Dear Tablet: No, Harry Potter is not Holocaust Literature
Written in response to Tablet Magazine’s Book Review: Should ‘Harry Potter’ Be Included in the Canon of Holocaust Literature? by Brigid Goggin with Vanessa Zoltan.
Good fantasy can teach us something about the world. It can give us a safe place to try on new identities, experience fraught emotions, and explore different ideas. I think on this point, I probably mostly agree with Goggin and Zoltan when they suggest that Harry Potter can help children process difficult feelings or immerse themselves in an empathetic understanding of fictional trauma.
In fact, a lot of YA and children’s literature aficionados are familiar with this G.K. Chesterson quote that tends to pop up from time to time on the internet:
“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Or perhaps they’ve seen the very similar Neil Gaiman version of this quote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with these sentiments, and I personally agree with them. Fantasy, fairy tale, and fiction are all important and powerful and can teach us many things. It’s just that I fundamentally disagree that Harry Potter flying a dragon out of Gringotts will prime children to understand what a Kapo is, allegorically or otherwise.
That is just ridiculous. There has to be a line in defining what is and is not Holocaust literature, nevermind what is in the canon of Holocaust literature. And I don’t think I’m wrong for suggesting that the line in question is that the books are actually about the Holocaust.
Respectfully, in the words of Molly Roberts for The Washington Post:
To everyone who compares every political occurrence to “Harry Potter,” I beg of you: Please, read another book.
I loved the Harry Potter books as a child. I still enjoy them now, although admittedly I haven’t re-read the whole series recently, and my active engagement with the series has tapered off. I actually listened to several episodes of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text after a guest appearance on Tablet magazine’s podcast, Unorthodox. I know that Brigid Goggin, a Holocaust educator, has far more experience about teaching the Holocaust than I do. I understand, truly, part of what this article is trying to convey.
And I agree — Harry Potter was an engaging fantasy series that yes, covered a wide variety of difficult topics like war, death, genocide, bigotry, fanaticism, and evil.
But I also think the Animorphs series covered most of those topics, and I wouldn’t call that Holocaust Literature either. You could argue that these are YA and Children’s genocide literature in a more general sense, alongside books like Watership Down. I think it’s important to make this distinction — not all books that talk about genocide are Holocaust books.
And not all books with general allegories or outright references to World War Two are Holocaust books either. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe certainly isn’t. After all, while it quite literally follows the evacuation of the Pevensie children during WWII into a fantasy land, the Chronicles of Narnia are a giant Christian allegory. Aslan is Jesus, there’s a resurrection, and it’s safe to say the book isn’t about the Holocaust.
In fact, I think this is a good rule of thumb:
If the book never mentions the Holocaust, the Jewish people, or the Roma people, then it isn’t Holocaust Literature.
And when we look past our rosy recollections of the Harry Potter series, we can recognize the truth for what it is: J.K. Rowling knows one Jewish last name, and that’s Goldstein. Anthony Goldstein was the only Jewish child in Hogwarts during the Harry Potter books. Not that we would know that while actually reading the books, just like we wouldn’t know Dumbledore is gay. Tina and Queenie Goldstein are not in the books, but the fact remains there is only one Jewish last name.
That’s not even the biggest problem Harry Potter has. Aside from never actually addressing antisemitism or really even exploring that a Jewish character existed in Hogwarts, the allegories are just that. Only allegorical. Yes, Hermione has the word mudblood carved into her arm. But does anyone ever bring up skin color? Race? As someone who’s been called half-breed by someone close to me before, I have to admit that the comparisons don’t quite feel the same. The allegories are painted on to what Rowling surely imagined as mostly white/Anglo-British students, and that’s all they are.
There’s an allegory for racism, but no identity crisis of a mixed-race kid. No racism as felt by students of color. There’s an allegory for World War Two and Grindelwald is a paper cut-out wizard of Hitler, but there’s no Jews, no Roma, and no Holocaust. Nowhere is the issue of antisemitism as it impacts students taken up. Minorities are all used as an allegorical device, but play very little role in the actual written content of the books’ depth and meaning. That’s unfortunately common in fantasy and sci-fi.
Unfortunately, there are allegorical Jews in the Harry Potter series. They are the hook-nosed goblin bankers of Gringotts.
I don’t believe JKR woke up and said to herself: ‘You know, I’m going to use antisemitic tropes to help world build.’ She probably had no idea what she was doing when she used a common trope where goblins and dwarves are fantasy-land Jews. I don’t think the impact of an “other” race of hook-nosed, swarthy, greedy, bankers was something she thought about deeply beforehand:
The goblin was about a head shorter than Harry. He had a swarthy, clever face, a pointed beard and, Harry noticed, very long fingers and feet. He bowed as they walked inside. — from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
I hope JKR didn’t know better when she wrote that goblins had rules they didn’t share with outsiders, that they controlled the entire wizarding economy, and that they are essentially loan-sharks with often “questionable” ethics. I believe all these things because deep down, I want to see the best possible motive in some people.
If JKR had no idea what she was doing, because those antisemitic tropes are so deeply ingrained in mainstream society, then maybe Harry Potter isn’t a great way to explain the Holocaust.
Maybe Harry Potter could instead be used to recognize antisemitic tropes in fantasy and children’s lit. Maybe it can also be used to show how deeply entrenched certain bigoted tropes are in our society. How they are so rooted in our literature that many writers fail to recognize them for what they are before they reproduce them. Harry Potter could teach children how easy it is for people to absorb antisemitic propaganda without realizing it. It could even be taught in parallel with the tale of Rumplestiltskin.
But in the meantime, I think we can keep having kids read age-appropriate Holocaust books about the Holocaust.