Monday 3 March 2014

Q: Why is Harry Potter's wizarding world so reckless? A: It is an intrinsically high risk society


From Nathaniel Givens

...Wizarding society is incredibly reckless relative to Muggle society. It’s impossible to get even ballpark mortality estimates because the wizarding world is at war throughout most of Harry Potter, but even the peacetime activities are frightfully dangerous compared to what would be acceptable in a Muggle world.

In the very first book, after all, Dumbledore keeps a vicious, man-eating, three-headed dog monster inside a school full of young kids who have a hard time knowing where their classes are. And, oh yeah, Fluffy is separated from the kids by nothing but a locked door that virtually any of the kids can defeat with a trivial spell. From that to Hagrid’s choice of ferocious textbooks to the potentially lethal Tri-Wizard Tournament, wizards all seem a bit deranged when it comes to matters of life and death.

But that sort of makes sense in a world where everyone is carrying the magical equivalent of a loaded bazooka from age 11 whether they want to or not. Ariana Dumbledore’s death is the most tragic example of this: she lived and died in peacetime before either Voldemort or Gridlewald had risen to power. She died simply because her brother got into a fight with his childhood friend. Similarly, Luna’s mother blew herself up messing about with potions. Because magic is so powerful, being a wizard is inherently dangerous, and there’s just no way around it.

But it’s not just individuals who are prone to early demise in the Wizarding World. The entire society itself is incredibly volatile because of all the characteristics noted so far. Wizarding society is completely dependent on Muggle society for its institutions, culture, and basic resources. And yet, because wizards aren’t subject to the same competitive pressures, the link between the Wizarding and Muggle Worlds is increasingly breaking down. This leaves the wizarding institutions increasingly arbitrary and brittle.

It’s also a very flat world, where the relative power of the weakest member is very high relative to the most powerful institutions. Add to this the very low numbers of wizards, and it’s clear that the entire society is dangerously volatile and will only become more so with time.


This satisfyingly solves a puzzle that has frequently recurred when I have been reading the Harry Potter series.

As Givens elucidates; for wizards, danger is intrinsic, universal, unavoidable and ever present - it cannot be avoided.

There is no possibility of 'safety first'.

Therefore risk has become just a part of wizarding life - hardly anyone notices unnecessary perils and hazards, and hardly anybody tries even to reduce risk - let alone minimize it.



Seijio Arakawa said...

Very insightful in some ways -- the lack of safety rules, the ultimately parasitic nature of the wizarding society -- but other things seem just plain wrong.

For instance, the estimate of ~3,000-4,000 wizards in Britain (an estimate based solely on the apparent Hogwarts enrolment) seems way off, considering they have:

- a police force and secret agency pursuing all manner of special projects, from infiltrating the Muggle government to researching the nature of Time and Death,
- enough bureaucrats for a small 8-storey office building (the Ministry of Magic)
- an entire Quidditch league (implied to be a big deal)
- an revolutionary movement of bloodthirsty cultists
- family-owned businesses producing all manner of things from brooms to potions to completely frivolous consumer goods (wizard joke shops / candy stores)

Try to cram all the variety of occupations into a ~4,000-person town; it doesn't really work.

Especially if you throw in the fact that the wizards sit on top of an entire ecosystem of other species (house elves + vampires + goblins + dwarves + centaurs + associated non-intelligent creatures), which they have to monitor and control in a very heavyhanded way and on a countrywide basis, to hide them from the Muggles.

Personally, I always thought of wizard society as feeling somewhat like ancient Athens, with about ~50,000 wizards/citizens; large enough to have non-intersecting spheres of interest, but everyone within those spheres of interest knows one another. Even that feels a little lowball to be plausible.

A lot of this comes from the other weak point of the worldbuilding, which is that the isolation from the Muggle world is ridiculously complete, something not seen outside of religious reasons (Amish, Samaritans, or Orthodox Jews or maybe Russian Old Believers...), and even then not to that extent. This would have been true as Britain was historically Christian (so wizards would be a persecuted minority), but in the modern free-for-all you would have many Muggles who study / take advantage of / make themselves useful to the wizard society on the one hand, and on the other hand (and especially) wizards who want to leverage their skills to attain fame/fortune/power in the Muggle world.

So, a 'real world' wizarding society would be less like a totally parasitic leisure class, and more like a secret and parasitic merchant class, having privileged access to a secondary world (the ecosystem of magical creatures), which they keep tight control on using their parallel government and militia, and perhaps having more-than-expected interpenetration with the 'visible' Muggle elite.

Unknown said...

Better than the original (*), is Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality".

'Better' as in better written and more brain-tickling; he's a genius, and this is his playground. Your piece reminded me of it for taking the Wizarding world seriously, like HPMOR does.

* I only got through Azkaban

Karl said...

Conversely, how can Tolkien's Elves fight as fiercely and bravely as we know they do, when they are risking, not a few paltry mortal decades of toil, but ages (yeni unotime) of merry feasting in the greenwood?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Good point about the population - it would have to be estimated using a convergent method such as you describe.

@HS -

@K - The impetuosity of youth? - the elves become much less willing to fight after a few thousand years.

Matthew C. said...

Yudkowsky is clever, but wrong about just about every thing possible, from his favorite interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, to his atheism, to his belief in an imminent worldwide takeover by a superpowerful artificial intelligence, something that will never happen.

Whereas the original Harry Potter understands the spiritual reality of this world, that life is about heroism, that we are part of a wonderful story, and that while things may look dark now in the end good will triumph over evil.