J.K. Rowling’s use of magic in the ‘Harry Potter’ series creates a pattern. In the first four 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.
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 can’t be anticipated.
Soft Magic is Unpredictable But Risky
Rowling has to 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 us 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 it risks 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 and wildly inconsistent magic between books.
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 magic system throughout the series, depending on on what she needs to accomplish in the plot. She uses firmer magic to give us a sense of worldbuilding, immersion, stakes, and a strong emotional connection to Harry who is struggling to learn magic to fight enemies like the dementors. She uses softer magic to bail Harry out of impossible situations, keep her story fresh and unpredictable, and maintain narrative momentum.
Soft magic will constrain the 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 it is that 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.
Books 1 – 3: Firm Problems & Soft Solutions
In the first 3 books, firm magic creates conflict and soft magic resolves it.
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 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.
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 by magic that Rowling doesn’t even attempt to explain, and also blinds the basilisk, solving the deadly stare problem for Harry. The healing property of phoenix tears is foreshadowed by Dumbledore, but how they actually work or why is a mystery. Fawkes also brings Harry the sorting hat, out of which he miraculously pulls the sword of Gryffindor. This is so implausible that it qualifies as a deus ex machina ending.
Rowling deftly foreshadows Tom Riddle’s diary as a Horcrux and the basilisk’s venom as a method to destroy them.
Prisoner of Azkaban
The firm magic problems of werewolves and dementors are resolved by the soft magic of the time turner and the patronus.
During the first climax, 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.
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.
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.
Soft magical problems are Voldemort returning to full power and overcoming Lily’s protection, and the imperius and cruciatus curses. Rowling doesn’t explain how Voldemort regenerates his body in the cauldron or how using Harry’s blood overcomes Lily’s protection.
Imperius & Cruciatus Curses
The cruciatus curse is soft magic because, like the patronus, it is emotion-based. Moody says the innocent fourth years couldn’t even give him a nose-bleed, but vicious Bellatrix LeStrange tortures Neville’s parents into insanity.
The imperius curse is even softer and suffers from consistency problems similar to the patronus. In the book, 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.’ After this simplistic classroom practice, Harry is able to throw off the imperius curse cast by Voldemort, one of the most powerful magic users in the series.
The film adaption side-steps these issues by not showing Harry throwing off the imperius curse in Moody’s classroom, and having Harry succumb to Voldemort’s unspoken imperius curse in the graveyard.
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 having the wands share a core adds some structure to this bit of very soft magic.
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.
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. Rowling keeps Harry failing at occlumency and has Snape refuse to teach him further in order to keep her mind-connection plot device in place long enough for Voldemort to lure Harry to the ministry.
When Harry is possessed by Voldemort, he somehow expels Voldemort from his body with his ability to love. Even though the theme of love was introduced by Dumbledore in the first book, this doesn’t qualify as a solution narratively, and Rowling doesn’t even attempt to dress it up as magic. It’s effectively another deus ex machina ending which Rowling uses as plot armor to prevent Harry from dying too soon.
Rowling breaks the pattern in the sixth book since ‘Half-Blood’ is essentially 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.
Horcruxes are a firm magical problem because Harry learns how they are created, their purpose, and the limited ways they can be destroyed.
The solution to the Harry-as-a-Horcrux problem is soft magic that relies on total suspension of disbelief. Rowling asks us 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, and that Voldemort accidentally and unintentionally creates a Horcrux out of Harry in the same moment. Harry is then resurrected by the same Horcrux magic once he’s no longer a Horcrux. These cobbled together pieces of magic are clearly created for author convenience and thematic impact. Considering how illogical these plot devices actually are, Rowling pulls them off rather well by leaning heavily on theme and symbolism.
Theme Trumps Logic
Rowling also confronts an ethical problem. Voldemort is the villain because he kills for pleasure and gain using the Avada Kedavra 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 the same dilemma in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’.)
Rowling’s first solution to the ethical problem is complex wandlore that enables Harry to use Draco’s wand to disarm Voldemort of the Elder Wand. She creates her own loophole in ‘Half-Blood Prince’ in order to short-circuit the all powerful Elder Wand, and conveniently prevents Harry from realizing this loophole until the series climax.
Her 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, and it 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.
Conclusion: Story Is More Important Than Magic
Rowling’s emotionally-powered soft magic may fall apart logically, but her devoted fans demonstrate that delivering a satisfying story experience is more important than dutifully following the rules of an air-tight, 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’ – the characteristics of a hard magic system.
Part 2 – ‘Magic User Spectrum of ‘Harry Potter” – the differences between firm, flexible, and soft magic users.
Part 3 – ‘Dementors and the Patronus in ‘Harry Potter” – how Rowling uses firm and soft magical elements in combination.
Part 5 – ‘The Thematic Magic of ‘Lord of the Rings’ – how Tolkien uses soft magic to convey theme.
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!