We criticise - it’s what we do. We are idealists, and we love sharing those ideas with others. And since the dawn of the written word, it has been the authors who have been most visible in their criticism. We criticise one other another, and we criticise society. While it may at times be fashionable to openly rail against society through one’s work, it is more creative, and arguably more effective, to create a work of fiction that also serves a work of social criticism. Many works we call ‘classics’ fall into this category such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and George Orwell’s 1984. Charles Dickens can be viewed as socially critical, as well as Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle (to name a few from Britain) through their respective writing. Each of these is a work of fiction in their own right, but they also bring to light issues of contemporary society in a fictional setting in which their characters exist. Readers of such works are compelled to examine his or her own society and its quirks and faults.
Most wouldn’t consider Harry Potter to be a work of social criticism. Until recently, neither did I. Harry Potter has become a world-wide phenomena for blending realistic characters and settings with elements that are fantastical and mythological. Readers acknowledge that the books combine the successful genres of fantasy and hero lore with British boarding school drama, but it may require further examination to realise that the books also deeply reflects British society. In creating the Harry Potter world, J.K. Rowling has brought to light many of the issues of life in the UK including education, sport, government, class, and language.
I should clarify first, that criticism doesn’t have to be negative. In fact, some of the best works of social criticism present the settings in an unbiased manner, as would be reported by a journalist. This allows the reader to form his or her own opinions about the society in the story and in turn, in their own real-life society. (Incidentally, Steinbeck, Sinclair, and Twain were all trained in journalism before they became novelists). Rowling’s views are not always negatively critical and very often celebrate the quirks and eccentricities of British society.
I should also specify that, as much as I hate to admit it, I am American. I was born, raised, and educated in the shadow of New York City, and I don’t regret a minute of it. However, I felt in the autumn of 2004 that it was time to follow in the steps of Kevin Spacey, Madonna and Jefferson Davis, and see what Britain had to offer. I spent over a year living in Surrey - working, commuting, playing sports, going to pubs, watching telly, cramming into Tube trains, getting caught in the rain, complaining about taxes, studying for my Master’s Degree, and generally doing what British people do. This essay is based on first-hand observation as well as additional research and second-hand testimony.
In creating the Harry Potter world, J.K. Rowling has brought to light many of the issues of life in the UK including education, sport, government, class and language. Rowling has criticised and celebrated quirks of British culture, and has in turn raised the status of Britain in the world.
We Don’t Need No Education
Harry Potter is a story about magical schoolchildren. Keyword: school. With all the social issues addressed in Harry Potter, education is primary and with good reason. Education is the crux of our society. It is the time where we grow up and learn a great many lessons, not all of them from books and professors. We devote a significant portion of our lives to school and make lifelong friends (and sometimes enemies) there. Our allegiances and pride lay with our schools long after we have left and moved on and made our way in the world. Hogwarts is a magical school, but it is first a British school--oh, so British. While Hogwarts may play host to virtually all of the stereotypes and traditions of the ‘old-fashioned’ boarding school, the books also confront serious issues regarding education in modern Britain.
I once asked a friend how he learned to speak fluent Latin in this day in age. “I had a very traditional British schooling” was his reply. Of course, I had no idea how exactly traditional it was until I saw a photo of him dressed in his school uniform of a design which has remained virtually unchanged since the 17th century. And while his school, Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, represents the extreme in conservative student uniforms, all uniforms signify tradition in theory. In reality, students view them more as restrictions; a way for school officials to control the student population and squash their attempts at individual expression. So it would seem to be somewhat of a sore spot, but instead of pressing it, Rowling was able to completely reverse the issue of uniforms. By simply adding cloaks, crests and colours, uniforms are given new life.
