The Law and Harry Potter
Reviewed by Douglas C. Kane
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 113/114.]
When the esteemed editor of this journal contacted me and asked me if I would be willing to review a book called The Law and Harry Potter, I had to give it some thought. On the one hand, as she pointed out, it made sense to have the book reviewed by someone with a legal background, and it is true that I am one of the few people in the mythopoeic scholarship community about whom that can be said. On the other hand, there was another factor that argued against my taking the task: I had never actually read any of the Harry Potter books. But I did have an interest in doing so, and I thought perhaps this would be motivation that I would need to do so. So I agreed to take on the task.
Having thus committed myself, I proceeded to delve into the books. It was not a difficult task! Despite a busy law practice and many other time commitments, I finished the seven books in less than nine days (the main task that I sacrificed during that time was sleeping). This is obviously not the place to expound upon the Potter books themselves, but suffice it to say that I found them far more compelling than I expected. If nothing else, I have the request to review The Law and Harry Potter to thank for my firmly joining the ranks of Potter fandom.
I therefore was favorably inclined towards the book when I sat down to read it, though I also a bit puzzled as to what could be about the subject over the course of almost 400 pages of small type, mostly written by law professors from the United States and abroad. I’m pleased to report that for the most part I found the various contributions interesting and worthwhile, though of course like virtually any compilation the quality varies (though some of that no doubt is do as much to differences in taste as to anything else). Moreover, I feel confident in recommending the book to any intelligent Harry Potter fan who has some interest in legal matters, not just attorneys or law students. However, the book does presume a fair knowledge about and interest in the Potter books, so I would not recommend it to anyone who was not already well-familiar with the full series.
The Law and Harry Potter is a series of papers edited by Jeffrey E. Thomas, Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and Franklin G. Snyder, Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law. It addresses the depiction of law and legal concepts in the Harry Potter books, not the legal issues that have arisen over the years over the books themselves (a separate topic about which much could be said). The twenty-two chapters are written by nineteen law professors, two attorneys, one economics professor, one economics Ph.D. candidate, one legal librarian, and one high school student. The book is divided into five parts, each described below. Under the guise of discussing aspects of the narratives in the Potter books, the book provides a basic overview of many legal, sociological, and economic concepts. As will be seen, some of the authors also take the opportunity to promote a particular political ideology, or moral message.
Part I: Legal Traditions and Institutions
The first part contains four chapters. Each considers aspects of the role of law and legal institutions generally in the wizarding society. “What Role Need Law Play in a Society with Magic” by John Gava and Jeannie Marie Paterson, provides a clever introduction to basic legal concepts, covering contract law, torts, criminal law and constitutional law, while also contrasting Rowling’s fictional magical society with that of the real world. Much of what is covered here is basic stuff for any attorney, but it is well-presented and provides excellent background information for a layperson. My only complaint is that the final subsection entitled “Harry Potter’s World as a Heroic Society” is superfluous and unnecessary.
The second chapter is “Bots and Gemots: Anglo-Saxon Legal References in Harry Potter” by Susan P. Liemer. Despite the broad sounding title, this chapter is almost entirely a discussion of the provenance of the term Wizengamot, the wizard court in the Potterverse, and its history in the books. The discussion of the witenagemot, which Liemer describes as “an important legal and political institution of Anglo-Saxon Society” (19) and upon which the Wizengamot is based, is interesting, but most of the discussion of the wizard trials in the books simply rehashes what readers already know.
This is followed by the chapter with the best title in the book, and one of the most provocative chapters as well: “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy,” by Benjamin H. Barton. This chapter, one of a number of chapters adapted from an article that originally appeared in a law review, exuberantly makes the case that Rowling’s “scathing portrait of government” (35) “may do more for libertarianism than any [book] since John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was released in 1859” (36). This is rollicking good stuff; I found it both effectively argued and enjoyable to read despite not at all being a libertarian.
The final chapter in this part, “Moral Choice, Wizardry, Law and Liberty: A Classical Liberal Reading of the Role of Law in the Harry Potter Series,” by Andrew P. Morriss, provides an equally fascinating counterpoint. Instead of focusing, as does Barton, on the foibles of government institutions gone amuck, Morriss focuses on “the moral choices that individuals make,” concluding that “the Harry Potter series makes a case for a minimal state as a necessary condition for individuals to exercise their moral faculties” (63). This is an erudite analysis of the Harry Potter books as a “calibration model,” a telling testament to the depth of these “children’s books.”
Part II: Crimes and Punishment
The second part also contains four chapters. They each focus on various issues of criminal law. The first chapter, “Harry Potter and the Unforgivable Curses,” by Aaron Schwanbach, is another taken from an article published in a law review. It is a rather straightforward analysis of the application of the rule of law in the wizard world focusing on a comparison of the treatment of the unforgivable curses (the Cruciatus curse, which causes unbearable pain, the Imperius Curse, which causes the cursee to be under the complete control of the curser, and Avada Kedavra, which of course is the killing curse), with the treatment of the Dementor’s Kiss, and Memory Charms.
