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Harry Potter and the wand of bad analogies: Why J.K. Rowling’s work doesn’t support the NRA or gun nuts of any kind

Mic Wright tackles the right-wing assertion that wands in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world are the equivalent of guns in the world we live in. Yes, seriously…

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This is an essay about Harry Potter. It’s also an essay about idiots. Finally, it’s an essay about analogies, metaphors, the weight that these rhetorical tools can carry and the point at which they break.

Of course, you can easily argued that while the Harry Potter series, both in print and onscreen, is replete with references, allegories and lifts from other sources, its is, fundamentally, simply a set of astronomically successful young adult novels.

But Harry Potter has transcended that to become one of those cultural signifiers that is dragooned into the service of arguments that seem far from the world of wizards, witches and witchcraft, arguments that might previously have been handled without recourse to such bluntly used analogy and metaphor. However, as with the catalyst for this essay – an opinion piece in The National Review – the Harry Potter series rarely escapes being used as an analogy in the culture war debates that ricochet across Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis.

Heather Wilhelm, whose editors frame her arguments with the headline ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Balderdash’, is aggrieved by other journalists and writers reaching for Harry Potter as an inspiration for the gun control campaign which has been energised by the impressive students of Parkland.

The lede of Wilhelm’s piece splutters with mock incredulity:

“Eleven-year-old wizards with lethally dangerous wands, battling a coverup government agency: Did we even read the same books?”

The set up here is, of course, one where the notably left-wing (if centrist) J.K. Rowling has her work decontextualised as a pro-gun, libertarian rant – less J. K. Rowling and more J.K. Ayn Rand.

Reports from the BBC and CNN alongside opinion pieces in the New York Times triggered – a word I am using with as many layers of irony applied as possible – Wilhelm to write her piece, angered as she is by the notion that Potter “[motivated and mobilised] its legion of fans… to fight against the second item in the American Bill of Rights.”

And then we’re off to the races with Wilhelm’s argument built on this analogy – the wands of the Harry Potter universe are basically guns and, therefore, its fans who crave gun control in this, the real world, are stupid because they enjoy a fictional work where almost everyone in the magical world brandishes an object with the power to kill.

This is, of course, as dodgy as an out-of-date batch of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, because you can’t make a direct correlation between the way wands work in the fictional world of Hogwarts and the effect of an AR-15 or any other high-powered firearm in this, the actual real world we live in.

Wilhelm crows that:

“It’s worth remembering that Hogwarts, as an entity, was armed to the freaking teeth.”

That’s a fair point but, if the next conclusion from this utterly idiotic comparison of a fictional wizard school with arming teachers and, presumably, students in real world schools, is to suggest that guns would keep the student body safer, that’s moronic. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Hogwarts would fail any kind of reasonable inspection by an education regulator. It employs unqualified, cruel and dangerous staff alongside its many fine educators.
  • During the Battle of Hogwarts, having an armed student body alongside armed teachers does not prevent large number of Hogwarts students from perishing.
  • Wands, unlike guns, are multi-functional devices – as capable of creation as destruction. They are also, unlike guns, registered to their owner and equipped with enchantments that allow the spells their owners recently cast to be studied.
  • Children – such as those studying at Hogwarts – are forbidden to use magic outside of the school until they reach the age of 17. There are strict laws to prevent breaches of this.
  • Beyond the age-restrictions, using the so-called Unforgivable Curses is a punishable by death and that’s not limited to the killing curse, it also covers the torture curse.
  • Magic spells, like bullets, bounce around in an unpredictable way.
  • Using wands – or even more dangerous weapons like the Dementors – does not prevent attackers, in this case the Death-eaters, from entering Hogwarts, as individuals, in small groups and finally as a whole army.
  • In the world of Harry Potter – as Wilhelm herself references in her mess of an article – a disarming spell is commonly used (“Expelliarmus!”), something for which we have no 100% effective analogue in the real world.

To support her utterly ridiculous arguments, Wilhelm quotes another moronic piece by Alex Griswold, published on the Washington Free Beacon. In it, Griswold asserts that:

“Every wizard is armed at eleven, taught to use dangerous spells, and released into a society where everyone’s packing heat and concealed carry is the norm. It’s an inspiring example the United States should strive towards. But the reader slowly discovers there is wand control in the Harry Potter universe, and that it’s racist, corrupt and selectively enforced.”

Let’s break this down:

The pervasive availability of dark magic in the Harry Potter world has led to at least two dictators that we know of – Grindelwald and Voldemort – whose rise has not been stopped by the availability of wands among the general wizard population.

Second, as I noted earlier, wands are not ‘heat’. Their use as lethal weapons is highly regulated and the killing curse is “unforgivable”.

Yes, there is racism, corruption and privilege in the Harry Potter world, they are issues which Rowling covers and deliberately introduces – however clumsily on occasions – because she clearly sees those as failures that the wizarding world needs to address. But ‘wand control’ is not the cause of these issues.

Wilhelm also lumps Harry Potter in with Animal Farm and 1984 as a kind of libertarian fable, warning against state power and suggests that the Parkland students are “[interpreting] them as an endorsement of that very thing.”

Well, no. That’s, again, foolish. What the Parkland students see in Harry Potter is a tale of students standing against a murderous ideology that sees them as dispensable. The NRA may not enjoy being compared to death-eaters but if the dark robe fits.

And as for turning Harry Potter into a clarion call to destroy government, that is stripping what is, after all, essentially a children’s story, of its nuance.

Rowling constantly illustrates that the Ministry of Magic doesn’t take the return of Voldemort seriously and that it has become a corrupt and crisis-wracked institution but she also shows that there are plenty of good people working for overall social good, from Mr Weasley to the wider Order of the Phoenix and even Dumbledore, whose strategies and plans often lead to terrible outcomes.

The Ministry, as led by corrupt or incompetent figures like Fudge, is sort of akin to the current Iranian regime – if we must insist on reaching for real world analogues for a fictional book about wizards – with hardline traditionalists in conflict with reformers. It’s also – at a push – possibly analogous to the incompetent but consistently cruel authoritarianism of the Trump administration.

I’d rather we stopped press-ganging Harry Potter into service as a platform for discussing genuine and serious political issues but if we’re going to, can we at least make the comparisons rigorous?

On even the most basic level of critical analysis, J.K. Rowling’s books and the film series they inspired do not support the rhetoric of America’s gun crazy right wingers.

And if the books have inspired the Parkland students to fight back against a political climate where the lives of their friends are acceptable collateral damage in return for stopping gun control, that’s rather a wonderful thing. J.K. Rowling should be proud of that.