Thoughts on Life Imitating Fiction

Shared Text and Osama bin Laden
by John Granger and John Patrick Pazdziora

Amid the endless stream of op-eds surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden, The New York Times provides us with a surprising example of shared text. In “9/11 Inspires Student Patriotism and Celebration” (NYT, 3 May 2011), Kate Zernike reports on analyses of the jubilation many young Americans have expressed in recent days:

In the world of the so-called millennial generation, said Neil Howe, a writer and historian who is often credited with defining that term for the generation, “Evil is evil, good is good. There are no antiheroes, there is no gray area. This is a Harry Potter vignette, and Voldemort is dead.”

“In a Harry Potter world,” he said, “their mission is to save the world for the rest of society. This is their taking pride in what their generation is able to do.”

All political questions aside, Mr. Howe’s assessment is striking for a few reasons. First, it seems to affirm what we’ve said around HogPro often enough—the fictional character and the real world elide in a transcendent, near-religious experience that creates a sense of communal identity. The man who may have defined the “millennial generation” now asserts that they find their identity through Rowling’s fantasies; they live in “a Harry Potter world.”

Second, this is a casebook study of the classic misreading of Rowling’s work.

If there’s one thing Harry Potter isn’t, it’s a series with “no gray area.” Evil is evil, right? We all “knew” Snape was evil…right? And Voldemort was always obviously evil…right? Intelligent and gifted wizards like Professor Slughorn and members of the Wizengamot always saw through the blithe and well-mannered Master Riddle…right? Not exactly. Even as early as book one, Quirrell is an empathetic and even sensitive character. We all liked him when first we met.

Then we have Harry, Ron, Hermione—good is good, right? Like when Harry screams and yells at his best friends in Book 5, and gets into a vicious fight with Ron in Book 7? When Hermione puts a full body-bind on Neville—by no means her match at charms—when he’s trying to enforce School Rules? Good is good, by all means, but much of the seven book series involves the protagonists trying to figure out where the heck it is.

Between these two is Sirius Black. He’s a horrible murderer who’s out to kill Harry, a vicious and dangerous criminal that even powerful wizards speak of in hushed tones. Remember? I was genuinely terrified when I heard about him. But—hang on. He’s James’s best friend, wrongly imprisoned, and turns out to be this loving godfather and mentor. But—hold up again. Throughout Books 4 and 5, as Amy Green pointed out in a very useful article, Sirius struggles with clinical depression, stunted emotional maturity, and an alcohol addiction. Not even Dumbledore and Lupin do much to help him out. And when Harry tries, it winds up killing him.

Good is good, right?

All these layers come to a head, of course, in Deathly Hallows. Dumbledore sketching plans for genocide and dictatorial regime with the single most evil dark wizard of the century? Snape the vicious potions master emerging as “the bravest man I ever knew”? Harry’s struggle in a world of gray, where The Daily Prophet alternately condemns and lauds him, where Eliphas Doge and Rita Skeeter offer competing narratives and biographies, where the body of the helpful old lady conceals the dark serpent.

In a Harry Potter world, good is occluded and evil appearing in unlikely places. In a Harry Potter world, Voldemort is found and fought within—whether in the heart of Dumbledore, Harry, or Tom Riddle. This is what so much of the descent and burial imagery surrounding the Dark Lord suggests. Voldemort is in Malfoy Manor—the Chamber of Secrets—the Department of Mysteries—at the end of the Labyrinth. It is in the liminal places, the unsure, the personal, that Voldemort is found. Ultimately, Harry must turn and confront Voldemort in himself—the torn fragment of soul that’s part of his own self.

While patriotism and national pride certainly have their place, it seems like sloppy criticism to source it from the gray world of Harry Potter. Perhaps Mr. Howe should consider another literary source for the present celebrationism—one which, unlike Ms. Rowling’s saga of the 1990s, actually postdates 9/11.

As we’ve watched the news unfold, there have been inevitable and chilling similarities with certain points of The Hunger Games. Not that the attack would be ordered and executed as it was, perfectly Machiavellian in plan and nearly surgical in operation, but that it was done with such histrionics and as publicly as it was, even by the President and everyone else in the Capitol.

Pundits in Washington decided to share the news in real time as something of a reality-television special. In this special covered by every network except perhaps the cable cooking shows, viewers participated by cheering on the murder of an individual we have been given reason to despise in the name of justice.

Sadly, because of its public staging and the triumphalist announcements, we have reason to doubt the mission will ultimately either serve justice or the mission to defeat Islamist terrorists. That would seem to have required secrecy at least until the intelligence gathered had been used to its greatest effects. As it is, we had an echo of the media exploitation Suzanne Collins portrays so forcibly in her Hunger Games trilogy—a tyrannically powerful and jaded super-state, the Capitol, using reality television as bread-and-circus entertainment for its citizens and as oderint dum metuant message sending to the subservient districts (“let them hate us so long as they fear us”).

