Magic and Technology in Harry Potter’s Universe
By Grace Dow
The world can be a very frightening, uncomfortable, and inconvenient place. In our era of fast food, instant replays, and million dollar box offices, we often tend to forget that. People in pre-industrial societies, however, could not consult the Weather Channel to receive warnings about incoming storms. The world in which they lived both provided for their way of life and acted as a threat to it, and thus these people were constantly seeking to find a “means of directing and controlling [their] natural environment”.1 Throughout history men and women have explored two different means of doing exactly that: magic and science. Now, according to our history textbooks, the story goes something like this: Science worked and magic failed. The end. This makes sense to our modern sensibility, which Alan Jacobs, author of the article ‘Harry Potter’s Magic,’ sums up so nicely in the question, “Is not magic governed by superstition, ignorance, and wishful thinking, while experimental science is rigorous, self-critical, and methodological?” 2 However, there was a point in history when magic was just as acceptable a possibility as science. As Jacobs goes on to point out, “it was not obvious in advance that science would succeed and magic fail.” 3 At one point in time, to be a magician was just as legitimate and scholarly a pursuit as to be a scientist. In fact, many medieval monarchs employed alchemists, men who experimented in both scientific and magical practices in attempts to discover a way to turn other chemical compounds into gold. Such a pursuit seems like nonsense from our perspective, but at the time it probably seemed as plausible to them as cancer research or genetic engineering is to us today.
The relationship between magic and technology is central to the genre of fantasy. In some books, such as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, the force that sets the story in motion is actually a form of technology so advanced that it only seems like “magic” to the protagonists. Other stories, such as the famous Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea books, are set in pseudo-medieval, pre-industrial worlds where magic acts as the dominant means of control. However, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books do not quite seem to fit either of these molds. Rather, Rowling has imagined a different sort of history entirely from that to which we are accustomed. In Rowling’s alternate history, both science and magic succeed in shaping and controlling the outside world and its natural forces. Instead of the one-worked-one-didn’t conclusion we have believed all our technologically-driven lives, Rowling presents a complicated “real world” in which magic and technology exist side by side and occasionally overlap. In order to better understand this universe, it is important to examine those similarities, differences, and overlaps in how the two forces are used to control their environment.
In Rowling’s universe these two separate forms of power and influence lead to a division of the community, to the point that a whole magical community is thriving in the midst of a non-magical (Muggle) world; the Muggles are completely unaware of the wizarding world’s existence, while wizards hardly ever set foot beyond their own sphere of life. This is because the ‘Statute of Secrecy,’ part of their own wizarding law, forbids wizards and witches from revealing the existence of magic and the magical world to Muggles.4 Because Muggles are not aware of magic and wizards are usually unfamiliar with Muggle technology (unless they are Muggle born), any overlap between the two communities yields interesting results. When Sirius Black (allegedly) killed thirteen people with one curse while standing in the middle of a Muggle-packed street in broad daylight, the Ministry of Magic had to cover it up by telling the Muggle community that the deaths were the result of a gas explosion.5 A more humorous example of another overlap appears toward the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “Ron Weasley, who was one of Harry’s best friends at Hogwarts, came from a whole family of wizards. This meant that he knew a lot of things Harry didn’t, but had never used the telephone before.” 6 Ron ends up bellowing into the phone, infuriating Harry’s Uncle Vernon, who is already agitated enough at having a wizard under his roof.7
Both magic and technology may seek the same end, but often their ways of reaching that end are remarkably different. While Muggles drive in cars, ride bikes, and fly in airplanes, wizards are more likely to be seen flying on brooms, using Floo Powder to travel instantaneously through a series of fireplace grates, or Apparating – disappearing from one spot and appearing in another, a practice only legal for wizards of a certain age.8 Another popular form of travel for wizards is the Portkey. As Arthur Weasley explains to Harry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Portkeys are “objects that are used to transport wizards from one spot to another at a prearranged time.” 9 These inconspicuous objects work well for group travel; whoever is touching the Portkey at the appropriate time will feel a hooking sensation behind their navel, followed by a “howl of wind and swirling color,” before finally crash-landing at the desired destination.10