Whereas uniforms are somewhat of a superficial issue, let’s see about something a bit meatier such as qualifications and exams. Examinations and the emphasis on results are quite a heated issue in Britain and are constantly challenged. American students usually take one university entrance exam, either the SATs or ACTs, which is supposed to measure general abilities of reasoning and skills in math, reading, and English. However, in the UK, students take subject exams called GCSE around age 14 or 15 and then move on to A-Level courses followed by exams around age 18. While students will often take GCSEs in upwards of 12 different subjects, it is rare for even the brightest students to take more than 3 A-Level exams. Even before entering a university, students must choose a course of study and lead their infant careers in a very specific direction. English inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson, best known for his innovative vacuum cleaners, has been openly critical of this system in Britain. In December 2004, Dyson delivered the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1 entitled “Engineering the Difference”. In his lecture, Dyson spoke about students saying, “By the time they are 14 or 15, our children have been pigeonholed. They are either scientists or artists. It limits their choices. And it doesn't create the kind of rounded characters that make innovative, lateral thinkers.” His opinion, like my own, is that we “force our children to specialise too early.” 1 This is a by-product of the testing and qualifications system in Britain; a system that is reflected in pages of Harry Potter.
The magical analogous of GCSE and A-Level exams are the now-infamous O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s respectively. Somehow the system of tests transcended the magical divide and made its way into Hogwarts. Much like watching British teens chose a path of study at age 16, in Order of the Phoenix, we watched as Harry and his friends were forced to choose their future craft based on a few years of teenage schoolwork. Many Britons may be perfectly accepting of this system, but in my eyes it seems rather stringent to close doors to students at age sixteen which will affect the rest of their lives, especially since there has been no mention of wizarding universities, and with the exception of Aurors, no further training required for wizards to enter a specific profession. So, if these students are going to graduate and become magical apprentices, why do exam results matter? Silly system, isn’t it? So when Fred remarks, in Order of the Phoenix, “I think we’ve outgrown full-time education…time to test our talents in the real world,” 2 he is not simply rebelling against Professor Umbridge and her reign of terror, but against the entire system of exams and qualifications.
Education is very ritualised and, usually, over-ritualised. Hogwarts is no different! There are traditions like the House Cup and Quidditich Cup; there are rites of passage like the first-years crossing the lake and being sorted into houses. These are all rituals. And there are more such as the first trip to Hogsmeade, taking O.W.L.s, learning to apparate, and, I’m sure, graduation is a very elaborate magical ritual. These Hogwarts rituals are written into the stories to reflect the ritualised nature of education in our own society. Imagine what Hogwarts would be like if it were in America – homecoming games and marching bands and senior proms and so forth. Maybe we could do with fewer rituals and more learning. Then again, rituals are fun for some reason.
Quidditch is a ritual, but it is also quite a sport. Wizards and witches flying at break-neck speeds, bludgers with minds of their owns, the cheering and leering of fans waving brightly-coloured banners, not to mention the unpredictability of catching the ever-elusive snitch, all make it a worthwhile hobby for many of the wizarding world. And it could only have been created in the wizarding world through a combination of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and perhaps a bit of chance. While Quidditch is uniquely magical, it is also quintessentially British. Let’s examine British sport in general.
First, there is football, Britain’s favourite and most visible sport. While the origins of football can be debated, it is generally accepted that it was created in England during the Middle Ages as something for archers to do when not fighting the French. Since then, football has risen to the status of ‘The World’s Game’ and is played on fields and in alleys of all continents by people of every colour and creed. Football supporters have become fanatics, and their fanatical behaviour is exercised nearly every Saturday in the stands of stadiums across the world. Every four years The World Cup convenes, and the world grinds to a halt. Around the globe, there are reports about lost productivity and hours wasted as workers skip out to the pubs to watch their team go for the Cup. Rowling acknowledges this element of football herself commenting on her website when “Ron says to Harry in Philosopher’s Stone ‘it’s like football in the Muggle world’, [he] is referring only to the sport’s immense popularity, not to the game itself.” 3 Why does football draw such fanatics? Why do people devote themselves so wholeheartedly to the act of men scurrying about a patch of grass chasing a ball for 90 minutes? To answer these questions requires some deeper examination of society, but the fact remains that football and its following is a universal phenomena. And all thanks go to the British.
Luckily, for those less fanatical, there is an alternative to football, namely Rugby football. Rubgy is much more contemporary, having arrived in the late 19th century as a deviant form of football itself. Rugby’s reputation is plain: a thoroughly violent sport not to be attempted by the faint or fragile. In other words, elegant violence. Yet for us Ruggers, there is no substitute. It would seem strange, if not disturbed, to spend an afternoon running at full speed into other men twice your size only to be buried in a puddle of mud and for a heap to form almost instantly on that same spot. “Elegant” indeed, but when it’s all over, players shake hands and have a pint. Now that’s British.
