The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 17, No 2 (2014)

Font Size:  Small  Medium  Large
Jabberwocky-Laskari-17-2

Jabberwocky

David Beagley, editor


A comparison of war and violence in Harry Potter and The Hunger Games

Isabelle Laskari


Isabelle Laskari is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. She completed a degree in journalism at La Trobe University and is currently studying for a Master of Arts (Wrinting and Literature) in Children's and Adolescent Literature at Deakin University. She enjoys writing, singing, teen TV, children's & YA literature, drinking tea and having imaginary conversations with the Brontë sisters.


Abstract: Both JK Rowling's Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy present stories of war for young readers. Both present the action of war directly and then, through the device of the epilogue, raise the personal consequences that follow for the heroes. However, at this final point, they take markedly different approaches to those personal reactions. The ways in which each novel deals with war, violence and the outcomes provides a clear statement of the distinction between children's and young adult literature.

 

Two of the most popular children's literature series of the 21st century, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, both deal with themes of violence and war, the final novel in each series culminating in a battle for their respective worlds. Tellingly, both authors have noted 'real world' awareness of war as a specific element in the creation of their stories. When discussing the final Harry Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling told press that she "very consciously wanted to show what is one of the great evils of war, which is that totally innocent people are slaughtered" (Larson). Collins has observed that she came up with the idea of The Hunger Games by flipping television channels, juxtaposing one showing young people competing against each other in a 'reality' television program and another broadcasting footage of the Iraq war.

Considering the huge success of these series, it must be noted not only that they both engage with these themes, but also what they each tell children about the prevalence of war and violence in our society. Clearly, neither of these stories is based on real events. Although many critics have drawn parallels between Harry Potter and World War II, it would be unfair to read these texts purely as allegories. Unlike children's stories such as Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, the characters in both Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are fighting for a different world than our own and thus both stories contain elements of the fantastical – Harry Potter as a piece of secondary world literature and The Hunger Games as a post-apocalyptic imagining of the future North America. However, that is not to say that their messages about war should be ignored simply because they are fictional. As Immel, Knoepflmacher and Briggs note (228), "texts considered to be fantastic quite frequently offer highly useful 'didactic' information." Although different levels and types of violence are depicted in these novels, both texts are also increasingly interested in the political aspect of war, as much as its effect on children and societies. Furthermore, both series conclude with the victory of the heroes and the restoration of their worlds to what we are told is an equal and just society. Contrastingly, though, the ending of Mockingjay, the final novel in The Hunger Games trilogy, is far more dire than that of Deathly Hallows. While Katniss is doomed to be forever scarred by the war, Harry simply tells us that "all was well" (Rowling 607). The varying approach taken to depicting the aftermath of war and the effect it has on their respective heroes suggests that Rowling takes a more sheltered approach to war, acknowledging it as a necessary story component that can be overcome despite the great losses it invariably sustains, while Collins chooses to make war the focus of her story, treating it as a subject that must be respected and acknowledged long after its victory so as to function as an educational tool for later generations. This contrasting treatment is largely due to the intended audience of each series. Although the Harry Potter series got progressively darker as it unfolded, it was initially intended and marketed as a series for children. Despite engaging with some darker themes, particularly in Deathly Hallows, it effectively retains its status as a piece of children's fiction by not actively exploring these themes. In contrast, The Hunger Games is regarded as young adult literature and is thus afforded the luxury to refrain from sugarcoating the reality of war and violence.

