Grace, the Domesticated Nerd Girl, asked me a question in my last Rowling vs Meyer post, and I got so interested in my response, and the response got so long, that I realized it deserved to be its own post:

Traxy’s comment reminded me of how when I first started reading Harry Potter, I was uncomfortable with how freely the wizards use magic.

In most of the fanasty books I’ve read, there’s always a cost to using magic, either to yourself or the world in general, and should be used sparingly.I always felt a twinge when they used magic to do something that could easily be accomplished without, like Mrs. Weasley and her household chores.

Was that ever something that was touched on? (It’s been a while since I’ve read them)

Well, no, it isn’t really addressed, and I’ve pondered the exact same thing myself. If the wizards use their wands to channel their own personal store of magic, shouldn’t using too much of it get exhausting? It’s never really indicated.

The last time I read through the series I paid more attention, and this is what I noticed:

Magic in the Potterverse is much more… mundane than magic in most fantasy novels that I read. Instead of being full of arcane mystery, it is treated with the casualness that we might treat the “magic” of electricity, or of the iPhone.

But somehow, it works and I don’t mind it.

In most fantasy books, magic users need to be given limits to balance the power. The wizards mix with the non-magic users and have access to the same non-magical technology as everyone else. So with the addition of magic, that makes them insanely powerful.

Most fantasy authors deal with this by limiting magic – too much drains you, for example.

But that doesn’t seem to be true in the Potterverse. If anything, when young wizards come of age they start using magic completely gratuitously, for the sheer joy of it.

Harry seized the wand lying beside his camp bed, pointed it at the cluttered desk where he had left his glasses, and said, “Accio Glasses!” Although they were only around a foot away, there was something immensely satisfying about seeing them zoom toward him, at least until they poked him in the eye.
“Slick,” snorted Ron.
Reveling in the removal of his Trace, Harry sent Ron’s possessions flying around the room, causing Pigwidgeon to wake up and flutter excitedly around his cage. Harry also tried tying the laces of his trainers by magic (the resultant knot took several minutes to untie by hand) and, purely for the pleasure of it, turned the orange robes on Ron’s Chudley Cannons posters bright blue.

This is treated as being not so much wasteful, but just pointless and needlessly complicated – as if you used your cell phone to call the friend sitting next to you, or piled your kids in the car just to visit the people next door.

Harry’s ridiculous use of magic just causes him more problems – he gets poked in the eye and makes a massive knot in his sneakers.

Fred and George similarly manage to create a huge mess in the kitchen when magically “helping” their mother. 

‘We were just trying to save a bit of time!’ said Fred, hurrying forward to wrench the bread knife out of the table.

So if the only reason not to use magic is to avoid complication and occasional mistakes, doesn’t that make the wizards insanely powerful?

Not… really.

In the Potterverse, pretty much all of the characters are magic users, and that really levels out the playing field. As Fudge points out to the Muggle Minister, when everyone can do magic, no one gets ahead:

 The Prime Minister gazed hopelessly at the pair of them for a moment, then the words he had fought to suppress all evening burst from him at last.
“But, for heaven’s sake – you’re wizards! You can do magic! Surely you can sort out – well – anything!”
Scrimgeour turned slowly on the spot and exchanged an incredulous look with Fudge, who really did manage a smile this time as he said kindly, “The trouble is, the other side can do magic too, Prime Minister.”

In this scene, Rowling seems to gently chide us for our childish notions of the power of “magic”. (As an aside, Rowling sure likes the expression “for heaven’s sake” doesn’t she?) 

We, as Muggles, use the word to apply to anything that we don’t understand. We see it as a powerful and magic cure-all, but to the wizards of the Potterverse, it isn’t. It’s just… a technology.

When everyone can use the same technology, there is no excess of power. It’s just normal. And sure, wizards can use magic against Muggles, but isn’t that part of what Harry Potter is all about? Magic as might and preventing the misuse of it against Muggles?

Even wizards like Mr. Weasley, who like and respect Muggles, look at them with a sort of condescending fondness. The balance of power is definitely out of whack. Or it would be without the Statute of Secrecy.

The Ministry of Magic spends an incredible amount of time trying to prevent wizards from using magic on or around Muggles. They also enforce laws to restrict the use of it.

So in a way, yes, there are restrictions on the use of magic. But they aren’t based on waste of power, the way they are in most fantasy worlds.

The limitations on magic in the Potterverse seem to be three-fold:

  1. The laws of magic: Just as our science is bound by restricting laws of the physical world (such as the impossibility of going faster than the speed of light), there appear to be certain magical science laws of the natural world as well. Hermione refers to the “five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration”. We don’t learn what the other four are, but one of them is food: you can’t create it with magic. It’s never explicitly stated, but I think money (or precious metals) is another one – What with vanishing leprechaun gold and the “worthless” reproductions created by the Gemino curse. Come to that, Hermione never thinks of conjuring boomslang skin, and Voldemort doesn’t try to conjure himself a new wand. So there are more limits, clearly.
  2. The skill of the wizard in question: Potter magic isn’t just a matter of saying a spell. It takes concentration and skill to master new spells, as we see daily at Hogwarts. You get the impression that higher level magic, such as Apparition, Port Keys, complex transfiguration and so on are not within the range of the more mediocre wizards.
  3. The laws of the land: restrictions are imposed on the use of magic by the Ministry, some of which are strictly enforced… magically. The “trace” on underaged wizards is a good example.

