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Nonideological Evil in the Harry Potter Series:

The most important shortcoming of the Harry Potter series is its often unconvincing depiction of evil. Creating a plausible ideology for the "bad guys" in a fantasy series is an important challenge that many writers try to sidestep. There are all too many fantasy books that include a "Dark Lord" who seems to be evil for evil's sake, without any justifying ideology that might actually appeal to anyone. This is an important weakness of many works in the genre, and J.K. Rowling unfortunately falls into this trap in the Potter books.

Rowling does a great job of depicting the negative effects of government and bureaucracy: institutions that are supposedly set up for beneficial purposes, but actually cause more harm than good because of their indirect effects. She is much less convincing in her depiction of the more radical evil represented by Lord Voldemort and his followers. The problem here is the absence of ideology. Voldemort seems to be motivated almost solely by his desire for power and immortality. His followers seem driven either by fear of his power (the Malfoys) or personal loyalty (Bellatrix LeStrange).

Real-world evil political movements simply aren't like that, at least not exclusively so. They always have an ideology that justifies their policies, usually a quite elaborate one. Think of the Nazis, the Communists, Al Qaeda, and so on. Each of these groups had a detailed ideology that purported to explain why their policies were right, just, and necessary for reasons that go beyond the narrow self-interest of the movement's leaders. Even if the leaders themselves didn't always believe in the ideology, it played a key role in motivating and indoctrinating the followers.

Rowling takes a small step in the right direction in her emphasis on Voldemort's and the Death Eaters' hostility to Muggle-born ("Mudblood") wizards. The obvious analogy is to real-world racism. However, she never really explains why the Death Eaters hate Muggle-borns so much, which makes the hostility seem unmotivated and pointless. In the real world, racism and anti-Semitism were justified by elaborate theories of either the inferiority or the malignant nature of the despised group. Often there are also real or imagined historical grievances. We see none of this in the Potter series (at least not on the part of Voldemort and his followers; groups such as the goblins and centaurs do have historical grievances against wizards). This gives a misleading image of the true nature of racism, feeding the modern conceit that it is just the result of "hatred" or intolerance. In reality, the hatred and intolerance are usually the consequences of racist ideology, not its causes. The core of anti-Semitism, for example, is not hatred of Jews in and of itself, but the list of reasons why Jews supposedly deserve to be hated.

In Book 7, Rowling belatedly recognizes this problem, and has the Death Eaters justify their hatred of Muggle-borns by claiming that they supposedly "stole" their magic from "pureblood" wizards by taking wands from them. However, this claim seems utterly implausible as a basis for Death Eater ideology because it is too easily falsified by everyday experience in the wizarding world. As was established early in the series, virtually all wizards know that the ability to do magic is innate, and cannot be acquired simply by taking a wizard's wand. Real-world ideologies, however absurd in their ultimate conclusions, have to be sophisticated enough to avoid falsification by the basic facts of everyday life. An effective ideology must have at least some plausibility.

The prevalence of essentially nonideological evil in fantasy literature is unfortunate. It leads to a,cartoonish distortion of the way evil wins adherents. On balance, the many virtues of Rowling's books outweigh this one defect. But it is a defect nonetheless.

UPDATE: Steven Bainbridge has an interesting response to this post. He argues 1) that Voldemort doesn't need an ideology to motivate his followers because they are only a small group, and small groups can be effectively motivated by other means, and 2) tht Voldemort does in fact have an ideology based on the need to protect the genetic basis of wizarding ability from dilution through intermarriage with Muggles. Regarding the first point, I entirely agree that small groups are easier to motivate by nonideological means than large ones. However, small groups that seek to overthrow and entire social order usually do develop an ideology nonetheless. The Communists, Nazis, radical Islamists, and others all started as very small groups, yet all had an ideological basis from the start. Moreover, Voldemort is clearly seeking to gain the support of the wizard population as a whole, not just a small group. That is why he puts out propaganda (as Bainbridge himself points out). Persuading large groups does require an ideology of some sort, as Bainbridge concedes.

On Bainbridge's second point, I think he has indeed come up with a plausible ideology for Voldemort (relying on this essay by another Harry Potter commentator). The problem is that this ideology is nowhere mentioned in the books. If this were the real ideological rationale used by Voldemort, one would think that J.K. Rowling would have mentioned it somewhere in the several thousand pages she wrote for the series. Certainly, she has lavished attention on many far less significant details of the wizarding world.

jeffrey_t_b:
Terry Goodkind's fantasy series ("The Sword Of Truth" starting with "Wizard's First Rule") does a pretty good job at illustrating ideological evil.
7.22.2007 7:00pm
Elliot Reed:
This gives a misleading image of the true nature of racism, feeding the modern conceit that it is just the result of "hatred" or intolerance. In reality, the hatred and intolerance are usually the consequences of racist ideology, not its causes.
My impression has long been that the causality goes both ways. For example, anti-Semites find Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic ideologies attractive because they already hate Jews, and the ideologies in turn justify their hate of Jews, which strengthens their belief in the ideologies, and so forth and so on.
Real-world ideologies, however absurd in their ultimate conclusions, have to be sophisticated enough to avoid falsification by the basic facts of everyday life. An effective ideology must have at least some plausibility.
Is Voldemort's ideology really any less implausible than longstanding anti-Semitic tropes? Jews have horns? They drink the blood of Christian children? They control the world through a giant international conspiracy?
7.22.2007 7:00pm
Ilya Somin:
Is Voldemort's ideology really any less implausible than longstanding anti-Semitic tropes? Jews have horns? They drink the blood of Christian children? They control the world through a giant international conspiracy?

Yes, because the traditional anti-Semitic tropes, as fallacious as they are, can't be falsified through ordinary everyday experience. If Jews drink the blood of CHristian children, they presumably do so in secret, so the claim isn't falsified simply by the fact that we never seem them do it. Ditto for the "giant international conspiracy." Even the claim that Jews have horns was harder to falsify than the "stealing magic" claim in an era when most people (particularly religious Jews) usually wore hats in public and Jews and Gentiles rarely interacted in private settings.
7.22.2007 7:04pm
Oh My Word:
While I'm not very familiar with the Harry Potter series, I don't think that it's accurate to say that nonideological evil is somehow an unbelievable concept. It seems hard to believe that the mob or drug gangs are predicated on anything but pure power and money. While there are clever myths and rituals that contribute to it, no one joins the mafia with any pretense about the whole point.

