Given that the 7th and (hopefully) final Harry Potter book is coming out in about a week, I would like to discuss said book and analyze one of the things that really irritates me about it. If you have not read the books (though I know no one who has not), this may sound like a kind of boring enterprise. But perhaps it will not be; for at the end I will make an attempt to digest this analysis and come up with a ‘revised Hary Potter’ concept (more likely to be a completely new story idea), and this will give a (perhaps) interesting look at how I approach writing.
My main problem is with the economies of the wizarding peoples. The Weasleys are poor. This is shown by their inability to purchase new clothing or new spellbooks (all are second-hand and rather worn out), the ramshackle appearance of their house (“the Burrow”), and the presents they give (always hand-knit sweaters from Mrs. Weasley). In contrast, the Malfoys are rich. This is shown by their large manor (which, though never seen, is mentioned on occasion) and their expensive clothing and school supplies (including the ability to frivolously buy a Nimbus 2001, a rather expensive broomstick.
But… why would these things be the marks of rich and poor? Sure, in our (Muggle) world, having a big house means that you’re rich. But that’s because big houses are expensive to build. For wizards, why would big houses be expensive? You just magic one up.
So for the economy to make sense… well, I have three mutually exclusive explanations. All are rather interesting to consider.
(1) My first is that magic must be incapable of creating big houses and nice clothes. (I have no problem with this; in my opinion, magic shouldn’t be able to do those things – though it does a lot of other things in Harry Potter I think it shouldn’t be able to do.) But that doesn’t solve the problem. Because big houses and nice clothes are also made by Muggles. Why couldn’t the wizards just buy their big houses and nice clothes from the Muggles, trading for them some slight magical trinkets (which would be worth their weight in gold in Muggledom) or just counterfeiting some money?
The explanation might be that trading with Muggles is forbidden. By whom? By the Ministry of Magic. Which was established by… apparently, by the circle of wizards who were around however many hundreds of years ago. In other words, by the ancestors of today’s purebloods. It sounds to me like peoples were doing exactly what I described above (trading with the Muggles for big houses and nice clothes), but then a group of wizards who already had what they wanted prohibited it – not, as they claimed, because it was bad for the Muggles to be interfered with, but because they wanted to create artificial scarcity. And they succeeded. The poor chap who was stuck with the Burrow (probably because he was some ascetic who didn’t care about his surroundings) doomed his descendants to a life of poverty, while the ancestors of the Malfoys happened to have a big manor (which any one of the wizards could have acquired just as easily) and have been considered rich ever since.
(2) At least, that’s one possibility. Another is that, in response to ‘you could just magic up a house’; magic can create big houses and nice clothes, but it is a long, arduous process, meaning skill at wizardry makes you able to have these things, and wealth is a reflection of wizarding skill. In response to ‘you could just trade for one’, this was forbidden not out of greed, but because they truly believed the Muggles would suffer in the long run if they interacted with them. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to see why parts 1&2 are linked and why a1 is incombatible with b2 and vice versa.)
But why would they believe that? It seems to me a rather foolish belief. I won’t delve into why it’s foolish, but here’s my explanation for why they adopted it… the Centaurs. The Centaurs are the ideal in wizarding society (even if the wizards don’t know it themselves). And the Centaurs refuse to share their second-sight knowledge with outsiders (most of the time – Firenze is an exception, and he gets banished from the tribe).
The reason for this, of course, is that the Centaurs (unlike the wizards) have no desire for big houses and nice clothings. They’re ascetics, essentially. They don’t think sharing their knowledge will help those who ask (they’re kind of fatalistic), and it certainly won’t help the Centaurs (what do outsiders have to offer them? They don’t need big houses and nice clothes, which means they don’t need money). So they don’t do it. But the wizards have seen the ‘what’ of the Centaurs’ philosophy without seeing the ‘why’. So they adopted it with regards to the humans, and thus harmed both wizards and Muggles.
(3) … Unless the wizards really do understand the Centaurs’ philosophy. Or have created one of their own that tells them to cease trading with the Muggles. Consider this – once everyone has big houses and nice clothes (or adequately big houses and nice clothes with the ability to get better at whim, which is essentially the same thing) – once they’ve fulfilled and doubly fulfilled the conditions for life of food, shelter, etc, – what is there to live for? If working can’t bring you any more happiness – as would be the case if magic takes essentially no work and can give you everything you want – what should you do with your life?