There is one other thing, however, that helps aid the balance of power, although many wizards don’t actually seem aware of it:

There is also a major lack of modern conveniences.

Rowling’s wizards don’t have electricity. They don’t have engines (as far as I can gather, the Hogwarts Express appears to run on steam, but more likely, it runs on magic). They don’t have washing machines, television, telephones or computers.

They JUST have magic.

Magic is everywhere in the Potter books, but with it comes an entirely different culture that is scientifically WAY behind modern Muggles. Wizards never needed to explore the other laws of the natural world. Magic is what the wizards use to do everything, from household chores to medicine.

Outside of magic, they are woefully ignorant.

They don’t know how to phone a friend, stitch a wound, or how airplanes stay up (Mr. Weasley is desperate to find out, but I could have explained it to him at the age of 12).

You have to wonder if they even know why Newton’s apple fell from the tree.

They don’t have plumbers, so God knows how their plumbing works. Magic, no doubt.

Even those with a keen interest in Muggle technology get confused.

“They run off eckeltricity, do they? Ah yes, I can see the plugs. I collect plugs. And batteries. Got a very large collection of batteries. My wife thinks I’m mad, but there you are.

Basically, this means that Benjamin Franklin had a better grasp on science and innovation than Rowling’s wizards do hundreds of years later.

That’s quite a handicap, really.

They can chop potatoes with a spell, but they don’t have food processors or blenders. They have pictures that move, but they don’t have movies. They have wands, but they don’t have guns. They learn transfiguration and charms in school, but they don’t learn physics, or calculus, or literature for that matter.

Astronomy is the closest they come to a non-magical science class, but again, I get the impression that their idea of astronomy is much more based on Galileo than on Stephen Hawking.

Thanks to this absence of technology, Rowling’s wizards are often confronted by problems and inconveniences that wouldn’t be an issue for Muggles, like how to have a private conversation with someone who is far away, or how to transport an entire family, kids and all, from one location to another.

Transportation is definitely a recurring problem in the Potterverse. The wizards have invented a wide array of ways to travel, none of which seem wholly convenient:

  • There are brooms, but those are uncomfortable for prolonged travel and no good as a family vehicle.
  • Magic carpets are good, but they banned in England by the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office.
  • They can use Floo powder, but only to fireplaces that are hooked up to the Floo Network (no good for places like Kings Cross Station or the Quidditch World Cup).
  • They can use Portkeys, but those are supposed to be regulated by the Ministy of Magic, and I have a feeling they take a higher level of skill to create.
  • They can apparate, but a lot of wizards don’t have the talent for such difficult magic. Mr. Weasley tells Harry that fear of splinching prevents a lot of wizards from using apparition. Side-on-apparition, taking a friend or child, is probably even more difficult than just taking yourself.

Getting messages to each other is another problem:

  • There is no telephone. The only way to speak directly to another wizard is to stick your head in your fire, kneeling uncomfortably on the hearth. These hearths are controlled by the Floo Regulation Panel, however, so it’s no good if you want a really private conversation.
  • You can send an Owl, which is not nearly as good as, say, sending an email or a text message. It’s slower, and the Owl can be intercepted.
  • The Ministry of Magic used little flying interdepartmental memos. They had to give up on using owls, due to, er… hygiene issues. Obviously these could be intercepted easily as well, and probably the spell doesn’t go very far.
  • Hermione had to fashion a magic coin to tell DA members when they could meet next.
  • The Order of the Phoenix had a secret radio programme, but obviously that was only a one-way street, message-wise.
  • Dumbledore had to modify a Patronus spell in order to send messages magically, which the Order of the Phoenix considered to be an ingenious solution. It is not a spell which is known to the wizarding public in general.
  • Hell, even Voldemort had to resort to a burning tattoo as a crude way to get in touch with his Death Eaters. Too bad he scorned Muggle technology too much to discover cell phones.

Even if the wizards did discover the “magic” of a Blackberry or iPhone, or the kind of connectedness you can achieve with Facebook, Hermione tells us that too much magic interferes with Muggle devices. So you see, it has to be one way or the other. They can’t have both.

Magic seems to bring its own problems with it.

Madame Pomfrey has cure for the common cold in her Pepper Up Potion, and a broken bone is no trouble, but magical diseases like Dragon Pox and Spattergroit, or amnesia and insanity caused by evil or simply bungled spells seem to be much more difficult to cure.

I’m reminded of a guy I went to school with, who liked to tell me,

Science is the solution to all of the problems we wouldn’t have without… science.

I think the same could be said of magic in Rowling’s wizarding world.

All in all, I am satisfied. The attitude towards magic is, on the whole, refreshingly unique, and I loved the sorts of inconveniences that it brings. A refreshing change from the indestructibility of Meyer’s vampires.


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