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The Magic World in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" Series

It's Friday, and I am finished with school for a couple weeks, so I want to have some fun. I'm just about finished my second go-through of 'Deathly Hallows', but I'm not here to post any spoilers. I wanted, instead, to address some of the strange criticisms against Rowling's constructed world for the series, because I think I can help illuminate the matter. There have been criticisms about the economics of the 'Potterverse', the rules under which Magic operates, and co-existence between the 'Muggle' and 'Wizard' worlds. These criticisms miss the point, focusing on peripherals instead of the core. Rowling, in sum, was not trying to make a realistic world, because it not only was unnecessary to the story, but would actually have weakened it.

As a comparison, I consider the worlds crafted by past literary masters of the genre, namely J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (literary career note; it seems British authors do well if they stick with initials instead of first names). If one wanted to do so, one could pick apart the worlds these authors created. How is it, for example, that time flows differently between the normal world and Narnia, yet it is inconsistent in its pace? Or, consider the fact that the Fellowship's members of Tolkien's world were particularly ill-equipped for their sustenance. Yes, Tolkien set them up with "waybread", long-lasting elvish cookies which allowed them to carry a lot of food compactly (never mind how to account for metabolism, anti-oxidants, decay or specific nutrient needs), but there was no accounting for foragers in the wild which steal food, no means to clean and mend clothing, no articles of toiletry, no evidence of tools for repairs or maintenance, and most of all, no means to carry potable water, which in the wilderness is a lot harder to come by than you'd think. Lewis was even less realistic, allowing the children to trek through Narnia with no spare clothes, food, or equipment. Lewis, of course, was writing a story for children, and to the best of my knowledge when you tell a child a story, they don't stop you to ask about logistical planning. Certainly, Rowling is entitled to as much leeway in her tales? Certainly more than Tolkien, who wrote for adults, but as I said he too left off anything like an effective accounting for the mechanics of just how a dozen or so trekkers were able to provide for themselves for months on end, under harsh weather and terrain, without getting lost or suffering the effects of malnutrition or hypothermia.

- continued -

Rowling took on a harder task than Lewis or Tolkien, as well. Lewis had his children travel to Narnia through a special portal, which clearly led to a world operating under different laws. Tolkien simply created a 'Middle Earth' which simply had no technology in it, conveniently locking out any complaints about it being unrealistic, by establishing a separate definition of reality for his world. Rowling faced the daunting task of not only having her wizards and witches travel back and forth between Hogwarts and areas dominated by Muggles, she had her wizards and witches interact at times with non-magic people, and so it was necessary to write in a way which illustrated how bizarre each group found the other. Yes, the economics of the Wizarding world make no sense, but they were never supposed to do so; otherwise, we'd have seen Fred & George branch out and sell their magical pranks to Muggles, and indeed Borgin & Burke's, never prone to fits of ethical behavior, would have been only too happy to sell cursed artifacts to anyone, Wizard or Muggle makes no difference if they have the gold. Which brings up the use of gold. Ever handle a gold coin? They're heavy, they are, and so too is a solid silver coin of the size which used to be commonly used, and so carrying any large amount of money would be difficult indeed. In the first place, you could scarcely conceal a large amount of gold or silver, and the weight would wear out the material of just about anything used to tote them around - a lot of people today do not carry around pocket change because it's wearing on the pockets and makes one unbalanced a bit in the waist. The use of paper money was developed through the sheer need for it, and so Rowling uses gold and silver as symbols of a dichotomy between Wizard and Muggle, different ways of thinking entirely.

The same thing should be said about clothing. Yes, given the number of wizards who grew up with Muggle parents, it seems daft that so many wizards do not know how to dress in Muggle fashion, but then again, how many of us Muggles keep up on the latest fashions ourselves? Rowling wanted to emphasize that for the most part, Muggles and Wizards do not even notice the other group. That's pretty common, though - how many Americans know how people dress in Nepal or Bombay? How many Russians know how people dress in Sydney or Osaka? How many Chinese know how people dress in San Francisco or Houston? We have ideas, but frankly most of them are assumptions, and Rowling wanted the images to reflect that fact.

