Fantasy worlds dominated my childhood. As a toddler, I began my fantastical journey with the Barbie and Disney Princess movies. Reading allowed me to explore the wondrous even further through The Magic Tree House series, then through the Percy Jackson universe, and then finally through the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Reading the latter series as an elementary school student was always regarded somewhat as a triumph in the realm of children’s fantasy series: It was one’s first several-thousand-page endeavor. More than being long, it was also a series that shared adult enjoyment and acclaim. Harry Potter provided kids their first fictional encounter with an evil threat, parallel to ones in our own world, in which there were actual character deaths and the stakes actually felt real. Harry Potter is a story of overcoming the death eater pure-blood wizard supremacists and features forgiveness and understanding one’s enemies prominently. It felt relatively mature and anti-authoritarian which is a riveting notion as an elementary student.
But alas, in the age of Twitter, our childhood heroes often die. Such is the case with JK Rowling, whose current obsession lies not in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, but instead in advocating against trans rights and befriending bigots on twitter. Though this seemed a sudden turn from Rowling’s championing of feminist values and disavowal of bigotry, Harry Potter fans began to reflect and see if Rowling’s problematic beliefs somehow permeated through the books they loved. They did. Fans remembered the goblins who controlled the wizarding bank, a combination of various anti-Semitic tropes, as well as Rita Skeeter, who reads as a transphobe’s image of a trans woman, with her “large mannish hands” and “curls that contrasted heavily with her heavily-jawed face.” Perhaps more confusing, there was the collective remembrance of the in-book fun poked at Hermione’s SPEW, an advocacy group for the house elfs who were enslaved at Hogwarts.
For some fans, these caricatures poisoned the series entirely, yet other fans still believed most of the magic of the wizarding world existed beyond the author’s problematic beliefs. It’s understandable why fans may be protective of their love for Harry Potter. Books, especially those directed towards a young audience, can be formative in one’s development of empathy and a moral framework. Books allow people to experience situations that one has never before encountered, which is particularly educational as a child. Consequently, it can be hard for an audience who grew up with a piece of media that they considered developmentally meaningful to reflect and see that many values that contradict with their current beliefs appear in the text. Moreover, the genre of fantasy occupies a niche in one’s upbringing that is unique in its ability to appeal visually and thematically to children. Children like escapism, worldbuilding and the grand scale of conflict that is so often present in fantasy.
In order to “let go” of Harry Potter, one would need a replacement—which seems like an impossible task. I can think of no perfect book analogue that produces the same jubilation as one felt stepping into Harry Potter’s Hogwarts for the first time. Rather than a replacement, I can offer an alternative evil versus good conflict in a parallel wizarding world which escapes the pitfalls of intolerance present in Harry Potter, that of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. Earthsea answered an ethical question that always lurked inarticulately in the back of my mind when reading fantasy: Can a world in which immense wizarding power exists still have a notion of humane justice?
I only fully understood the novelty in this question’s answer when comparing Earthsea to Harry Potter. I read Earthsea for the first time just this past summer, and the series surprised me in its surface-level similarities to Harry Potter. In the first book out of four, A Wizard of Earthsea, a young rural wizard, Ged, attends a wizarding school where he meets a young rival, Jasper, who comes from a more privileged background and clearly invokes the likes of Rowling’s Draco Malfoy. Long-time fans of Harry Potter may think that JK Rowling innovated the premise of a wizarding school and other authors took inspiration from this model, and yes, Harry Potter was incredibly influential in fantasy – but not to Le Guin; A Wizard of Earthsea predates JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by almost thirty years. Whether or not JK Rowling was directly inspired by Earthsea is irrelevant, but Earthsea reveals the extant pathways available to Rowling that she chose to not take and illuminates the thematic power of these decisions.
