Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.


The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.

fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.

Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

Grindelwald apologizes for his crimes

On the plane back from Bangladesh I made the mistake of watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest instalment in Rowling’s exploration of the Potter universe. In this sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Grindelwald has escaped from imprisonment by the wizards in the USA and headed off to Europe to find Credence and begin to rouse a following of wizards who will help him achieve his goals. We follow Newt Scamander, Tina, Queenie and Jacob as they attempt to head off Grindelwald and stop him doing whatever he is trying to do.

I cannot give much more of a review of the movie than that because to be honest I didn’t have a clue what was going on in this messy and confusing story, and I was too incensed by a few details of the movie to care too much about the story anyway. What is Johnny Depp doing in this thing? Quite apart from the fact of recent revelations about his personal life, he is well past his use-by date and should be taken out the back of the studios and quietly put out of his misery. To be fair his performance as Grindelwald is better than pretty much anything else he has done in a long time, but this simply means it could have been replaced with pretty much anyone else. But I persevered! Only to find that fat ugly stupid boring Jacob gets his girl, because while in Hollywood every woman has to be stunningly good looking and have a flawless body and perfect make up and clothes, any fat dude in an ill-fitting suit with the personality of a wet blanket can pull any hot chick. There’s hope for you yet, Homer Simpsons of the world! Also, what happened to the sweet and happy Queenie of the first movie, that she makes a sudden Luke Skywalker-esque zig zag to amoral monster in the beat of an eye? Why can’t modern movie-makers figure this simple shit out? Or at least give us some hint of the change in personality that a much-loved character is going to undergo, so we can at least try and understand it[1]? So having overlooked Queenie’s monstrous change, I am left none the wiser as to what Grindelwald is really trying to do or in fact what his actual crimes are. Has he killed anyone yet? Has he actually done anything? Also, what’s with the incredibly complex and twisted family tale involving baby-swapping on the Titanic? Does everything have to have these super complicated antecedents? Can’t Credence just be, well, Credence? Does he have to be someone important? Is it something weird about Americans that everybody in their movies has to be a fucking Kardashian? Heaven forbid that a powerful wizard should just be an ordinary orphan boy (or worse still, a girl!) with nothing to recommend them except their own innate character and talent! Not that anyone in this putrid sequel had any character … even Scamander was a second-rate version of himself from the previous movie, and Tina and Queenie had lost all of the ethereal beauty and charm they had in the first episode.

So, really, this movie had nothing to recommend it overall and is a good reminder of why I skipped most of the Harry Potter movies. But it offers us a fascinating case study in the problem I identified in my review of Fantastic Beasts: This world we are watching is fucked up, and the sooner the Muggles burn it all down, hoist every wizard on a lamppost, and rid the world of their evil, the better. In my review of the first movie I noted that the magical administration seems to have brainwashed its participants and is cool with summary execution, and I also noted that there is a big inequality between muggles and wizards, that the wizards know about and are doing nothing to stop. In this movie the fascism of the wizards becomes even clearer. In addition to the summary executions of the first episode, we now learn that the administration has complete control of your travel rights and a wizard who travels without permission from the administration gets locked in Azkaban for life; we see that they have a well-organized and extensive secret police; we see that they have surveillance and control measures that they can apply even to famous intellectuals (i.e. Dumbledore) with impunity; and we see no semblance of due process for any of this. We also discover that they have strict anti-miscegenation laws – no one is allowed to love a muggle, and the punishment is terrible. Finally we learn that a lot of them think of muggles as inferior and not human, and want to exterminate all of them. Or, in the case of Grindelwald, exterminate most of them but keep a few around as cattle. So basically the wizards are running a parallel world to the muggles that is much much wealthier than the muggle world, could intervene at any time to make the muggle world much wealthier, healthier and better developed, but doesn’t want to and maintains a strict fascist administration that murders and imprisons anyone who opposes it or tries to help the muggles in any way. Dumbledore is in on the whole thing, and even people who break the rules (like Scamander) don’t do so out of any deep dislike of the system – they just break the rules because they want to have a fling in Paris with their American girlfriend.

Nice people all round.

We also get to see that Grindelwald has seen the future and has seen that in a couple of years the muggles are going to go to war and develop new weapons (nuclear weapons and aircraft) that will make wizards look like chickenshit, and his proposed solution to this problem is the mass extermination of all muggles. When he reveals this information to his followers they gasp in horror at the “arrogance” of the muggles in developing such weapons. Nobody seems to put any thought into the possibility that the muggles wouldn’t have to lift a finger to produce anything like nuclear weapons if the wizards would just share their power to breach the laws of thermodynamics with those who are not lucky enough to be born magical. But such a solution would be a step too far – why would they share their wealth with inferior muggles when it’s much more logical just to wipe them out?

