Or: Why I’ll never do a series on Harry Potter
I was forbidden from reading Harry Potter as a child (I didn’t read the series until high school), and I’m okay with that. I definitely hated on the fandom more than I should have (as any kid who can’t have/do a thing is wont to do), but I would have been disappointed sooner or later. As it is, I never got terribly attached to the series, although I did manage to enjoy the fandom a bit in college. I had a hard time pinning down why I didn’t care for it at first, but now I think I know it: The Wizarding World really isn’t all that different from our own, and the attitudes of the characters are frustratingly familiar (not to mention that basically all the characters are kind of mean).
From the beginning, Harry tends to distrust those in authority, preferring to take action himself (even when it’s against the rules). The Ministry of Magic is frequently characterized as incompetent or unfair in early books, and later devolves into propaganda and scapegoating before it’s finally taken over by Voldemort. Politicians are spineless brownnosers (as exemplified by Percy), and every conviction can be sacrificed at the altar of ambition. Ambition itself – that is, the desire for power – is constantly vilified. Ambition is the primary characteristic of Slytherin, and also Dumbledore’s tragic flaw – it’s the thing that broke his family, and ultimately leads to his downfall.
So naturally, Dumbledore is the one who delivers Rowling’s thesis on who “deserves” power: “Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you [Harry], have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”
The problem, of course, is that the only way someone can have power without seeking it is if they already have some measure of influence or privilege to begin with. Like, perhaps, a charismatic white boy with a heroic destiny and all the money he needs.
Admittedly, Rowling does succeed at maintaining Harry’s status as an underdog by pitting him against increasingly powerful adversaries, but that’s also what makes his ultimate (and inevitable) victory underwhelming. He really doesn’t grow and change that much as a person, and the whole “happy ending” revolves around the idea that the world itself hasn’t changed, thus implying that the world he inhabits is fine the way it is.
And that’s one of the fundamental failings of Harry Potter: Rowling is so in love with the world she created that she couldn’t really see its flaws. This is a world in which Muggles have precious few rights (and no representation in the wizard government), and matters for the non-human peoples are much worse. A government that fell so quickly into the hands of a tyrant could easily do so again, yet there’s no indication of any substantial reforms. By the end of the series, Harry has incredible clout and influence (if not necessarily political power) – he could have worked to change things if he’d wanted to. Evidently there aren’t many protections in place to ensure that children aren’t neglected or abused – you’d think that Harry would at least be on board with something like that. But then, that is in line with how Harry (and most of the other characters) used their power beforehand.
Having power is not a bad thing, but wanting it is, regardless of the reason – or rather, it’s implied that there’s never a good reason to want more power, even when the people in charge are clearly incompetent or irresponsible. The only time Harry feels compelled to “redistribute” power is when an “evil” person has power over “good” people, mostly because the evil people are active while the good ones are largely passive. The line between good and evil is generally just a question of whether or not you’ve killed people, which makes it easy to frame those who do nothing as “innocent”.
One would think that performing any of the Unforgivable Curses would at least signal that you were on a morally dubious path, but it turns out that when the heroes perform two thirds of those curses while in pursuit of a righteous cause, they’re Pretty Easily Forgiven Curses, Actually. The only curse that’s truly unforgivable within the narrative is the murder curse, but more because it will literally maim your soul to do murder, apparently. So it’s never a question of what the characters do so much as whose agenda they support: Harry’s (and Dumbledore’s) or Voldemort’s. A handful of characters supported Voldemort in his first war but got tired of his villainy and switched sides later; not a single character switches to Voldemort’s side over the course of the books. Because Voldemort doesn’t really have an agenda besides gaining power for himself, and once you figure that out, why would any sane person want to stay with him?
Harry is supposedly his antithesis because he doesn’t want (more) power, but he really doesn’t need it. He’s powerful enough to defeat Voldemort (in a fashion that conveniently kills him off without scarring Harry’s conscience), and with that, he’s free to live out the rest of his life in peace and prosperity. It’s telling that while Harry ultimately refuses to keep the Elder Wand, he does make use of its power – to fix his old wand so he can do magic just as well as before. He’s supposed to be modest for rejecting power, but he still uses it for selfish purposes and then just leaves it to rot. Rejecting power doesn’t mean a thing if you already have what you want, and if the world around you isn’t an equitable one, that’s actually kind of irresponsible. Harry never attempts to change the world, just to defend the status quo wherein he comes out on top.
To quote another wise old man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”