02 September 2007

Harry Potter and the Imperial Legacy

I've discussed how Jonathan Stroud's magnificent Bartimaeus trilogy and Philip Reeve's lotsa-fun Larklight reflect, in different ways, on Britain's imperial past. What about the British fantasy series that now towers above all others in bringing the world's wealth into the kingdom? How do the Harry Potter books treat the legacy of the British Empire?

To begin with, J. K. Rowling is quite inclusive in her portrayal of Britishness. Hogwarts students include Seamus Finnigan, Cormac McLaggen, Parvati and Padma Patil, Dean Thomas, Lee Jordan, Blaise Zabini, and Cho Chang. As children of Irish, Indian, African or Afro-Caribbean, and Chinese descent, these characters reflect both the scope of the British Empire at its peak and the multicultural society that Britain has become.

After the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling told fans that Kingsley Shacklebolt, a black man who wears a hoop in one ear, becomes Minister of Magic. In the movies, Shacklebolt is played by a George Harris, born on Grenada and educated in Barbados. Thus, it appears that in Rowling's Britain a man "of color" from one of the old West Indies can become the nation's highest-ranking wizard.

Critics have questioned the grace with which Rowling introduced these characters of color, and their usually minor roles in the stories. Nevertheless, it seems clear that she was trying to make a point of/by including them as Harry's peers. There are also several short-lived romantic pairings between students of color and students of pale English ancestry. Racial classification among humans based on physical appearance never becomes an issue in the series. As Rowling depicts modern Britain, all the children of the old Empire get along.

What about the legacy of the British Empire that I have the most feeling for: the USA? It basically doesn't exist in Rowling's books. As far as I can tell, there are only three brief mentions of the entire New World:

  • a "Salem Witches' Institute," which hopeful American fans have taken to be an equivalent of Hogwarts.
  • Brazil, where one of Ron's brothers had a penpal.
  • A portrait of a Native American that Harry remembers when he looks at pictures of Dumbledore's family.
Unlike other recent British fantasy series, the Harry Potter books offer no clue about how America fits alongside Britain in this world. There's no nagging American rebellion, as in the Bartimaeus trilogy. No dominant American Corporacy, as in the Lionboy trilogy. No nuclear wasteland across the Atlantic, as in the Hungry City Chronicles. Britain, not the USA (nor India), appears to be the world's most powerful English-speaking nation. This is ironic, given how important American money was to shining a spotlight on Rowling when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was first published.

But that silence is a good sign of how the Harry Potter series really grapples with Britain's imperial legacy. It doesn't. It shows a modern British student body containing young people of many ethnicities, but doesn't go near the history that produced that diversity, nor any of the tensions or inequities that may linger from it. But not examining the legacy of the British Empire makes it much easier to write about how wonderful the British countryside is.

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