Also why am I watching this movie about a couple of servants of a fascist organization (Tina and Scamander) who are working hard to prevent a radical fascist splinter group of their fascist organization from enacting a global program of genocide to stop a movement of non-magical fascists who share exactly the same principles as they do? It’s fascists all the way down. It seems like the only way that this series could turn a moral corner is if we discover that actually Stalin was industrializing the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of exterminating wizards, the real enemies of global prosperity[2]. By the end of this I was cheering for everyone to kill themselves.

So that’s the problem with this movie: everyone in it needs to die. But the movie does give us something of an insight into how confused Americans (I guess; and Rowling, who is British) are getting about fascism. Grindelwald’s organization had obviously Nazi imagery – his thuggish aides wore obviously Nazi style clothes, he himself is suspiciously German, etc. – and his goal of exterminating all the untermenschen[3] is explicitly Nazi. But the organization he is in opposition to is also a straight-up fascist dictatorship, with far-reaching powers of surveillance and secret investigation, enamoured of torture and extra-judicial killings, who control every aspect of their citizens lives. And the organization he is ultimately scared of and trying to stop is also a Nazi organization[4], which will attempt to do all the things he and his opponents in the wizarding world want to do. Yet, the placement of heroes and villains in this movie in the traditional sense tells me that I’m supposed to be supporting one side in opposition to the other, which means I’m supposed to be supporting fascists who are trying to stop some splinter fascists from fighting some fascists. This is both terrible story-writing and also a sign that modern writers have lost their ability to understand Who are the Real Fascists. Usually stories about people opposed to fascists involve brave, good people who generally stand on the side of freedom and liberty – not Other Fascists. So either the writers have got a really vicious sting in the tail of this trilogy, or the writers have some kind of grimdark vision in which we all side with the fascists, or the writers have not got a fucking clue what a fascist is, and are so unmoored from a basic understanding of politics that they can’t any longer tell the difference between Fascists and Anti-Fascists. There are, we are led to believe, good people on both sides! Or at least on one side, which is a significant advance on “there were no good people on either side”, which was (I would have thought) the standard view of fascists fighting fascists until relatively recently.

My inference from all this is that the people writing this movie actually want us to pick a side, and just haven’t noticed that the side we’re supposed to pick is actually a fascist world government that executes people on a whim and imprisons you for life in a hellish prison with soul-eating demons if you have the wrong boarding pass. The writers are so politically ignorant that they don’t understand the difference between fascism and freedom, and/or are so used by now to the creeping fascism overwhelming their nation that they haven’t noticed that the things the magical administration does are deeply wrong. This is consistent with a lot of other warning signs we’re seeing coming from America at the moment: the fact that Elliot Abrams was defended by almost everyone in “serious” political journalism when a politician pointed out his history of treason and lying to congress; the fact that so many movies now have the good guys using torture and summary execution without any moral qualms; the fact that 23 Republican congressmen can vote against a resolution opposing hate because hate is now cool. I could go on. The moral collapse in the US (and the UK?) is now so far gone that the people who produce its propaganda can no longer tell the difference between themselves and the things that their nation once fought. And so it is that we get subjected to movies like The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we are asked to pick a side when all the sides need to die in a fire.

The only pure people in Rowling’s world are the muggles. They need to rise up and destroy the wizards, or at least enslave them, before the wizards try to exterminate everyone on earth. If we’re lucky that will be the sting in the tail of the final movie, but I doubt it. More likely, we’ll be cheering the fascist government as it beats its fascist splinter movement, and then stands back to watch as fascists burn Europe to ashes. And somewhere along the way the writers will assume that we have lost our own moral code, so that we think this hell makes moral sense. I never thought I would have to say this, but I think the fascists have won.

Other reviews you might be interested in

Why the Last Jedi is shit.

The problems underlying Rowling’s world.

Why Avengers: Infinity War is a bullying disaster.

