We’ve talked a lot on this blog about authors who use their novels as religious allegories, but many authors also use various magical diseases and abilities as a stand-in for many touchy political or personal issues.
In J.K. Rowling’s case, she switched out a real disease for an imaginary one: lycanthropy. The werewolves that populate Harry Potter were meant to be an allegory for the real-life suffering of people with HIV and AIDS, who, up until recently, were treated with contempt and suspicion by the general populace due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what caused the disease and what the disease did. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s Remus Lupin’s life in a nutshell. In the 2008 court case between JKR and Steve Vander Ark over the HP Lexicon, Rowling said:
I know that I’ve said publicly that Remus Lupin was supposed to be on the H.I.V. metaphor. It was someone who had been infected young, who suffered stigma, who had a fear of infecting others, who was terrified he would pass on his condition to his son. And it was a way of examining prejudice, unwarranted prejudice towards a group of people. And also, examining why people might become embittered when they’re treated that unfairly.
On the other hand, some authors have also used magical skills as allegory for people with skills that aren’t socially acceptable. Holly Black’s Curse Workers series is one such example. In the books, “workers” are people whose powers can affect something about other people. Emotion workers can influence other peoples’ emotions, death workers can kill people, and so on and so forth. However, Black makes it very clear that these people do not have to be bad people just because they have skills that can be used for nefarious purposes. She ties worker history to her version of Prohibition. In the real-life Prohibition era, people weren’t allowed to make or sell alcohol, but they still did, because there was a market for it. In the Curse Workers universe, the prohibition on working is never repealed, and workers who want to use their skills are forced to do so illegally. As with alcohol, there’s still a market for working—people want luck workers to bless their weddings, for example. But such services have to be obtained illegally, and there are no unions or protections for workers, who are largely forced to become criminals.
A better allegory for curse working—rather than brewing alcohol, which most of us think of as a useful tool—might be hacking. In today’s world, hacking is illegal and still thought of as a bad thing. Most hackers are criminals, and if they aren’t, they work for government institutions, as Curse Workers protagonist Cassel Sharpe is forced to do.
It seems like authors use allegory in their stories to bring attention to the plight of people who are oppressed or discriminated against. For the most part, I think this is a good thing, because an allegory creates some distance between the reader and his or her subconscious biases. A reader might have something against hackers or people with AIDS, but if a story is ostensibly about werewolves or curse workers, the reader won’t be tempted to throw the story away at the first sign of trouble. Reading a story with an allegory makes it more likely for biased readers to accept the story, much like taking medicine with a dash of sugar.
The problem comes when the allegory is either too subtle for the reader to catch, or the author doesn’t make the allegory explicitly clear. The Curse Workers series did a very good job laying out its thesis that people who had skills that could be used for evil were not necessarily evil people themselves. Harry Potter, on the other hand, didn’t make the allegory between werewolves and AIDS sufferers explicitly clear in the series—although to be fair, Rowling was fighting centuries of werewolf lore on that one. A reader will probably leave the Curse Workers believing in its thesis, but a reader might leave the Harry Potter series and just feel sorry for werewolves, not the real-life group on which werewolves were based. In this case, while I’m glad a reader might feel sympathy for werewolves, Rowling missed the opportunity to force the reader to examine his or her own prejudices more closely.
There’s also the problem of an allegory being used by authors to score brownie points without challenging anything for real. It’s not magic, but the X-Men series were long complimented for being allegorical explorations of racism, homophobia, etc. without actually including LGBT people and/or POC as characters (yes, I know there are currently queer characters and characters of color, but it took a while). Allegories are one of the best parts of sci-fi/fantasy for me, but they don’t make up for the real thing.
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