At Hogwarts one hears no mention of electric lights; instead the lighting seems to come from lamps, lanterns, fires, torches, magically floating candles, and even an enchanted ceiling. The castle has no security system with cameras and alarms; instead it is protected by very powerful spells and enchantments, as Hermione reminds her fellow Gryffindors after Sirius Black attacks the portrait of the Fat Lady.11 One of these enchantments is an Anti-Apparition spell which means that “you can’t Apparate anywhere inside the buildings or the grounds.” 12 The castle is also protected by some sort of Muggle-repellent charm. In Chapter Eleven of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hermione – making one of her many Hogwarts, A History references – explains: “It’s bewitched….if a Muggle looks at it, all they see is a mouldering old ruin with a sign over the entrance saying ‘Danger, Do Not Enter, Unsafe.’ ” 13
While they have their differences, magic and technology do ultimately serve the same purposes. Both seek convenience and practicality. Muggles have created dish washers to clean dirty dishes; in the same way, a wizard or witch, with the flick of a wand, could set the dishes to cleaning themselves. Some spells provide valuable aid, like Lumos, which produces a faint light, or Impervius, the water-repelling spell Hermione uses on Harry’s glasses during the rain-sodden Quidditch match between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff.14 The ability to use charms, potions, and spells to make life easier might seem like a nice notion to the non-magical, but Muggles, on the other hand, have invented electricity, telephones, engines, and computers to serve their own needs. Impervius might have been useful to Harry in that Quidditch match, but the countless Muggles who drive their cars in the rain using windshield wipers are basically achieving the same thing.
Magic and technology are also both used to promote human health and well-being. Madam Pomfrey and a Muggle surgeon or doctor both serve the same purpose: their aim is to help their patients heal, one using magic and the other using the scientific knowledge, skills, and available equipment. One important distinction to note between the two is the fact that magical remedies must be equipped to deal with not only “natural” wounds such as cuts or broken bones, but also wounds inflicted from magical sources. Muggle stitches did not work on Mr. Weasley’s snakebite in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; instead, a magical remedy was required.15 It has never been specified if there are any Muggle illnesses that magical remedies cannot heal. It is enough to make one wonder what a wizard or witch would make of an illness like cancer, or if such a thing is a problem in the wizarding world. Still, Muggle medicine and a wizard’s potion could both relieve a headache. Harry’s bone-growing experience in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and a Muggle patient’s cast or splint both help bones to heal, though with varying means and speed of recovery.
Finally, both technology and magic can be used for entertainment. Many Muggles spend hours at a time playing video games, listening to music on CD players, spending time on the computer, or watching TV or movies. In Rowling’s world, wizards have broomsticks and Quidditch gear, all number of items available for purchase at Zonko’s joke shop or Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and games such as wizard chess, gobstones, or exploding snap to keep them busy and entertained.
It would be a mistake to consider magic and technology as separate things only to be contrasted or compared. Sometimes in Rowling’s wizarding world a reader might actually encounter a fusion of Muggle technology and wizard magic. The cars provided by the Ministry of Magic to drive Harry, Hermione, and the Weasleys safely to King’s Cross station in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are a good example of this. What seems like a normal car on the outside proves to be able to do things no normal Muggle car would, such as jumping “to the head of an unmoving line at the traffic lights.” 16 The car is undeniably a Muggle creation, but the wizarding community adapted it for their own purposes – in this case, in order to transport more riders with greater convenience and speed. Similarly, the Knight Bus, which offers “emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard,” travels at unearthly speeds, even mounting the sidewalk at points (though any lampposts or mailboxes it risks hitting jump out of the way just in time).17 Part of the magic of the Knight Bus is that it manages to go undetected by Muggles:
“How come the Muggles don’t hear the bus?” said Harry.