Mad Max: Fury Road as a perfect political vision of ecofeminist violence.


fn1: Also a shout-out here to the way Rowling pissed away one of the fundamental parts of Voldemort’s back story with the Queenie-Jacob shenanigans. Apparently Voldemort is evil because he is the child of a union that was forced by love magic, and that’s why he’s a psychopath who doesn’t understand love. This is a super important message from the original books! So in this movie we see Queenie rock up with Jacob under the exact same spell, and it is just a passing gag, nothing serious, no reflection on her personality or on the nature of wizards. These moments – like the newfound hyperspace killer trick in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – undermine the seriousness and impact of whole story arcs in previous canon, and are a really fucking stupid thing to do.

fn2: I guess there’s another bridge-too-far story in which Hitler set up the Nazi Party as a movement dedicated to the destruction of wizards, but somewhere along the way the wizards used mind control powers to change its platform into exterminating other muggles instead, thus avoiding being identified as the real threat facing the world, and accidentally sparking the holocaust as a by-blow of their plan. This might seem tasteless, but what are the alternatives when you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where you are supporting fascists in their fight against splinter fascists who want to kill other fascists they consider inferior? It’s a kaleidoscope of fascists down here.

fn3: Sorry I don’t know the German word for “magically unendowed and therefore subhuman subhumans”

fn4: It could be said that because he and his little nazi mates are scared of nuclear weapons that they aren’t just opposed to Nazi Germany but to the technological achievements of all of muggledom, but we all know that this would be a weak excuse since the Nazis are blamed for world war 2 and when any movie hero or villain says that they’re trying to stop ww2 we assume that they are trying to stop the Nazis, not the Allies, because it’s the Nazis who started the war. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his primary enemy in muggledom are the Nazis.

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.

This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.

So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.

The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York[1] in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.

They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.

I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.

But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.


fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?


Commenter Paul suggested that a Harry Potter RPG would be limited by the problem of knowing the characters and the world too much, in his words:

1. You’re stuck playing a game where the grandest things that can happen are the books and your characters a left with a feast of crumbs. Harry Potter is facing Voldemort! Can you keep the Dementors from the folk of Hogsmeade while he saves the world?! Or
2. You avoid the Harry Potter setting either in time or location, but these strip the familiar elements from the novels and rob you of the reason you’re playing it in the first place. Or
3. You play Harry and friends, but you already know the plot that you’re playing through

I think this is a similar problem to the kinds of situations you’d run into with, for example, a Dresden game or a LoTR RPG (or Dragonlance, as Paul noted). I’ve got around this in LoTR by choosing option 2), for example – and once ran a LoTR game where the players did 1), in Mordor – they were captured soldiers just trying to escape while the war of the ring continued somewhere far away. There’s no reason to think that the problem couldn’t be surmounted in a Harry Potter RPG.

So here’s some ideas for two different layers of a Harry Potter RPG.

For Younger Children

You could have quite an entertaining little game getting up to hijinks in Hogwarts itself – it’s virtually a sandbox campaign if you want to play it that way, but there are specific inter-house rivalries and shenanigans that can play out against quite a deadly backdrop. I did this for a group of schoolkids I was GMing in Japan, having them start in their school club house and save the town of Matsue from a demon-conjuring older student[2]. You could set up a kind of Ars Magica style of multiple-PC setting, where all the PCs are from the same house, but with different (house-specific) skills, and perhaps with the players having a starting preference. Then, for different challenges in Hogwarts you choose your PCs to match. Maybe there isn’t even a death option, but if something goes horribly wrong you don’t die, you get Dumbledored: one of the teachers turns up and saves you, but then you’re in detention and suffer an xp penalty, or you have to play a different member of your school’s house while you wait for your previous member to get out of detention. Also the goal of some adventures could be mischief against older kids, and you could even define a term or school-year timing process, so that at the end of a fixed number of adventures all the students gain a level; the amount of individual adventuring the kids did in their year partially determines how much they gain from their year’s education (so you tie the adventuring to doing better in school). Thus a good campaign arc also follows the arc of the stories across multiple years; you could have event tables for the summer holidays and for the school as a whole that follow a Make You Kingdom kind of style. This gives the game a more campaign-y, abstracted style, with the players not having to care about getting too bogged down in individual PCs and getting to fully explore the environs of Hogwarts (and maybe it’s a different Hogwarts each time, if enough random tables are used). They can move onto the hard stuff as they get older.

