J. K. Rowling is not a witch. She acquitted herself well in her recent “trial,” a podcast series hosted by The Free Press, detailing the explosive controversy between history’s most famous children’s author and liberal progressive activists. The Witch Trials tells the story of Rowling’s rise to fame and her fall into (progressive) infamy. It’s the sort of podcast I had to turn off whenever my kids climbed into the car. There’s a good bit of profanity, as well as “adult themes.” Nevertheless, I found the story of Rowling’s battle with gender ideologues oddly inspiring. In an age when so many have cowered before the cancel mobs, Rowling stood by the truth.
Millennials worshiped Rowling in childhood. This comes through quite clearly in Witch Trials, as childhood fans gush about the way her books represented a “security blanket” through their childhood and adolescent growing pains. In a way, this is odd, because as children’s books go, Rowling’s are quite dark. Death is a major theme. Political oppression is rampant. Even “good” adults seem to be offering a tutorial in “failure to protect,” as Harry arrives each fall at Hogwarts brimming with eagerness to learn, only to be socially ostracized, plagued with death threats, or both. This is what gives today’s kids warm fuzzies?
Perhaps it is not really so strange. For all the grimness, Rowling gave her readers a universe that they found morally comfortable. Inclusion was always a major theme. The bad guys, a group of “pureblood” wizards, want to rule the world and ensure that their magical club is restricted to people of noble (magical) birth. They’re one part evil aristocrats protecting their privilege, and one part wand-wielding Nazis crusading under a “dark mark.” Meanwhile, the good guys are crusading for meritocracy, equality, and love, with side plots exploring the ethics of discrimination, especially against house elves (which some wizards regard as natural slaves).
At the same time, the Hogwarts universe explores at length the importance of personal identity. Children are initiated into the wondrous world of Hogwarts after discovering that they have an innate capacity for doing magic, and readers then get to follow these elite characters to their posh boarding school, where their unique abilities are further explored and refined. In the very hour of their arrival, their minds are probed by the magical “sorting hat” that assesses their character and places them within the proper House. As they continue at Hogwarts, Dumbledore’s Mirror of Erised shows each person his hopes and dreams, while spooky Bogarts display their greatest fears. Students eventually learn to cast a magical “patronus charm,” which brings forth a kind of animal-protector in a form that uniquely reflects the caster’s soul.
Rowling’s exploration of personal identity always had limits, however. She clearly sees sex as a real thing that is meaningfully connected to biology. Hogwarts is full of romantic intrigue, all of it heterosexual. Even when they use Polyjuice potion to take on the guise of other people, Harry and Ron always seem to be boys or men, while Hermione is always the girl. Questions about natures are explored in sub-plots involving giants, goblins, house elves, centaurs and the like. In Rowling’s creative exploration of mythical creatures, we can see the curious musings of a person trying to figure out how far nature goes in defining a person’s life and horizons. She is clearly deeply committed to the premise that persons have intrinsic worth, but she also shows the mistakes we can make by refusing to see natures for what they are. Hagrid puts himself and others at risk by refusing to see the dangers of keeping vicious monsters as pets. Hermione makes a fool of herself with her juvenile attempts to “liberate” house elves from servitude, even though Ron (the stodgy wizard-born traditionalist) explains repeatedly that the elves don’t want the lives she has envisioned for them. House elves are happiest and most fulfilled when devoting their energies to the service of others, and Hermione becomes a better house-elf advocate when she accepts this reality.
Good stories draw from tradition, transcending the particulars of a given historical moment. Rowling is a good storyteller, whose books connected children to the kinds of epic truths that make heroism seem possible. Now that Millennials are seeing the ghost stories of their own childhoods come back to haunt them, we might reflect that this does tend to happen to iconoclasts. Eventually, they find themselves standing, wood bundles and torches in hand, at the foot of something they genuinely love. For this group, Harry Potter turned out to be that thing.
They still did their best to burn the witch. She’s proven remarkably flameproof. I predict that future generations will be familiar with the Boy who Lived. I think they will know him, to the end, as a boy.
Rachel Lu is an Associate Editor at Law & Liberty and a Contributing Writer at America Magazine. After studying moral philosophy at Cornell, she taught for several years before retiring to focus on the moral formation of her own five sons. She writes on politics, culture, religion, and parenting.