Picture a goblin. Is he short? Hunchbacked? Does he have a long, hooked nose and sallow skin? Does he look Jewish?
This is the basis of the latest row over JK Rowling, thanks to a clip that went viral this week of the US comedian Jon Stewart comparing the goblins that run Gringotts Bank in the Harry Potter films with a caricature of Jews from anti-Semitic literature. A furious social media row ensued, and even though Stewart has since denied he meant to imply Rowling was anti-Semitic, not everyone agrees. Clips of the offending goblin scene were bandied about, sparking a frenzied debate about other problematic aspects of the Potterverse and what this says about Rowling herself.
A storm in a Twitter teacup? It should be. Go back to the source material, and you’ll find Rowling’s goblin has “a swarthy, clever face”, “a pointed beard” and “very long fingers and feet” – not exactly flattering, but hardly a description that screams “Jewish”. The hook-nosed, sideburned creatures that appear in the films are, presumably, a product of Warner Brothers’ design team.
They are also a product of centuries of anti-Semitism woven into European folklore, in which the depiction of the grubby, untrustworthy, gold-obsessed goblin or dwarf was fused in the cultural imagination with the depiction of the grubby, untrustworthy, gold-obsessed Jew. That tells us a lot about literary tropes, cinematic laziness and historical attitudes to Jews, and very little about the author’s personal views.
Harry Potter may not win any medals for diversity, but Western fantasy has always had a complicated relationship with race. From the dark-skinned orcs and Calormenes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, to the racial stereotypes that populate the “exotic” regions of the Game of Thrones universe (not to mention its dragon-taming white saviour heroine), it’s not a tradition generally associated with political correctness. Fans of the genre might be aware of this, but few complain – to some extent, it is baked into the very premise: one of our heroes setting off on a quest to defeat those otherworldly foreigners, with their strange looks and barbaric customs. If anything, the child-friendly message of Harry Potter – that evil can be defeated when people put aside their differences and work together – is about as progressive as it gets.
Rowling’s keyboard critics hold her to a higher standard. They note (correctly) that the ethnic minority characters of Hogwarts are few and clumsily written. Cho Chang is a Chinese girl with Korean last name as a first name, placed in the “clever” house because that’s obviously where Asian students belong; the only Irish character is called Seamus Finnigan. Is Hermione Granger, with her “bushy brown hair”, black – and if so, why did Rowling consent to casting a white actress in the film? And don’t let’s get started on the wizarding world having an entire slave class of house elves.
Are you bored yet? Because I could go on, listing the myriad ways in which the world Rowling created falls short of today’s social justice bar. Hogwarts is elitist, just a magical version of Eton. Dumbledore manipulates and lies to his students. And where for the love of Merlin are all the queer wizards?
All valid points. Still, I’ve never seen anyone get upset by a lack of diversity at Miss Cackle’s Academy in Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch books, or take offence at the Aryan handsomeness of Anthony Horowitz’s teenage spy Alex Rider. Sometimes children’s stories are just that – children’s stories. And sometimes authors who write fantasy lean on folklore tropes that have racist, misogynistic or anti-Semitic roots. That isn’t usually news.
But then everything Rowling does these days makes the headlines. One of the left’s favourite poster girls – a stalwart Labour supporter who has donated hundreds of millions of pounds to children’s charities – has fallen from grace thanks to her stance on biological sex and what she sees as the risks of the movement for gender self-identification. She has left her fan base of young progressives feeling betrayed; the author of the stories they loved has a view they find abhorrent. That, to many, nullifies anything she may have achieved in the past – her left-wing activism doesn’t count now she is at odds with the left’s latest shibboleth, and her authorship of one of the most successful literary series of all time must be re-examined.
[see also: The doxxing of JK Rowling harms everyone]
Sometimes, this manifests as an effort to separate the Harry Potter books from the woman who wrote them – whether by minimising her name on the trailer for her latest film, or simply referring to Rowling as She Who Must Not Be Named, as has become commonplace within the fandom. And sometimes, as with the goblin controversy, it becomes an exercise in offence-mining, tearing down her creations to expose every flaw and plot hole and insensitivity, so that even those who admired her work are forced to admit there was never anything there worth admiring.
I grew up with Harry Potter. The Philosopher’s Stone is the book that taught my dyslexia-addled brain to love reading. I queued for 12 hours, in costume, to get the final book at midnight. That doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect – but then, isn’t it quite strange to expect them to be? They’re not meant to be searing social commentary that fits the ethical code of readers two decades later. You don’t have to agree with every word their author has ever said (I certainly don’t) to enjoy them. You also don’t have to read them at all, if her views or her writing put you off.
But retroactively demonising these books for failing tests that dozens of comparable works would never pass strikes me as overkill. The urge to draw moral binaries – good versus evil, progressive versus bigoted – might be appropriate in fantasy fiction, but in the real world condemning everything someone has ever done because you don’t like one aspect of their politics isn’t just worrying, it’s infantile. They’re only children’s books, after all.
This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage