Harry in the New World

The Harry Potter series

Harry in the New World

The Harry Potter series

Harry in the New World
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 25 1999 1:08 PM

The Harry Potter series

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Dear Polly,

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Though the series' Britishness is vital to its charm and appeal, I'd like to know what the wizards beyond the shores of Albion are up to. We do hear about the elder Weasley brothers who work in Romania and Egypt--obvious enough magical places--but I'd love it if Rowling could inject a bit of Tintin-style globe-trotting into the Potter saga. What if the Hogwartians took a year to study abroad in, say, the United States? What are the witches of Texas like, or Brooklyn, or Salt Lake City, or Salem, Mass.? Or are we a nation of muggles after all? Do American wizards play a sport superficially like Quidditch, but with a completely different, and to the British wizards utterly incomprehensible, set of rules? Do they prefer Warlock-Cola to pumpkin juice, and have their mail delivered by eagles or pterodactyls instead of owls? Or maybe, if the stateside magic kingdom is too much to contemplate, the next Defence Against Dark Arts Master (there's a new one each book, just to mix things up) could be a voodoo priestess from New Orleans or a Wiccan from Northampton.

I'd also like to know more about the political economy and social organization of the magic world. There seems to be a class system of sorts--aristocrats like the Malfoys at one end, cockneys like Hagrid and the knightbus drivers in Prisoner of Azkaban at the other, with struggling middle-class civil-servant types like the Weasleys in the middle. (Intellectuals like the Hogwarts masters are, as ever, a class unto themselves.) But where do these distinctions come from? What is the source of the wealth that sits in Gringotts bank? Is all that coveted Quidditch gear made by workers in offshore magic sweatshops? Are they unionized? What is the structure of wizard government? Who appointed Minister Fudge? I'll stop, but it's testimony to the fertility of Rowling's imagination that these seem like plausible and interesting questions, and ones I bet she'd have answers to. Perhaps someday she'll publish a concordance to Harry Potter and explain it all.

Meanwhile, I don't see Harry falling for a succubus (I think that's the word you were looking for). Hagrid might, though, what with his affection for dangerous monsters. Funny that all of the Hogwarts teachers seem to be single.

Which brings me to an intriguing point in your letter. I owe you a silver sickle, since it seems plain to me that the homosexual themes are already there, and treated with the sublimation and symbolism you predict. Well, not homosexual themes per se, since whatever sexuality there is in the books is conventionally and safely infantile. What I mean is that being a wizard is very much like being gay: You grow up in a hostile world governed by codes and norms that seem nonsensical to you, and you discover at a certain age that there are people like you--what's more, there's a whole subculture with its own codes and norms right alongside the straight (muggle) one, yet strangely invisible to it. In out-of-the-way spots in the middle of large cities are secret places--bars, bookshops--that cater to this special clientele, and suddenly, one day, you find your way to them. The reaction of many straights (muggles) is hostility and denial, on the order of the Dursleys. But some muggle parents, like Hermione's, love their wizard children and support them. (Hermione reciprocates by taking a course at Hogwarts in muggle studies, the one moment in the series that made me laugh out loud.) Consider too that there are wizards born of muggles and muggles born of wizards, so that having magical power (like being gay, at least according to some schools of thought) is, while not hereditary, clearly innate. Your use of the phrase "a place for us" was especially suggestive (though by "us" you meant the muggles), since that's the title of a fascinating book by D.A. Miller (published last year by Harvard) about the role of the Broadway musical in forming, at once in secret and out in plain view, modern gay male cultural identity. The process of acculturation he describes (which involves playing the cast album from Gypsy in your parents' suburban basement), is not unlike what Harry undergoes in the early chapters of Sorcerer's Stone.

Is this completely crazy? I won't be offended if you say yes. Will Jerry Falwell now take out after Harry Potter, having raised the alarm about Tinky Winky? Our dear colleague Chatterbox, that estimable muggle, thinks he might, but for other reasons, namely that the Potter books take a benign view of paganism, magic, witchcraft, and other things that scare Christian fundamentalists. A few years ago they went after Barney because he could fly, and because he taught kids about the powers of the imagination (in their crusade they had the tacit support of parents across America, who are fully prepared to believe that the purple dinosaur is the instrument of Satan). There have also been outcries raised about Dungeons and Dragons, and about the mere use of the word "imagination" in school textbooks. So I'm sure it's only a matter of time before school libraries start getting calls from concerned parents complaining about our dear Harry. Which makes me like him all the more, of course.

That's it! On their year abroad in the United States, Harry and his pals fall afoul of the local Christian Coalition-dominated school board in a small Kansas town where they've come in search of Dumbledore's old teacher, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Minerva MacGonagall goes head to head with Pat Robertson on Nightline. What do you think?

Best,
Tony

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This week, a discussion of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (click here to buy the book), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (click here to buy the book), and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (click here to buy the book). The first chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is available here. Polly Shulman, a contributing editor at Science, writes a column about children's books forSalon. A.O. Scott is a regular contributor to Slate.