On the face of it, there is nothing complicated about the politics of Harry Potter, who made his first appearance in The Philosopher’s Stone 20 years ago. Like his creator J.K. Rowling, who once gave £1 million to the Labour party, he is a left-wing paternalist in the Bloomsbury tradition — the love child of John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He feels a protective duty towards the common man (‘muggles’ in the lexicon of the novels) and a loathing for suburban, lower-middle-class Tories like the Dursleys, his Daily Mail-reading foster parents. The arch-villain of the saga is Voldemort, a charismatic Übermensch who believes in purity and strength and in the final novel promotes his own version of the Nuremberg Laws through the Ministry of Magic. Indeed, the books are shot through with the mythology of the second world war and its aftermath, linking the struggle against fascism to the emergence of a socialist New Jerusalem.
But look more closely and something stranger hoves into view. What is Hogwarts, after all, but an idealised version of an English public school, with its houses, quadrangles and eccentric schoolteachers? As George Orwell points out in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, his 1940 essay in which he tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels.
In the same essay, Orwell touches on the ‘changeling fantasy’, a common trope of popular children’s literature, in which an apparently ordinary boy or girl turns out to be the child of an impossibly glamorous couple. Harry Potter falls squarely within this genre and that aspect of the novels also taps into the English obsession with ancestry.