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.

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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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