Harry Potter and the Importance of Transgression

by , under Philosophy, Politics, Theology

Apologies (really, I’m saying sorry? For what?!) for not posting much recently. It’s not that I’ve had nothing to say…just not much to say in public right now. Lots of writing getting done, so watch this space (if you like watching space.)

Anyways, something I’ve been pondering the last couple of days: the importance of transgression in ‘salvation’ narratives. By these, I mean stories that have a basic arc of saving something or some group from some evil or monster.

For various reasons I’ve been spending a fair bit of time thinking through the Harry Potter books recently – a series which I’ll defend against anyone in terms of their thematic seriousness and literary merit – and what is interesting is that this pattern is very much on show here. As I expressed in a recent tweet:

One thing we can be sure of: if there is a ‘forbidden forest,’ our hero will be bidden to enter it.

If you know the stories at all (yes, I know the films are crap) you’ll know that in every book Harry ends up breaking either school rules or ‘Wizarding Law’  – but does so not as a rebel, but as a ‘saviour.’ He is ‘the orthodox heretic.’

As the series continues we see that ‘the law’ turns more and more heavily against him and, by labelling him a serial transgressor, the community ostracise him to a pretty horrific extent. He is cast out of the school, a price is put on his head, and is turned into a figure of hatred by those in charge.

We can see how this turns out: our hero’s transgressions turn out to be the very thing that redeems the law and those who make it. Sometimes the law needs to be broken, in order that it may be remade properly.

The parallels with Christian theology should be fairly easily worked through; my current interest is more with how this plays out with the work on historic piracy that I’m writing, and how this impacts the current ‘Occupy’ movements.

I picked up an old copy of a 1970 ‘Ladybird’ book on piracy recently, which has this brilliant introduction:

In those days a man might legally be seized in the street by a ‘press-gang’ and compelled to serve for years as a sailor in a ship of the King’s Navy, often without his wife or family knowing what had happened to him. Sailors were badly fed and brutally punished, and sometimes they mutinied, murdered their hated officers and became pirates in well-armed ships. Pirates […] were mainly scoundrels and a menace to all honest folk.

This is the classic tension: the law has been broken, so these people must be branded a menace, and yet we can see why the law needs breaking and reforming.

The problem comes with the line at which orthodox heresy becomes violent transgression. Were the murders of their brutal Captains by pirates excusable? How much leeway should we give them for their historical context?

These are all questions I’ll be working through in the book… and looking at how this arc of redemptive transgression works out… Hope you’re still looking forward to it.


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  1. acetate monkey

    Happy New Year!

    Will Sky’s new version of Treasure Island feature?

    I was interested to see the interview with Eddie Izzard talking about his portrayal of Long John Silver in which he trotted out a ‘pirates were all bad lawless dishonourable people’ kind of line. You have already altered my view of history and the book’s not done yet! 🙂