Harry Potter and the ‘Secret Sub-culture’

During a debate, someone raised the topic of ‘Harry Potter’ and how ‘unfinished’ and ‘unsatisfactory’ the last book really was.  One person said that during the series, J. K. Rowling seemed to change the fundamental roles of some of the characters.  It started me thinking…perhaps it may not have started out as such, but, by the end, WHAT was the ‘Harry Potter’ story really about?

Let’s look at it.

We have a young boy, living in an average British suburb, average British house, yet still disenfranchised from all about him.  Without knowing why, he feels different, he does not fit in.  As he grows, he learns he is a part of this very special group of people who live within the British culture, but are different, separate from the mainstream population in so many ways!

This ‘special’ group of people could, at first look, pass for Brits – but were decidedly different.  They believed in different things, behaved differently, dressed differently, yet kept their ‘differentness’ secret from the mainstream.  With their own rules (though their ‘Minister’ did have a ‘quazi-legal’ status with the ‘Muggle’ Prime Minister) and laws, their own separate legal system administered justice among them.

Most of the Brits are not even aware of their separate existence:  and many of the members of this ‘special sub-culture’ live integrated, among regular people.  Yet others live isolated, in whole communities devoted to ‘their kind’ – and it is only in these isolated communities that members of this special ‘sub-culture’ openly practiced their ‘differentness’.

Those who spent their whole lives in these communities often fail to understand even the basic principles or social customs of the greater British society surrounding them.  Not only do they think, act, and dress differently…they can not even be bothered to learn about the rest of the society that surrounded them, even as they consider them as ‘less evolved’ or ‘less special’ than themselves.  They euphemistically refer to ‘regular people’ by the patronizing term ‘muggles’, or by the downright derisive ‘dirty mud people’….

And though they may be self-isolated from the cultural mainstream – having their own beliefs and their own schools where they sent their children – they do keep in close contact with other people of their own kind, who live scattered in secret or isolated communities in other parts of the world….all of them taking care to go unnoticed by their host society.

Hmmm, any thoughts yet?

It gets better.

Within this secretive sub-culture, there was a struggle:  those who were kindly pre-disposed towards the lowly ‘muggles’, those who wanted to ‘get along while being allowed to keep their separate sub-culture’, were battling against a militant group from within.  Led by a mythical, powerful, but hard-to-define and often absent leader, this ‘evil’ sub-sect was downright hostile toward the host culture, killing ‘muggles’ without regard, just to prove their superiority, and murdering any member of their sub-culture who opposed them too loudly….

But that was not all….not only was this sub-sect hostile and militant, it sought to gain total and complete control over the whole of the ‘magical world’ sub-culture.  Nobody knew any longer whom to trust, who was on whose side, who was secretly controlled….and the subtle blackmail and mind-control by the ‘evil side’ could escalate to open intimidation!  The ‘moderates’ kept trying to identify and battle the ‘militants’, only to be infiltrated and betrayed, time after time….

Is this still sounding like the story of a boy who wakes up and realizes he is ‘magical’?

Or does the change of attitudes Ms. Rowling’s book take as the story progresses pass comment on a completely different matter altogether?  A matter we all need to pay attention to, before Voldemort (who, by the way, changes his name from the one he’s born with, when he enters this special ‘sub-culture’) gains complete control over ‘the special community’ and subjugates ‘muggles’ in all the world?

Hmmmm, change a few of the labels, and you might not be looking at a fairy-tale at all!

14 Responses to “Harry Potter and the ‘Secret Sub-culture’”

  1. Tequila Socrates Says:

    To put forward a counter arguement…

    Isaac Asimov argues in his foundation series that the only reason modern political science (the study of politics based on the rational choice assumption, what Asimov calls psychohistory) can’t predict political outcomes with perfect scientific accuracy is because the population size is too small. If we were studying politics on the scale of planetary populations, we would be able to perfect modern political science (pschohistory). The basis of this argument, in my opinion, is that, although we don’t know its form in full, there is one story that plays out over and over again on the political stage, and what we see as divergences from the past are in fact simply nuances of the central plot magnified out of proportion in terms of significance by the small population which we are studying.

