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Harry Potter and the Sloppily-Built Fantasy World

So, one way or another I've recently gotten sucked into the Harry Potter mania and finished off the first three books over the past couple of weeks. They're strangely compelling reading, as advertised. At the same time, I find it hard to notice that they conspicuously lack one of the main attributes of most of the better science fiction and fantasy writing, namely the sense that the author has created a really convincing, well thought-out world. Most notably, there's this whole question of the Muggles. Most of the time, you're supposed to think the existence of wizards is some huge secret in the Muggle world. At the same time, though, it's important to the plot that some wizards come from mixed families and others are "Muggle born." But if wizards are marrying non-wizards and, even more, some non-wizard parents are sending their children to wizard school it doesn't seem that this can be much of a secret. Conversely, all-wizard families like the Weaselys are portrayed as laughably ignorant of the Muggle world. They don't know how the Underground or a telephone work. They don't even know how to pronounce "escalator" or "telephone." But Hogsmead is supposed to be the only all-wizard settlement in Britain, so presumably wizards who don't live there would interact with Muggles a lot.

Now one can dream up ways for all this to make sense, but the point is simply that one doesn't get the sense reading the books that this has all been thought-out very well. That's in stark contrast to The Lord of the Rings and most other classics of the genre where readers have a clear sense that it's all meticulously planned-out.

You see it even in less remote things like the portrayal of Quidditch. Are their junior varsity teams at Hogwarts? It seems that there aren't. But then how do new players get recruited to the house teams. And it also seems that each House team only plays three matches all year, which doesn't really seem plausible. And why is there no inter-school Quidditch play? Etc.

It's not a huge complaint, all things considered, since as I say the books make you want to keep on reading. But this business also renders them sort of unsatisfying, you don't feel like you're really inhabiting an alternate world, it's just a string of yarns.

December 26, 2005 | Permalink

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Quidditch is also a pretty badly designed game. The 150 point value of the Snitch ensures that the majority of the players have only tangential relevance to the outcome.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 26, 2005 1:35:04 PM

I've read all the HP books and I think they're terrific-- however, they are, very specifically, books for children. As such, they take a loose (i.e., non-adult) attitude toward make-believe-- their real strength is an exceedingly careful, honest, and deliberate approach to the Big Issues of love and death. I have a suspicion that the denoument of the series will make this clearer, but we shall see. In any case, one gets some contradictions and silliness in the fantasy, but I don't think this detracts from the basic themes.

Posted by: MattF | Dec 26, 2005 1:58:24 PM

It's implied at various points that the secrecy of the wizarding world is itself achieved partly though magic, so problem solved!

You'll get to a larger-scale world of Quidditch, and the concept of other schools, in Book 4. I don't get your point about JV; first-years are eligible for the House teams.

In general, I find that "well thought-out fantasy worlds" are overrated, and to me LotR is a perfect example; the huge implicit backstory leaves me cold. I think (contra, or perhaps in addition to MattF) that the appeal to kids is in the small details of the magic world, which are usually pretty cool, although Rowling does a lot to hide the fact that owls that deliver (sometimes-)talking messages are less effective than cell phones would be. Also missing is any sense of awe; it's a very magic-as-tradesmanship view of the world, and ultimately, Hogwarts is a trade school.

Posted by: DonBoy | Dec 26, 2005 3:17:00 PM

There are a few muggles that know about the wizarding world (e.g. the Prime Minister and parents/spouses of wizards). For the vast majority of muggles though, the existenance of wizards is kept secret by a vast bureaucracy that employs Men-In-Blackish memory rewritten techniques. People who marry wizards don't necessarily know they're wizards (or witches) before they get married, we have at least 2 examples of this. Muggles who give birth to a wizard are informed about the wizarding world via owl.

The Weasley's are a great example of how people who don't live in an all wizard community don't need to interact with muggles at all. Because they can commute very fast to areas where they can buy supplies and meet people they never need to meet their neighbours. We have many examples of wizard dwellings/buildings that are invisible or unnoticable to muggle eyes.

