The magic system in the J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter‘ series is firm, which places it in the middle of the magic system spectrum in fantasy fiction. The magic in ‘Harry Potter’ has more structure than the soft magic of ‘Lord of the Rings‘, but is not as organized as the hard magic in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender‘.

The Misleading Promise of a Hard Magic System

Because Rowling presents rules that govern the use of magic in ‘Harry Potter’ within the text of the novels, she creates an expectation for a hard magic system with logical extensions similar to ‘Avatar’. But the magic ‘Harry Potter’ is firm rather than hard because it is more unpredictable. Readers who expect the reliable predictable magic featured in the earlier books may become understandably frustrated when Rowling tosses her own rules – and even logic sometimes – out the window later in the series.

Rowling’s Hybrid Magic System

Despite Rowling’s misleading expectation for hard magic, the magic of ‘Harry Potter’ is a hybrid system – it contains firm and soft elements working in combination. And this ratio changes as the series progresses. The earlier books contain harder magic while the later books contain more soft magic.

The hardest aspect of Rowling’s magic system are the following 3 rules which are implied throughout the text of earlier books rather than set out in a tutorial prologue like ‘Avatar’. In order to use the soft elements of her magic system to her advantage, Rowling’s rules function more like guidelines, which she modifies and sometimes disregards in the later novels.

Harry Potter’s Magic Guidelines

    1. Genetics – the ability to perform magic is an inborn attribute (you are either born a wizard with innate magical powers, or a Muggle or a squib without magical powers).

    1. Wands – magic performed with a wand is stronger and more focused than magic without a wand.

    1. Limitations – controlling magic requires years of experience and formal training which includes learning a formal incantation and proper wand movement.

Wands and years of magical education play key roles in ‘Goblet of Fire’

‘Harry Potter’ Magic Spectrum

Rowling doesn’t apply her magic guidelines equally to all characters, and the soft aspects of her magic transcend the Wand and Limitation guidelines above. This creates a spectrum of firm to soft magic loosely based on magical skill.

Firm Magic Users

Firm magic users subject to limitations regarding the type and strength of magic they can perform, require a wand, and are often aided by the use of spoken incantations. On the firm end of the spectrum, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the other Hogwarts students follow Rowling’s guidelines the most closely in the early novels since they are students and novice magic users. Firm magic performed by inexperienced beginners requires a ward, proper wand movement, and a learned incantation. (e.g. Wingardium Leviosa, the levitation charm)

Novice magic users follow Rowling’s guidelines the most closely

Limitations are essential to Rowling’s firmer magic because they prevent Harry from becoming too powerful too quickly. Uncontrolled power escalation would rob the story of narrative tension and drive it to a conclusion too soon, so Rowling carefully controls and builds Harry’s magical ability from novel to novel throughout the series. Part of what makes the ‘Harry Potter’ series so satisfying is that the learning curve is gentle. As readers we get to learn magic, explore Hogwarts Castle, and discover the wizarding world right alongside Harry, starting from square one.

Adult wizards like Mr. and Mrs. Weasley perform more advanced magic, but their magic is still fairly consistent with the guidelines. (e.g. Mrs. Weasley produces creamy white sauce from the tip of her wand, and she and Fleur enchant kitchen utensils to help them prepare food)

Young wizards who have just come of age like Fred and George Weasley are less adept than experienced adults like Mrs. Weasley. In ‘Order of the Phoenix’ the twins enchant a breadboard and knife to fly across the kitchen of Grimmauld Place but with less than perfect control, sending the knife quivering into kitchen tabletop close to Sirius’s hand.

Flexible Magic Users

Flexible magic users are subject to less limitations regarding the type and strength of magic they can perform than firm magic users, still require a wand, but can perform non-verbal magic. Hogwarts professors such as Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, and Slughorn are more highly trained and experienced magic users, so their magic falls in the middle of the spectrum. Capable of non-verbal magic, these professors are skilled at advanced spellwork beyond the ability of the students. For example, although Hermione manages to brew Polyjuice Potion in her second year, only potion masters like Slughorn and Snape can create the tricky Felix Felicis potion. But even skilled firm magic users still require a wand and are subject to limitations. Professor McGonagall is an animagus – an advanced magical ability – and undoubtedly powerful. But being a rule-follower, readers don’t see her performing the wildly inventive, wandless, or unique magic like headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

Severus Snape

Like McGonagall, Severus Snape is an advanced magic user and falls on the spectrum above the other Hogwarts professors but below expert users like Dumbledore. Snape can invent spells, is an even more accomplished potions master than the author of the potions textbook, and an expert dueller who teaches Harry the disarming spell. In ‘Deathly Hallows’, Snape is able to find Harry in the middle of a remote forest despite Hermione’s protective charms, a feat Ron can only accomplish with Dumbledore’s deluminator. To guide Harry towards the Sword of Gryffindor in the forest pool, Snape casts his doe patronus without betraying his presence or leaving footprints in the snow. The limitations of Snape’s magic (including legilimency) aren’t clear, so his magic is softer and less defined than that of the other professors.

