By Nicole Motahari
J.K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series has been a best-selling success in the genre of children’s literature. However, as the series progresses, the books delve into deeper and more mature themes, such as the concept of half-breeds, non-wizards, blood status and the hierarchy of such in the wizarding world. For although Rowling herself makes it clear that her protagonists prescribe to the concept that everyone is equal despite their blood status, not everyone in the wizarding community is of the same mind, especially Lord Voldemort and his supporters.
The first glimpse into that perspective comes very early on. The first wizarding person Harry Potter meets is Draco Malfoy, who wastes no time in making his perspective on blood status clear, trying to verify that Harry’s parents were both of magical ability, adding on, “I don’t think they should let the other sort in” (Sorcerer’s Stone 78), referring to “people from Muggle families” (Sorcerer’s Stone 79).
This leaves Harry feeling as though he doesn’t fit in, and he says as such to Hagrid, who quickly reassures him that this is not the case, and also claims “some o’ the best I ever saw were the only ones with magic in ‘em in a long line o’ Muggles,” a statement that will be echoed in the Half Blood Prince, five books later. However, this already sets categories for the reader to start creating that mental hierarchy in their mind, calling to mind the ‘separate, but equal’ concept that was the verdict of the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896 (Ostry).
The next race to be added into the hierarchy is one that spends a great deal of time trying to establish their place. The centaurs are half-man, half-horse, and deeply perceptive of the world, but they seem to have been put down so badly over the course of wizarding history, that they struggle to keep their place in the world, separate from all others, on a level with wizards, even though they don’t have the ability to do magic with a wand. In the Sorcerer’s Stone, Firenze is nearly ejected from his tribe for saving Harry and letting Harry ride on his back. Bane accuses him of degrading himself to the level of a “common mule” (Sorcerer’s Stone 257), and Firenze defends his actions, trying to get Bane to understand Harry’s position in the regards to Lord Voldemort.
Firenze himself is a centaur who is more supportive of action, versus the laissez-faire policy of the other centaurs. Bane tries to remind him of his place, claiming that “What is that to do with us? It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our forest” (Sorcerer’s Stone, 257), but Firenze asserts that “I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must” (Sorcerer’s Stone 257). However, it seems that Firenze is the exception, rather than the mode, for unless something directly affects the day-to-day lives of the centaurs, they refuse to get involved.
In the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the other centaurs take the extreme measure of disowning him from the herd. However, upon hearing the term ‘herd’, Dean Thomas makes the mistake of asking “Did Hagrid breed you like thestrals?” (Order of the Phoenix 602) and though Firenze appears to forgive Dean for the statement, he makes the position of centaurs in the wizarding world clear, saying “Centaurs are not he servants or playthings of humans” (Order of the Phoenix 602). Of course, although the centaurs consider themselves “a race apart and proud to be so” (Order of the Phoenix 756), there are still prejudiced people in the wizarding world, like Dolores Umbridge, who made the nearly fatal mistake of calling centaurs “Filthy half breeds! Beasts! Uncontrolled animals!” (Order of the Phoenix 756).
The centaurs do maintain a relationship with Hagrid, who is revealed to be a half-giant in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While not classified as non-wizards directly by the Ministry of Magic, as proven by the exposé that was written by Rita Skeeter, and by Olympe Maxime’s discussion with Hagrid, half-giants are still feared by society. At the Yule Ball, Hagrid draws Madame Maxime into the garden, finding a kindred spirit in her size.
“ Momen’ I saw yeh, I knew,” he was saying in an oddly husky voice.
“What did you know, ‘Agrid?” said Madame Maxime, a purr in her low voice.
“I jus’ knew… knew you were like me… Was it yer mother or yer father?”
“I-I don’t know what you mean, ‘Agrid…”
“It was my mother,” said Hagrid quietly. “She was one o’ the last ones in Britain. ‘Course I can’t remember her too well… she left, see. When I was abou’ three. She wasn’ really the maternal sort… So anyway…enough abou’ me. What about you, which side you got it on?” (Goblet of Fire 426-427).
Madame Maxime, offended turns away, and Hagrid pursues in telling he’s never met another half-giant before, causing Madame Maxime to explode. “I ‘ave nevair been more insulted in my life! ‘Alf giant-giant? Moi? I ‘ave- I ‘ave big bones!” (Goblet of Fire 429). Interestingly, even Ron Weasley, who is one of Rowling’s main protagonists, recoils at Hagrid’s confession, claiming that “they’re just vicious, giants… they just like killing” (Goblet of Fire 430). This broad-sweeping quote however, does not necessarily seem to be true of all giants. As proven in the Order of the Phoenix, it appears to be a matter of temperament, just as wizards have their own vicious members of the community.
Rita Skeeter’s article characterizes giants as “bloodthirsty and brutal” (Goblet of Fire 439). If going based off prejudiced opinions, half giants are reputed to have the same nature as pure-blooded giants. However, although Hagrid and Madame Maxime have a common interest in magical creatures, some of them a bit too much for regular wizards to handle, there are no violent signs from either half-giant, and with Hagrid’s nurturing behavior towards Norbert, the baby dragon in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the biased general opinion seems to have been proven unfounded and untrue.
