In honor of Banned Books Week 2011, a reflection on censorship and Harry Potter:
For more than a decade, discussions of children’s literature, libraries and censorship inevitably mention Harry Potter. However, those discussions rarely—if ever—feature an analysis of the library and incidents of censorship within the series itself. J.K. Rowling offers much to consider on both counts:
Madam Irma Pince, the librarian at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where Harry Potter receives six years of magical education, is described as a “thin, irritable woman who look[s] like an underfed vulture” (CS 163). Forever “suspicious” of the students (CS 164), she “has been known to add unusual jinxes to the books in her care” (QA). J.K. Rowling characterizes (and even names) Madam Pince with the stereotype of an old maid librarian whom the students think is “barking mad” (HBP 307). A guardian of “her” books (QA), Madam Pince is often “breathing down [students’] necks” (SS 198). She “brandish[es] a featherduster” at Harry during his very first visit to the library and demands, “What are you looking for, boy?” (SS 198). Years later Madam Pince bewitches Harry’s own school books to whack him repeatedly over the head when she discovers Harry eating chocolate in the library (OP 655). Though Harry and his friends frequent the library during their school years, they never ask Madam Pince for her help in their research. Rather, they avoid her and discover information on their own. They approach her on only one occasion, when they need her to retrieve a book from the Restricted Section. Thus, as a character, the information professional is superfluous to the Harry Potter story, and Madam Pince ultimately reinforces the negative stereotype of a librarian.
The Hogwarts library, however, is essential to the plot of the entire Harry Potter series. On two occasions (SS & GF), Harry uses his invisibility cloak to sneak into the library after hours to do research, and Harry’s best friend Hermione Granger spends more time in the library than any other main character. Hermione, the best student in Harry’s class, utilizes the library not only for schoolwork, but also to research issues of personal interest and to help Harry as he confronts various challenges. Indeed when Harry and Hermione, along with Ron Weasley, prepare for their most dangerous challenge in the final book, Ron jokes that the three will be “hunting down Voldemort in a mobile library” (DH 95). By continually referring to the library (or books retrieved from the library) as a source of key information, Rowling highlights the significant contribution of a library to one’s formal and informal education.
The most referenced and quoted incident of censorship in the Harry Potter series occurs when Ministry of Magic representative turned Hogwarts professor Dolores Umbridge instates “Educational Decree Number Twenty-seven,” banning an alternative magazine called The Quibbler which features a controversial interview with one Mr. Harry Potter. As Hermione points out, “if [Umbridge] could have done one thing to make absolutely certain that every single person in [the] school will read [Harry’s] interview, it was banning it!” (OP 582). Rowling reveals the ineffectiveness of censors and the shrewdness with with young people circumvent them.
Another, less noticeable incident of censorship serves as a significant plot point in the series: Rowling reveals that Tom Riddle, who becomes the dark wizard Voldemort, learned a great deal of dark magic from books in the Hogwarts library. In the case of Horcruxes, which involve murder, “Voldemort g[ets] all the instruction he need[s] from [a library book]” (DH 102). Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore removes all of the Horcrux books from the library, but not until well after Tom Riddle has attained access to them. Here, Rowling illuminates an ethical dilemma for librarians in regard to equal access to information: when he is underage, Tom Riddle uses information he found in the school library to commit crimes against other people; Dumbledore makes the choice to censor that information by removing it from the library collection, yet Harry and his friends have no hope of defeating their foe without access to that same information.
Considering the psychology of the censor, Dumbledore’s decision merits deliberation: Dumbledore consistently demonstrates wisdom and is widely believed to be a talented educator and leader, yet he freely admits to weaknesses, to the capacity for grave errors in judgment. Certainly Dumbledore has his critics. Does this example make a case for some censorship being acceptable? Moreover, the Hogwarts library contains the aforementioned Restricted Section (which is where the material in question was shelved in the first place): is this, in effect, a form of censorship that is acceptable?
SS=Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
CS=Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
GF=Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OP=Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
HBP=Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
DH=Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
QA=Quidditch Through the Ages