Magic in Harry Potter


by James W. Maertens


The Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling have caused a great deal of stir and interest in magic among young people. For the mature witch or wizard, Rowling's use of genuine British folk lore and alchemy is often amusing but also, at times, a little troubling. The reason for this is that Ms Rowling, in her role as an entertainer, often gives a funny, punning, or ironic twist to magical creatures or peoples. Her treatment of Elves, Dwarves, and Trolls is particularly divergent from actual folk lore and might be considered to trivialize these noble peoples of the Faerie realms. On the other hand, Ms Rowling's treatment of Centaurs and Merpeople is intriguing and interesting, largely because we have relatively little folk lore of any detail about such peoples. Her treatment of Goblins and Giants is in keeping with folk lore to a degree, although making Goblins into bankers is perhaps misleading, however amusing.

What is even more problematical is the representation of witches and wizards and their magic. In the fictional world of Harry Potter, we find that, as in the real world, magical folk are marginalized and often exist in a shadowy realm hidden from the dominant culture which considers them either harmless kooks or dangerous lunatics. However, part of the charm of Rowling's novels is that she represents this choice of marginalization as one made by magicians in order to protect "Muggles" (non-magical folk) from coming to harm or being dominated by wizards. The facts of history are rather more bleak, involving a long tale of persecution and execution, which may have at times been justifiable, given the unavoidable fact that engaging in magic does not make a person either good or wise.

What I find most disappointing in the Harry Potter novels, given their popularity, is the fact that they talk about the history of magic as an interminably boring subject and do not give their young readers any of the actual history of magic at all, with the one exception of alluding to Nicholas Flamel. Most of the historical wizards and mages of our past are not mentioned and instead a number of fictional names are substituted. I'm not sure why I object to the vague fictionalized history of magic and wizardry in Ms. Rowling's books while I find it fascinating and well-done in Susana Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Perhaps it is because the world of Clarke's novel is so deliberately an alternative past world itself, an alternative Regency England and Napoleonic France. Clarke presents us with a charming fictionalized history of magic that is, in some ways, the one we might really prefer. Rowling presents us ostensibly with our current world, just slightly parodied, and floating loose with hardly any history at all. Of course, one can excuse it by saying, "Well, it's Fiction." It is true, and in that respect, the Harry Potter books give us fantasy magic -- the stuff of Dungeons and Dragons and all of its offspring.

The actual history of magic is a rather sordid story but also full of wonders and mysteries and the textbook on it remains to be written. The closest thing to such a history is Phillip Carr-Gomm's The Book of English Magic, which I highly recommend. For the ambitious, there is the eight-volume History of Magic and Experimental Science by Thorndike, which is obviously biased in favor of science. There is an excellent series of books edited by Ankarloo and Clark on European witchcraft and magic. There are many academic books and articles in history and anthropology dealing with magic, but none of these are written for an audience of practicing wizards and witches.

Untangling magic from the pursuit of scientific knowledge is very complex. Rowling would have use believe that the two are seemingly completely separate. So much so that Mr. Weasley, who studies Muggles, barely understands science and technology and natural sciences are not taught in wizard schools . Students may learn about bubotubers and screaming mandrakes but they apparently are not taught anything about oak trees or whales, organic chemistry or ecology. The only science in the curriculum is astronomy (and yet, weirdly astrology which is such a central part of actual magical philosophy is never mentioned in the Harry Potter books).

This separation of magic from muggledom leads to some good humor. However, I am bracketing the humor and entertainment value in this essay and looking at the representations of magic in Harry Potter. One scene I found particularly characteristic was in the fourth book of the series in which we are allowed to watch Mrs. Weasley cooking a meal with magic. Reminiscent of the scene in The Once and Future King in which Merlin sets the dishes washing themselves with magic, Mrs. Weasley sets the potatoes to peeling themselves and causes a cream sauce to issue from the tip of her wand. This is all very amusing, but represents magic as something very unnatural (and ordinary cooking as something unmagical). In fact, what Ms Rowling calls magic is really the miraculous -- things that happen which are utterly at odds with the normal world of nature. Magic is, in short, completely separate from nature. Objects can materialize out of nothing and wooden wands can produce fire, sparks, light, ropes, or cream sauces at will, without even an incantation. Mrs. Weasley's kitchen witchery is carried on in this scene in a state of anger and absentmindedness as she rants about her wayward sons, Fred and George.

