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The Absent Referent: Vegetarianism and Harry Potter

November 3, 2014

“Hermione — open your ears. They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!”

This quote comes from a Harry Potter book, the fourth in the series, entitled The Goblet of Fire. The speaker, Ron Weasley, is referring to house-elves, a fictional creature bound to serve the wizards and witches of the Harry Potter universe [herein, the Potterverse] as their domestic slaves. His friend, Hermione Granger, hotly contests this use of creatures for human benefit.

There are many aspects of social justice, and apathetic attitudes towards them, covered by this one sentence. A quick Google search showed me that it resonated with several similarly minded Potter fans. The issue I would like to talk about is the use of animals for the gratification of humans, as pets, and even as livestock raised in (it is argued) “safe” conditions before slaughter. It is said that these animals, in their short time on earth, enjoy a greater quality of life than those in the wild, an argument simply not backed up by the laziest and most dispassionate of observations.

Reading The Goblet of Fire again for the first time in years, now as a vegan, has proved to be a distinctly different experience for me. I still enjoy it very much, but of all the books it is the most rife with animal oppression and harm, normalised, dramatised and made exciting for sport. Throughout the book, it is not clear if we are supposed to laugh at or agree with Hermione, or the gamekeeper and Care of Magical Creatures teacher Hagrid, who loves all magical monsters for what they are without attempting to alter them into more domestic versions of themselves – an unattractive trait in most humans, who feel constantly the need to dominate and force weaker beings into different forms, in order that they might become more palatable, handleable, useful or aesthetically pleasing.

I thinly hope, but deeply doubt, that the author Joan Rowling was perfectly aware of the strong vegetarian message that ran through the whole of the book, alongside the classic arguments about equality. I doubt it because, like all of her Potter books before it and since, it is thick with tantalising descriptions of animal-based foods. All the usual ones are there; steak, pork chops, steak and kidney pie, chicken drumsticks, bacon.

Let’s be clear about this. It isn’t magic food. It doesn’t appear from nowhere. Rowling clarified this later when, in order to increase dramatic tension between the characters, she invented a law of magic that meant wizards could not create food out of nothing; but even before this point, all wizard meat was made of animals, for the simple reason that it was never suggested otherwise. There are still, at least, chickens and eggs in the Potterverse, so I imagine there are cows and pigs, since I have no reason to imagine the wizard world differs from the non-magical one in any way other than the ways directly stated by its creator.

If meat was conjured from thin air, I am sure this would be mentioned, in a world as rich in detail as the Potterverse – especially since, if the idea was introduced by Rowling, it would be an obvious criticism of killing animals for food, since it is such a brazen departure from a long-standing tradition. I don’t doubt that, if Rowling had wanted to make such a point, she would certainly have found a way to seamlessly work it into the fiction, as she did with many other equally valid social points. Since she did not, we should assume that meat is created in the usual way. The lack of discussion about it indicates the normality of animal consumption is accepted in the wizarding world as well as the “muggle” (non-magical) one.

I suspect that there was no inner conflict about this for Rowling. She is unlikely to have thought about it at length. Fiction mirrors reality, even in the most fantastical of fantasies; wherever interesting details like this are omitted, it tells us that the author was not inclined to consider them. Harry Potter shows that meat eating is so ingrained, it never occurred to Rowling that there was anything strange, unappetising or even just downright impractical about the world of meat. In other words, the lie is infectious. It infiltrates our minds without us even knowing it has come. Steak and kidney pie is not cattle butt and vital organ. It is steak and kidney pie, as instant and perfect as if it has indeed been conjured up by magic. No other magic is required; it is provided for us by generations’ worth of desensitisation.

Throughout all the Harry Potter books, food is the constant solace of its main character, who spent the first eleven years of his life fed only on what was there and never what he especially wanted – such is the way of First World fiction, that if a character (particularly a child) never gets what they want, even if he gets everything he physically needs, he is considered abused – provided their guardians have the means to buy luxuries. Most unfortunately, this view does not stay within the confines of fiction. The entitlement of meat eating rears its head.

Not long ago, I was compelled to give a list of reasons why it isn’t cruel to raise a child vegan, because I heard the view expressed so often it became tedious. To not give children the things that merely tantalise them, regardless of the impact their desire has on the world at large, is considered cruel only in the most astoundingly privileged of societies. We routinely imprint in children’s minds the idea that certain luxuries are also entitlements. Meat is certainly one. At the height of his neglect, Harry was never completely deprived of bacon. That would be too much. It was only when his obese cousin had to undergo a diet that Harry was forced to forgo it along with the rest of his family, and his response to a proposed diet of only vegetables was akin to a proposed diet of worms. Such is the way of things; grapefruit is an impoverishment, not nourishment.

