Author J.K. Rowling’s use of magic in the ‘Harry Potter‘ series creates a pattern. In the first 4 books, firm magic creates conflict and soft magic resolves it. In last 3 books, soft magic both creates and solves conflict.

Rowling’s magical artifacts and spells that create and solve conflict fall on the same magic spectrum as her magic users – firm, flexible, and soft.

Learned, Foreshadowed, & ‘After the Fact’ Magic

When Rowling has Harry use soft magic to resolve conflict in the first half of the series it’s usually either a piece of magic that the readers have watched him learn (e.g. patronus), or a new piece of magic that was strongly foreshadowed (e.g. priori incantatem). This keeps the soft magic solution from feeling like an obvious cheat.

The connection between Harry and Voldemort’s brother wands is foreshadowed in the first book when Harry buys his wand from Ollivander. Rowling reminds us of this connection when Ollivander inspects each champion’s wand before the start of the Triwizard Tournament in ‘Goblet of Fire’, before showing the effects of the connection – priori incantatem – during the climax in the graveyard.

But sometimes Harry isn’t aware of a soft magic solution until Dumbledore explains it after the fact. (e.g. Lily’s protection that destroys Quirrel in ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, and the mind connection between Harry and Voldemort in ‘Order of the Phoenix’). ‘After the fact’ magic is usually less satisfying than learned and foreshadowed magic, but still effective as a plot device because readers can seldom can anticipate it.

Priori Incantatem is foreshadowed 3 novels before it appears in ‘Goblet of Fire’

Soft Magic is Unpredictable But Risky

Rowling must sustain conflict between Harry and Voldemort across 7 mammoth books, so she needs to keep injecting freshness and surprise into her magic system along the way to keep readers engaged. Using soft magic that is foreshadowed but not explained sustains the sense of wonder and mystery that Rowling needs to keep her plot twisty and unpredictable.

Soft magic can be more interesting, but comes with the inherent risk of internal inconsistency. Its unpredictability can create plot holes within the story and illogical effects within the magic system (e.g. patronus and imperius curse). Rowling’s heavier use of soft magic in second half of the series creates more frequent plot holes in the last 3 books and wildly inconsistent magic between the earlier and later novels.

Magic Serves the Story

In ‘Avatar: the Last Airbender’, magic drives the plot. But in the Harry Potter series, magic serves the story.

Rowling bounces back and forth along the spectrum of her hybrid magic system throughout the series, depending on what she needs to accomplish in the plot. She uses firmer magic to create a sense of world building, immersion, stakes, and a strong emotional connection to Harry who is struggling to learn magic to fight enemies like the dementors, Death Eaters, and finally Voldemort himself. She uses softer dubiously explained magic to bail Harry out of impossible situations, keep her story fresh and unpredictable, and maintain narrative momentum.

Soft magic constrains plot less than hard magic but at a price. Hard magic systems like ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender‘ usually resolve conflict with the characters’ creative use of the established, rule-bound magic system. (e.g. Aang uses his spirit-bending powers to remove Ozai’s firebending ability.) But the harder the magic system the more likely readers can anticipate plot twists and see the ending coming a mile off.

Rowling tackles the predictability problem with a hybrid magic system of both firm and soft elements. She chooses firm or soft magic based on what what she needs to do to keep the plot progressing, develop her characters, and set up twist endings. As the series progresses, Rowling increasingly relies on soft magic solutions which she may foreshadow. But she doesn’t show Harry learning most of them, and many are only partially justified after the fact.

Like Trelawney’s clairvoyance, soft magic is occasionally simply plot convenience

Books 1 – 3: Firm Problems & Soft Solutions

In the first 3 books, Rowling uses firm magic to create conflict and soft magic to resolve it.

Philosopher’s Stone

The problems created by firm magic are the Philosopher’s Stone and Quirrell’s attacks.

The Philosopher’s Stone is firm magic because its powers are predictable: it transforms lead into gold and produces the Elixir of Life. The stone’s magic remains the consistent no matter who possesses it, which creates the problem of Voldemort trying to steal it to regain strength.

Rowling gives a very young Harry a leg-up to obtain the stone with the soft magic of the Mirror of Erised. She doesn’t explain the mechanics of how Dumbledore’s enchantment results in the stone teleporting into Harry’s pocket. But she does foreshadow the mirror’s capabilities and connect it to Harry’s character arc (more on this in a separate post).

