Harry Potter Saves History

11 July 2011

"The Harry Potter novels evoke not only their own magical world but also the magic of history." Ann Curthoys

The release of the final Harry Potter movie, hot on the heels of the Pottermore website announcement is a reminder of the ongoing influence of the Harry Potter juggernaut.

The Harry Potter phenomenon goes well beyond its direct fans however, and has become the focus of a range of academic disciplines including education, literary and cultural studies, sociology, law, political science and international relations.

Until now few historians have joined the discussion but Professor Ann Curthoys, from the Department of History at the University of Sydney, is an exception.

Curthoys believes the Potter books, by JK Rowling, are important for their powerful emphasis on history as a "form of useful knowledge and as a powerful allusion".

Curthoys started enthusiastically reading the series in 2000 and soon realised, as a historian, that "the Harry Potter series takes history very seriously, and historians can profit by returning the compliment. We can consider what, as fiction, it has to say about history."

One of the aspects of the Potter novels Curthoys admires is their ability to make the study of history, relevant to its readers.

"Where we do not have a sense of the past as providing, however indirectly, clues to action in the future, history will seem dead and boring. Where present concerns, especially present dangers, awaken that sense, history comes alive; indeed, it becomes essential.

"The logic of the story through the Potter novels is always that one can only go forward by going back, by understanding one's enemy and his or her moral formation and motivation."

Curthoys explains that the Potter novels encapsulate "a very personal past, a form of genealogy, a kind of popular history that seeks to connect the individual to his or her forbears and through them to the broader patterns of history. It suggests that to understand history we need to know the subjectivity of the people of the past - their fears and desires, their motivations and beliefs."

As part of making these historical connections Harry and his friends must access a range of primary and secondary sources if they are to understand the past and learn what they need to know to defeat the forces of evil. They use oral history but also access old letters, photographs and tombstone inscriptions, every trace from the past they can find.

As Curthoys describes "In doing so, they experience the thrill of the archive, the excitement and emotional connection that so often arise in the course of historical research" and this aspect of the books again encourages and supports the study of history.

Finally the Potter series not only engages with the purpose and practice of history, but also has many historical references of its own. Amongst the most powerful are the frequent allusions to the rise of authoritarian regimes during the twentieth century.

"Themes in the novel relating to authoritarianism include the importance of racism and the exploitation and exclusion of people on the basis of race; the creation of an atmosphere of terror so great that for many the best option is to flee; and the move of (the evil ruler) Voldemort's forces from paramilitary private forces to the centre of government. The theme of race and racism permeates the books and call to mind a variety of racialised regimes through history from Nazi Germany to apartheid South Africa and the American South, " Curthoys said.

This image of takeover by evil forces suggests any one of a number of histories, perhaps the most readily available analogy being Hitler and the Nazi regime which is strongly evoked in the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, according to Curthoys.

"For historians, our challenge is to provide a rich source of information, analysis and understanding by which we can contribute to the maintenance of informed public memory, and the development of historical insight in a critical and lively public sphere.

"As such, we should welcome a novelist who understands that challenge so well. JK Rowling's sense of the importance of the archive and of critical historical knowledge is influencing the next generation of historians. I think that is all to the good."

Ann Curthoys is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow at the University of Sydney. Her books include, with John Docker, Is History Fiction? (2005, revised 2010).

Ann Curthoys recent essay Harry Potter and historical consciousness, Reflections on history and fiction appears in a recent special edition of the journal History Australia (Volume 8 Number 1).

History Australia is the journal of the Australian Historical Association and is edited by the University of Sydney's Richard White and Associate Professor Penny Russell

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