Kitchen witchery has a venerable past and is a marvelous branch of magic, but it is not divorced from nature. Indeed its very essence is the understanding of the invisible and subtle spiritual forces and properties at work in herbs, oils, resins, and in foods. In the world of Potter, as in our own disenchanted world today, cooking is rarely appreciated as magic in itself (at least in America). In the Harry Potter novels, medical witchcraft suffers the same sort of trivialization and disconnection from nature as does cooking -- the miracles performed by Madam Pomfrey and her potions are used again and again in the plots to rescue students and adults from injuries that would be lethal in our ordinary world. But the body is treated as if it is something that cannot really be harmed and can almost always be fixed up with the right potion. I do appreciate Rowling's sly jibe at the medical profession when she has one character insist that the workers at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies are "healers" not "physicians." In this one respect, the author does point towards an aspect of the magical world in real life, for a good deal of modern magic involves the understanding of mind-body energy systems and such traditional, non-scientific healing modalities as traditional Chinese medicine or the Auruvedic healing of India. Indeed, some of these modalities and techniques have so far been accepted by popular culture that they are hardly thought to be magical at all. That is to say, they are not called "magic." But scientific physicians do not know what to call them or explain them and many simply choose not to believe in them at all.

We are learning about the complexity and potentialities of the human body and nature as a whole as a system of energies and forces connected to the mind and spirits but the characters in Harry Potter live in a world of what I call "cartoon physics" in which natural forces and consequences, and particularly death, are largely ignored. For a story in which death is such a major theme, the seeming immunity to injury and illness of the wizarding community is rather strange and strikingly unrealistic. But then, that is the difficulty, in the end, isn't it? The world represented in Harry Potter stories is not realistic. However it may be marked with some notes of the real world, it is fundamentally a world of fantasy. We are ushered into a world of dreams, nightmares, and wish-fulfillment and asked to suspend our disbelief that this is in fact a real subculture ignored by most ordinary folks.

I suppose Ms. Rowling would be the first to say that she never intended her fiction to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, for real practitioners of magic and walkers between the worlds that do form a subculture, or perhaps even a counterculture to the dominant world of drill factories, politicians, and business executives, many young readers do take her seriously. I often receive electronic letters from young people who clearly want me to verify for them the truth of what they read in Ms. Rowling's novels. I suppose that some might accuse me of muddying the waters by giving my wands unicorn hair cores and adopting some of the fashions of the Potter world. But the reason for doing this is that in some cases Rowling has very good ideas. She has entirely the wrong idea of how wands actually work, but the idea of enchanting into them the astral substance of a unicorn hair or phoenix feather is actually quite reasonable magic and as I liked the idea, I adopted it. The problem is that readers of Harry Potter tend to take the whole thing literally and suppose that people keep pet phoenixes in their houses and somehow insert material feathers into branches of wood. If one takes magic literally, one is likely to miss the entire point -- that is, that there are layers and planes of existence, and only one of them is the material plane where our language takes things literally. The rest are accessible only through other senses and faculties of the mind and soul, and are not easy at all to describe in a language that has evolved in a culture that knows very little at all of Otherworlds. Description of these other layers of reality are almost always poetic.

I have mentioned elsewhere that I particularly dislike the tendency of Ms Rowling to represent wands as weapons. Pay attention to the stories and you will see the students (and adults) continuously assaulting each other, shooting sparks or flashes of light out of their wands, or simply threatening each other with pointed wands. This representation does two things. First, it misleads the young or uninformed reader into confusing spiritual light or prana with electromagnetism. Second, it leads one to suppose that magical actions can be (even for young teenage students of magic) immediate and instantaneous events. This is almost never the case. True, in some legends, we will find semi-divine people or ancient druids and saints performing instantaneous miracles. This is the stuff of magical stories and religious hagiography. Jesus, Moses, and Apolonius of Tyana were miracle workers of this type, and stage magic is also based on the desire of people to see wonders performed before their eyes.

