Roger Scruton: On Harry Potter

A friend in Dallas sent me a url to this video in 2017 inviting my response. I had only just learned of the remarkable Roger Scruton through conversation with a brilliant University of Oklahoma Honors College student and was intrigued to learn that the English philosopher had condescended to discuss the Hogwarts Saga. My comments below to the friend in Dallas at the time (and my decision not to post it here then?) reflected my disappointment about Scruton’s conclusion that Rowling is an advocate of a “soft socialism.”

I hadn’t seen this video. Thank you for sending! My first thoughts while listening to it was his theory, that reading the Hogwarts Saga induces “Potterism” or childish and magical thinking (“soft socialism”) alongside his contrasting “magic” with “prayer” and the will-to-power of alchemy with the love of knowledge of scientists, untainted by ambition or any fallen human motivation, reflects a profound ignorance of children’s literature, the history of science, and Harry Potter.

I did think his BBC English and soft reading of his piece were very effective rhetorically, even if I winced each time he mispronounced Rowling’s name.

The real shame is that he is more right than wrong about Rowling’s politics and her Twitter pronouncements, which are, alas, of the same value as our President’s [Trump] in the end. Scruton was right at the start in wanting to separate Rowling’s literary accomplishment from her liberal ideology; he failed in the end by arguing incredibly that her stories induce irresponsibility and a penchant for the sentimental socialism of the author.

An English friend last month sent me the link to this same video and asked what I thought. How things have changed since 2017, no? Certainly my thoughts on this video have.

Scruton died in 2020 but not before being vilified as a homophobe and racist in 2019 by a leftist activist posturing as a journalist; that both the reporter and journal in which he published apologized publicly to Scruton before his death for their egregious misrepresentations of the man was some solace to his admirers but did not correct the lasting damage to his reputation in the public mind. Why was he smeared as he was? Because he was a bastion of conservative and Christian thought against the tsunami of cultural Marxism and soft totalitarianism in which we live today.

Rowling herself has changed significantly since 2017 or at least since she wrote the Harry Potter novels and whenever Scruton made these comments about Potter-Mania. In 2019, for example, she tweeted that her political views were not revelations from on high but “spring from my life experience and temperament, like everyone else’s.” Her Cormoran Strike novels reflect a much more mature and less naive view of the political left, especially its ideological and Puritanical CORE, than do her Potter novels. That Rowling herself has suffered an indignity and blacklisting parallel to Scruton’s — albeit without the redemptive arc as yet — for contesting the madness of transgender activists no doubt has influenced her “life experience” based political slant.

I think, in other words, that Scruton’s ‘take’ on Harry Potter has been largely born out by events, especially as visible in the Woke Puritanism and “soft socialism” of the hardcore Potter fandom, to include all the websites that have blacklisted Rowling as a “transphobe.” I welcome, of course, your comments and correction.


  1. Perhaps it would help if we look at things from a developmental standpoint. Let’s start with the mind of the artist herself, and rewind things back to some point before the publication of “Philosopher’s Stone”. If it were possible to take a mental picture of Rowling’s mind at the time, it might almost put one in mind of a duplex apartment, or maybe toolbox or attic trunk with two levels of shelves in them. Whichever picture you choose as a helper, the real fact behind the metaphor is that her mind could be divided neatly into two separate, yet related aspects. The first might be called the Political Novice.

    It is the less matured, more naïve beliefs of the author prior to the conception and publication of “Strike”, as mentioned in the article above. The other side it’s best thought of as the Antiquarian. It’s the part of her mind that is interested in the incunabula of philosophical history, with an especial emphasis on the intertwined religious thoughts and medieval legends of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, along with the myths and philosophy of the Classical Grecian period (with a particular focus on Neoplatonism).

    The result sounds like two different personalities inside the same head. Perhaps the real curiosity, however, is just how long she was able to maintain these two states of mind in a strange kind of balancing act. It might be just possible to suppose that if life around her hadn’t taken such radical turns of thought, in various off-kilter direction, then she might have been able to live that way indefinitely, whether she was living with an impossibility or not. As things shook out, her hand was forced, in a manner of speaking. What I mean is that all this talk about the author undergoing a development doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. What’s notable about it is how the transfiguration (to borrow one of her own terms) seems to have been going on well before the rest of the world misplaced its head.
    Already in “Cuckoo’s Calling” we are greeted with a voice that sometimes stands in open contradiction to the one she used to tell Harry’s story. I think a lot of might begin to make sense when we return to the two sides of her mind.

    What seems to have been happening all this time is that the Political Novice has had plenty of opportunities to test her initially held beliefs against the claims of reality. It wouldn’t (or needn’t) be all that much of a surprise to find out that a lot of her own naivety about a lot ideologies were not just challenged, but demolished in trying to put some of her previously held political beliefs into practice. Perhaps the biggest shock for Rowling would be to discover that it sometimes looked as if the Antiquarian side of her mind appeared to be egging on the change of mind. I make this claim in particular because it is the author’s thoughts on faith an religion which appear maintain a greater level of consistency than those of her politics. If there’s any truth to this surmise at all, then it means that one aspect of her thinking has undergone a gradual series of dissolves and coagulations, where another one has both remained stable and grown further up and in to the point where it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it’s Antiquarian inclination (and all the belief that it entails) which Rowling is allowing to take the wheel and steer the course of her life more often than used to be the case when she first met a bespectacled stranger on a train. Indeed, it might be possible to go further and point to that meeting of inspiration as the first note in the Great Work of her own life. If it proves or means anything, then perhaps she was more correct in her speech about learning from failures than even she might have realized at the time.

    Perhaps one more thing should be noted here. If all of the above seems too much of a stretch, then I am willing to claim that a similar change of mind has happened once before. It also involved one of Rowling’s own literary influences. Edith Nesbit was a woman who wound up getting a very harsh education not just in discovering the chimaera of ideology, but also one of Rowling’s constant themes. That being the possibility of a woman being abused at the hands of men whose claims of all kinds of freedom stop short once it reached their own doorstep. Edith seems to have learned a great deal about “soft socialism” from someone who was ultimately just her husband in name only, Hubert Bland. In fact, I’m willing to maintain that there was only one favor he did for her. He schooled her in learning the value of false promises, and the political masks that sometimes come attached with it. Finding her voice as an author, in that sense, was her way of breaking free from all of the nonsense. One of her greatest breaks was learning that she would get a chance to outlive her husband, and be able to enjoy her life of freedom from then on. Rowling seems to be undergoing a similar experience, though the book seems far from over yet (with any luck).

    In terms of where she is now, she no longer seems to fit into the original mold during her first debut on the world stage. Instead of sounding like any kind of lefty, the underlying content of her written word seems to belong more to that of a Classical Liberal, albeit one who doesn’t seem to have much of a place to belong at the moment. Granted, this in itself may be less her fault, and more down to the current ideological fadism of the moment. If this keeps up, then I shouldn’t be surprised if, like Chesterton’s Gabriel Syme, she finds herself looking for ways to “escape into sanity”.

  2. Brian Basore says

    I don’t know if it’s that JKR changed as much as the reader learning to pay equal attention to what she does in her writing as well as to what she says in it. It’s what she expects, but it isn’t easy to do all in one go, or even in several goes.

  3. Something’s just occurred to me in connection with Scruton’s charge of “soft socialism”. It brings to mind one important facet of Rowling’s work on the original Potter series. In all the books published by John Granger on the subject, one of the aspects of her writing craft that keeps cropping up is the element of postmodernism. A basic summary of this point is that the author has found a way to utilize the postmodern voice in such a way as to draw to contemporary “After Virtue” readers into a sympathetic hearing and reception of her works. She is able to speak like a duck, and write like a duck, while at the same time eschewing the entire postmodern mindset in both her life and stories. The most commonly used phrase I’ve heard to describe it is that Rowling is always good at “wearing the clown suit”. It’s presumed as a useful bit of literary camouflage in order to help sneak past the current trend of watchful dragons.

    Then along comes her current woes from the very fandom she was both trying to reach, and at the same time helped to mold. When we combine this with Scruton’s charges, a different kind of question begins to emerge and form itself. In trying utilize the postmodern voice or literary address as a form of esoteric sleight-of-hand in order to get her more traditional talking points across, could it be possible that this has turned out to be her one the creative misstep? Is it possible that all the current public backlash is really doing is to highlight the inherent short-comings of trying to use a type of literary voice which is not fundamental her overall outlook as a writer? What Rowling tried to do with “Harry Potter” was adopt a textual voice which acted as a mimic of the kind of postmodern reader that she believed was necessary to the success for the type of story she had to tell. It was a literary experiment on the part of the author, in other words. If there was any kind of literary diplomacy involved in these facets of her efforts, then if this is all it amounts to, it just seems to beg the question of whether the experiment was really all that worth it.