As for Quidditch, the non-Seeker players have more of an outcome on the series, because all points are cumulative for whoever wins. But yeah, the Seeker is far more important. Remember that Quidditch started off as a contest to grab the snitch (which was at that time a living creature). Non-Seeker players were added afterwards, I guess, to give people something else to look at when they got bored of watching some dude circling around on a broomstick craning his neck.

Posted by: Polybius | Dec 26, 2005 4:16:35 PM

Right on, complete worlds are overrated. I'll take wit and charm over consistency any day. If the characters and action are good enough, logic don't matter. You could say the same for Homer and Shakespeare. Sloppy I disagree with. You gotta make tradeoffs. I wouldn't change a thing.

Posted by: Abe | Dec 26, 2005 5:39:56 PM

also, as far as sports that don't make a lot of sense, cricket (five day matches?!) and soccer is tough to beat (nil-nil draws and penalty shootouts? argh!). I've always taken quidditch as a parody of English sport. I think it totally makes sense in the wizarding world. Matt, your problem is that you forget how nonsensical reality is.

Posted by: Abe | Dec 26, 2005 5:43:11 PM

Matt, these are KIDDIE BOOKS. They "don't make sense" in the same way that Superman "doesn't make sense." Do you complain that crime-fighting seems a ridiculous waste of Superman's spectacular talents? Of course you don't.

Let's take Quidditch. OF COURSE it's a ridiculous game, if you think of it as a game. If you think of it as a setting for a child's wish-fulfillment fantasy - being able to fly, being a hero, triumphing over fears and adversities - it's perfect. In wish fulfillment, the reader needs only need one surrogate. Making it a more realistic game, with lots of players who matter, would only get in the way.

There are plenty of adult books like this, of course - James Bond and all the imitators for men, romance novels for women. None of them pretend to make sense. That's not what they're about.

So if you enjoy kid lit, and you're not ashamed to admit it, that's fine. Just remember what you're reading.

Posted by: JR | Dec 26, 2005 6:09:03 PM

I love HP, but Matt is certainly true to a point. For example, the whole Quidditch season consisting of practicing regularly, but then playing exactly ONE GAME against each of the other houses is just plain silly. It's possible, it's self-consistent, but it's just silly. A similar thing happens in the Goblet of Fire. Here we have this major "contest" about which a big to-do is made, and something happens once every four months or so.

But really, as others have said, the devil (or the magic) is in the details, and there are so many delightful details that one can overlook things like the points above (or even larger ones, and there are many holes there too).

Posted by: Eli Stephens | Dec 26, 2005 8:04:30 PM

ROTFLMLWAO

this is even better than the vampire-killing thread.

and, it's been driving me nuts since the second harry potter book that a school with the enrollment hogwarts appears to have couldn't possibly support a population large enough to have the number of adults that appear to be working in the wizard government, let alone doing anything else. as if you didn't already know what an utter dork i am.

but, it strikes me as reasonable that there are separate genres and audiences for both minutely thought out, internally consistent fictional worlds, and less rigorously crafted, more whimsical ones. Both audiences find the opposite genre hgihly annoying, though some folks can appreciate both.

and, this is hardly a new quibble--Tolkein was very critical of Lewis because the Narnia books didn't have the consistency or detailed crafting of Middle Earth.

Without knowing Mr. Yglesias, you seem likely to be the sort of person who finds inconsistency--intellectual or in your fictional universes--annoying (which is likely inconvenient, since you're probably a more acute observer of it than most, although probably professionally useful sometimes), and, when it comes to fiction, aestetically unnerving.

Since I think a sense of whimsy is important to a healthy life, and I've no idea whether your current way of life is cultivating or stifling yours (DC seems to do one or the other to folks), I'd urge you to keep with the harry potter books and other similarly fluffy, whimsical amusements.