While I would not wish to dismiss the old tales of saints and wonder workers performing instant miracles, it is not part of my experience. Real magic generally acts over time in very subtle and complex ways, or if it does act immediately it does so in ambiguous ways that permit one to shrug it off as coincidence. If it did not, it would, of course, be violating natural laws and might cause serious damage to one's mental equilibrium. Indeed mages are well-known for going round the bend and that is one reason Christian clergy have been so discouraging about getting involved in magic. It doesn't just involve a wand and a unicorn hair; it almost invariably connects of with spiritual beings much more powerful that ourselves, and often mischievous.

On some level Ms Rowling does seem to recognize this inherent problem and expresses it in terms of keeping magic secret from Muggles. In real magical history, non-magical folk have almost always been fully aware of the existence of magic users. They do often fear them and project their worst fears on them, and have certainly sometimes wrongly accused people of using magic without any evidence. Witches throughout history have been suspected of doing all sorts of harm to their neighbors, from keeping the cows from giving milk, to causing women to be barren or men impotent. One of the problems with cultures that accept the reality of magic is that any chance misfortune then gets blamed on someone doing magic. People get a bit paranoid about their neighbors (rather like the Dursleys).

From archaeological evidence we know that in the imperial Roman period the making of so-called "curse tablet" called in Latin defixiones was big business. Magical professionals wrote up these curses on thin sheets of lead which were then thrown into sacred wells or even into the tombs of the recent dead in the belief that the spirits would carry out the curse. Such commercial curses were often intended to find lost or stolen property, punish thieves, manipulate the love or lust of someone, spoil a competitor's business, or cause a competitor's chariot to lose a race on which, no doubt, a wager was laid. These are spells of circumstanciation, spells which manipulate the fabric of causality to bring about some desired result -- not a miracle, but a result that ought to seem natural. Whether such spells could be considered ethical is another question and it often depended on the point of view. If one believed that "all's fair in love and war" and business competition, then using magic was just like using any other persuasive means to manipulate the opinions and actions of others. A defixion intended to change a person's heart or mind about love and sex, or to win horse races was more likely to be perceived as cheating from the standpoint of the person magically manipulated. Similarly with lucky charms or amulets meant to attract wealth. These sort of circumstanciation charms are commonplace in magical shops today as well.

Compare this to the much more drastic sorts of curses and jinxes described in the Harry Potter novels. We have engorgement charms put to good or ill use, the leg-locker curse, Ron Weasley's notoriously bungled "eat slugs" curse (I don't think we ever learn what the proper incantation for this complicated bit of magic was supposed to be: Slugularum comestularum, perhaps?). One curse that figures prominently in the stories is Sectumsempra which seems to work like an invisible sword to slice and cut the victim. What is particularly strange about this curse is that Harry casts it without knowing what it does. Rowling apparently expects us to accept that magic can be done by accident. This is a corollary to her fictional theory that some people are naturally gifted with magical powers and some are not. Perhaps an analogy would be that a young person found themselves spontaneously able to remember and sing or whistle tunes, make music without musical training. We do find, in the real world, such geniuses as the young Mozart, and people with unusual powers of memory or eidetic vision. And indeed traditions of magic do often purport that magical ability and especially the Sight are sometimes hereditary. Really, there is no reason to think this improbable. But psychic or magical abilities manifest intentions, and are not simply accidents. Of course, Harry's performance of Sectumsempra was done in anger, so the general intention to harm or defend was present.

However, to suggest that merely uttering an incantation invented by someone else, without knowledge of what the spell does (except that it is vaguely for use against "enemies") strikes me as misleading. My knowledge of magic is far from comprehensive, so I would not like to make absolute statements that such a thing could never happen. Harry Potter is, after all, presented to us as a particular child prodigy because of sharing a piece of Lord Voldemort's soul. Harry is, in effect, himself an enchanted object, storing some of the power of a very powerful wizard and that could well explain why he particularly seems able to cast spells he has never studied. But, on the whole, even within the fictional world of the novels, Rowling seems confused about the place of study and practice in magical work. People do invent spells, but there is obviously a lot more to it than simply making up an incantation to carry the spell. We are not shown the complicated work that leads up to the embodiment of the spell in the magic word.

