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Strengths and Weaknesses of the Harry Potter Series:

NOTE: There are a few spoilers here, though no absolutely critical ones.

With the Harry Potter series now complete, I want to summarize what I see as its main strengths and weaknesses. The former are, to my mind, well-known. Perhaps the most important is the impressive depth of character development. In addition to the central Trio (Harry, Ron, Hermione), there are numerous secondary characters who develop much greater depths than I would have expected on first encountering them early in the series. Think of cases like Snape, Neville, Luna, Draco, and even Dumbledore (who in Book 7 turns out to be a lot less positive a figure than we have come to expect). A second great strength is the wealth of detail that gives depth and color to J.K. Rowling's imaginary world. Finally, although I don't believe that fiction books should be judged primarily by their ideology "message," I can't help but embrace J.K. Rowling's themes of deep suspicion of government and emphasis on the primacy of universal principles over cultural relativism and chauvinism. Book 7 pushes both of these ideas even farther than previous volumes.

The shortcomings of the series are greatly outweighed by the strengths. Nevertheless, I have two reservations. One is well-expressed by Megan McArdle: Rowling fails to give us a consistent portrayal of the costs and benefits of magic in her fictional world. As a result, the economy of the world she designs has numerous internal contradictions that undermine its believability. As Megan puts it, Rowling fails to explain the "opportunity costs" of magic, as a result of which its not clear why wizards can't just use magic to get almost anything they want:

The low opportunity cost attached to magic spills over into the thoroughly unbelievable wizard economy. Why are the Weasleys poor? Why would any wizard be? Anything they need, except scarce magical objects, can be obtained by ordering a house elf to do it, or casting a spell, or, in a pinch, making objects like dinner, or a house, assemble themselves. Yet the Weasleys are poor not just by wizard standards, but by ours: they lack things like new clothes and textbooks that should be easily obtainable with a few magic words. Why?

Rowling hints at some answers to these questions, and to that extent Megan's critique goes a bit too far. Nonetheless, she is surely on to something.

My second reservation about the Potter series relates to the portrayal of evil. I'm going to save this one for a follow-up post of its own.

Martin Ammorgan (mail):
Rowling fails to give us a consistent portrayal of the costs and benefits of magic in her fictional world.

I had the same problem with Bewitched, where the marital tension between Sam and the mortal, all too mortal, Darren must have been unfathomable at times, but was, alas, never sufficiently explored.
7.22.2007 6:38pm
plunge (mail):
Megan is, I think, mostly misrepresenting things. Truly valuable and powerful magic items really DON'T seem to be easy to come by, and things like working magical domiciles seem to be a lot bigger of a deal than merely creating the walls and such.
7.22.2007 7:30pm
benjaminn:
Note: SPOILERS

For me, the main weakness of book 7 (and also a major weakness of the series) is that Harry is only ever required to make limited decisions, of the form "Should I depart from the plan Dumbledore laid out for me?". I think this prevents his fully coming-of-age.

Despite the fact that Rowling killed off Sirius at the end of book 5, then Dumbledore at the end of book 6, setting up Harry to go-it-alone in book 7, we find Dumbledore repeatedly reappearing at crucial points, through what he told Snape, in a dream, and then from his portrait. If Harry learnt anything throughout the series, it wasn't how to be brave and noble etc. (he was already), it was "It's best to do what Dumbledore said to do."
7.22.2007 7:36pm
scote (mail):
In Rowling's world spell based magic seems to be essentially free, without cost of energy of any kind. Other books like to dwell on the idea that magic should have a conservation of energy, but even Ursula Le Guin was a tad inconsistent on that point in the Tales of Earthsea. I find it somewhat enjoyable to be able to read about an escapist world where magic is free and doesn't cause a natural imbalance of the earth or weaken the user.

As you intimated, Rowling has hinted at the limitations of magic. There is a Wikipedia page on the magic of HP which includes some details:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_(Harry_Potter)

In book seven Hermione refers to the "five exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration," stating that food can't be created from nothing. However, you can enlarge what little you have, which should mean that nobody of any skill should need more than a trivial amount of food since it can be magically increased. However, these "five exceptions" seem to be a new addition to the HP universe as a way to hint at but not expressly state the ways that magic is limited in the HP universe.
7.22.2007 7:43pm
Randy R. (mail):
Perhaps the Weasley's believed that magic is best used for the benefit of others and not themselves? Which is a rather Christian viewpoint, eh?
7.22.2007 8:33pm
ReaderY:
Like any good book, one can read it from a lot of angles and find a great deal in it.

She doesn't seem to me to be teaching that government etc. is inherently bad, only that bad and/or weak people can corrupt it. Dumbledore, after all, is also government.
7.22.2007 10:15pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
>>
Perhaps the Weasley's believed that magic is best used for the benefit of others and not themselves? Which is a rather Christian viewpoint, eh?
>>

Except the idea of Mrs. Weasley not counting her kids as "others" for the purpose of that calculation goes against EVERYTHING we know about her character. And she does, repeatedly, use magic and magical devices for their benefit. She even has at least one sophisticated, custom-made artifact for what is in normal circumstances trivial use (the clock), which means either Arthur moonlights as an artificer or she had some serious Galleons at some point, but the family cannot afford new school robes.

Off econ, on to plot holes:

I can understand that the study could be difficult because, in the earlier books, there was clear emphasis that magic required complex workings of the mind in addition to wrist flicking incantation shouting action. I don't understand why the magical world is not flowing with abundance since, presumably, essentially every adult wizard should be able to consistently outperform a demonstrably mediocre Hogwarts student like Neville or Ron. What we know about magical limitations -- no conjuring food, no bringing back dead people except when its required for story purposes, and no Accio when it would make things too bloody easy -- does not account for all the difficulty experienced at points.

Also, some of the magic added in later books causes retroactive continuity errors with earlier books. Why is Veritaserum such an important plot point when there must have been at least one wizard in Hogwarts, and likely some students in Hogwarts (come on, there is an entire House full of Hermione Granger wannabes), who knows Legilmency? Why is there any recidivism in a criminal justice system which has access to the Unbreakable Vow? ("I hereby promise to not join Lord Voldemort should he come back from the dead... again. And not kick puppies.") My personal theory on the Unbreakable Vow was it must kill all three parties (promiser, promisee, and witness) if it is broken, which would explain why it is so taboo that your children trying to enact one in play (presumably without effect) would cause Arthur Weasley to go mental, but that leaves a couple of arrangements where you could reserve it for serious crimes.

For that matter, in a criminal justice system with perfectly accurate truth serum and possibly-accurate Legilmency why do the Malfoys et al get off with a transparently false promise of good behavior?

There are also some issues I would have loved to see explored, such as what the heck the wizarding world outside of Britain looks like, aside from our glimpse at France and Germany. For example, when noted a British mass murderer and Lord of All Evil decides to take a months-long jaunt across Europe, why didn't that take the Terror Alert Level to Dragons Blood Red? Presumably Voldemort hasn't penetrated EVERY security service on the Continent yet (or else "go abroad to save your families" wouldn't be nearly so attractive -- speaking of which, come on, in a world with Apparate is that really supposed to help?), so why can't they at least get in the way a bit?
7.22.2007 10:39pm
TCO:
The numbers don't make sense either. Wizards seem to have normal or slightly longer life spans. But we have one school in Britain (perhaps the British Isles) that has all the wizards going through it, and only has 40 students in each new class (10/house). Yet, we have a diverse set of towns, shops, and even local pro quiditch teams, with full time athletes.
7.22.2007 10:49pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):
I still can't believe you people are taking a FANTASY story so seriously. It's just fun. Not that I found HP fun. Pretty boring, if you ask me.
7.22.2007 10:56pm
Ilya Somin:
She doesn't seem to me to be teaching that government etc. is inherently bad, only that bad and/or weak people can corrupt it. Dumbledore, after all, is also government.

Actually, Dumbledore specifically refuses to take positions in government, including that of Minister of Magic. The good characters who do have government jobs (e.g. - Mr. Weasley) don't accomplish much good in their official capacities, only contributing to the cause effectively when they act outside those roles.

It's true that Rowling is no libertarian. I have said as much myself. But it's also true that the Harry Potter series does indeed present a very negative view of government.
7.22.2007 11:57pm
scote (mail):

I still can't believe you people are taking a FANTASY story so seriously. It's just fun. Not that I found HP fun. Pretty boring, if you ask me.

Having fun discussing the ins and outs of the books doesn't mean we are taking them "seriously," it is part of the fun and part of the interactive shared experience of the books. It is a jumping off point for ideas. An icebreaker. It's fun.
7.23.2007 3:14am
Happyshooter:
The numbers don't make sense either. Wizards seem to have normal or slightly longer life spans. But we have one school in Britain (perhaps the British Isles) that has all the wizards going through it, and only has 40 students in each new class (10/house). Yet, we have a diverse set of towns, shops, and even local pro quiditch teams, with full time athletes.

I disagree. There is one city block of nice shops, one bar in London, one city block of sleeze, and one small town.

The entire government, all services from transportion to licensing to police, all fit into one building with a few hundred staff.

All of England has one nighttime bus for emergency lodging issues, and the bus holds about 30 sleepers.

