Harry Potter and the invisible gorilla


I’ve just finished re-reading the Harry Potter books, and now I’m reading the script of The Cursed Child for the second time. There’s so much to love in these stories: the characterisation, the excellent plotting, the detail, complexity and consistency of the world they evoke. Above all (contrary to what some Christians will tell you) they are deeply moral stories, concerned with the struggle against forces of hate and domination. They do so with considerable realism, not least in the moral ambiguities of that struggle, and the moral limitations of the good, together with moments of comedy and shared pleasures. It’s these ambiguities and limitations, especially the limitations of what is of concern to characters and readers, and their significance for Christian theology, that I’m interested in here.

Like so much of the best fantasy literature, the Harry Potter stories render the struggle against the forces of hate and domination – principally Voldemort and his death-eaters – in a profoundly realistic way. The plot and its themes are rendered through the interaction of characters and the circumstances which constrain and shape their actions, feelings and perceptions. A range of interacting forces combine in various complex ways to shape and transform those circumstances, often in surprising ways: national and international institutions, mass media, public opinion, and so on. Magic as a medium of power with its own laws, constraints and mysteries, contributes to that realism.

Above all, the possibilities of magic notwithstanding, a great deal of the outcomes in events depends in part on happenstance, in part on the virtues and flaws of the protagonists, of the institutions of which they are part, and on the bonds of family, friendship and common purpose which unite and divide them. Magical skill is important in this world but it has to be acquired, and it is limited by others’ skill. And other qualities and factors matter more: courage, wisdom, a sense of obligation, luck, greed, loyalty, pride, lust for power, hubris, jealousy, kindness, mercy, fear and of course, love.

Magic also emphasises vulnerability in Harry Potter. The characters are vulnerable, as we are, in their bodies and in virtue of their loves, in the face of enemies who can cross space and time, and the distances between embodied minds. A lot depends on what gives them the capacity to endure suffering, and they are most vulnerable when isolated. They often live with personal and intergenerational trauma and much can depend on how they live with it. In these ways  and others, it is a set of stories that speak profoundly to moral struggles in the world of readers.

The ambiguities of the magical world contribute to that realism considerably, and frame the moral limitations of the good. Magical society in the Potter tales lives under a set of arrangements designed in the seventeenth century to minimise the risk of conflict between magical and non-magical populations by hiding magical spaces and institutions and limiting the interaction of the two populations. It is an arrangement that requires heavy regulation of the magical population by a bureaucratic surveillance state, the Ministry of Magic, which seems to seek to approximate a monopoly of overwhelming coercive force and is easily turned into an instrument of general oppression. The Ministry works closely with the main form of news media, The Daily Prophet, which it manipulates to suppress, manipulate and distort information and reputations, especially once Harry and Dumbledore claim that Voldemort has returned.

With a few exceptions (like Mr Weasley), magical humans (wizards and witches) see themselves as superior to non-magical humans (muggles) – a point also made by Noah Berlatsky here. This belief is the basis for ideologies of wizarding dominance entertained by Dumbledore (albeit briefly), Grindelwald and, of course, Voldermort and his followers. It is also basic to the latter’s  racial ideology of magical blood purity. It is ideology that, like racism in our own world, cannot abide mixing, hence the hatred directed at magical children of non-magical parents, and at those with mixed heritage of this sort. It clearly evokes whiteness as a hegemonic norm of humanity in our world, and we are invited to make the connection by the way Rowling describes the Malfoy family, who embody this ideology most visibly in the early books, by their paleness and blondness. Yet traces of this racial ideology and its intolerance of anyone who troubles its terms extends beyond the Death Eaters and into the wider magical society, manifest in the shaming and stigmatising of children of magical parents who cannot perform magic (‘squibs’).

The magical population is divided into several species, which at best coexist uneasily and with considerable mutual fear and suspicion. Voldemort and the Death Eaters combine this sense of superiority with their desire to dominate non-magical people and eliminate anyone who does not fit their categories. As Hermione says to Griphook in Shell Cottage, ‘mudbloods’ and non-human magical creatures are all in the same boat. Yet the Death Eater ideology builds upon a long history of wizarding hegemony sustained, as Griphook explains, by wizards’ monopoly on the technology of wands. Wizards generally perceive themselves as the superior species in these stories, exercising a benign paternalistic but also fragile hegemony over the other species, as imagined in the Fountain of Magical Brethren in the Ministry of Magic building, while denying space to some (giants), restricting the spaces of others (centaurs), routinely abusing still others as pests (gnomes), and stigmatising characters that cross species boundaries (half-giants like Hagrid and Madame Maxime, warewolves like Lupin) as AW Green points out. The replacement of that statue, in The Deathly Hallows, with another depicting the crushing of non-magical humans and of other non-human magical creatures under the legend ‘Magic is Might’ is a sharp symbolic contrast within an underlying continuity from which even families like the Weasleys do not appear exempt, as Ron’s attitudes to other magical species suggest.