One is led to suppose that the students at Hogwarts and other magical academies are memorizing incantations and some sort of inner attitude or focused image that is never explained. Most of the apparatus of real magic is simply ignored in the world of the Potter novels, or perhaps deliberately concealed from their young audience. We do obliquely glimpse Hermione Granger studying arithmancy and ancient runes but we are not told what they are for. In reality, such things are for divination, which is to say, to predict the qualities of the present moment that would affect the outcome of a magical spell. In addition, ancient runes might take in the whole study of sigils, which are tools used to represent the intentions of the mage in creation of a charm or amulet to carry a spell. Yet, repeatedly, we are led to believe that simply saying an incantation, perhaps visualizing something happy, and concentrating, is what is required to do magic. There are few if any suggestions of the inner state of mind required, much less the connection to larger dimensions of the spiritual world, the four elements, magical properties of herb, wood, or stone, or divine and immortal spirits living on other planes of existence to which the magician has access through altered perception of reality.

We are treated to a good deal of insight into the making of potions, although these too seem to work more in the realm of transformations than circumstanciations or informations (for these terms, see my essay Magic in the Alferic Tradition). Transformation makes better humor and better drama, of course, and that is probably the main reason Ms Rowling gives us so much of that sort of magic. We also see a great deal of defensive magic (and offensive too). The action-adventure story demands such things, but what we are given are mostly spells that blast opponents off their feet, paralyze them, turn them into ferrets, or causing other bodily injuries which ought to be lethal. The "unforgivable curses" kill, torture, and control a person like a puppet against his will. In all cases the results are instantaneous, which is what everyone wants in magic. Slow-acting and ambiguous forces do not make great entertainment.

But let me return to the matter of Elves and mischievous spirits. In Harry Potter, the race of Elves is reduced to ugly and masochistic slaves of wizards, an aspect of the books which is hard to take and hard to reconcile with the real folklore surrounding Elvish peoples. One of the strange things about Rowling's work is that there is, in her fictional world, no religion at all. The characters do celebrate Christmas, but not Easter and Halloween is a purely pagan holiday, noted apparently for its connection to witches and monsters. There are no pagan gods and goddesses, no Sidhe folk, no immortal races, or angelic beings acting as the guides and teachers of humankind. Moreover, among the non-human magical peoples there is little suggestion of a culture at all so that it is hardly ever suggested that humans and other beings work together. The Goblins and giants and the Centaurs get a few hints of their own culture, but for the most part the human characters do not seem very interested in them. There is a course in Muggle studies at Hogwarts, but seemingly not one in Goblin studies, or Elf studies. The only slight sign of connection comes when one of the Centaurs leaves his people to teach divination at Hogwarts. This episode, which does not get much attention in the books and none in the movies, is perhaps the nearest thing to the kind of interaction we find in Prof. Tolkien's works between Elves and Men as their protegés.

The result of largely ignoring other races and existences is that Rowling presents us with a world comprised of a small number of wizarding families, hidden from view in the countryside of the U.K. and elsewhere, with seemingly very little real intercourse with other magical races, except where they have proclaimed them to be inferior to humans and enslaved them. Hermione's outrage at the treatment of house elves is treated comically and never resolved. But there is a much deeper problem hinted at by Hermione's attempts to enlighten her peers and the adults to the inherent racism and injustice in their culture.

Compare this representation of the world to that of J. R. R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings and his other books. Prof. Tolkien presents a world in which divinities move everywhere and events are shaped by their struggles to dominate others or to rebel against their peers. The Elves are ancient peoples who have tremendous natural powers of enchantment and have developed the use of magic rings and stones to a high art. Their magical swords are renowned and their relationship with nature is one of harmony and integration. The Elves are presented as they are in actual folk lore, as noble and wise, like the Tuatha Dé Danann in Irish legend. They are material beings with bodies, but also clearly spiritual beings, who, if they are killed continue living in the Halls of Mandos in far Valinor (we don't really know in what form). If anything, Prof. Tolkien goes too far in the opposite direction by eliminating the sort of mischievous creatures of much folklore -- the Grindylows and Hinkypunks, which Ms Rowling does include, come from actual British folk traditions.

Prof. Tolkien does include Old Man Willow, the barrow wights, the haunted marshes, the Ents, and Gollum as representatives of these magical and dangerous beings found in nature, but for the most part the Elves are removed into a high and noble position like an idealized aristocracy, and Goblins or Orcs are cast to the other end of the spectrum of good and evil, so that, led by Sauron or his master Morgoth, the Orcs are far worse than merely mischievous nature spirits.

Still, magic in Tolkien's world is more believable than in Rowling's. It is more subtle and carried on through the workings of enchantments that act on nature and the mind over long periods of time. The only sudden bits of magic that intrude are emergency measures by Gandalf when he creates light from his staff in Moria, breaks the bridge of Khazad-dum, or in the immediate effects of the presence of the Nazgul and the Morghul knife. The bulk of the magic and enchantment in Middle Earth is part of nature, just as the Elves are part of nature. There is nothing really "supernatural" about it -- it is just that nature is imbued with spirit and interconnected with he spirits of Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits (and Goblins). The Ents especially exemplify this as they are the least humanoid of the races of Middle Earth and the most connected with the spirit of the trees and the land.

That is, not surprisingly, one thing I like about Tolkien's writing, that he pays homage to the spirits of the trees and the mountains and the land. In the world of Harry Potter nature is almost completely absent. The Forbidden Forest serves as almost an emblem of this absence, for it is a place where everyone dreads to go and it is full of dangerous beasts, and the Centaurs. It is a sad forest, a kind of Reservation for the Centaurs and other magical beasts in which the wizards can control them and keep them away from Muggles.

Rowling never fully explains why wizards felt the need for the magical secrecy act and its enforcement, why they felt it would be safer for them and for Muggles to keep Muggles in the dark about the existence of magical beings. There is room to ponder this questions in Ms. Rowling's books particularly in relation to the actual use of secrecy among magicians. A most probable reason for secrecy in the real world is that wizards and witches were tired of being killed off and persecuted. At one point Rowling makes light of witch burnings by suggesting that real witches escaped such a horrible fate by casting a spell that only made the muggles think that they were burning, while they made their escape. This fits the fictional world Ms. Rowling has created, but it does not fit the real history of magic. Another reason to conceal all magical beings from Muggles might be to permit them to believe that there were no Otherworlds and no divinities -- in other words to lead them to the cultural transformation we have actually seen in the 19th and 20th century where more and more people abandon belief in anything other than materialism and the facts presented by materialist sciences.

Yet why would the wizards want to bring such a cultural shift about? Inevitably it would produce the ultimate in self-absorbed materialists, the Dursleys. In other words, the magical secrecy act created the sort of Muggles magical folk (including notably Professor McGonagal) find so repulsive -- "The worst sort of Muggles," says she. Depriving non-magical folk of the knowledge of magic might make sense in a world in which it is believed that only some people have magical ability, but let us take up the analogy of musical talent again. Would it make sense to convince all non-musical folk that there was no such thing as music and deprive them of knowledge of it in order to keep music to a secret elite class of musicians? Would musicians do this because they thought that non-musicians were such irredeemable Philistines?

The analogy, you may observe, is flawed in that music cannot be used to harm people. I am not sure that is entirely true, for music is also a kind of magic that can manipulate the mind and heart, change ways of thinking, encourage certain behaviors. But in general it is true that music does not seem to have the same potential for mischief as magic. And so, what we find in the real world of magic is actually even more extreme than in the fictional world of Harry Potter. Magical folk were suppressed by law for centuries and Wicca only emerged onto a public stage after the British government repealed its anti-witchcraft statutes (on the grounds that there was no such thing as witchcraft anyway). Prior to this, and still today to a great degree, the magical community has been hidden away into small pockets, secret lodges and orders, covens, and perhaps even gatherings of bards and druids in the mountains of Wales, if we re to believe the claims of some individuals. For the most part, mainstream historians pooh-pooh most of the claims of survival of magical practices from before the Christian era, but the fact is that there is no proof either way and a good deal of circumstantial evidence that much magical lore was transmitted from the Middle East and Far East into Western Europe and the Americas.