    Do you think that J.K. Rowling might have tapped into this fundamental plot (if you accept that there is such a plot) to such a degree that it will seem to relate in some way to current events for years to come or do you think that her books are merely today’s current events in disguise?

    J.R.R. Tolkien’s complaint when people argued his work symbolized the Industrial Revolution was that his work was meant to capture human nature and its struggle in the world, not a particular instance in history. If current events could be related to his story, it was more a testament that he had captured something eternal and recurring rather than that he had disguised current events in the form of a fantasy.

    In Tokien’s case, I think that his novels can be related to myriad instances in world of phenomenon as much today as in his own time. I think Tolkien tapped into the underlying plot of Asimov’s psychohistory and I think his stories will be as poignent in another 50 years as they are today.

    Do you think the same is true with Rowling? Do her stories tap into the plot, or do they simply present the circumstances of today in the setting of a fantasy?

    Submitted for your consideration. 😉

  2. xanthippa Says:

    Funny you should mention Asimov’s Foundation series….only today, I have picked it up in order to re-read it….(it’s been way too many years since I read it last)! Or, perhaps it is no co-incidence…perhaps pondering this post has brought me back to it.

    Personally, I think Ms. Rowling started to write a book about a young boy, growing into boyhood, who finally discovered what made him ‘special’ and different from other people. A universal story of alienation, self-discovery and self-acceptance. (Consider her personal circumstances at the time she started writing the 1st book.)

    However, I think it would be unrealistic to expect that the growing cultural tensions within Britain would not have influenced her – whether on a conscious or sub-conscious level – as she wound the story through latter books. Similarly, Tolkien may have set out to write about the ‘human condition’, but could not help but be influenced by the ‘history’ unfolding about him. (By the way, his ‘epic poems’ become WAY more bearable if you set them to the tune of ‘Gilligan’s Island’!)

    For years, I have pondered ‘psychohistory’: is it something integral within our psyche or a symptom of a limitation in the plausible permutations of historical possibilities? Is it something related to the nature of all social-life-forms, or perhaps of all social-living vertebrates…because my observations lead me to conclude this experience is in no way limited to humans alone.

    Perhas a few more decades of observations are called for before I form a hypothesis…I’m a slow thinker! :0)

  3. Tequila Socrates Says:

    I have a theory of my own about that. I bet you would like it. At the beginning of Plato’s Laws, Plato’s Athenian Stranger lays out an education system for the city he and Megillus and Kleinias are considering founding.

    The first step is an education in puppetry, then in comedy, then in tragedy, then in epic, and finally, possibly in philosophy.

    I think these steps in education follow the pattern of alienation, self-discovery and self-acceptance.

    Puppetry is alienation. It is the first time children are confronted with a representation of humanity, puppets are easier to identify as representations than are actors.

    Comedy and tragedy (two sides of the same coin in Socrates’ opinion) are self-discovery.

    From comedy, audiences learn how to identify themselves using culture. In order to find a comedy funny, you have to subscribe to the cultural values that that comedy is departing from in order to generate humor.

    Tragedy, by contrast, highlights the differences between human nature and the nature of culture. For all that culture acts as a conduit for communication, there is an inner boundary within the human soul past which culture cannot, or at least, should not intrude.

    Both comedy and tragedy focus on the departure of human nature from the nature of culture, the difference between the two being that comedy uses that departure to highlight the areas of similarity between human nature and the nature of culture. Tragedy uses that departure to highlight the areas of difference between human nature and the nature of color.

    The focus of epic is on the nature of any given thing in and of itself. In this way, I think epic corresponds to self-acceptance. When one still needs something to contrast oneself against in order to know oneself, one isn’t ready to join the epic choir, but if a person is capable of being the same both in comparison and in and of themselves, that person is ready for the epic choir.

    Finally, philosophy is for those who not only know themselves in and of themselves, but also love things around them for what those things are.

    Crap… I got sidetracked by the whole Plato thing… that thought has been sitting in my head for a long time now without any avenue of escape. It saw a chance to escape and it took it.

