J. K. Rowling is not a witch. She acquitted herself well in her recent “trial,” by which I mean the podcast series hosted by The Free Press, detailing the explosive controversy between history’s most famous children’s author and liberal progressive activists. It’s cleverly titled The Witch Trials, and it tells the story of Rowling’s rise to fame and her fall into (progressive) infamy. There is extended interview material from Rowling herself, along with some contributions from her detractors and critics. I should warn readers that this is the sort of podcast I had to turn off whenever my kids climbed into the car. Rowling’s battle with transgender ideologues has been exceedingly ugly, and the series makes no effort to sugar-coat this. Nevertheless, the whole story left me oddly hopeful.
That’s not because I am especially sanguine about the transformative power of free speech. The creators of Witch Trials would like us to imbibe that message, in keeping with The Free Press’ wider philosophy. They present this as a cautionary tale about cancel culture, but while I broadly support their principles, Rowling’s travails are in that sense all too familiar, and I wouldn’t have listened to a seven-episode podcast just to remind myself how nutty and intolerant the progressive left has become. What I did enjoy was the eye-opening illustration of how nature perennially reasserts herself, even when people are trying to sprint away from her.
Rowling’s fans feel like she tricked them with a bait-and-switch. A lifelong liberal, she led her readers into what felt to them like a “safe space,” one whose characters grew with them throughout their childhoods. Then, as adults, she shocked them by articulating perennial truths that they preferred not to believe. The hysterical rage was especially fascinating given that the points Rowling was making had always been central to the Harry Potter series. Rowling is a gender complementarian; this has been clear from the earliest Potter books. Further, she very obviously believes that things have natures. Though it is impressive how she personally has been willing to defend her views publicly, instead of cowering before the cancel mobs, there is some level on which this reckoning was bound to happen given the unstable mutations of twenty-first-century gender ideology.
People crave epic stories, meaningful life pursuits, and courageous figures who appear to stand for something. Those goods are only attainable when words mean things, and when we accept certain aspects of the world as fixed, not compliant with our revisionary whims. Progressive activists have for some time been cheerfully torching large portions of American history and Western Civilization more broadly, which is upsetting to some of us, but perhaps just good fun for people who were never taught to value those things in the first place. Eventually though, iconoclasts find themselves standing, wood bundles and torches in hand, at the foot of something they genuinely love. For this group, Harry Potter turned out to be that thing.
What follows will contain spoilers, if that term still applies to Harry Potter. Perhaps the “Boy Who Lived” has now joined Hamlet, King David, and Gilgamesh as a character whose story the educated reader is simply expected to know. Indeed, I predict that future generations will know him. But I think they will refer to him, to the last, as a “boy.”
Millennials worshiped Rowling in childhood. This comes through quite clearly in Witch Trials, as childhood fans gush about the way her books represented a “security blanket” through their childhood and adolescent growing pains. In a way, this is odd, because as children’s books go, Rowling’s are quite dark. Death is a major theme. Political oppression is rampant. Even “good” adults seem to be offering a tutorial in “failure to protect,” as Harry arrives each fall at Hogwarts brimming with eagerness to learn, only to be socially ostracized, plagued with death threats, or both. This is what gives today’s kids warm fuzzies?
My explanation is threefold. First, for all the grimness, Rowling gave her readers a universe that they found morally comfortable. Inclusion was always a major theme. The bad guys, a group of “pureblood” wizards, want to rule the world and ensure that their magical club is restricted to people of noble (magical) birth. They’re one part evil aristocrats protecting their privilege, and one part wand-wielding Nazis crusading under a “dark mark.” Meanwhile, the good guys are crusading for meritocracy, equality, and love, with side plots exploring the ethics of discrimination, especially against house elves (which some wizards regard as natural slaves). Modern readers find themselves right at home in this moral landscape. It is especially clever how the most scorned and discriminated-against group is “Muggles,” or non-magical persons, which is to say, every actual human being on this planet. Look at that! In J. K. Rowling’s universe, we can all be victims.