Likewise with, for ex, the old Saddam Hussein regime. I have to think that Baathists all knew that what they were in was an elaborate power structure with pretty palaces and rituals and nothing more. I would tend to lump Nazism into that category, also. Anti-semitism was acceptable in Nazi ideology precisely because everyone realized that the explicit fundamental basis of Nazism was the will to power.

That is not to say that ideological battles that present genuine dilemmas and philosophical struggles aren't more compelling stories, but in a way, there is a philosophical struggle in a Harry Potter story--the struggle between the proposition that there is moral fiber to the world and/or divine good, versus a pure dog-eat-dog world.
7.22.2007 7:15pm
scote (mail):

They always have an ideology that justifies their policies, usually a quite elaborate one. Think of the Nazis, the Communists, Al Qaeda, and so on.

Usually, these ideologies are merely additional ways to create a sense of difference between us vs. them, where the actual differences are fairly small, if any. In the case of wizards and witches, there is a real difference between them and muggles. There is no need for for an elaborate ideology to make one up.

Wizards and Witches are supermen compared to muggles. Muggles have no advantage over wizards and witches at all, except for their education in technology, and education eschewed by the wizarding community with encouragement from the Ministry of Magic with the exception of Mr. Weasly.
7.22.2007 7:20pm
Dan Weber:
In the real world, racism and anti-Semitism were justified by elaborate theories of either the inferiority or the malignant nature of the despised group.


It's pretty easy to see why wizards would think that Muggles are inferior. Look at all the things wizards can do that Muggles cannot. It's only a government enforcing some kind of Prime Directive that keeps the pre-warp Muggles from learning the truth.
7.22.2007 7:35pm
Sean Sorrentino (mail):
and has the Death Eaters justify their hatred of Muggle-borns by claiming that they supposedly "stole" their magic from "pureblood" wizards by taking wands from them.


You are confused. this was simply an attempt by the Ministry officials to turn being a muggle born into a crime.

Voldy's problem seems pretty obvious to me. he's unreasonably afraid of death (like darkness, the unknown, according to Dumbledore), so he goes to unreasonable lengths to avoid it. he's a power mad psycopath that has a gift for charming people. added to that he is a powerful wizard, and his formative opinions of muggles were dislike of his peers in the orphanage, and the general dislike of muggle born wizards (and by extension, muggles themselves) in the Slytherin house.

basically you need to remember that any destructive ideology, naziism, communism, juche, etc, have, at their base, a power mad psycopath. seems to me that JK Rowling managed to capture that one exactly.
7.22.2007 7:40pm
Ilya Somin:
While I'm not very familiar with the Harry Potter series, I don't think that it's accurate to say that nonideological evil is somehow an unbelievable concept. It seems hard to believe that the mob or drug gangs are predicated on anything but pure power and money. While there are clever myths and rituals that contribute to it, no one joins the mafia with any pretense about the whole point.

There is a big difference between a narrowly focused criminal enterprise and a political movement trying to take over an entire society. The former may not need an ideology, the latter does.
7.22.2007 7:57pm
Ilya Somin:
basically you need to remember that any destructive ideology, naziism, communism, juche, etc, have, at their base, a power mad psycopath. seems to me that JK Rowling managed to capture that one exactly.

I don't think that communism, Juche, or many other evil idoelogies can be explained in this way. Marx and Lenin were not psychopaths. Neither were the leaders of imperial Japan. Hitler was the exception rather than the rule, and even he had a detailed ideology to justify his actions.
7.22.2007 7:58pm
Ilya Somin:
Usually, these ideologies are merely additional ways to create a sense of difference between us vs. them, where the actual differences are fairly small, if any. In the case of wizards and witches, there is a real difference between them and muggles. There is no need for for an elaborate ideology to make one up.

Remember that the initial focus of hostility is not Muggles but Muggle-born wizards, who are not all that different from other Wizards. Moreover, even with the Muggles, you still have to have an ideology to explain why the difference between the groups should be a focus of hostility.
7.22.2007 8:00pm
kdonovan:
I wonder what the social and political implications of a small class of wizards with innate powers would be. I suspect it would be quite a brutal and non-egalitarian place. Wizards would have so much military/political power and economic productivity that would dominate society. Ideologies or religions would be invented to justify their right to rule. If wizards had trouble cooperating with each other to establish centralized political systems you might get some early feudal system where wizards promise protection to others in return for their virtual slavery. Non-wizards would be treated as serfs at best, more likely slaves or non-human domesticated animals. If wizards could cooperate they would establish centralized tyrannies with themselves as god-kings or dictators. Alternatively if they were not rally useful top the wizards the non-wizards would be treated as beyond the pale. In any case life for non-waords would be quite unpleasant and cheaply regarded.
7.22.2007 8:01pm
U.Va. 2L:
(I haven't read any of the HP books, so take this with a grain of salt.)

Perhaps the Death-Eaters' reasons for their evil need to be explored in greater depth, but then, the series isn't really about the Death-Eaters, is it? It seems to me that it's more about Voldemort, and as Sean Sorretino points out, the "evil genius" at the center of so many real-world movements is usually a power-hungry psychopath. Doesn't the series explore Voldemort's own problems well? Now, perhaps it's worth looking into how he got so many people to side with him, but I don't think an elaborate ideology is needed to explain the genesis of the whole "movement."

Compare it to Tolkein's Morgoth. His evil sprang from envy and a desire for power, and his charisma drew many of the Maiar (including Sauron) to him. Sauron survived the War of Wrath and carried that bitterness and jealousy forward, where he used it to tempt power-hungry men seeking immortality (and Saruman). I don't think there's any ideology holding all of that together, just a desire for more and more power. (Admittedly, Tolkien avoids the whole "why did the troops join up" question altogether by saying that orcs are created to serve the will of their masters.)

