Guest Post: Have We Misunderstood Blood Status in the Hogwarts Saga?

Have We Misunderstood Blood Status?  David Martin

Introduction – A Reminder that Harry Potter is British.

Because we Americans share a language with Britain (mostly), and because we love the Harry Potter novels so much, it is easy for us to forget that Harry Potter is a British story, intended originally for British readers, and set in a British context. In spite of many similarities, British culture is not the same as American culture. There are differences, some small and some large, some subtle and some obvious. When we read these novels from an American viewpoint, we are in danger of misunderstanding and misinterpreting some of the details and themes in the novels. In particular, I believe we have misunderstood blood status.

I will claim a small advantage over most Americans on this point because I had the privilege of living in Britain for 18 months back in the 1970s. This hardly makes me an expert in British culture – please don’t ask me to explain cricket – but it was enough to make me aware of some of the differences.

A Short Side Trip – An Example of Missing Something

Before we get into what I think blood status, and the whole pure blood mania, is all about, let’s take a short side trip and talk about a different story for a minute. Let’s talk about Beauty and the Beast. Let me ask a simple question: What is that story about? Apart from the fantasy, what are the real human issues and meanings in that story?

Usually when I ask people that question, the answers are that the story is about seeing past the ugly surface of a person to the true heart. Or perhaps it’s about the importance of kindness and patience, which is what it takes for the Beast to win the heart of the Beauty. Or perhaps it’s about the courage that Beauty has to have to face the Beast – and in some versions, to face a mob from the village. Those are all good answers. I would have given similar answers myself until recently.

Although there have been similar stories of young women link to animals going back centuries, the version of Beauty and the Beast that we have today is of specific, known authorship. It was written in 1740 by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in her book La Jeune Amériquaine et les contes marins (The Young American Girl and the Marine Tales). In connection with the film version of Beauty and the Beast that came out in 2017, there was a glossy TIME INC. SPECIAL magazine devoted to the story. On page 29 of that paperback there it the following interesting passage (emphasis added):

“’Beauty and the Beast’ reflects… an emerging bourgeoisie in prerevolutionary France, one that functions in a moral, social, and financial economy very different from that of feudal time,” according to Maria Tatar, a professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Harvard University. It also reflects women’s anxiety about the arranged marriages that were common at the time, she added.

Arranged marriages? Well, once we are made aware of it, that does make sense. A young girl, the daughter of a merchant, is sent off to live with a stranger because of her father’s actions. Her wishes are not consulted in the matter. She has to somehow try to make the best of that very awkward situation. And amazingly enough, the story ends with the encouraging message that the beast can be turned into a man.

So how did we miss that theme? That theme is obvious, once it’s pointed out. We missed that theme because, in America today, arranged marriages are a non-issue for most of us. We aren’t looking for that issue; we’re not aware of it. Arranged marriages are just not “on our radar.”

Here’s the lesson to be learned from our little side trip: When an issue does not exist in our world, we’re unlikely to recognize it when it shows up in a story.

Blood Status

Now let’s get back to Harry Potter.

In interpreting any work of fiction – unless it’s a deliberate allegory such as Pilgrim’s Progress – we can’t say definitively that this or that item in the story corresponds exactly to such-and-such in the real world. It’s always a matter of interpretation, and multiple interpretations are possible.

Blood status is an accident of birth, and it is the basis of prejudice and discrimination in the wizarding world. Thus it could be likened to any prejudice based on birth in our Muggle world. Because racism is America’s original sin – because racism is legitimately an important issue for us Americans – our first impulse is to see blood status as racism. Perhaps blood status could also be interpreted as prejudice based on genetic differences such as dwarfism, or even interpreted as sexual orientation. All of these are possible interpretations, but I suspect that in a British context blood status is also a representation of a specific issue that we Americans usually miss because – like arranged marriages – it doesn’t exist here .

That issue is hereditary aristocracy.

