Harry Potter: A Pro-Establishment Snob?

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As the series ages—and is converted to celluloid—literary critics will perpetually find new bones to pick about Harry Potter. The latest such critique to rise above the general hubbub of Potter quibbling comes courtesy of Maria Bustillos at The Awl, who wrote a nuanced essay a few weeks ago on the establishmentarian tendencies of the novels and J.K. Rowling. It seems destined for further discussion after New Yorker book critic Elizabeth Minkel noticed it and posted some of her own thoughts on it Monday.

Bustillos's thesis boils down to this: Harry Potter (aka the "chosen" one) was invited to Hogwarts and deemed "favorite" by Headmaster Albus Dumbledore because of his blood lineage and innate ability to combat the evil Voldemort. Potter is then allowed to break all the rules of Hogwarts, taught special magical defense skills and bestowed powerful gifts with which he learns to wield over a seven-book series (where he is, far from being an anti-establishment force, "slavishly obedient" to the all-powerful Dumbledore, in her view). This type of "chosenness," which results in Potter being naturally good at everything, reminds Bustillos of aristocratic snobbery that is all too common in English literature. She recommends Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy as an example of  more inventive, subversive fantasy.

Furthermore, The Awl contributor notes, the absence of any "effort or application" by "nobleman" Potter is compounded by the fact that his enemies are those who value blood purity (they are against the intermingling of humans and wizards). Even though Potter is dedicated to fighting these villains, he and his band of friends (excepting Hermione) are also a group of noblemen. "If the 'special' and 'chosen' and 'gifted' automatically receive all the honors there are, then what would be the point of working hard to achieve anything?" Bustillos asks.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of Harry Potter merely reinforcing an aristocratic ideal didn't rub well with one of the series' most "unwavering" fans: The New Yorker's Elizabeth Minkel. In a comment on Bustillos's essay, Minkel notes that she could write "a thousand embarrassing words" in response but instead she limits her arguing to one "serious qualm" with what The Atlantic Wire dubs the "Nobleman Potter" thesis:

For all of the moralizing [in Bustillos's essay], the only prescription seems to be, 'Yank that Potter book out of your child's hands and give them something by Philip Pullman.' It feels tacked on--Pullman is championed without enough explanation--and it left me wondering how Bustillo feels about just about every other work of British children's literature, fantasy or otherwise, reflections of a society in which class is an entrenched construction.

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