Feeling Fisky: In Defense of Rowling’s World

Filed under:Authors,Language Barrier — posted by Anwyn on July 23, 2007 @ 8:55 pm

Just a light fisking, a little one, for Megan McArdle, for whom magic must depend on scarcity to make sense, and that therefore the Harry Potter series is not as well thought-through as it ought to be. (Via Ace, via PetiteDov.)

There will be **SPOILERS** for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows below the jump.

JK Rowling is not, to put it mildly, known for her seamless plotting or the gripping realism of her characters, most of whom spend the latter books pointlessly withholding information from each other that, if shared, would end the installment somewhere around page ten.

Is it at all “pointless” or unusual for a girl of eleven to withold secrets about whom she has a crush on from her older brothers, as Ginny did in Chamber of Secrets? In Prisoner of Azkaban, it was because Arthur Weasley shared information with Harry, about Sirius Black, that the plot was driven forward–information that later turned out to be untrue (unknown to everybody but the two principles). In Order of the Phoenix, information was witheld from Harry, true, but with plausible reason: his safety, and in any case, only for as long as it took him to escape Privet Drive. Harry witholds information, but not entirely. He shares it with the people an adolescent boy could reasonably be expected to share it with: his friends, and not the teacher whose own withdrawal was fueling Harry’s adolescent abandonment fantasies (fantasies I must call them despite his parents’ deaths, since those who care about him in the present never really ceased). And in Half-Blood Prince, it’s made quite clear why the crucial piece of information is not shared: because the person whose memory it is is ashamed of what he said and did and unable to face the reality of it. Never met anybody like that?

I’ve always thought the primary characters to be reasonably realistic–Harry goes through the usual tortures of adolescence to such effect that a friend of mine thinks the books are bad precisely because she doesn’t want to relive middle school. The Dursleys are uncomfortably unreal, true. In a fantasy series intended for children I don’t think a few throwaways are too much to accept.

There are two ways, I think, that one can present magic: as something that can be done, but only at a price; or as a mysterious force that is poorly understood. So in Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope, women who perform magic must pay the price in blood, their own or that of others.

Well, and why is it that just because you think those are the only two ways, it follows that those are the only two effective ways? Neither is the case in Tolkien, for example. Oh, she’s glad I brought that up:

Those prices provide the scarcity needed to drive the plot forward. In the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, magical power has no obvious cost. But we don’t need to understand the costs of magic, because the main characters can’t perform it.

Er. So? It’s still a force that Tolkien readers puzzle over, including me. Elves use it to no apparent cost except the misuse of the artifacts they create, which also happens in Potter. Gandalf uses it to obvious cost when he battles the demons of Moria. But though Tolkien’s magic and Rowling’s are different in nature and usage, they have one huge thing in common: they spring from the nature of the beings wielding them. Thus in Tolkien, Elves possess magic as their birthright, but you only ever really hear about the truly great ones. So in Rowling: wizards possess magic as their birthright, and like ordinary talents among real human beings, it can be used to evil, good, and everything in between, including doing your dishes.

But there have to be generally accepted rules. Characters can’t get out of the predicament the author is sick of by having the car suddenly start running on sand. Similarly, if your characters will be using magic, they must do so by some generally believable system.

Yet in the Potter books, the costs and limits are too often arbitrary.
A patronus charm, for example, is awfully difficult – until Rowling wants a stirring scene in which Harry pulls together an intrepid band of students to Fight the Power, whereupon it becomes simple enough to be taught by an inexperienced fifteen year old.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to take the thread out of context and ignore details. The Patronus charm is difficult–when you need it. Harry learns it under great duress because Lupin, his teacher, mimics the conditions under which it is needed–a dementor attack, when the soul withers into fear and the mind descends into instant, severe depression. By the time Harry teaches it to his peers, he has already produced it under dementor conditions–and his peers, notably, are not learning even under the false dementor attack, but just in a lighted room with their pals. Thus he is not “inexperienced” in this particular tidbit of magic, and it is simpler because of the conditions.

