Why It Might Actually Suck to Live in the Harry Potter Universe

Some of you may regard this post as rank heresy, but I assure you, it’s all meant in good fun.

My husband and I like to play a silly and very geeky game I affectionately call, “Would You Live In That Universe?”

Okay, I don’t actually call it that, and it’s not really a game, just an ongoing discussion we pick up every few weeks or months, usually when we’ve read or watched something new and interesting. It basically just involves analyzing whether or not we’d live in a particular universe and why. Neither of us would live in the Puella Magi Madoka Magica universe, for example, but we’d both consider living in the xxxHolic world. We’re iffy on the Star Wars universe, and we’ve agreed to steer well clear of Westeros. I’d pick up and move to Hyrule, though, and Drew would probably tag along.

But the Harry Potter universe is a point of contention.

harry-potter06

I, with my Deathly Hallows tattoo and yearly reread of the books, would obviously be down with living there—at least, if I got to be a witch and not a Muggle. My husband isn’t really in favor of it, though, and after my most recent reread… well… I’ll admit he has a few points.

  1. Wizards have a shockingly lackadaisical approach to basic education and real world skills. How on earth did someone like Ron learn to read? And Mr. Weasley can’t even identify basic British currency by the numbers written on the notes? That’s some frightening ignorance, right there. We get the impression that wizard children don’t have much exposure to the Muggle world, and while I’m not a huge fan of public education, I can admit it has its values. Socializing children and teaching them to recognize basic numerals and, you know, LETTERS, is pretty important.

    And it shows, guys. It shows.

  2. Every single witch and wizard is packing. Seriously. Think about it. Wizards describe guns as a sort of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other. Wands = guns. Every single person in this universe is carrying concealed (or waving the damn thing around in the air). At any moment, someone could hook you into the air by your foot or stupefy you or silence you or much, much worse.. If that’s not a recipe for disaster and serious bullying, I don’t know what is.

    “Oops.” Yeah, right.

  3. Animal cruelty has been institutionalized and is taught in schools. We don’t hear a lot about what happens to those hedgehogs that are getting transfigured into pincushions, but we do know they feel pain—a poorly transfigured pincushion will curl up in fear. How sick is that? And what happens to the disembodied rat tails and vanished kittens? How do we know that tail isn’t feeling unbearable pain? I don’t know about you, but I’d feel really uncomfortable transfiguring another living creature without its consent or a confident, scientific assurance that it’s not feeling any pain.

    totslly barbaric

    Killer chess pieces? Barbaric. Disembodied rat tails? Totally fine.

  4. A huge percentage of wizards are classist or ableist or racist. Okay, this one isn’t that much different than our world, but it’s still disappointing. Ron is constantly bullied for being poor. Hermione is called Mudblood how many times? Squibs are essentially disowned and banished to the Muggle world. And Muggles are regarded as precious oddities at best and disgusting animals at worst. I’ll admit that our heroes are far kinder to these subgroups, but a huge number of wizards we encounter take a very poor attitude to people who don’t look and act exactly as they do. Birth is everything in this world. Pity the Mudbloods, man, but pity the Squibs even more.

    Manners matter, Malfoy.

  5. The government is everywhere. Everyone is magically tagged until they reach the age of 17, and after that point, the magical government is still watching to make sure you don’t take one step out of line. Characters are imprisoned at the drop of a hat, or just to make people feel better (Hagrid in Azkaban? SERIOUSLY?), and the government has a hand in everything from education to medical care to journalism. I know the books are set in a time of war, but the whole question of the Trace makes me feel a little iffy about just who would be watching me.

    …because we’ll sure as damn hell be listening!

  6. Everyone seems to get married, have kids, and die really, REALLY young. Lily and James were, like, 20 when they had Harry. And in the epilogue, Harry is 36ish with three kids. That’s awesome, and great if it’s what you want, but where’s the magical birth control? Are witches and wizards at least being taught how to practice safe sex? And while it seems like Hermione and Ginny go on to have interesting careers, we don’t hear a lot about what other generations are doing. What’s Fleur doing after her marriage to Bill? What did Lily Potter do? And where on earth are Harry’s grandparents? Life expectancy in this world can’t be much more than about 50—and that’s with people like Dumbledore and Bathilda Bagshot throwing off the curve. I’d be a little concerned about burning the candle at both ends, if I lived in this universe. I’m 30 and I’m not an Auror OR a parent yet. What am I even doing with my life?

    With middle age comes… bags under the eyes?

See what I mean? Would YOU live in this universe?

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Are You a Rereader?

I’m getting so old and have been doing this blog thing long enough now that I can’t honestly remember if I’ve asked you readers that question before. But I’m the boss around here, even if I am slightly senile, and some of you folks are new enough that you probably haven’t answered the question for me yet.

I’m also so old and feeble that I never managed to fire up WordPress and promote the final throw-down post over on Liv Rancourt’s blog! So before you sit down to read what I think about rereading, go find out who Liv and I think Sookie should end up with.

Are you back? Good.

So, rereading. When I was a kid, I read Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague (and sequels—and all her other horse-books) about a hundred times. I remember my dad asking why I reread books.

“Why read them again?” he asked. “The story doesn’t change.”

I shrugged, unable to articulate why I wanted to read the books again, being eight and all. “I just like them,” I said.