Food indicates every mood, every premonition, every happiness and every misery in Harry Potter. Like any good children’s writer, Rowling understood that food is emotion, an easily accessible kind for simpler minds. Life’s sweetness tastes sweet. We savour the moment like a savoury dish. Food entices, it is emotive. It fills every sense. Harry’s loneliness, grief, fear, anger, joy, courage and just about every other emotion imaginable is described through food. Not being able to swallow was always a serious sign. Not being able to gain access to food, or being hungry for any amount of time, was held as a serious impediment, a breach of an unspoken rule, or as reason to mourn and experience pangs of sympathy. Rowling knew well, and used to great effect, the global acceptance that food is empathy. Eating is such a basic need, there a few who cannot appreciate it.

That somebody would spurn food voluntarily is a powerful gesture. Hermione did so, when she realised that her food was the product of the slave labour of creatures held in lesser regard. Yet, something significant is missing from Hermione’s stand for elf rights.

When Hermione talks of the oppression of house-elves, she is often eating. She is usually eating meat. The animals that make up that meat are an “absent referent”, a term explored in Carol Adams’ feminist vegetarian critique of our culture, The Sexual Politics of Meat. She explains that descriptions of women as “meat” ignores the bald and brutal reality of actual meat and diminishes the sense we should have that, if treating a woman as meat is unacceptable, we must consider that meat itself is unacceptable. I surmise that otherwise, the comparison wouldn’t much matter, that it would have no power; the power is unacknowledged proof that, when we speak of meat, we refer to the unspeakable.

In Hermione’s case, she recognised that “slave labour made this meal.” Yet, she is not talking about the trapped and slaughtered bull she is about to consume, but rather the beings who served it. She refers to the meat in front of her without realising that she does, making it absent, yet present. To my eyes, this comment on the meat and dairy industries is as loud as a shout and looks purposeful; there is irony in her short-sightedness, as Hermione fails to see what is literally right underneath her nose – uncharacteristic, since Hermione is the most perceptive person you could imagine, and certainly the most astute of anyone in the fiction. This could be considered testament to the power of the lie. However, I doubt Rowling saw it this way, judging by the way she writes food throughout all of her books.

There are no vegetarians at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Every person who is described while eating is described in the process of eating meat. Perhaps vegetarianism is too real and raw an issue, related to current concerns and affairs, thus would be too controversial, too alienating for normal readers; the type of politics that could dirty a page, far more than speaking on the injustice of judging humans by the “purity of blood”, a clear allegory for racism, which no rational person could argue with. Perhaps mentioning a single vegetarian seemed like inconsequential filler, more so than the description of the smell of treacle tart wafting through the halls. Or, more likely, it simply never occurred to Rowling to mention the topic, as many details of life do not when writing a book, since one can never include them all.

Yet, I would have thought the house-elves would have much to say about it; they are as much a stickler for tradition as anyone, even when they are worst affected by it (showing awareness of the behaviour of oppressed groups in privileged societies). They are characterised by it, as creatures who accept their own enslavement because it is their “place”. And there is no greater break with tradition than the spurning of offered meat.

When asking for food from a house-elf, they will always assume meat or buttery snacks, because hearty animal protein is rarely turned down in any culture. A good house-elf serves the best; animal, apparently, is unquestionably the best. They are afraid of strangeness, of anything out of sync with what they expect from the world. Hermione’s elf liberation stand is met with much the same foot-shuffling embarrassment and sometimes horror as my veganism. What we see, clearly, is that regardless of the context, humans and humanoids fear change and difference above all else.

No doubt Ron would have a field day with vegetarianism, the typical food-orientated sort of man he is. I can see him reacting the same way to it as to house-elf liberation, telling people they worry too much and, by implication, they should just shut up and enjoy the food put before them, that it is an affront to someone’s effort and efficiency to object to food of any kind on the grounds of ethics. Yes, I have met many Rons…

Hagrid, with his love of all creatures great and small, is a surprising meat eater. Perhaps because it is the meat of muggle animals that wizards eat, it matters less. An interesting point in itself; if they never eat magical animals, that suggests there is a prejudice in magical versus non-magical in the minds of even the fairest wizards. It is simply that this distinction is made of animals and not of people.

“ … it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn,” said Firenze.

This is a quote from the first book, The Philosopher’s Stone. A fundamental difference between monsters and creatures, muggle and magical animals, is firmly laid out early in the series.