From the beginning of Deathly Hallows, Rowling ensures her readers understand that this is a novel about a war. She begins with Voldemort's cruel murder of Professor Burbage, the Muggle Studies teacher at Hogwarts, which also further emphasises Voldemort's mission – the destruction of the Wizarding world's equal society. Rowling doesn't shelter readers from the violence of the situation, noting that "tears were pouring from [Charity Burbage's] eyes into her hair…. The flash of green light illuminated every corner of the room. Charity fell, with a resounding crash, onto the table below, which trembled and creaked" (Rowling 18). The reference to Charity's tears adds an increased visual and emotional element of revulsion to her murder, while the sound of her falling body adds emphatic aural imagery to the situation. It is no surprise, too, that the first attack on Harry and his friends occurs very early on in the novel and also results in the deaths of two of its characters. The death of Harry's owl, Hedwig, is particularly significant as Rowling, describing the owl lying "motionless and pathetic as a toy on the floor of her cage" (Rowling 52), creates an unsettling image for readers who have grown up with the very real and very animated Hedwig character. Rowling has related this death to "a loss of innocence and security," and that "Voldemort killing [Hedwig] marked the end of childhood" (The Leaky Cauldron).

It is interesting to note that Rowling refers to Hedwig's death as a loss of Harry's innocence, because one of the key critical differences between the younger characters of Harry Potter and those of The Hunger Games is that the children of Panem are robbed of their innocence at a much earlier age. These children are at the mercy of their government from the day they are born, and the post-apocalyptic setting of the novels allows it to explore a world in which children are constantly subjected to violence. Importantly, this violence is not simply inflicted on them, but an element that they must also inflict on others for the chance to survive. This raises complex ideas about the moral ambiguity of wartime. Readers undoubtedly align themselves with Katniss who is fighting on the good side, but because she is forced to live in this regime, she is also forced to kill other children. The Capitol and the Games themselves are evil because they subject children to violence, and this is why they must be defeated, yet this defeat is only made possible through a violent rebellion. As Melancon notes, "The Hunger Games trilogy is largely about the horrific costs of war: innocent people (like Prim) are killed or maimed, and other basically good people (like Beetee and Gale) are driven to commit appalling acts of violence that they would never have contemplated in their civilian lives" (Melancon 222). In effect, Collins allows readers to explore the flip side of war; not only does it kill innocents, but it also turns innocents into killers.

On the other hand, the good characters in Harry Potter are rarely, if ever, shown to embrace violence. By so doing, Rowling creates a rather confusing scenario where a battle is fought – one of the final chapters is, in fact, titled "The Battle of Hogwarts" – and yet any possible violence by the good side is largely omitted, the only exception being Molly Weasley's killing of Bellatrix. In fact, Harry's destruction of Voldemort is barely by his own hand. Instead, Rowling conveniently allows Voldemort to destroy himself thanks to a rebounding spell. While it is indeed Harry's wand that is the instrument of Voldemort's death, it is highly significant that it is Voldemort's own spell that kills him. Thus, Voldemort is punished for using the death spell while Harry's innocence and purity remain intact. Furthermore, Harry, Ron and Hermione never actively seek to injure Death Eaters, and they are seemingly unable to kill them. The Hogwarts battle is effectively a responsive fight, where the good side merely reacts to the violence that is inflicted against them. While this presents an unrealistic view of a war-like situation, it is also in line with the fantasy genre which commonly adheres to the conventional good versus evil battle. Harry, Ron and Hermione do not actively engage in violent acts, and therefore they are not only saved from the war but they are also not traumatised by it. Essentially, the inherent goodness of these characters acts as a protective shield, and therefore eliminates any possibility of exploring the darkness of the situations in which they find themselves. In this way, Rowling actively shelters readers from the natural consequences of war, a point made more evident by her refusal to explore its aftermath. This is particularly problematic because it introduces children to such serious and judgemental themes and topics but does not commit to following through on what impact they may have.