When you look at Voldemort and Morgoth next to, say, Asmiov's Spacers--who have a fully-formed (though not-too-explained) ideology that holds Settlers to be inferior humans who must be confined to Earth, leaving the future of the human race to the Spacers alone. But the Spacers--even the ones who seek to destroy Earth in Robots and Empire--don't seem nearly as evil in comparison. (Of course, that could be because Giskard eventually determines irradiating Earth is the best course for humanity, which I suppose pokes a hole in my theory.)
7.22.2007 8:09pm
U.Va. 2L:
Hmm. I should proofread before posting, lest I leave sentence fragments in there.
7.22.2007 8:11pm
Perseus (mail):
Real-world evil political movements simply aren't like that, at least not exclusively so. They always have an ideology that justifies their policies, usually a quite elaborate one. ...The prevalence of essentially nonideological evil in fantasy literature is unfortunate.


As much as ideology interests me as an academic, I'm not convinced that an ideology is necessary to make a depiction of evil plausible. As David Hume pointed out in his discussion of parties/factions: "Parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle, are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon, that has yet appeared in human affairs." Ambition, interest, affection, personal allegiances, etc. are all equally compelling sources of hate and cruelty (e.g., "What can be imagined more trivial than the difference between one colour of livery and another [blue and green] in horse races? Yet this difference begat two most inveterate factions in the Greek [Byzantine] empire, the Prasini and Veneti, till they ruined that unhappy government." No elaborate ideology in that case.) This is not to say that Rowling's depiction of evil is very good, but I don't think that ideology is crucial component for a persuasive depiction of evil.
7.22.2007 8:21pm
Henri LeCompte (mail):
Hmmm, if you think about the original Evil One-- Satan-- I am not aware of any ideological underpinnings to his evil. He merely IS evil. It is his nature; it is essential to his being. Other people, other characters may need rationalizations/philosophies/historical grievances, but not the Evil One.

And, I might add, history has found Satan to be a pretty compelling character!
7.22.2007 8:31pm
PersonFromPorlock:

Terry Goodkind's fantasy series ("The Sword Of Truth" starting with "Wizard's First Rule") does a pretty good job at illustrating ideological evil.

... and you can tell Goodkind's a libertarian by the reforms his protagonist implements and the way his characters talk everything to death! 'Improving' books, but not very readable.

Incidentally, why worry about the ideologies of evil? Hitler and the Jews or Stalin and the Kulaks or Pol Pot and the 'intellectuals', it all ends up the same way. The true ideology of evil is the will to power; the rest is salesmanship.
7.22.2007 8:38pm
Little Loca (mail):
She should have modeled her evil characters after the Bush Administration--they should all be power-hungry, greedy, self-aggrandizing aristocrats whose only goal is to consolidate power in a select few in order to amass wealth and impose skewed morality.
7.22.2007 8:55pm
Justin (mail):
I thought some of the Book 7 Ministry stuff came alterantively from Nazi Germany and the modern US in a variety of ways. HK Rowling is pretty obviously more of a liberal than a liberterian.
7.22.2007 9:00pm
Ilya Somin:
(Admittedly, Tolkien avoids the whole "why did the troops join up" question altogether by saying that orcs are created to serve the will of their masters.)

Actually, Tolkien spends some time explaining how Sauron exploited the Numenoreans historical grievances against elves, the antagonism between elves and dwarves, and later, the territorial and ideological grievances that various groups of Men had against Gondor and Rohan.
7.22.2007 9:02pm
Ilya Somin:
As David Hume pointed out in his discussion of parties/factions: "Parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle, are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon, that has yet appeared in human affairs."

With due respect to Hume, he was simply wrong. Going all the way back to the ancient world, governments and tyrants had justifying ideologies based on religious, political, and moral principles. Think of the ideology of Rome (both the Republic and the Empire); ancient "god-kings", etc.
7.22.2007 9:05pm
TCO:
Well, waduya expect? She's really not that good. The more the series concentrates on an epic battle of evil the worse it gets. Where she shines is things like Chocolate Frogs and Potions lessons and the like.

Plus, she was obviously getting tired and sloppy. What with all the money she's gotten so far. The long delays for 5, 6, 7 are signs of that. As is are the many continuity and even grammar/spelling mistakes in 7. Plus add all the emphasis on explication/backstory in 6 and 7. Bleh. Mutherfucking bleh.
7.22.2007 9:07pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Hmm... I suspect it is possible to have a small totalitarian/evil organization without an ideology, but not a very large one. Al Capone did very nicely, as have various warlords, sans any appeal but "work for me and there'll be protection and lots of money." But it'd be hard to keep control, at least stable control, of a decent sized country without a driving ideology. Perhaps even tyrants face Machiavelli's dilemma: any hired army that is large enough to defend you is also large enough to take over -- will do so. The ideology also gives a means to mobilize the masses, which is far more efficient than "everybody has to work hard or my thugs will break your kneecaps."
7.22.2007 9:07pm
Frater Plotter:
Oddly enough, there are characters in Book 7 with a material reason to hate Muggles: the Dumbledore brothers, Albus and Aberforth. The violence of three young Muggles against their sister Ariana led to the death of their mother, and (indirectly) Ariana's death as well. However, although Albus briefly becomes involved in a political conspiracy to overthrow Muggledom "for the greater good", neither Dumbledore brother becomes violently anti-Muggle.

Voldemort's ostensible original reason for despising Muggles is that his Muggle father abandoned his witch mother while she was pregnant with him. However, this seems to be even less adequate of a motive than the Dumbledores'; his true motives seem more basic and less contemplated. From an early age (the orphanage), Voldemort appears to be a sadist, motivated heavily by the sadist's pleasure in causing suffering to innocents. It may be only later (at Hogwarts) that he realizes that political power gives him the freedom to indulge this pleasure without consequences.

The motivations of Lucius Malfoy is possibly better understood in terms of class, rather than race: to the old-money Malfoys, Muggle-born wizards represent nouveaux riches, while "blood traitors" such as the Weasleys represent upstart servants who should be kept in their place.
7.22.2007 9:13pm
Frater Plotter:
A few posters above have analogized the Death Eaters to a criminal gang, such as Al Capone's. I do not think this is a very apt analogy.

