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Last Updated: 06/23/2003
Of Harry, George...and HG
Simon Stander

The Monitor congratulates JK Rowling on her success, compares her to Orwell and Wells and fears that the world needs more than a magic wand.

Simon Stander, editorThe news that an impecunious single mother has become a semi-billionaire within less than a decade is heartening indeed. Doubtless she will use the money wisely having been a social security recipient in deep poverty. That the world of fantasy, in this case of magic, is the meat and drink of her work about the young man Harry Potter, comes as no surprise. The English have long been good at fantasy, though many might call it deception . Sir Thomas More gave us, at least on paper, Utopia: Tolkien gave us the Hobbits and such like and two other best selling authors that now seem eternal are George Orwell, whose centenary it is this very week, and H.G.Wells, whose work inspired President Jose Figueres to ban the armed forces in Costa Rica (an act followed now by some twelve other countries).


It is hard to say whether perfidious Albion and fantasy fiction are intimately connected. It is true to say, however, that both Orwell (d. 1950) and Wells (d. 1946) produced fantasies and science fiction of serious intent. Rattling good fiction went hand in hand with clear messages, though one critic did argue of Wells that he sold his birthright for a “pot of message”.


Orwell, the disillusioned socialist, warns in Animal Farm of the horrific dangers of totalitarianism, of allowing a class of pigs to grow fat on our labour, of military leadership and of unwholesome alliances. In 1984, and with rather less humour, he warns us of government controlled media, and tells us of what happens to human rights while permanent war is conducted by those who hold power in the State.


George Orwell, as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, he was no advocate of war as a solution to anything. Having suffered many indignities as well as being shot in the neck, the cause, he argued, did not matter.


“A louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb, even thought the cause you are fighting happens to be just.”


 If there was to be an answer at all he thought it had to lie with the common man somehow. He gave us a least one truth about war and peace:


“The outcome of the Spanish Civil War was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin – at any rate not in Spain.”


Increasingly this is true in many parts of the world. All too often the decisions about where the fighting will occur takes place elsewhere than where the war is. The most affected have the least to say.


Orwell, however, could not find a realistic way of putting the common man first except by making a distinction between his definition of patriotism (good) and his definition of nationalism (bad).


“By patriotism I mean devotion to a particular place and particular way of life which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.” He contrasts this isolationist non-aggression with “nationalism, which is inseparable from the desire for power.”


For Orwell a world government or a united nations was anathema. Not for Orwell the modern dictum think global, act local. The local was all. H.G.Wells thought otherwise.


H.G Wells was simultaneously more pessimistic and more optimistic than Orwell. Like Orwell, he had no time for the military. In his best selling history, Outline History of the World, (how many best selling history books are sold these days?), he wrote:


“The professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind: no man of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling.”


What is worrying these days is that there are some very accomplished people in the military, and this may be something of a disaster for the future.


But it was on the question of establishing a world government that Wells departed most markedly from Orwell. To Wells, history was a race at the end of which was either salvation or total destruction. A world government or world brain seemed to him to be the answer. He also put the history and the future of mankind together in this succinct way:


“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”


I have to admit I haven’t read a Harry Potter book, and, as I understand it, the books carry no special message other than the hero triumphs over evil. On the other hand, if the books claim to raise substantially the number of children who read that can be no bad thing. Education, rather than patriotism, may well be our guarantee against catastrophe....probably a better bet than a magic wand.