The other day, an ordinary day like any other, I went out for a jog, concentrating intently, like other Muggles, on putting one foot in front of the other. But as I neared Rock Creek Park in my neighborhood of Adams Morgan, something decidedly out of the ordinary happened. Turning a sharp corner around a building, I slammed headlong into a paunchy, bearded man who, to my great misfortune, turned out to be a wizard, Order of Merlin, Third Class.
The wizard reacted as though he'd been attacked. "Stupefy!" he cried. I felt a force hit my chest and I turned rigid, hitting the ground hard.
A crowd formed. What had the man done to me, they murmured. What was that strange bamboo shoot in his hand? Why did he keep saying, "There's no need to call the please. Let's keep the please out of this"? Either his pronunciation was worse than that of George W. Bush when he says "nuclear" -- highly unlikely -- or else there was something very strange about him.
But before any of these questions could be answered, five robed wizards from the Ministry of Magic's Accidental Magic Reversal Squad apparated on the scene and undid the spell that had knocked me out. Then they moved rapidly through the crowd, targeting the assembled Muggles with their wands and crying "Obliviate!" again and again. And we all forgot this extraordinary event ever happened. For all I know, it never did.
And that's just the problem. Suppose that everything I just described really took place, as it might in a Harry Potter book. Then you'll see why I think the Muggles in J. K. Rowling's novels get a pretty raw deal. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan; I'll be at the front of the line to see the new Potter movie, "The Chamber of Secrets," which opens Nov. 15. (Tickets are already on sale.) But I'm also a confirmed Muggle -- that is, human being -- and I'm convinced that busy, careerist, technology-obsessed ordinary people like me deserve some sticking-up for.
After all, there's a clear double standard in "Harry Potter" when it comes to Muggles. On the one hand, they're regularly excoriated for their willful blindness to the world of magic, their Gradgrindian devotion to a narrow version of "fact" and "reality" that is drastically limited. As Stan, the driver of the magical Knight Bus in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," puts it when Harry asks why Muggles never report the huge, noisy flying object: "Don' listen properly, do they? Don' look properly. Never notice nuffink, they don'."
And yet at the same time, wizard crews in Rowling's books are constantly coming around and casting Memory Spell charms -- the magical equivalent of mind erasers -- on any Muggle clever enough to stumble upon their world. How exactly are we Muggles supposed to keep our minds open when the obliviators are constantly zapping them shut?
Harry Potter may be fiction, but Rowling's depiction of Muggles is clearly a commentary on reality. The Dursleys -- the relatives who took in the orphaned Harry Potter -- epitomize the very worst attributes of economic and social Muggledom. They're intensely materialistic (Uncle Vernon "tended to judge other men by how big and expensive their cars were"), deeply addicted to technology (when the Dursleys go into hiding in "The Sorcerer's Stone" we read that their son Dudley "had never gone so long without blowing up an alien on his computer"), and extremely closed-minded and unimaginative ("Don't ask questions -- that was the first rule for a quiet life with the Dursleys").
Rowling's critique of people like the Dursleys owes a great deal to two other British writers of fantasy, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers believed that fantasy and the imagination -- in stark contrast with technology and modernism -- can help us access a deeper, more magical and enchanted existence. As biographer Humphrey Carpenter described Tolkien's views: "Only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil." Or as Ron Weasley advised Harry in a letter: "Don't let the Muggles get you down!"
To be honest, Muggles actually fire me up. I find charm in their foibles. And I don't see anything wrong with people devoting themselves to their jobs and wanting something to show for it -- even if that something is a flashy car or an iMac or a fancy kitchen appliance.
Rowling lives in a different moral universe. The daily grind and worldly possessions, particularly mechanical ones, distract Muggles from the truth. Thus in a letter to his godfather Sirius Black in "The Goblet of Fire," Harry describes how Dudley threw his PlayStation out the window in a fit of rage: "Bit stupid really, now he hasn't even got Mega-Mutilation Part Three to take his mind off things." By contrast, the wizarding world is depicted throughout the Harry Potter books as a place of archaic rituals and devices. Technological gizmos don't work on the grounds of the wizard school, Hogwarts, and the students go around scribbling on parchment with quills. No Palm Pilots for this bunch, clearly.
At the risk of sounding like Vernon Dursley, I must confess to being puzzled by this. Don't scientists, those who lay the groundwork for technology, peer more closely at reality than anybody else -- often uncovering fundamental truths about the essence of life? Aren't some of our cars and appliances occasionally things of elegance, at least as much as, say, a broomstick?
Granted, Rowling isn't nearly as anti-Muggle as it's possible to be; she intensely disapproves of the bigoted hatred of "MudBloods" expressed in her novels by the followers of Voldemort. Rowling seems to be saying that hate is a lot worse than lack of imagination, which is certainly true enough. Muggles aren't evil, but the ideal wizarding approach to them seems to be a kind of enlightened paternalism, most genially embodied in the character of Arthur Weasley, father of Harry's best friend and a bureaucrat who often sounds a lot like an animal rights activist when referring to his Muggle protectorate. For Weasley, Muggles are fascinating to study, but for the rest of wizarding society they are sufficiently inferior that they need to be ruled by a vast secret government, the Ministry of Magic, which passes occasional "Muggle Protection Acts."
Maybe Rowling and her wizards have been obliviated themselves after their encounters with ordinary humans -- because they are curiously blind to the achievements and merits of Muggledom. To be a Muggle is to struggle. In truth, it is precisely because Muggles have to struggle along without the quick fix of magic that it is so much more uplifting when they do triumph over adversity or engage in a particularly impressive bit of problem-solving -- for example, creating an astoundingly useful gadget such as a watch to tell time. The best achievements of Muggledom involve such things as learning to play the piano, writing a memorable story, making a handsome piece of furniture, building up from a few jogs in the park to running a marathon -- all processes in which the reward is worth the considerable effort involved. And none of which take place at Hogwarts.
And whose mind is more open? Even as Tolkien, Lewis, and often Rowling fail to see the virtues of Muggledom, Muggles show no difficulty in appreciating fantasy. The Harry Potter books have been published in more than 200 countries and translated into almost 50 languages. You could argue that this indicates a massive lurch toward escapism, but I'm not so sure. Instead, maybe it's a sign that despite their wonderful books, Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling are just plain wrong about the relationship between fantasy and reality. Fantasy is a part of the real world, not a one-way ticket out of it. And anyway, what appeals to us most about Harry Potter is his very humanity, not his wizard skills (which are "mere" technology).
In other words, real life may be vastly underrated. And there's nothing at all contradictory about enjoying the fruits of J. K. Rowling's imagination during the downtime allowed by a thoroughly Muggle existence of respectable ordinariness, hard work, modest pleasures and even the occasional blowing up of aliens on the good old Sony PlayStation.
Long live the Dursleys!