    Anyhow, I think the difference between human nature and the nature of culture is something akin to what happens when you mix many different colors together. You get brown. If you mix some colors and not others, you might get different shades of brown, but you still get brown.

    When you mix many different character types together, you get culture. Not every culture includes every character type and so around the globe, you get different shades of culture, but you still get culture.

    With animals, character types are more rigid because animals don’t have language to make permutate the basic character types into a broader spectrum, but they still have character types. When you mix those character types together, you still get culture.

    So in this sort of self-indulgent and roundabout manner (I’d say sorry for that, but if I were really sorry about it, I wouldn’t post it, so instead of sorry, I’ll have to go with “Thanks for reading this and indulging my thoughts with a chance to escape my head!”), I agree with you.

    Culture, or that which I think psychohistory intends to describe scientifically, is something that goes beyond human beings.

    I think that it is a product of human nature interacting with different parts of its own spectrum rather than something actually contained within human nature. I’m not sure if you would agree with that or not, but I will be curious to find out.

  4. Tyr Says:

    Socrates, I think that your connection between phycohistory and human nature is is slightly overplayed. Also what is there stopping there being a dozen stories that play out in a cyclical fashion, with some over lapping, some lasting for thousands of years. I think that Seldon used his theorems to predict the fall of the Empire and the birth of the foundation. IMO he didn’t use all of his plans. There would be theorems for predicting how to sustain an empire. As well there would be theorems for hundreds of smaller things. I do not think that there is one ( for lack of a better word) thingy.

    There is something else I wanted to say but I lost my train of thought. Oh, I read the foundation and the foundation and the empire less then a week ago. That wasn’t the lost thought.

  5. xanthippa Says:

    Hmmmm, much to consider!

    Socrates, I am not sure I agree with your ideas of limitations on non-human language. While there are no big studies on this, my personal observation leads me to believe that at least mammalian (non-human) language is much more sophisticated (in nature, not lab or home) than we suspect. (yes, I do plan to write a post on this….)

    I like the elegance of your ‘Plato’ thoughts….but I cannot put my finger on why I think it too ‘smooth’ (if that can be a criticism!!!) I’ll be thinking about it!

  6. xanthippa Says:


    I am re-reading the books now…but do tend to agree that psychohistory, as presented by Asimov, has a different dimension to it as well….

    Yet, there is a certain cyclicity to our history….

    Overall comment:

    What intrigued me about the ‘Harry Potter’ books was the ‘timeliness’ of exposing a subculture which exists practically undetected within its host society, yet demands separate education for it teens and a separate justice system!

    And, the schism between ‘tolerant’ and ‘militant/controlling’ factions within this ‘secret sub-culture’…..

    Of course, there is the added aspect: will our love for (and acceptance of) the magical world of Harry Potter somehow subconsciously influence us into accepting a separate judiciary for various groups which isolate themselves from the greater society?

  7. Tequila Socrates Says:


    @ Tyr: You make a good point about Seldon not necessarily using all of his plans. Just because Seldon couldn’t prevent the fall of the empire in the Foundation books doesn’t mean that he couldn’t sustain a healthy empire.

    Still, it seems to me that the Seldon theorums operate at a level below the “one thingy.” Seldon can use his theories to shorten the space between the death of one empire and the birth of the next, and concievably he could sustain or extend the life of the next empire, but it seems to me that eventually, that next empire must fall as well.

    My key point is that Seldon’s theories can hasten or retard the progress of the one thingy, but it still seems to me that there is one thingy, this underlying structure that all political regimes follow in their own way.

    Also, you make a good point about there being nothing stopping a dozen different cycles playing out simultaneously. Still, in my view, it would be a dozen different permutations of the one thingy. Like ripples in the water overlapping, the overall picture may be unrecognizable on the surface, but ultimately, it all boils down to one theorum that describes the ripple effect, applied multiple times.

    What do you think? 🙂


    As far as the Plato comments go, you are right, they are too smooth… I managed to make an entire argument without actually citing Plato once… ooops.

