Killing people. It's a tricky one, isn't it?
(and, in this instance, by the word 'we' I mean that rather narrow band
of people who produce and consume the artefacts of the Western narrative
culture industries) ... we want to tell ourselves - in those bourgeois
morality plays we call entertainment - that killing is WRONG. Wrong,
The killing curse is an 'Unforgiveable Curse'.
"Make the foundation of this society a man who never would".
Luke can't be won to the Dark Side because he won't kill his father.
"Coward. Every time."
"Stop! I command it! There will be no battle here!"
Etc, etc, etc.
lookity here... our heroes kill people, or they support the necessity
of killing people. Even the 'moral' ones (i.e. the ones who aren't
James Bond) do so. Luke is nobly refusing to kill his father even as
Han and Leia and Lando are killing loads of Imperial soldiers in the big
battles. The Doctor refuses to kill the threatened people of Earth
even as the survivors of the Gamestation are fighting and trying to kill
Daleks, and Rose solves the whole thing by coming back as the Bad Wolf
and committing magical genocide. The Doctor decrees the end of the
battle, but relies upon soldiers: the Brigadier, Bambera and Ancelyn...
maybe even Ace too... and the Brig saves the world by pumping silver
bullets into the Destroyer.
Etc, etc, etc.
Potter never kills anyone. He barely ever fights anyone. But he
manages this by hiding in a tent when the war comes, while Neville
actually fights the Death Eaters in Hogwarts, and his mates form a
resistance cell and an underground radio station. Yet Harry accepts the
necessity of killing Voldemort. He passively accepts (as he pasively
accepts everything) that killing Voldemort is his destiny. Luckily, as
in every other instance (something Voldemort rightly points out),
something comes between him and the ugly necessity. Wormtail dies when
his own hand strangles him, assorted Death Eaters fall over and
accidentally kill themselves and their friends in order to oblige
Harry. In the same way, Voldemort gets shot by a wand, acting of its
own volition out of loyalty to Harry.
In the Potter
stories, killing is categorically wrong, evil, unforgiveable. So the
goodies fight the magic-Nazis with jinxes that make you fall over.
Luckily, the magic-Nazis also (for some reason) generally refrain from
using the killing curse. Meanwhile, Voldemort clearly and explicitly
needs killing... and Harry is Chosen to do it... yet he can't do this
a) using the unforgiveable killing curse, or
getting very lucky (i.e. Voldemort accidentally trips over the hem of
his own robes and falls onto the tines of a passing threshing machine).
luck always comes to Potter's rescue (as, once again, Voldemort rightly
points out), and - through sheer good fortune - there's some
complicated business that means Voldemort gets killed by a sentient wand
that, like so many expedient creatures before it, stands in front of
Our Hero and does all the difficult, icky stuff for him.
(This is in the books only, by the way. In the movies, Neville
kills Voldemort by killing the snake - the last Horcrux... an act which
weakens Voldemort to the point where he just falls to pieces.
Seriously, go and rewatch the last movie. Neville is totally the real Chosen One in movie canon.)
The Harry Potter
stories are among the most successful, profitable, influential,
widely-read books and widely-watched films produced by the Western
culture industries in recent years. Like Star Wars and Doctor Who before them, they've had an enormous impact on millions of people -
probably even more so than previous franchises. An entire generation
feels that they 'grew up with' Potter his classmates. When some members
of that generation took to the streets of London to protest tuition
fees in 2011, some of them carried placards saying 'This Never Happened
at Hogwarts', and chanted "Expelliarmus!" at the armed riot cops who
were kettling and attacking them.
this sort of thing bears very little relation to any of the actual
political valences or imports of the stories themselves, which are
soft-liberal at best, and often highly charged with reactionary
implications. There seems very little in any of the stories to suggest
that the (unelected) Ministry of Magic's various enforcers might be a
threat to democratic protest - at least not until the Ministry gets
infected with the foreign virus of Voldemortism. Indeed, there is no
democratic protest in the Wizarding World. Rowling's own politics
notwithstanding. She seems like a perfectly nice - even, by current
standards, conscientious - liberal, outspoken about supporting welfare,
the need for rich people to pay their taxes, and the undesirability of
persecuting gay people, etc. I give her no kudos for such bare
minimums, but it puts her above many in her class. However, for
instance, her Potter stories feature precisely one non cis-het
character... and he's only gay because the author decreed him so outside
of the books... and his gayness is signified via one disastrous
relationship that sapped him of all common sense and morality, and which
he found so destabilising and immiserating that he never had another
romantic or sexual relationship of any kind ever again. Rowling's
greedy, big-nosed, "swarthy, clever-faced" goblins are unsettlingly
reminiscent of Nazi anti-Semitic ideas, in that they are clearly both
evil bankers and also sneaky communists who fail to understand 'human'
notions of private property based on trade. The books also
feature a race of cutesy, servile elves who love to work and obey, roll
their huge bulging eyes, and speak in what is recognisably a kind of
parodic pidgin 'black slave dialect', i.e. "I is not doing it Sir!". An
entire species of happy drudges, depicted as pickaninny Uncle Toms.