Quirrell is a problem because he’s an adult wizard attacking an 11 year old with fire and ropes conjured out of thin air. Harry is a child and a first year wizard, so he doesn’t know enough magic to defend himself. (Ron gets the pleasure of using the hover charm to knock out the mountain troll.) Rowling bails Harry out using the soft magic of Lily’s protection – wandless magic that neither he nor the reader knew he possessed, and which Dumbledore only vaguely explains after the fact.

The Mirror of Erised is unexplained soft magic based on emotion

Chamber of Secrets

The basilisk’s deadly stare is a firm magic problem, although Rowling softens the effect into petrification via mirrors, cameras, reflections, and ghosts. The soft magic that rescues Harry is Fawkes and the Sword of Gryffindor.

Dumbledore’s phoenix finds his way inside the chamber at the exactly the right time via means Rowling doesn’t even attempt to explain, a bit of very soft magic. She also has Fawkes conveniently blind the basilisk, solving the deadly stare problem for Harry. Although the healing property of phoenix tears is foreshadowed by Dumbledore, how and why they actually work to heal Harry’s basilisk bite remains a mystery. Fawkes also brings Harry the sorting hat, out of which he miraculously pulls the sword of Gryffindor. Both of these elements are so implausible that they qualify as the first of two deus ex machina endings in the series.

In contrast to the unexplained miracle of Fawkes timely entrance, Rowling deftly foreshadows Tom Riddle’s diary as a Horcrux and the basilisk’s venom as a method to destroy them, one of series’ best plot twists. She accomplishes this by engrossing readers with the separate reveal of Voldemort as the young handsome Tom Riddle in ‘Chamber of Secrets’ which distracts them from the foreshadowing she layers into the diary and the basilisk, to be revealed several novels later.

The basilisk’s deadly stare is an predictable, logical problem

Prisoner of Azkaban

In ‘Azkaban’ Rowling begins to depart the strong pattern established in the first 2 novels. The firm magic problems of werewolves and dementors are resolved by a combination of the firm magic of the time turner and the soft magic of the patronus.

During the first of two climaxes in ‘Azkaban’, Lupin is a rampaging werewolf bent on attacking Harry and Hermione. This is firm magic because the rules of werewolf transformation are consistent and predictable. Unless he takes the wolfsbane potion, Lupin turns into a werewolf every month at the full moon.

Werewolves are a magical problem that can be anticipated

Hermione’s time turner gives her and Harry a second shot at saving Buckbeak from the executioner and Sirius from the dementor’s kiss. In the second climax, Harry fights off the dementors with his stag patronus.

The Too-Powerful Time Turner

Hermione’s time turner is firm magic in that its effects are logical, consistent, and predictable. Rowling does a good job of disguising it as a plot device. She justifies Hermione’s possession of such a powerful magical object so her rule-following, over-acheiving star pupil can attend multiple classes at the same time.

At the same time, Rowling recognized the ability of the time turner to unravel the rest of her story. She addressed the problem by having McGonagall mention that the Ministry had destroyed its stock of time turners. This potential massive plot hole was later exploited by Jack Thorne in the stage play ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child‘ which uses the time turner as its central plot device.

Books 4 – 7: Soft Problems and Softer Solutions

By the middle of the series, Rowling begins using soft magic to create more complex, unpredictable conflict.

Goblet of Fire

The Triwizard cup being a portkey is a firm magical problem because portkeys are predictable and only transport wizards to a single predetermined location.

The problems are Voldemort returning to full power and overcoming Lily’s protection, and the imperius and cruciatus curses. These are both soft magical problems since Rowling doesn’t explain how Voldemort regenerates his body in the cauldron or how he uses Harry’s blood to overcome Lily’s protection which readers saw Harry successfully use against Quirrell in the first novel.

Imperius & Cruciatus Curses

The cruciatus curse is soft magic because, like the patronus, it is emotion-based. Although an imposter, the fake Professor Mad Eye Moody rightly says the young and innocent fourth years couldn’t even give him a nose-bleed. But through glimpses into Neville Longbottom’s tragic backstory, Harry and readers learn that the vicious Bellatrix LeStrange effectively used the curse to torture Neville’s parents into insanity.

