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On magic words

October 18, 2012

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2012 7:46 pm

    Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of that before. It explains why I love Tolkien’s world and writing so much. But it does kind of make me sad about the Potterverse.

  2. October 19, 2012 7:58 pm

    Not that I think that poetry was entirely missing from Rowling’s universe; it was simply more on the order of the kind in The Chronicles of Narnia. The way they celebrate Christmas at Hogwarts always kinda reminded me of Father Christmas showing up as the snow melts in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

  3. October 19, 2012 8:29 pm

    There’s certainly something to that, but then again Father Christmas showing up is one of the more whimsical moments in the Chronicles, which also have moments of what you might call “high” poetry. The Potterverse, by contrast, often seems to present “whimsical” as the only aesthetic possibility. Whimsy isn’t worthless, but I think the Potter books make it do way too much work.

    Incidentally, you might rephrase the concern about “poetry” as: the Potterverse deliberately denies the importance of “education,” understood in the sense of the liberal arts. Yes, the books are set in a school–but in a way that’s the problem. They’re at a boarding school, and it pretends to be a school vaguely along the lines of traditional boarding schools, but it’s really the equivalent of a math-and-science institute. The only subject they study that isn’t just another way to get power over nature with +MAGIC is History of Magic, and that’s always portrayed as a total bore. Where’s the music, literature, philosophy, politics?

    I’m not saying we should be hearing what those classes are like (though that might be less boring than it sounds, it would be a very different kind of book). It’s one thing to have them implicitly present, and another to have them explicitly absent. But that’s not quite right either. The problem isn’t that Harry’s only taking courses that are weird and +MAGIC (of course those are the only ones Rowling mentions). Rather, it’s that there’s never a sense of anything worth learning besides moral principles and magical powers. So again: where’s the poetry?

  4. October 19, 2012 9:04 pm

    I remember a vague mention of a couple of other classes, but that was something that always bugged me in a vague undefined way:
    Harry’s not like me. I’m more akin to Hermione, but not entirely so. Whereas in, say, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, where the main characters were interested in the same sorts of history and legends as myself, the characters in the Harry Potter books aren’t intrigued by the same things that I am. This isn’t a bad thing, in itself, of course. But on every reread I wonder what those other classes are like. I wonder what else there is to learn in the higher grades – especially in the last year, which Harry, Ron and Hermione missed entirely. I wonder what there is to study in wizarding universities. If I wrote fanfiction, I might explore this.

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