Magic and the Supernatural
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman explore the themes of magic and the supernatural. Harry Potter is a story about a young, seemingly ordinary boy, finding out that he is in fact a wizard. Together with his friends Ron and Hermione, Harry battles enemies within Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and without. Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, from The Graveyard Book grows up in a very unconventional situation being raised by Mr. and Mrs. Owens ghosts of the graveyard he lives in. Silas, his guardian who also happens to be a vampire, teaches Bod the ways of the world all the while trying to protect him from the villainous Jacks of All Trades. Both texts use of magic and the supernatural enable the authors to set up a hierarchal structure between those within the magical world and outside of it. There are clear distinctions between the two worlds, for example ghosts versus humans in The Graveyard Book and wizards versus muggles in Harry Potter. Both texts aim to break down the barriers of this social construction through the characters particularly Bod in The Graveyard Book and Hermione in Harry Potter. The two texts can be described as a hybrid of fantasy fiction and Gothic literature. The elements of these two forms enable the authors to use the grotesque, fantastical and mythical elements to further cement the social hierarchy they have constructed.
Tension between wizards and muggles is evident in the scene between Harry, Hagrid and the Dursleys when Harry finds out that he is a wizard. We are introduced to the word muggle by Hagrid when he explains its meaning to Harry, ‘it’s what we call non-magic folk like them’ (Rowling 57). The label given to them is clearly negative and shows how the wizarding community thinks they are superior to the ‘muggles’. This disdain is mutual with the Dursleys labeling wizards as ‘weirdos’ (Rowling 61), ‘strange’ and ‘abnormal’ (Rowling 58) and Mrs. Dursley even going as far as calling her witch sister ‘a freak’ (Rowling 57). Though it must be said that the majority of muggles do not know of the existence of witches and wizards and reject the idea of their existence. In doing so, they denounce the superiority of the wizarding community based primarily on their ignorance of the situation. These two dominant groups of people, wizards and muggles, are competing in a magically charged environment for the top position in the hierarchy. This is comparable to real world social orders where groups of people are competing for the top spot, such as the USA versus the USSR in the Cold War or even the Liberal Party versus the Labor Party. Rowling portrays this social construction from the perspective of wizards being in the top position on the hierarchy which we will delve into deeper.
Looking closer at Harry Potter the wizarding community can be further categorized into pure-bloods, half-bloods, muggle-borns and squibs who are born to wizard parents but have no magic themselves. There is also a distinction between wizards, particularly pure-bloods and half-bloods, who sympathize with muggles. This particular form of discrimination is evident between Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley. Ron comes from a pure-blood family who are well-known to have sympathy towards muggles. On the train journey to Hogwarts Harry and Ron are confronted by Draco and his cronies, Draco describes the Weasley family and Hagrid as ‘riff-raff’ (Rowling 116). Draco also says to Harry ‘you’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter’ (Rowling 116) and speaks of ‘the wrong sort’ (Rowling 116). Draco is a pure-blood who is anti-muggle and to him the wrong sort is anyone who isn’t a pure blood and whose views differ to his. There is a sense of Neo-Nazism in the text with the pure-blood wizards being the equivalent of the Aryans and the muggles or muggle-borns the equivalent of the Jews. The segregation of these groups and placement in a social hierarchy is the wizarding equivalent of the world-system theory where the social system is based on wealth and power (Kottak 329), though in the case of the wizarding community it is based on the purity of the wizards family tree.
Throughout Harry Potter, Hermione is often seen as an outsider primarily due to her muggle lineage, she doesn’t entirely fit in to the wizarding community but at the same time she is no longer a muggle either. Bod in The Graveyard Book is similarly conveyed as an outsider, he is neither ghost nor entirely human. Like Harry Potter, The Graveyard Book depicts a hierarchy, though different to the aforementioned one; the basis of the structure remains the same. The supernatural world of The Graveyard Book illustrates three distinct social groups, humans, ghosts and ‘The Honor Guard’ (Gaiman 272). The humans are completely oblivious to the supernatural world similar to the majority of muggles in Harry Potter; again the humans perceived hierarchy is based around their ignorance of the supernatural world. This is a social commentary by Gaiman comparing the ignorance of the first-world people, represented by the humans, to the third-world people, represented by the supernatural.
Taking a look at the graveyard we see there is a distinct social order between its inhabitants. At the top of the hierarchy we have ‘The Honor Guard’ including Silas and Miss Lupescu, it is evident in the text that to become one of ‘The Honor Guard’ you must only be supernatural in nature but a mythical creature such as a vampire or werewolf. At the top of the hierarchy there is also the elusive Lady on the Grey who is highly regarded by the ghosts of the graveyard. In the middle of the hierarchy sits the general population of ghosts, comparable to the middle or working-class people in today’s society. At the bottom of the hierarchy we have the ghouls and also Liza Hempstock a ghost who was executed for witchcraft. Ironically, Liza is ostracized by the other ghosts because she is a witch, a supernatural entity, as ghosts they too are of the supernatural persuasion. Again, Gaiman uses this ironic situation as a social commentary pointing out the hypocrisy that goes with a social hierarchy.