“Them!” said Stan, contemptuously. “Don’ listen properly, do they? Don’ look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don’.” 18
Photography is another major overlap. Muggle photographs are still and inanimate, but the subjects of wizard photos move around, are aware of their surroundings, and can even interact in some ways with any viewers. At one point in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Percy accuses Ron of spilling tea on a picture of his girlfriend Penelope Clearwater. As Ron explains to Harry: “She’s hidden her face under the frame because her nose has gone all blotchy…”19 These fascinating characteristics of wizard photographs are made possible not by some wholly magical procedure, but by a mixture of Muggle technology and wizarding magic. The photographic lens captures the image in a camera using film – all Muggle inventions – then these films are developed using a special magical potion that imbues the photographs with the movement and “life” that Muggle stills could never achieve.20
It would be impossible to fully examine overlaps between Muggle technology and wizarding magic without discussing Arthur Weasley’s work at the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office. Harry is first introduced to Mr. Weasley’s job and what it entails in Chapter Three of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As Ron explains, “It’s all to do with bewitching things that are Muggle-made, you know, in case they end up back in a Muggle shop or house.” 21 Mr. Weasley’s whole job is concerned with wizards or witches who have magically adapted Muggle artifacts, often in ways detrimental to their subsequent Muggle owners. While many times these artifacts are merely pranks as opposed to something for more practical use, the fact that Arthur’s position even exists indicates a trend among the wizarding world to mix Muggle artifacts with magic.
Professor Snape’s class offers a very fascinating example of how technology and magic sometimes fuse. Potions, the class taught in the gloomy dungeons by an even gloomier professor, seems to operate under laws similar to Muggle chemistry. Chemistry experiments – and potions – often depend on the reactions of various ingredients mixed together in the proper quantities. However, rather than working with sodium bicarbonate or calcium chloride, the students at Hogwarts make potions that involve diced daisy roots and rat spleens, or even such purely magical ingredients as dragon’s blood and unicorn hair.22 Also, the effects of these potions are far different than any a Muggle chemist could produce. While a pharmacist might be able to provide a pill to take away a headache, a proficient witch or wizard could brew Felix Felicis, or “liquid luck,” a potion “the color of molten gold” that makes its user lucky.23 Chemistry is limited to the compounds and molecular makeup of its ingredients, while with potions one can “bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death.” 24
It might seem that Muggles win the prize for having the most constantly-updated, “new and improved” gadgets that immediately render the rest of their kind obsolete. After all, it was Muggle technology that produced the iPod…then the iPod mini…then the iPod phone…then the iPod with video. But wizards have their share of this too, as Elizabeth Teare discusses in her essay Harry Potter and the Technology of Magic: “The brand of broomstick one rides is a status symbol, and the best model of one year, Harry’s Nimbus 2000, can be made obsolete by the next year’s Nimbus 2001…The best broomstick, the ‘state-of-the-art…streamlined, superfine’ Firebolt…, is an object of awed desire, too expensive and exclusive to have a price tag.” 25 It seems that drooling over window displays is universal.
Even though magic and technology have the power to manipulate the environment, they also have their limitations. These limitations include both those imposed by nature and those implemented by some sort of legal system. In terms of natural limitations, one thing that both magic and technology cannot overcome is death. Both power sources can try to defy death: technology has created machines which can keep coma patients alive for decades, while magic provides objects such as the Philosopher’s Stone and procedures (as unspeakable as they might be) such as splitting the soul into pieces to create a Horcrux, which can unnaturally prolong life and prevent the coming of death.26 However, “no spell can reawaken the dead,” as Dumbledore reminds Harry and Sirius at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.27 In the same way, no known medical procedures can reanimate a corpse after death, despite all those “light at the end of the tunnel” miracle stories one sometimes hears.
In terms of the law, the use of magic and technology are supposed to work within the confines of the legal system. That “supposed to” is important because often that is not what happens. When Buckbeak goes to trial in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione, Harry, and Ron cannot just wave their wands, say a spell, and have everything work out for the best. Instead, they must submit to the procedures of the legal system, thus the most they can do is help Hagrid come up with a logical argument for a “good strong defense,” and hope that the judge will listen to them.28 However, when Dumbledore gives Hermione the hint (“What we need…is more time.”) about using her Time Turner, suddenly magic provides the perfect means to save Buckbeak while essentially breaking the law.29 In the Muggle world, the many films about prison breaks and heists prove the same thing: though the legal system has been put into place to limit the abuses of power, technology (all those “James Bond” gadgets and gizmos that pick locks and deactivate security systems) also makes it possible to work outside of the law. So while in both cases the justice system is supposed to override the power of the controlling force, it does not always happen that way.
