Law Professor: Harry Potter Has Hidden Message

KNOXVILLE — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final book in the series, will be published on July 21, and University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton will be standing in line to get it.

A big fan of Harry Potter, Barton has become a true student of the series, and he says he’s found some politically charged lessons written between the lines.

“I really love the books. I’ve read them all,” said Barton, who teaches advocacy clinic and torts. “They’re just wonderful, rich books, and J.K. Rowling is a master storyteller.”

Barton has written and lectured about how Rowling depicts the government and law in the Harry Potter books.

“When I read the fifth and sixth books, I noticed a real Libertarian bent. I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting for children’s literature,'” Barton said.

Barton said he went back and read the first four books again, “and I saw the same messages were woven all the way through the series.”

Barton wrote a paper entitled “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy” that was published in the Michigan Law Review in May 2006. The paper is being reprinted as a chapter in the book, “Harry Potter and the Law” (Carolina Press), due out this summer. He also has lectured on the topic at a “Power of Stories” seminar in Gloucester, England, in July 2005.

In “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy,” Barton details the political messages he’s discovered in the Potter books:

“What would you think of a government that engaged in this list of tyrannical activities: tortured children for lying; designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press?

“You might assume that the above list is the work of some despotic central African nation, but it is actually the product of the Ministry of Magic, the magician’s government in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.”

Barton said he thinks the anti-government thread that runs through the Potter novels is significant because the books have great potential to sway public opinion.

“It would be difficult to overstate the influence and market penetration of the Harry Potter series,” Barton contends. “Somewhere over the last few years the Harry Potter novels passed from a children’s literature sensation to a bona fide international happening.”

Barton also speculates why Rowling writes about the government, and the press, with such disdain.

“Anyone familiar with Rowling’s personal story will know that when she started the Harry Potter series, she spent a period of time unemployed and on public assistance in Edinburgh, divorced with a young child.

“Rowling’s personal story provides two insights into her feelings toward government,” Barton wrote.

“First, in both England and the U.S. there is no quicker route to hating the government than dealing with the various bureaucracies that handle public assistance.

“Second, Rowling’s story smacks of success through self-reliance and sheer force of will. The Harry Potter novels likewise show a strong strain of self-reliance and stubborn independence, and Rowling came upon these themes the hard way. Anyone who has pulled herself out of poverty as Rowling has is likely to believe that self-reliance and hard work are the keys to success, and to be conversely wary of government intervention.”

As for how the anti-government theme might play out in the final book, Barton speculates it could go two ways: “The government could either come back to useful life or the characters will have to rely on rugged individualism to overcome the obstacles posed by the dysfunctional government.”

Contacts:

Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu