Favorite Magic Systems Countdown: #5

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July 24, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

As promised, today starts the series of posts on my five favorite systems of magic in fantasy literature.

This, my dear squirrel chasers, is a count-down to my all-time favorite system of magic. While these are my personal faves and my opinions, this blog is a forum so feel free to debate the strengths and weaknesses of each system as they come up. And also, I’m terribly sorry if your favorite books and their magic systems are excluded. I have yet to read every book on Amazon, although I am diligently working on it, so I may just not have read your fave yet.

Still, let’s not let that prevent the countdown from commencing! Without further ado…

harrypotterKira’s Fave #5: Witchcraft and Wizardy in Harry Potter

Oh noes! Someone let a series of children’s books into my top five! There are, sadly, many people who discount J.K. Rowling’s series simply because they are geared towards children and young adults and I think that’s a shame. I think they are a must-read for any fantasy fan or writer. While I have a whole host of reasons for this belief, I’ll restrain myself to the topic at hand: Rowling’s system of magic.

How it Works: Being a Wizard or Witch (the only distinction between the two being gender) is an inherent ability; you’re either born with it or you’re not. Casting spells requires special magic words and a wand.

Why it’s Awesome: In J. K. Rowling’s magical world, almost nothing is impossible and she takes full creative advantage of that fact. Paintings and pictures move and talk and the world is littered with amazing magically imbued artifacts (a sorting hat that can read your mind, a stone that can make you immortal, a mirror that can read your innermost desires, maps to help one manage one’s mischief). With a swish and flick of a wand, one can create light, levitate objects, transform objects, animate knitting needles to make scarves on their own, or even something unforgivable, but let’s not speak of that.

Ron_And_The_Sorting_Hat

Wizardry from a Reader’s Perspective: These books, especially the earlier ones in the series, are about a young wizard’s experiences as a student at Hogwarts. Because Rowling chose a young wizard who knew nothing about magic until he received his invitation to Hogwarts, the reader and Harry are both starting at square one in the education process. We learn everything just as Harry does, which puts us on equal footing with the protagonist. This, I think, is the key to Rowling’s success in instilling delighted wonder in the reader. It worked on me, anyway. I was thrilled with each discovery Harry and his friends make throughout the course of the series.

Wizardry from a Writer’s Perspective: As a writer, I must necessarily consider Rowling’s books more critically. What exactly is Hogwarts teaching its students?

Remember that casting a spell requires a wand and magic words. Wait, you mean to tell me that all Hogwarts’ professors have to do is help children memorize spells? That’s it?Potions and divination being excluded for the sake of argument, rote memorization is the whole of the art of magic?

A close look says that is not the case. The spells don’t always work for the students. Consider the levitation lesson in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

There’s plenty of swishing and flicking and saying of the magic words, but only Hermione succeeds in levitating her feather on the first try. Why? Is it because her pronunciation and wand waving were more perfect than anyone else’s? And why did another student’s feather explode in his face when he attempted the spell?

How does spellcasting work?

Rowling never offers detailed explanations on what impacts pronunciation, inflection, and proper wand waving actually have on spell casting. Obviously, some students of witchcraft and wizardy are more successful than others, but we’re never given a clear explanation of why that is. Do individuals have varying levels of power? Is it because of lack of focus or willpower? Or is it more like Luke learning how to use the Force in Star Wars, they have to believe they can do it to accomplish it?

This is the largest of frustrations I have with Rowling’s system of magic, that for as much as the books are about a school of magic, we never really learn much about how magic works.

I like detail and I want to understand how things work. So reading Rowling’s books leaves me with all kinds of questions about her system of magic: Why does casting spells require wands and words? What makes the words special? Why can’t spells be done without a wand? If flying brooms are magic of their own, why does Harry need a wand to summon his in The Goblet of Fire? Why can Dobby do magic without a wand? How are magically-imbued artifacts created? How are new spells created?

The sheer number of questions Rowling leaves unanswered is astounding, and yet while I was reading the books I was so entranced with the story that I didn’t care. I think that, as much as anything else, speaks volumes about Rowling’s success as a storyteller.

As a reader, I found myself smitten with child-like wonder with the turn of every page, inextricably drawn into her world to see what fantastic thing would turn up next. That is the beauty of Rowling’s magical system, especially in the earlier books in the series. Her vision made Fantasy fantastic to me again. I think that’s Rowling’s true gift to literature: her ability to inspire childlike wonder even in cynical adult readers.

The Take-away:

A system of magic doesn’t have to be perfect to be part of a successful novel. Rowling’s system remains largely consistent and while magic plays a critical role in the setting of the novel, the books are not really about magic. Magic itself plays such a small role in any of Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s success in their adventures that we, as readers, are easily able to overlook any lack of detail in Rowling’s system of magic. Instead, they win by their wits and bravery rather than sheer power.

Never underestimate the power of three.

