July 23, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince earned a record $394 million worldwide in its opening week, an extraordinary amount for a film based on the sixth (and penultimate) installment in J.K. Rowling’s series of fantasy novels. The striking title certainly didn”€™t hurt. The term “€œHalf-Blood Prince”€ evokes ancient political longings for a leader destined by birth to unite two squabbling clans, yearnings that still surreptitiously suffuse the modern world.

I won”€™t pretend to be an expert on the Harry Potter books or films. Yet, my ignorance permits me to offer some broad assertions about why they are so popular, notions that seem to have eluded many commentators more observant of the trees than the forest.

The essential appeal of Harry Potter is that he embodies the two strongest social desires of children:

“€¢ To be ordinary, to fit in.
To be special, to have a secret distinction.

Potter is a rather average lad, likeable-looking enough behind his glasses, but no movie star. His chief virtues, as explained in the new film, are bravery and kindness, traits toward which everyone should and, more importantly, could aspire. His successes at Hogwarts, the boarding school for wizards straight out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, don”€™t stem from genius or diligence. For example, he becomes the top student in Potions class by finding an old textbook brilliantly annotated by a long-ago student who had signed it “€œThe Half-Blood Prince.”€

Oh, but there’s one other thing about Harry Potter: besides being a schoolboy with regular schoolboy problems, he is The Chosen One. He’s the one we”€™ve been waiting for.

The Potter series is a superbly executed pastiche of the classic themes of mythology and of British children’s literature. Its most overlooked, yet obvious, obsession is one that Rowling shares not only with the great storytellers of the past but also with the President of the United States. Harry Potter is Rowling’s”€”just as Dreams from My Father is Obama’s”€””€œstory of race and inheritance.”€

One of the favorite themes in folklore and literature, from King Arthur to Snow White, Moses to Oedipus, or Oliver Twist to Superman, is what my son called in his recent term paper “€œthe orphan’s origin of destiny.”€

Our popular culture is currently saturated with orphans predestined by their unique ancestry and upbringing to overcome not only their loss of their parents, but an apocalyptic threat to the world. Besides Harry Potter, major film franchises built around this concept include Star Wars Superman, Terminator, Batman, and Lord of the Rings, which concludes with The Return of the King, in which the orphaned Strider is crowned Aragorn II, rightful King of Gondor. Similarly, Obama structured his first autobiography around his legendary father’s absence.

Remarkably few beloved characters grow up in normal families with two biological parents. David Fingeroth explains in Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, “€œTo be an orphan means that our possibilities are endless. We are not from the small town, the confining neighborhood, the constricting ethnic roots that we have been told are ours.”€

In the first book, Harry discovers that he is famous throughout the wizarding world for how he was orphaned; his parents died fighting Lord Voldemort. The only wizard who doesn”€™t know the story is Harry himself, who has been raised in oppressive anti-wizard anonymity by his mother’s Muggle (i.e., non-magical) sister and her husband, the atrocious Vernon Dursley, who deny him knowledge of his true heritage.

Only young Harry, it is prophesied, can save us all from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the last survivor of the lineage of Salazar Slytherin, the vile racist among the four founders of Hogwarts. This looming showdown with Voldemort and the power to conquer him is Harry’s birthright.

Besides inheritance, Rowling’s related fixation is race.

Human races mean nothing in Rowling’s world. The student body of Hogwarts is strenuously multiracial, yet strikingly monocultural”€”in these tributes to two centuries of English children’s fiction, whatever their ancestry, they”€™re all very British.

Instead, the hereditary differences between wizards and Muggles are central to the books. All fans identify with the wizard minority rather than with the Muggle majority.

A 2005 letter in Nature, entitled “€œHarry Potter and the Recessive Allele,”€ explains the Mendelian genetics of wizardry. According to the family trees in Rowling’s books, wizardry is apparently embodied in a recessive gene. Like blue eyes, possessing the power of magic requires inheriting a copy from both parents.

Harry’s father was a pureblood wizard, while his mother was a witch born to Muggle parents who evidently each carried one recessive copy of the wizardry gene. Occasionally, witches such as Harry’s pal Hermione Granger are born to Muggle parents who each have wizard ancestors.

This analysis may sound contrived, but Rowling herself seems to have some conception of wizardry as following rules of genetic inheritance. For example, fans have suggested to her that in the Epilogue she give Harry’s Muggle cousin, dreadful Dudley Dursley, a wizard child. But she laughed off the idea: “€œ… latent wizarding genes would never survive contact with Uncle Vernon’s DNA.”€

Yet, because Muggles are so boring, the main impetus of the plot comes not from conflicts between Muggles and wizards, but from the war over race relations waged among wizards. On one side are our tolerant heroes. On the other are the evil Nazi purebloods”€”such as Voldemort and blond Draco Malfoy, Harry’s archrival from Slytherin House”€”who denigrate wizards of mixed-ancestry as “€œmudbloods.”€

Although Rowling, who once worked for Amnesty International, makes her books ostentatiously anti-racist, there’s something fundamentally bogus about her façade of conventional modern politics. Wizardry turns out to feature a politically incorrect dependence upon nature rather than nurture. Blood will tell. As Chris Suellentrop scoffed in Slate at Rowling’s eugenic worldview: “€œHogwarts is nothing more than a magical Mensa meeting.”€

In contrast, as he explained at vast length in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama had to labor for decades to prove that”€”despite his white mother and his white upbringing sequestered in the Pacific thousands of miles from any black community”€”he was “€œblack enough”€ enough to be a political leader of blacks on the South Side of Chicago. (That’s why, for instance, Obama had to devote so much time and money to Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.)


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Ironically, when Obama was crushingly rejected for not being black enough by black voters in his 2000 primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush, he finally realized that white voters would better appreciate a Half-Blood Prince. (My book, America’s Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama’s “€œStory of Race and Inheritance,”€ is a reader’s guide to the President’s subtly revealing memoir.)

Rowling, however, has simply updated feudal hereditarianism for the Mendelian Age. Monarchical dynasties notoriously tended to founder when regression toward the mean brought a legally legitimate but genetically incapable heir to the throne. In Rowling’s fictional world, race and inheritance remain as dominant in reality as they were in medieval political theory. Her innovation, however, is to inject into heredity’s manifestations a more scientific dose of randomness.


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