It was inevitable, given the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, that the books would be scrutinized for hidden meanings and allegorical significance. Critics have argued, with varying degrees of plausibility, that the Harry Potter books take stands on everything from gay rights to EU hegemony. But there has been little discussion of the political message that runs through the core of the fifth book,
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix : Harry Potter is against gun control.
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
Discusses key plot developments in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
As Order of the Phoenix begins, Harry and his cousin are attacked by dementors, the soul-sucking creatures employed by the Ministry of Magic as prison guards. Harry uses the wand he carries in his pocket to drive off the dementors, saving his cousin's life and his own. Minutes later, he receives a message from the Ministry's Improper Use of Magic Office, informing him that he has violated the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery1, and that Ministry representatives will be arriving shortly to confiscate and destroy his wand.
The parallels with the legal environment of contemporary Britain are obvious:
In August 1999, Tony Martin, a 55-year-old Norfolk farmer living alone in a shabby farmhouse, awakened to the sound of breaking glass as two professional burglars burst into his home. He had been robbed six times before but, like 70 percent of rural English villages, his had no police presence. He sneaked downstairs with a shotgun and shot at the intruders. Martin received life in prison for killing one burglar, 10 years for wounding the second, and 12 months for having an illegal shotgun.2
Harry himself is called to a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic, where the charges against him are reluctantly dropped on grounds of self-defense. In the real world Harry might not have been so lucky- the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act made it illegal for British civilians to carry, while in a public place, any article "made, adapted, or intended" for an offensive purpose- a standard that would apply to as surely to a magic wand as to a handgun.
The idea that private individuals must be able to defend themselves is expressed throughout the book in the Hogwarts students' conflict with the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge. Umbridge, also the sadistic High Inquisitor of the Ministry of Magic, teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts from a strictly theoretical perspective. When students complain that they are not learning practical self-defense skills, Umbridge answers that they should not need to defend themselves- the Ministry will see to their safety: "The Ministry of Magic guarantees that you are not in danger from any Dark wizard."
Similarly, British police were once instructed that
"it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person." The problem, in Harry Potter's world as in life, is that the authorities are not always around when protection is needed.
In Harry Potter's case the authorities are eventually forced to acknowledge the threat posed by the return of Lord Voldemort, and the Ministry's policies finally change:
"We urge the magical population to remain vigilant. The Ministry is currently publishing guides to elementary home and personal defense that will be delivered free to all Wizarding homes within the coming month."
But by this time Harry’s godfather
, Sirius Black
, has already been killed.
If Lord Voldemort were the only threat to Harry's safety it could be argued that Order of the Phoenix makes a case only for a strong national defense and aggressive intelligence gathering- but it is revealed late in the book that it was Umbridge herself, an official of the Ministry of Magic, who sent the dementors that attacked Harry. Rowling thus appears to embrace the most extreme argument for an individual right to possess weapons- that those weapons may be required in defense against one's own government.
Clearly the Harry Potter books are not intended as a deliberate allegory on any particular subject, and Rowling has for the most part avoided comment on the political implications of her novels. They are, after all, children's entertainment. Still, in the course of writing seven volumes about a parallel world it is inevitable that some of the author's judgements about our own world will have found their way into the text. What is not clear is how many of the millions of children reading Rowling's books will pick up on those subtexts, and what the impact on their own ideas will be.
1. The Decree prohibits underage wizards from using magic outside the supervised environment of Hogwarts. It could therefore be construed as nothing more than a reasonable age limit, but I think that younger readers will tend to see the issue as "Harry defended himself and got in trouble for it"- which is the situation adults face in contemporary Britain.
2. The distinctive features of the Martin case are not especially relevant- a further example may help make the point:
In 1994, an English homeowner, armed with a toy gun, managed to detain two burglars who had broken into his house, while he called the police. When the officers arrived they arrested the homeowner for using an imitation gun to put someone in fear.
Both examples are taken from a column by Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience
Malcolm, Joyce Lee. "Targeting a Myth." http://www.straightistheway.com/government/gun-control%20in%20england.html 8/25/2004
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003.