We threw out the aristocrats in America with that line in our Declaration of Independence about “All men are created equal.” We are legitimately concerned today that our country has been too slow in extending that equality across lines of race and gender, but that doesn’t mean that the original statement was meaningless. In its original context that line was a rejection of kings, and royalty, and the whole centuries old system of aristocratic privilege. So we’ve never had in America a Prince of Pennsylvania, a Count of Colorado, or a Lord of Louisville. (We did have the Dukes of Hazard, but that was something a little different.)

Hereditary aristocracy is a non-issue for us Americans, perhaps even more so than arranged marriages. That makes it exactly the kind of issue we Americans are likely to overlook (unless we’ve watched Downton Abbey on PBS.) As far as I know, the last time aristocrats turned up in American literature was when The King and The Duke – two obvious frauds – showed up on that raft with Huckleberry Finn and Jim.

Evidence that Blood Status is about Hereditary Aristocracy

Here are my reasons for thinking that blood status is about hereditary aristocracy:

Reason #1: The pure-blood families are all interrelated. You may remember this passage from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry and Sirius are looking at the tapestry with the Black family tree:

“The pure-blood families are all interrelated,” said Sirius. “If you’re only going to let your sons and daughters marry purebloods your choice is very limited, there are hardly any of us left. Molly and I are cousins by marriage and Arthur’s something like my second cousin once removed.” (Order, page 113)

British aristocrats are all related. They refer to themselves sometimes as “the cousins.” Indeed, interbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity is a concern among British aristocrats. Some British genealogists were very happy about the marriage of Kate Middleton to Prince William because of the genetic diversity that she brought into the royal family.

Reason #2: J. K. Rowling has written in Pottermore that there is a definitive list of the pure blood families:
In the early 1930s, a ‘Pure-Blood Directory’ was published anonymously in Britain, which listed the twenty-eight truly pure-blood families, as judged by the unknown authority who had written the book, with ‘the aim of helping such families maintain the purity of their bloodlines’.

These were the so-called “sacred twenty-eight.” This sounds a great deal like Burke’s Peerage, which is the definitive list of hereditary aristocrats in Britain.

Reason #3: This is the answer that Sirius gives to Harry’s question about why Sirius broke off ties with his family (emphasis added):

“(Why did I) leave?” Sirius smiled bitterly and ran a hand through his long, unkempt hair. “Because I hated the whole lot of them: my parents, with their pure-blood mania, convinced that to be a Black made you practically royal.” (Order, page 111)

Interesting word, “royal.” And that’s not the only time we see it.

Reason #4: This is Harry telling Ron and Hermione about what he saw in the Pensieve when he and Dumbledore visited the Gaunt’s shack (emphasis added):

“(Marvolo Gaunt would) have loved to think the scratches on the stone were a coat of arms, because as far as he was concerned, having pure blood made you practically royal.” (Hallows, page 429)

There’s that word “royal” again.

Reason #5: In his speech to his Death Eaters at his re-birthing party, Voldemort makes this interesting comment (emphasis added):

Perhaps (my former Death Eaters) now pay allegiance to another . . . perhaps that champion of commoners, of Mudbloods and Muggles, Albus Dumbledore? (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, page 648)

Commoners? That doesn’t sound like a racial slur; that sounds like an angry would-be aristocrat.

Reason #6: The chief villain wants to be called Lord Voldemort – not president, or general, or prime minister. He wants to be called Lord.

Evidence Suggesting that Blood Status is not about Race

I also have a couple of reasons for thinking that blood status is not a representation of racism.

First reason: In her history of magic in North American in Pottermore, J. K. Rowling writes this (emphasis added):

Pure-blood families, who were well-informed through wizarding newspapers about the activities of both Puritans and Scourers, rarely left for America. This meant a far higher percentage of No-Maj-born witches and wizards in the New World than elsewhere. While these witches and wizards often went on to marry and found their own all-magical families, the pure-blood ideology that has dogged much of Europe’s magical history has gained far less traction in America.

