Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Talk of the Campus / Harry Potter
The Truth About Harry

If you still think J.K. Rowling’s books are just for kids, you should have squeezed into the packed Rose Hills Theatre last semester as three Pomona College professors expounded on the tomes’ cultural, political and theological implications at the “Veritaserum: The Truth About Harry Potter” event put on by the Pomona Student Union. Mere Muggles the faculty members may have been, but they drew boisterous applause and more questions than they could possibly field from the audience of students who grew up on this stuff—and never let it go.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, English and media studies, contrasted societal hand-wringing over the decline of leisure reading, particularly among young people, with the fact that more than 400 million books in the series have been sold worldwide. “Either Harry Potter gives the lie to the anxiety that nobody reads anymore or it actually reveals … that these anxieties are … more about a sort of cultural control over what it is that people are reading.” Citing the thousands upon thousands of fan fiction items found online, Fitzpatrick suggested the Harry Potter phenomenon provides more than passive entertainment, but a “two-way conversational process” that may transform readers into writers.

Oona Eisenstadt, Jewish studies and religious studies, found that the series, like many beloved children’s books, amounts to a retelling of the Christian story—albeit, she says, a liberal Protestant version—with a sacrificial death, rebirth, a new dispensation and the rise of “love and mercy and equality.” The twist is her theory that the author has split each of the key gospel roles into two, with both Harry and Dumbledore as Christ figures, Snape and Malfoy playing Judas, and so on. Eisenstadt also noted that Rowling uses a lighter touch—and more humor—than some other children’s writers who address faith and theology.

Susan McWilliams, politics, saw the theme of injustice— and how to confront it—as an important part of the Harry Potter narrative, making the case that the house elves who are key to the behind-the-scenes operation of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are, in truth, slaves who are brutalized physically and psychologically. Of the main trio of friends, Ron practices “willful blindness” to the situation and Harry focuses on the personal cause of his house-elf ally Dobby, while only Hermione, in constantly pressing the issue, recognizes “the necessity of confronting widespread injustice with political action.” Hermione is “fearless in her quest, willing to annoy other people,” said McWilliams, who believes the author is trying to get across the message that “being a likeable person doesn’t make you a good citizen.”
—Mark Kendall

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