Harry Potter vs. terrorism.

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July 20 2005 10:32 PM

When Harry Met Osama

Terrorism comes to Hogwarts.

Did Rowling play the terrorism card? Click image to expand.
Did Rowling play the terrorism card?

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort takes up terrorism. The Dark Lord and his Death Eaters—who had gained strength in the earlier installments and have finally arrived in force—use their newfound power to spread fear in familiar ways. They destroy bridges. They murder innocents. They compel children to kill their elders. (They're also behind a magical and destructive hurricane. Does J.K. Rowling know something we don't?)

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

The response of the wizarding world also rings a few bells. The Ministry of Magic issues pamphlets on "Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces." Fred and George Weasley's shop makes a mint selling Shield Cloaks, which protect their wearers from harm. The new Minister of Magic jails an innocent man, hoping to stave off panic and create the impression that he's taking action. And Harry, Hermione, and Ron greet the morning paper with a familiar sense of dread: "Anyone we know dead?"

What is J.K. Rowling up to here? Is she criticizing the War on Terror or simply using it as a plot device? In some scenes, she does take jabs at the Bush and Blair administrations. The Ministry of Magic's security pamphlet, for example, recalls the much-scorned TIPS program: "Should you feel that a family member, colleague, friend or neighbor is acting in a strange manner, contact the Magical Law Enforcement Squad at once." And Harry has a telling confrontation with the Minister of Magic, who thinks that in the battle against Voldemort, perceptions matter most. "If you were to be seen popping in and out of the Ministry from time to time," he tells Harry, "that would give the right impression. ... It would give everyone a lift to think you were more involved." Harry refuses. He doesn't want to endorse the ministry when it's sending innocent men to Azkaban—the wizard penitentiary that becomes, in this installment, a stand-in for Gitmo. "It's your duty to check that people really are Death Eaters before you chuck them in prison," Harry says.

These moments elicit grim smiles of recognition and have led some bloggers to label Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince an anti-American screed. But close reading of the book suggests that Rowling's motives are more authorial than political. She's not using Harry to make points about terrorism. She's using terrorism to make points about Harry. Rowling culls the scariest elements of modern life and uses them as a kind of shorthand, a quick way to instill fear.

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Half-Blood Prince is 200 pages shorter than the installment that preceded it, in part because Rowling does not spend as much time inventing bogeymen and describing how they frighten us. Instead she uses small touches here and there—the dismal tidings in The Daily Prophet, the escalating instances of parental panic—to evoke a fear that her readers have already felt. This new approach is powerful. In 1998, when the first Harry Potter book came out, Voldemort was a fantastical villain, a symbol of evil in the abstract. Today, however, as we substitute for our abstract fear of Voldemort the very real fear we've felt in our own immolated cities, the new book resonates in ways that the old ones have not.

It is hard not to wonder, though, whether making the books more timely will make them less timeless. Critics have been atwitter about Harry Potter lately. Some believe the books belong alongside the classics of children's literature. Others scoff that Hogwarts is no Narnia—that the world Rowling has imagined is narrowly conceived and filled with too many cheap references to our own. Reading the Half-Blood Prince today, Rowling's references to terrorism don't feel cheap. They feel terrifying. But how will they read in 50 years?

In the long run, Rowling may wish she hadn't relied so much on current events. Because the book plays on a very particular set of fears, it may begin to seem dated as time goes by. Which is a shame, because Rowling is more than capable of creating enduring villains. Her best are the soul-sucking dementors that first appear in The Prisoner of Azkaban. These ghouls are vividly drawn and very scary. "Get too near a dementor," she writes, "and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. ... You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." With the dementor, Rowling managed to make a convincing thug out of depression itself. It is inspired creations like these that win readers over and make books last. Let's hope—for Rowling's sake, if not for Harry's—that it is she, and not Osama Bin Laden, who scares our pants off in the final installment.