This Wednesday, I am giving an informal talk about the concept of half-bloodedness in the Harry Potter series (not to be confused with the Percy Jackson series, in which being a half-blood means one of your parents is special. In Harry Potter, it means one of your parents is NOT special–a perspectival difference only, but a crucial one). My talk will be based on a paper I contributed to a collection a number of years ago, but since it’s been a while since I really engaged with that paper, I thought I’d use this post as a vehicle for updating my thoughts.
First things first: When I wrote that paper, I committed a major oversight. I said that there are three characters in the series who we know to be true half-bloods (i.e. having one wizard/witch and one fully Muggle parent): Seamus Finnegan, Severus Snape, and Tom Riddle. The character I forgot is, ironically, Penelope Clearwater. One could argue that Penelope is not a major character–after all, she didn’t even make it into the movies–and that she never discusses her parents or her blood status, but it’s assumed that she was a deliberate object of a basilisk attack in Chamber of Secrets because of that very blood status, so I could have used her character to reinforce my point that wizarding world racism extends not only to the completely Other but also to those whose origins are less obvious. I will probably put in a Penelope plug on Wednesday night.
I was just talking with a student today about how the fact that Harry Potter is a fantasy makes it a safe space to discuss “mature themes”–child abuse and neglect, slavery, political corruption, you name it–in the classroom. The issues are no less real because they are present in a fantasy, but the fictional context provides a layer of detachment, allowing the difficult conversations to be less charged. The concept of half-bloodedness creates a forum for discussing issues such as racism, racial performativity, and biracial identity, but it does so with a situation that’s not exactly like any situation in the real world.
In the paper, I use Seamus Finnegan to introduce the concept in a relatively light-hearted way (just like the books do), but my main argument contrasts Tom Riddle, whose attempt to erase his diverse racial history backfires, leading to a fragmented personality and a literally shattered soul, with Severus Snape, who, though he keeps his half-blood status largely private (like so much about himself), never denies that he is a half-blood, and therefore achieves an integrated identity and a character of integrity. A lot of big words, but I’m basically arguing that Snape remains true to himself (even when his mission requires him to present a false front), whereas Riddle/Voldemort destroys himself through his own self-directed racism and denial.
If I were to rewrite the paper today, I would probably say more about my current Harry Potter interest, which has to do with the effect of the home and family of origin on how characters turn out. Both Snape and Riddle grew up in loveless homes, but they were different kinds of loveless homes, and I think the differences in their situations contributed to the differences in how they handled their half-blood status. I will think about this idea, try it out on Wednesday night, and perhaps blog about it next week.