Deathly Hallows Discussion Point #8: Postmodern Themes

The easiest explanation for why these books are so popular is that “we buy and read them because we like them.” That’s not as vapid and circular as you might think because “why we like them” is that “the books resonate with the concerns and our beliefs of this historical age.” Ms. Rowling writes as a postmodern writer for a postmodern audience. In Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader I explain ten qualities of Postmodern Story-Telling, and, as you’d expect, Ms. Rowling hits a perfect 10 in Harry Potter. Deathly Hallows is no exception; it is a great finish to her several postmodern themes, most notably, that government, media, and schools are the agencies of the Grand Myth that makes us as prejudiced as we are, that these cultural prejudices make us effectively blind to the way things really are, and that only the excluded or “other” (“freaks!”) have something like a true view of things. What did you make of the Orwellian Ministry of Magic in this book and the speed with which Voldemort took over? Harry’s odyssey or “life on the run” only seems to solidify his place in people’s heart as the hoped for Deliverer of the Oppressed. Discussion point: is Harry’s victory due to his respecting all magical creatures and Hogwarts houses? Is he a “Postmodern hero” in leading the magical “rainbow coalition” against the Nazi Slytherins?


  1. sibelius says

    The whole Nazi / Hitler thing seems a bit naive. Genocide has a pattern too, and the Nazis conformed to it like all genocidal maniacs before and after them. It’s a human behavior that issues from the elevation of oneself and one’s tribe, coupled with the dehumanizing of others and other tribes – and that’s the pattern we see playing out in Harry Potter. There have been countless genocidal maniacs throughout history (see Moses, for example, who kills tens of thousands in the Old Testament), lots of ‘chosen people’, and we in the twentieth century need to remember that Hitler, sadly, wasn’t that unique.

  2. I agree, I think it is universal and human. Anyone should feel as Harry feels about the righteous.

  3. I was not surprised at how fast the Ministry crumbled. It didn’t seem to stand for anything or believe in anything except maintaining itself in power, so naturally it collapsed right into the hands of the next Strong Man. If anything, I was surprised that they had to kill Scrimgeour… I thought he was already theirs. The deconstruction of Dumbledore by Rita Skeeter had a lot of resonance for me in the way some public figures are treated in our world. Moses as a genocidal maniac?

    Learning to treat the despised with respect and even love was certainly a source of power for Harry, but I don’t know how postmodern it is. It actually reminded me a bit of:

    “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called
    But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
    And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:
    That no flesh should glory in his presence.”

  4. I’ve got a bit of trouble with the idea of Moses as a genocidal maniac myself. These themes seem to me to be traditional and universal, not postmodern.

  5. crookshanks says

    If one is going to take cheap shots, at least get the facts straight. Moses never entered the land of Canaan, where the (incomplete) extermination of the Canaanite peoples too place in obedience to God’s direct order. So Moses never did anything that could be considered “genocide.” Therefore, if you are going to call anyone a “genocidal maniac,” however inaccurate the term, that would be Joshua, who led the occupation of Canaan.

  6. Travis Prinzi says

    It’s postmodern because, not only did Harry see through the exceedingly obvious Nazi-like prejudices, but he even saw through the prejudices of the “Good Guys,” the oppressive stories that even the best members of the Order still live by. As Griphook said, Harry is an “odd wizard.” Calling Harry an “odd wizard” is the best way to get at his postmodern character – he sees, because he learned from Dumbledore, that even the “good guys” take part in the oppression of house-elves and goblins. Even Sirius treated a house-elf so badly that it resulted in his own death.

    So, yeah, it’s postmodern, not because of the opposition to the the overtly Nazi-like ideology (after all, even most rationalistic modernists could see the obvious injustice there), but because he saw the oppression that even the story’s best moral characters overlooked (and in so doing, perpetuated).

    That said, he didn’t fully accomplish a postmodern turnaround of all oppression, and I’m glad for the sake of the story’s credibility that he didn’t. Rowling knows that evil and prejudice are far too complex to be solved in one year by one person. It would be an utter insult to the complexity of the problems of racism, prejudice, and slavery to have wrapped up that whole storyline by the end of Book 7. Harry represents a shift in the right direction in the Wizarding World. There’s still a long battle to be fought to overcome oppression.

  7. The Old Testament theology of The Wars of the Lord (or: Holy Wars) is not a genocide theology, and not a jihad theology. It is related to the newer Just War theology. But with important differences which makes it strictly limited to that spesific part of the old Israelite history when Israel was still a theocracy.
    It can be studied in Ex 17 and onwareds through the books of Joshua and Judges, and with a depressing ending i 2 Sam 15. After that there are no commands from the Lord to Israel to go to Holy War.
    What happened in Ex 17 was that Moses and the Israelites arrived at Refidim, and found no water. Moses was commanded by the Lord to hit the rock with his rod, and water flooded. Which was a miracle. Seing that Israel had water in spite of their water blocade, the Amalekites attaced with the intention of committing genocide. But that genocide would not only have been a genocide, but also a mortal blow and a total destruction of the whole of God’s plan of salvation, including the birth of Jesus. So the Lord himself evaluated the question of justice of that following war against Amalek, took upon himself the moral responsibility and gave Moses the order to fight. The victory was by the way another miracle.
    Then the Amalek question continues in Deut 25:17-19 where Moses on behalf of the Lord commands the blotting out of the remembrance of Amalek. Why? Because the Lord seems to know that Amalek’s descendants would continue to try again and again to commit genocide on Israel. The only way to stop it is to remove Amalek from the surface of the earth. Which may perhaps be described as «genocide in defence against genocide», and concequently the lesser of two moral evils. Now this sort of ethical thinking is beyond normal human thinking. None of us can read the minds of the descendants of Amalek. Only the Lord himself can be counted upon to take care that this sort of prophetic «genocide in defense against genocide» ends up being ethically just.
    In 2 Sam 15 the first king, Saul, is commanded to fulfill Deut 25:19, but fails to obey. Which proves that theocracy in Old Israel from now on is dead. The Lord never again gives a War command, but leaves to the human kings to evaluate the justice of every war themselves.
    Since the Lord is always just, I believe his commands of old to be also totally just. And since I know that humans are never totally just, I think we need the strong restrictions against genocide which grew out of the two World Wars and which are now International Law.
    But I don’t think they are so marvellous that we could use them in a trial against God himself in a morality case of court on the Amalek Wars (or the other Wars of the Lord). None of us are fit to be judges in a case against the Lord himself.
    (These sorts of questions, by the way, may also be relevant in the postmodernism-debate, since postmodernism probably was born to bring down the muslim jihad concept?)
    Odd (Sverre Hove, Bergen, Norway)

