Magical Literary Devices


Even without coming to an agreement regarding the fictional vs. realistic nature of the magic in Harry Potter, it is possible to look at the magical elements in the story solely in terms of their use as literary devices. Harry Potter is a literary work and any one interpreting the magical elements must first see if the magic can be explained solely in literary terms. Looking at the magic in literary terms is important in understanding the overall story and how it works, while hopefully adding to the enjoyment of the books as well.

Unless a story takes place in one location, there must be a way for the characters to get from one place to another and also communicate with each other within the time limits of the story. If the characters need several weeks to get to a location, then the story cannot take place in less time and remain believable. This can present a problem for the author if subsequent events in different locations need to be closely spaced in time.

Since the Wizards don't normally make use of Muggle technology, the author must provide them some other means of transportation and communication. One advantage of using magic in a story is that the author can move characters around quickly by unexplained magical means, shortening journeys that might not otherwise be possible within the time allotted to the characters and the events of the story. Rowling has borrowed, adapted and invented several forms of magic to allow the characters to communicate and move from place to place quickly and out of sight of the Muggles.

One form of transportation we encounter regularly in the story is the Hogwarts Express, a magical train that carries the students to and from school. Placing the students on a train recalls nostalgic images of a bygone era, but the Hogwarts Express is not simply an entertaining and unusual feature of the story. It serves several important literary purposes as well.

The hidden entry to platform 9-3/4 and the magical Hogwarts Express together provide a literary device that helps explain why the Muggles cannot stumble upon Hogwarts. Since the world of Harry Potter is our world with magical elements blended in, the story cannot make sense unless the author provides an explanation of why the Muggles are not generally aware of the Wizards. Some of the magic, such as the hidden train platform, serves this purpose.

The students' travel by train also allows time to setup the story that will unfold in the ensuing episode. The dialogue between the students during the ride to Hogwarts provides commentary, backstory information, and foreshadowing of the conflicts that will arise as the story progresses. Events that take place on the train serve a similar literary purpose. For example, the appearance of the Dementors, their attack on Harry and his rescue by Professor Lupin, provide an introduction to the events that follow in Prisoner of Askaban. We are left wondering why a professor was on the train, why are the dementors running loose and why did they single out Harry for attack? If the students were transported to Hogwarts by other means, the time for these events to take place might not be available to the author, or would have to be somehow worked in before or after arrival. Having them take place on the train is a clever and inventive double use of an element in the story.

It is also at the train station and on the train that Harry first encounters the other students that play an important role in the story. These encounters often serve to introduce new characters and establish their future relationships to Harry. Harry's encounter with Draco Malfoy sets the tone of their ongoing conflict, while Harry's encounter with Ron and Hermione creates a bond that will last throughout their school years together. Other means of travel are available to the Wizards and are used later in the story. However, riding a train together gives the characters time to learn something about each other. The development of their relationships could not take place during the journey to Hogwarts if a quicker form of transportation was used.

The Portkey is another inventive and useful device for transportation of the characters. Unlike the Hogwarts Express, the Portkey allows nearly instantaneous travel. Initially we see it presented as a means of Wizard travel that is somewhat limited and rarely used because it must be tightly regulated. Towards the end of Goblet of Fire the Portkey plays an important role in the story. By means of an unregulated Portkey disguised as the Triwizard tournament trophy, Harry and Cedric are suddenly transported to the graveyard where Voldemort waits. This isn't just a clever or arbitrary insertion into the story. Voldemort needs to get Harry alone, away from Hogwarts and the protection of Dumbledore, in order to use Harry as the means of his own revival. No other means of transportation, magical or otherwise, could easily serve this purpose. For example, if Harry were kidnapped or led to Voldemort by other means, there might be enough story time for other characters to locate him before he reaches Voldemort's location. The author would have to invent some reason why they did not do so. The instantaneous transportation of Harry prevents that from happening. We can see in retrospect that the introduction and explanation of the Portkey early in the episode is needed to set up this confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. We also are told why the Portkey is not the preferred means of travel to and from Hogwarts, is in the form of an ordinary object, and thus not easy for the characters to recognize. Altogether, the characteristics of the Portkey fit perfectly into the needs of the plot.