That brings us to the questions of mechanics. Once again, we see in other stories that the details are seldom of critical importance. So should we really worry that much about the fact that children under 11 may often do wandless, wordless magic, but such magic is considered advanced and difficult for Hogwarts students? Should we ask just where the house-elf cooks at Hogwarts get all the food they prepare for the feasts, since we find out later that food cannot be created from nothing? I never saw any evidence of a farm anywhere near Hogwarts, yet the food is fresh and plentiful. Similarly, it seems strange indeed to me, that students are Hogwarts learn only basic categories of study, yet their education is finished at age 18 or so. Where do wizarding doctors do their equivalent of a residency? Is there an internship for wizard law students? Now I think about it, it's no wonder the economics of the Wizard World are such a state, since neither Economics, nor Business, nor Management, is taught at Hogwarts. Then there's cooking. In the stories, it seems that cooking is taught at home because, once again, there is no class for it at Hogwarts, yet we discover there are clear differences in how wizards and witches can cook. My point is, Rowling never mentions these things, not so much because she did not consider them, as it is that including them would have busied up the stories with a lot of things that would just slow the story. The wizarding world needs Engineers, Accountants, and craftsmen of many types, but for the story we only need the relevant particulars. Imagine the difficulty, if Harry's story had to go a dozen years to include the necessary prerequisites for becoming an Auror. Imagine trying to write a story about Harry studying for the magical equivalent of the Bar Exam, or the intricacies of Governance and Equity Theory on sparring with the Ministry? For that matter, imagine just how complicated the story gets, if instead of one Minister of Magic, you now have to deal with a Magical Ministry of the Interior, of Defense, of Inland Wizarding Revenue, and so on. We'd be looking at 'Harry Potter and the Expenses Audit' for one of our books, wouldn't we?

Rowling wrote a tremendous set of books, a long and wonderful story which tells the tale magnificently, and which I think will be popular for many years to come, indeed it shall be taught in College Literary classes before too long, for reasons which are too pedantic to engage here, but my point is, enjoy the story people, and leave off the carping about details which were never important to the tale.

And read it twice, at least. Trust me on that, there's more in there than you think you know, and the second trip is as delightful as the first.


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Comments (12)

In the old days, when I was... (Below threshold)

In the old days, when I was young, we spoke of "suspension of disbelief". In some cases such was not possible, and one put the book or novelette aside in disgust. In other cases one eagerly read to the end, and in fact hungered for more.
Is the story internally consistent? Do the characters behave in a manner consistent with their prior behavior? Are characters multi-faceted, or are they cartoon caricatures?
What characterizes failed works is their inconsistency. Deus ex machina has led to the collapse of more than one story. Does a sudden plot twist appear from nowhere to spoil a good read? I remember a short-short from many years ago in which the hero, engaged in a sword fight, pulls out a blaster and cremates his opponent.
Why do people still read Homer? Why have they discarded Verne? Why do we still study Shakespeare and discard Marlowe? The distinction is the difference between engaging our imaginations or deceiving them.
Think of the book you could not finish. What happened? Eventually the characters in the book acted sufficiently out of character to cause you to jump out of the story. And you lost interest.
Think of the book you read, and wanted more. The characters (Harry Potter) were real, had entirely human doubts and shortcomings, had their collection of failures as well as victories, and had internal debates on whether they were doing the right thing or not.

The good book says, take me along. The bad book says, take it or leave it.

The same is true of all art, of course: music, visual arts, dance, the whole creative world. Even math. Some math invites you in, some math leaves you in the dust (for those who know about such things, think Gauss).

Enough said. Rowling has her hand firmly gripped on the good story.

A couple of years ago I rea... (Below threshold)

A couple of years ago I read an interesting analysis of the differences between the use of magic in the world's of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling. It is from an author that is neither pro or anti "Potter". If your interested in contrasting the worlds created by each, go read it:


Think of the enormous toile... (Below threshold)
Son Of The Godfather:

Think of the enormous toiletry requirement for all of the soldiers at the final battle in Return of the King... That would be a huge logistical nightmare... Even using Sheryl Crowe's "one square" dictum.

