1:15 pm EST, February 6, 2014

J. K. Rowling’s Brilliant World-Building: Magic, Muggles, and Human Nature

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.

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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.


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?

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