Posted by: flippantangel | Dec 27, 2005 12:02:22 AM

and, it's been driving me nuts since the second harry potter book that a school with the enrollment hogwarts appears to have couldn't possibly support a population large enough to have the number of adults that appear to be working in the wizard government, let alone doing anything else. as if you didn't already know what an utter dork i am

Sweet jesus does this drive me up the wall. I don't mind the huge number of minor inconsistencies--after all the four-and-out quidditch series is vital to the 'schoolyear/young-adult melodrama' thematic half of the books, but I wish Rowling had thought this one through. Is the wizarding world a smattering of oddball anachronisms, or a giant quasi-fascist (the unelected Minister seems to control the banks, schools, paper, prisons, etc.) state?
It seems like she headed for door #1 in the first books and has gradually headed towards the latter scenario in later books. It's difficult to reconcile a... what, 500 person school that seems to draw from (and feed to) the entire commonwealth system with any sort of functioning bureaucracy.

That said, I'm all for supporting godless, pagan braincandy for the little ones. (But they have Christmas, O'Reilly, Christmas!)

Posted by: Max | Dec 27, 2005 12:24:59 AM

I don't mind the huge number of minor inconsistencies--after all the four-and-out quidditch series is vital to the 'schoolyear/young-adult melodrama' thematic half of the books, but I wish Rowling had thought this one through.

Maybe she did think it through, but, after discovering her inconsistency, couldn't be bothered to do the rewriting.

Haven't read the HP series, and don't know if I will. I will say that I personally find few things more annoying in life than obvious inconsistencies and plot holes in movies. What's so irritating about them is that, very often, only an exceedingly minor additional bit of dialogue or plotting is necessary to repair some implausible coincidence or out-and-out plot hole in the narrative. And when that fails to happen it tells me the creators of the film don't respect their audience.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 27, 2005 1:25:52 AM

Yes, it's a nagging little irritant, isn't it? Sure, magic gets invoked as a means of preserving the ignorance of the Muggles relative to the world of magic, but "It's magic" seems a rather weak explanation for the large numbers of Muggle families whose magic-gifted children get owl-delivered invitations and then vanish during the academic year to some mysterious boarding school. The whole Muggle world is under a spell notice to notice how weird this is?

The flip side is even more difficult to fathom. Mr. Weasley is the prime example here, an aficionado of Muggle artifacts whose ignorance is immense despite the relatively easy availability of youngsters like Hermione, who could fill him in on anything he might want to know. Or he could subscribe to The Times of London (why not?).

These problems don't destroy the enjoyment that adults can have reading Harry Potter, but they do raise awkward questions. I suppose one can dismiss it all as "kid-lit", but that presumes that children's literature is automatically held to a lower standard. I demur.

Posted by: Zeno | Dec 27, 2005 2:30:14 AM

and, it's been driving me nuts since the second harry potter book that a school with the enrollment hogwarts appears to have couldn't possibly support a population large enough to have the number of adults that appear to be working in the wizard government, let alone doing anything else. as if you didn't already know what an utter dork i am
I don't think this is right... Hogwarts has a 1000 students*, which means they'd be graduating around 140 people a year. Wizards live for quite a long time and could easily get a century of working life in there. Also, the Ministry of Magic consistutes a large portion of the workforce and in turn a large portion of those people spend their entire lives covering up any evidence of the existence of the wizarding world.

Is the wizarding world a smattering of oddball anachronisms, or a giant quasi-fascist (the unelected Minister seems to control the banks, schools, paper, prisons, etc.) state?
Can't it be both?

*Rowling has frequently given this number in interviews. Some argue that she's wrong because Harry's year seems to have only 40 people in it. However, it would make sense that that year was smaller because when they were being conceived was the height of Voldemortist terror. This is also probably a reason why his year has a disproportionate number of muggle-born student's.

Posted by: Polybius | Dec 27, 2005 4:31:36 AM

"*Rowling has frequently given this number in interviews. Some argue that she's wrong because Harry's year seems to have only 40 people in it. However, it would make sense that that year was smaller because when they were being conceived was the height of Voldemortist terror. This is also probably a reason why his year has a disproportionate number of muggle-born student's."