Perhaps, if Mr. Howe is right and the celebrating young people are getting inspiration from Harry Potter, they’d do well to learn another lesson from the books: never listen to someone with a Quick Quotes Quill. And The Daily Prophet shouldn’t always be trusted.


  1. Excellent, excellent post, Professor P. Also, the pictures are hilarious.

    Nowadays, we’re all like the southern fundamentalists we make such a point of despising. We’re all ready to point out what’s wrong with the other guy, and more than happy to paint it in terms of the darkest evil we can imagine. “You’re like the Nazis” is just the secular way of saying “You’re damned for what you do.”

    Granted, bin Laden’s murderous ways needed to be stopped, and we’ve been hunting for him for a very long time. Relief is understandable and a clink of the beer mugs is at least human.

    But the overall concept of No Gray Area terrifies me. Reason #7564256796 that Albus Dumbledore is my hero. He did not do everything right, but after Grindelwald and Ariana, he knew where to look first for the evil in the world.

  2. Excellent essay!

    I was struck by this association:
    Par`e*net”ic\, Parenetioal \Par`e*net”io*al\, a. [Gr. ?: cf. F. par[‘e]n[‘e]tique.] Hortatory; encouraging; persuasive. [R.] –F. Potter.
    (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.)

  3. Bruce Charlton says

    I am ambivalent about this post; because while I don’t diagree with what you have said, wallowing around in debates over gray areas is our basic societal problem, rather than its solution.

    We need to avoid using discussion of gray areas as a means of advertising moral sensitivity – and I think I may detect an *element* of this in the above posting.

    We live in dark times with very few heroes indeed; and our governments resemble the corrupted Ministry of Magic much more than the Order of the Phoenix.

    But – as exemplified by the Order – despite gray areas and uncertainties, there is an urgent need discern the Good, differentiate the better from the worse, resist, draw lines, fight – and sometimes (if possible) to conquer.

    Otherwise the corrupted Ministry (with Volemort pulling the strings) will certainly prevail.

  4. Interesting post…and not what I expected to read at all. My FIRST thought after seeing the photos of UBL and LV side-by-side was, “Hmmmm, they both took about 10 years to kill!!!” No kidding!

    Wouldn’t the gray areas of our lives be the real-time narrative misdirections created by our finite and incomplete understanding of human situations??? That is to say….only our Creator has total omniscience and in our inability to know all, we therefore cannot see “down the road” nor “around the corner;” nor can we ever have all of the facts in one place at any one time. Hence, Professor, our repetitive propensity for misinterpretation of human behaviors!

    Just a thought, or two…

  5. Thank you, Bruce, for the thoughtful and, as always, bracing comments! I thought of your insights when reading this today.


  6. This is mostly in response to the “spiked” link…

    What is/was the right response to the death of Bin Laden? Dancing in the streets, quietly remembering all who lost their lives because of him, relief that his “reign of terror” was over, or ??? While I emotionally and mentally bounced between many different response options, I ran across a facebook posting by a friend that quoted Ezekiel 33:11, which crystallized the predominate feeling I was having. It reads, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” And I thought of Harry Potter.

    What the passage from from Ezekiel reminded me of was the very unusual thing that that Harry said to Voldemort during the final duel. “…try for some remorse, Riddle….” Harry said this not just once, but twice. For me, Harry was acting out Ezekial 33, doing all he could to try convince Voldemort to turn from his wicked ways. That’s why all the dialogue from Harry about the horcruxes being gone and all the explanation about Harry, not Voldemort, being the true owner of the Elder Wand. It was all part of offering Voldemort one last chance to repent. Even Harry’s choice of Exepelliarmis (to only disarm, not harm) points toward Harry’s focus on giving Voldemort more opportunities to change for the better. But Voldemort wouldn’t have it, and was killed by his own rebounding curse.

    Like PJ, just wanted to put in a thought or two…


    P.S. It’s interesting to read the post-battle sections of the Deathly Hallows and note the different characters reactions to the defeat of Voldemort. Even Ron, who was once noted by Hermione as having the emotional range of a newt (if I remember the line correctly), is able to detect that Peeves little victory song is a bit juvenile and misses the full “scope and tragedy of the thing”. Shortly after that we get a good description of Harry’s mental/emotional state, “Happiness would come, Harry thought, but at the moment it was muffled by exhaustion, and the pain of loosing Fred and Lupin and Tonks pierced him like a physical wound every few steps. Most of all he felt the most stupendous relief, and a longing for sleep.” Interesting that Harry’s response was not all boisterous and loud (like he often felt after winning a quiditch match, a black & white vistory) but much more subtle, complex, and multifaceted with somethings that would require time to fully comprehend and deal with (a much more “shades of gray” response).

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