Thus, we see in Harry Potter, the same level of presumption about animals and their intelligence as we do in real life. An short satellite work by Rowling written for comic relief, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was given over to describing all her magical creatures. Variable in intelligence though they are, few if any are recommended for lunch as far as I recall. Cows, who have best friends and recognisable personalities, and pigs who can follow commands as easily as a dog, are eaten in practically every chapter, but nobody munches on a bit of roasted fire crab.

It is true that later in the main series, other fictional creatures turned up in recipes – though usually via accepted weird characters and without much culinary recommendation, such as the Lovegood family’s purportedly revolting plimpy soup. This lateness in the appearance of edible magical creatures suggests to me that it only eventually occurred to Rowling that, as animals, some of them must be as edible as muggle animals. Or rather, that they could be; there is an element of fascination in thinking about the food chain in one’s own fictional universe. We seem forever to be thinking about what we can get away with eating.

I can understand why an author might avoid describing too many characters much down their beloved fictional creatures. It seems more barbaric somehow, to invent something so it can be chewed up and digested so indifferently. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that magical creatures are more often used for potions or as fodder for others; if they are in magical concoctions and thus separated from reality by yet another degree, it is as though the killing has happened further away, in yet another land.

In a distant land, between two fictional animals, in front of fictional characters in a fictional universe; this is the distance we wish we had when dealing with the thorny subject of meat. The distance is so far, that those closer – inside the fiction – give no indication that they understand the implications of what they’re doing. Hagrid, for example, is the least sensitive to the concepts he should be most sensitive to.

As a quintessential rustic, his wild appearance is topped off by a mole skin overcoat and beaver skin boots. Whatever materials regular wizard robes are made of, a point is made of Hagrid’s rough clothing; a parody of a past era, as in many ways Harry Potter is an homage to period drama-esque simplicity; the beauty of quills, parchment (traditionally dried animal hide), post by carrier birds, candles, gas lamps and fireplaces. Hagrid, for all his unfamiliarity in ways and form, is humanity personified. The convenience and tradition of animal usage (by all accounts, more tradition that convenience, as wizards can conjure most any object, no doubt including clothes, from thin air) blinds him to the hypocrisy of being an animal lover and, indirectly, killer.

Since he loves dragons above all other creatures, I was somewhat surprised to read of him feeding dragon liver to his pet Blast-Ended Skrewts that he cross bred from other creatures. A touch daft though he is, Hagrid could have had this pointed out to him by a more astute, if perhaps not so kind, person – but apparently none exist. Or one might think he has, in his own right, sensibilities and sensitivity enough to see that the slaughtering of his favourite (and in fact endangered) wild animals in order to feed a creature of his own invention is grossly hypocritical, a violation of his firmest beliefs. Not so.

It is not so, because all the Harry Potter characters are exactly like us, in all ways non-superficial – a large chunk of the reason why the books have such mass appeal. Like the Potterites, we experience a disconnect between what is living and loved and what is dead and ripe for use. We have developed a sense of entitlement to take life and create new forms of it, regardless of the consequences. The process of removing life from something else is constantly and repeatedly brushed over, however much the process differs in varying modes of brutality – a wizard killing, though told to be painless, includes with it the ultimate violence of murder.

It is decidedly odd that the distant deaths of innumerable cattle should be worth only a shrug, when The Goblet of Fire is the book which imagines that even ordinary spiders can feel pain and fear. When Professor Moody demonstrates the use of killing and torturing spells to his class by testing them on spiders, they are described in such human terms that (in the face of previous and later evidence), it seems likely Rowling has a certain connection with the little beasties – be it horror like Ron or benign tolerance like Harry or Professor Dumbledore, it is impossible to say. Interesting that our relationship with animals allows us to anthropomorphise them as enemies or friends, without having any opinion on our routine use and destruction of them.

Especially when The Goblet of Fire is so thick with creatures mistreated, used or thoughtlessly killed, murdered and harmed, spurned or wished for dead. What is loving and fair is waved away in preference for what is fun. At one point, Harry and some of his peers battle a dragon each. One of these is hit in the eyes (a dragon’s most sensitive spot) with a curse that causes her such pain – brace yourself, vegan mothers – she tramples and squashes her own eggs. Hagrid could have objected, since he knew in advance; he could have let out at least the slightest wince, when watching from the stands, or expressed his regret after the event… But he did not. The man who loves all creatures as they are, as opposed to how others would prefer them to be, accepts without question their manipulation for the use of wizards. True, he is not very sophisticated, but in this particular sense, nor is anyone else in the Potterverse.