Of course, there is another British sport yet to be mentioned. Cricket has become synonymous with the British as the game was spread to the far corners of the Empire. From Australia to India, South Africa to the West Indies, the game itself reflects the relationship between the people and the land. It reminds us of long summer days and the scents of grass and leather and tea. In America, Cricket is most plainly mocked for its confusing terminology and silly-sounding slang. Of course, most Yanks wouldn’t know what “Leg-Before-Wicket on the second spin-bowl of the third over of the fourth innings after the century” actually means. Cricket has become most infamous for its lengthy matches, which can run days, or even weeks, to conclude. The words of Lord Mancroft have become immortalised as we agree “the English, not being a spiritual people, had invented [Cricket] in order to give themselves a sense of eternity.” 4
So it is fitting that Rowling would create Quidditch, a sport that combines the most distinct features of Britain’s sports. While she insists that Quidditch is not based on “any game that exists, or existed, in reality,” 5 it is clear that our favourite wizarding sport combines the fanaticism of football, the intense and violent nature of Rugby, and the absurdity of equipment and excessive length of Cricket. Quidditch, therefore, encompasses and celebrates all the unique emotions and traditions of Britain’s sporting culture.
Department of Randomness
Speaking of unique emotions, where would society be without government? Better off, maybe. But whom would the public have to mock? Imagine TV programmes like Dead Ringers or Saturday Night Live without politicians. Not funny. Assuming the Magical World is perhaps small or obscure enough to exist without regulations, Uncle Vernon remarks with some incredulity “People like you in government?” 6 to Harry when he learns of the Ministry of Magic. Sadly, that is not the case; the Magical World has government and politics and secrets and officials with inflated egos and, of course, lots of employees tucked away in lots of random departments. “…no wonder the country’s going to the dogs…” adds Uncle Vernon.
Oh, those poor civil servants who work hard everyday laboring in some obscure corner of the government bureaucracy. Low wages, long hours, shrinking benefits, pensions being plundered by overspending are the marks of those who work for the state.7 It’s an ill truth, of course, but one that deserves attention. It is my observation that Rowling uses Arthur Weasley to bring our attention to government workers and civil servants. Through Mr. Weasley, we are reminded of their plight, their poverty, and their struggle for respect in our increasingly superficial and money-driven society. But Rowling has shown us that Mr. Weasley, in spite of his financial struggles and obvious stress at home (raising Fred and George), goes to work because he loves his job. His happiness, it would seem, is ironically independent of the government.
Readers of the Harry Potter books might not think twice about the organizational structure of the Ministry of Magic. It has lots of strange branches with elaborate names like the Department for International Magical Cooperation, Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures and the ever-secret Department of Mysteries. Fun titles for fiction, but these departments and others are named as such because the government of Britain is structured as such, with likewise ridiculous, multi-word names. The Department for the Prevention of Accidents, The Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt, and The Serious Fraud Office are all actual divisions of Her Majesty’s Government. By creating the Ministry of Magic, complete with bureaucracy and divisions, Rowling is taking a stab at all governments of the world, especially that of Britain. Unlike Orwell’s government in 1984 which exists as an exaggerated and magnified caricature of its worst elements, the Ministry of Magic is a tongue-in-cheek approach intended to make us laugh or at least reflect on the state of our governments. This is subtle criticism, but criticism nonetheless.
High Street Hi-jinks
Wizards and witches shop in Diagon Alley: we learned this fairly early on. Every store has its unique charm, its eccentric employees, its own vibe. Diagon Alley is the commercial heart of wizarding Britain; a place for family togetherness and where the rituals of back-to-school shopping and memories of yesteryear come together in harmony. What could be more British than strolling down a cobble-stoned alleyway crowded with shoppers bustling from one store to the next, as they do most every day? Yes, High Street Britain has its charms, or, at least it did.