For “Young Adults”

(To be said in a yobby English accent, while dancing[1]). Here the game gets darker and more focussed, with a more intensive character generation process and the assumption that the stories will involve only one PC each, in a more traditional style (we’re making a gateway drug here, remember – we need these kids to grow up and head over to the rest of the RPG world). So they can die or get injured, can carry psychological baggage with them (they’re teenagers, so there should be a lot of psychological baggage tables!) and they can come from multiple houses, with the possibility that they’re working for the interests of their own house as much as the group. This style of gaming can allow for hidden magic, forbidden magic, secret exits to town, wandering monsters in and outside Hogwarts, and the possibility of statting-up and fighting some of the teachers, who of course have their own agenda. It could also allow for post-graduation adventures, and the possibility that the PCs go on missions or quests either during or after their training – basically using Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic and the strict rules of the Harry Potter world to construct a standard exploration/adventure campaign – with some additional mechanics for teenage angst, and a lot of cool narrative tricks for avoiding death, and for deus ex machina-type GM interventions (via Dumbledore). In fact, student-teacher relations could act as a kind of resource in the game, which would encourage players to hide their PCs shenanigans from teachers.

I reckon that could be a lot of fun. There are fun spells from the books, monsters, lost secrets, there’d be pocket dimensions and monsters and forbidden potions and shagging behind the broomstick sheds – who wouldn’t love it? But in progressing through the system the innocent Harry Potter fans learn to love role-playing, and then at some point they think “ooh, I can do this in a world of my own invention!” and then we have a million new converts to our hobby.


fn1: gratuitous Young Ones reference!
fn2: looking back on that post, the note I left the students as a clue really should have had a classic English translation of Japanese like “Let’s enjoy summoning a Demon together!!!!”

I recently watched the last of the Harry Potter movies,which was fun (and had a good dragon!), and thinking about it afterwards was struck by the absence of an RPG for this world. As far as I can tell, there is no official RPG. There are a lot of forum-based RPGs, but no apparent real ones. I’m pretty sure that this has something to do with the strict licensing rules that J.K. Rowling has put on her world, but I was also wondering if it might be related to the snootiness of RPG players and developers, who often seem to dismiss Harry Potter as either a) not serious or b) a rip-off of “better” books or c) too popular. Often I hear complaints from role-players about Harry Potter that seem to include all three at once. I wonder if this influenced developers’ decisions about whether to try? I also guess that Rowling doesn’t have much connection to the role-playing world, unlike, say, Jim Butcher or George Martin, and so didn’t entertain requests from developers with the same openness that she might have treated, say, movie-makers. Finally, I’m guessing that acquiring the rights to Harry Potter for an official RPG would have been expensive and would have involved a lot of development work

Anyway, regardless of the reason for the non-appearance of such a game, I think it’s a missed opportunity for the RPG world. Harry Potter is as popular as Star Wars, and its appeal mainly lies with impressionable kids. A good, age-appropriate RPG for this mob, even if not a “proper” RPG by the standards of your average traditionalist, would be an excellent gateway drug for a huge cross-section of the non-nerdy community. Rather than expecting them to read a bunch of obscure texts from Appendix N before they can get into the game, they’d turn up at the ripe age of 13 having already absorbed the entire setting, and eager to get into it and do their own thing. For younger gamers even a semi-board game system, heavy on the fluff, or barely more advanced than a choose-your-own-adventure, would be fine. With a captive audience, a well-established world and a set of references that they’ve all read, there would be the potential to draw in a very large number of people who could be trained up for the fantasy genre and introduced to the ideal of RPGs. After that, I would say, some small proportion of them would stick it out.

The Potter books are unique, too, for drawing an age cohort through them. People start reading these books at somewhere between the age of 8 and 12, and keep going all the way up to 16 or 17. A whole cohort of high-school leavers spent their entire school lives reading this stuff. Just as the books get darker as they progress, a well-designed Basic-Expert-Master style of game design could hook them in to a semi-RPG at 8 and spit them out the other end at 16, fully versed in demonology and necromancy. Even a lot of the spells have been written already, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that could be run as a spin-off – an attractive miniature-based Quidditch system, a series of campaign books based on innovative involvement in the original story, some kind of card game based on all the Hogwarts characters (sold by house) – that could be either directly related to the game or just released by the same company. It’s the kind of thing that Fantasy Flight Games could surely excel at. And those 16 or 17 year olds would naturally start looking for other systems to play in their own fantasy worlds at some point – the benefits would soon spread across the entire RPG scene.

It’s a shame this hasn’t happened, because I think it would invigorate the scene, draw in a lot of new blood from diverse backgrounds, and maybe give whatever company did it a sufficient revenue stream to enable them to not bastardize their other RPGs for maximum profits. I wonder if anyone thought of it, tried, and failed, or if the developers overlooked it from the very start? Whatever the reason, it’s a shame it didn’t happen.