This, of course, is because the Potterverse is our own universe augmented and reduced in various ways. Our culture makes our fiction as blind as our reality; in our world, and in Harry’s, many parts of an animal are split and fragmented from each other, considered entirely separate and distinct depending on their uses to humans. A creature’s character is not whole. It is not a being, even if all its individually recognised elements suggest strongly that it is.

The intelligence and pacifism of unicorns is not mentioned when their tails are being plucked against their will for use in magic wands (Ollivander, Chapter The Weighing of the Wands), but in other contexts, where it is supposedly the worst crime of humanity to harm one – perhaps including harm against other humans, suggesting the slaying of an “innocent” creature is worse than an attack on something armed ad dangerous, like a grown human… A message that gets increasingly cloudy, the more animals are killed.

The intelligence of animals, and its relevance in regards to their fate at the hands of wizards, was discussed in the the comic relief book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling elaborated on the history of magical creature categorisation in excerpts from mock documents, where wizards’ attempts to classify creatures into Beast and Being divisions went awry.

The ability to speak words in a recognisable human language was quickly ruled out as a means of distinguishing beings from beasts; gnomes and and jarveys (giant talking ferrets), like parrots, merely possessed the ability to mimic human speech, not to communicate at an advanced level. Unlike parrots, they could use appropriate words in response to situations and stimuli, often rude: “Gerroff me!” … “Get out of it, baldy!” [Though, the expression “get out of it” was a raging anachronism within the mock text in which it appeared, so I suppose the jarvey must have have incredible powers of prediction, even if it used them questionably.]

This opens up the academic query of how one would treat or classify such creatures if they existed. The wizard conclusion was that only those that could be trusted to behave civilly in a human context could be marked as beings. Quite apart from excluding several humans with this distinction, this also establishes beinghood from a culturally biased standpoint, i.e., from the perspective of humans, who, throughout the Potterverse, have forced their domination through tyranny – much as we in the real world have done with other civilisations and other species, quite irrespective of their protests (or lack of power to protest).

In the Potterverse, the presence of humanesque beings considered civilised by modern wizards, such as goblins, poses the question of what it means to be “human”, a word defined as much by a philosophical attribution of various complex mental processes as a determination of biology. The two happen to be inextricably bound in our universe, but even if this were not the case, the Potterverse credibly suggests that our opinion of ourselves and resultant response to other creatures would be exactly the same; that is to say, if humans were not the only beings capable of the types of thought we have come to think of as “human”, we would not necessarily hold them in any better regard than we do our existing animals, as our treatment of other races and creeds has indicated.

The question, in either universe, should never have been: “What does it mean to be human?” The real question is: Why should “human” be the ultimate aspiration of all beings? When we consider that humanity has led to unique kinds of strife in the real world, and in the Potterverse it is often asserted by other intelligent magical beings, not without reason, that they are in some ways superior to the humans who attempt to hold dominion over them. Evidently, Rowling considered the possibility that human arrogance and speciesism knows no bounds.

Regardless of Being status, the extensive privileges of wizardhood is reserved only for them; no elf or goblin may carry a wand, for example, nor as far as I can tell are they represented by their own species inside the Ministry of Magic. There was no reason to ban wands, since such a powerfully magical creature as a goblin could scarcely do greater harm with a wand than without – indeed, a wand-holder experiences certain limitations a goblin does not, such as restrictions in where and when they can apparate (disappear into thin air and reappear somewhere else).

As for house-elves, also powerfully magical creatures, as inherent pacifists and subordinates, they would have no desire to initiate aggression onto humans, with or without a wand. This, in my view, entitles them to instruments of great power far more than the destructive, warlike human species. It is insinuated that, just as goblins desire wands only in principle for the sake of equality, wizards do not want other magical creatures to own magical tools – either because of paranoid fear of having their enforced rule overthrown, or because the possession and withholding of tools creates a greater sense a power for those permitted to own them.

The more I think of the Potterverse and The Goblet of Fire in particular, the more I see the need for a vegetarian angle. How could a character as brilliant, forward thinking and individually minded as Hermione Granger not see the parallel between the food on her fork and the house-elves in the kitchen? She tries to alert her fellow students to plight of the overworked, used and under-appreciated elves, only to be met with derision, because elves are not human and thus not worth bothering about. It is the plight of every vegetarian who has attempted to discuss their views with any meat eater. For veganism, this parallel is more acute; in a nutshell, veganism examines the idea that, wherever it can be avoided, we should not use our fellow creatures for our own gain. This is meant in a sense that extends well beyond merely what one puts in one’s mouth.

