Why Rowling's Halloween treat for Harry Potter fans is special
The author releases an essay on the horrid Dolores Umbridge, a Ministry of Magic official who joined as the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix
Halloween is a special day for Potterheads - it's the one evening they get to dress up as their favourite Harry Potter character without facing ridicule from Muggles, non-wizarding folks. But apart from that, October 31 also happens to be the anniversary of the fateful day that his parents Lily and James Potter were killed by Lord Voldemort and Harry became the boy who lived, lightening-shaped scar and all.
Thirty three years after this wizarding world-changing event, author JK Rowling offers further insight into the magical world that she created. Pottermore, the website that retells the series in an interactive manner, is also a space where the British writer shares history and trivia about her characters and moments from the books. This Halloween, it is fitting that she's chosen to sketch out Dolores Jane Umbridge, the horrid Senior Under-secretary to the Minister of Magic who joined as the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher inHarry Potter and the Order of Phoenix. Umbridge was a squat woman with a penchant for wearing fluffy pink cardigans, collecting ornamental plates with pictures of cats in them, and handing out punishments faster than Snape would ever have been able to deduct points from Gryffindor.
Umbridge, Rowling reveals, had a Muggle mother and a brother who is possibly a squib, a wizard-born person who has no magical traits. Umbridge grows up to be one of the most vociferous supporter of penalising Muggle-born wizards, claiming that "they have "stolen" their wands and magic".
It seems to be the fate of half-bloods to try and distance themselves from their Muggle lineage. Voldemort, who had a Muggle father, also hated Muggles and other half-bloods. Both Voldemort and Umbridge spread their reign of terror in their unique ways, while pretending to be pure-blooded. Professor Severus Snape, who had a Muggle father and fell in love with the Muggle-born Lily Potter (nay Evans), ended up following the pure-blood supremacist faction of Death Eaters, before (spoiler alert) he switched sides.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Muggle-born Hermione Granger was pretty much known as the "brightest witch of her age", and Lily Potter was portrayed as "a singularly gifted witch". It's not surprising then that Rowling's careful characterisation evokes questions about prejudices and empathy for readers at an early age. Earlier this year, "The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice" a study that was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, showed that children who have read the books were more likely to be emphatic towards minorities and immigrants. We doubt that Umbridge would have approved.
On Pottermore, there's a footnote from Rowling, where she explains how she plotted the character of Umbridge, borrowing physical traits from a "teacher or instructor" who had a "pronounced taste for twee accessories". Rowling adds that this person's lemon plastic hair bow was what she remembered when she perched "the fly-like ornament" on Umbridge's head. A quick refresher for Muggles - when Potter goes for his Defense Against the Dark Arts class, his instant dislike for Umbridge is reinforced as he sees a black velvet bow on top of her head and he "was again reminded forcibly of a large fly perched unwisely on top of an ever larger toad". Rowling assures us that the resemblance stops at the physical level and she grossly exaggerated her "taste for the sickly sweet and girlish in dress" to create this character.
Umbridge is also reminiscent of a former colleague of Rowling's who had filled her office wall space with pictures of "fluffy kittens" while actually being "the most bigoted, spiteful champion of the death penalty". Rowling writes, "I have noticed more than once in life that a taste for the ineffably twee can go hand-in-hand with a distinctly uncharitable outlook on the world". In her famous 2008 Harvard Commencement speech, Rowling talked about the power of human empathy, and how those who "choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy". Thoughts she continues to echo on her website.
There's plenty more to discover on Pottermore - such as why Potter was able to see the Thestrals, magical bat-winged horses that draw the Hogwarts carriages and are invisible to "all who have never been truly touched by death"; the wizards who have been Ministers of Magic since 1707; and the history of the wizarding prison Azkaban.
As usual, it is a joy to read Rowling when she's writing about her world of wizards and witches. Her snippets reveals the meticulous research that went into the books - whether it was the origin of Umbridge's name or the political context behind a wretched prison like Azkaban. It also reminds us that not only did Rowling write a bestselling series that inspired a generation of children to return to reading, but also that her stories laid bare complexities of inequality, racism and tolerance, issues that cut across both the wizarding and the Muggle world.
Visit www.pottermore.com. Muggles need to register.