Harry's indirect defeat of Voldemort is a stark contrast to Katniss' adamant wish to be the one to kill President Snow, a desire that embraces violence against evil. This wish then culminates in a more complex idea as Katniss decides instead to murder President Coin, when she realises that Coin's regime could be just as bad as the one they have just overthrown. Thus Collins does not shield readers from Katniss' intention to kill – "I feel the bow purring in my hand. Reach back and grasp the arrow. Position it, aim…. The point of my arrow shifts upward. I release the string. And president Coin collapses over the side of the balcony and plunges to the ground. Dead" (Collins 434). Essentially, this is a war wherein the good must also kill, but not without paying a price, as Katniss ultimately remains traumatised by it. Moreover, her decision to kill Coin and not Snow hints at the political themes that the text raises, which are also found in the Harry Potter series.

Both texts engage directly with politics, and by doing so reflect a more realistic view of war which is, in our real world, commonly motivated by political gain. In both texts, there is a severe distrust of the government. Although Harry's ultimate battle is with Voldemort and his band of Death Eaters, Rowling makes it abundantly clear that the Ministry of Magic is not a trusted source of power or moral authority either. At the beginning of Deathly Hallows, Harry laughs at Uncle Vernon's wish to be protected by the Ministry, noting that it was "so very typical of his uncle to put his hopes in the establishment, even within this world that he despised and mistrusted" (Rowling 33). The Ministry itself is soon infiltrated by Voldemort and the Death Eaters, indicating the unstable nature of this untrustworthy and incapable government. This distrust is even more pronounced in Mockingjay, where the main battle is against the authoritarian Capitol, led by President Snow. Collins also emphasises the danger of power-hungry leaders through President Coin, who suggests that they have a "final, symbolic Hunger Games, using the children directly related to those who held the most power" (Collins 431). As Coin's ideas are directly in contrast to what the rebellion has been fighting for – the end of violence inflicted against children – it is no surprise that she too must be defeated, showing herself as an unfit leader of the new society.

In analysing the way politics infiltrates these stories, it is also necessary to consider how Harry and Katniss come to be the leaders of their war and the journeys they each must take to become the heroes of their stories. The most striking difference between these two characters is Harry's status as the "Chosen One." Julia Boll (85) likens Harry's narrative to Joseph Campbell's hero journey, which involves the hero undertaking training before going onto the next stage of his quest. Unlike Katniss, Harry has no choice but to become the hero of his own story, having been marked from birth with this burden. Although much of Panem grasps Katniss as a symbol of hope, it is up to her to declare that she will be their "Mockingjay." Furthermore, Katniss is aware of her choice, and of the fact that it is one orchestrated for her by other people: "What they want is for me to truly take on the role they designed for me. The symbol of the revolution. The Mockingjay…. I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution" (Collins 12). In this sense, Katniss has a more difficult task ahead of her than Harry. While much of the Wizarding world ultimately accepts Harry as the Chosen One, understanding that there is no other person who potentially can defeat Voldemort, Katniss has to convince and inspire the Panem districts. Katniss is also treated very differently than Harry once the war is over. As Latham and Hollister note (13), "Katniss most definitely disturbs the universe, but the result is not her ascendancy to a role of authority and responsibility in the new regime but rather her removal from society." While Harry's defeat of Voldemort is met with "mingled outpourings of jubilation and mourning, of grief and celebration. They wanted him there with them, their leader and symbol, their savior and their guide…" (Rowling 596), Katniss' shooting of President Coin forces her into a room where she remains on the brink of madness until she is moved back to her home in District 12, completely removed from the new society.

Although both Harry and Katniss are shown to be fighting for a better and more equal society, readers are never shown how this new society comes about. Once the enemy is defeated, both authors remove their heroes from the action. Harry's "all was well" is ambiguous at best. After all, readers know that the Ministry of Magic is neither a helpful nor competent government, and one that has continually spread nasty lies about Harry throughout much of his adolescent life. Similarly, the fate of Panem is not really known. We can only assume that the danger has passed, as some of Katniss' closest friends and family such as her mother and Gale are working in this new society.

