Harry Potter and the social order

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Almost every child, it seems, wants to be like Harry Potter. As the fifth adventure of the schoolboy wizard hits bookshops this month, pretty much all of its young readers will wish they, too, were about to start a term at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

J K Rowling's new work will doubtless also cast as great a spell on its older readers. It is estimated that 70 per cent of adults who have ordered Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are buying it for themselves - and who among them would not like to be able, like the books' adult characters, to conjure up an instant feast, or to cast a spell that gets the ironing done?

It's a simple truth. Being a wizard in Harry's world is... well, magic. These beings are superior to humans (or "Muggles", as Rowling's characters label them). No wonder we all want to be like Harry. But is it right that we and our children cheer for - even aspire to join - a superior race? Not necessarily, according to a new book, which suggests that the natural superiority of our heroes Harry, his friends Ron and Hermione and their benevolent headmaster, Dumbledore, means they are "not entirely free of fascist proclivities".

It seems, on the surface, an unlikely claim, especially as Rowling wants us to cheer for moral right. After all, Harry's role in the ongoing good-vs-evil saga is to prevent the murderous Lord Voldemort from ethnically cleansing the world of all Muggles and wizards of Muggle descent. Yet Suman Gupta's Re-Reading Harry Potter suggests that the boy and his allies may have just as deep-rooted notions of superiority - and the Open University senior literature lecturer's ideas may well mean that Potter fans find themselves turning the pages of Order of the Phoenix with unease.

"The established order", writes Dr Gupta, "has a dubious role in tolerating... obviously fascist elements (such as the Malfoys - Harry's school nemesis Draco's family, supporters of Voldemort). Wizard children seem to worry little about the dangers Muggles face." Most pertinent, the lecturer questions the idea that the Muggles appear to exist at all only thanks to the prevailing morally good wizarding element - which could kill them at a stroke if it so desired. "It behoves the superior races to choose to be benign to the inferior races, as a moral obligation," he says, citing Dumbledore's permission for Muggle-born wizards to attend Hogwarts and the fact that every time Muggles encounter magic, their memories of the incidents are erased. This is not equality, he argues; this is control: "None of this occurs because anyone in the Magic world is convinced Muggles are equal to them."

Dr Gupta even draws a parallel with the situation in global politics since September 11, and what he sees as "a call for a 'new kind of imperialism' from the West that would render 'rogue states' and fundamentalist political alignments more pliant to the current world order" - though he admits it's unlikely that Rowling intended this reference.

The social and political effect of Rowling's books is the main theme of Re-Reading Harry Potter, in which Dr Gupta also follows the books' attitudes to servitude, class and even sexual desire. "It's arguably not the job of the fictional world to correct the unpalatable facts of our world, but to raise them to awareness," writes Dr Gupta. "But these are presented in a fashion that doesn't bring them to awareness. They are presented as natural and comfortable."

That is not to say Dr Gupta didn't enjoy the books - although he's careful to stop short of calling himself a fan. "I have devoted a book to the novels because I got pleasure from reading them," he says. "But pleasure need neither be uncritical nor result in unthinking admiration."

So it seems that this lecturer, like most other Potter readers, does dream of the Hogwarts Express arriving to take him to join Harry at school. The difference is, Dr Gupta doesn't necessarily board the train.

'Re-Reading Harry Potter' by Suman Gupta is published this month by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £14.99