Wednesday June 18, 2003
The publication of the latest Harry Potter novel seems sure to confirm the popularity of JK Rowling's teenage wizard and the mysteries he tackles. From one minute past midnight on Saturday morning, the first of 8.5 million copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will go on sale worldwide - the largest ever print run for a first edition.
The real mystery, though, lies in untangling the themes of specifically British class prejudice and social commentary that run through the books.
While readers in Sao Paulo or Kobe can simply enjoy the books' strong characters and plots, readers in this country can perceive a political bandwagon being pushed. Despite all of the books' gestures to multiculturalism and gender equality, Harry Potter is a conservative. A paternalistic, One-Nation Tory, perhaps, but a Tory nonetheless.
What the series portrays is a nostalgic and "small-c" conservative view of Britain. It's no coincidence that Rowling herself is an honorary member of the British Weights and Measures Association - which defends the ounce and pint, and calls the metric system "a political philosophy". Rowling's fellow members include Norris McWhirter, faithful friend of apartheid.
To the delight of the Daily Telegraph, the Harry Potter series is a priceless advertisement for traditional English public schools. Hogwarts is little more than the Rugby of Tom Brown's Schooldays with spells added. An indication of how closely it fits the archetype comes when Justin Finch-Fletchley tells Harry: "My name was down for Eton, you know, I can't tell you how glad I am I came here instead. Of course, mother was slightly disappointed."
Hogwarts' curriculum doesn't include teaching foreign languages, geography or overseas trips, despite the ease of magical travel. Naturally, there are no wizard comprehensives.
However, the Harry Potter fanclub extends well beyond Tory supporters, in part because the books have a visible element of diversity. The problem is that it is little more than a veneer. While women make up many of the main characters, they receive little attention. Even Harry's friend, Hermione Granger, is a well-worn stereotype: the middle-class "girly swot" who tries to talk Harry out of taking risks. It's no surprise to learn that her parents are dentists. The only times Harry competes with women as equals - Cho Chang on the quidditch pitch and Fleur Delacour in the triwizard tournament - he defeats them both. All of the central evil characters and senior authority figures in the books are men.
A careful racial inclusiveness includes obviously Asian and black characters as students. But cultural identities are heavily connected to social background, and these have been scrubbed out by Rowling. Hogwarts celebrates Christmas and Halloween, but there are no feasts for Rosh Hashanah or Diwali. This is not so much multiculturalism as naive monoculturalism.
Rowling does attempt to make pointed racial commentary, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, with an attempt by Hermione to emancipate the "house elves" who serve wizards. In fact they appear to be slaves - and Rowling rams home the point by having them speak in a witless, sub-Gone With the Wind patois.
The characters' names are important in sending clues about race and nationality. Contrast the honest English yeomanry in Harry Potter and his parents Lily and James, compared with Draco Malfoy and his father, Lucius - names that suggest Norman aristocracy. As does that of Lord Voldemort - "vol de mort" is a French expression for stealing corpses.
The aristocracy of magic is a central part of the plot. Voldemort and his supporters are willing to exploit their magic power over ordinary humans, known as Muggles, and are obsessed with the purification of their race by removing "mudbloods" - wizards born of Muggles.
Parentage forms an important background throughout the series. Socially, wizards are so strongly attached to the nuclear family that they cannot conceive that Harry wants to avoid his family during the school holidays. Rowling's commitment to the traditional family - despite being a single parent herself - means Harry has to endure the cruel and violent treatment of his aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley, who took him in after his real parents were killed.
The Dursleys are Rowling's epitome of the modern middle class: crass, mean-spirited and grasping, living in a detached house in the suburb of Little Whinging. Vernon works in middle management while Petunia is a curtain-twitching housewife.
The Dursleys read the Daily Mail, support capital punishment and lavish video games and junk food on their spoilt son Dudley. They dream of bigger company cars and holidays in Spain, rather than traditional Tory visions of warm beer and village greens. The Dursleys, not Voldemort, are the real villains.
The irony for Rowling is that the Dursleys are also her most devoted readers. Little Whinging's residents will be queueing up to buy her new book on Saturday.