Both Ged and Harry Potter are recruited to wizard school by a mentor figure. Harry is picked up by Hagrid, in a scene that avenges Harry against the abusive Dursleys who foolishly thought they could prevent Harry from his true nature. After Vernon insults Dumbledore, Hagrid “loses his temper” and gives Dudley a pig tail. This first encounter with a trained sorcerer endorses the vindictive and habitual use of magic. Harry’s first encounter with a trained wizard mentor is vastly different from Ged’s first encounter with his mentor Ogion, who does not use his magic for more than four days after they first meet. He instead insists that Ged learn his surroundings and the old languages before attempting any spells. Magic is portrayed as something one should refrain from using, which is in direct contrast to Hagrid’s actions.
Not only are different outlooks on magic established early on, presented through these mentor figures, the characters also respond to these outlooks in divergent ways. Harry takes to Hagrid immediately. He has also wanted to push back against his abusive aunt and uncle and realize his own ability. Ged, similar to Harry, wishes to embrace his newfound power and cannot understand why someone like Ogion would selectively choose to not use it. He eventually chooses to leave Ogion for the wizarding school in order to have a more accelerated magical education.
Ged eventually learns why immense displays of power are harmful when he attempts to impress his rival Jasper via raising the spirit of a dead woman. Unintentionally, this releases a shadow, representing all Ged’s inner darkness, that continues to haunt him until the end of the first book. Fierce indulgence in one’s own magic ability is harshly reprimanded in A Wizard of Earthsea as it is motivated by selfish desires that harm others, both living and dead. Magic is a destabilizing force in Earthsea that, when used in certain ways, propagates injustice.
In Harry Potter, the ultimate role of magic and justice is more complicated. Take the Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter rivalry which features an abundance of trivial magic like Hagrid’s pig tail spell. The Draco-Harry rivalry culminates in book six, when Harry’s spell in book six leaves Draco close to death; Draco had been forcibly acting as an agent to the Dark Lord the entire sixth book, yet Harry continuously focuses all of his efforts on surveilling and confronting him which leads Harry to using near-lethal power against a pawn. Harry’s obsession with taking down Draco distracts him from his ultimate enemy: Voldemort. Unlike Earthsea, this rivalry does not castigate prodigious use of magic for one’s own vanity. Instead of looking inwards, the book insists that one must reflect on the targets of such magic and rage.
However, this is too noncomprehensive of an interpretation of Harry Potter’s use of magic. Yes, Harry’s use of magic as it relates to Draco is largely rebuked. However, there are other instances, such as Hagrid’s introduction in which magic as retributive justice is affirmed. The Weasley twins also give Dudley a candy that makes his tongue grow incredibly large in which attempts at removal were incredibly painful. These scenes epitomize the “mean streak” in Harry Potter. Yes, retributive magic is sometimes reprimanded, like with Ged’s, but other times, particularly when it is pointed at overweight characters, it is the comic relief.
These magical actions invoke schadenfreude in the audience, which by itself is not “wrong.” Many other stories in children’s literature (such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where child characters undergo candy-themed retribution for their deadly sins) prominently feature retribution played for comic relief. Some schadenfreude in literature is not something that one should always be ashamed of feeling; it makes for a cathartic reading experience as a kid, and fiction is a safe place to exercise these feelings. However, this schadenfreude is unevenly applied. The different outcomes in Draco and Harry rivalry versus Dudley’s attacks produce two very different images of how magic should be used. In the rivalry, punitive magic should only be reserved for legitimate evil targets, but on the other hand this magic is endorsed to use against, well, Dudley.
This dynamic reveals a central tension in Harry Potter. While claiming to represent an epic battle in which good triumphs over evil, the enemies and targets of justice are unclear at the end. Rowling does a lot of work in her final book to paint characters such as Malfoy and Snape and institutions such as House Slytherin as redemptive but is ultimately unconvincing as this goes against the reader’s past experiences with books one through six. Harry Potter leaves the reader with a murky, uneven application of how magic can achieve some justice in the form of eliminating a single, evil individual.