Today, since the 1950's we have seen the emergence of magical folk under the broad term "pagans" and one of the reasons the Ms Rowling's works appeal to many adult pagans is precisely because she represents the subculture of magical folk as a powerful subculture, one that is actually in control in a largely benign way. Ms. Rowling takes up all the numerous conspiracy theories about Illuminati, Freemasons, and secret cabals and simplifies them into Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. One catches the slight hint that Grindelwald might have been behind the Nazis too, but for the most part historical conspiracies and movements are elided in favor of Rowling's evil wizards and their plots to control the world from behind the scenes. Why exactly they want to do so, other than simply the desire for power over others, is hard to say, but looking at the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the relationships that wizards have established over other magical peoples, we can only wonder at the latent potential for enslavement of Muggles, for whatever purpose, or perhaps their removal and extinction, a sort of ethnic cleansing.

Because Ms. Rowling chose to write for children, she does not explore these deeper, darker aspects of the world she created. She keeps it light and entertaining and we know that good will always triumph in the end. That's how children's stories are supposed to be. Scary, a glimpse of the evil in the world, but not too demoralizing. Compare this to Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. In Mr. Pullman's work things are much darker and the magic much richer because it is not all wish-fullfilment fantasy and silly schoolboy pranks. The children are really, seriously vulnerable to bad adults, even a bad mother in the case of the heroine. And there are many layers of manipulation and the striving after power. There are also multiple worlds, which is consistent with the cosmology of magical philosophy. Not merely a hidden society and an army of ministry wizards wielding memory charms, but actual multiple worlds and walkers between the worlds. This ability to walk between the worlds, to reach through the layers of the cosmos beyond the merely material perception of our ordinary way of thinking -- this is the essence of real magic. It is not so much something you are born with, but is like learning to draw or play music -- learning to perceive the world in a very different way.

When I perform magic, I am struck by how different it is from the representation of magic in Harry Potter tales. I consecrate my ritual space, rendering it all space and all time in order that the intentions within the circle should connect outward to the whole pattern of causality and reality underlying space and time. I welcome the powers of the four directions, my divinities, and feeling the goodness of their presence within me and around me. In the presence of these great creative powers, these beloved beings before whom I feel both tiny and yet loved, I smell the Nag Champa, I see the warmth of candlelight, I feel the smoothness of wood, oil, and water as I consecrate and employ the elements to manifest my intentions. It is peaceful, quiet, serene, and removed from the bustle of the world outside. Protected by pentagrams and divine names, archangels and divinities, I am joined with these cosmic powers. I am alone in my stone circle or behind closed doors, and yet this solitude permits me to focus my attention on the subtler layers of reality and the spirits who exist in them, invisible to common eyes.

How different such practice of magic is from the on-the-fly shoot 'em up stuff of Harry Potter. It bears almost no relationship to flying broomsticks and mastering boggarts with spells. Enchanting a wand, talisman, or charm is qualitatively utterly different from turning mice into teacups in Professor McGonagal's transfiguration class. Magic is the art of transforming the world and the self. Again, I can only liken it to making music, and indeed enchantment and music have always been intimately related. Music is enchantment and enchantment is music. Magic is, to a great degree, the power of the human voice and heart to evoke change to our reality. It is ironic that these things have been rejected by materialists as mere "entertainment". But in the end if non-magical folk believe it to be only entertainment, that in itself casts over us a sort of invisibility cloak. A comfortable cloak with which the outer world labels us "childish" and "fanciful" along with musicians, actors, poets, and painters. It is no wonder that the Harry Potter books, despite their warts, appeal to magical folk -- they offer us, like Harry, a castle, a place of acceptance, a home with people who are like us.