Eichmann in Hogwarts

Harry Potter and the banality of evil.


When we first met the young wizard-in-training Harry Potter some six years ago, he had spent a decade in the care of his overbearing "muggle" (non-magical) aunt and uncle after surviving the murder of his parents by the evil Voldemort. At the close of the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Lord Voldemort has returned to full power.

The Harry we encounter in the recently released fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic, 2003), has picked up some internal scars to match the lightning bolt-shaped mark on his forehead. Now 15, he is every bit the troubled teen, picking fights and flying off the handle at his closest friends. He is also schooled in some very important and lasting lessons about the nature of power and bureaucracy.

Harry Potter's appeal, at least initially, had its roots in an escapist fantasy that all children have entertained at some point: Your parents are not your parents; you have strange and wonderful powers; you are famous in another world. In the early books of the series, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry provided relief from the compulsive conformism of Harry's adoptive muggle family. With the return of Lord Voldemort, however, we see that the wizard world has its own status quo, one that the magical government, in the form of the Ministry of Magic, is reluctant to upset.

Indeed, Cornelius Fudge, the minister of magic, has had the magical media brand Harry an attention-seeking lunatic for his attempts to spread the word about the Dark Lord's return. Harry's chief antagonist for most of the book is not the self-consciously evil Voldemort or his acolytes, the Death Eaters, but the magical establishment, as represented at Hogwarts by the officious Dolores Umbridge.

Umbridge is a Nurse Ratched figure who, like so many government busybodies, is "here to help." Appointed professor of "defense against the dark arts" by ministerial fiat, she soon becomes High Inquisitor at Hogwarts, charged with ensuring that neither Potter nor the powerful Hogwarts headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, upsets the magical world's insistent denial of the ugly truth about Voldemort's return.

Yet as Sirius Black, Harry's wizard godfather, explains at one point, "the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters." Umbridge and Fudge may be power hungry, but their malevolence is not the raw nihilism of a Voldemort. Umbridge is particularly insufferable precisely because her transformation of Hogwarts into an increasingly regulated panopticon is motivated by an apparently sincere self-righteousness.

A central theme of The Order of the Phoenix, then, is what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil." The bureaucrats are doing good by their own lights, following orders. Former Hogwarts prefect Percy Weasley is a case in point. In the past, Percy served as comic relief, a stuffed shirt whose obsequiousness toward authority figures was matched only by his imperiousness toward younger students. Now Percy is a Hogwarts graduate and assistant to Minister Fudge, and his blind affection for his masters leads him to join the smear campaign against Harry. The transition from buffoonish to sinister is seamless.

That is not to say that ministry officials, Umbridge in particular, lack a sadistic streak. She sentences Harry to detentions in which he must write "I will not tell lies" over and over again while the words are magically carved into the flesh of his arm, evoking Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony."

Umbridge's comeuppance, when it finally arrives, drives home a different truth about the nature of authority: Power over people ultimately relies on their own compliance. When the students and teachers, who had let Umbridge have the run of the school out of fear, finally decide to employ a sort of passive resistance, she learns all too quickly that she cannot maintain her cherished control.

This latest and longest entry in the Potter saga has also been the biggest immediate success. Its first print run, 6.8 million copies, was the largest ever in the U.S., yet Scholastic still seems to have underestimated demand. The Order of the Phoenix sold a record-breaking 5 million copies on its "opening day." Almost immediate second and then third runs have brought the total number of American copies in print to 9.2 million.

While most parents celebrate anything that gets adolescents to put down the remote and pick up a book—a powerful bit of magic in itself—others are concerned that the series celebrates the "dark arts." Perhaps parents and teachers who relish unquestioned obedience are right to be concerned about the books, but their focus is misplaced. It is not the magic but the morality of Harry Potter that is subversive.