Interestingly, both forces can be used for either good or evil. The end result requires choice on the part of the user. A spell can provide protection (as can a Kevlar vest) or bring about destruction (like a gun or a bomb). The importance of choice is a theme that comes up often in the Harry Potter series. Both Harry and his unchosen enemy Voldemort shared similar beginnings – “both halfbloods, orphans, raised by Muggles.” 30 Both share a great talent for magic and the ability to speak the snake language Parseltongue – and yet they have come to very different ends, because Voldemort chose to use his magic in attempts to gain complete power, while Harry chooses to use his magical ability for the purposes of good. Dumbledore is also characterized by his choices to use magical power for good as opposed to evil. This is apparent from the very beginning of the series, as indicated by this exchange between Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall in Chapter One of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
“You flatter me,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Voldemort had powers I will never have.”
“Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.” 31
In the Muggle world, such a distinction might mean the difference between a terrorist and an activist, with one using power and technological advancements as a means to frighten, harm, and dominate people, and the other using his or her resources to empower others and to fight for the rights and freedoms of individuals.
Tolkien once wrote of a process of world-building that he called “mythopoiea,” or “sub-creation.” 32 According to him, a successfully created world “resembles ours but is not ours,” and “possesses internal logic and self-consistency to the same degree that ours does – but not the same logic: it must have its own rules, rules that are peculiar to it and that generate consequences also peculiar to it.”33 By combining the concepts of science and technology with magic and the supernatural, and implementing them both as equally successful controlling forces, Rowling succeeds in creating a unique universe that adheres to Tolkien’s credo. The world of Harry Potter – from the soaring heights of the highest tower at Hogwarts to the hidden depths of Gringotts Wizard bank far below the Muggle streets of London – is utterly believable, strange, and wonderful all at once. The laws that hold it together as a universe may be barely visible to the reader – (“like magic!”) – but they create a rich, layered, detailed world, with a force as true as gravity.
1. Oakes, Margaret J. “Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches: The Hi-Tech, Low-Tech World of Wizardry.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. Westport, CT: Praegar, 2003. p. 118.
2. Jacobs, Alan. “Harry Potter’s Magic.” First Things. January 2000: 35-38. p. 37.
4. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. pp. 140-141.
5. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 40.
6. Ibid. p. 3.
7. Ibid. p. 4.
8. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000. pp. 66-67.
9. Ibid, p. 70.
10. Ibid, p. 73.
11. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 164.
12. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. p. 60.
13. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000. p. 166.
14. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 177.
15. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003. p. 507.
16. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 71.
17. Ibid. p. 33, 36.
18. Ibid. p. 36.
19. Ibid. p. 69.
20. J.K. Rowling Official Website. “Why did Colin Creevey’s camera work etc?” F.A.Q. 2006. J.K. Rowling Official Website. 18 July 2007. <http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=81 >
21. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1998. p. 31.
22. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999. pp. 125-126.
23. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. p. 187.
24. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997. p. 137.
25. Teare, Elizabeth. “Harry Potter and the Technology of Magic.” The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. Ed. Lana A. Whited. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. p. 341.
26. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005. p. 497.
27. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000. p. 697.
28. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999. p. 219.
29. Ibid, p. 393.
30. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1998. p. 317.
31. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997. p. 11.
32. Jacobs, Alan. “Harry Potter’s Magic.” First Things. January 2000: 35-38. p. 35.
Jacobs, Alan. “Harry Potter’s Magic.” First Things. January 2000: 35-38.
Oakes, Margaret J. “Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches: The Hi-Tech, Low-Tech World of Wizardry.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. Westport Connecticut: Praeger, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1998.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, 2005.
Teare, Elizabeth. “Harry Potter and the Technology of Magic.” The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. Ed. Lana A. Whited. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.