I believe that Rowling created Diagon Alley in response to the phenomena now being called ‘Clone Towns’. Since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s Britain hosted drastic economic (and social) changes, British town centres have been losing their individuality and charm. Storefronts are being re-branded as shops are transformed from family-owned businesses to franchise chains. By now we now them all by heart – Boots, Argos, Next, Dorothy Perkins, Curry’s, WH Smith, Tesco, and more mobile phone stores then any town really should require. (Not to mention the full spectrum of American junk food chains and a kebab shop or two). Andrew Simms, policy director for the New Economics Federation said bluntly that British high streets “are moving from ‘Cool Britannia’ to ‘Clone Town Britain’.” 8 Is “Identikit shopping” really the future of British commerce?
Wizards aren’t as petty as Muggles (or so we are made to think) so their high street remains pure. Shops are still owned and operated by craftsmen and specialists. Online shopping has not yet replaced the experience of pressing your nose against the glass of Quality Quidditch Supplies to see the newest model brooms. And its still a place where a pair of prankster twins can make a killing from one simple idea. Rowling has shown us how silly our own high streets have become by giving us Diagon Alley-- a great place to spend those Galleons.
Speaking of Galleons, who would possibly create such a ridiculous system of currency? The British, that’s who! The money used in wizard Britain is perhaps the most naked mockery of a great British farce, the so-called ‘Old Money’. Pre-Decimal Sterling was the system of coinage used in the UK until 1971, consisting of farthings, pence, shillings, and all that. 4 farthings made a penny, 12 pence made a shilling, 2 shillings made a florin and add a sixpence and you’ve got half a crown.9 What? The old system was confusing indeed, but the British are proud of enjoying such an absurd system for all those years. The phrase “what’s that worth in old money?” lingered well into the ’80s, eventually as an obtuse joke your granddad might say. There were problems, of course, moving to a decimal system; everyone had to adjust to new coins and notes, and virtually every shop owner in Britain used ‘D-Day’ (15 Feb 1971) as an excuse to raise prices. The phrase ‘Old Money’ can still be heard, usually in the context of sports, when commentators will refer to the mass of an athlete in Stone, another uniquely British unit for measuring body mass. One Stone equals 14 lbs, or approximately 6 1/3 kg.
So looking at the pre-decimal monetary system that was used for so long, and the non-metric units of measurement which are still part of the “Imperial” system, it almost makes perfect sense for a 29 Knuts to equal a Sickle and 17 Sickles to make a Galleon.10 Smile and nod.
“It’s a Sign of Good Breeding”
That famous catch phrase of Hyacinth Bucket – hilarious, and yet so meaningful. Keeping up Appearances is one of the most successful British television exploits ever. The show, while exceedingly comedic in its delivery, tackles the very serious issue of class in Britain. The show’s success is an echo of Britain’s fascination with class issues – issues which are reflected in the Harry Potter world. Blood has long been a theme in dramatic fiction. It is a universal icon in storytelling and religion. Humans have respected blood and bloodlines since families walked the earth. royal blood, lifeblood, bad blood, blue blood, fire in the blood, and the blood of Christ all have their symbolism and stories. And it is through blood that Rowling addresses class in the Wizarding World.
With the exception of a few key characters, we are not told about the home lives and parentage of Hogwarts students. We are not told what their parents do for a living, how big their houses are or how fancy their new robes are. What we are told, however, is whether or not they are of Pure-blood decent. Rowling presents the concept of Pure-Bloods relatively early in the series, in Chamber of Secrets, and immediately we can see the analogy to class in Britain: Pure-Bloods represent the Upper Class. Titles of land ownership are swapped for extensive family histories, often with famous ancestors. Half-Bloods and other mixes are like the Middle Class, none spectacular by birth, but rather made notable by their actions. Wealth may or may not come to Half-Bloods, and either way, parentage doesn’t play the part. And the Muggle-borns are the working class. Each has something to overcome, they struggle much not only to prove their worth in ordinary means, but to validate their existence, and to certify that they are indeed part of the magical world, and deserve to be here. (Needless to say, only those of monstrous arrogance require proof from others for their right to exist.)
