Harry Potter and the Gulag Archipalego

This blog post has been edited 4 March 2014. Please see additional note at the bottom. MM

When I was bombarded with analyses of the Lego movie, putting a recent blog post together, I came across one review from what appears to be a libertarian blog or news site called The Federalist. It was a sort of unremarkable commentary—first outlining the argument that the movie was anti-business and then unpicking it, turning the argument on its head so the movie becomes instead a paean to hard work, creativity, and all the enterprising qualities that embody the libertarian ethos. It’s a good trick, and one I think all of us reviewers and commentators like to do. I recall a similar hue and cry over the Muppet movie, so I’m thinking a) movies for kids rely on a convenient stock of easily drawn villainy, and b) big business is an easy and obvious image of villainy, like the severe Russian generals of my own childhood, none of which subverts or submits to the idea that c) the virtues associated with individual triumph can be wrestled into whichever ideology you want them to support. So who cares.

Here’s what stood out for me: the author pulled a quotation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipalego. I confess (to my shame) I have not read it, but unseated from its context, the quotation turned my thoughts to a more recent piece of literature.

When I was a young and confident undergraduate, I took a fourth-year English seminar on Harry Potter and fantasy lit, led by Barb Garner. I was doing a double-major in English, as an homage to my reading habits and semi-nurtured dreams of being a novelist, but I would graduate with a Bachelor in Journalism, and this was the calling to which I had set myself. I therefore had the snobby arrogance to consider this Harry Potter phenomenon totally beneath me, tempered by the understanding that as a journalist, I needed to keep my ear to the ground for current trends. We didn’t know at the time how big Harry Potter was to be, but we could guess. This was the autumn of 2001, anticipating the first movie in the franchise by Christmas and the next installment of the books the following summer.

Garner had offered the course as a trial just the previous year, and it had proved a hit: her finger was properly to the wind on that one. I didn’t rate Rowling’s project for much, but I did like the idea of returning to CS Lewis’s Narnia, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (big disappointment, that one—better kept as a cherished memory of things I loved as a 10-year-old), and of course the mighty Hobbit.

Reading the books and engaging with the ideas, though, I got hooked. I read all the books, watched all the movies, even speculated in an article for the Ottawa Citizen on a Christian-tinged ending to the series, with sacrifice on Harry’s part (correct) and the redemption of Voldemort (I could make an argument, but let’s go with incorrect). I designed a series of lessons on the series for the Sunday School class of pre-teens that I led, and to help with some of the ideas for this, I used a book called Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger.

Now, Granger takes this sport to levels even I dared not go. He, like Rowling, is a classics major, and in his books and the subsequent website and online community Hogwarts Professor, he considers not only the Christian themes but the alchemical symbolism and classical Greek ferment for this project (seriously: Orestes—how did we all miss that one?) One of his projects examines the “great books” on whose cracked spines the seven Harry Potter volumes stand. I haven’t read this book, but my investigations suggest that Solzhenitsyn is not on this particular bookshelf (not an easy book to track down from here: John Granger, I’m willing to be disabused of this conclusion). But when you read a quotation like this, you can’t help but think of Rowling’s invention of Horcruxes:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipalego

What a picture of the moral complexity of humanity! And it is expressed in physical/magical form in Harry Potter as we first witness and then trouble the simplicity of a binary expression of good and evil; as we recognise the dividing line cut through the heart not just of Voldemort but Harry; and as we see who is, in fact, willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? My own scholarship has now veered to the Mugglish territory of media analysis, anthropology, and social research on Islam. I don’t foresee writing any journal articles on this wee nugget, but for them what do, this may be another of those formative gems hiding in plain sight.

*     *    *

Update, 4 March 2014: I sent John Granger this post, and he kindly responded yesterday. You can find his comments here, by scrolling down to item 3. Firstly, he fills out what I have learned was an abridged quotation of Solzhenitsyn (I did warn you, readers, I have not read the book…) and suggests it is not a template for Rowling’s Horcruxes. He then refers to a character from Russian (or, more broadly, Slavic) folk tales, Koschei, who does act as a template for a character who stores his soul in objects so as to remain immortal. I post a response to his blog, musing on the moral connection between Solzhenitsyn’s observation and the choices facing Rowling’s protagonist.

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