Snape is an advanced magic user who can invent spells

Soft Magic Users

Soft magic users can invent spells, perform non-verbal magic without a wand, and are subject to few known limitations. Dumbledore, Voldemort, Harry on occasion, and Lily Potter in a one-off circumstance, all perform magic that break the guidelines completely, which qualifies them as the most powerful users on soft end of the spectrum.

As the most powerful magic user in the series, Dumbledore performs impossible magic without a wand and the limits of his abilities are unknown. He disapparates from inside Hogwarts, despite protective spells that prevent other lesser magic users from doing the same, by clasping onto Fawkes’s tail feathers in ‘Order of the Phoenix’. He can sense traces left behind by magic using only his hands, and can even recognize Voldemort’s signature magical style in the cave by the sea in ‘Half Blood Prince’.
Dumbledore is an expert user who can perform impossible magic without a wand

Other soft magic users are Voldemort and other powerful Death Eaters who are capable of flight without broom or thestral. Both Voldemort and Dumbledore cast powerful improvised magic when dueling in the Ministry of Magic in ‘Order of the Phoenix’.

Although he doesn’t understand it, Harry also uses soft magic at the end of the first novel, foreshadowing more powerful abilities seen in later novels. As Dumbledore explains after the fact, the invisible protection of love – given to Harry by his mother – saves Harry from Quirrell/Voldemort. Although he isn’t in control or even aware of this bit of soft magic, Harry burns Quirrell with his bare hands without using a wand, spell, or spoken incantation.

Harry uses soft magic to escape Quirrell

Harry – Simultaneous Novice & Expert

Since Harry has a lot of heavy lifting to do narratively and thematically as the protagonist, Rowling places him on both ends of the spectrum simultaneously. Harry starts the story learning firm magic at Hogwarts with all the other students, but unknowingly has a lot of soft magic bestowed upon him by his mother (the protection in his blood and skin), and courtesy of Voldemort (mind connection via his scar and being an unintended Horcrux).

Harry isn’t aware of his soft magical abilities until Dumbledore explains them afterwards and only partially. This enables Rowling to keep readers engaged novel after novel. By having Dumbledore only provide Harry and readers with piecemeal explanations about how and why Harry’s mysterious soft magic works, she leaves herself room to reveal more and more unexpected aspects of her magic system as the series progresses.

Rowling’s fresh reveals about the magic system combined with character revelations are the secret elements that power her plot twists. For example, the fact that Horcruxes can be made ‘accidentally’ provide the shocking revelation that Harry himself is a Horcrux and thus destined to die.

Voldemort uses soft unpredictable magic whose limits are unknown

Sustaining Narrative Tension

In general, Rowling uses firm magic to create narrative tension in the form of problems and conflict for Harry to establish stakes. The dementors, the basilisk, Horcruxes, and the unbeatable Elder Wand are all real dangers that threaten Harry’s survival. Rowling then deploys soft, more imaginative and unpredictable magic to resolve those problems at the climax of each novel.

This approach gives Rowling an edge plot-wise because it increases her ability to delight readers with mystery and surprise. Most of us can predict that Aang will use some version of spirit bending magic during the climax of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ because the magic system is quite hard and consequently fairly predictable. We know that Aang isn’t going to develop a brand new, never-seen-before magical skill right before he confronts the firelord Ozai.

But we start reading ‘Deathly Hollows’ with no idea of how Harry is going to find or overcome Voldemort’s Horcruxes. Horcruxes are a firm aspect of Rowling’s magic – Harry learns how they are made, their function, and that they can’t be destroyed with ordinary magic. Rowling teaches us firm rules about Horcruxes to emphasize the impossible odds Harry is up against. For added suspense, Harry must face Voldemort – armed with the unbeatable Elder Wand – alone. As befitting Harry’s coming-of-age character arc, Rowling wisely dispenses with Dumbledore – Harry’s wisest and most powerful mentor and protector – in the preceding novel, placing the full weight of victory or defeat on her young protagonist’s shoulders. These high stakes increase narrative tension because readers can’t predict how Harry will triumph over such a powerful adversary.

Horcruxes are firm magic because Harry discovers how they are made, their purpose, and how to destroy them

Conclusion: Not All Magic Users are Created Equal

Rowling wisely grants only her most narratively important characters – Voldemort, Dumbledore and Harry – with soft magical powers. Having powers that are more mysterious, powerful, and not subject to any known limitation distinguishes her protagonist (Harry), mentor (Dumbledore) and antagonist (Voldemort) character archetypes from the rest of the cast as uniquely powerful, interesting, and unpredictable. It also allows Rowling to gradually reveal Harry’s, Dumbledore’s, and Voldemort’s backstories which are rich in mysterious soft magic to create and sustain reader intrigue.

More Posts In This Series

Part 1 – ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ – Hard Magic Systems

Part 3 – ‘Patronus & Dementor’ – Emotion Based Magic Systems

Part 4 – ‘Harry Potter’- Hybrid Magic Systems

Part 5 – ‘Lord of the Rings’ – Soft Magic Systems

What do you think of how Rowling uses magic? Tell me in the comments!