Gangs such as Capone's are business enterprises operating in the high-risk/high-reward space produced by prohibitory laws against drugs, prostitution, gambling, or other "vices". They are violent largely because they cannot use legal means to resolve disputes. Gang organizations that are purely violent, (such as "Murder, Inc.") are second-order, working for an existing underground economy based on prohibited trades.

Gangs do attempt to corrupt legal officials -- chiefly members of the police and the judiciary. However, they do this chiefly so their illegal trade can operate without prosecution. They don't work corruption for its own sake, nor do they try to replace or overthrow the government. After all, their high profits are linked to the continued enforcement of the prohibitory laws against others.
7.22.2007 9:24pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):

Little Loca (mail):
She should have modeled her evil characters after the Bush Administration--they should all be power-hungry, greedy, self-aggrandizing aristocrats whose only goal is to consolidate power in a select few in order to amass wealth and impose skewed morality.


What would a thread without a little BDS action?
7.22.2007 9:40pm
Eryk Boston (mail):
It's been my observation that all forms of evil have at least a tiny core of truth underlying an elaborate philosophy. The antipathy towards muggles has a very real and understandable core that has been embellished to include even muggle-born wizards.

It is fair to observe that, despite their powers, the wizards in the Potter world are a beleaguered minority that has spent centuries hiding themselves from the greater world and the cruelties of muggles. This isolation has allowed them to learn and grow strong. The death eaters are the most radical form of the resulting resentment and sense of entitlement/superiority. Voldemort's success was based on being able to tap into this resentment.
7.22.2007 9:53pm
Shangui (mail):
The long delays for 5, 6, 7 are signs of that.

Actually, I believe that only 5 came out later than expected. The two years between 6 and 7 is pretty quick for a 750 page book. Also, why are delays signs of sloppiness? I would think that rushing them out one a year would lead to more sloppiness.
7.22.2007 10:02pm
Perseus (mail):
Hume's point is not that principle played absolutely no role in ancient times, but rather that the role that it played was insignificant when compared to modern times. For example, he notes that "Religions, that arise in ages totally ignorant and barbarous, consist mostly of traditional tales and fictions, which may be different in every sect, without being contrary to each other; and even when they are contrary, every one adheres to the tradition of his own sect, without much reasoning or disputation. But as philosophy was widely spread over the world, at the time when Christianity arose, the teachers of the new sect were obliged to form a system of speculative opinions; to divide, with some accuracy, their articles of faith; and to explain, comment, confute, and defend with all the subtilty of argument and science..." Likewise, he suggests that the parties/factions in Rome were almost exclusively based on interest, affection, and ambition. This is in contrast to the distinctly modern examples that you cite of the Nazis, the Communists, Al Qaeda, etc., which are cases where ideology (explained and defended "with all the subtilty of argument and science" in Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, bin Laden's writings, etc.) plays a vastly more important role in winning adherents.
7.22.2007 10:05pm
TruePath (mail) (www):
It seems to me the reason why so many evil groups in the real world have such elaborate ideologies is twofold:

1) The need to attract and retain LARGE groups of followers. If evil megalomaniacs didn't need to attract hordes of followers to join their armies or had others effective ways to do so they wouldn't need to propound ideologies they obviously can't really believe themselves.

2) The lack of any sufficiently compelling earthly end such as immortality.

In a fantasy novel where individual charachters wield substantial amounts of power and a small band of powerful individuals can rock society on their own the need for a complex ideology to win over followers becomes much less important. It is much harder to trick your small group into thinking you buy into it yourself and the fact that you and your cadre posses such large personal power will motivate others to join you out of self-interest.

Also people often create these complex ideologies because they know the power and riches they grasp for will eventually slip from their grasp so want to feel like they are doing something worthwhile that will last beyond them.

Finally in fantasy novels the amount of duress an evil leader can place on his followers is usually substantially more effective than what can be managed in the real world making it less necessary to create real belief in the cause.
7.22.2007 10:13pm
TCO:
Shangui: The delays are signs that she had lost the hunger, the drive, the discipline. I think 1-4 were yearly. The others were all longer. That's what I mean when I say delay. I mean versus the initial promise of 1/year.
7.22.2007 10:31pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
I've always liked the Duke's explanation for being evil in Thurber's "The 13 Clocks": "We all have flaws, and mine is being wicked."
7.22.2007 10:33pm
Shangui (mail):
The delays are signs that she had lost the hunger, the drive, the discipline.

That's one way of looking at it. But did the decades that it took Tolkien to finish LoTR (far, far past the deadlines he and his publishers had set) mean that he had "lost the hunger" or the drive? Certainly not. The story in HP became much more complex after book 3 and it's pretty hard to imagine anyone writing those books after 4 in a year given how much back story, etc. was becoming increasingly important.
7.22.2007 10:39pm
SG:
I think you're not taking into account the fact that Ms. Rowling is an Englishwoman. I beleive the Death Eaters represent the aristocracy and what they resent is the loss of their place at the top of society, lost to the commoners. Muggles are serfs, Mudbloods are the middle class. Voldemort's appeal to the aristocracy is to restore their "right" to rule over the little people.

I should go look it up, but doesn't she state that 1689 was when purebloods gave up their domination? I doubt it's coincidental that that's the year English Bill of Rights was adopted.
7.22.2007 10:44pm
TCO:
Obviously a delay could be good or bad. In this case, it was bad. The backstory was a waste. Keeping it tighter and keeping the emphasis on what made the world magical would have been better. JKR lost the hunger, the drive.
7.22.2007 10:45pm
TCO:
Oh...and there were some parts of TLOTR that dragged. And don't get me started on the gotverdammte Silmarilian. Sheesh.
7.22.2007 10:51pm
Bob_R (mail):
If I had to list a dozen ways in which this series could be improved, a better set of motivations for the bad guys would not be on it. Wizards derive their power through their magical skills. Voldemort is unusually powerful and offers his followers knowledge of the "dark arts." Sure, something more creative would be nice, but this will do in a pinch. The fast that so few writers really bother much with the motivation of their bad guys is an indication that not many people are very interested in it.

