“It isn’t enough to stand up and fight darkness. You’ve got to stand apart from it, too. You’ve got to be different from it.”
The Dresden Files justifiably gets a lot of criticism over the years (reasons vary according to individual readers). I, on the other hand, love the books, and they remain one of my all-time favorite series. Their action, humor, and world-building are things I’ve only found a few series like and it has been a major influence on my own writing.
However, one area I’ll always give the books credit is their handling of anarchist sentiment. What? You don’t think it’s an anarchist series? Allow me to disagree. The books are incredibly anti-authority, hierarchy, and systems of control. This essay will prove this by showing his relationship to the White Council, police, and how Harry uses anarchist methods to undermine both in the name of justice. It will, necessarily, also contain spoilers up to the most recent book, Battle Ground, as well.
I hope you enjoy!
WHAT IS ANARCHISM?
For the purposes of this essay, we’ll be going with the dictionary definition of anarchism: belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. This isn’t to say that Harry isn’t going to believe in certain undying principles, very much the opposite, but these have to be compelled through willingness to follow the rules out of a desire to do so rather than through fear of force.
It will come up repeatedly that the fear of punishment is something that flat out doesn’t scare Harry and it is an attitude he encourages in his apprentices. Instead, Harry teaches his reasons for following principles like the Laws of Magic on the basis of them being good ideas. It also sets the stage for his everlasting hostility to authority and those who attempt to govern through the threat of force like the White Council and police.
HARRY AND THE WHITE COUNCIL
The books are noir pastiches and while they moved toward high fantasy, they’ve never entirely shed their detective novel roots nor have they lost the unremitting hostility they have toward hierarchy. Our protagonist, Harry Dresden, begins the book as that classic staple of Les Miserable “the innocent man hunted by a rabid cop.”
In this case, Harry killed a dirty cop (his mentor, Justin, was a Warden despite being a warlock) in self-defense and has been harassed and pushed toward violence by Morgan for decades thereafter. Morgan won’t just gun Harry down but wants to agitate him into giving him plausible deniability.
Interestingly, enough, Harry believes passionately in the Laws of Magic and continually makes excuses for the White Council as well as their harsh methods even as he’s a subject of their persecution. They even are willing to wage war on the Red Court when he starts a war on them, which buys them a lot of points with Harry.
However, from the very beginning, the White Council’s support of Harry is tepid at best and there are questions of turning him over to the Red Court for peace and Harry never improves in his opinion of their handling of the Laws of Magic’s enforcement. We also slowly find out that Harry gets as much slack as he does due to nepotism. Literally, the only reason he wasn’t executed was the Blackstaff was his grandfather and chose to adopt him after Justin’s death.
The corruption and arrogance of the White Council goes beyond the “few bad apples” Harry initially suspects the Black Council to be but soon become clear to be entirely the ethos of the organization and how it relates to the rest of the world. They are heavy-handed, ruthless, and dismissive of any talents not powerful enough to be full wizards to the point of doing nothing to protect them against persecution by groups like the White Court. Harry, himself, is also the only wizard to actively defend the public against supernatural threats since most of them are covered by the Unseelie Accords.
At one point, Harry himself, becomes a Warden and the lover of their leader. This should have been a great moment for establishing the White Council’s perspective as well as how Harry has been misjudged. Instead, it just further exposes Harry to the dark side of “his” supporters and after successfully stopping a Black Council agent that had been mind-controlling them all for years, they blame Morgan as well as elect another corrupt agent to their highest ranks.
It’s no wonder that by the time Harry returns from his “coma” that he’s lost all cachet with the younger Wardens, who have become radicalized true believers in the White Council’s “us against them” mentality and every bit as eager to believe in Harry’s guilt as Morgan. Truly, a sense of how Jim views authority can be shown with the kangaroo trial of Molly Carpenter where they come within inches of killing a holy knight of God’s daughter even if it would destroy dozens of lives as well as alliances.
HARRY AND THE POLICE
Harry works with the police, which would normally disqualify him as an anarchist hero, but Butcher nicely lays the seeds for just how fragile and one-way his relationship with the Chicago PD really is. While they’re willing to hire him as a consultant, he is a figure of derision and mockery even as he continually aids them against horrifying threats. No matter how many innocent lives Harry saves, the police view him as a necessary evil at best.
Many longtime fans of the series believe I’m exaggerating because Harry’s most permanent ally in the book is Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, who would right at home in a Law and Order spin-off. Surely as an honest cop, Karrin is a rebuttal that the Dresden Files are anti-authority. Indeed, it is the lengthy arc of said character that mirrors Dresden’s own in reverse and helps show exactly where the series stands on its politics.