Whatever pure-blood ideology is about, there’s less of it in America than there is in Europe. That sounds like something other than racism.

Second reason: In the sixth book of the series (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) the minor character Blaise Zabini is introduced. He is a Slytherin, and so presumably a pure-blood or something close to it. He is one of the few characters in the books specifically identified as being black. Since this character is introduced so late in the series, I speculate that J.K. Rowling, aware that many of her American readers were seeing blood-status as being a representation of race, is deliberately giving us a hint. I have no proof of this and offer it only as a speculation.


Let’s also note that a certain hostility to aristocracy shows up in J. K. Rowling’s non-Harry Potter works. In A Casual Vacancy, the character Shirley Mollison has a day dream about being recognized and acknowledged by the queen for her volunteer work at the hospital. (page 114) That character is portrayed as being extremely silly. In the Cormoran Strike detective novels (which Rowling writes under the pen-name Robert Galbraith) Strike’s evil ex-girlfriend, Charlotte Campbell, is described as flaunting her aristocratic associations. On the other hand, one of the good people in Strike’s circle of friends acknowledges at one point that she actually has an aristocratic title but dismisses it with “Who cares?”

This hostility to aristocracy does not mean that J. K. Rowling is not concerned about racism. She has shown that she is concerned about that too. It’s just that even if we think that racism is the biggest problem in the world – and arguably it could be – it is not the only problem in the world.

As an example of the influence that aristocracy still has in Britain, let me tell you of a conversation I had back in 1975 when I lived in Britain. I met a man who was a low-level officer in the British army. He was intelligent, outgoing, and fairly young, about 30. Just making conversation, I asked if he was going to make a career of the army. He said that, no, he would probably resign in a year or two, because he had gone as far as he could go without a commission.

In my American innocence, I said “Oh, well you’d better hit the books.”

He looked at me blankly. “Why?”

“Well, to get more education, so you can qualify for a commission.”

“Oh, that wouldn’t do any good.”

Now it was my turn to look blank. “Why?”

“Well, people like me don’t get commissions.”


“We just don’t.”

The conversation moved on to other topics, but my British friends explained it to me later. At least at that time, one had to be an aristocrat to get a commission. One had to be related to the right people.

At its deepest level, Harry Potter is about such universal issues of growing up, confronting evil, and dealing with death.

But sometimes it’s also about specifically British issues



  1. Kelly Loomis says

    This makes a lot of sense. And the stigma of being a muggle witch or wizard (a mudblood as judged by some) at Hogwarts could be an example of a less privileged student being at one of the upper crust boarding schools – and that would be if they ever got in which would be unlikely. We have the example of this a little bit in some of the east coast families and boarding schools. I know my brother referred to some of these kids as trust fund babies. It’s tough to break into the circles and, if you are “new money”, you may be looked down on. But…it is not even close to the level of Britain with inherited titles.

  2. Brian Basore says

    So it’s basic to the HP story that Harry was orphaned and kept unaware that the Potters were an old pureblood family (until his parents married)? Then Harry is an aristocrat without the attitude, which is what the author wanted.

    Does that put him in the Harlequin (Hermes) tradition that’s been looked at here on the blog? (I like this blog because I learn so much here.)

  3. So, a brief clarification of the role of Hermes. His role is defined chiefly by double-directional subtle movement hidden in darkness or hidden by its everydayness. A servant moves about, not generally noticed by virtue of being an everyday sight, but ever present and effective. This position, “omnipresent” but unnoticed, allows the servant to accomplish significant tasks without being noticed. Thus, the movement of Hermes is not a matter of economic class, but of effective service without people really noticing.

    The Nietzschean “aristocrat” is one who, believing that there is no discernible basis exterior to ourselves upon which to ground ethics, produces his own values according to an authentic (a term meaning “most-in-accord-with-oneself-esque”) act of will. If there are no God-given absolute values to obey, then the others-serving ethics of Christianity is merely the failing of those too weak to establish for themselves their own values, choosing instead to serve another. The idea here is, to quote the first Harry Potter book, “there is no good or evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it…”. The power of absolute self-determination, saying “Non serviam”, “I will not serve”.