The title of the next chapter, “Sirius Black: A Case Study in Actual Innocence,” by Geoffrey Christopher Rapp, speaks for itself. Rapp effectively uses Sirius’s story to focus on the real world problem of wrongful convictions.
The third chapter, “The Persecution of Tom Riddle: A Study in Human Rights Law,” by Geoffrey R. Watson, takes a different approach. It purports to analyze the human rights violations committed by such international criminals as Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore against poor persecuted Tom Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort) and his associates. It is fairly cleverly done, and presents a lot of good information about international human rights law, but I ultimately found the chapter off-putting, though that is probably due as much to my own personal dislike for this type of approach than to its quality. I suspect that others would find it more enjoyable.
The final chapter in this part is “Punishment in the Harry Potter Novels” by Joel Fishman. This is another chapter taken from a law review article, but it is one of the least substantial chapters in the book. It gives a rather pedestrian summary of different punishments in the Potter books, but it provides little insight into either the books themselves or what they say about punishments in the real world.
Part III: Harry Potter and Identity
This part has five chapters. They deal with various social issues and “identity politics.” “Hogwarts, the Family, and the State: Forging Identity and Virtue in Harry Potter,” by Danaya C. Wright, returns to the theme of the limitations of government. However, here we have a much broader approach. Wright notes that
Rowling’s vision of the interplay of family, school and state in the formation of young wizards [sic] minds is profoundly troubling. The fortuity of Dumbledore’s mentorship may have helped Harry turn out right, but it provides no comfort to those who realize that more Tom Riddles may come along and choose to use their magical powers to benefit themselves rather than others. (147)
Wright does a good job of detailing the moral ambiguity that helps to raise Rowling’s work above the simple black and white good against evil tales that they appear to be at first glance.
The second chapter in this part is “Harry Potter and the Development of Moral Judgment in Children,” by Wendy N. Law and Anna K. Teller. They open with a discussion of “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” the tale from The Tales of Beedle the Bard which plays such an important role in Deathly Hallows. After briefly discussing the history of moral development in children’s literature, they apply those lessons to the Potter books, through the prisms of tort and criminal law concepts.
The next chapter is “Harry Potter and the Curse of Difference,” by Benjamin Lofredo, currently an undergraduate student at Yale, though the chapter was written while he was still a high school student. One would think that in collection of articles mostly written by law professors, one written by a high school student would be a weak link, but quite the opposite is true. This is one of the strongest chapters in the book. It is well-written and effectively organized and researched, with a strong message: that “Rowling’s story provides a current and provocative look at the role of difference in a society that resembles our own in important ways” (176).
Next is “When Harry Met Martin: Imagination, Imagery and the Color Line,” by Benjamin G. Davis. This chapter is based on the first four movies, not on Rowling’s books, though Davis’s criticisms can be implied to apply to the books as well. In it, Davis decries the lack of diversity in the films, invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King to emphasize his disappointment. As a civil rights attorney who spends a good part of my professional life addressing genuine issues of racial discrimination, I find these criticisms to be trite and disingenuous. Setting aside the fact that there are a number of people of color who play some roles in the books (and films), including Harry’s initial love interest, Cho Chang, the Patil twins with whom Harry and Ron attend the Triwizard Tournament dance, Quidditch player Angelina Johnson, and of course Kingsley Shackleforth, who ends the series as the Minister of Magic, the most powerful position in the wizard world, Davis seems intent to seek harm for harm’s sake, rather than acknowledging that the Potter films (and books) merely reflect that the world that Rowling is describing. Davis lumps together the Potter films with the Narnia and Lord of the Rings films, noting (incorrectly, in the case of the latter) that they are “a form of childhood fantasy,” decrying the fact that “the imagery used in each seems to draw a short line on the basis of color. In these areas of fantasy, persons of color cannot either play key roles (as in Harry Potter or a little bit in Narnia) or even exist on the side of good (Lord of the Rings)” (181-182). Davis’s invocation of King’s dream of a world in which “the color line will finally disappear” (188) is a worthy one, but I think in this case his target is misplaced.
The final chapter in this part is “Harry Potter and the Image of God: How House-Elves Can Help Us to Understand the Dignity of the Person,” by Alison McMorran Sulentic. This is fascinating and quite thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a person through the prism of Catholic social thought. This is accomplished primarily by looking at the role of the “patently non-human” (199) house-elves Dobby, Winky, Kreacher, and Hokey, and Rowling’s “satirical” portrayal of Hermione’s attempts to obtain fairer working conditions for them. Sulentic argues that “Rowling’s resistance to Hermione’s simplistic idea of justice captures a more complex idea of the dignity of the person” (205). I do not necessarily agree with all of Sulentic’s argument, but I found it provocative in the best sense of making one think.
