On magic words
OverthinkingIt.com can be pretty hit or miss. Often it’s nonsensical theory-inspired driveling about gender, race, and class, but sometimes they manage to say something surprising and interesting about an element of popular culture. Their recent article on Harry Potter-world magic is one of the latter. I tend to think about Potterverse magic as a substitute for science, but this article reads it as a substitute for law, and I think makes a pretty good case for that. It ends with this observation about the fate of language in Potterverse:
Magical people spend their entire lives learning the rules of magic – at the expense of nearly every other pursuit. There are seemingly no novels in the Wizarding World, no English or rhetoric classes at Hogwart’s School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. The only words with any power in the magical world are the tiny subset that happen to have magical properties. Words that can persuade or words that move the soul get no attention.
This seems to me completely accurate, and I think it’s one of the more damning indictments of the Potterverse out there: it lacks poetry. It’s so damning because it’s so clearly unintentional. Rowling isn’t making a point about how easy it is to forget poetry when we only care about power, that is, utility; rather, she only cares about utility. She’s banished poetry from Potterverse, and she doesn’t even care. Whatever good you want to attribute to the books, you have to recognize this as a serious failing.
How it happened is easy to see. Rowling is just translating the everyday world into wizarding terminology. Hogwarts is just like any other school +MAGIC. The Ministry of Magic is just any other government +MAGIC. Everyone’s job is just some normal boring bureaucratic job +MAGIC. Rowling doesn’t see poetry as making a difference in the world, so it doesn’t even have to be translated. The world forgets poetry, so Rowling forgets it as well. It’s hard to entirely blame her; after all, the world is what Rowling sees, and how can she show us anything else? But that’s her task as a writer. She’s failed.
The failure is made worse by the fact that she claims to be writing about magic. Real magic–the opening out into the terrible beauty of faerie-land that we see in, say, Tolkien–is intimately bound up with art and music and poetry. One might say that magic’s enchantment just is the enchantment of art and music and poetry. (This is why it sometimes seems like The Lord of the Rings has a poem every ten pages.) The Potterverse, by contrast, doesn’t have magic, it just has +MAGIC: an amusing shiny glowing meaningless property Rowling can tack onto things to make us not look away. It replaces the enchantment with enslavement.
If +MAGIC didn’t pretend to be magic, I wouldn’t care. If Rowling had written a book that was just about childhood and rebellion and courage and the evils of discrimination, and set it in the real world, I wouldn’t care. But then it also probably wouldn’t have sold as well–though apparently Rowling’s new book is doing quite well, if not as well as the Potter books. But by being about magic, you can’t avoid being about poetry. The Potter books make pretty clear, I think, that Rowling sees poetry as a tool for social improvement, and nothing more. If that way of thinking bothers you, the Potter books should too.