The ability of the characters to communicate at long distance is another aspect of storytelling that is related to transportation. The author needs a way for characters in different locations to send information back and forth. In Harry Potter the contents of these communications help us understand the characters, events in their lives, and also provide information to Harry in his ongoing search for clues. As with transportation, the Wizards don't use Muggle communication technology (they can't even understand how to use a telephone) and must be provided with some magically appropriate means instead. In Harry Potter, the characters use messenger Owls primarily for this purpose, but can also use a fireplace, a mirror, or some other enchanted device to the same effect when the use of Owls would not make sense to the story.

The Hogwarts Express, the Night Bus, flying brooms, flying cars, Portkeys, the Floo Network, apparition, and messenger Owls all serve a similar literary purpose. All of these devices can best be seen as replacements for the technology of our world that serve a complementary purpose within the magical world of Harry Potter. It is not necessary or appropriate to explain the occurrence of these magical devices in the story as hidden references to occult means or "astral planes" as some critics have tried to do. They are inventive, entertaining, and useful literary devices that make the plot succeed and should be interpreted as such unless there is some compelling reason to do otherwise.

In any mystery or detective story the hero must come to understand what events took place in the past that led up to and caused the current situation. We refer to such details as the backstory. Without this information the hero cannot solve the mystery and bring it to a conclusion. In the case of Harry Potter, many critical events took place long before Harry was born. This presents another literary problem for the storyteller. Typical literary devices for this purpose are flashback, interviews with eye witnesses, books, photographs, paintings and drawings, along with other forensic evidence collected from the scene where events took place. For some of the backstory Rowling uses these standard techniques. In a fantasy story that makes use of magic, the author can also invent one or more magical devices for this purpose instead. When thinking about the magical elements in the story, always remember that the reader usually only knows what Harry knows and until Harry receives the clue the reader is left "clueless" as well. Many of the magical devices are used to give Harry and us the clues.

One such device is the Pensieve. This is a magical basin that can hold an extracted memory. By diving into the basin, the Wizards can become hidden observers of the memory, personally observing a replay of past events. The Pensieve (another pun by the way) plays a very important role in The Half-Blood Prince. Harry and Dumbledore repeatedly use the Pensieve to explore the history and motivation of Voldemort. Thus the Pensieve is used as one means by which the author fills in the necessary backstory.

Harry's invisibility cloak and the Marauder's Map are used in a similar manner. By hiding under his cloak, Harry can secretly visit various places and listen in on conversations that provide him clues. Using the Marauder's Map, Harry can find passageways that allow him to move about in secret while searching for clues. These two devices allow Harry to be in places where he finds clues without the author having to invent some other reason for Harry to be there. Furthermore, because Harry receives the information directly, the author doesn't have to resort to a change of perspective in order to get these clues in front of the reader.

The ghosts that haunt Hogwarts are another source of information to fill in the backstory and provide clues to the hero. Because the ghosts have been around for many years, even centuries in some cases, the ghosts can become a source of historical information for Harry and his friends. Harry's interviews of the ghosts serve the same literary purpose as a detective's interviews of witnesses to past events. The ghosts provide a humorous element to the story as well, but in terms of the plot, they are critical as a source of historical information and facts. After the death of his godfather and friend Sirius Black, Harry goes to the ghost Nearly Headless Nick in order to understand death. Nick explains to Harry that ghosts are those whose soul has been separated from their bodies, but have not left the world. This, Nick goes on to explain, is different from those souls that have left the world. From this conversation we gain two vitally important facts about Harry's world. Ghosts are not spirits of the dead that have been brought back to life, but are the souls of those who became too attached to physical things and ended up trapped in an incorporeal form. Thus, the soul can be separated from the body but remain in the world. This explanation of the nature of the soul is important in understanding what Voldemort has done with the Horcruxes. Nick also explains that magic cannot bring back the dead, establishing an important limitation on magic in Harry�s world. The Wizards may be able to manipulate physical things, but they cannot create life where it does not exist. To do that would require a power greater than magic; the Wizards are men, not gods. This fact is also important in understanding later events in the story. Clearly the ghosts, like other magical elements in the story, serve a literary purpose that is essential and are not simply there to somehow imply that we can or ought to be talking to spirits of the dead.