By the way, I feel really foolish suggesting ways to "improve" her books since I'm not really sure why they work so well. I can remember when the first book came out, and the buzz about it took off long before Scholastic got together any elaborate marketing effort. My daughter was 8 and an avid reader, so I was looking for books of this type. I heard a 30 second review on our college radio station. They had sold out the three copies that had come in to Barnes and Nobel, but got more in within the week. By the end of September, all of the older kids in her elementary school had read it. It was a fad, and about the nicest fad of any kind I can remember.
7.22.2007 10:54pm
Ella (www):
TCO - Your evidence for her losing the hunger and the drive is that she . . . made the story more complex and broadened it's scope?

And as for the "long" delays, how quickly could anyone plan, write, and edit several thousand pages of material while giving birth twice, raising three children, and consulting for the adaptations of five movies based on her books? She took a whole TEN years to write the last 6 books. What a lazy bitch.

You could make a good argument that she lost some focus. I certainly would have preferred her to take some extra time on 6 and 7 to get the backstory tighter and eliminate continuity errors. I don't see how any reasonable person could see these flaws as evidence that she lost "hunger" or "drive". Quite the reverse.
7.22.2007 11:01pm
TCO:
There's some quote by Mark Twain about how he didn't have time to write a short letter. And it's not just time. It's effort. It takes effort to concentrate. To make a small gem, versus a bloatathon. Sometimes a shorter, high quality effort is more worthwhile, than vast amounts of mediocre work.
7.22.2007 11:10pm
Ella (www):
TCO - Read what you wrote and you'll realize that it's an argument for her to have taken MORE time to write a more focussed work. But in your previous comments, you cited the "long" hiatus between books as evidence of her losing her drive and hunger. Pick a criticism.

Also, I'm not sure how applicable the writing tips from Mark Twain or any other writer of essays, "serious" fiction, nonfiction, or satire are to HP. Nowadays, conciseness is preferred in those genres (although it wasn't always this way - read some Dickens or Thackeray). By contrast, half the enjoyment in fantasy and sci-fi is the universe and backstory that the author creates. Most readers enjoy the extra material because they're hungry to learn more about the characters and the world the writer invented. You might not like it and it might offend modern literary sensibilities, but devotees of the genre demand it. Hence the mountains of fanfic for HP and other fantasy classics.
7.22.2007 11:27pm
Jeremy Nimmo (mail):
Well... google reckons 'loca' stands for 'crazy person', so what can you expect?
It's no Captain Planet, but I don't think JK Rowling ever set out to reconcile all the elements in her series arc, so you have to allow for a certain amount of confusion.
7.22.2007 11:32pm
TCO:
Any criticism of the books has to be supported by textual references. I could recap, but just read the rips on Amazon on books 6 and 7. (sort by least favorable). And you will see my points, arguments on the text.

The delays, I speculate, are based on running out of juice and seem to jibe with the lack of precision and fun in the later books. Longer is no big deal. Anyone who is a decent typist can compose that amount of work. Look at the many continuity errors, and the crappy epilogue. The length is a sign of lack of mental commitment to the test. Just as the poorer composition is.

Same thing with the later, bloated, crappy Heinlein books.
7.22.2007 11:38pm
TCO:
Oh...and I HATE the emphasis on bloatedness in modern fantasy and sciece fiction. Over time spent on background or byzantine complication is a result of too much of the key original fresh lodes of ore-iginality being worked out. What was really cool about HP, was the original, new take on the wizarding school, the juztaposition of modern and old. The little things like Chocolate frogs. The dear valor of Harry and Ron and Hermione. Their other characteristics.

The byzantine Horcrux cum Hallows cum Riddle backstory cum Dumbledore was a drag.
7.22.2007 11:42pm
Ella (www):
TCO - I just don't see where the "delays" happened. To repeat, she wrote the last 6 books in less than 10 years. And gave birth twice in that time period. The woman churned out a pretty substantial book every 18 months, for goodness's sake. There was no room for delay by any reasonable definition of the term. You just seem to have latched on to complaints from a juvenile portion of fandom about "delays", added your pet theory, and run with it, never bothering to reflect on the inherent contradictions in your criticism.

I read all the books and saw the continuity flaws. The books were still well written and, more importantly, very enjoyable. I understand the criticism that the last two or three books lost focus, but as a longtime fantasy reader, this didn't surprise or upset me. A strong argument can be made that the detailed backstory was a response to reader expectations, Most of the readers wanted it, even if it detracted from the serious literary merit of the book.
7.23.2007 12:02am
U.Va. 2L:
Actually, Tolkien spends some time explaining how Sauron exploited the Numenoreans historical grievances against elves, the antagonism between elves and dwarves, and later, the territorial and ideological grievances that various groups of Men had against Gondor and Rohan.

This is what I get for going off on that specific tangent despite not having read them since early high school. Foiled again!
7.23.2007 12:12am
TCO:
Ella. If you like the later books fine. I don't. Refer to the rips for the details. Capisce?

On rate of production. I don't care if she had kids. That was just something that showed that she was more interested in her personal life than in driving the art forward most beautifully.
7.23.2007 12:36am
Drea:
SG points out the solution that JKR folded in to this book, and I think it's more complex than the "mudblood's stole our magic" claim that Ilya refers to.

I didn't recall the "Secrecy" law from the earlier books, but it sounds like the witch-hunting of the 1400's - 1600's was seen as an all-out war. Apparently the magical couldn't actually dominate the Muggles, and the dominant political elements decided to go underground instead - in 1689.

Voldemort claims this as the oppression he is fighting - the Wizarding world should have fought harder and taken it's rightful place as rulers of the world.

While she doesn't take that too far, I do think it's a much more plausible ideological foundation for the evil. And a bit better than I was expecting.
7.23.2007 1:32am
Hirvox:
Perhaps it's just me, but the Death Eaters' ideology doesn't seem that confusing. They think that wizards are superior to muggles, because they are physically as strong as muggles, but can also cast spells. However, the status quo is that wizards are allowed to live normally only within their own subculture and thus being "oppressed" by the more numerous muggles.