The greatest sport event there is, the super bowl of all their sports for the western magic world with no broadcast, seems like is has less than 100k fans at the bowl.
7.23.2007 10:36am
Ian Argent (mail) (www):
Also - wizard lifespan appears to be rather longer than muggle - note that Belinda Bagshot is a contemporary of Albus Dumpledore's mother, and Albus is no spring chicken. Given that Harry is 15 months in october 1981, Albus Dumbledore was leading an athletice and active life at what had to be his 80's. Without access to the magics that Voldemort uses to enhance himself, Dumbledore still beats Voldy like a rented mule at the Dept of Mysteries. Great Aunt Muriel is noteable, not for her age (107) but for her rudeness.

I don't remember, off the top of my head, how to estimate the size of a population that has 200 new adults each year, with an average lifespan of 100 or so; but it's probably not all that small - but not huge either.
7.23.2007 2:43pm
ech:
There is much about the economy of the wizard world that is only implied:
- not everyone has the same abilities in magic. Some are good at charms, some at transfiguration, some at potions, etc.
- magic items must be made, not simply charmed into existing. I can't remember anyone creating magic items out of thin air. Making a magic item takes knowledge, time, effort, and supplies. Potions seem to be difficult to make, with more complex and powerful potions taking lots of time, costly ingredients, and attention to detail. So they have the problem of labor costs being a significant portion of the cost.
- it also appears that magic item ingredients must be found and not charmed into being. Some ingredients are difficult to grow (Mandrake root), rare (phoenix tail feathers, unicorn hair), or require precise harvests (the leaves that Slughorn needed picked at full moon in Book 6). Perhaps only "natural" ingredients have the right amount of magical aether in them.
- books must have some form of copy protection (MBCA - Magic Book Copyright Act) that prevent them from being created out of thin air. Perhaps, as in some stories and RPGs, they must be printed on special/magical paper in order to be effective.

So, if these rules are true, the wizard world is a skilled service and raw materials economy with much of the drudge work done magically or by house elves. They are trapped into an economy of scarcity due to the limits of how many spells can be cast per day by a wizard or witch, and how many of the magical population can produce each kind item. If ther are only two or three people that can produce anti-disease potions, they are going to get more for them than potions even Crabbe and Goyle can brew.

Now if there are only 40 kids/year at Hogwarts (a figure I also came up with), and they represent the majority of the wizard families, and wizards live to a median age of 100, then there would be 4-5000 wizards in the UK. Hardly enough to sustain as complex an economy as described in the book.
7.23.2007 3:36pm
Ian Argent (mail) (www):

Now if there are only 40 kids/year at Hogwarts (a figure I also came up with), and they represent the majority of the wizard families, and wizards live to a median age of 100, then there would be 4-5000 wizards in the UK. Hardly enough to sustain as complex an economy as described in the book.


Is the UK big enough to support as complex an economy as exists in the real world?
7.23.2007 3:57pm
Hei Lun Chan (mail) (www):
According to Rowling, Dumbledore is about 160 years old, McGonagall is about 70.

She has also said that Veritaserum is not 100% effective. A proper wizard can defined against it if he knows it's coming. You can defend against Legilmency with Occulmency. Also, you can plant false memories. It seems easy to read people's minds because Snape and Voldemort do it so well, but they're probably the two best at that in the wizard world.

Unbreakable Vows probably don't work unless the person making the vow means it.
7.23.2007 7:24pm
Ian Argent (mail) (www):
Plus, the wizarding world has a real bugaboo about mental control - hence Imperius being one of the Unforgivable curses. (Doesn't stop a fair number of people from throwing them around like party favors in the course of things - all three of the Unforgivable curses appear to be very simple to cast, as long as you have the strength of will).

Call it the wizarding equivalent of the US 5th amendment - which I believe has an equivalent in Britain
7.23.2007 9:11pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
>>
Unbreakable Vows probably don't work unless the person making the vow means it.
>>

That would make them Trivially Breakable Vows, wouldn't it? It would also mean there is essentially no dramatic tension in the first chapter of Book Six, where Snape promises to kill Dumbledore for Voldy to protect Draco. (A plot device which is entirely ignored in Book Seven, where it was actually Dumbledore's plan all along to get euthanized by Snape. That REALLY irked me.)
7.23.2007 11:44pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Patrick, I don't see how it was "ignored." Dumbledore and Snape planned it specifically to protect Draco; that's why Snape was willing to swear the Vow in the first place.
7.24.2007 8:38am
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
Dumbledore was indeed in government. It was the Minister of Magic position that he repeatedly turned down. That didn't stop him from serving on the Wizengamot for years, even leading it until he was removed after Voldemort's return when they thought he was trying to start a coup.
7.25.2007 8:35pm