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 author J.K. Rowling presents rules that govern the use of magic in her Harry Potter series within the text of her books, she creates an expectation for a hard magic system with logical extensions similar to ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. But we don’t get consistent magic in the Harry Potter series. Rowling tosses her own rules – and even logic sometimes – out the window on a regular basis. So readers who expect hard, predictable magic from Rowling are understandably frustrated.
Rowling’s Hybrid Magic System
If we excuse Rowling for creating a false expectation for hard magic, the magic of Harry Potter turns out to be a hybrid system – it contains firm and soft elements working in combination.
The hardest aspect of Rowling’s magic system are the following 3 rules, which function more like guidelines.
- 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)
- Wands – magic performed with a wand is stronger and more focused than magic without a wand
- Limitations – controlling magic requires years of experience and formal training which includes learning a formal incantation and proper wand movement
The Magic Spectrum within the Harry Potter Magic System
But Rowling doesn’t apply her guidelines equally to all characters, and the soft aspects of her magic transcend the Wand and Limitation guidelines. This creates a spectrum of firm to soft magic loosely based on magical skill.
Firm Magic Users
On the firm end of the spectrum, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the other Hogwarts students follow Rowling’s guidelines the most closely since they are students and novice magic users. Firm magic performed by inexperienced beginners requires a ward, proper wand movement, and a learned incantation.
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 book to book. Part of what makes the Potter series so satisfying is that the learning curve is gentle – we learn magic 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 her 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
Hogwarts professors like Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, and Slughorn are more highly trained and experienced magic users, so their magic falls in the middle of the spectrum. The professors are capable of non-verbal magic and advanced spellwork beyond the ability of the students. (e.g. only potion masters like Slughorn and Snape are capable of brewing the tricky Felix Felicis potion) But the professors still require a wand and have limitations. (e.g. Professor McGonagall is an animagus – an advanced magical ability – and undoubtedly powerful, but she doesn’t perform wildly inventive, wandless, or unique magic like Dumbledore.)
Severus Snape is an advanced magic user and falls on the spectrum between the other Hogwarts professors and 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), and casts his doe patronus to guide Harry to the pool 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.
Soft Magic Users
Dumbledore, Voldemort, (and occasionally Harry, and Lily Potter in a one-off) all perform magic that break the guidelines completely, which lands them on the soft end of the spectrum.
Dumbledore performs impossible magic without a wand when he disapparates from inside Hogwarts by clasping onto Fawkes’s tailfeathers in ‘Order of the Phoenix.’ He also is capable of sensing traces left behind by magic using only his hands, and can even recognize Voldemort’s signature style in the cave by the sea in ‘Half Blood Prince’.
Voldemort flies without broom or thestral, and both he and Dumbledore cast improvised magic when duelling in the Ministry of Magic in ‘Order of the Phoenix’.
Harry uses soft magic – given to him by his mother – when he burns Quirrell with his bare hands without using his wand or a spell.
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. This enables Rowling to keep readers engaged book after book because she reveals more and more unexpected aspects of Harry’s soft magic as the series progresses.
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. She then deploys soft, more imaginative and unpredictable magic to resolve those problems at the climax of each book.
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 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 so she can highlight the impossible odds Harry is up against. And Harry must face Voldemort – who is armed with the unbeatable Elder Wand – alone, without Dumbledore, his wisest and most powerful mentor and protector. These high stakes increase narrative tension because readers can’t predict how Harry will triumph over such a powerful adversary.
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 hero (Harry), mentor (Dumbledore) and antagonist (Voldemort) from the rest of the cast as uniquely powerful. 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’ – the characteristics of a hard magic system.
Part 3 – ‘Dementors and the Patronus in ‘Harry Potter” – how Rowling uses firm and soft magical elements in combination.
Part 4 – ‘Magical Conflict in ‘Harry Potter”- how and why Rowling uses firm and soft magic to create and resolve conflict throughout the series.
Part 5 – ‘The Thematic Magic of ‘Lord of the Rings’ – how Tolkien uses soft magic to convey theme.
What do you think of how Rowling uses magic? Tell me in the comments!