Along with these magical means, Rowling employs the more typical eye witness interviews (such as those with Hagrid, Dumbledore and Sirius Black), and historical information from books in the library (usually supplied by Hermione). However, the magical literary devices add another level of entertainment and interest to the story. Rather than resort to the tried and true but cliched methods of the "detective story", Rowling has both borrowed and invented to bring together elements of fantasy and realism that create a varied, imaginative and fascinating literary solution.

Other devices fall into a miscellaneous category. One such device is the Deluminator. This device, invented by Albus Dumbledore, can capture light from any source that produces light and store the light inside the device. The Deluminator can then release the light back at a later point in time. We first encounter the Deluminator in the opening scene of The Sorcerer�s Stone when Dumbledore uses it to turn out the street lamps on Privet Drive. By turning off the lights, Hagrid can arrive on Sirius�s enchanted motorcycle without being seen by the Muggles in the neighborhood. The Deluminator plays an important role in The Deathly Hallows when Harry and friends are imprisoned in a dark cellar underneath the Malfoy's house. One click of the Deluminator restores light and allows the characters to see who is who while they plan their escape.

Hermione's magic beaded bag is another interesting magical device that serves an important plot purpose. This apparently small bag can hold what seems to be a nearly unlimited amount of stuff. But, because of its magical nature, it can be carried around without having to worry about the bulk or weight of whatever is inside. In The Deathly Hallows Hermione can carry all the supplies the three heroes need in their journey across the countryside without the characters having to explain why three teenagers are hauling around a wagonload of stuff. Whatever the author needs to put in the characters' hands can simply be drawn out of the bag, thus avoiding any story complications of how and where they could obtain just the precise items needed. Any time they need to acquire the objects by ordinary means, there is the possibility of discovery by Voldemort's agents. With Hermione's magic bag, most of what is needed is quickly and safely at hand. But, when the author wants the characters to face danger of discovery or acquire additional clues, the items can be missing from the bag, requiring the characters to obtain them from a nearby village.

The preceding examples show how magic is used for plot purposes but there is another literary use of magic in Harry Potter as well. In the world of Harry Potter, sentient beings are divided between those who have magical ability and those who don't. Since the characters' magical ability is an innate ability, not something that can be learned by just anyone, magical ability divides people into classes. Throughout Harry Potter there is tension and conflict over which classes should be taught magic, who should be allowed to use it, who is to be treated as equals to Wizards, and what type of relations the various classes should have to each other. In other words, this difference results in questions of bigotry or prejudice. Establishing this limitation on magical ability lays the foundation for exploring the nature and effect of prejudice within a society. Thus, in addition to other literary purposes, the magic in Harry Potter is used to introduce moral themes.

These are just a few examples of how magic is used as a literary device in Harry Potter. Enumerating all of the literary uses of magic in the story would require many more pages of discussion. Hopefully, these few examples will serve as sufficient introduction of how magic in Harry Potter serves a purely literary purpose. Before we attach other meanings to the magical elements in the story, we should always look first to see if there is a literary purpose. Once we find out the literary purpose, we can much more easily interpret the magical elements in terms of what they might possibly mean symbolically, or discover that there is no need to find a symbolic meaning at all.


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