    I’m not talking here about the Potter books themselves as stories, but rather her choice of the sort of narrative voice she ultimately wound up choosing in order to tell them. Here is where we seem to be heading into the Inkling subject of Poetic Diction, and the way it effects the boundaries and limits that are open to either author or audience when it comes to a proper grasp of any given narrative. The language of postmodernism is a very strange beast indeed. It is a combination of cultural relativity and often ill-defined ideological dogmatism. The result is a kind of free-floating gadfly language that often acts as a mere servant to whatever trend of the moment has gained control of the postmodern mindset. It’s something of a useless gesture to either look or ask for anything concrete or permanent about it. The closest I think anyone can get to the heart of the matter is to say that once you strip away the mask of the postmodern, all you are left with is the ancient vice known as egotism. Once you’ve reached that level, however, then concerns about public safety can sometimes come into play. The trouble there is that once that happens, the purpose of literature (and also a great deal of life itself) tends to get lost in the shuffle.

    Rowling seems to have taken a kind of gamble with the voice of postmodernism in her writing, then. And as of this writing, it appears to be a wager that she’s kind of lost. This doesn’t mean she’s a bad writer, there have been too many displays of genuine literary skill for that. It’s more a case of the author catching herself out in the mistaken belief that donning the clown suit would protect her from the usual slings and arrows that a more traditional outlook can sometimes be exposed to. The irony is that by wearing the fake wig and red rubber nose, all she succeeded in doing was painting a bigger target on her head. It seems to have wound up drawing a lot more sharks than she was expecting, or prepared for. At the same time, there do appear to be compensations. It’s helped her to follow her own advice about telling the difference between truth and illusion in real life, and this sense of growth is on display when you turn from any of the Potter novels to ones written under the Galbraith byline.

    The voice of the Strike books offers an almost neat contrast between that of the Hogwarts saga. It’s not just grittier and more direct, but it also contains a quality for which the best word I can find appears to be Old Fashioned. To me, it all has more in common with a lot of older books and writers I can recall reading as a kid growing up. The one element which unites all the disparate narrative voices I’m thinking of now is that the great majority owed a debt to both the American Pulp and Victorian Fantasy traditions. They often contain a greater sense of punch and urgency in their stories. There’s an immediacy there which helps convey the narrative on a dramatic level That’s because the writers of these tales, and their two main literary influences just cited, means that they were not postmodern, but rather literary moralists, if that makes any sense. It’s a distinction of style we’re talking about here, in other words, and how that effects the voice and reception of a book’s content. What might be called the traditional or straightforward style of storytelling is fundamentally different from that of a postmodern narrative. Therefore, a version of the Potter saga written in the older style of Modernist, Victorian, Pulp Moralism (such as those used by Agatha Christie or Ray Bradbury) would have been a very different beast from the one we wound up with.

    I’ll admit I’m now curious as to what this hypothetical, alternately written version of the Hogwarts saga would have been like. The story itself, its characters, actions, and events would all have probably been the same. It’s just that its mode of expression would have been a literal world of difference. More to the point, what kind of reception would such an alternate text have had? Would it be the paradigm shifting juggernaut that most everyone knows at least something about now? That’s a very uncertain question to answer, I’m afraid. If I had to guess, then I’d say she would be successful, yet perhaps her more stylistically orthodox method of expression would leave her with less of the impact it has had in real life. Instead, she might have been rich and famous, however, it would have been in the same way that women fantasists before have been regarded. She would have just been placed up on the same shelf space as a follower in the style of Diana Wynn Jones, Madeline L’Engle, or Ursula Le Guin. This, however, is pure hypothesis.

    What I do believe is a lot more tenable is that it’s her choice to use an artificial postmodern voice for her novels that might account for a lot of the backlash that she’s facing right now. Her abilities as a literary mimic were so good that it’s almost in danger of letting the lazy reader off the hook. A postmodern reading such a text is mistaken in believing they are having their own beliefs mirrored back at them. Once it’s discovered this is not the case, and the author is, not conservative by any means, just ideologically impure, that’s when the real trouble starts. It could be that a lot of what we are seeing in Strike is not just a case of authorial commentary on a prior series, but also something in the way of an attempt at re-statement of her original artistic goals and themes, this time done in a much more traditional approach. Or at least there’s one theory. It would be interesting to know if it were possible for any of this to check out as true.

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