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Hypable

Like any red-blooded Gryffindor, I’ve never failed to defend the honor of the Wizarding World against accusations that the books don’t make sense.

Why do folks use trains, floo powder, port keys, carriages pulled by griffins, thestrals, broomsticks, dragons, magical underwater pirate ships and the Knight Bus to get around when they can apparate? Why didn’t someone ever consider using a Time Turner to kill Voldemort or at least save some of his victims?

These types of questions have answers to greater or lesser degrees, but it’s certainly true that witches, wizards, and the world they inhabit are all rather strange. (150 points for catching the Snitch will never make sense.) If you look closely, however, these kinds of oddities are where J. K. Rowling’s genius for world-building really shines.

First: there just aren’t very many witches and wizards. Population estimates indicate that the world is at least 99.97% Muggle, and probably more so. (The basis for this, and other claims, can be found in my longer article.) Next: witches and wizards don’t have to work if they don’t want to. Slughorn got by comfortably filching from unsuspecting Muggles. With almost 1000 Muggles to every witch or wizard there is plenty to go around. Poverty exists, but not like in our world. The Weasleys had plenty of access to food, shelter, clothes, medical care, and even elite schooling, and the Gaunts only lived in squalor because they chose it out of pride.

By contrast, Muggle society is defined by constant struggle. We work hard, or we don’t eat. That constant pressure is the driving force for Muggle innovation. The Wizarding World doesn’t have that driving force, and as a result it has tended to ride along on the coat tails of Muggle society.

Consider the basic economy of the Wizarding World: other than specifically magical items, the Wizarding World doesn’t seem to produce anything. Who provides the food that the Hogwarts house elves use to make their feasts? Who provides the cloth to be made into school robes? Who mines the tin, copper, antimony, and bismuth that go into a cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)? All the basic materials for the Wizarding World probably come from Muggles.

There is also no independent Wizarding culture. Religion, language, music, and even the educational system all derive from the Muggle world. Sure, Hogwarts teaches you how to use magic, but who teaches you how to read and write? For Muggle-borns like Harry and Hermione, at least, you learn in Muggle schools.

Even the Wizarding World’s governments are derivative. In the UK, Her Majesty’s Government is led by the Prime Minister who then picks all the other Ministers. So when the witches and wizards of the UK call their head of government the “Minister for Magic” they’re inserting their top-level government into the Muggle system in a way that is at least dependent if not outright subordinate.

ministry-of-magic-630

Because the Wizarding World is not subject to the unceasing pressure to fight for survival, it has never really developed. It is a primitive society in modern trappings. Only the most ancient of human institutions exist—like universities and government—while all of the modern ones (like corporations and franchises) are absent. Everything from inefficient methods of travel to imitation banks (real ones do more than lock up money in boxes for you) makes perfect sense from this perspective.

So much for wizarding society, but what about the odd behavior of witches and wizards? Without doubt the strangest is the reckless disregard for human life, especially the lives of children. In the very first book, for example, Dumbledore relocates a ferocious, man-eating monster into a school for children as young as eleven years old. He warns the students not to enter the third floor corridor, but in a castle filled with moving staircases where the youngest kids are constantly getting lost, what kind of protection is that? Then he puts a lock on the door, but it’s the kind of lock that students learn to pick on practically their first day. Then there’s the danger of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Or the hazards of playing full-contact sports a hundred feet in the air with an age range of 11-17 in the same league. And these are just the reckless decisions with kids before the outbreak of the Second Wizarding War!

Well, the same power that makes it easy for witches and wizards to live off of the work of Muggles also makes the Wizarding World very, very dangerous. In the Wizarding World, every child wanders around with potentially lethal power from a pretty young age. The resulting fatality rate is much higher than what Muggles are used to. Dumbledore and Grindelwald accidentally killed his little sister in a childhood fight, Luna’s mom blew herself up playing around with potions, and Quirrel is apparently on the run from an angry vampire. Any witch or wizard who wants to kill someone can do it with a single spell. It’s like living in a society where everyone carries a loaded bazooka everywhere they go. Then there are the dangerous creatures (Fluffy is only the second most dangerous creature in the castle after the basilisk) who apparently interact far more with witches and wizards than they do with Muggles. (And by “interact” I mean “try to eat”.)

Although some things, like the time turners, really don’t make sense, for the most part the more you dig into the books of Harry Potter the more impressive Rowling’s world-building prowess becomes. The idiosyncrasies of the Wizarding World and its denizens turn out to be not just imaginative flourishes, but a pretty keen statement on human nature. Without constant, omnipresent struggle our society would tend to atrophy.

