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July 25, 2007

The logic of Harry Potter

There are no spoilers in this post. 

I'm currently reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My friend is urging me to finish it as soon as possible so that we can discuss everything about it like the nerds we (sometimes) are. Meanwhile, I must admit, sadly, that the lack of logic in the series is annoying. And this has only gotten worse as I've gotten older.

Now before this friend and others kill me for writing bad things about our beloved series, let me just say that I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't love the books. I wouldn't care if I well, didn't care. And while it may in many cases be best to just enjoy a good story and not worry about the plotholes, when they annoy me, they annoy me, no matter how many times people tell me to stop being "too smart for my own good".

Megan McArdle writes about the bad economics in Harry Potter, and in my opinion, she's right (if we think of economics broadly to include magic and information, not just Galleons, as resources). There does not seem to be a clear pattern to when and how magic can be used. Witches and wizards have the ability to use magic, but must learn the details of how at school. So far, so good. But while they can transfigure one animal into an entirely different species, they can't remove mold from bread and they must eat trick candies to be able to fake disease. Sometimes wizards need only wands to perform spells, and sometimes potions or various gadgets (deluminator, pensieve, timeturner) are needed, and I haven't found any kind of pattern for when you need what. And the whole idea of having or not having money really should be less important if you can magically alter clothing, food, your house etc. yet the Weasleys are still poor.

When magic and knowledge about magic isn't being used as a plot device, information is. McArdle writes that the characters "spend the latter books pointlessly withholding information from each other that, if shared, would end the installment somewhere around page ten". This is not the way to write a good story, and it was my biggest irritation when reading "The DaVinci Code", except that in that case, much of the information was being given to the charactors but withheld from the reader. The characters would then slowly and stupidly try to solve riddles that were unknown to the reader, and as soon as the whole riddle was described, its answer was obvious. A good mystery story gives the reader the opportunity to solve the mystery before the last page. The answer should be there, but cleverly hidden between red herrings and amusing subplots. The reaction to the last chapter should be: "But of course! Why didn't I figure that out sooner?" not "Huh? What? But... huh?" as brand new characters, info and plot devices are introduced at the author's convenience. I can't stand those stories where there would be no plot if the characters would only communicate, and every once in a while, J. K. Rowling falls into that very trap, especially in the later books.

Another annoyance (which McArdle does not address) is the psychological and emotional logic. Harry Potter may have had vague memories of being loved as a baby, but until his 11th birthday, he has never really experienced kindness, let alone anything resembling friendship. Shouldn't that unusually unhappy childhood have made him less stable, trusting and generally normal than he is? For example, that he trusts and likes Ron immediately, but then rejects the powerful Draco Malfoy's offer of friendship, seems strange to me. It shows an unusual sense of loyalty and integrity. Many 11-year-olds would find it difficult to stand by their unpopular friend, and when we keep in mind that he met this friend less than a day ago and that he has never experienced loyalty himself, it just doesn't seem believable to me. Over the course of the series, Harry encounters incredible sadness and loss and is almost constantly in grave danger. He is betrayed by people he trusts and kept in the dark by people who should be telling him the truth. Yet he continues to be the hero, questioning his friends' need to protect him, and putting other people's safety before his own. This even happens in situations where he rationally knows that it is more important to the entire world that he survive than that person X does. This may be a reaction to his lonely childhood - he has very low self-esteem and can't believe other people would risk their lives to protect him - but it seems to me that he is just making stupid choices and being more noble than I find believable. And it's not just Harry. Hermione, one of the characters I identify with the most, sometimes shows signs of being written as a steriotypical "nerdy girl" rather than as a real person who happens to be really smart. Although I think that Rowling got better at writing this character as Hermione grew up, it still astounds me that she doesn't get more exasperated with Ron and Harry. I understand that they are very close friends, but doesn't she have a need for friends she actually has more in common with?

The obvious answer to these comments (mine and McArdles) are that: "Come on! It's a kid's book about magic!" However, there is a difference between a realistic story (one that could actually happen) and a believable story (one that has a perfect internal logic, even if it does involve superpowers). Children can tell the difference. Anyway, the children who first started reading Harry Potter, are no longer children. When I first started reading this series, I was eleven (just like Harry) and I loved the believability of the first book and the surprising, yet perfectly logical end. Now I'm almost 21. Over the course of ten years, fans have grown up. And the books have gotten longer, darker and more detailed. As I finish the very last chapters of the Harry Potter series, I hope Rowling ties up the loose ends in a satisfying way. I really, really do.

Posted by Julie at July 25, 2007 4:00 PM

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She kinda did, didn't she? I think she did. And wow, mcardle has some interesting points. I'm sure if we were witches we'd be getting more information about economics. But then again, you can't expect people to excel at economics when all "realfag" they are given, if any, stop at the age of eleven.

Posted by: A. J. Stalin at August 5, 2007 10:31 PM