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Dana Goldstein Joins the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare

July 26th, 2007 · 5 Comments

Dana has a pice at the Prospect on racial essentialism in the Harry Potter books. There are some interesting points in there—about how, for instance, J.K. Rowling makes her villains advocates of a kind of wizardly racial purity, but still bows to the convention of the fantasy genre by making Harry descended from magical nobility. I’m less sure about her conclusions when it comes to the various sentient species inhabiting the Potterverse:

But even as Rowling attempts to neutralize race by presenting a diverse cast of young wizards, she creates a world in which some beings are born into stereotypes they cannot overcome and that render them inherently inferior. This is, unfortunately, par for the course in the fantasy genre, in which pretend humanoid species have too often been used as a cover for our reactionary assumptions about different types of real people.

Now, Rowling’s world is admittedly highly allegorical, but all allegory breaks down somewhere, and it’s not obvious on face that characterizing goblins as greedy or house elves as servile is per se politically suspect. It would be, of course, if one of these fantasy races were modeled on stereotypes about some actual human group—“goblins as Jews,” say. But is it really anti-progressive to construct a world in which actually different species are depicted as having some kind of collective character? It might be if we’re to understand all sentient beings in novels, whatever their taxonomy within the fictional world, as ultimately representing different kinds of people. But this, I think, puts unnecessary limits on all sorts of interesting counterfactuals. Now that nobody seriously argues any more that there are groups of people born for and intrinsically desirous of servitude, for instance, it’s intriguing to speculate about what it might be like if there were such beings. The political significance of this sort of thing would be very different, of course, in 1860, but it seems far too quick to bristle at this characterization of house elves just because it would be offensive to say similar things—as people once did—about certain human groups.

Tags: Language and Literature



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex Knapp // Jul 26, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    I’m with you here, Julian. Indeed, granting all members of a fictional race is a common sci-fi/fantasy trope: ie all Klingons are bloodthirsty warriors; all Vulcans are emotionally repressed rationalists; all Vorlons are enigmatic; all Hobbits love to eat and stay at home, etc…

  • 2 razib // Jul 26, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    first thought: wut does dana goldstein care about meagan mccardle for?

  • 3 Nick // Jul 27, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Er, well, also, Rowling kind of goes out of her way to demonstrate that even her own imaginary stereotypes are based more in prejudice than in factual differences. Sections of her books could easily be read as a screed against even imaginary racism.

  • 4 Consumatopia // Jul 27, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    This would be a better defense if the Potter novels were primarily “what-if” speculative sci-fi/fantasy books, but they really aren’t. They’re filled with magic, but Rowling’s magical sociology and institutions usually end up mapping unto muggle sociology and institutions fairly straight-forwardly. It’s sort of a “realistic magic” flipside to magical realism.

  • 5 Jon H // Jul 30, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    I’m having flashbacks to the Star Wars prequel hubub, that Jar-Jar was a step ‘n fetchit clone, and that droid merchant guy was a hooknosed Jewish stereotype.