Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Harry Potter Series

I find myself in a unique situation here. I’m probably in the extreme minority of people who’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies before reading any of the books, so as they finally became available on the Kindle, I decided to remedy that. As expected, they were amazing (you likely didn’t need me to tell you that), immersive, and so on. But as I’ve been doing lots of long writeups lately, let’s instead go a different route today and talk about one thing that the Harry Potter series gets really right – magic.

I’ve long been against how magic is used in literature (mostly comic books) because of how often it’s used as a deus ex machina, at the expense of all rhyme or reason. For example, Superman’s powers are that he can do pretty much anything (fire, cold, flight, super-strength, immunity to almost all damage, and so on). This makes it hard to find a wide array of villains he can fight, and crucial in defining his character. Lex Luthor is a creative choice, because he’s Superman’s foil – he has no powers at all, and only Superman’s morality prevents him from killing Luthor on every occasion. But since every Superman villain can’t just be Luthor, they have to find somebody else as strong as Superman. So other people from Krypton show up (e.g., Zod), who also can do anything (more or less), and finally, magic is used to cripple Superman’s powers. Why does magic do this? Just because! And yet you’d think that because magic is so ridiculously effective against Superman that everybody in the DC Universe would be taking magic lessons (and especially Lex Luthor).

The point of this aside is that magic has this very incredulous quality in a lot of works – it’s just too unbelievable. This is coming from an avid comic reader who is willing to suspend my own sense of disbelief pretty far, but it makes it too obvious that the story is “Superman can do anything except when we decide he can do nothing”. It’s not the fault of magic itself – kryptonite has the same problem for Superman, and thanks to Arthur C. Clarke, we know that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, so super-science also is troublesome. So it’s the writer’s fault – magic is inherently non-rational, and thus using it in literature is really hard to pull off. Furthermore, messing it up can completely destroy the story.

Yet J.K. Rowling pulls it off – seven times. And she does this by making magic rational and secondary to the plot. Superman can do anything except when he can’t. Harry Potter is surprisingly limited in what he can do, and while magic is involved in the plot, it isn’t the driver of the plot. In many ways it comes off like the Force in Star Wars – there’s a lot it can do and quite a bit it can’t do. It can be used for good or for evil, and is generally an amoral force in the Potterverse. We said earlier that in the DC Universe, everyone should learn magic because there’s really no reason not to (except that everyone is a moron or contrived plot excuses). Yet in the Potterverse, anyone with any magical talents are automatically found and sent to school to learn magic and keep it all under control. It’s all presented in a way that makes sense, minimizes the number of contradictions that can sneak into the story (especially hard when magic is involved), and most importantly, stays out of the way of the characters themselves. Like the Force in Star Wars, we’re really reading these stories because we care about the characters – the magic is just the icing on the cake. And when we forget this (or just get irresponsible), we just want to put the icing everywhere and forget the cake in the first place, and then we end up with something like the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, which has amazing special effects but the character development, common sense, and immersion is near-zero.

P.S. Extra points go for how she handles the Time-Turner in book three, as time travel makes the whole thing an order of magnitude more complicated to pull off (and yet she pulls it off to great effect!)