From that viewpoint, the Death Eaters are not that different from other fictional supremacy groups, such as Magneto's Brotherhood. They believe that they are an oppressed minority forbidden from reaching their full potential as leaders of the world.
7.23.2007 6:47am
Ilya Somin:
Perhaps it's just me, but the Death Eaters' ideology doesn't seem that confusing. They think that wizards are superior to muggles, because they are physically as strong as muggles, but can also cast spells. However, the status quo is that wizards are allowed to live normally only within their own subculture and thus being "oppressed" by the more numerous muggles.

The problem with this interpretation is that the Death Eaters' ire is directed mostly at Muggle-born wizards (who are just as powerful as purebloods) rather than at actual Muggles.
7.23.2007 7:01am
Owen Hutchins (mail):
I cannot help be amused by complaints and long discussions on plausibility for what is, after all, childrens' fiction.
7.23.2007 7:50am
Nick P.:
The problem with this interpretation is that the Death Eaters' ire is directed mostly at Muggle-born wizards (who are just as powerful as purebloods) rather than at actual Muggles.

I don't see that as a problem with the interpretation. The Death Eaters are bitter at the wider wizard society which is responsible for what the death eaters perceive as cowardly capitulation to the muggles. The Death Eaters know they would dominate the muggles if it weren't for the blood traitors. The muggle-born wizards are even worse than blood traitors, a fifth column who can be expected to sympathize with muggles but who have infiltrated the death eaters' rightful domain.

cf. the purges and internal hatreds of real-world evil like Stalinism.
7.23.2007 9:49am
Dan Weber:
As is are the many continuity and even grammar/spelling mistakes in 7.
Irony FTW!
7.23.2007 9:49am
Shangui (mail):
Owen,
Regardless of the fact that it's "childrens' fiction," it's read by far more adults than children overall. They're also the best-selling books in at least the last 50 years after the Bible and thus surely merit some attention on that level. While the first 3 books were certainly directed at children, 4-7 are at least as, if not substantially more, sophisticated than most of what ends up on the NTY bestseller list. Remember, most "adult" fiction is not Faulkner, it's Steele, Clancy, Dan Brown, etc.

Part of what's astounding about JK Rowling's accomplishment, whether one loves or hates the books, is how engrossing and important so many people find them. What's the last book or film that has inspired so many posts in a single week on the VC, posts by extremely bright and well-educated adult men? I don't think there have been any such films or books. And these posts have been about the content of the books, not simply the fact that they are a social phenomenon.
7.23.2007 9:51am
Happyshooter:
I disagree almost completely. The idea that evil is complex, and hides its face, is entirely western and democratic. In democratic countries, our method of election serves as a moderating influence.

By comparison, the Potter world is bureaucratic without election. In fact, it appears to be a self-perpetuating oligarchy at most, to the extent that there's any outside supervision at all, through the wizard governing body.

In that case, pure evil would have not just the opportunity, but every incentive to rise to the top.

Iran, Iraq, North Korea, most of Africa after the first wave of "democratic" postcolonial elections, in almost every case the most upfront and most evil person seizes control. More importantly, as the hardest and worst person around, they easily attract followers.

For your criticism to be true, the whole world would have to be like Venezuela, which is slowly swinging towards an evil dictator. However, the reason for the slow swing is that Venezuela was once democratic and mostly western. The same is true of South Africa. A much better example would be Liberia, where it is truly a race to see which "leader" can be more terrifying evil and therefore able to keep order.

Where there is no tradition of mass democracy, the most evil powerful figure tends to win.
7.23.2007 10:06am
Anon. Lib.:
The problem with this interpretation is that the Death Eaters' ire is directed mostly at Muggle-born wizards (who are just as powerful as purebloods) rather than at actual Muggles.

Professor,
I don't follow this response. Presumably, Muggle-born wizards and others predisposed to treating Muggles well (say the blood traitor Weasleys) would have to be defeated before an open attempt to dominate the Muggles could begin (they are the race traitors or moderate Hutus of the wizarding world). Moreover, the Death Eaters were, in fact, casually murdering Muggles.

Anyway, I think you're view of ideology is overdetermined by the examples of Communism and Nazism. The ideas that hold together political movements need not be so schematic, much less need they be composed of grand utopian dreams. The "idea" can simply be: other is bad, life will be better if the other is put in its place and/or destroyed. Take for example, the Pinochet's Chile or the Argentine Junta. They offered little in the way of utopian justification or world-historical meaning. Rather, in the guise of protecting society from radicalism, they committed atrocities. The example of Rwanda is starker.

I think there are clues that such a simple ideology is at play in Harry Potter. Before Voldemort arrives on the scene, the "pure blood" aristocrats and their toadies already possess some of the "ideas" that Voldemort will capitalize on. They resent their lack of dominance in the wizarding world as well as their need to hide from the Muggles. They see themselves as a natural elite, the Muggles as dumb animals, and wizards with Muggle blood as tainted. Voldemort arrives, tells them their right and that, if they support him, their natural dominance will be restored.

Lastly, I'd like to suggest a different flaw. The lack of geopolitics. Voldemort's coup would have severe international political repercussions. To start with, Voldemort is threatening to openly take control of Muggle Britain. This would undermine the 1689 treaty of secrecy around the world. Presumably, every party to that treaty would have a strong incentive to prevent such a development. So, I ask, here is the multinational anti-Voldemort coalition?
7.23.2007 10:09am
Ilya Somin:
Iran, Iraq, North Korea, most of Africa after the first wave of "democratic" postcolonial elections, in almost every case the most upfront and most evil person seizes control. More importantly, as the hardest and worst person around, they easily attract followers.


