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Ethics for wizards

Nakul Krishna | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 09, 2016
Beasts of all nations: Actor Eddie Redmayne (left) and writer JK Rowling (right) in London at the European première of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Beasts of all nations: Actor Eddie Redmayne (left) and writer JK Rowling (right) in London at the European première of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.   -  Reuters

Nakul Krishna

Nakul Krishna

JK Rowling’s screenplay for the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sees the Harry Potter writer return to familiar ethical territory

The British writer JK Rowling has returned to the universe of her Harry Potter books with the screenplay for the first in a new series of films.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them appeared in the books as the name of a textbook young Harry Potter had to study at his school of magic as part of his education in the ‘care of magical creatures’. Readers thought little then about its author, the wonderfully named Newt Scamander.

Scamander, the self-styled scholar of magical flora and fauna, appears as the awkward, bumbling hero of a delightful new film about the origins of that textbook. The familiar aesthetics of the magical world Rowling created are back here: the robes, the wands and the beguiling visual effects that bring the many magical beings, big and small, dangerous and benign, to life onscreen. But so is something else just as central to the original books and films: their ethics.

The epic struggle, over seven books, of the boy wizard Harry Potter to overcome his nemesis, the dark wizard Lord Voldemort, is more than the traditional struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Rowling’s adjectives are rarely so bloodless or general, and her characters run the gamut in their habits and values. The conflict in Rowling’s books runs along several axes: those with imagination and those without, those who love messiness and complexity and those who hanker for purity, those who know it takes all sorts to make a world and those who prize being ‘normal’ above all else, those who can trust and those who can’t, those who can laugh and those who can’t, those who can love and those who can’t.

These are very old values but also very new ones. As Rowling combines them, they come out of an imagination that has been nourished on different narrative traditions. Its picture of courage and honour comes from the ancient Greek classics Rowling studied at university. Its horror at petty, malicious people is straight out of the 19th-century British novel, as is its love of whimsy.

But the picture it paints of bigotry, exclusion and the dangers of bureaucracy could only be the product of a mind well-versed in the history of the 20th century.

When Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997, its defence of the values of tolerance, empathy, and freedom for the harmless eccentric seemed obvious truths no longer in need of defending. Fascism was a spent force, as was the authoritarian communism of the Eastern Bloc. This went with the self-congratulatory belief in the liberal-capitalist West that the challenges to these values would come, if they came, from faraway places.

The eventful first decade and half of the 21st century should leave us in no doubt that these were illusions. If the Harry Potter books, in their whimsical way, stand for a set of values, then these are values that the West needs as much as anyone else. Rowling’s novels are not preachy, but they give imaginative shape to a set of ideas that rarely enthuse people. Fanaticism, anger and fear are better ways of rousing people to action, and hate is, in politics, a more reliable force than love.

Fanatics, demagogues and tyrants have long known this, and their opponents have foundered in the face of the powerful passions they unleash, unable to do more than repeat abstractions that sound hollow and uninspiring. Nothing by itself, certainly no book or film, can contain these passions just by itself. The most a popular work of art can do is to embody the values that are under threat, to offer alternatives to the reigning ideals of the present.

The character of Scamander in the new film, played with charm and humour by the actor Eddie Redmayne, is an awkward British cliché, better with animals than with human beings. But these things are not by themselves guarantees of virtue; the devil can bumble with the best of them and be no less diabolical. What Scamander adds to mere awkwardness is a sense of what more is needed, ethically speaking: kindness, imagination and empathy, a capacity to recognise where one has done wrong and to try to make things better.

Most of all, Scamander embodies the knowledge that everyone, human and animal alike, can be dangerous to someone else. Constant vigilance is called for in trying to get creatures with such different instincts and needs to live together without them killing each other, deliberately or by accident. In the next few years, nothing will be as important, and in such short supply, as this kind of judgement.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge

(This monthly column discusses questions of morality through pop culture)

Published on December 09, 2016
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