For me, the groundwork was laid in Fool Moon rather than Storm Front. While Storm Front established Harry was a rogue hated by the White Council’s chief enforcer, Fool Moon shows just how easy it is to get the police to turn on Harry. Indeed, Karrin herself shows that allying with the police necessitates turning on Harry and she even blames him for not informing her of the supernatural goings on. As we later discover, telling the police about the supernatural doesn’t help matters and most of them are either in the pocket of Marcone, the Formor Court, the Red Court, the White Court, or some combination thereof.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say Murphy’s character arc is to have her attempt to follow the spirit of the law and protect the public, only to be slowly edged out of the police before being expelled entirely. By contrast, the originally seemingly decent cop, Rudolph, increases his wealth as well as influence within the CPD the more he becomes a contemptible corrupt weasel.
Butcher’s depiction of the Chicago PD is actually fairly vicious and contrasts heavily with the romanticized view presented by television or other media. Marvel comics was incredibly hesitant to have Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, ever kill a cop (even a dirty one). The first one he did was actually a SHIELD agent to avoid the controversy. However, Jim Butcher has Molly Carpenter openly confessing to doing so in Ghost Story as she explains that the Chicago PD was turning a blind eye to the trafficking in children by the Formor.
Perhaps the most blatant example of how contemptible the police in the Dresden Files is when Rudolph accidentally kills Murphy in what is the most controversial moment of the series. He isn’t even attempting to do it but it happens because of poor trigger discipline, cowardice, and incompetence. His misplaced sense of priorities in a crisis paint what is arguably the most realistic example of police malfeasance I’ve seen in urban fantasy yet.
The Dresden Files rarely gets into specifics regarding issues of profiling, minority abuse, and police brutality but the depiction of the police is largely one of a useless organization when not actively abetting the forces preying on the public. They have their moments, especially when the Formor turn on their allies and openly attack the city, but there’s no indication the organization will change for the better. Especially as Rudolph planned to go after Harry and Murphy just hours before.
HARRY THE ANARCHIST
All of this could just show the world is a crapsack one and that Harry isn’t an anarchist, but I actually think Jim shows our protagonist using said philosophy’s methods to undermine the traditional authority of his world.
As early as Fool Moon with Kim Delaney and later reinforced with the death of Kirby in Turncoat, Harry realizes that keeping himself above his less powerful allies is a recipe for disaster. This actually lays the groundwork for Harry, not as a lone wolf soldier, but as the unlikely agitator and organizer of a large scale anarchist resistance.
Harry’s aid is important in helping lay the groundwork for the Paranet that protects practitioners against the supernatural forces that used to prey on them with impunity. He and Karrin recruit the Alphas, Order of the Large Cooking Pot, and others to start becoming a power block outside of traditional structures. Their alliances with individuals like Odin and Marcone are uneasy ones but show how grassroots organizations can become entangled with questionable forces in the name of larger goals.
Harry attempts to reform from within as well by helping create the Gray Council and working as a Warden among younger forces, but these things are ultimately unsuccessful. The Blackstaff, his own grandfather, proves willing to murder him due to his hatred of Thomas Raith. Ramirez, his closest ally among the Wardens, turns on him as we’ve mentioned before. To quote Audre Lord, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Ironically, it is Harry’s relationship forged with the Demifae that provides one of his largest advantages. Even Harry doesn’t seem to realize that by simply acting with kindness and letting them organize under his protection, he had created a vast alliance of a overlooked minority. This proves decisive in the Battle of Chicago when the White Council and Unseelie Accords prove useless along with the US military.
Harry is a champion of the people, and his army is the people against the Man.
The transformation of Harry into an anarchist and his fraying relationship with authority figures isn’t something that happens overnight. Indeed, his relationship has many ups and downs before the final break between the White Council happens in Battle Ground. It is, coincidentally, also when his final break with the police is symbolically achieved with the death of Murphy.
Harry is an unwilling anarchist in many ways because he wanted to work with the system and believe that the forces of order actually knew what they were doing. This despite the fact he was an innocent man persecuted for decades by hostile authority figures. However, in the end, he is forced to become a protective force for his community against not only the people outside the law like Marcone or the Red Court and Formor but also the people supposedly protecting the public from them.
“The Council has spoken,” he said, just as tiredly, and turned to go.
“No,” I said.
He paused. “What?”
“No,” I said again, a little firmer. “The White Council has gotten to bully wizards for a long time, and they think they have the right. I say they don’t.”
Ramirez tilted his head. “Don’t talk yourself into something I can’t ignore, Dresden.”
I grimaced. “Carlos. I mean to live my life. You’ve cast me out, and you think that means I’m vulnerable. Maybe you ought to rethink that.”