While in the earlier novels, Hagrid is viewed at somewhat of a lower level by wizards, this seems to be due to his behavior, rather than his blood status: “I heard he’s a sort of savage- lives in a hut on the school grounds and every now and then tries to do magic, and ends up setting fire to his bed.” [Draco Malfoy in regards to Hagrid (Sorcerer’s Stone 78)]. Madame Maxime is highly respected by her students and holds a high position of Headmistress, so it could possibly be a hierarchy based upon the ability to perform magic and the skill level they hold.
However, the ability to perform great magic does not necessarily provide an elevated position in society. In the books, the house elves are the most degraded of beings, brainwashed into subservience, despite the incredible magical powers they possess. House elves are first introduced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with the appearance of Dobby in Harry’s Privet Drive bedroom. The wizarding community goes through great trouble to ensure that these creatures are thoroughly repressed, to the point where the magic that binds them to their masters prevents them from speaking against the wizarding family that owns them.
When Harry asks Dobby to sit down in the second book of the series, Dobby bursts into tears at the prospect of “[being] asked to sit down by a wizard- like an equal” (Chamber of Secrets 13). The house elf tries to speak ill against his masters, but ends up hitting himself against the wall as punishment before Harry stops him. The pillow-sack Dobby wears is a symbol and mark of his servitude, for to present him with real clothing would be to set him free. At the end of the Chamber of Secrets, Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into freeing Dobby, and when Lucius goes to attack Harry, Dobby performs some sort of magic that prevents Malfoy from harming him.
The original reason for the enslavement of house elves is not mentioned in the series, but one might be able to assume that their small stature could have been one reason they were degraded, versus half-giants who would be able to fight back more easily than diminutive elves. Dobby, like Firenze the centaur, is the exception to the norm. Dobby yearns for and embraces freedom, while for a house elf like Winky, to be freed is the biggest disgrace possible, and Winky is “properly ashamed of being freed” (Goblet of Fire 379).
Of course, this is also a solid referral to actual slavery in the non-magical world’s history. The evidence of this lies strongly in the treatment of the elves, as well as the diminutive terms that elves are called “elf” more than anything else, similar to the way that slaves were called “boy” or “gal” regardless of their age. Ron’s attitude toward house elves mirrors that of the South’s during the antebellum period where the general mindset of slave-owning population was that slaves were happy and they did not like being free (Ostry, Carey).
However, it seems that other races that are small in stature and able to defend themselves just fine. In the Goblet of Fire, Ron makes a scathing remark regarding goblins to Hermione, saying “Worrying about the poor ickle goblins now, are you? Thinking of starting up S.P.U.G. or something? Society for the Protection of Ugly Goblins?” (Goblet of Fire 449). Hermione retorts that goblins are very well able to protect themselves, as proven by the many goblin rebellions, making the point that “they’re not like house elves who never stick up for themselves (Goblet of Fire 449).
While J.K Rowling notes in an interview that Professor Flitwick does have a dash of goblin blood in him, the greatest in-depth example of the goblin race we have in the series is Griphook, the goblin who originally helped Harry at Gringotts Bank during his first visit to Diagon Alley. Griphook is characterized as wise, but wily, and the entire goblin race is said to be as such. The stereotypical goblin seems to fit into the old prejudiced stereotype of people who are of the Jewish faith. They are bankers, just as Jews were bankers, for the Christian faith forbade money-lending, and the wily nature of goblins reflects that anti-Semitic idea that Jewish people were wily and greedy for gold.
Interestingly enough, Griphook makes a strong point about “wand carriers” (Goblet of Fire 488) versus non-wand-carrying beings. This I feel is the premise for the entire wizarding caste system. Those who have wands and are permitted to perform wand magic are higher on the scale than those who cannot perform magic with wands. E.g. half-giants and werewolves even are above the goblins and house-elves, because the latter two do not carry wands, and as stated in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, it is actually illegal for a house elf to carry a wand.
Werewolves hold an interesting place in the hierarchy, since they are not necessarily part-human, part-wolf, but rather are afflicted by lycanthropy. However, the fear of werewolves and the prejudice against them as a race still remain. While Dolores Umbridge mistakenly refers to werewolves as half breeds, the statement is incorrect. When in wizard form, if the affliction is unknown to the public, werewolves are merely wizards. However, upon the transformation, they become classified as ‘beasts’ by the Ministry of Magic. Once in wolf form, their status of course, sinks to that of a monster, or an animal, lower even than goblins and house-elves (Beast, Werewolf).
The hierarchy of the wizard world appears to revolve around blood-status within the wand-holding community, and magical abilities and demeanor amongst non-wand holding creatures. With pure blooded wizards topping the pyramid, then come pure-blooded blood traitors, half-bloods, Muggle-borns and then we fall into the halfway range of non-wizards who have the ability to do magic, such as half-giants and squibs would likely be just below them on the scale. Werewolves would fall into this middle category as well, with the centaurs topping the non-wand-holding creatures, then below them goblins, and at the bottom of the order, house-elves. The ability to do certain types of magic identifies each race so thoroughly and there appears to be little wiggle room from one hierarchy to another. Altogether, this paints an image of the wizarding world that is no longer beneficent and kind, but predisposed to categorize based on preconceived notions of each group.
Carey, Brycchan. “Hermione and House-Elves: The Literary.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Anatol. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003. 103-15. Print.
Ostry, Elaine. “Accepting Mudbloods: The Ambivalent Social Vision of J.K Rowling’s Fairy Tales.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Gizelle Anatol. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003. 89-103. Print.
“Werewolf.” Harry Potter Wiki. Wikia, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
“Beast.” Harry Potter Wiki. Wikia, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.