The Struggle for Social Superiority: Giants in Harry Potter

By Cassie Grosh

The Harry Potter series has touched people around the world. From encouraging literacy to creating friendships among fans, the Harry Potter franchise has had many positive effects on popular culture today. While the novels highlight lifelong friendships, cover the timeless coming of age process, include stories of love and triumph, and show how to cope with loss in a healthy way, Rowling illustrates the imperfections of wizards through negative examples of the wizarding world’s social hierarchy. This is most obviously seen in the prejudices of purebloods and those who follow Lord Voldemort, the antagonist who is determined to kill all Muggle (human)-born wizards and rule the wizarding world. Throughout the wizarding world, wizards  clearly have a higher social standing than other humanoid beings, and this is made particularly evident when one examines their disappointingly negative treatment of giants.

While giants are not placed on display or exhibited in any way within the wizarding world, they are clearly not welcome within its society because of their racial and physical differences. This parallels the historical treatment of people considered physically different in the real world. Due to physical differences, people within our own world have been stereotyped and separated from society. From around 1200-1700, those who appeared physically different were often killed throughout Europe. These people were believed “to have fallen from spiritual favor.” As time passed, people began to adopt scientific ways of understanding differences.  This led to an increase in asylums during the 1800s. However, people quickly learned that there was a market for exhibiting people with physical disabilities. As soon as a market was formed, these people were then used as entertainment. Then, in the mid-1900s when the market for human oddities as entertainment dissipated, people were again sentenced to live their lives in asylums (Appendix 14C).

Even in today’s world, people with physical difference are typically isolated and separated from the majority of society. There is no true acceptance, and this allows for stereotypes and prejudices to continue. While times have drastically improved, there are still issues with “freaks” in modern times. Extremely tall men and women (usually above six or seven feet in height) are considered “giants” to the rest of mankind. People allow for a physical difference to alter how they view, approach, and associate with certain people. While people of extreme height are not necessarily considered violent in society, they are commonly compared to creatures of fantasy literature with horribly violent reputations.

At one time, wizards made a point of killing giants in an attempt to keep the wizarding world safe (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 430, Order of the Phoenix 426). There is no direct evidence within the Harry Potter series to suggest that giants were used as entertainment, but they were deemed lesser and sentenced far away from civilized society. The supposed violent nature of giants led to a forced move of all giants out of Britain and Eastern Europe. All contact with giants was broken, and violent stories of giants from the past were told to perpetuate the growing stereotype. Giants were only considered potential allies to wizards once it was learned that Lord Voldemort intended to use giants on his side of the war (Rowling, Order of the Phoenix 431). The assumption that giants “like killing” kept many in the wizarding community from reaching out to giants in search of aid (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 430). This became disastrous when the giants held no sympathy for wizards and chose Lord Voldemort’s side in the war.

Giants in Harry Potter are described as members of a race that bears traits considered “abnormal” in humans and wizards. The size and appearance of giants force the recognition that giants and wizards are not one and the same. This othering is another parallel with people who were exhibited in freak shows and human zoos. Many people who were forced to be on exhibit were considered “exotic” due to racial differences. Their physical attributes were accredited to all people from the part of the world where they supposedly originated. These people were “from an undefined and strictly non-British region of elsewhere” (Ferguson 245). This relates to giants who no longer live in Britain but “abroad…in mountains”  (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 430). Similarly, giants are kept at a distance, and this physical separation allows for the stereotypes and prejudices against giants to continue from afar. In Harry Potter, giants are only found after traveling through France, Poland, and Belarus, a small country south of Russia. The reader is not told where the giants can be found, simply that they live “in the mountains,” an area distant and different than the Scottish countryside where Hogwarts is located (Rowling, Order of the Phoenix 426).  The physical difference giants exhibit becomes a geographic difference that furthers the societal separation and allows for the negative stereotypes to continue.

However, it is not these foreign giants but Hagrid, the beloved gamekeeper of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and professor of the Care of Magical Creatures courses, who comes to mind first when one thinks of giants within Harry Potter. He is the first giant a reader encounters, but he is only a half-giant himself. Hagrid’s father was a wizard and his mother a giantess (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 427-428). While he was raised by his father, that did not stop the genetics of his giant heritage from showing through. His difference in appearance clearly played a factor in his education. During Hagrid’s third year at Hogwarts, he was expelled for supposedly opening the Chamber of Secrets, an underground portion of Hogwarts, home to a reptilian creature that hunts and kills Muggle-born witches and wizards (Rowling, Chamber of Secrets 246-248). Despite a lack of proof or evidence framing Hagrid, he was chosen as the scapegoat and lost not only his wand but also any chance he had at receiving an education.

