Rowling’s Messaging about Elections: Fictional Ministers and Mugwumps

It’s the day after Election Day in the United States, so it’s appropriate to make at least a nod of the head to the subject as treated in the fiction of J. K. Rowling.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but, with two exceptions, none of Rowling’s novels or screenplays turn on the subject of electoral democracy and its workings. What Rowling has written about how the Ministers of Magic are elected in her Wizarding World has been in a piece originally written for PotterMore, 2015’s ‘Ministers for Magic,’ and it shares nothing at all about canvassing for votes or the procedures for casting and counting votes. The Strike detective mysteries, too, though Lethal White turns on the murder of a Minister and the sausage-making in Parliament, has next to nothing about elections in it.

The two exceptions, Casual Vacancy and the screenplay for Secrets of Dumbledore (written by Steve Kloves we have to assume according to Rowling’s original plan), are as silent about the actual mechanics of democracy. They do, however, share one message about elections, a note sounded in all of Rowling’s work because it is her core belief, that I’ll discuss after the jump.

Casual Vacancy is the story of a small town’s off-cycle election to fill an empty seat on the city council, a “vacancy” created by the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother. The machinations of the three candidates — Simon Price who wants the chance a council position will give him to win bribes, Miles Mollison who wants to continue his father’s control of pathetic Pagford, and Colin Wall who wants to step into Fairbrother’s shoes — is a drama turning on a battle of the self-important, deluded, and the mentally ill. None have the interests of those they represent at heart or a capacity for self-reflection and personal sacrifice.

Not a great look for democracy, in other words, and an implicit note to readers about the dangers of putting their faith in “Princes and the sons of man.” The political message here seems to be very much along the lines of the South Carolina senator who, when he dropped out of the race for President, declared that “Any man who is willing to do what is necessary to be elected President of the United States has demonstrated thereby that he is morally and ethically unfit for the office.” Skepticism about office seekers and their motivations seems to be the take-away meaning of Casual Vacancy at least with respect to politics.

As noted in a previous post, I am not a student of the Fantastic Beasts franchise screenplays. What follows, consequently, is derived only from plot summaries I have read online and from the wonderful posts at HogwartsProfessor about Secrets of Dumbledore. I apologize in advance for the inevitable mistakes in my discussion below of a book I haven’t read and a movie I haven’t seen.

From my limited understanding, Secrets of Dumbledore is the only work by Rowling, albeit not something that is entirely hers but a collaborative piece with Kloves, that is all about an election, namely, the selection of the Supreme Leader of the International Confederation of Wizards in 1932. It turns out that witches and wizards, not surprisingly, share Rowling’s skepticism about those pursuing power; they have invented a ritual, The Walk of Qilin, in which a ‘fantastic beast’ out of China, one with the powers of seeing both the future and the purity of a person’s heart, reveals the worthy Supreme Leader candidate. The plot of the film is largely Grindelwald’s efforts to game the ritual by using dark magic to reanimate a Qilin he murdered and win its vote. A Qilin-ex-machina that Newt has rescued and brought to the Bhutan polling site, however, denies Gellert and gives the nod of worthiness to Dumbledore.

What is the key thing Rowling thinks a voter should be thinking about when making up his or her mind about which candidate is worthy of their ballot? The state of their soul.

And if we’re without a Qilin to make this discernment about anyone’s purity of heart? Make your best judgment with what evidence you can gather or have been given, if skepticism about the Rita Skeeters and Daily Prophets of Muggle-dom is also in order.

Rowling’s advice about elections, in other words, is in keeping with her bedrock, core beliefs, specifically, those about the eternity of the soul, beliefs that shape and inform her psychomachian allegories: Potter, Strike, Christmas Pig, and Fantastic Beasts, all of which are “exteriorizations” of the inner capacities and struggles of the human soul.

This springs from her “obsession” with death.

Do you see death as the end of everything?
No. I lead an intensely spiritual life, and even though I don’t have a terribly clear and structured idea about it, I do believe that after you die some part of you stays alive some way or other. I belief (sic) in something as the indestructible soul. But for that subject we should reserve about six hours: It’s something I struggle with a lot (deRek).

The “struggle” seems a key feature of her beliefs.

Q: Solitude, death. We speak of dark things. At its best, literature comes from that.

A: Well, I think it was Tolkien who said that all the important books are about death. And there’s some truth in that because death is our destiny and we should face up to it. All that we have done in life had the intention of avoiding death.

Q: You said that you saw your soul as something undeniable.

A: Yes, that’s true. But I also have said that I have many doubts regarding religion. I feel very attracted by religion, but at the same time I feel a lot of uncertainty. I live in a state of spiritual flux. I believe in a permanent soul. And that is reflected in the last book….

Q: Our souls floating around, looking for what?

A: That’s the big question, but I hope we don’t have to come back! I don’t want to come back! (Cruz)

Her experience in the ‘Potter Panic’ attacks on the Hogwarts novels by “fundamentalist” Christian groups fostered her already nascent “doubts about religion.” As tenuous as her religious faith and church attendance may be, however, it must be noted that Rowling speaks with much greater certitude about the existence of the human soul. Despite her “doubts about religion” and consequent “spiritual flux,” she describes the soul as “permanent” and “indestructible” (deRek).

The single most important belief Rowling has despite or because of the trauma she experienced in her admitted crises is in the invisible, immaterial, and interior human aspect she calls the soul and how choices made by each individual person determine their soul’s character now and its existence in an after-life.

Whatever question a reader wants to ask about Rowling’s work, then, from its allegorical and symbolic content to something as mundane as politics and elections, the touchstone has to be the same thing, Rowling’s foundational concern with the human soul.

May the candidates in the best psychological and spiritual health, the purest of hearts, triumph at the polls!


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I’ve recently enjoyed Professor José María Miranda Boto’s Law, Government, and Society in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works – and think it would be interesting to reflect, and learn other’s reflections, on the regulation of assignment to houses, hiring of professors, selections of school governors, and selections of ministers, and how these differ (or not) at various schools and in various… jurisdictions? lands? regions?

    As yet, I know no more – and probably very much less – about The Secrets of Dumbledore than you do, but your reference to Bhutan intrigues me – Wikipedia tells me that in 1932, Jigme Wangchuck was the second Druk Gyalpo (“Dragon King”) and that according to the Treaty of Punakha in effect at that time “the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations” – what of the Bhutanese Wizading population?

  2. John thank you for this reflection. When I think how gobsmacked Harry was over Fudge’s stubborn refusal to believe him and Dumbledore and that ultimately it didn’t matter, it helps me to stay focused on the next right thing for me. Government officials may make life harder, but since soul care is paramount, I’ll carry on because not to is not what I do.

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