The Secret Power Of J.K. Rowling
A new podcast explores the magic
“Greatness is not fame or achievement.”
Once upon a time, a right wing mob wanted to burn J.K. Rowling as a witch for writing fantasy novels about children learning magic spells. However, in a plot twist no one saw coming during the 1990s, when Harry Potter panic was at its peak, today the witch hunters believe human beings can change sex with magic words and potions, cancelling anyone who knows better.
When the world’s most beloved fantasy author told alleged adults to grow up and stop their magical thinking about evolved human biology, they went crazy. Suddenly it was no longer the religious right burning books, but a cult-like phenomenon that has emerged on the political left, purging dissent and wrongthink from every kind of institution, with publishers being among their first targets of their Long March.
Magical thinking dies hard in people. It is also too easy for the young to believe in magic. “I think it speaks to something in human nature,” Rowling tells Megan Phelps-Roper in a new podcast exploring the controversies around her work.
“Magic gives a person agency they wouldn’t otherwise have, and I think that’s particularly appealing to a child because children are inevitably quite powerless.”
Published today, the first two episodes of The Witch-Trials of J.K. Rowling, a production of Bari Weiss’s The Free Press, tell the story of the author’s life while writing the Harry Potter series and the controversies swirling around it in the 1990s.
Remarkably, Phelps-Roper also interviews the same people who once tried to ban Rowling’s books as satanic influences and finds that they have changed their minds about her. Her current critics could stand to learn from that example.
Instead, they are using the court precedents created by defense of her books to defend the recruiting materials that progress flag-waving alphabetical activists put in school libraries.
Magic has narative power. Some of the first texts in human history were magic spells on cuneiform tablets. Sorcery and divination are universal to human culture. We interpret dreams, watch for signs and portents, ascribe bad luck to sinister forces.
We are most liable to pray for fortune or perform our superstitions when we have the least control over the outcome of an event or process, such as a roll of the dice. Correlation is too easily mistaken for causation. Belief crowds out evidence.
Rowling has always appealed to this deep-rooted part of ourselves. “The idea that you have secret power, an extraordinary, supernatural power, is seductive to all of us, particularly children,” Rowling says.
This also works in the reverse. Her critics today project magical power on Rowling’s words. A nuanced essay about civil rights is supposed to be a kind of sorcery, for no single sentence is actually hateful, yet somehow the whole is supposedly malign, casting black astral energies that cause the literal deaths of transgender people.
They are sure of it, despite the absence of proof. Belief is the only evidence they need. Bigotry, like magical thinking, requires someone to be certain that they are completely right, and that some other group of people are entirely wrong.
Rowling abjures that kind of self-righteousness. “We should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain,” she says, “and we should question ourselves most when we recieve a rush of adrenaline by doing or saying something. Many people mistake that rush of adrenaline for the voice of conscience,” she says.
The outrage mob burning her books “have placed themselves across the line of rational debate,” Rowling says. Such tactics are “the last resort of those who cannot argue.” Whereas that place of self-righteous self-assurance is “the easiest place to be and in many ways it’s the safest place to be,” it “justifies cruelty” in pursuit of witches.
She will not repay them in kind. “There is no book on this planet that I would burn.” Instead, J.K. Rowling will keep casting her spell over readers and leave the negativity to her critics.
You can listen to the first two podcast episodes here:
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