The imperius curse is very soft magic and suffers from consistency problems similar to the patronus. In ‘Goblet of Fire’, Harry, a 14 year old, is somehow able to throw off the imperius curse after only two lessons with the fake Moody, who offers no real instruction on how to do it other than ‘it takes real strength of character.’ In the same lesson, Moody tells the class that scores of adult witches and wizards fell prey to the imperius curse during Voldemort’s rise to power, creating difficulty for the Ministry of Magic when trying to sort out the liars. Unlike his struggle to learn the complex and advanced patronus charm throughout ‘Azkaban’, Harry is able to throw off the imperius curse cast by Voldemort, one of the most powerful magic users in the series, after a few vaguely described practice rounds in Moody’s classroom.

I suspect Rowling consciously made the choice not to have Moody train Harry more throughly in resisting the imperius curse for 3 good reasons. First, she had already used this plot device in ‘Azakaban’ and didn’t want to repeat herself. Second, she risked revealing too much of fake Moody’s real identity if Harry had more lessons with him. Third, Rowling simply didn’t have space to cram more training sequences into an already dense story. Instead she wisely focused on more interesting elements such as who put Harry’s name into the goblet, the budding romantic tensions between the fourth years and the visiting students from Beaubatons and Durmstrang, and the ongoing tension of the Triwizard Tournament.

The film adaption of ‘Goblet’ side-steps these issues by not showing Harry throwing off the imperius curse in Moody’s classroom, and having Harry believably succumb to Voldemort’s unspoken imperius curse in the graveyard.

The soft magic of the Imperius Curse is inconsistent

Priori Incantatem

Rowling assists Harry again with the soft magic of priori incantatem. Harry and Voldemort’s wands are brothers and produce priori incantatem – the reverse spell effect – instead of effectively dueling against one another. Rowling doesn’t explain how any of this works but she needs readers to believe it in order to sustain narrative tension. Having anticipated this problem, Rowling props up this bit of soft magic by having the wands share a core which she smoothly foreshadows in ‘Philosopher’s Stone’.

Similarly, Rowling doesn’t explain how the ghost versions of Lily and James which are expelled from Voldemort’s wand are able to speak to Harry and distract Voldemort long enough for Harry to reach the portkey cup. This is another example of Rowling using ever increasing soft magic as the series progresses.

Priori Incantatem is a foreshadowed soft magic solution

Order of the Phoenix

Legilimency and occlumency are both soft magic problems since Rowling doesn’t allow Snape to give Harry any firm, logical rules about how either actually works. Having Harry’s scar be the point of connection between him and Voldemort adds a bit more structure, but occlumency remains a largely unexplained problem. Unlike Harry’s instant success at repelling the imperius curse with minimal instruction, Rowling purposefully keeps Harry failing at occlumency despite multiple tortuous private lessons with Snape. She dumbs Harry down in this instance because needs him to remain bad at occlumency until the end of the novel in order to keep her mind-connection plot device in place long enough for Voldemort to lure Harry to the ministry.

During the climax of ‘Phoenix’ at the Ministry, Voldemort possesses Harry in a vain attempt to lure Dumbledore into killing Harry. In an uncharacteristic slip, Rowling has Harry somehow expel Voldemort from his body with only a vague mention about his ability to love. Although Rowling introduced the theme of love magically protecting Harry via the plot device of Lily’s invisible protection in ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, the ending of ‘Phoenix’ doesn’t qualify as a solution narratively. Rowling is aware of this and consequently doesn’t even attempt to dress it up as magic.

Saddled with such vague climax mechanics, ‘Phoenix’ effectively becomes Rowling’s second deus ex machina ending. Along with Fawkes and the Sword of Gryffindor appearing from the Sorting Hat in ‘Chamber of Secrets’, Harry ‘loving’ Voldemort out of his body becomes simplistic plot armor which Rowling uses to prevent Harry from dying too soon. I would have liked to have seen Rowling further develop and consequently foreshadow the solution that Harry ultimately uses to save himself from Voldemort in ‘Phoenix’. But she seems to have spent her creative energy in this novel on the development of the occlumency problem which she needs to conclude her series.

