Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (3 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the Potter books has led to a typology of world-building, including a frankly undisciplined digression into the mechanics of the Discworld series. Back to Potter…

Rowling’s world-building in the Potter books isn’t a weak form of nuts-and-bolts world-building, or of numinous, alt-religious world-building, or of satirical or polemical world-building. It’s type #4: a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them – snatches of magical history or supernatural zoology here, mystical invocations of Love and Courage and Sacrifice there, broad satire of bureaucracy and the press over yonder. Hence also the continual revelation of new plot-mechanical devices throughout the seven books – and beyond. By the time you’ve finished the series, it seems a miracle that anyone ever gets anything done in the Potterverse: the combination of Apparating, the Floo network, the Imperius curse, Polyjuice Potion, Felix Felicis and Time Turners would seem to create endless opportunities for common-or-garden crime, never mind more elaborate shenanigans involving conspiracies to corrupt and subvert. On the other hand, most of those things would make life a lot easier for the police – who would also find it very useful to be able to invade other people’s minds and extract their memories for permanent, world-readable storage – so I suppose it would all balance out.

If the magic is over-cranked, everything that isn’t magic is underpowered, dimly-lit, thin. The main currency is common-or-garden gold (arbitrage much?); children are educated from the age of eleven without any exposure to science, mathematics, English literature or foreign languages; and the very language of magic itself is… Latin. But not just Latin; it’s Latin with errors.

Brief digression on Latin with errors
David Langford suggested that the innermost sanctum of the Department of Mysteries is given over to the book of ultimate power in the Potterverse: a Latin dictionary. It’s a nice idea, but in fact Latin on its own wouldn’t get you very far. It’s true that “crucio” means, precisely, “I torture”, while “confringo” and “impero” [without an i] are close to their ‘wizard’ equivalents, translating as “I shatter [something]” and “I command [someone]” respectively. Similarly, “exspecto patronum” means “I await a protector”, while “sectum semper” roughly translates as “[something that’s been] permanently cut”. I remember a character in a kids’ book explaining his sudden fluency in Italian by saying that he already spoke Spanish, and “if you relax your shoulders and think about spaghetti Spanish sort of turns into Italian”. Speaking as a part-time Italianist may I just say, No, it really doesn’t – but if you don’t look anything up and stop stressing about the details, Latin does sort of turn into spell-language. But only ‘sort of’. “Expellimus” [without the ar] has nothing to do with one person disarming another, as it means “we drive [something] out” – and I can’t do anything at all with “wingardium leviosa”. Never mind the W (or the word ‘wing’ for that matter); never mind that ‘leviosa’ seems to be formed by bolting an adjectival suffix (-osus) onto another adjective (“levis” = “light”); just look at the word-endings. Is that -ium a neuter singular or a non-standard genitive plural? Either way, what’s it doing with that -a? Similarly, “prior incantato” is Latin, and a possible sentence fragment, although it doesn’t quite mean what Rowling wants it to – “the previous person [who did something] with the enchanted thing [is doing something]”? – but “priori incantatem” just… isn’t. The lack of grammatical agreement is painful once you notice it. Rowling’s recent announcement that not every person in animal form was an Animagus – that there was another, hitherto unsuspected form of theromorph, the Maledictus (“maledictus” = “cursed man”) – was irksome enough for anyone who dislikes the smell of wet paint; her subsequent observation that “Maledictuses are always female” was the grammatical icing on the cake.

It’s bodged, it’s slapdash, it’s thrown-together, it’s (perhaps surprisingly) not where the author’s heart is.

Compare A Wizard of Earthsea: everything in that book is about the journey of the young man at its centre, a man discovering his power, overestimating his strength and finding wisdom by coming face to face with his own death. It’s numinous world-building, a world built around the humming magic of a single big story. There is a nuts-and-bolts element to it, but it’s reined in; there are maps (and what maps!) but you only really care about the islands for the part they play in Ged’s story – and for the sneaking sense that other islands are the setting for other stories, just as meaningful and compelling as the one you’re reading. The message of the book pervades its world-building; the whole book sings.

The Potter books are nothing like that. They aren’t even very much like the Narnia books, which seem to offer a closer parallel: the evolving Narnia series exhibits a similar kind of wild fertility and reckless pluralism, and a similar tendency to veer between all three of the main types of world-building. (Even the books set in Narnia itself might as well be set in different countries, so different is the use they make of their shared setting.) And yet, and yet. Put it this way: do the Narnia books sing? Are there resonant characters, themes, images, scenes that seem to sum up an entire book, justify an entire book’s existence? In reply, may I simply refer you to the golden chesspieces in the long grass, in what turn out to be the ruins of Cair Paravel; or to Jill and Edmund trudging through the oddly laid-out stone passageways in the land of the giants (‘UNDER ME’) – or Prince Rilian with the madness upon him; or to the shabby apocalyptic double-act of Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey in a lion’s pelt; or to Edmund’s dragon skin, or the Island of Dreams, or Reepicheep in his coracle; or to the Wood Between The Worlds… or to as many examples again from the first book alone. (I’m reining myself in now, but I can’t forbear to mention the mice and the ropes. The mice! The ropes! Blimey Charley.)

Ahem. The world-building of Narnia is clunky and full of register-hopping – here a stab at in-world history and geography, there a heavily signposted swerve into contemporary social satire, and always an unsystematic sprawl of mythical beasts and characters – but there’s something about Narnia itself that outweighs all that. It’s a numinous world, almost despite itself: it’s shot through with Lewis’s intimations of Heaven as a “land beyond“. Imagine a state of being that would encapsulate the most real and true experiences one could have in this world and make them more real still; imagine a state that one could only hope to reach through trust in the loving power of something immeasurably greater than oneself. And imagine Narnia – not as that place or that power itself, but just a bit closer to them… Further up and further in!

Potter, on the other hand… well, what is Potter about?

NEXT: OK, chief, what is it about? You tell us.

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