Rowling’s Goblin Problem?

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

Today, the Jewish Museum London opened an exhibition called Jews, Money, Myth. This exhibition documents the history of the anti-Semitic myth of “the ‘economic’ Jew:” “the idea that there was some sort of essential relationship of Jews to capitalism.”¹ It is a myth that has proved appealing to some of those who particularly dislike capitalism – Lester Little has argued that, since the 13th century, the archetypal usurer has been figured as Jewish (despite the fact that Jews had always been but a “tiny minority of the people so engaged”) because “the Jews functioned as a scapegoat for Christian failure to adapt successfully to the profit economy… the main function of the Jews in the Commercial Revolution was to bear the burden of Christian guilt for participation in activities not yet deemed morally worthy of Christians.”² And this idea of the “economic” Jew has been recently critiqued by J.K. Rowling in the character of Jimmy Knight, a left-wing agitator and anti-Semite in her 2018 novel, Lethal White.

On February 18, 2019, seven Labour MPs resigned over a number of issues, but one key reason was their perception that their party was not dealing effectively with accusations regarding anti-Semitism. This is a topic on which Rowling appears to touch (via Jimmy Knight) in Lethal White and it is one that (prior to her Twitter hiatus/retirement on February 12) has featured regularly in her tweeting life. Rowling’s public discourse makes it clear that she abhors anti-Semitism. But if you read the replies under her tweets on this issue, you will find regular comments along the lines of “but what about the goblins…?” Such tweets insinuate that there is something suspect about Rowling’s avowed stance given that her depiction of goblins peddles an anti-Semitic stereotype.

But are the goblins in the Harry Potter books anti-Semitic?

Firstly, there is a straightforward defense that if you are uninfected by the myth of the “economic” Jew, there is no reason to connect Harry Potter’s goblins with Jews. If you see no inherent connection between bankers and Jews, there is no reason to think there is a problem here. Although I have written a book about (among other things) anti-Semitism in the 16th century, when I read the descriptions of Rowling’s goblins for the first time – very short, swarthy, dressed in scarlet and gold uniforms, and with particularly long fingers and feet – it did not occur to me that there was anything about them to cause concern.

Secondly, although the goblins are introduced to us first and foremost as bankers, they are also craftsmen, and their value of this skill means that (slightly surprisingly for bankers) they could be described as anti-capitalists. It would seem impossible for Rowling’s goblins to perpetuate the myth of the “economic” Jew – “the idea that there was some sort of essential relationship of Jews to capitalism” – if they are, in fact, Marxists. In this blog and one to follow tomorrow, I want to look at the evidence for Harry Potter’s goblins as craftsmen whose radical value system carries a political challenge to the capitalist power structures of the wizarding world.

The goblins are one of those aspects of Harry Potter that are only revealed very gradually. After being introduced to the goblins of Gringotts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, little is heard of them before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire except for the information that wizarding history is full of their rebellions. Binns drones on about unspecified goblin riots, while Hermione informs us that an inn in Hogsmeade was “the headquarters for the 1612 goblin rebellion” (PoA, Ch. 5). Half the time, these uprisings are called “riots” (the wizarding perspective of unjustified disruption of the peace). However, in Goblet of Fire, Hermione suggests that goblins were historically justified in rebelling against wizards because they were only sticking “up for themselves” (GoF, Ch. 24). Rebels (as in Star Wars) are often portrayed as the good guys, whereas rioters rarely are.

In July 2005, Rowling gave an interview to Lev Grossman, many details of which did not make it into print. Lev Grossman has very kindly shared the transcript of this interview with me, and one previously unpublished detail is her comment on goblins: “I’ve never really told the goblin story. It just sort of bubbles under. Because I see them as a really, sort [of] active political force.” Rowling’s description of the goblins as an “active political force” might guide the reader toward noticing not only that goblins are constantly objecting to the wizarding power – those weekly essays the trio find themselves writing in Goblet of Fire on the goblin rebellions of the 18th century – but also that they might have a point.

Griphook’s complaint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that wizards keep wands to themselves had already been raised in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Harry passes over this question when taking his OWL: “In your opinion, did wand legislation contribute to, or lead to better control of, goblin riots of the eighteenth century?” (OotP, Ch. 31). It is usual for exam questions to be phrased in a way that acknowledges that there is something to be said for both sides, which makes this question the first intimation that goblins might have a legitimate grievance. The History of Magic exam raises the idea that wizards may have created the whole problem by unjustifiably excluding other magical creatures from wand use. Harry, suitably, declines to answer this exam question just as he will later decline to pick a side in this power struggle.

The primarily “political” aspect of Harry Potter’s goblins, however, will turn out, surprisingly, not to do with their rebellions, but with their craftsmanship. The presentation of goblins as bankers is structurally dominant in Harry Potter (Gringotts goblins are important in the central “spine” of the series: Books 1, 4, and 7). But as will be explored in tomorrow’s blog, from Book 5 onward, there is also a slowly growing and rather different emphasis on them as craftsmen.

¹ Lavezzo, Kathy. The Accommodated Jew: English Antisemitism from Bede to Milton. Cornell University Press, 2016, p. 19.

² Little, Lester K. Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe. Cornell University Press, 1978, pp. 55-56.

Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Shakespeare at Oxford University and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!


Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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