Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Missing Magic

So having finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the third time, I feel inclined to write a bit more about what I think magic is and isn't (see also my previous post on the subject for more). One of these days I'm still going to write a big, all-encompassing theory of magic, but for now it's just coming out in bits and pieces. [Spoiler warning here, but you've all had a month to read the book, so no complaining if you haven't yet.]

I feel very much as though there is something J. K. Rowling isn't telling us about magic, even within the context of her books. This usually bugs me when reading about the classes the kids take, but in HP6 one particular thing struck me regarding the Prince's Potions book.

There are spells written in the margins that the Prince apparently composed himself, as evidenced by the crossings-out and rewritings. That, of course, raises the question of how one actually goes about creating a new spell. Given that (almost?) all the spells in these books are only one or two words long, it seems unlikely that simply arranging the correct sequence of letters is all there is to it. If that were the case, it would be more like discovering new spells than creating them, which doesn't seem right. Are there a finite number of spells in the world? How did they originally get associated with their particular words? It just doesn't work.

Occasionally in Charms class, we hear of a particular wand movement that accompanies a given spell, which adds a bit more dimension to it, but the movement does not seem to be very important for spells in general, beyond simply aiming them. Wands are tools for focusing the will/concentration/etc. to create the magic, and I would be inclined to see words as the same way, especially considering all the talk of nonverbal spells in this latest book. Advanced wizards with sufficient concentration power don't need to actually speak their spells. So I'm a bit disappointed that even Dumbledore is rendered helpless when he loses his wand. I think he has more power in him than that.

Now something I did like from HP6 was the scene in the cave leading to the Horcrux. For example:
"Yes, this is the place," said Dumbledore.

"How can you tell?" Harry spoke in a whisper.

"It has known magic," said Dumbledore simply.


Twice Dumbledore walked right around the cave, touching as much of the rough rock as he could, occasionally pausing, running his fingers backward and forward over a particular spot, until finally he stopped, his hand pressed flat against the wall.

"Here," he said. "We go on through here. The entrance is concealed."

Harry did not ask how Dumbledore knew. He had never seen a wizard work things out like this, simply by looking and touching; but Harry had long since learned that bangs and smoke were more often the marks of ineptitude than expertise.

[pg. 557-558]
I think there's something really important being hinted at here. Dumbledore's magic is qualitatively different from Harry's, and from most of the magic we get to see in these books. Magic is something he is, not just something he does. He feels it and senses it and interacts with it directly.

And so I'm kind of worried about Harry. Most of what he's getting in school are magic words, and potion ingredients, and instructions to focus on the three D's while spinning in place. There's no discussion of what the magic actually is, or how one internalizes it in the same way (even if not to the same degree) as Dumbledore or, presumably, other accomplished wizards. I would think that after six years of school they would have gotten more advanced than they have. Harry's got to face Voldemort next year, and Chosen One or not, I'm not sure he's been given the magical skills to do it.

And, of course, aside from being concerned for Harry, I just want to know all this for myself.


Lacey said...

Yes, I agree that she's introduced an entirely new kind of magic with Dumbledore's magic sensing. I was wondering about that myself. Is that something that witches and wizards get taught at all, or something that just comes from experience? Maybe after years of practicing (and being the object of) magic one begins to get a sense of magic (like an aura?) in an object, sort of like being able to judge character or predict the weather. I don't know. But I do agree that it looks like Harry is going to be up against more than he's been equipped to handle in the next book. She's left so many loose ends, so many things have to happen in the last book -- it's got to be about two thousand pages long! Of course, I won't be the one to complain... :)

Tandava said...

Well, no, I think she left loose ends because she's a good writer and because the story is 7 books long. Making book 6 wrap up too neatly would be very poor planning. But "loose ends" are different from the questions about types of magic or Harry's preparation. The latter just has me a bit worried, rather than excited like the good mysteries and clues. I'm hoping she can wrap everything up in the last book without having to pull too much of a cop-out ending.

:-SK said...

So how do you create magic?

You need a set of strings (characters).
You need a tool.
You need a magic person.

My curiousity is with the strings. Can you use computers to generate the spell strings? I propose creating a computer system that generates spell strings based on a certain grammar known to generate spells. There has to be some grammar behind the generation of magic spells. The spells come out of someone's brain afterall.

So. Let the computer generate the strings for a spell. Clearly, we need an automated mechanism to test the validity of the string as to whether it's a spell or not. We could do that in real time. Or we could pile 'em up and test at different time periods.

A person doing the testing is a waste. So we need a program/contraption that tests the spell as it is generated (ideally).

So Harry Potter should take courses in Comp Sci. Design a contraption that generates all possible spells. The problem is that a spell can be very, very long. The magicians in the book using spells of small string size. There may be spells of larger size. So they could be sitting on a goldmine not knowing the possibilities out there!