"One Square to rule them all, One Square to find them,
One Square to bring them all and in the darkness wipe them."

As a grade school substitut... (Below threshold)
nogo war:

As a grade school substitute teacher one thing I always tell the kids...
There are kids in this big world with your same name...
There are kids in this big world that look enough like you to be your twin...
But you have something....nobody who has ever lived...or ever will live in this big world..
YOUR own..individual imagination...more than anything else...that is what makes you (us) special...unique...

It's interesting that the w... (Below threshold)

It's interesting that the wizards' world seems to have stopped developing, either culturally or technologically, sometime around 1900. The Hogwarts Express is pulled by a steam locomotive, when virtually all modern trains are diesel-electric, and have been for forty years. Wizardly currency is on a strict gold standard and a non-decimal counting system. There are no telephones, or any other means of instant communication. The only trace of electricity is the strange radio that Ron listens to in the last book. The most advanced nonmagic weapons are swords and crossbows. Hogwarts has a strict dress code which consists largely of robes, for both sexes. Clocks are mechanical. Judging by Filch's nostalgic ramblings, it hasn't been very long since the school dropped corporal punishment. I'm sure I could find more examples, too.

hmmm...great observation wo... (Below threshold)
nogo war:

hmmm...great observation wolfwalker...
to the kids reading this series and seeing the movies... a steam locomotive is probably as much fantasy as anything else..

DJ,As a Lord of th... (Below threshold)
John F Not Kerry:


As a Lord of the Rings junkie, I will quibble with you on the part about not mentioning sustenance. Tolkien addresses this only when it really comes into play.

First, the hobbits, following their nature, always seem to be thinking about food. In all their travels, quality and quantity seem to play a part. Second, when the fellowship was formed, they set out with many supplies, and even had a pack animal with them. Third, after they passed through Moria, they very shortly entered Lorien, the only place in Middle Earth where time stood still, due to Galadriel's influence and that of her particular Ring. As you mentioned, they were given lembas, the virtue of which was wholly felt when one relied on it alone for sustenance. Finally, when Frodo and Sam made it into Mordor, their chief concern besides getting rid of the Ring was their supply of water and food.

All in all, Tolkien was very consistent with Middle Earth in LOTR. It's too bad the movie makers weren't quite up to it, however. I guess giving Liv Tyler face time trumped integrity to the books, but hey, it didn't hurt my eyes to see her.

Just for info, Tolkien is n... (Below threshold)
MP Wall:

Just for info, Tolkien is not English, but South African. Just thought you aught to know. MPW

John, if IIRC in LoTR Samwi... (Below threshold)

John, if IIRC in LoTR Samwise is also mentioned on at least one occasion the as having stewed a snared rabbit when supplies were starting to grow low, no?

Yes Gizmo. The Chapter is t... (Below threshold)
John F Not Kerry:

Yes Gizmo. The Chapter is titled "Of herbs and stewed rabbit". After they eat they are captured by Faramir (who by the way is given the worst of short shrift in the movie) and are given food and water to last a while when he sends them on their way.

wolfwalker - Wizards in the... (Below threshold)

wolfwalker - Wizards in the HP universe don't use electricity because electrical devices stop working when there is a lot of magic around. To quote Hermione, "All those substitutes for magic Muggles use - electricity, computers, and radar, and all those things - they all go haywire around Hogwarts, there's too much magic in the air."

Electricity is just not something they can be relied on. so there is something magical that replaces it, but as DJ went into, that wasn't something particularly important to the story of Harry Potter.

I am a big fan of Harry Pot... (Below threshold)

I am a big fan of Harry Potter, have all the books and have all the flicks. That said, In her last book I found serious literary flaws. Paragraphs I needed to read twice, because I found late in the paragraph my early interpretation of emotion was wrong. I suspect that we are looking at a Fenimore-Cooper, not a Dickens.






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