Writing before the publication of the last two Harry Potter novels, Strimel speaks of the terror produced in Goblet of Fire when Lord Voldemort's Dark Mark appears in the sky following the Quidditch World Cup. She notes that the "attack is not made 'all better' by the end of the scene…. By failing to tie up the situation neatly, which would be very unrealistic and therefore disadvantageous, children are able to witness both the evil actions and the actions the characters take to combat and deal with the event throughout the novel" (Strimel 40). Yet in the Deathly Hallows epilogue it appears that things are indeed made "all better" and the terror of war is largely forgotten. There are only two reminders of it, with Harry touching the scar that "had not pained [him] for nineteen years" (Rowling 607), while the names of the various children – Albus Severus, James Sirius, Lily Luna – serve as a tribute to those who have fallen in the war. In stark contrast, the final chapter of Mockingjay shows a wounded Katniss, utterly consumed by the grief of the war. The war remains the main focus of the story, and Collins hints at the importance of remembering the dire events through Katniss' decision to create a memorial-type book for those who died in it. Katniss notes she got the idea from her family's plant book –

"the page begins with the person's picture…. Then, in my most careful handwriting, come all the details it would be a crime to forget. Lady licking Prim's cheek…. The color of Finnick's eyes. What Cinna could do with a length of silk…. We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count" (Collins 451-452).

We are also told that both Katniss and Peeta continue to suffer from the aftermath of the war. Although Katniss notes that she and Peeta "grow back together", there are still "moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over" while she "[wakes] up screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children" (Collins 452-453). Furthermore, the novel's epilogue is far from happy as it describes Katniss wondering about how to tell her children about her life, children who "don't know they play on a graveyard" (Collins 455). Here, Collins directly engages with the difficulty of discussing the very real violence and destruction of war with children. Katniss knows that one day she'll have to "explain about [her] nightmares. Why they came. Why they won't ever really go away" (Collins 455), but also questions how she can "tell them about that world without frightening them to death" (Collins 454). By shedding light on this difficulty, Collins effectively provides an answer to her own question, because by acknowledging the brutality of war she effectively suggests that these violent aspects must not be hidden from children, no matter how much we might be tempted to shield them from it. This is emphasised by Katniss' declaration that she will tell her children how she survived it –

"I'll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I'm afraid it could be taken away. That's when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I've seen someone do. It's like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years. But there are much worse games to play" (Collins 455).

The ways in which each novel deals with war and violence provides a distinction between children's and young adult literature. It was often commented, as each new Harry Potter book came out, that the books were getting darker and scarier – an Empire magazine article jokingly pointed out that "this one's definitely darker than the last" was the most overused phrase when commenting on the films (O'Hara). Yet it must be remembered that Harry Potter initially began as a series for children. Judging by its tame ending, an ending which offers no exploration into the emotional turmoil and destruction of war, it seems that the series ultimately returned to its original intended audience. The Hunger Games trilogy was never intended for a child audience and this is effectively why it explores war and violence in a penetrating, unforgiving way, challenging readers with gritty and harsh realities of the consequences of war. Mockingjay, and its epilogue, is ultimately very much in line with contemporary young adult fiction, particularly dystopian fiction. As Stewart notes, most epilogues exist to tie up loose ends and leave the audience feeling satisfied, but dystopian fiction for young adults often rejects this convention and "[tends] toward ambiguity…. meaningful and successful novels of dystopia won't let us forget them – they haunt us" (Stewart 168).