As stated previously, Hermione in Harry Potter has the role of an outsider in the wizarding community. As the story progresses we see Hermione play a pivotal role in thwarting Lord Voldemort’s ploy to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. She uses her intellect to decipher key pieces of information including the riddle about the potions they need to solve to get to the Philosopher’s Stone. Logic is needed to solve the riddle and as Hermione astutely points out ‘a lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic’ (Rowling 307) and luckily for Harry, Hermione does. Michelle Fry (157) discusses the essential nature of the character Hermione in breaking down the barriers of social constructs. The riddle Hermione solves is evidence that this is the case in the sense that pure-bloods, like Draco Malfoy, deem her inferior due to her status as a muggle-born. However, she proves them wrong by being able to solve a problem that many wizards, including pure-bloods, would not be able to solve showing that a person’s lineage does not make ‘an ounce’ of difference to their abilities.
There is a sense of the concept of carnival in Harry Potter where the rigid social structure is turned on its head and the oppressed people, muggle-borns and muggle sympathizers, rise up and become powerful (Nikolajeva). They seize their chance to break down the barriers constructed by the pure-blood wizards and destroy notions of ineptness and inferiority
There are also carnivalesque features in The Graveyard Book that can be seen when the humans and ghosts dance the Macabray (Gaiman 135). The upside-down-world of carnival (Nikolajeva, Hall) is evident in the reversal of social order, whereby the humans acknowledge the supernatural world for that one night, though not remembering it afterwards. It is interesting to note that the ghosts do not speak of the dance afterwards as Silas explains ‘there are things that people are forbidden to speak about’ (Gaiman 153) showing that now the dance is over the hierarchy is back in place. It has the grotesque element of the humans and ghosts dancing together seen in carnival and also in Gothic literature. The lyrics to the song, appropriately titled ‘Danse Macabre’ (Gaiman 135), have a strong Gothic tone particularly focusing on the macabre (Coats) while at the same time employing carnivalesque motifs of humor (Hall). An example of this is the line, ‘one to leave and one to stay and all to dance the Macabray,’ which sets a mood of decay and even terror, but at the same time has the playfulness of the carnival.
The grotesque is a Gothic motif used in Harry Potter to separate the status of someone in the social hierarchy. Hall explores the character of Hagrid, a half-giant, as a grotesque representation. Hagrid is described as having ‘a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard’ (Rowling 50) his eyes are ‘like black beetles’ (Rowling 50). He is at the bottom of the hierarchy being not just a half-blood but also a half-breed having a giantess for a mother. When he sees Hagrid, Draco refers to him as a ‘savage’ (Rowling 84) though we know that Hagrid is anything but a savage with his pockets full of ‘mint humbugs’ (Rowling 67), ‘tea bags’ (Rowling 67) and ‘dog-biscuits’ (Rowling 79) even exclaiming ‘bless him, look, he knows his mummy’ (Rowling 252) when Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback looks at him. He is the epitome of a gentle giant and this has a sort of irony or carnivalesque characteristic to it. As Draco does, the majority of the wizarding community looks down on Hagrid for his differences, his grotesqueness, discriminating against him because of his assumed ‘savage’ nature. Like Hagrid, goblins are portrayed in Harry Potter as grotesque (Hall). Rowling describes a goblin as ‘swarthy’ (78) with ‘a clever face, a pointed bead’ (78) and ‘very long fingers and feet’ (78). Apart from the clear grotesque connotations, there is also a sense of villainy and treachery associated with goblins, motifs synonymous with Gothic literature. It comes as no surprise that like Hagrid, goblins are also at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Both Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book depict a clear hierarchical structure within the fictitious worlds they explore that can be compared to real-world social structures. They use magic and the supernatural to stratify different groups of people into rigid social factions. Motifs of Gothic, particularly the grotesque, are used to emphasize this structure and make clear distinctions between the segregated groups. Carnival elements are evident in the texts and are used as a device to break through social barriers and uproot discrimination. There are strong social distinctions made between the magical world and the human world, often with the later denying the existence of the supernatural. Within the magical world, there are further distinctions between the classes that can be likened to that of the human world. Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book are commentaries on the social hierarchical structure of today’s world in which we can learn the undesirable implications of labeling people or groups based on assumed value.
Coats, Karen. “Between Horror, Humour, and Hope: Neil Gaiman and the Psychic Work of the Gothic.” The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. N.p: Taylor and Francis, 2008. 77-92. Print.
Fry, Michele. “Heroes and heroines: Myth and gender roles in the Harry Potter books.” New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship 7.1 (2001): 157-167. EBSCO Host. Web.
Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. London, Bloomsbury. 2009. Print. Hall, Jordana. “Embracing the Abject Other: The Carnival Imagery of Harry Potter.” Children’s Literature in Education 42 (2010): 70-89. EBSCO Host. Web.
Kottak, Conrad P. Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. 15th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, 2013. Print.
Nikolajeva, Maria. “Harry Potter and the Secrets of Children’s Literature.” Critical Perspectives of Harry Potter. Ed. Elizabeth E. Hellman. N.p: Taylor and Francis, 2008. 225-241. EBSCO Host. Web.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.
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