Occlumency is a soft magic plot device

Half-Blood Prince

Rowling breaks the pattern in the sixth novel since ‘Half-Blood’ is essentially elaborate set-up for ‘Deathly Hallows’. She arranges the game board for her finale by introducing the problem of the Horcruxes, removing Dumbledore as a source of protection and information, and foreshadowing the Elder Wand loop-hole solution.

Deathly Hallows

Horcruxes are a firm magical problem because Harry learns how they are created, their purpose, and the limited ways they can be destroyed.

Rowling’s not-so-creative but thematically brilliant solution to the complex Harry-as-a-Horcrux problem is the softest magic in the series which relies on total suspension of disbelief. Rowling asks readers to believe that Lily cast a complex, never-before-seen spell without a wand in the space of a split-second under life and death pressure. At the same time, she has Voldemort accidentally and unintentionally creating a Horcrux out of Harry in the same moment. Finally, Rowling resurrects Harry using the same Horcrux magic once he’s no longer a Horcrux. This is a lot of very complex interconnected magic for readers to track over the course of 7 novels, and Rowling uses that ‘confusion factor’ to her advantage.

In order for her entire series to work, Rowling is counting on readers not noticing that this massive ball of extreme soft magic is cast two by two different people in the space of an instant. And thanks to 2 compelling factors… most readers don’t.

First, Rowling’s magic system has become sweeping, detailed, and hopelessly complex by the end of the series. None but the most alert and logical of readers will have noticed this crucial piece of magic that happened before the first book even began is highly unlikely, even by Rowling’s flexible standards. Secondly, Rowling has done such a good job of emotionally investing us in Harry’s journey that we don’t care if the story logic slips… a little as with the patronus, or even a lot, at it does here.

Unfortunately, the most glaring plot hole of the entire series remains. Presuming Lily and James Potter’s house did not have spells to prevent inhabitants from aparating out in the even of an emergency, which seems reasonable if the house was protected by the fiddly Fidelius Charm, why Lily did not disaparate with baby Harry out of the house when Voldemort arrives on his murderous mission.

Although these cobbled together pieces of magic are clearly created for author convenience, they are brilliantly conceived from a thematic standpoint. Considering how illogical these plot devices are upon closer inspection, Rowling pulls them off rather well by leaning heavily on theme and symbolism.

Harry as a Horcrux is illogical soft magic

Theme Trumps Logic

In addition to the logical problem of Harry-as-a-Horcrux, Rowling also confronts an ethical problem in the final novel. Rowling has cast Voldemort as the villain because he kills for pleasure and gain using the avada kedavra or instant death curse. Rowling’s challenge is how to have Harry defeat Voldemort without using the avada kedavra curse which would make Harry a killer too. (Aang faces a similar dilemma in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’.)

Rowling’s first solution to the ethical problem is complex bit of wandlore that enables Harry to use Draco’s wand to disarm Voldemort of the Elder Wand. Having foreseen the problem, she creates this loophole in ‘Half-Blood Prince’ in order to short-circuit the all powerful Elder Wand. But the loophole also creates a small plot hole which she effectively kicks dirt over. Although Harry learns from Ollivander that vanquished wands will yield to the wand which dominated them in ‘Deathly Hallows’, Rowling delays Harry from connecting the dots until the moment of maximum dramatic impact – the series climax.

Rowling’s second solution – retrofitting Harry’s use of the expelliarmus charm to cause Voldemort’s killing curse rebound upon him – is not as convincing. This approach allows Voldemort to essentially self-destruct while keeping Harry’s hands clean. This works thematically but not logically. A shield charm would be the logical choice, but Rowling prioritizes the thematic weight of the disarming spell Harry learns from Snape.

The soft magic of Elder Wand is defeated by a loophole

Conclusion: Story Is More Important Than Magic

Rowling’s emotionally-powered soft magic may fall apart logically, but the enduring popularity of the Harry Potter series demonstrate that delivering a satisfying story experience is more important than dutifully following the rules of an airtight, logic-based magic system. Rowling cast a powerful spell over us with her compelling characters and entertaining plot, and that’s the real magic of fantasy.

More Posts In This Series:

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

Part 2 – ‘Harry Potter’ – Firm Magic Systems

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

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

What is your favorite magical conflict in ‘Harry Potter’? Which one of Rowling’s solutions feels the most satisfying? Which is the least satisfying? Tell me in the comments!