Rowling can only do this because it’s thoroughly unclear how magic power is acquired. It seems hard to credit academic labour, when spells are one or two words; and anyway, if that were the determinant, Hermione Granger would be a better wizard than Harry. But if it’s something akin to athletic skill, why is it taught at rows of desks? And why aren’t students worn out after practicing spells?

It’s not unclear at all. It is a combination of learning formulas and mastering the inner power that causes the formulas to work. And as academic study is required for both, Hermione Granger is a better wizard than Harry. That should be obvious to anybody who’s read the books and becomes clangingly, unmistakably clear in Deathly Hallows. Hermione is quicker on her feet (and in the brain) than Harry or Ron; she can pull (out of her vast store of academic knowledge) the proper spell in the proper situation at less than the drop of a hat. She has saved all three of their skins many times, but many more in the last book.

As for exhaustion and effort, Harry’s been exhausted by practicing under attack conditions and after actually being attacked.

The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be? Anything they need, except scarce magical objects, can be obtained by ordering a house elf to do it, or casting a spell, or, in a pinch, making objects like dinner, or a house, assemble themselves. Yet the Weasleys are poor not just by wizard standards, but by ours: they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?

Why are people who can write songs poor? Because songs aren’t money. Neither are magic words. The wizard economy is a monetary one, and with a very few exceptions (ropes to tie somebody up at need come to mind), nothing is created out of thin air that isn’t made out of natural elements to begin with (such as Hermione’s portable fire). Food, though it appears from thin air, isn’t made out of it: it’s simply magicked onto the tables from the kitchens. Books may be printed by magic but why should they be replicated by it without an original to work from? And how will you obtain that original? Accio will work fine, yes, but then you’ll be hauled off for stealing.

This matters. If the cost of magic isn’t well defined, how do we know what resources, other than plucky determination, Harry needs to defeat Voldemort? We certainly can’t rely on his mental acumen; he’s spent the last two books acting like a brain-damaged refugee from The Dirty Dozen.

This, also, I should have thought was obvious to anybody who’s read the books. In a world where magic is just another talent, albeit one that has to be cultivated, like strength or music or writing, and is also a tool that can be used for good or evil just as easily, like a gun, it matters who you are and where your priorities lie. Like Frodo, Harry comes out on top because of who he is–it is made crystal clear at the end that only somebody who loves his friends enough to lay down his life for them can triumph over Voldemort, who could never imagine doing such a thing. It’s less “plucky determination” and more A) the conviction, brought about by fate, let’s say for sake of argument, that he is the only one who can deal with this, and B) the personal, emotional makeup that allows him to do what must be done. No, it’s not brains: it was made clear six books ago that Hermione is the brains of the operation. But since her brains are at his service, together they can triumph.

Children are great systemisers, which is why they watch the same shows and read the same books over and over again: they are trying to put all the details together into a coherent picture. “I could do things no one else could do!” is a great thrill; but so is “I know how this works”. You can’t say that about Harry Potter, because Rowling doesn’t seem to know herself.

You can’t really say it about Tolkien, either. Quoting from my own article, linked a few paragraphs up:

We at Green Books are constantly getting questions from readers so accustomed to other systems that they almost demand a system in Tolkien. “What were the exact powers of the One Ring?” “Does the magic in Lothlórien come from the Elves or vice-versa?” “What can Elrond do with his Elven-ring?” “How does Gandalf do magic?” We do the best we can to elucidate, but the plain truth of the matter is, Tolkien just doesn’t make rules. He expects us to accept at face value that Celebrimbor and his cohorts “forged” the Three Rings, that Fëanor “wrought” the Silmarils and contained within them the light of the stars of Varda, that Elrond, Gandalf, and Galadriel “use” their rings in some vague way for the protection and enhancement of their lands (in the cases of Elrond and Galadriel) and for the furtherance of their tasks (in the case of Gandalf). Even “What are the powers of Beorn? Why is he the only being in Middle-earth who can shape-change?” Well… because he just was. That was his individual power. Tolkien didn’t set out to create magicians who could manipulate a supernatural force. He created individuals who knew how to use their natural powers–and he delineated the difference between those who use their power for the sake of creation and those who use it merely for the sake of control.