Rowling’s readers did not only want to be victims, however. They wanted to be heroes as well. This is another major theme of Harry Potter, and the wizarding universe undoubtedly appealed to readers in part because its Millennial audience also hungered to be “seen” and recognized in their personal uniqueness. There is a reason Harry Potter spawned a slew of internet quizzes. Children are initiated into the wondrous world of Hogwarts after discovering that they have an innate capacity for doing magic, and readers then get to follow these elite characters to their posh boarding school, where their unique abilities are further explored and refined. In the very hour of their arrival, their minds are probed by the magical “sorting hat” that assesses their character and places them within the proper House. As they continue at Hogwarts, they may encounter Dumbledore’s Mirror of Erised, which shows each person the deepest desire of his or her heart. Spooky Bogarts bring them face to face with (an illusion of) their greatest fears. The magical Room of Requirement supplies a seeker with whatever he or she happens to need at a given moment, and students eventually learn to cast a magical “patronus charm,” which brings forth a kind of animal-protector in a form that uniquely reflects the caster’s soul.
Why wouldn’t Millennials feel nurtured in this imaginary universe, where exquisitely-individualized magicians battle bigots and bullies? Social conservatives obligingly supplied the final piece of this puzzle by panicking and trying to ban Harry Potter. Alarmed by the references to magic and “witchcraft,” combined with the cultlike character of Harry Potter fanhood, some traditionalists issued their own fatwa against Rowling and tried to get her books removed from school libraries. This was probably silly, but it would be hard to find a more surefire method of convincing the left that Rowling was enlightened, uplifting, and thoroughly “safe.”
Harry Potter exploded in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Time passed, and Millennials got older and exulted in their “love wins” moment. Rowling supported this, announcing in 2009 that she saw Albus Dumbledore as gay. But as time passed, and same-sex couples settled into banal normalcy, young adults went searching for new horizons of sexual-identity-based inclusion. Soon growing numbers were identifying as “trans” and demanding hormone blockers and “sex reassignment surgery.” And then, it happened. Their favorite author jumped ship.
Rowling’s objections to the trans movement have mostly been posed in practical terms. She considers it unsafe and unjust to allow physiologically male persons in women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, and prisons. She sees it as worrisome, not a sign of progress and liberation, when scores of young people are so repulsed by their natural bodies that they consider it unbearable to live in them. But she also objects strongly to terms like “menstruating person” and “chest feeder,” which she clearly sees as degrading to women and mothers. It’s clear from both her books and her public advocacy that Rowling believes in sexual difference, as a real thing that is meaningfully connected to biology. Also, she is clearly interested in natures as such.
First, consider sexual difference. In affairs of the heart, the wizarding world was remarkably conservative. Hogwarts is full of romantic intrigue, all of it heterosexual. Sexual minorities often view Remus Lupin, Rowling’s “high and lonely” outcast, as a kindred spirit, but in the books, he ultimately marries a woman and has a baby with her. Whatever Dumbledore and Grindelwald may have done in their imprudent youth, we see exactly zero settled, same-sex couples in the wizarding world.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that Rowling secretly disapproves of same-sex relationships. She says she doesn’t, and she has proven her willingness to stand by unpopular views. I think she feels real sympathy with gays and lesbians, and also with people who experience gender dysphoria. But her interest as an author always followed the interplay of man and woman, considering what brings them together or drives them apart. Meanwhile, for all their detailed personal development, her characters never explore their gender identities; even when they use Polyjuice potion to take on the guise of other people, Harry and Ron always seem to be boys or men, while Hermione is always the girl. There is a scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (amusing now to revisit) in which we learn that at Hogwarts, female students may enter the boys’ dormitories, while the reverse is prevented by magical charms. It’s quite remarkable that Rowling’s fans managed to obsess over her books for so many years without noticing how traditional her instincts really are in this regard.
Questions about natures are explored in interesting ways in sub-plots involving non-human species. There are several of these: giants, goblins, house elves, and centaurs, along with some sentient-seeming magical beasts such as hippogriffs, unicorns, and thestrals. Obviously, as mythical species, these are available to Rowling to explore and develop imaginatively. Her creative choices here reveal a deep curiosity about natures as such, and about their role in defining us as persons.
