J. K. Rowling's Magical
September 30, 2008
by Ari Armstrong
This essay was rewritten and published in 2011 under the title "The Fading Magic of Tolkien and Alexander" in the Expanded Edition of Values of Harry Potter. The revised text appears here.
The reader turns the final pages of any great work of literature with a melancholy heart. Yet the taste of that melancholy differs between the text of J. K. Rowling and that of other great works of fantasy. In Rowling's work, Harry Potter leaves the normal world to enter the magical world, and that magic remains always present. In the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Newbery Medal winner Lloyd Alexander, the heroes enter life in a world of magic, but by the end of the novels the magic fades. Magic for Rowling means something different than it does in those other works.
In what way does the magic fade in the works of Tolkien and Alexander? Consider first the words of the great wizard Gandalf to Aragorn, the human king, in the final pages of The Lord of the Rings:
"This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart. ...I shall go soon. The burden must lie now upon you and your kindred."1
In Alexander's The High King, after the heroes prevail over the forces of evil, those tied to magic must depart. Prince Gwydion tells the young hero Taran, who is destined for a similar role as Aragorn: "One task remains. The Sons of Don, their kinsmen and kinswomen, must board the golden ships and set sail for the Summer Country, the land from which we came." The bard Taliesin explains that "the Summer Country is a fair land, fairer even than Prydain, and one where all heart's desires are granted."
As Arwen abandons her magical heritage to marry Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, so Eilonwy must abandon hers to marry Taran. As Eilonwy contemplates the journey to the Summer Country, she complains about the bitter parting. Dallben asks her, "Do you truly wish to give up your heritage of enchantment?" She answers, "If enchantments are what separates us, then I should be well rid of them!" Dallben says she can use her magic ring to accomplish it; he encourages her, "Wish with all your heart for your enchanted powers to vanish." Only then can she marry Taran.2
In these earlier works of fantasy, in the end the magical community leaves non-magical mortal men and lets them run things. While the natural world and the magical world commingle for an extended age, finally the magic leaves this world to reside only in some magical otherworld. The world of magic and the world of nature irrevocably part ways.
What does the fading magic in Tolkien and Alexander signify? In Tolkien's work, the disappearance of magic marks the elevation of the (non-magical) race of men. Gone is the magic of the elves and the wizards. Men must fend for themselves by their own means. For Alexander, the disappearance of magic also marks the advance of men, and more specifically it marks the adulthood of a single figure, Taran. The allegorical significance of this is straightforward: as people mature, as a culture and as individuals, they stop thinking about the world in terms of magical forces and start to understand it through reason and science. Magic exists only for an immature human culture or a child.
Rowling's magical world serves quite a different purpose, indicated by the fact that Harry leaves the normal world to enter the magical world, where he remains. Within the first dozen pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we discover that a magical world has long stood beside our own, in secret. Harry learns he is a wizard when Hagrid announces this fact and presents his invitation to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.3 At the end of the series, after Harry's allies defeat Voldemort, Harry and his friends continue to live in the magical world; the magic remains as strong as ever.
For Rowling, dabbling in magic is not a mark of immaturity. It is not the case that, as one matures, one "grows out of" magic. Instead, Harry is born with magic in him, and at Hogwarts he embraces that magic and celebrates his magical achievements. While Rowling creates a fictional divide between the magical world and the Muggle world, what is significant about her novels is that the heroes live in the magical world, embrace it, fight for it, and remain in it always.
In the works of Tolkien and Alexander, the story arc involves humans moving away from magic. In the books of Rowling, Harry moves into magic. In the earlier works, abandoning magic is a sign of maturity. In Rowling's works, embracing magic is the beginning of maturity.
What, then, does Rowling's magic mean? Obviously Rowling does not wish us to believe that wizards really exist or that we can learn to cast spells. But she does wish us to hold close the deeper magic of the novels. We are not supposed to grow up and cast off magic, but rather learn how to fill our lives with the real magic of the stories.
What is that deeper magic? As I write in Chapter One of this book, Harry leaves "a deprived life with his awful uncle and aunt" and discovers "a new world...in which he is able to discover and actively pursue opulent values."4 Harry develops deep friendships with Hagrid, the Weasley family, and Hermione. He loves Sirius Black as his godfather and finds a mentor in Dumbledore. He discovers a loyal and heroic friend in Dobby. As he matures, his relationship with Ginny Weasley develops into romantic love. Harry also enjoys developing his magical abilities by playing Quidditch and learning defensive magic. He finds a new home in Hogwarts. He is passionate about his friends, his studies, his hobbies, and his life in the magical world.
Rowling's deeper magic is available to us all. All of Harry's values have analogs in our world: friendship and love, studies and schools, families, careers, liberty, sports, and laughter. I write in an earlier section, "As Muggles, we are not destined to fly by broom, duel with wands, or ride dragons. Yet the deeper magic of Harry Potter flows through our world, too."5
The melancholy of Tolkien's finale involves a sense of loss of the youthful period of our race. Once we walked with elves and wizards, once we witnessed the world of magic, but no more. Alexander likewise leaves behind the magic of youth; one must forsake magic to enter adulthood.
The final pages of Rowling's series, like those of the earlier fantasies, evoke the sorrow of leaving behind familiar friends. Now the stories of Harry Potter and his allies have reached their final page, where the reader is forced to acknowledge that after all Harry is ink and paper, not flesh and blood. Yet, because Rowling's magical world lives on within the fiction, it inspires the reader to keep actively in mind the deeper magic that Harry discovers.
While magic wands remain beyond our grasp, we can share the true magic of Harry Potter if only we will reach out to it with a welcoming hand.
2. Lloyd Alexander, The Prydain Chronicles, Guild America Books, 1973, pages 688-89, 700, 701 (the final pages of The High King).
3. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Scholastic Press, 1998, pages 50-51.
4. Ari Armstrong, Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles, Ember Publishing, 2008, page 16.
5. Ibid., pages 97-98.
Want more in-depth analysis of Harry Potter? Order
This book is a work of literary criticism. It has not been prepared, authorized, or endorsed