Saturday, June 23, 2007

The (Il)logic of Harry Potter

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Harry Potter books and movies. But I was watching one with my daughter last night, and I was struck once again by the fact that J.K. Rowling just didn't seem to bother working out any sort of logic to the magic in the books. Yes, we have to suspend disbelief and grant that magic and witchcraft exist in the fictional world, but having granted that, we should then find a logical consistency in how they operate there.

However, in Harry Potter, what the heck is up with this "magic training"? The kids go to a class, and the teacher tells them to say "gaudiamus igitur," "vini, vidi, vici," or some such phrase, and... well, that's it! There seems to be nothing else to these spells at all. And yet there must be, because Ron Weasely's spells always go wrong. But with the single exception of the "Patronus," I've never seen any hint as to what the other thing could be, nor seen any student getting instruction as to how their spell went wrong. What are the teachers even there for?

And just what do wizards have power over? You see a spoon stirring a pot of food by itself at the weasley's, or a broom sweeping up without anyone there, and it seems as though they might have complete power over any physical object. And yet they write with pens, grab the quidditch ball by hand, and ride an ordinary train to Hogwarts. Why? Is it just too boring to do everything by magic? Is there some reason they can control brooms and not pens? Maybe in Rowling's mind this all makes sense, but I've never seen any explanation.

And it irks me, because I hate to see an enjoyable series constantly marred by what appears to be pure sloppiness.


  1. I don't deny that some stuff is puzzling and nonsensical, but some of the things you mention are addressed. For instance, when learning spells, you have to pronounce the spell just right, and do the exact right motion with the wand--that's why Weasley's spells go awry, he's careless. I think there's also variable amounts of magical talent--for instance, poor Neville Longbottom seems to have hardly any. And Muggles don't have any at all, and Hermione has a tremendous amount.

    I think the students are required to write with ordinary quills to prevent cheating. Rita Skeeter, a reporter, uses a quill that not only writes on its own, embellishes madly in a tabloid style.

    Quidditch is a sport! The magic folk value atheltic prowess too.

    You can't get in and out of Hogwarts by magic, as Hermione has to remind everyone else at least once every book. It's one of the magical protections placed upon the grounds to protect the students. Also, younger students wouldn't be able to travel magically appropriately.

  2. "For instance, when learning spells, you have to pronounce the spell just right, and do the exact right motion with the wand..."

    Well, maybe that's in the books, which I've spent less time with, but I've definitely never seen anyone correct Weasely on this in the movies, and I don't recall anyone correcting him in the books. If he doesn't do the right motion or have the right pronounciation, why aren't the teachers teaching him? Isn't that what they're there for?

    "I think there's also variable amounts of magical talent..."

    But what does this talent involve? Let's say I was a Rennaissance alchemist. My ability would involve elaborate knowledge of my ingredients, knowledge of a very detailed and complex series of processes concerned with bringing about the transformation I wanted, and, perhaps most of all, a strenuous program of self-purification to put me in touch with mystical forces. And "natural talent at alchemy" would mean I was good at grasping the ingredients, mastering the steps, and at self-purification. What, exactly, are the skills Harry Potter has that Ron Weasely lacks?

    "You can't get in and out of Hogwarts by magic... Also, younger students wouldn't be able to travel magically appropriately."

    Sure, But why don't their parents just zap them to the gate, where they'll be let in normally? I'm not saying there is no plausible explanation, just that Rowling is pretty vague about all this stuff. Compare it to the magical but systematically worked-out world of LOTR. Elves have just such-and-such powers because of their status as angels. (The first time I described the nature of elves in The SIlmarillion to Wabulon, he said, "Ah, they have the part of angels in Christian theology!") Gandalf will tell Frodo, "The power given to me is not great enough to X," or Tom Bombadil's powers are limited to his forest. The powers in HP seem to pop up randomly to fill some role in the plot. (E.g., the "sign of four" could make that live Hogwarts map -- but just why doesn't everyone have one? I.e., what was the special power the four had to make the map that everyone else -- including Dumbledore, Riddle, Snape, etc. -- doesn't have? No explanation that I recall.)

    And, as I said, I like these books -- this stuff would be less annoying if I didn't.

  3. I don't think it's reasonable to rely on the films for explanation. They cut corners to make their running time.

    I don't know how explicit it is, but it's implied that artifacts like the Marauder's Map have to be created by hand, in that case by four talented teenagers with lots of time on their hands. Not everyone has one because it's not something that can be mass-produced and not everyone wants to spend their time that way.

    There are enchanted pens, by the way. Rita Skeeter, the reporter, uses one. Students aren't allowed to use non-study-related magic at Hogwarts.

    As for the talent, it seems clear to me it's like any other skill or trade. Some people can do it better than others, some not at all, but there's discipline and practice involved, as well, in controlling it. That Rowling doesn't get into precise techniques seems to be asking a little too much.

  4. I'm ready to consider the idea that my impression here may be due to insufficient familiarity with the books -- although I believe I have read each of them once -- but I can't shake the suspicion that the "rules" of her fantasy world were generated ad hoc as plot devices, rather than systematically in the manner of Tolkein, to a lesser extent Lewis, or, to pick a contemporary example, Pullman.

    Maybe I'm being to fussy, but as I worked on PUCK, I tried to make sure that I first worked out, within the order of the world I was creating, what sort of things the various characters could or couldn't do, and only then searched for plot devices that fit within those parameters.

    But hey, Rowling seems to have sold a few more books than me, so perhaps my efforts were misguided! I can only say that I appreciate that kind of rational structure in fantasy/sci-fi, and hoped others might as well.

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