Through this system of bloodlines, Rowling illustrates the great divide in the British Upper Class today. On the one hand, you have a family like the Malfoys who flaunt their wealth and Pure-Blood parentage to all who listen (and most who don’t). They perceive themselves as better, nobler by nature than Half-Bloods and especially, as they call them, Mud-Bloods. Of course, the reality is that this class of people is rarely exceptional in any outward abilities, and if not for their birth, would be totally unremarkable. Sadly, this is still the case in some British families. Their inherited wealth and titles grant them certain political birthrights, but it does not grant them any worldly abilities. It is these few, who are most arrogant and most hateful, and who propagate the larger negative stereotype of the Upper Class which has lingered since pre-industrial times.
On the other side of the spectrum, opposite the Malfoys, we have the Weasleys. True, the Weasleys are Pure-Blood, but one might never know that if not for someone like Draco making light of it (and being named as part of The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black family tree). The Weasleys boast several of the brightest students and athletes ever to enter Hogwarts, and they possess all virtues that could be desired of a citizen, Wizard or Muggle. Yet, they possess very little money. This is not entirely fiction, as many noble families in Britain have fallen on hard times in recent decades. Due to increasingly harsh tax and inheritance laws, upper class families are finding it more and more difficult to maintain their stately homes – once the marque of the aristocracy. While their homes are being sold off to the ‘New Upper Class’ (footballers, pop singers, and the like), the House of Lords has also been curtailed in how much effect they can have on government by legislations such as the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949.11 In a 2005 Channel 4 documentary The British Upper Class, filmmaker James Delingpole remarked, “[the Upper Class’s] political birthrights are being dismantled” and “they are noble in name alone and must make their way in the world like everyone else.” 12 Such is the case for the Weasleys.
Blood or no blood, it is our actions that define us. It is our merit that warrants our success in life and the measure of worth should be based on future potential, not ancient ancestry. This is the lesson we should learn from Rowling’s criticism of class. Sadly, class discrimination is a real-world issue, which has lingered, and will continue to linger, in Britain and around the world.
“The Rain in Spain”
Class in Britain is not defined by name alone. One of the easiest, and most amusing ways to determine one’s station in Britain is to listen to his or her accent. As with class, there is still a fair amount of discrimination due to regional, ethnic, and socio-economic accents (and dialects) but these accents are also some of the most celebrated quirks of modern Britain.
Oh, how boring it would be to watch Big Brother if they all spoke in the same drawn out, vaguely southern, upper class English accent. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that the media was dominated by such figures. Presenters on TV and radio were trained to speak ‘like the Queen’ and to leave their regional accents back at their farmhouses and council estates. But today, regional accents are enjoyed and embraced. Presenters and media figures hail from all corners of the British Isles and aren’t afraid to show it through their brogues.
Rowling has done an excellent job at demonstrating how Hogwarts is truly a school for all of Britain. While many of the students are White, English, and Middle Class, we see characters from every nation and region; with the help of Stephen Fry, Jim Dale, and all the actors from the films, we get to hear them too. I think most of us will admit, when reading tales of Arthur and Merlin as children, we never imaged them to be Cockney, or Geordie, or Brummie or Welsh. But that would have been more fun.
I find the use of slang and general British vernacular in the Harry Potter books has been increasing steadily as the characters have grown into teenagers. We get most of it, ironically, from Ron, Fred and George Weasley. (Pure-Blood means nothing!) While reading Half-Blood Prince, I had to note how decidedly British this book is, making use of terms and expressions that I finally understood, having been living there for nine or so months at the time. As was the case two hundred years ago, the world is once again becoming Anglicised. It is no longer especially odd to read bumper stickers shouting “Bollocks to Bush” or to watch BBC exports dubbed into Spanish and Italian.
So if you “fancy a butcher’s,” you’ll find plenty of examples in the text. Word’s like “barmy,” “dodgy” and “git” have been folded in the world’s lexicon. “Weez come a long way” since Dick Van Dyke, “we ‘az.”
Harry Potter is a modern hero, a working-class hero; John Lennon would be proud. Harry’s everyday nature makes him the perfect spokesperson for Britain--a nation which has struggled, especially during the past quarter-century, to remain a world leader in industry, politics, sciences and the arts. Harry helped bring the spotlight back to Britain, and Rowling helped people the world over embrace Britain’s societal idiosyncrasies. Britain is, again, a place of wonder, a place of magic.
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2. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 674.
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5. Rowling Official Site, “Hails Undoubtedly Primitive Forerunner of Quidditch.”
6. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 29.
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