Blogs > Cliopatria > Harry Potter Blind Spots

Jul 20, 2005 1:05 am


Harry Potter Blind Spots



I don't like Harry Potter. Actually, my problem isn't with Harry Potter himself, who's doing the best he can given the world he lives in and the plots he lives with, but with J.K. Rowling. Don't get me wrong: the books are fun reads (though I would have plotted them very differently, even given these general outlines) and the magical elements of the milieu are quite entertaining; I'm a great fan of wordplay and satire, which are the best elements of Rowling's writing. My wife is a big fan, as is her whole side of the family, my brother's family, etc. I grew up with Tolkien and Asimov and Pratchett and all that. I've got a request in at the public library for a copy of the new book, and when my number comes up, I'll read it. Someday, when the series is complete, I'll buy a boxed set, probably to share with my son.

But I'm an historian, and a social historian at that, and I can't fathom how Rowling's world came to be, or how it functions. That drives me nuts. The students are always doing history papers, most of which are amusingly dreadful antiquarianism, but there's no discussion to speak of of anything that happened more than two generations ago. Worse, there's no sense of evolution, no sense of change. And that is wrong. Terribly wrong given the immense changes that have come to the mundane world in the last few centuries: even allowing for a magical-mundane relationship that was pretty stable through antiquity (and since most magic seems to be Latinate, I have to assume that there's something important about the Axial Age) to the early modern, there's no way that magic users wouldn't be struggling with technological and social developments of the last century or so.

Take, for example, the economy: it's a hard currency economy, apparently inconvertible with mundane monies. Fine. But where do wizards get their vegetables? Is there an entire parallel economy of magical merchants? And if so, why, and was this always the case? Is there something superior about fruits raised by magic instead of chemical fertilizers and protected by spells instead of insecticides (and would that still qualify as"organic" even though there's bound to be some trace mana)? Are there magical dairy farms? How do they distribute their milk, and if wizards can't use technologies, how do they keep it cold? OK, magic, sure. But why? Is it really easier to keep a small portion of the house cold by magic than by plugging in a Frigidaire? (the zero-cost nature of magic brings up all kinds of questions about the fundamental nature of magic, but I'll leave that for another day) Why can't wizards use technology? Is it the electricity? Natural processes? Or is it some silly taboo that is going to eventually result in mundane lifestyles exceeding magical ones in quality, leaving wizards to commune with the Mennonites?

Apparently there's some politics in the latest outing, which raises all kinds of other questions. Why is the headmaster of the school the leader of wizardom (at least English wizardry; there's a whole realm of magical foreign relations as yet untapped by the conspiracies and maneuvers and stereotypes of the series) instead of the Minister of Magic? (Is there a higher education system, or is Hogwarts the Harvard Oxford of Magic, and anything beyond that has to be apprenticeships, i.e. graduate school?) How did this come about, and how does it work? How did mundane-magical relations evolve during the transition to democracy?

Even such a basic question as population is very unclear. It's not clear whether the magical population is in the thousands, hundreds of thousands or tens of millions. There seem to be an awful lot of magical beasts and people around sometimes, but there also seem to be a very small circle of decision-makers such that small conspiracies and cliques could wield immense influence. Everyone seems to know everyone and everyone knows about Harry and what's-'is-name, but mysteries abound (in spite of the very effective muckraking journalism that is in play). If the population is large (and the journalism, geography and sporting leagues suggest that), interactions with mundanes would likely be smoother and more fluid; if the population is small (as suggested by the politics, one-school education system and relative lack of mundane contact), why aren't they talking about the alarming rate at which mundanes are taking over territory and developing these magic-like technologies?

Sure, Harry and friends are youths, as yet unconcerned (except perhaps for Hermione) with larger social issues while they struggle through maturation and good v. evil. But the series needs an historian, preferably a live one.... I need context, background, texture, coherence; I want to know how this world works, and how people really live in it. That's what would actually make it interesting for me.

One interesting development: the braille version of this installmentbegan shipping the same day that the book was released, which is, as near as anyone knows, a first for braille publishing. There have been books released simultaneously in print and braille before, but only special publications directed to blind and blind-services audiences. This is the first commercial release to make it into braille print immediately. NPR's Weekend Edition had a nice interview with National Braille Press (NBP)'s Diane Croft [full disclosure: my wife works for her] about the process. Bookshare.org got the book up in a couple of hours, as they did last time -- my wife began reading that version, until her audio CDs get here (curiously, they weren't shipped out to arrive Saturday, because of a security breach last time) -- but the scan quality reflects the speed with which the job was done. NBP worked directly from the Scholastic files and maintains very high production standards; last time NBP didn't get the files until the day of release, so the book was delayed a few weeks, but, as Diane noted in the interview, they're used to handing state test materials, so security is nothing new, and Scholastic finally got on board.

In other blindness technology news, Ray Kurzweil (who once was a certifiable genius; now he auctions off lunch dates to support longevity research) has put together a text recognition engine (which he helped invent), a digital camera and a pocketPC to create a very portable and very robust"reading machine" for the blind. Off-the-shelf 21st century technology, a little engineering and voilá! Real magic.

update: For another interview about the NBP production process, very nicely done, go to my second favorite Boston radio station, WBUR.


