The Return of Harry Potter—and the Backwards Philosophy of its Wizarding World

In the five years since the release of the last Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2, J. K. Rowling’s world of wizardry has loosened its grip on the public consciousness, save for the opening of two Harry Potter theme parks. However, devoted fans will have magic on the mind again this summer with the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play about Harry’s adult life, co-written by Rowling and scheduled to premiere in London in July, followed up in November by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film version of Rowling’s brief book about wizarding wildlife.

For Potter fanatics, this wave of new material couldn’t come soon enough. Fiction has always drawn readers into magical worlds, but Harry Potter fans in particular express an almost religious longing to live within the books’ pages. An entire corner of the Internet still teems with Sorting Hat quizzes, which let would-be wizards and witches envision where they would fit in at Hogwarts, for example, and countless fan forums. And at a level deeper than daydreaming, a generation of young readers (including me) spent years waiting for the day when letter-bearing owls would pay a visit to our chimneys.

This longing to don our robes, pick out our wands, and teleport into the wizarding world is ironic given that the magical world depicted in Rowling’s books is, upon closer inspection, a less than ideal society. Even setting aside Voldemort’s terrifying dark magic, the day-to-day life of wizards doesn’t stack up to the humble existence of us muggles.

For starters, wizard culture is dripping with decadence. Considering their medieval style of dress, the ancient texts of the Hogwarts curriculum, and the bits of folklore we’re given about the wizards of old, one can only imagine that the Dark Ages, a low point for western muggles, were the golden age for Britain’s wizards; evidently all of Wizardom in the centuries since has coasted on the progress that was achieved back then. This makes perfect sense—necessity is the mother of invention, so why take up the work of civilizational progress when there are masses of muggles toiling away, inventing cars that wizards can charm with a lazy wave of the wand?

The wizarding economy is even more backwards than its culture. From Harry’s first visit to Diagon Alley, we’re given a picture of a four-tiered labor system that resembles nothing more than the land-based aristocracy that the muggle West shed long ago. At the top, a cabal of pureblooded wizards do seemingly nothing other than dabble in the dark arts and maintain their estates, while the bottom tier of servile creatures like house elves and goblins tend to the wizards’ domestic and financial needs. A second tier of experts and artisans become shopkeepers or dragon tamers after leaving school at Hogwarts, but this class is as tiny as it is charming. A bigger slice of Hogwarts grads makes their way to the economy’s dreary third tier as functionaries in the Ministry of Magic, where they push around more paper than any muggle government to regulate the endless risks of wizarding life.

Of course, wizards’ lack of creativity and industry may be a matter of subjective value. There are costs to the work and progress that define muggle society, and one could argue that there’s just as much value in the tradition-and-comfort-oriented culture of the wizarding world. But there’s another, greater cost to wizardly decadence. Not only has magic extinguished wizards’ energetic spark, it’s also clouded their ability to see the true source of life’s power: love.

The idea that love is the deepest foundation of magic pops up again and again in the most profound moments of the series: when Harry’s mother shields him from the Killing Curse, when his family helps him overpower Voldemort in the graveyard, and most intriguingly, in the climactic sequence of The Order of the Phoenix, where it is implied that love is studied in the only permanently locked room of the Department of Mysteries.

“[The room] contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there.”

In each of these scenes, the importance of love is presented as an utter surprise to most wizards. Only the wisest folks like Dumbledore and Snape have a sense of how it works, and know it to be the answer to life’s most powerful mysteries without having to be told.

Wizards’ inability to understand love in the abstract makes a lot of sense. Practicing magic gives wizards a perfect grasp of the worlds’ observable phenomena, so naturally they aren’t used to having to ponder the ungraspable concepts at the root of it all. As far as science has gotten us, we lowly muggles are still unable to control or even understand much of the world around us, and the curiosity that comes from our struggle to understand leaves us open to embracing (if not fully comprehending) love.

So as Harry Potter fans dive into the summer’s new offerings of spells and magical creatures and wizards, keep in mind that the muggle world is not without its virtues, even if it does lack magic.

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