It seems to me that, once food, shelter, etc, are no longer scarcities, then only one scarcity will remain – other people. Relationships with others will become all-important. Romantic relationships, yes, but I was thinking more, who is friends with who, what cliques form, etc. If you accept this interpretation Harry Potter is actually a brilliant work of literature – the cliques of Harry, Ron, Hermione, vs. Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle, isn’t about good vs. evil, it’s about how once every other need is satisfied all that matters is who your friends and enemies are, not why it’s those people. If there is no need for real conflict, then create mere competition. Griffindor vs. Slytherin. Quidditch is the true meaning of life in the world of Hogwarts.
And Ron, not Harry, is the ideal wizard, with his room covered in posters for his favorite Quidditch team, and the Quidditch World Cup in the 4th book is the most important point in the series. It isn’t like in the spectacles that were invented to occupy the masses while Rome burned. Instead Quidditch occupies the wizards because nothing else is worth being occupied about – no need to worry about food, shelter, etc, and in Rowling’s completely secularized world there’s no desire for God, no longing for a higher purpose. Kind of bleak, really.
Contrived, you say? Maybe. None of these three sound like they were intended by the author. But the problem of economics in Harry Potter is a major one, and I see no better explanations. The reason is, of course, that this isn’t a question brought up by the author intentionally (in which case we’re supposed to rest assured that there IS an explanation, even if no one’s figured it out) but an unintentional one, brought about by J.K. Rowling not thinking through everything as she wrote the books.
Anyway, now that I’ve considered these three explanations (and went way more in depth with them than was necessary), I’m going to see what it’s shown me about the idea of wizardry, and specifically about having a society of wizards living in parallel with Muggle society.
It seems to me that it is more interesting if our wizards are not like Rowling’s wizards, but rather like her Centaurs. It isn’t that for some reason they are unable to get big houses and nice clothes (since any explanation sounds contrived), or that they already have big houses and nice clothes (since that would probably be rather boring, though I suppose it might work). It would be better if our magicians, like the Centaurs, simply didn’t care about big houses and nice clothes.
Why wouldn’t they care? Well, perhaps because those things are only good because they provide (1) security, which wizards don’t need to worry about, and (2) prestige, which would be gotten in the wizarding world through other means – raw displays of power, perhaps? (After all, in a world where bigger houses and nicer clothes can be gotten with a metaphorical press of a button, no one would really care about how big and nice their clothes are.) So the wizards wouldn’t worry about those things. They also probably wouldn’t tie themselves down to any particular location, since doing so doesn’t help them any (Muggles only do it for security), and it hurts them by not letting them discover new talent as easily (I imagine our wizarding community would be much smaller than Rowling’s – which, incidentally, seems to me of unclear size…). So they would form a kind of traveling brotherhood seeking out new members, training them, and…. What?
Clearly they aren’t looking for food, shelter, etc. Their basic needs are taken care of. Imagine what you would do if you never had to work another day in your life and all your needs would disappear. What would you do with your time? As I said above, I would think relationships would become much more important. Knowledge would as well – especially taking into account that learning is much more fun if it will teach you have to shoot fire out of your hand. Perhaps they would spend all their time creating art – art can give a life purpose, make it seem like it has a definite goal, completing the work at hand, and people need to have a purpose.
But of course if you’re going to make a story out of it you need conflict. Perhaps what I said above about conflict and competition holds true here – they would devote their lives to meaningless games, diversions, etc. Or to conflict just for the sake of conflict.
I remember someone telling me once about a movie called The Highlander, in which (if I remember correctly) there are a bunch of people that, for some reason, are immensely powerful, and can only be slain by decapitation. (They also have infinite lifespans.) For some reason they spend their lives wandering the earth, searching for others of their kind, and killing each other. Or something like that. This would be the same concept, except they don’t have infinite lifespans and they continually recruit new members. Hey, look, we’ve went from Harry Potter to The Highlander in just one page!
Well, I don’t think a story idea has emerged full-grown from the ashes of Harry Potter, but one could certainly be gleamed from this post (which is, uh, 3.5 pages long in OpenOffice.org… sorry about that). I’m going to keep thinking about it and perhaps one will come to me. In any case, I think some interesting concepts have definitely emerged from my Harry Potter analysis (I was rather surprised by that “conflict -> competition” thing), and I’ve gotten in my requisite Harry Potter-related post (since the final book IS about to come out, after all) without sounding like I actually have a whole lot of respect for the books (which I don’t).
Incidentally, the above Harry Potter analysis happened in the form of a conversation between me and my older brother. In general talking over the flaws in a piece of fiction (book, movie, whatever) with someone else is the best way to get an idea of what you would have improved had you been the author (and thus what you can do better if you ever write something in that style).