And yet, for McArdle, though children (and adults) demand systemization and for her there’s none in Potter, it simply doesn’t matter that there isn’t in Tolkien, either, because the primary characters don’t use it? Then why were we constantly getting those questions? (Real ones, I assure you.)

To the extent that there is not a clear enough system for the use of magic in Potter, its many readers don’t care. But I argue there is much more system than McArdle allows. Because it doesn’t eat heavily enough into her “cost” theory she argues it’s invalid. Magic, in Rowling, is simply an extra talent but ultimately an ordinary one, like singing.

To the extent that there is any system at all, it is the meanest sort of Victoriana, the fantasy world of a child Herbert Spencer. There is a hereditary aristocracy of talent, and I am secretly at its apex. There is an elite school almost nobody can go to, and I am one of the chosen. People fall quite neatly into the categories of good, bad, or clueless, we are the good ones who get to run things in the end. That’s powerful fantasy stuff, which is why it’s so common.

All people don’t, though. There is some heady realism in there. Snape, who dislikes Harry because he disliked his father, and yet will risk all (and loses all except what he valued in the end, his word to Dumbledore and Dumbledore’s promise that if he kept it, Lily Potter’s death would not be vain) to make sure that Harry is given every chance to destroy the evil of the world. Kreacher, a beaten and trampled creature (sorry) who is yet able to respond to kindness and trust. And the people are realistic in consistency. Despite Malfoy’s family being threatened and held prisoner by Voldemort, and despite Harry’s crew saving Draco’s life when he doesn’t deserve it (not to mention the lengths to which Dumbledore went to protect Draco’s soul), Draco doesn’t “come around,” there is no handshake and “All right, mate,” between Draco and Harry. The Malfoys are consistently for their own interest wherever they think they find it. Dumbledore is consistently weakened, it might be argued, by his fear of power for the sake of control but even more by his love.

But the best children’s fantasy does something else: it gives one the illusion that the magical world is as consistent and real as one’s own world – that it exists, just barely out of reach. Even at eight, or 11, I could not have believed that of Harry Potter. The arbitrary ham fist of Ms Rowling is everywhere too evident – changing the rules, and then making the characters tap dance, like marionettes, to distract you from the enormous potholes in the plot.

I am prepared to be charmed by the seventh book. But oh, how I wish it were convincing enough to consume my imagination as Narnia and Middle Earth once did.

But if “system” is what you crave, Ms. McArdle, then I fail to see how either Narnia or Middle-earth did the trick for you. I’m not blind to plot holes. I simply don’t think the rules are changed by Rowling midstream as you do, although she has had to talk fast in a few places. I don’t see the characters as marionettes. While I am not as carried away by the Potter books as I was by Tolkien and Lewis in my youth, it was just that–my youth. Did you really expect to be just as sucked in now, as an adult? As too many overly negative and frequently spiteful people keep reminding me, cracking good yarns as they may be, they are still children’s books. And while that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying them tremendously, it does mean I’ll never revisit the spell cast over me by Tolkien–in my youth.


  1. Dear sister, I applaud you. A well-written & well-reasoned rebuttal from the well-read. A+

    Comment by Anwyn's Sister — August 1, 2007 @ 9:29 pm

  2. Spoiler-Welcome Harry Potter Thread…

    I said I’d do this over the weekend but waited until I’d finished. I didn’t want to see spoilers on a blog I was sort of compelled to read. Try to keep anything juicy out of the first 100 characters……

    Trackback by Ace of Spades HQ — August 2, 2007 @ 6:48 am

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