Done with the Deathly Hallows:

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows earlier today. I won't comment on the details of the story in this post, except to say that it's an engrossing read, and had many clever plot twists. In a later post, I may note some reservations about the Potter series. For now, however, I will only say that any author who can get millions of kids to avidly read 700-page books deserves a tip of my Sorting Hat!

Kudos also to my local Barnes & Noble for their wizardry in handling the 800+ people who showed up to get copies of the book last night. When I arrived, I did a calculation based on what I thought were optimistic assumptions, and concluded that it would take B&N at least 5 hours to get to everyone. They did it in less than 90 minutes.

Lord Voldemort and the Evil Overlord List:

NOTE: This post has possible indirect spoilers for the Harry Potter series, including one that relates to Book 7.

Many fictional Dark Lords have met an untimely demise because they failed to follow the common sense rules of the Evil Overlord List. Now that the Harry Potter series has reached its end, we can determine how well Lord Voldemort followed the advice of the List. Overall, not too badly. However, he might have done better if he paid more attention to the following suggestions:

4. Shooting is not too good for my enemies.

6. I will not gloat over my enemies' predicament before killing them.

11. will be secure in my superiority. Therefore, I will feel no need to prove it by leaving clues in the form of riddles or leaving my weaker enemies alive to show they pose no threat.

78. I will not tell my Legions of Terror "And he must be taken alive!" The command will be "And try to take him alive if it is reasonably practical."

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Harry Potter Series:

NOTE: There are a few spoilers here, though no absolutely critical ones.

With the Harry Potter series now complete, I want to summarize what I see as its main strengths and weaknesses. The former are, to my mind, well-known. Perhaps the most important is the impressive depth of character development. In addition to the central Trio (Harry, Ron, Hermione), there are numerous secondary characters who develop much greater depths than I would have expected on first encountering them early in the series. Think of cases like Snape, Neville, Luna, Draco, and even Dumbledore (who in Book 7 turns out to be a lot less positive a figure than we have come to expect). A second great strength is the wealth of detail that gives depth and color to J.K. Rowling's imaginary world. Finally, although I don't believe that fiction books should be judged primarily by their ideology "message," I can't help but embrace J.K. Rowling's themes of deep suspicion of government and emphasis on the primacy of universal principles over cultural relativism and chauvinism. Book 7 pushes both of these ideas even farther than previous volumes.

The shortcomings of the series are greatly outweighed by the strengths. Nevertheless, I have two reservations. One is well-expressed by Megan McArdle: Rowling fails to give us a consistent portrayal of the costs and benefits of magic in her fictional world. As a result, the economy of the world she designs has numerous internal contradictions that undermine its believability. As Megan puts it, Rowling fails to explain the "opportunity costs" of magic, as a result of which its not clear why wizards can't just use magic to get almost anything they want:

The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be? Anything they need, except scarce magical objects, can be obtained by ordering a house elf to do it, or casting a spell, or, in a pinch, making objects like dinner, or a house, assemble themselves. Yet the Weasleys are poor not just by wizard standards, but by ours: they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?

Rowling hints at some answers to these questions, and to that extent Megan's critique goes a bit too far. Nonetheless, she is surely on to something.

My second reservation about the Potter series relates to the portrayal of evil. I'm going to save this one for a follow-up post of its own.

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.

Assessing My Harry Potter Book 7 Predictions:

Last week, I wrote a post posing some questions about Book 7 of Harry Potter and giving my predictions about the answers. Here's how I did.

Note: if you want to avoid SPOILERS, you should stop reading NOW.

UPDATE: Due to popular demand, I have put the spoilers below a fold. However, I think that the original prominent warning about spoilers (combined with the heading of the post, which is after all about "assessing my Harry Potter Book 7 Predictions") should have been sufficient.

UPDATE #2: Several commenters posit various reasons why some readers could not avoid the spoilers even despite the very prominent warning. None of these problems have ever happened to me, which is why they didn't occur to me when I wrote the initial post. However, some of the posited scenarios are plausible, and I will keep them in mind if spoiler issues come up in the future, and try to use folds to hide spoilers whenever possible. Sorry for any inconvenience caused by the intial post.