This distinction is important in understanding the way these two texts deal with darker concepts. However, as noted previously, these novels still have much in common. They both feature heroic protagonists who engage in a war so as to defeat an enemy who is in contrast with their politics. To return to Campbell's hero journey – a narrative pattern which he argues exists in all our stories – it is common to see the hero of the story endure some kind of psychic wound as a result of their struggle. This is why Frodo must leave Middle Earth for the Undying Lands, why Merlin (in some versions) goes mad, and why Katniss is prone to nightmares that will never end. Yet unlike Katniss, Harry's 'hero journey' is completed virtually unscarred – in fact, his touching of the scar in the epilogue is to signify that the scars that were, are not anymore. He is not banished to live away from the new society, too damaged to cope with the new world. According to Rowling, he actually becomes a full and active part of it, "utterly [revolutionarising] the Auror Department" (Brown). Thus, Rowling effectively subverts the hero narrative, allowing Harry to actually be healed by the war, rather than destroyed by it. This is undoubtedly why some have criticised this ending, suggesting that "such perfection is as questionable as Harry's smiling, resurrected dead" (Mills 301). As mentioned before, this ending is a result of the series' position as a work of children's literature. Yet what remains troubling is a return to its innocent roots when it has strayed so far from them already by introducing darker themes in the later books.

Despite their varying treatment of war and its aftermath, both novels involve the heroes paying a certain tribute to the war – Harry by naming his children after those who have perished in it and Katniss by creating her memorial book. By so doing, they suggest that children – indeed, their own children – must be educated on the cost of war. While Rowling's main aim appears to be to restore her characters to the structure and order of the paternal family, Collins appears most concerned with the importance of remembering the war despite its brutality. Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly considering its initial audience, Harry Potter adheres to one of the most common conventions of children's literature – the "happily ever after." Yet in keeping with this convention, Rowling sacrifices any possibility of exploring the darkness she has created, and by presenting the characters of Harry, Ron and Hermione as unaffected by their battles, she also shields children from the realistic trauma of war. In contrast, Collins chooses to directly engage with the struggle to explain a dark world to children without ignoring this essential darkness. By so doing, she provides a more nuanced understanding of the themes of war and violence and how they should be explained to children.

 

 

Works Cited

Boll, Julia. “Harry Potter’s Archetypal Journey.” Heroism in the Harry Potter series. Ed. Katrin Berndt and Lena Steveker. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. 85-104. Ebook Library. Web. 4 August 2013.

Brown, Jen. “Finished Potter? Rowling tells what happens next.” Today. 26 July 2007. Web. 26 September 2013.

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. Croydon: Scholastic, 2010. Print.

Immel, Andrea, Knoepflmacher, U.C. & Briggs, Julia. “Fantasy’s Alternative Geography for Children.” The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Ed. Andrea Immel and Grenby, M. O,. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 226-241. Print.

Larson, Susan. “New Orleans students give Rowling a rousing welcome.” NOLA. Thursday 18 October 2009. Web.

D. Latham and Hollister, J. M. “The Games People Play: Information and Media Literacies in The Hunger Games trilogy.” Children’s Literature in Education. (2013): 1-14. Web.

O’Hara, Helen. “Harry Potter: this one is darker.” Empire Online. Date unknown. Web.

Melancon, Louis. “Starting Fires Can Get You Burned: The Just-War Tradition and the Rebellion Against the Capitol.” The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason. Ed. William Irwin. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. 222-234. Ebook Library. Web. 4 August 2013.

Mills, Alice. “Harry Potter: Agency or Addiction?” Children’s Literature in Education. 41.4 (2010): 291-301. Web.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London:Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. Print.

Stewart, Susan Louise. “Dystopian Sacrifice, Scapegoats, and Neil Shusterman’s ‘Unwind.’” Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults. Ed. Carrie Hintz, Balaka Basu and Katherine R. Broad. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2013. 159-173. Ebook Library. Web. 27 September 2013.  

Strimel, C. B. “The Politics of Terror: Rereading Harry Potter.” Children’s Literature in Education. 35.1 (2004): 35-52. Web.

The Leaky Cauldron. “J.K. Rowling Web Chat Transcript.” The Leaky Cauldron, 30 July 2007. Web. 4 August 3013.

 

 

Isabelle Laskari


Volume 17, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, March/April 2014

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2014.
"A comparisono of war and violence in Harry Potter nad The Hunger Games" © Isabelle Laskari, 2014.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor



The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680