Ron’s argument that elves enjoy their lot in life is wearisomely familiar. It sounds like those pet owners who say their faithful dogs love them. As true as it is, this love can still be used to justify poor treatment. House-elves at least can speak and express their will, but Hermione realises that a being’s will may not be in its best interests; that despite their insistences to the contrary, they may be victims of some subtle, socially accepted form of exploitation.

Ron’s problem is nothing more advanced than a resistance to change. It suits him to be able to eat what he likes, regardless of how it comes to be on his plate. He is against the change because the change means a life less comfortable and, terrifyingly enough, different, to the one he has led since weaning. It is the view, attitude and defence of absolutely every carnivore I have ever met. Rather than consider different options, review the evidence and consent to cut back on what at the very least may be an exploitative industry, he would rather lie back and do nothing, satisfied that lesser creatures accept their lot in life because they are, well, lesser. To what extent they are “lesser” doesn’t matter; their apparent lack of action is enough to suggest their contentment, indifference or lack of individual will, however much more complicated the issue proves to be.

His fondness for one or two individuals within the species blinds him to his own exploitative behaviour; he believes, if you like those few and treat them as well as you can whenever directly called upon to do so, you must not be doing their species as a whole any harm. He believes that no harm comes to anything by his hand, unless he sees his hand do the harm, and most particularly not unless he means harm. If it is down in the kitchen, out of sight, it is not him who is responsible for its position, even if he reaps the benefit.

I believe it is Ron who we are invited to identify with, at least at first. This is remedied later on in the fifth to seventh books, where the guns Hermione has stuck to repeatedly fire, with a blast like a cannon; the treatment and reaction of a few house-elves ultimately determines the outcome of a series of crucial events. This, and the constant message that the underestimated will rise up, that it is noble to protect the vulnerable and still see them as your allies, is a message about the importance of all living things, however underestimated; one of the most vegan messages I have ever heard.

Yet, Ron does not really ever give in completely to Hermione’s line of thinking. She is the extreme one who takes it too far, whereas he is the normal one. He likes his food, his food guides him, his stomach is God. Food controls Ron. His judgement is clouded by it, he is so drawn by it. Again, by the seventh book, it becomes clear that a Ron without the food he desires is a dangerous Ron indeed. In all his relative poverty, without new clothes or toys or practical items, he had never needed to get used to the idea that the food he desires is off limits. In this sense, even the least privileged of our society still are, to some extent; they still have the luxury of habit, or insistences, or routines and security bound up in things that don’t matter.

When Ron’s preferred diet becomes off-limits, when it is beyond his reach, he takes it with poor grace. He has become, by his own insistence of fulfilling appetites as his whims dictate, incapable of ignoring them, regardless of the great need there is for him to abandon completely all previous expectations of what food is and what it is for.

When we eat meat and dairy at least (eggs and fish debatable) we are hooked to the flavour that leads us to become unwilling to abandon it. Its fat makes it tasty, its protein satisfying. It feels, as addictions (mild as they may be) often do, like a need rather than a desire. I hear often the “I need cheese / bacon / steak” argument against vegetarianism a lot. It is a dependency that is not generally reserved for vegetables. I dare to suggest there are few people with rich and varied vegetable diets who would be greatly perturbed if told they could no longer eat one specific vegetable ever again. They do not have the same hold over us, much as we may enjoy them. In addition, if having already given up a selection of foods voluntarily for a reason that extends beyond one’s own needs, it becomes much easier to do so for others.

Abstinence is a state of mind that is hardest when never once tried. It is usually not necessary, since most indulgences are acceptable in small doses. However, we must conclude now that in a population of 7 billion, there is no longer any such thing as a small dose, as the accumulative effect of us all eating the same land, money and time-consuming products is phenomenal. If we all ate vegetable diets, it is highly unlikely that the world would collapse because too many people couldn’t give up tomatoes. We face that reality only in response to dairy and beef.

Excepting the vegetarians, vegans and people wavering on the brink of either, there are few people who would turn down meat completely where it was offered, giving it a universal hold no other addiction has. As of yet, we do not perceive that the devastation of a mass meat addiction far outstrips that of gambling, alcohol or any of the other things that affect out economy and our welfare, but little effect the environment or world poverty.

Gryffindor was the house at Hogwarts that singled out and valued bravery about all else. I ask if there’s anything particularly brave about Ron, who shies away from giving up the occasional slice of bacon, or steak, just because he likes the taste, in opposition to a greater cause. It seems like the wettest thing in the world to me.

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