Hagrid’s physical and genetic difference is alluded to as being the evidence used against him. Despite the Chamber of Secrets holding a clear tie to those related to the founder of the Slytherin house and pureblooded wizards, Hagrid is found guilty. He is judged based on his difference.  Nearly fifty years later, when the Chamber of Secrets opens again, Hagrid is taken into custody and suspected of once again opening the Chamber of Secrets and targeting muggle-born wizards (Rowling, Chamber of Secrets 261-262).

One of the main characters, Ron Weasley, is distraught when he learns of Hagrid’s heritage. Despite being one of the kindest wizards introduced in the series, Ron finds himself completely convinced of negative giant stereotypes he learned growing up. Ron describes giants as “not very nice,” “vicious,” and “like trolls…they just like killing” (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 430). Despite unintentionally befriending a giant, Ron’s previous perception of giants creates a rift between him and Hagrid. Ron’s opinions of giants are based on stories and stereotypes, and these opinions have led him to see himself as superior..

Hagrid is not the only giant to which readers of Harry Potter are introduced. Madame Maxime, the headmistress of the French Beauxbatons Academy of Magic is a giantess. Similar to Hagrid, she is only a half-giantess. While her size makes her obviously different from a normal witch, Madame Maxime is aware of the stereotype surrounding giants, and she refuses to admit to her heritage. When questioned by Hagrid, Madame Maxime claims to “’ave big bones” (Rowling, Goblet of Fire 429). The difference between Madame Maxime and Hagrid is their professional standing. Madame Maxime has worked her whole life to overcome the stereotypes placed on giants, and she now holds a prestigious and well-respected position. Hagrid unfortunately suffered from giant-based stereotypes and was not given an opportunity to achieve a position of power. While he loves his job as gamekeeper and professor, Hagrid has no professional standing to lose if the world learns of his heritage. If Madame Maxime were to admit to her giantess heritage, she would risk losing her position as headmistress at Beauxbatons Academy.

Hagrid explains that giants fear and distrust wizards as much as wizards distrust giants. He and Madame Maxime had to refrain from using magic while visiting the giants due to centuries of distrust and attacks from wizards (Rowling, Order of the Phoenix 426). After so many giants died at the hands of wizards, giants began attacking all wizards for their own safety. This is evident later when Hagrid has to tie up his own brother, Grawp. He argues in Grawp’s defense saying, “he doesn’ really know his strength” (Rowling, Order of the Phoenix 692). Giants fulfill the violent stereotype not out of nature but out of self-preservation.

The giants in Harry Potter are clearly othered in the way freaks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were. Seen as nothing more than dangerous, deformed creatures, giants held no chance at being a part of civilized wizarding society. They were kept separate from the “normal” or “ideal” witch or wizard, and this separation goes beyond that of social boundaries but crosses over into a physical separation. Nearly a whole continent separates the wizards within the Harry Potter universe from the nearest, and possibly only, clan of giants.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people deemed worthy of being displayed in freak shows and human zoos were physically separated and othered in much the same way as giants. These people were lower in the social hierarchy because they did not have the physical characteristics society preferred. These people’s homelands were also considered exotic or distant, much like the mysterious mountains giants reside in. Giants, like people exhibited, are separated in both a physical and social way. These blatant separations allow for the theme of social hierarchy to travel through the wizarding world in a way much more subtle than disputes between pureblood, half-blood, or muggle-born wizards, and these separations reiterate values and views of those attending freak shows and human zoos in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Works Cited:

“Appendix 14C: Perspectives on the Historical Treatment of People with Disabilities.” Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. Ed. Adams, Maurianne, Lee Anne Bell, Pat Griffin. New York and London: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. University of Arizona. Web. 18 Dec 2015.

Ferguson, Christine. “Gooble-Gabble, One of Us: Grotesque Rhetoric and the Victorian Freak Show.” Victorian Review 23.2 (1997): 244-250.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic: 1999. Print.

—. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000. Print.

—. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. Print.


The S.P.E.W. Effect: Why Some Abolitionist Efforts Fail

By: Niki Wilkes

The Harry Potter series was a giant exercise in universe building, and with seven books, J.K. Rowling had a lot of space to incorporate many of the more complicated aspects of society. One notable inclusion is the plight of house-elves, the wizarding world’s manifestation of slavery. This institution was hinted at as early as the second book with the introduction of Dobby into the plot, but was placed in the background until the fourth book, when Hermione witnesses the harsh treatment of Winky at the Quidditch World Cup. She shouts, “You know, house-elves get a very raw deal….It’s slavery, that’s what it is….Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?” (80).

Hermione decides to be that someone and starts an awareness campaign, which would eventually be called S.P.E.W., as soon as she gets back to school. Harry and Hermione confronted the problem in very different ways with actions that produced different results. Where Harry desired to free one elf in The Chamber of Secrets and succeeded, Hermione felt called to topple the entire system by creating an awareness campaign, but failed.

Hermione was a young activist, likely to make many blunders as she learned how to move and persuade people. She had some good first steps by doing extensive research on the creatures that she was trying to free and attempting to make an organization for the cause to cling to. Her actual awareness building and persuasive tactics, however, fell a little flat. This is not altogether the fault of her social awkwardness or the stubbornness of her classmates. Part of it was that she lacked the proper techniques on how to make a private, domestic or economic issue, meant to be resolved between the house-elves and their masters, into an effective public and political issue.

An article by Nicolas M. Dahan and Milton Gittens explains how any anti-slavery advocate needs to frame their issue and move the issue from private to public. There are three framings needed to shape this problem into a public ethical issue. First, the activist must use diagnostic framing, which is pointing out the problem, its causes, and consequences. Then the advocate must come up with a prognostic framing that gives a suggested solution or plan of attack to eliminating the problem. Finally, they must use motivational framing, which gives their cause urgency and a rationale as to why their issue must be addressed quickly (230).

Hermione could point to the problem, but could not properly articulate the consequences, for both the house-elves and the people who benefit from the system. She also could not suggest solutions on how to handle issues that would arise if the house-elves were freed. For example, how would the elves be healed from the psychological damage inflicted by their masters, who made them believe that they are inferior and have no other purpose in life but to serve?  And, who would fill the labor hole left by the elves’ emancipation? Finally, she is unsuccessful at convincing others as to why this is a problem that needs to be fixed immediately.  All these qualities were missing in the S.P.E.W. campaign, which is why it unfortunately failed.

Her attempts are certainly noble, especially for trying to fight the issue alone. It was also not a complete waste of effort because, according to Brychann Carey, Hermione homed in on one important idea that can make an activist campaign more successful. He states that, unlike Harry, who managed to free one elf because Dobby helped him but did not continue with his abolitionist efforts, Hermione realized that the problem of house-elf slavery is not a personal one, but a public one requiring political engagement to reach public solutions (Carey 105). Hermione’s steps were clumsy, but she ultimately started with a workable model that just needed to be tweaked in order to make it more effective (Carey 107).

While Rowling does not offer suggestions on how to make a successful campaign, she does paint a picture of a world not too unlike our own where people in the non-slave class are, at best, apathetic to an institution so ingrained into our society. In most cases, even if we are disturbed by the fact that slavery still exists and that we even benefit from it, we feel that it is too big of an issue to individually tackle. The question of house elves gets dropped after the fourth book, just as the issue of modern slavery rises and falls in our own social awareness.  Hermione was discouraged from her efforts because closer, more personal threats took up her energy, much like the reality that those who do not personally encounter slavery do not actively pursue the end to slavery. With the inclusion of the house elves and the issue of slavery, Rowling might be suggesting that so many social injustices continue to exist because activists are unable to give the issues the sense of urgency needed in order to resolve them.


Works Cited

Carey, Brycchan. “Hermione and the House-Elves: The Literary and Historical Context of J.K. Rowling’s Antislavery Campaign.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003: 104-115. Print.

Dahan, Nicolas M. and Milton Gittens. “Business and the Public Affairs of Slavery: A Discursive Approach of an Ethical Public Issue.” Journal of Business Ethics 92.2 (Mar., 2010): 227-249. JSTOR. Web. 9 Nov. 2014

Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.