    There is a response to your original post buried in all of what I have just written, I think.

    I think it is this: in Plato’s education scheme, people are trained to become attuned to the underlying aspects of puppetry, comedy, tragedy, and epic (my comments on philosophy were unrelated, but just begged to be included at the time). With that sort of education, art is closely tied to the real world and the lessons learned in the world of art come to bear on the real world. In Plato’s case, the Athenian Stranger is laying out an education system that promotes the private life, the pinnacle of which lies in philosophy.

    Other systems of literary education promote other ends. The idea of any given literary education being to empower all literature toward a certain end.

    Without that sort of education, the connection between art and the real world is broken, and art becomes a reflection of the world rather than an influence on it. It may lend energy to movements already under way, but it loses its power to change the direction of those movements toward the end at which the reader’s or the writer’s literary education aimed.

    I think that the influence of the Harry Potter books will ultimately depend on what kind of literary education the people reading them have. If they have a strong literary education, then their interpretation of those books will lead them to whatever end their literary education promoted. If they don’t have a strong literary education, then their interpretation of those books will follow whatever path current events are already taking.

    This is, in my opinion, assuming that JK Rowling’s books tap into the one thingy. If, on the other hand, they are simply current events disguised in different labels, then those with literary educations at odds with the direction of current events will find JK Rowling’s books useless and boring, and their popularity will fade as the world of current events changes.

    Given that they got you thinking, Xan, I am guessing they tap into the one thingy (am starting to feel like I am talking about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time with this whole one thingy business!).

  8. xanthippa Says:

    My earlier explanation of what I think Rowling was doing is not clear…sorry.

    I think that, as Tyr calles it, ‘the thingy’ is indeed something deep, and I plan to think about it some more. My immediate thoughts are that this ‘thingy’ is refletive of some deep aspect of what made social species successful within their groups….sort of a ‘gene expressing a meme’, if you would pardon the ‘unsmoothness’ of this comparison. And I am leaning towards the view that this ‘thingy’ is not limited to humans experience….

    As per Ms. Rowling: yes, I do think that she indeed was writing about ‘the thingy’, and captured it: especially in the early books. As a matter of fact, I think the same of Tolkien….’The Hobbit’ is, in my opinion, almost as good as the early ‘Harry’ books.

    However, both writers were influenced by the ‘zeitgeist’ within which they lived. The longer on both stories go, the clearer this influence becomes, the more ‘specialized’ version of ‘the thingy’ they describe becomes…and the less universal appeal it will have. That is why later ‘Harry’ books, just like the last bits of Tolkien’s ring journey, are no longer as appealing. They have not lost the ‘thingy’, it’s just harder to see it…

    And as for the readers….’Harry’ books are directed at kids, young teens…no prior literary training. And the impressions it creates may be moulded in the future – but only if the people seek a literary education…

    So, given the ‘young mind’, what ‘political expectations’ will the series build in them? ‘Equality in the eyes of the law’ would not appear (to me) to be one of them….and that is a bad thing.

  9. Tequila Socrates Says:

    I am at a little bit out of touch with the particular zeitgeist in which Rowling is writing, I can only glean so much from news stories, but I get your gist. Interesting stuff!

  10. i’m begining to unravel! « Not2 Says:

    […] was reading this post, Harry Potter and the Secret Sub-culture and I realised this about myself: like the author I have many times criticized or discussed culture […]

  11. not2 Says:

    Thanks for this, it provided stimuli for one my posts. Sounds a bit wierd, I know..
    my post

  12. not2 Says:

    in addition, the ‘one thingy’ i think you’re talking about is the tao and non-dualism, where everything is one, we create seperation which doesn’t exist, hence my name, not2. cos nothing is dual, everything is non-dual, everything is one. nothing is positive, nothing is negative cos nature is perfectly balanced. fun stuff..

  13. xanthippa Says:


    …you’ll hit the roof when you hear this one….

    During a conversation with someone, she raised the ‘dao’ as proof that ALL religion are dualistic!

    She would not believe me when I tried to explain this is the symbolism for ‘NOT’ dualism….

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