The really interesting question that remains is this: what would the Wizarding World look like if it couldn’t depend on Muggles for all its basic needs?

This article was written by a Hypable user! Learn more and write your own right here.

  • Caroline J.

    nice article! i hadn’t considered any of this before.

  • froggyhpmb3

    My dad asks questions like this ALL THE TIME and it annoys me to know end. “Couldn’t they have just apparated?”, “Why don’t they just Avada Kedavra him?” , and my favorite (NOT) “Why do they all call him Voldemort? I’d just call him Tommy-boy.”

  • Hugo Weasley

    Little things like the lock dumbledore uses on the door where fluffy is kind of bothers me.

  • Phil

    For me it’s not that the world building is bad, she creates such an incredible world and it is her major strength, it’s that her writing is just very poor. It’s masked by the world she creates but generally, if it wasn’t for the world she has built, she would be laughed out of the writing business.

    • hpatdh33

      Meanwhile the writing business wishes they had her imagination. Whether you’re an amazing writer or not, it’s all about content. J.K. can tell a story, the people who complain about her “poor writing” are grammar nazis hoping one day an idea as brilliant as Harry Potter will enter their minds.

    • Antara Chowdhury

      I don’t think that’s true (that she would be laughed out of the writing business). When The Cuckoo’s Calling came out, the people who bothered to read and review what they believed to be the debut novel of a new author had mostly positive things to say. I searched for and read the reviews that were published before everyone found out J.K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling, and nobody criticized her for poor writing.

    • Caroline J.

      well, that’s the beauty of writing. it’s story telling. it’s an art form. its quality is not based on one strict set of rules; there is no formula. there are many ways to do it effectively and successfully.

  • http://ravenclaw1991.tumblr.com/ ravenclaw1991

    I’ve never really thought about any of these things before because they’re just there.. Children wouldn’t be able to do Muggle equivalents of these things (if there are any). Then again, you could argue “they’re British and significantly more badass” ;)

  • sunflowergirl67

    I always thought people preferred to take other means of transportation rather than apparating because of the possibility of splinching, and that a lot of witches and wizards weren’t all that comfortable with it.

    I never really thought about how there is little motivation in the Wizarding world. What do they have to create, really (other than wands and other magical devices)? I was thinking about jobs and how little options of jobs there are in the wizarding world. Either work for the ministry of magic, be a teacher at Hogwarts, be a shopkeeper, or a writer.

    Nice piece, a lot of interesting things to think about!

  • Dasher

    I actually found her world building to be quite poor. Don’t get me wrong, the ideas she comes up with are fantastic and memorable, but the logic behind any of these ideas are ridiculous. Hogsmeade is the only wizarding village in the only all-Wizard village in Britain, yet hardly any wizards live there. But then you have wizards like the Weasleys who don’t have any contact with the muggle world and still live their lives perfectly oblvious to muggle life. It just never made sense. If they’re all insular how can they marry non-juggles? And let’s not get started on the lack of actual education the students of Hogwarts recieved. When you really start to think about anything she wrote about it just never really added up.

    • Severus Snape

      I’ve always wondered about those juggles.

  • Carilyn

    In terms of child safety, we can’t forget that wizard children, and wizards in general, are a good deal hardier than muggles. In a world where injuries that could permanently disfigure or at least lay one up for months, can be healed in no time, children are more able, and likely, to take risks, including with Quidditch. Even the common cold has a cure within the walls of Hogwarts – Pepperup Potion. Plus, even when children don’t know spells, their innate power gets them out of bad situations – look at how Neville showed magic for the first time when he was dropped out of a window and *bounced*!
    Plus, in general, wizards have a greater life expectancy than muggles without slowing down, despite the greater dangers of their lives. Dumbledore was 115 when he died, and that wasn’t due to natural age problems. We don’t actually know the average life expectancy, but it seems to be quite a bit longer.
    So, while Hogwarts seems inordinately dangerous for children from a muggle perspective, I don’t think they’re exactly being negligent considering they can patch themselves up pretty well.

  • Severus Snape

    I’m Severus Snape and I approve this message.

  • Träsköld

    I like the idea that the Wizarding World’s lack of development is due to their minority status and absent ‘fight for survival’, but stand by my idea that the entire culture is just several hundred years behind Muggle culture as they had no Industrial, Technological or Digital Revolutions.

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