Warning: spoilers abound
Fiction is built on the scaffolding of our everyday lives. At their best, the fantasy worlds we visit in books challenge us to see things in a new way; they show us that our world could be different, that we could be different, better, than we are now. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one such world.
Remus John Lupin
The masterful portrayal of Remus Lupin, who suffers from lycanthropy (being a werewolf), is a powerful portrait of stigmatized disease. On her website, Pottermore, Rowling writes that Lupin’s lycanthropy, “was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS…The wizarding community is as prone to hysteria and prejudice as the Muggle one, and the character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes”1.
She paints a grim picture. Lupin is the victim of a childhood attack brought on by the ill-chosen, intolerant words of his own father, who described werewolves as “soulless, evil, deserving nothing but death”1. After the attack, Lupin’s family fears discovery and social backlash and moves often. He finds solace and acceptance (of a kind) at Hogwarts, but even there his condition is kept a closely guarded secret. As an adult, he is forced to live hand-to-mouth to keep his lycanthropy hidden. Because of his poverty, he is unable to access the only successful treatment, Wolfsbane Potion. The potion, like the antiretrovirals used to treat HIV, is prohibitively expensive and perhaps more importantly, can’t be taken without admitting to having the condition1.
Lupin becomes “so used to considering himself unclean and unworthy”1 that even his greatest joys are tinged with fear and self-loathing. He avoids the advances of the woman he loves, for fear of the repercussions for her. At the prospect of his son’s birth he is beset by fears that he might pass on his condition. Even at times of great stress or danger, he is unable to accept himself; he avoids casting a corporeal Patronus because it (a wolf) is a constant reminder of his condition1.
But- and this is essential- even after enduring such hardship, Lupin remains kind and generous and brave. He never defects from the Order of the Phoenix, he never betrays a friend (I’m looking at you, Pettigrew). In his final act of heroism he dies fighting against the oppression of others.
The power of Potter
Harry Potter is the most successful book series of all time. As of 2013, there were an estimated 450 million copies of the books in print in 73 languages, and the films had grossed approximately 7.7 billion dollars worldwide3. Clearly, Harry Potter is a fantastic tool for education and outreach, but the books have another trick up their sleeve: they actually reduce stigma. A 2015 study showed that reading passages in Harry Potter about prejudice “improves the attitude”4 of young people toward marginalized groups like homosexuals, immigrants, and refugees. This effect occurred in younger students when they associated with Harry Potter, and in university students when they disassociated from Voldemort4.
Although it is not news that illustrations of friendship between in- and out-group (i.e. not marginalized and marginalized) individuals improve the attitudes of children toward stigmatized groups, the Harry Potter results are particularly fascinating because the stories are fantastical. In fact, the separation between the world of Harry Potter and our own may make all the difference, allowing Harry Potter to raise awareness without raising hackles. Precisely because it is a fantasy it may not inspire defensiveness in the audience, leaving them more open to learning lessons of tolerance2.
The staggering success and social impact of Harry Potter is a perfect example of the ability of art to move us. By highlighting the pain caused by exclusion and oppression, Rowling inspires us to change not only ourselves, but also the world around us. By giving us Lupin, she has put an enduring face on the suffering caused by stigmatized disease and taught millions the awesome power of love and acceptance. As ever, Rowling said it best, describing Lupin as “a brave, kind man who did the best he could in very difficult circumstances and who helped many more than he ever realized”1.
- Rowling, JK. Remus Lupin. Pottermore. Web. 18 August 2015.
- Stetka, B. Why everyone should read Harry Potter. Scientific American.com. 9 September 2014. Web. 19 August 2015.
- TIME Staff. Because it’s his birthday: Harry Potter, by the numbers. TIME.com. 31 July 2013. Web. 18 August 2015.
- Vezzali, L, S. Stathi, D. Giovannini, D. Capozza, & E. Trifiletta. 2015. The greatest magic of Harry Potter: reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45: 105-121.
Image source: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Order_of_Merlin
Postscript: stranger than fiction
On the off chance that Lupin’s story is difficult to believe, it’s important to remember that the stigma around HIV is very real and very destructive. Stigma manifests differently in different cultures and situations, but can include loss of income, loss of marriage or childbearing options, poor health care, loss of reputation, and loss of hope. Stigma can occur at any social level, from individual to institutional: as of October 2013, 41 countries had laws that restrict the entry, stay and residence of people with HIV. And stigma perpetuates the disease; fear of stigma and discrimination keep people from seeking testing and treatment1.
- AVERT. HIV & AIDS stigma and discrimination. AVERT.org. 12 February 2014. Web. 18 August 2015.