  8. Jayne1955 says

    The Hallows symbol reeked of Nazism to me, since Hitler took the swastika, an ancient symbol that means “it is well” in Sanskrit and turned it into a symbol of evil.

  9. RenaBlack says

    Well, if we’re speaking of Nazism…

    I think the biggest resonances for me were in slogans, not symbols. (Although Jayne’s point about the swastika reflects my initial reaction, as well, especially the Hallows’ use as ignorant graffiti at Durmstrang.)

    “Magic is Might,” as the infiltrated Ministry’s slogan, and also Grindelwald’s “For the Greater Good,” point to the skewed use of phrases which, in and of themselves, aren’t actually offensive. Like “Work Makes you Free”–but who is the operative “you”? Whose “greater good” are we working for? How is the might of magic being applied? Twisted misuse of language is, as Rowling presents it, as sign of the incredibly dangerous and evil.

    I also liked the use of “Nurmengard”–a sort of Isengard meets Nuremburg, at once Tolkeinian and Nazi. 🙂

  10. I am not sure if this is the best place to post this. I am new to really understanding the post modern vs. modern debate, in that I was raised with very “modern” parents, fundamentalist Christian, but educated in and teach in a very post modern system, public schools. I want to outline the political deterioration in the Ministry of Magic and the deconstruction of political power that I see Rowling taking us through. It is journey that I think many of us walk through.

    In PS the Ministry is basically irrelevant. It exists, it is powerful, but it doesn’t really affect our day to day life, a benevolent other. This attitude is the same as many in America towards politics. In CoS we see the horror of the potential mistakes in government; Hagrid is accused of opening the Chamber. Although it appears to be an honest mistake, it is also fueled by prejudice. Surely it is the “odd man”, later we learn half-giant, who did it, and not someone from a “good family” We are confronted that truth and justice is sometimes sacrificed for expedience and “greater good.” In CoS however we still see a fairly benign Ministry for most people.

    In PoA we are introduced to both our need for a strong and just ministry as well as the horrors of the self serving mistakes it can make. We need protection from Death Eaters, we need to know the truth, we need to see mercy applied in love. The ministry however convicts without due process and jumps to conclusions. Finally in an act of extreme hypocrisy, the elder Crouch convicts the young Crouch in a show of righteous indignation and then smuggles him out of prison in the apparent belief that he, as a member of the ministry, is above the law. He assumes that he is able to control evil when lesser citizens cannot. When this hypocrisy is discovered the ministry, instead of seeking the truth, tries to hide the depth of the conspiracy by allowing the dementors to perform kiss before young Crouch can give testimony. This is a set up to the Neville Chamberlain like, head in sand burying, that we experience at the end of GoF, and witness all through OoP. In OoP not only is the ministry ignoring evil, but in this, “good men do nothing,” world, they are becoming the very evil they are duty bound to fight. Umbridge sends the dementors after Harry and tries to purge Hogwarts of the very “undesirables” that Voldemort will later try to eliminate. Yet in OoP we are introduced to the idea that, “the world is not divided into good men and Death Eaters.” There are shades of evil.

    The change in the ministry, Fudge’s sacking and succession by Scrigmore, gives hope that we have moved past the era of Chamberlain into one of Churchill only to discover a new horror, ineffective posturing and power without a target.

    So was I surprised by the rapid fall of the ministry? Yes I was, but only because I thought it still had real power. I should have seen it coming, but who believes that an evil like Hitler can really take power? Who wants to believe that good men are that deceived? It is the rapid, get masked, rise that allows for such coups. In DH we can no longer even pretend that hope will come from the government and we have to look to salvation from somewhere else. This is a Christian message. The government has a role in exercising justice, but true goodness is not the “kingdom of this world” but a “kingdom of heaven” that starts in the heart of individuals, not in the halls of power. The temptations that Harry faces, hollows or horicruxes, is the battle we all must fight. If we expect the government, the organized educational system (which is also corrupted in DH), the medical community (which is taken over in DH) or the free press (which is unreliable at best), to fight our battles and make our lives free, we will always be disappointed. Each individual must submit to death the fragments of evil in our souls, even as Harry did, and be resurrected to something new.

    Is Rowling writing a new meta-narrative? I am not sure I understand post-modernism well enough to say, but the message seems both complex and clear.

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