I dunno, you'd think the 'the world's ending, so let's screw and make baby's' would equal out Voldemort and his crew's magical drivebys thinning out the population.

http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/ has an interview with Rowling where she talks about the population. Spoiler-ridden for anyone who hasn't read all six books.

She does have a certain amount of world building, I've always wondered about goblin rebellions. What are their demands? Tactics? Fighting the wizards in the street or sneakyness?

If you get to book six, Matt, you do a funny scene which shows you how the prime minister is told about wizards.

Posted by: Dan P. | Dec 27, 2005 7:10:06 AM

oh, and quiditch. They only play infrequently because the sport is dangerous. Somebody generally gets carried off, IIRC, even not counting Harry's plot-related trouble from each book.

Last sentence of previous post should be "... you get a funny scene..." I think the chapter title on that one is a shoutout to Neil Gaiman, if that means anything.

Posted by: Dan P. | Dec 27, 2005 7:31:49 AM

Internal consistency is very important, even critical, to the kind of fantasy Rowling is supposedly trying to write. An internal logic, rules, science of magic...obviously her intent...is necessary in order that the human emotional dramas are understandable by her readers. People cannot be expected to behave predictably in a world that is not predictable. I have not read the books, but it appears she has done an acceptable job, but has created such a complex and detailed world that some flaws and contradictions are inevitable. But Harry has to work and suffer for his powers, and mistakes have consequences. There are rules. It is realist fiction in an imaginary world.

Tolkien had a profound moral criticism of Lewis's work, and it was because Tolkien knew we wouldn't and still don't care about Lewis characters and so cannot learn moral lessons from them.

There is an alternative kind of fantasy. Try Lewis Carroll, or Sheckley and various comic writers that probably inspired the Hitchhiker series. The tone and intended effect are nearly opposite to HP and we care little for Alice and what she suffers. Worlds of dream logic and surrealism do not support empathy.

A third type is magic realism, which contains intermittent discontinuities.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 27, 2005 7:39:12 AM

"Internal consistency is very important, even critical, to the kind of fantasy Rowling is supposedly trying to write."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Rowling is writing for an audience of 10-to-15 year olds. These are children, people. The kinds of inconsistencies you are pointing up do not even occur to the target audience of these books.

What does the target audience want? Well, children confront unfamiliar and threatening circumstances much more often than adults do- middle school, overnight camps, sports teams- all these things are new and challenging, even frightening.

Much of Harry Potter is a heightened version of a child's mastery of the challenges of daily life. HP is profoundly reassuring: yes, in middle school you don't have one teacher who knows you and protects you from the bullies, but you can do it!!

The Voldemort theme is more than a hoary plot device to keep the whole ramshackle affair moving along. It's the central metaphor of every child's existence. Every child believes that he or she is the center of the universe. And every child fears that he or she will fail at the challenges presented by growing up. So every child naturally accepts the idea that obstacles in daily life are caused by a malevolent force that intends to take over the universe.

The consistency of the books' theme with children's emotional understanding of their own lives is far more important to the target audience than issues about the number of graduates needed to staff the Ministry of Magic.

Posted by: JR | Dec 27, 2005 10:45:24 AM

To all the people who say "they're children books, who cares?" then why is there so much expectation that adults read and appreciate them. I've no doubt that MY is reading them because some friend wouldn't stop going on about how good they are.

For me, the most frustrating thing about them is the absolute lack of defined limits about what magic can or cannot do, either physically or ethically. Mind control, miraculous healing, fundamental (and permanent) changes to the rules of physics, seem to be all things that are done capriciously.

Would not a stern authoritarian rule that the threat of Voldemort is serioues enough for the Ministry to use Forbidden Curses to interrogate his followers? Stuff like that.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Dec 27, 2005 12:54:43 PM

The point is simply that kidlit is a genre-- complaining that it doesn't obey the conventions of sci-fi/fantasy is just missing the point. It's like complaining that the corpses in a police procedural never get up and try to eat the brains of the pathologists doing the autopsies. Not that it wouldn't be a bad idea-- I'm just sayin'.