Absolutely fucking awful.)
could go on with that kind of stuff (the books give me plenty of
scope)... but the point here isn't really to engage in a point-by-point
trashing of the politics of the Potter novels. My point here is
that these stories have come to be enormously significant culturally,
gaining traction in lots of heads and being co-opted for political
rhetoric even in radical or activist situations regardless of their objective content.
noted above, the moral philosophy underpinning the books is muddled at
best. Now, that isn't a tremendous problem. I don't demand that works
of fiction rest upon meticulously consistent ethical systems (which,
speaking as a reader, is just as well). But, being children's fiction,
the books greatly concern themselves with moral issues. (As I say,
Western narrative culture is much preoccupied with moralising... and
this goes double for cultural artefacts produced for children.) So
you'd be forgiven for hoping for a reasonably consistent attitude to the
morals being preached, especially since the books are the product of
one sole author (to the extent that anything ever can be). But the Potter
books do not have a consistent attitude on this. No more so than
franchises with huge collaborative input from multiple authors.
Actually, that's the important point in all this: Rowling's internal
contradictions are not rare but common. They are, in many ways, par for
the course. Especially in massively successful cultural artefacts.
One reason why certain works of fiction obtain massive
amounts of popular success is that they are relentlessly marketed... but
marketing (however despicable and loathsome it may usually be) doesn't
exist in a vacuum. People market stuff they think is marketable.
Obviously. They market stuff they think people will like. You can't
make most people buy a kick in the teeth, even if you spend billions
marketing it using the most sophisticated techniques available. There
is, undeniably, a sense in which - and a degree to which - capitalism is
absolutely right when it says that markets work, and that it
(capitalism) gives people what they want. (There are all sorts of
problems with this - not least the incorrect assumption that there is a
'thing' called 'The Market', and that it is synonymous with, or an
invention of, or impossible without, capitalism... but we'll let all
that slide or we'll be here all fucking day.) It's true that the
cultural and ideological industries of capitalism - marketing, for
instance - can sell people shitty ideas, or get them to acquiesence to
shitty things... but that isn't quite the same thing. And often, the
successful selling of shitty ideas is reliant upon disguising
them, wrapping them up in more pleasant things, or spinning them so that
they appeal to our worst tendencies while also flying under the radar
of our better instincts. In short: it can be done, but it takes some
doing. The telling fact is that capitalism has to devote so much of its
time, money and intellectual effort to manufacting such consent and
But, to veer
back in the direction of the point... aside from marketing, another
reason why certain works of cultural production become hugely popular is
because they reflect - in ways that are gratifying, satisfying,
flattering, masochistic, clarifying or whatever - widespread ideas,
especially about morality. Justice and injustice are essential parts of
storytelling, I think. It's in the nature of consuming a story that
you think about the moral consequences of what is happening, the justice
or injustice of it, the fairness of the distribution of suffering
and/or retribution, the possibilities in oneself to act like this or
that character, etc. It's a commonplace observation that stories
designed to be as marketable as popular tend to be more morally direct
and simplistic, at least on the surface. They do it because it works.
And it works because we like it. And we like it because it confirms,
illustrates, dramatises and flatteringly reflects ideas and intuitions we
already have. Even as we are shaped by the narrative commodities we
consume, we shape them. They respond to us as we respond to them. It
isn't an equal, equitable relationship with both parties on a level
playing field, but it is reciprocal. Dialectical, even. The point is
that stories concern themselves with justice and injustice - inherently
moral ideas - because that's just, kind-of, what they're for (a
valid tautology). We, humans, make stories for this purpose. And have
done for a very long time. The stories that 'catch on' - the myths that
get repeated endlessly, from generation to generation, until they get
written down... all the way up to the novels and movies that do billion
dollar business - do so partly because they express some widespread
moral sense. (Some might turn their noses up at an analysis which puts
the financial success of Hollywood blockbusters down to their ability to
express moral sentiments that chime with millions... but I want to be
clear that I'm not saying audiences or film-makers are necessarily
conscious of this, or that the interest of audiences necessarily equates
to sympathy, or that their sympathy - when it happens - is always with
what the film-makers expect, or that the role of marketing and ideology
is at all insignificant, or that Hollywood films are 'improving', or
that stories should be 'improving' in order to be 'good'... or any of the other hundreds of ways you could choose to misinterpret what I'm saying.)
As it happens, I do think that film-makers know how
important moral questions are in their mass-market dramas. Just look at
almost any big budget narrative cultural product. They are all, almost
without exception, morality plays of some kind or another. That goes
for 12 Years a Slave as much as for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When George Lucas used to talk about Star Wars,
he used to explicitly say that he set out to create a synthesis of
modern moral notions in movie form (via Campbell, of course).
So, you probably see where I'm headed with this. One reason why the Potter
franchise has been so hugely successful (remembering that in a
bourgeois culture the 'success' of a cultural product is, ultimately,
its profitability) is because it has, like Star Wars before it, hooked
into some very widespread feelings among people in Western (and
Westernised) culture about morality. If the purpose of profitable art
is to hold the mirror up to culture, something as profitable as Potter must have done so quite well.
point is that Rowling's difficulties and self-contradictions and
inconsistencies on this issue of killing people - and, by extension, the
self-contradictions and inconsistencies that other writers get
themselves into - mirror and express and dramatise the faultlines in
For all my blather, it's actually a very simple point that I'm making: our culture kills people, and relies upon killing people, and is built upon mounds of bodies... yet we enjoy telling ourselves that we think it is wrong to kill. But this impression - that killing people is WRONG in a blanket sense, and that we don't do it - is entirely an impression of the privileged. It is something that we can get away with believing if we are lucky enough to be far enough removed from the filthy realities of exploitation, oppression and mass murder that underpin Western capitalist culture, and/or from any immediate and pressing personal need to fight it.