Part IV: The Wizard Economy
This is the shortest part in the book, with only three chapters. It is also, I daresay, the least interesting, though again personal preference doubtless goes a long way to determining that. I simply have little interest in economics. The first chapter, “Economic Growth in the Potterian Economy,” by Avichai Snir and Daniel Levy, applies economic modeling to the Potter universe. I slogged through it because I felt it was my duty to do so, but if I were not reviewing the book, I would doubtless have skipped this chapter.
Both of the other two chapters in the part look at banking in the wizarding world. “The Magic of Money and Banking,” by Eric J. Gouvin, focuses on the technical details of banking, looking as such issues as the difficulty of making change in an economy based exclusively on precious metals instead of paper money, and security. The other chapter, “Gringotts: The Role of Banks in Harry Potter’s Wizarding World,” by Heidi Mandanis Schooner, focuses more directly on Gringotts and the goblins that run it. There is considerable overlap between the two chapters, and it seems to me that they largely are redundant.
Part V: Harry Potter as an Archetype
This final part is the longest part of the book, with six chapters spanning 108 pages. It is also the most diverse part, covering a wide range of topics, and fortunately it contains some of the strongest chapters in the book. “Harry Potter Goes to Law School,” by Lenora Ledwon, traces the similarities between the education given to aspiring wizards and witches at Hogwarts and that given to the aspiring lawyers at American law schools. I found it quite entertaining (particularly the comparison between Professor Snape and Professor Kingsfield in the book and film The Paper Chase) but it is hard for me to say whether someone who has not been to law school would find it as much so. In the same vein, “Which Spell: Learning to Think Like a Wizard,” by Mary Beth Beazley, compares the teaching methods used at Hogwarts with those employed at law schools. She concludes that, while Hogwarts might do a better job of providing opportunities to practice magic than law schools do of providing opportunities to practice lawyering, law schools do a better job of teaching students to think like lawyers than Hogwarts does of teaching its students to think like wizards.
The next chapter takes a decidedly different turn: “Harry Potter as Client in a Lawsuit: Utilizing the Archetypal Hero’s Journey as Part of Case Strategy,” by Ruth Anne Robbins, which originally appeared in a slightly different form elsewhere. I found this chapter considerably less appealing than the previous two. While I agree with Robbins’s emphasis on the importance of creating a strong narrative in presenting a client’s case, and of presenting your client in a sympathetic light, I consider the concept of the client as an archetypal hero to be overly melodramatic and disingenuous, an example of the type of gamesmanship that attorneys often exhibit that I find quite distasteful.
The book gets back on track with the next chapter, “Who Wants to Be a Muggle? The Diminished Legitimacy of Law as Magic,” by Mark Edwin Burge. This chapter returns to the theme of lawyers as wizards, with a refreshingly realistic and clearheaded outlook. After quoting a conversation that Hermione has with Scrimgeor in which he asks her if she plans to pursue a career in Magical Law and she replies in the negative, adding that instead she is “hoping to do some good in the world,” Burge notes that “we can quite reasonably view Harry Potter as a cautionary tale of the legal profession” (339). His warning against the tendency of lawyers to use legal obfuscation to create a wall between themselves and laypeople similar to the separation between wizards and muggles is well-taken.
“Agents of the Good, Servants of Evil: Harry Potter and the Law of Agency,” by Daniel S. Kleinberger, presents issues of agency and employment law through examples from the Harry Potter narratives. This is another straightforward chapter, but the issues are interesting and well-presented.
The final chapter is “Professor Dumbldore’s Wisdom and Advice,” by Darby Dickerson. This is another chapter adapted from a law review article. Dickerson looks at Dumbledore as a role model not just for Harry and his colleagues but also for aspiring attorneys and others in the real world, because “most of his virtues were non-magical. In the end, Dumbledore is memorable because he cared. Indeed, if all of his advice could be summarized, it would be to care for others” (381-382). Fine advice for wizards, attorneys, and muggles alike.
Overall, The Law and Harry Potter is an interesting and entertaining collection for any serious fan of Harry Potter. The chapters are often erudite and full of references to serious legal concepts, but rarely if ever get so technical as to become incomprehensible to non-legal professionals. The serious ideas expressed in the book are well-balanced by a sense of fun, as indicated by the fact that many of the author bios contain tongue-in-cheek references to the author’s credentials in the Potterverse as well as their real-world qualifications. It is a credit to Rowling that the series of “children’s books” that she created could be the subject of such a strong selection of articles mostly written by legal academicians.