And that is the ultimate lesson Harry Potter has for us as writers (and maybe as people, too), readers are not going to be impressed by characters who win because they’re more powerful. But we will jump for joy and cheer protagonists who band together with trusted comrades and use what they have at their disposal in clever ways to win in spite of the odds.

Rowling’s system of Witchcraft and Wizardry makes it into my top five because she understands this all too well, and because the magic of her world so wondrously captures the imagination.

What’s your take on Witchcraft and Wizardry?
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6 thoughts on “Favorite Magic Systems Countdown: #5

  1. kokkieh says:

    A system of magic might not have to be perfect, but I will argue that consistency is important, and Rowling did not keep to that rule, especially regarding Dumbledore and Voldemort who can apparently perform certain types of magic without wands and Voldemort and Snape both able to fly without brooms, but without apparently shapeshifting (animagi). Sirius is able to transform into a dog in Azkaban without his wand, though it later seems (with Pettigrew) that a wizard needs his wand with him to transform or even to apparate (courtroom scene in Deathly Hallows).

    Re the wands and spells: my theory is that the wand is needed to focus the wizard’s magical energy. That’s why there’s also a seeming correlation between the material and design of the wand and the wizard’s personality. Maybe that’s why D and V can do magic without wands – their magic has become so strong over time that it doesn’t need something to focus it.

    And when it comes to spells I think it firstly boils down to talent. Let’s take three musicians, equally talented and all three trained in piano and violin. The first one’s fingers get in each others’ way on the piano but he bring you to tears on the strings. The second is a wizard on the piano, but with the violin he makes you think he’s murdering a cat. The third can pick up either and get a standing ovation. They’re all three musical, but are more suited to certain instruments than others.

    I see the same thing in HP. We know Lily and Snape excelled at potions, having a natural intuition that goes beyond the textbook. Snape is also very accomplished at occlumency and legelimency and non-verbal spells – skills that not everyone can master. Neville excels at Herbology and Defensive spells. Harry also excels at Defensive spells and, like Ginny and Malfoy is a natural flyer. Hermione actually struggles with Defensive spells, but is a natural at Transfiguration and Charms. Crabbe and Goyle were apparently born for the Dark Arts, as in the last book they’re shown to be more adept at them than even Malfoy. Very few wizards manage to become animagi. Molly is great with household spells, Tonks not. All these are learned skills, but some have a natural aptitude to learn them. This should not be confused with inborn abilities like speaking parceltongue or giving (real) prophecies.

    I think willpower also comes into play. When Snape teaches them non-verbal spells he mentions the importance of focusing your mind, also in his private lessons with Harry. Correct wand gestures, pronunciation and inflection of spells are important, but more important is that the wizard knows what he wants to happen – he has to visualise the outcome of the spell. We also get this idea when fake-Moody teaches the unforgivable curses – they’re not effective unless backed by pure hate. Consider also that we’re told that Dumbledore, in his NEWTS, did things with a wand that left his examiners baffled. We can assume his examiners knew more spells than he, but he was able to do more with those spells because of his brilliant mind.

    When we get to house-elves, they are creatures of pure magic and possess much more raw power than human wizards and witches and thus don’t need wands to do magic. Maybe that’s why it’s illegal for them to carry wands – that would make them more powerful than even the strongest wizard, tipping the balance of power the “wrong” way.

    I’ll stop now. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. But you asked the questions 😉

  2. hopecook says:

    I love the magical system in Rowling’s wizarding world. Like you say, all the background details at Hogwarts like paintings that speak and photos that move make for such an intoxicating world that I can’t imagine who wouldn’t want to spend time in it! I personally like that there are a lot of intriguing questions left regarding exactly how the spells work for various people and creatures. There are never clear cut answers on all things in real life, certain people will always have aptitudes and instincts that we can’t easily define or imitate. If everything were tied up in a neat little bow I think it might seem too perfect. As you say, we follow Harry’s journey. He’s only been in the wizarding world for 7 years, and presumably still will learn new things. It’s a vast and mysterious world and I don’t want to feel like I know every bit of its mechanics. As Snape says, Dumbledore was a very great wizard, and that very great power must have grew over time through a combination of natural skill and dedicated focus. I’d like to think that our young wizards could still have that kind of future ahead of them…especially Hermione!

  3. Have you read The Magicians by Lev Grossman? It was an interesting contrast to the Potter series for me. I didn’t fall in love with the characters like I did with Harry, Ron, & Hermione, but Grossman’s system of magic was so detailed. He also set up a school of magic his characters attended, but he talked about what made a spell work or not work. You had to pronounce the words correctly in the right language, make your hand movements precisely, allot for various conditions (time of day, season, weather, etc.), have the right intent and concentration, a sufficient amount of power, and on and on. It made sense that these students had to go to college for several years to master magic.

  4. […] Magic Systems” countdown begins with #5, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Blue explores Rowling’s creation and depiction of magic from the reader’s and writer’s […]

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