Actually, every one of these "pure evil" regimes had an elaborate ideology to justify it, such as Islamism (Iran), Baathism (Iraq under Saddam), communism (North Korea), some combination of nationalism and socialism (postcolonial Africa).
7.23.2007 10:56am
Alejandro (mail) (www):
You forget that the wizard society is many orders of magnitude smaller than the Muggle one -there are probably just 5,000 or less wizards and witches in all Britain. (Estimate comes from the known fact that almost all are educated in Hogwarts, the estimated number of students in it, and extrapolation.) With such numbers, a group of a few dozen power-hungry followers of a powerful and immortal psycopath can easily become a major political threat, especially if backed by Dementors and giants. They don't need a convincing ideology to persuade the masses, because there are no "masses".
7.23.2007 10:57am
Bishop:
Would be interested in thoughts about the significance of Dumbledore's defeat of Grindelwald. I keyed specifically in on the date of the duel of 1945 and the references to the reign of terror that occurred several years before hand and its linkages to WW II. How does Grindelwald's general ideology of the ends justifying the means (ie "for the greater good") tie into Nazism. There are some obvious linkages to racial superiority (wizards vs. muggles compared to Arayans vs Jews) but Grindelwald's ideology initially seemed to be based on having a benign dictatorship that eventually morphed into a tyrannical dictatorship. Its too bad the backstory of Grindelwald wasn't delved into deeper since in many ways he seemed a more compelling villain than Voldemort.
7.23.2007 11:37am
Justin (mail):
Total conjecture, but I feel JK Rowling intended to (permanently) kill off Harry and then changed her mind - that's why the ending was so weak. Reminds me, oddly, of the crappy "Stranger than Fiction" movie that Colin Farrel was in.

As for the compelling evil problem, please remember that it is a children's book. The meaning of evil in this book is no less complex than that in the Narnia books.
7.23.2007 12:22pm
girl:
I think most people are forgetting one essential fact: Voldemort's hatred of "mudbloods" comes from the fact that he himself is not magically pure. His father, Tom Riddle, was a wealthy aristocrat from the village in which the Gaunt family lived. Tom Riddle was a non-magical man, though Voldemorts mother is a witch from the line of Gaunt (thus "heirs" of Slytherin), making Voldemort a half-blood. This is rather like Hitler holding up a standard of Nordic Aryan excellence despite his own dark complexion. In Book 2 he explains how he would never take his "filthy muggle father's name," Tom Riddle, and reworked the letters into his new name, Lord Voldemort.

I think Voldemort's backstory highlights the point that Ilya is missing. Voldemort's own hatred of "inferior" magical types (and Muggles) is a sort of personal vendetta which is mixed with a general hatred of such types by the remaining "pureblood" families, who used to be in charge of the general magical and non-magical population. One of the major points of Harry Potter, I think, is to point out the totalitarian reliance on a CHARISMATIC LEADER. Though the Malfoys and Lestranges are, to a certain extent, evil, they are almost impotent without a leader who organizes and validates their manner of thinking. And "evil" here, in my opinion, means using force to establish individual, personal ideologies (especially ideologies of hatred) over other beings.

Also remember that this takes place in England, where old caste systems can still manifest itself in the belief, of the higher classes of the inferiority of the "lower orders." Witness the Black house, where Sirius' mother's portrait screams about mudbloods and blood traitors. Sometimes a mode of hate becomes so ingrained that, in the end, it is its own justification.
7.23.2007 12:29pm
keypusher (mail):
Perseus

As David Hume pointed out in his discussion of parties/factions: "Parties from principle, especially abstract speculative principle, are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps the most extraordinary and unaccountable phenomenon, that has yet appeared in human affairs." Ambition, interest, affection, personal allegiances, etc. are all equally compelling sources of hate and cruelty (e.g., "What can be imagined more trivial than the difference between one colour of livery and another [blue and green] in horse races? Yet this difference begat two most inveterate factions in the Greek [Byzantine] empire, the Prasini and Veneti, till they ruined that unhappy government." No elaborate ideology in that case.)

I think that is a very good point, and relates to the relative ideological simplicity of the Tolkien books. Going back even further, in the Iliad the Greeks capture cities, kill the men, enslave the women and steal all the gold simply because they can. (As to Troy itself, there is the abduction of Helen as a motive, but Achilles makes clear that he couldn't care less about Helen, and no doubt he speaks for most of the Greeks. In any event, the Greeks capture and destroy other cities with no justification whatsoever.)

Since most fantasy books are set before the age of "parties of abstract principle," their lack of ideology presents no problem. The HP books, on the other hand, are set in the present.

I haven't read any of the books since the first, though, so perhaps the defenses of Rowling in this thread are correct.

TCO, you were doing well for a while, but

On rate of production. I don't care if she had kids. That was just something that showed that she was more interested in her personal life than in driving the art forward most beautifully.

...is much too straightforward for really first-rate trolling.
7.23.2007 12:36pm
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
A couple of points:

1) The target audience for the Potter series is a child the age of Harry in the book. A fourth grader does not need an ideology behind evil. A number of evil deeds is all they need to get the point. As the target audience has aged the ideology behind the evil has been fleshed out.

2) Gellert Grindelwald, defeated by Dumbledore in 1945, is pretty clearly a stand in for Hitler and the Nazi's. Grindelwald's prison camp gate reads "For the Greater Good." Dumbledore's flawed background is his early interest in sacrificing for the greater good. Much like England and America had early Nazi sympathizers who respected how Hitlerian Germany was able to make so much progress in the aftermath of World War One.

Mrs. Rowling is dealing with overarching good vs. evil and individualtiy vs. collectivism themes in her book. What is facinating is that the libertarians see the failure of government in the face of crisis and the liberals see the evils of prejudice.
7.23.2007 12:51pm
BabetheBlueOx (mail):
Justin


Total conjecture, but I feel JK Rowling intended to (permanently) kill off Harry and then changed her mind - that's why the ending was so weak.


Rowling wrote the last chapter ten years ago.
7.23.2007 12:59pm
Libby:
I actually think that there is a psychological basis for a strong dislike of Muggle-born wizards. Wizards are specail, and they know it. In every scene involving children first discovering their abilities, we see them celebrating their induction into this unique group, and I think they would all admit, at least as children that it is "better" to be a witch or wizard. Adults may be more polite, but it seems fair to say that almost all of the human magical community (both the 'good' and 'bad') share a horror of losing the ability to perform magic. One way of creating a distance from that horror would be to emphasize that wizards are a wholly separate race -- that they are not human. Muggleborn wizards present a visible challenge to that belief -- proof that the distance between magical and non-magical is far smaller than they want to believe.

Beyond the personal terror of losing magic, I think that even 'good' wizard parents fear having Squib children. Parents generally hope to pass on to their children their abilities, and appreciate seeing their own best qualities emerging in their children. Muggle-born wizards would be a reminder to all of how little control parents have over this process.