On the one hand, she is clearly deeply committed to the premise that persons have intrinsic worth that transcends the particularities of their kind. Even sympathetic characters like Sirius Black can be punished for their failure to treat non-human persons with compassion and respect. On the other hand, characters can also make mistakes by failing to recognize the distinctness of each non-human species, as when Hagrid puts himself and others at risk by refusing to recognize the dangers of keeping vicious monsters as pets. We understand of course that as a “redeemed monster” himself (a half-giant with a heart of gold), he has an irrepressible need to see the benevolent potential in other apparently-monstrous creatures. Unfortunately, much of the time it’s just not there. Hermione, likewise, makes a fool of herself with her juvenile attempts to “liberate” house elves from servitude, while Ron (the stodgy wizard-born traditionalist) steadfastly maintains that the elves really do not want the kind of freedom she envisions for them. We might have expected the liberation-minded feminist to win the day, but it turns out that Ron is correct on this point. The character of Dobby proves, in a very moving way, that house elves are capable of their own kind of freedom, and certainly of love. Dobby is a free elf, and better for it. But he is still happiest and most fulfilled when devoting his energies to the service to others, and Hermione becomes a better house-elf advocate when she accepts this reality.
In Rowling’s mythical “natures,” we can see the curious musings of a person trying to figure out how far nature goes in defining a person’s life and horizons. How do “given” characteristics that we share with others of our kind interface with more universal characteristics of personhood (rationality, intrinsic dignity, a capacity for love)? How are they juxtaposed against unique personal characteristics, and individual hopes and dreams? The Harry Potter stories don’t always provide worked-out answers to these questions, but they are exploring them, and the answers they do give are broadly consistent with the Christian natural rights tradition. Persons are unique, and that uniqueness should be recognized and valued. At the same time, all have dignity, want to love and be loved, and desire freedom.
It really is not possible to tell a good story without drawing on themes like this. Good stories draw from tradition, and transcend the particulars of a given historical moment. They appeal to a universal human nature, which is what enables people from across history to be fascinated and moved by the dilemma of Antigone, the courtship of Ruth and Boaz, and the loyalty of Huckleberry Finn. Rowling does tell good stories, which is why I read them as a young adult, and then reread them with my own children. Inclusion and privilege are not the only themes. Rowling also explores friendship and selflessness, obligation and sacrifice, loyalty and forgiveness, and the importance of personal integrity. Her reflections on death are sometimes deeply moving, and it is especially impressive how bad magic is distinguished so clearly from the good. The good kind is lawlike, while bad magic subverts nature and warps the human soul, as power-lust will inevitably do when it is unshackled from justice, love, and the natural law.
My least favorite feature of Harry Potter was always the way that her characters lied so frequently, often for trivial reasons and seemingly without remorse. I saw a deep irony in the situation when Harry was subjected by the repressive Dolores Umbridge to a torture-chamber version of a familiar schoolroom punishment, forced to write repeatedly in his own blood that “I must not tell lies,” until the message was literally etched in scar tissue on his hand. At the time, he was being punished for telling the truth. But in fact, he did tell lies on a regular basis. Was it possible, I wondered, that Umbridge unwittingly helped him towards genuine moral improvement? That question took on another dimension when Rowling herself became a kind of truth-martyr, publicly pilloried and bombarded with threats of sexual violence, for refusing to say things she understood to be false. Free societies are certainly better, but scar tissue can be effective for teaching us the value of truth.
The Millennials are an impious and historically ignorant generation. Still, they were children once. They liked stories back then, as children do. Watching the ghost stories of their own childhoods come back to haunt them, we may reflect that every generation, however hostile to tradition, retains something that it likes from the past. Finding that something can be the key to salvation for many wandering souls.
Rowling is the creator of a magical universe. We thought that Deathly Hallows completed her legacy, but it turned out she had a few more tricks up her sleeve. Many of her former fans have decided that she’s a witch, but she’s been more faithful to them than they know. As the witches of old, she has passed through her moment of infamy, but she may be judged more kindly by generations to come.