The enslavement of house-elves and its apparent normality is the most prominent, cruel and disturbing feature of the magical society which Harry Potter rejoins and which he fights to save from Voldemort. Although Harry contrives to have Lucius Malfoy free his house-elf Dobby, and eventually shows decisive kindness to Kreacher, his godfather Sirius’ house-elf, he does not appear particularly concerned with the wider fate of house-elves who not only serve individual wizarding families, but also do much of the menial work at Hogwarts, the school where Harry (like Tom Riddle before him) finds a home, lighting fires and producing the food that the students of Hogwart’s enjoy with such relish. Hermione voices a protest at their enslavement which the reader is clearly intended to identify with, but which is also ineffectual and naive, failing to take the elves’ own perspectives, experience or practical welfare into account in her efforts to liberate them. Ron seems to voice a received wisdom shared by the best of Wizarding families when he rejects Hermione’s views with an argument that echoes arguments advanced by Christians for human slavery down the ages, namely that it is in the best interests of the one enslaved.

Though Dobby is freed and dies a heroic, noble death for his friends, epitomising the ethic of self-giving sacrifice that runs through the Potter stories, the house elves at large do not seem to be liberated after the Battle of Hogwarts. It is not even clear whether they have been freed under the regime of Hermione, when she is Minister of Magic in The Cursed Child. But what is most striking about the enslavement of the house elves is not merely that it does not disturb most of the enemies of Voldemort, or that it does not preoccupy Harry Potter or Dumbledore – a flaw quite consistent with the other flaws in their characters. It is that it does not seem to disturb the readers of Harry Potter as much as we might have expected of ourselves. I think we too, enjoying the delights of Hogwarts, sharing the fears of teachers and students, and relishing the defeat of evil, find ourselves able to look past this egregious evil in the society whose salvation we celebrate in book after book.

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons sought to demonstrate our propensity to overlook significant details in a situation when we focus on something in particular – what they call ‘inattentional blindness’ in what is known as the ‘invisible gorilla experiment’. They asked participants to watch a video showing students dressed in white and in black shirts, passing a basketball amongst themselves, and asked them to count how many times the students in white shirts passed the ball. Part way through the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit appears in the centre of the image for a short period of time and thumps her chest before walking away. Only 50% of participants noticed the gorilla.

Aaron J. Hahn Tapper uses this experiment as a way of describing prolonged inattention to issues of inequality between the sexes in his book Judaisms, and it is useful here, too. JK Rowling depicts a society in which even the morally robust are inattentive, not to the phenomenon of the enslavement of house-elves, but to its injustice. Or rather, they are inattentive to the house-elves themselves and to their suffering. This moral inattention is different from the psychological phenomenon observed by Chabris and Simons, of course. It is willful, and self-interested, and sustained by a sense of its normality as well as by the myths of wizarding superiority and elvish inferiority that help justify it.

Chabris and Simons ran a second version of the invisible gorilla test, for participants who had knowledge of the first version. This time viewers were so focused on waiting for the appearance of the gorilla that they failed to notice other unexpected events, like a change in background colour. This second gorilla test is also helpful in respect of understanding the moral failure of the good in Harry Potter. The chief anti-Voldemort protagonists in Harry Potter are so focused on the anti-muggle, pure blood ideology of Voldemort and the Death Eaters that they tend (on the whole) to overlook the wider ramifications of the Death eater ideology, their own complicity in its roots, or the plight of the house elves in particular. And their failure evokes a parallel one in readers, I suspect, as evidenced by their enormous and enduring popularity. One of the most striking things about JK Rowlings’ books is the degree to which they draw readers, past their unease, into a parallel complicity with the characters with whom they identify, even with our explicit knowledge of the injustice in question.

What has this to do with theology?

The Harry Potter books are not only moral works, they are also theological. Or at least they resonate strongly with themes in Christian doctrine. It is not so much the background Christian references to Christmas that resonate as the themes of evil and redemption, fear of death and hope and especially the central theme of love and its power, especially in self-sacrifice to protect others, evoking both the divine name of Love and the Incarnation, cross and resurrection as the demonstration of that love and its power.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling depicts anti-Voldemort characters who exhibit and celebrate this kind of love in a story of redemption from those possessed by the fear of death. Yet it is these same characters who share a wider, willful, structurally and culturally normalised moral inattention to the enslavement of house-elves. It alerts us to the possibility that those who are shaped, even deeply shaped, by the theological virtues and by the Christian story, may suffer from like forms of inattention. Centuries of slavery and its legitimation is of course the most obvious connection to make. But Christians and Christian theologians have been inattentive at best too other profound wrongs with regard to Jews, women, gender norms, race and sexuality, non-human animals and the environment.

The Harry Potter books are wonderful literature, a fabulous reading experience. But in just that way they also alert readers to their forms of inattention. They teach Christian theologians the need to examine ourselves, our ways of imagining the world, our categories of thought and patterns of argument, to uncover the ways in which theology, in the name of Love, can coexist and collude in the obscuring and justification of profound wrongs to fellow creatures.



2 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the invisible gorilla

  1. Really interesting! Although I would argue that the enslavement of the house elves does continue to disturb many readers of Harry Potter, but that there are other problems with the universe that take up fans & the media’s attention (BAME representation/LGBT representation etc).

    However, I have read plenty of excellent HP fanfiction that acknowledges the limitations of canon and seeks to make it better – particularly in relation to the wizarding world’s treatment of magical creatures including house elves 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes, that is interesting, that there’s been less media focus on the issue of slavery in HP. I guess my case is that readers are disturbed, but not so disturbed as to be thrown off their identification with the redemptive narrative of the canon, and that’s what I find interesting. (And I think the books set us up for that.)
      But if I was to take this further I’d need to examine the reception of the Harry Potter canon more extensively, esp in fanfiction. Is there any you’d particularly recommend?


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