have been a founding member of SPEW, but his disdain and contempt for Hermione's activism is pretty heavy-handed throughout the books, right up until this one.

In some ways, I wonder if part of the problem is that Rowling spread herself a bit too thing with the race/ethnicity stand-ins. Voldemore clearly has contempt for non-humans, but the big race issue in this book is clearly the issue mudbloods and muggles. Voldemort adopts Hitler- and Stalinesque measures not against elves and centaurs, but against muggle-born wizards and witches (though the goblin guards outside Gringotts have been replaced by Death Eaters...I'm not sure whether that's part of a serious anti-non-human campaign, or whether it's just about tightening control on a storehouse of wealth and horcruxes). To be honest, I was surprised when Hermione didn't tell off Ron when he demanded to know if she was going to ditch Harry with him, and say something like "Well, Ron, I can't go back, can I? We saw what happens to Mudbloods under the new regime--I'll be sent to Azkaban in a New York minute!" But yeah, I wondered why the centaurs had a sudden change of heart as well.

Part of the problem with the deal with Griphook is that Harry didn't even try to negotiate--I'm not convinced that Griphook would have refused the deal utterly if Harry had said, "Look, we need the sword in order to take care of Voldemort, but one way or another, after that battle is over, we'll get it to you. Say, a year? Just to be on the safe side?" But Harry's finagling is a typical deal-with-the-devil story, which is all about finding loopholes in contracts, as goblins should be aware, given how Rowling's portrayed them. Griphook didn't specify a time-frame to get the sword. It's kind of moot, though, as you point out, and the question for me is whether or not Griphook had always planned on betraying them. Because in the end, he welched on the deal--his side of it was that he would help them break in and steal something, which is a goal not aided by joining their pursuers.

sara no h. said...

*quietly clears throat*

That was one of the biggest issues I found lacking in the books. It was clear from the beginning that most of the characters themselves would be white, but at least there were hints here and there that the treatment of intelligent nonhuman creatures would become a problem in later stories. As you've pointed out, it's a safe substitute: speciesism for racism.

I would've loved to see Rowling take it further, but unfortunately she chose not to. However, there's a fanfic out there by an author named lightningwave that does deal with those issues, resoundingly, spectacularly, and ultimately in a much more satisfying way than Rowling. It's a lot to read, though, since she's rewritten the entire series to suit that end and that particular plot thread doesn't begin to develop seriously until the end of the second book ... But her story centers around Harry as a vates, kind of a Jesus figure for magical creatures, if Jesus had in fact been the political leader the Jews had been expecting. And the way she handles the different species, from the goblins to the Runespoors and the centaurs to the thestrals, is just beautiful.

*sighs* Sorry to ramble on at you, I know I sound like a bloody advertisement but I really did love that series, specifically because she went where Rowling didn't on the issue I most wanted to see developed.

And I do wonder whether Neville hadn't incidentally started the next goblin war by retrieving the Sword of Gryffindor ... I'm tempted to say that it's the goblins' own fault for failing to check the Sword for spells of wizarding origin that could be used to summon or otherwise retrieve it, but they might not've had time, or something. Who knows?

thinking girl said...

oooh ooh!!!

what about the part at the end where Hermione calls herself "mudblood"? with pride?

kind of reminded me a bit of efforts to reclaim the N-word and make it mean something different than what it did before, wrest the word away from relations of power that created it in the first place.

it seemed ill-advised to me, but then that's my view on the N-word as well...

Jay Smooth said...

Great discussion here! Been wanting to get into this on my site, but expected that any suggestion these themes even exist in the book would bring an onslaught of "OMG WTF lighten up, you people inject race into EVERYTHING!" replies. So I'm glad to see other people discussing it.