That still holds, but I realize now (nineteen-and-a-half years later) that there’s more to it than just liking. The books I reread are not necessarily by my favorite writers, and they’re not necessarily works I would call influential on my style.

Rather, they have two main factors drawing me back:

1. A world a want to live in. Take Harry Potter. Littered with adverbs and simplistic metaphors, J. K. Rowling’s work can actually have a bad influence on my own writing, so I’m not rereading it for my career health. No,  I reread these books because I would love living in this world. I want to go to Hogwarts. I want a wand. I want to dance like a hippogriff!

I want an owl, dammit!

2. Characters I want to spend time with. I wouldn’t necessarily want to live in the world of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. It’s our world, but certain people can time travel… and as much as I love reading historical fiction, I probably wouldn’t get along too well in the 1700s. But her characters—Claire, Jamie, Jenny, Brianna, Roger, even gangly Young Ian—are charming folks I’d love to call friends. And while I love Gabaldon’s writing style, my attempts to imitate it (and her process) are partly responsible for the steaming mass of incoherent plot that are my first novel.

But what about the books I love, but don’t reread? A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, The Crystal Cave, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (which I have reread, just not lately and not often). The list goes on and on.

Sometimes those books have had a major influence on me and on my writing, like A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby. Sometimes they remind me of painful times in my life, like The Crystal Cave. And sometimes they’re just too depressing (*coughMartincough*).

So what books make your rereading list? Why those particular books, and not others?

Here’s my re-reading list:

  1. Harry Potter series
  2. Jane Austen’s complete works
  3. Anne of Green Gables series
  4. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books
  5. Possession by A. S. Byatt
  6. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series
  7. James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small works

Other books make the list, but not the annual list. It’s a wonder I ever manage to read anything new…

Magic: Empowering or Addictive?

Why has the addiction to magic become a theme in books and television?

The obvious example is Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In season six, magic becomes a clear metaphor for drugs, and Willow is the down-and-out addict. With episode titles like “Smashed,” “Wrecked,” and “Gone,” I don’t think you could argue that the show isn’t drawing a comparison between the high gained from using magic and the high achieved from drugs.

You see it elsewhere, too. I’m in the middle of The Fires of Heaven, book 5 of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and several characters are exhibiting signs of magical addiction. Jordan builds it right into the world: the more of the One Power you draw, the more you want to draw, until you still or kill yourself. That’s pretty grim. And if you ask me, at this point in the series, Egwene is exhibiting all the early signs of addition. She can’t get enough of using the power, she constantly wants to learn more, she’s abusing the little authority she has, and she’s reckless in using her power and her authority. (And if you give me any spoilers from the rest of the series, I’ll thump you, because I’m actually quite enjoying this series this go-round.)

Look at the Harry Potter series, too. At some point in one of the books—and I’m kicking myself because I can’t find the quote—someone says that Dumbledore could have done the things Voldemort did, but wouldn’t. Voldemort and Dumbledore perhaps have equally strong abilities, but Voldemort became addicted to his own power. Dumbledore drifted that way a bit in his youth, but he never actually let the magic overwhelm his humanity.

So why does this happen? Why has addiction to magic become a trope?

1. Magic is your basic mind-altering substance. Magic is the ability to use your will to alter the world around you. It’s the ultimate trip—one minute you’re in a club full of goofy guys hitting on you, the next you’re in a room full of dancing sheep and soap bubbles that won’t pop. The world around you is foreign, beautiful, and titillating… and under your control.

2. Magic gives formerly “weak” characters power. Characters like Willow Rosenberg, Egwene al’Vere, and Tom Riddle typically come from middling or even weak backgrounds. Magic gives the no-name character a name, a gift that makes her special and even better than other characters. It’s a cheap trick, though, giving a character a gift that makes him suddenly better than all the rest, with no consequences. It probably follows that…

3. Magic is power, so addiction to magic is addiction to power. That formerly weak character finds herself in an authority position, able to do things that no other character can. It goes to her head. Suddenly Tom Riddle, insignificant orphan, finds himself able to scare those around him, and the next thing you know, he’s Moldy-Voldy, able to make other wizards tremble with a mere look. Willow finds herself the most powerful witch in the world, so powerful she could destroy it just to end its pain. That has to feel good, rather like waking up and discovering you’re a god.

DeviantArt image by Forbis

4. Magic is somehow tied to sexual liberation. Okay, I know we talk about Freud quite a bit around here, but before you run screaming, hear me out. Willow only becomes extremely powerful after meeting her fellow-witch girlfriend Tara. The relaxation of her sexual inhibitions is almost directly related to the increase of her powers. Egwene thought she would grow up and marry Rand, but as she sees the world and realizes her powers, she also realizes that she doesn’t love him “that” way. She gets progressively more powerful as she severs ties to her old self and allows herself to develop new, womanly loves.

5. More accurately, though, magic is tied to self-actualization. As a character discovers herself, she discovers her power. Magic is a metaphor for our own internal strength, and just as we can run away with vanity or self-loathing, we can be overcome by the allure of our own magical power.

I think this last bit is true. Magic is part of a person, not a drug—and perhaps the idea of magic as a mind-altering, negative substance is why you can find Neo-Pagans upset at Whedon’s metaphor. And it’s disturbing to think about: our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.

So what do you think, readers? Why do writers love the magic addiction trope? What are some other reasons characters might get addicted to magic?