This tension is not present in A Wizard of Earthsea. The scale of Le Guin’s novel is much more restrained than Harry Potter, and the grand conflicts of banishing dragons are actually ancillary to the main drama, which is that of Ged’s personal journey. Once Ged understands that his old master Ogion’s magical restraint is to preserve a sense of equilibrium in A Wizard of Earthsea (spoilers), Ged defeats an evil wizard that is disrupting the balance of the world by sacrificing his power in The Farthest Shore.
Le Guin, as opposed to Rowling, has a clear moral lesson in place regarding power for the Earthsea Cycle. Ged’s coming of age also coincides with being granted massive amounts of inherent power that could very easily be used for personal gain. Le Guin introduces this notion of balance that contends with Ged’s impulses; as Ogion describes, “danger must surround power as shadow does light”. The consideration of less powerful beings is central in this balance of power. Ged in the second book, The Tombs of Attuan, is asked about whether he can magically catch a rabbit for food, to which he responds that he can call a rabbit “by name” but catching, cooking, and skinning that rabbit would be a “break of trust.” Magic in the Earthsea Cycle is conducted by knowing an object’s “true” name. In order to gain power over something, one must “know” an object enough to get its name, but the process of learning a name also leads to “trust” between the wizard and the object. This process of learning occurs with the smallest creatures, rabbits, to the largest creatures, dragons. Every use of power in Earthsea is intimate, focused on the relationship between the wizard and the object versus the wizard and the target that he may use this object against. Retribution and magic for personal gain would violate this magical contract and be unjust.
In addition to the magic system’s inherent form of justice, also critical is how power can manifest in ways other than magic and how wizards aid those without magic in Earthsea. The main character of the series shifts from Ged to Tenar in The Tombs of Attuan. Tenar, who has no magical ability and was separated from her parents when she was just a child, forfeited her name and became “the eaten one” to serve the gods of her people. Despite having no explicit magical powers, she has other abilities, such as her immense knowledge of her surroundings and consideration for others that allows her and Ged to escape her temple. Ged’s commitment to saving Tenar is also notable. Ged returns Tenar’s true name to her as an act of bestowing power back to her and delivering justice in a world that has so far denied her that. In the Earthsea Cycle, the world and conflicts of wizards, common people, and creatures are entwined, and in order to achieve humane justice, those who pursue magic must use their abilities sparingly, with a devout consideration for less powerful beings.
Earthsea provides a powerful worldbuilding framework that shows how magic can evince both just and unjust ends. Furthermore, Le Guin demonstrates how one can be lured into injustice quite easily, but eventually learn to practice humane justice. Harry Potter’s exploration of justice in relation to magic is more nebulous. The justness of one’s magic appears to be based more on what individuals are the target of power, but even this characterization fails to encompass Rowling’s outlook on the relationship of power and justice. Perhaps it is in poor taste to ascribe author’s beliefs retroactively on a written work, but I’d argue that the amorphous nature of this power and justice relationship is intentional on Rowling’s part based on her current statements. Rowling’s characters do not meditate on the ethical implications of having wizarding power beyond having to defeat a single, evil individual. Structural questions about how wizards, house elves, and muggles can coexist on equal footing are left unanswered. These questions are hard, and it can be easier to ignore like in Harry Potter, or as J.K. Rowling has recently done—question whether such injustice occurs at all.
Le Guin’s Earthsea may lack Harry Potter’s ethical magic escapism, but as I’ve matured, I’ve lost the urge for such escapism. Such escapism can so easily be converted to blatant meanness or shirking of moral responsibility. Le Guin’s Earthsea, on the other hand, is continuously understanding in its prose, whether it be a young wizard learning the implications of his power, a girl whose childhood has been taken away, or an ex-wizard who suddenly must learn to live without powers. Her words, in her own wizardly way, exercise such emotional power upon the reader and challenge her audience to imagine humane justice in a world that, despite appearances, may not be quite so different from our own.