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Helka Lantto - 7/23/2005

I agree with you that Rowling's world is not as consistent and well-crafted as one would wish it to be. However, as a hard-core fan I noticed many questions in your entry that are actually answered in the books. Additionally, Rowling has answered some others in interviews. And, well, since you did ask the questions, I hope you don't mind if I answer them.

Please bear in mind that I am not a historian (I came here merely because the topic interests me, and someone linked to this entry) and I am not giving my opinion about those questions. I merely repeat what Rowling has said, either implicitly or explicitly.

Take, for example, the economy: it's a hard currency economy, apparently inconvertible with mundane monies.

Actually, it is convertible with mundane monies. Hermione's parents change Muggle money to wizarding money at Gringotts, the wizarding bank.

Why can't wizards use technology? Is it the electricity?

Yes, it is the electricity. Electrical appliances don't work at Hogwarts. They go haywire because there's so much magic in the air. It does not necessarily follow that smaller amounts of magic (e.g. such that an average family produces) do the same, but I think it's likely. Which would be why wizards don't have fridges.

Of course, there probably is a taboo about using Muggle inventions, at least among the die-hard pure-bloodists like the Blacks and the Malfoys.

Why is the headmaster of the school the leader of wizardom [--] instead of the Minister of Magic?

Actually, he isn't, as is apparent from book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Albus Dumbledore is something of a special case, because he is such a powerful wizard who is very respected, but even Dumbledore cannot affect Minister Fudge's and the Wizengamot's opinions. And in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince it's made clear that Dumbledore has very little power over Fudge's successor.

So yes, Dumbledore has lots of power, more than the average Hogwarts headmaster, but he is not the political leader of the Wizarding World.

Is there a higher education system, or is Hogwarts the Harvard Oxford of Magic, and anything beyond that has to be apprenticeships, i.e. graduate school?

There is no higher education in British Magical World. We don't know whether there are apprenticeships, but I think it likely, at least in certain professions. The Ministry employees seem to enter the Ministry straight from school, except for the Aurors who have three years of training at first.

Even such a basic question as population is very unclear. It's not clear whether the magical population is in the thousands, hundreds of thousands or tens of millions.

Rowling is pretty unclear about this. (In a recent interview she talked about thousands, but I wouldn't place too much value on it, because she said herself that she doesn't think about it like that.) JOdel (whose essays I linked to above in the Essays thread) estimates that there can be no more than 30 000 in British islands.

but there also seem to be a very small circle of decision-makers such that small conspiracies and cliques could wield immense influence.

Quite true. The Minister for Magic seems to have a great deal of power. No theories about division of power there.

if the population is small [--], why aren't they talking about the alarming rate at which mundanes are taking over territory and developing these magic-like technologies?

I think this is exactly what the current conflict (Voldemort vs. the Ministry vs. Dumbledore) is about. The pure-blood isolationists believe that that Muggles (or Muggle-born wizards) are taking their world, whereas Dumbledore and his supporters believe that the influx of Muggle-born wizards is necessary for their survival (Ron says that wizards would have died out if they hadn't married Muggles -- the Weaslyes are very loyal to Dumbledore). Of course, this is only my opinion, but it's one that is shared by many fans.

I hope this answers at least some of your questions.


Helka Lantto - 7/23/2005

Also, JOdel has very interesting essays at http://www.redhen-publications.com/Potterverse.html , many of which concern social history.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/20/2005

Sorry if I was a bit abrupt there: I just don't think that Quidditch's success or failure as a game is a terribly good analogy to what I'm actualy trying to say. And I think you're wrong to distinguish between non-scoring sections of hockey/soccer and non-snitch sections of quidditch. The snitch is a challenge, not a referee: to call that scoring by "arbitrary fiat" is to conflate the arbitrariness of the plot with the game itself.

And, honestly, how can you be sure that the snitch component is as irrational and destabilizing as you say until you've gotten on the broom and tried to spot the damned thing. We're talking about a 3-dimensional game with a magical component, after all.


James Stanley Kabala - 7/20/2005

that maybe Mr. Dresner seemed peeved because he thought I was trying to plug my own blog or something of that sort. That is not the case; the piece in question was written by one Tom Franck, whom I otherwise know nothing about. I do agree with it, however.


James Stanley Kabala - 7/20/2005

I don't know anything about the rules of sumo, so I can't comment on that. I suppose boxing, where the winner can be a poor performer with a sudden knockout blow, would be a bit of a parallel. Low-scoring soccer and hockey don't count, because the failure of both teams to score is part of "what has gone before" and is the fault of the teams themselves, not something handed down by arbitrary fiat.
I'm sorry if I somehow offended you by insinuating that might be "interested" in further discussion of this topic, but you were the one who brought up Harry Potter to begin with. (Granted, money is a more important subject than sports, but my post was trying to reinforce yours, not contradict it.)


Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2005

That first one is quite a piece of work: I wish I could get my students to spend that kind of energy on medieval documents or oral histories. It does illustrate my point pretty well: the unlikelihood that Rowling has thought through issues before they come up as plot points.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2005

No, actually, I'm not that interested, but I'll read it anyway. Yeah, I've heard carping about the golden snitch before.

But there are sports in which single players can dominate team play (think Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan), sports in which everything is determined in a moment, no matter what has gone before (Sumo, low-scoring soccer or hockey), sports whose rules are constantly debated by fans and commentators (the mark of a true baseball fan, I've heard said, is having an idea about a single rule change which would greatly improve the game: My father's is "banking" extra runs in blowouts, and don't get us started on designated hitters).

Quidditch is flawed. Like so much of the Harry Potter world, it's a mechanism for plot advancement rather than a well-defined institution in itself.


James Stanley Kabala - 7/19/2005

Compared to Quidditch, it is. Football doesn't have a 150-point play that ends the game and makes pointless everything that came before. If you are interested in this topic, read the essay I linked to and the comments. (FYI, the oldest comments are the ones at the bottom, contrary to the usual format.)


Tom Straszewski - 7/19/2005

I suggest reading the essay on patronage systems here: http://www.livejournal.com/users/pharnabazus/715.html

and I have one on the teaching of history and historiography at Hogwarts here: http://www.livejournal.com/community/hp_essays/13809.html

Both were written pre-Half Blood Prince, but the points hold true, even if the details are different.

(Of course, that's not to say that JK Rowling has any better grasp of history and politics than she does of mathematics, but attempts to rationalise her mistakes are always interesting.)


Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2005

Oh, and American Football is a marvel of rational design?


John H. Lederer - 7/19/2005

LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy is a true masterpiece.

We forget that so much of a book is a setting for what matters -- people.

The Potter series, after all, are not books about magic, but about a boy's reaction while growing up in a world of magic, and much of their charm is how much his world is like ours.

Similarly Wind in the Willows is not a book about toads, badgers, muskrats and weasels, and the Hornblower series is not a set of books about Napoleonic naval warfare.




Manan Ahmed - 7/19/2005

Or Phillip Pullman's wonderful His Dark Materials.


James Stanley Kabala - 7/19/2005

Don't forget that the rules of Quidditch make little sense. See here.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/19/2005

Perhaps she could, though I doubt it. She's done a few little projects -- monsters and something else -- as reference books, but I doubt she's really interested in a full-bore political economy and sociology. She's got a very strong plot in mind, and always has, and that's what drives the books. Maybe someone could convince her to co-author something, though.

What bothers me is that there are writers who write for young adults who do make their magical worlds considerably more rule-bound and plausible -- Richard Adams's Watership Down, for example, or LeGuin's Earthsea -- and that's much more satisfying reading.


Chris Levesque - 7/19/2005

I'm just now getting around to reading the Harry Potter books, which was mostly spurred on by my wife getting one of them in Latin as summer reading to keep things fresh between semesters, so some things are a bit fresh (but also jumbled). I think in either the 2nd or 3rd book Hermione's parents are using a money changer in Diagon Alley to get the cash to buy her school supplies. This is strictly an aside, with Arthur Weasley getting excited by the fact that someone is actually doing it, and the only reason I remember it is that I _just_ read it over the weekend.

You do have a point, though. Ms. Rowling doesn't seem to have created an entire world with languages, history, and politics a la Eddings, Feist, and Tolkien. I'm betting that this is largely because she set out to write a book, and it snowballed on her. Maybe she could do that as a project after the final installment arrives?


Andre Mayer - 7/19/2005

These are, after all, books for "young adults," most of whom have approximately the same distant relationship to the means of production that JD deplores. Not that fully adult novels are necessarily all that explicit. Perhaps there's an opportunity here for someone to explain how how the entire Potter world is supported by slave labor in Barbados, or something.

Some years ago, a columnist who had attended a British "public school" (C. Hitchens?) commented that Rowling had miraculously captured that milieu., and as a '60s graduate of an American prep school, I agree (though Hogwarts is coeducational). These are to a considerable extent prep school stories (all that quidditch!) vastly elaborating on the school/college YA stories of a century ago. What's really interesting here, I think, is the treatment of class, which is certainly present.


John H. Lederer - 7/19/2005

but, it's magic!

Though, of course, one does want it to be consistent.

I suspect that Rowling joins C.S. Forester, Kenneth Grahame, and C.S. Lewis as those most responsible for improving middle class children's reading skills, government programs notwithstanding.


And maybe not just middle class. Many years ago I taught English and Math for a summer to bright disadvantaged 13-15 year old boys. These were predominantly inner city blacks, We pushed reading on the side. I was startled that one kid started reading Wind in the Willows at the urging of a librarian, liked it, and got another boy reading it.

It certainly made me wonder whether the educational establishment had taken a wrong turn in deciding that a lack of "relevant" material was a problem. Maybe before relevance it needs to be a good story, or maybe kids are perceptive enough to see much relevance in a gang of weasels and an overenthusiastic toad.

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