Westword Interview on Values of Harry Potter

Westword featured an online interview October 28 in which I discuss Harry Potter and some of the ideas from my book, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles.

I wanted to expand one point here. In the interview, I say:

Obviously, the idea of heroes fighting for values in some sense has to be part of any compelling fiction. For example, you see some similarities with Tolkien’s works, but what strikes me about the Harry Potter series is the richness of the characters and their commitment to their personal values. … [T]here is more self-motivation, for example, than for Frodo, Tolkein’s hero, who to a great extent is pushed in this battle by the gift of this ring and the wizard Gandalf directing him to take this quest. He is not fighting for his core life values, as they are in Harry Potter.

Frodo is fighting to protect his world, the Shire, no doubt. And Harry, like Frodo, is placed into a grand conflict to a large degree by forces beyond his control (for Voldemort targeted him as a child). Nevertheless, the thrust of my point remains true. Frodo’s fight for his own values is much more in the background, while Harry’s fight for values is front and center. Even though Harry is targeted by Voldemort and encouraged by Dumbledore, he consciously makes a series of choices to join the battle, explicitly on the grounds that he must do so to defend his values, the people and way of life that matter to him. From Tolkien, an even better comparison is with Bilbo from The Hobbit. Bilbo constantly wishes to return home, rather than complete the journey, and he doesn’t much care about the outcome. And he is quite shoved out the door by Gandalf; he doesn’t pursue the journey because he thinks it is important to achieve the things that really matter to him. So my point is not that values are absent in Tolkien, but rather that personal values play a much more pronounced role in Rowling.

I mentioned a couple other points about independence to Joel Warner (who conducted the interview) that didn’t make the final cut. First, with respect to the formal education at Hogwarts, I pointed out that Harry independently chose to pursue his education, and Hogwarts allows much greater expression of independence relative to typical American schools. Second, regarding political implications, I pointed out that those who take the themes of independence and free will seriously are more likely to advocate personal responsibility in the political system.

If readers of the interview have additional questions for me, please submit them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.