    So, to the degree that pure-blood ideology comes to hold a “I will not serve” (Malfoy’s cry in Philosophers’ Stone when they have detention in the Forbidden Forest of “But this is servant stuff, it’s not for students to do” comes to mind) absolute self-determining ideology, it is precisely the aristocracy to which Rowling has shown herself opposed, and to which Hermes is a natural opponent.

    However, there is also the benevolent aspect of the archetype of the character of Jupiter/Zeus that must also be taken into account. This is a contrary account of what constitutes the aristocrat from the Nietzschean one. The book to reference here is also Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. Here we see the great King (one can think here of Aslan from Narnia, Arthur from the Matter of Britain, Aragorn from LOTR, et. al.), though truly entitled to his kingly role, he descends even to the point of death to redeem his people from slavery to an enemy. This can be expressed many ways. The king might grow up not knowing his true status, so that he will be of sufficient character to rule well, bringing justice (Arthur is a predominant figure here). Or growing up in a lower class family, showing even there the ideal of love of God and neighbor, until redeeming his people through his self-sacrifice (Christ himself being a prime example of this.) The simplest of the Christian creeds is this: “Christ is Lord”. This goes beyond advocacy for aristocracy in favor of absolute monarchy, but elevating the one to kingship who became the weakest for our sake.

    So, to directly answer about Harry. I don’t think his primary type is that of the “clever servant”, but of the “redeeming king”. His life among the Dursleys has too much of a root in Arthurian myth to really move Harry into the full Hermetic archetype (Dudley and Sir Kay are two of a kind). And, frankly, his character has very little of the subtlety or hiddenness characteristic of Hermes (the failure that was Occlumency comes to mind). That said, both Hermes and Jupiter are ultimately separate expressions of different modes of being like Christ, he who was both servant and king. To the degree Harry expresses elements of Christ-likeness, he will ultimately fit both. I just think he fits the Kingly/Aristocratic role better than the Hermetic one. Further, I think the emphasis on Harry as true aristocrat has value: we must, in considering the kingdoms of heaven and hell, oppose the tyrannical “aristocrat” Satan by serving the kingly “aristocrat” Christ.

    Long live the True King!

  4. Nicholas Egan says

    Cricket: You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

    When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!

  5. DAVID M MARTIN says

    My thanks to Evan Willis for a good contribution to the discussion.

    We should also remember that Harry was a half-blood (as was Voldemort.) It seems to me that this might make him less likely to fulfill a Hermes/kingly role. Also, Harry actions are hardy hidden.

  6. DAVID M MARTIN says

    Thank you, Nicholas Egan, for explaining the ins and outs of Cricket far better than I ever could.

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Just catching up! Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    It is interesting that JKR writes of “the pure-blood ideology that has dogged much of Europe’s magical history” – in how far not only a British thing but a Continental European thing? But does it go back, say, as far as “Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC”? (Where were the ancestral Ollivanders in 382 – already among the Celts in Britain? Or on the Continent – under Roman, or some sort of Greek, rule, or elsewhere, under some other rule again?) And what of other cultures in their lands and languages? Magical ‘talent’ is a discernible ‘something’ a person has, or does not have, and had been further discerned to manifest hereditarily, though not absolutely. How did that work down the ages under different cultural circumstances? And how variably did the Wizarding World become distinct, and hidden? And how far, practically, did it form part of the surrounding society, despite that hidden distinctness? Would British and European (and North American colonial) wizards think in terms of “royal” and “common”, on account of their surroundings, while contemporary Chinese and Japanese and earlier Roman (and, again, later Austro-Hungarian) ones would think in terms of (the equivalent of) ‘imperial’ rather than “royal”? Expanses of Wizarding Sociology invite at least our speculation!

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