Posted by: MattF | Dec 27, 2005 1:49:54 PM

I dunno, you'd think the 'the world's ending, so let's screw and make baby's' would equal out Voldemort and his crew's magical drivebys thinning out the population.
Don't baby booms usually happen after wars though? So you'd expect the 2nd year would be bigger (but still diminished with all the death). Also I'd assume that wizards have really good contraception (I once had a very horrible conversation about this subject with a friend who replied, "Nah they don't need it. Just accio fetus!")

Would not a stern authoritarian rule that the threat of Voldemort is serioues enough for the Ministry to use Forbidden Curses to interrogate his followers? Stuff like that.
In fact that's exactly what happened during the first Voldemort war.

Posted by: Polybius | Dec 27, 2005 3:47:06 PM

"why is there so much expectation that adults read and appreciate them."

You've got me there. I have no idea why an adult would read these books. And why these, but not other kids' series? You don't see adults reading Martin the Warrior or The Dark is Rising on the metro. It's true that Philip Pullman has an adult readership - but he's a writer of an entirely different caliber.

I read the first three Potters out loud, and enjoyed the pleasure my children got from them, but when my youngest got to be old enough to read them to himself (eleven), I stopped. Life is too short.

Posted by: JR | Dec 27, 2005 4:43:57 PM

ROTFLMLWAO

When coming across one of these initalisms that I haven't seen before, I always experience a little shock of amusement at correctly transposing it into words, and at the same time I am always struck by how high the redundancy is in an average written-out English sentence.

Posted by: Christopher M | Dec 27, 2005 5:27:45 PM

"Rowling is writing for an audience of 10-to-15 year olds. These are children, people. The kinds of inconsistencies you are pointing up do not even occur to the target audience of these books."

Come on! Children may have a somewhat different sensibility from adults, but they're not stupid. In fact, they're probably more attuned to these kinds of inconsistencies than adults are. For example, the kids I know (younger than 15, by the way) were in an uproar about whether James or Lily died first--there is an inconsistency between the description of their deaths and the order in which they emerge from the wand during the battle. And did you by any chance have the (mis)fortune of speaking to a nine-year-old boy obsessed with dinosaurs about Jurassic Park?

(I too am mystified by the HP books' great popularity, by the way.)

Posted by: None | Dec 27, 2005 6:26:23 PM

None--

There are certain kinds of logical inconsistencies that bother children very much -- the one you point to is a good example. But there are many criticisms on this thread that relate to the working-out of a muggle-wizard world, given what we as adults know about government bureaucracies, newspaper subscriptions, abortion, and the like. This stuff is fun to talk about in a nerdy sort of way, I suppose, but it misses the point of the books.

For example, how can a wizard family possibly be poor? Mrs. Weasley cooks by wizardry; why can't the family have nice clothes, etc. through wizardry? The answer has nothing to do with logic or consistency and everything to do with Ron's personality. Ron's nature is that he feels inferior. He comes to things with a chip on his shoulder. His poverty is a projection of his interior life. It's emotionally satisfying even though it makes no logical sense, and I have never heard of a child reader who questions it.

Or why does Harry need glasses? Why not just correct his vision with a spell? Well, anyone can figure that one out- and again, logical consistency has nothing to do with it.

That's what I mean when I say, these are children's books. If you come at them with a sensibility more mature than that of a 12-year old, you're going to be disappointed.

Posted by: JR | Dec 27, 2005 7:27:40 PM

Just because your audience is young enough that they might not notice sloppy writing doesn't give you an excuse. The Hobbit is a rather un-sloppy childrens book.

And what's up with the time travel bit? Upteen Star Treks and one Simpsons episode tell us that it's dangerous, but Dumbledore lets students use it as a study aid. And it's a cheap deus ex machina.

Posted by: daveNYC | Dec 27, 2005 7:50:57 PM

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