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…
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.
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.
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.
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.