Finally, I think race analogies may be a little misplaced -- Muggleborn wizards are not immediately identifiable -- they look just like other wizards -- a better analogy might be gays and lesbians, or at another time, Masons; they look like us, we can't recognize them, but they are fundamentally different.
7.23.2007 1:17pm
Bishop:
Stevethepatentguy, I think you are correct in your analysis that Grindelwald is pretty clearly a Nazi reference, and I think that the "Dumbledore was an early Nazi sympathizer" thread of the story was one of the most interesting character developments of the book. Likewise Dumbledore's initial callousness toward his handicapped sister fits this thread. Still, I can't really think of other plot threads of the series that so directly compared to real life "muggle" history...Grindelwald seems to be directly tied into Nazism and the Holocaust.

Maybe its just me, but the entire Grindelwald sublot seemed like Rowlings biggest discussion of an idealogical evil. If Rowling was planning to write any more books in the Harry Potter Universe, I think I would most like to see a prequel delving more into the wizarding world's role in the WW II era.
7.23.2007 1:28pm
Ian Argent (mail) (www):
The need for Voldemort to express an attractive ideology happened 20-30 years prior to HP7 - when he was first rising to power. He needed to attract his core followers (the Death Eaters). Once he had them; he then proceeded to attempt to take over via a combination of terror and mind control. He was also fairly clearly leading a personality cult, whose core survivors went to Azkaban, or successfully concealed their "willing" work for the Dark Lord. (LeStrange and Malfoy, respectively).

By the time of the series opening, Voldemort's ideology has been discredited (publically - as we find out, many important government members still hold to it at least partially). And when Voldemort's followers take control, there is a lot of (rather disorganized) opposition to the "new order".

And finally, as mentioned, the wizarding world is SMALL - a few, highly motivated, people can in fact take over control. It took good planning, and tight discipline, but the coup at the Minitry took the subversion of maybe a dozen people, and was enabled by the subversion of one.
7.23.2007 2:30pm
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
Bishop,

Thanks. My thought isn't that Dumbledore was callous towards his sister but that he sought to protect her. Grindelwald killed the sister, in a parallel to the Nazi eugenics programs, "For the Greater Good" and this was what turned Dumbledore from his brush with collectivism.

Dumbledore saw what evil could be wrought "For the Greater God" and spent the rest of his life protecting individuals.
7.23.2007 3:39pm
Confounded:
BTW, an aside, I admit, but am I the only one who doesn't understand how Dumbledore beat Grindelwald in a duel in which Grindelwald held the undefeatable Elder Wand?
7.23.2007 5:31pm
Toby:
Good discussion.

One sub-theme left out is redemption. Harry, naively, wants everyone good to have always been good. He is outraged that anyone he admires ever was less than good in any way. Rowling is clearly not sympathetic to this.

Dumbledore's past is not what matters, its what Dumbledore made of it. Was he callow, conceited, self centered and easily swayed when young? Yes he was. The measure of the man is that he grew out of it. This is important as it offers hope to the adolescent who knows he is making mistakes today. This speaks to a major adolsecent theme "You're a hipocrite, because you [drank, did drugs, whatever] when you were a teenager, how can you come down on me for doing so?" Well Dumbledore could counsel Harry on getting through what he got through.

It also speaks to hope, because we can make of ourselves what we want. Harry has a choice, He can hate muggles as Voldemort did because of his youth, or he can put it behind him as did Dumbledore. Even Malfoy can move beyond his past. At the end, Malfoy is not jovial, but he has moved beyond his death-eater heritage.
7.23.2007 5:57pm
Shangui (mail):
am I the only one who doesn't understand how Dumbledore beat Grindelwald in a duel in which Grindelwald held the undefeatable Elder Wand?

I wonder if the wand never really worked for Grindelwald as he stole it rather than defeating its previous possessor somehow. This could be why G. said to V. that he'd "never had it." Of course we depend on D. having it so that it can pass to Malfoy and then Harry. Or maybe the wand is simply really powerful but not actually unbeatable, just as the invisibility cloak is not as perfect as described in the fairy tale (Moody's eye could see through it). My guess is that we are not supposed to necessarily think the fairy tale version is true. Rather it's a story that developed around a set of powerful magical objects. So Hermione's doubts are both right and wrong.
7.23.2007 6:36pm
Alejandro (mail) (www):
Ilya Somin says:


Regarding the first point, I entirely agree that small groups are easier to motivate by nonideological means than large ones. However, small groups that seek to overthrow and entire social order usually do develop an ideology nonetheless.


But here the major point that both me and Prof. Bainbridge were making is overlooked. It is not only Voldemort's group that is small, but the whole wizarding society. An consistent ideology and a propaganda campaign may be necessary to take over the government of a society with millions of citizens, especially if it has democratic institutions; but they are not needed for a well-armed and ruthless group to take over the government of a society of 3,000 people, ruled by an oligarchic system that ordinary people have no control over. The half-baked ideologies of pureblood supremacy that Rowling includes in the narrative are actually unnecessary for this purpose, in my opinion. (Though of course they serve the larger literary purpose of making points about racism, etc.)
7.23.2007 8:07pm
Ian Argent (mail) (www):
Remember, the battle for hogwarts involves, at most, around a thousand people (probably rather less - minimum of around 200 Death-eaters and allies, and 100 opposed; given the number of casualties laid out in the Great Hall at the end). A battle for all the marbles, that both sides have been able to call in all their supporters for.
7.23.2007 9:14pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
The core of Voldemort's ideology isn't about genetic purity, it's about his inability to deal with his own mortality. Having not formed any attachments to any other people, Voldemort sees no greater end in the universe than himself, and is thus unable to deal with the eventual end of that self. His entire life was about a constant pursuit of power in hopes that gathering enough would allow him to defeat death. Everything about his ideology results from that pursuit of power.

In the case of his racial purity obsession, it's the result of generalizing of his obsession with power. He elevates the purebloods not because they're pure, but because they're socially powerful (and thus worthwhile). Muggles and non-humans are socially weak (and thus not worthwhile).
7.24.2007 2:26am