Let’s have some posts about things we can just lightheartedly hate on.
When Andreas talked about the problems of interspecies relations in Pokémon, he also touched on the Harry Potter universe. I have talked about the world building problems in Harry Potter before though mostly in comments, so this is a nice opportunity to put those thoughts into a stand alone piece.
I’ll start by saying that most fictional worlds, whether low fantasy settings (such as Harry Potter, which plays in our world where magical beings are hidden) or high fantasy settings (say Lord of the Rings or Discworld, where the world is definitely not Earth) have some major issues with their world building. This is kind of natural and stems from several problems:
Number one: people want to tell stories, not histories. Unless you’re a freak like Tolkien, who invented a language first and then built a world to serve that language, authors often don’t start out building a logical and consistent world. Instead they build a world around their stories. As the stories grow, the world grows, things are added to serve the story, earlier features are in conflict with later points. This is often closely linked to –
Number two: the longer a series, the more troublesome the worldbuilding gets. Especially when the author didn’t expect a series to run that long, and the series doesn’t have a fixed end point, but more of an episodic character. I think the Discworld novels are a really good example of that. When you read the first ones, there are many things that just disappear in the later ones. In Equal Rites a powerful female wizard is established, yet we never hear of her again.
Number three: authors make use of their bad knowledge of our own world. This is often the case in medievalist fantasy: People have some really shoddy ideas of the middle ages, they fill the gaps with “knowledge” from other fantasy or from our own world, thus creating impossible trade relationships, unsustainable farming, etc. I always cringe when the poor part of town is characterised by “food and old barrels rotting in the street”. No medieval person would have let a barrel gone to rot. There was iron in that thing. And they would have used all the food. If it was truly inedible they’d have fed it to some animal to eat the animal.
Number four: authors don’t know how to wrap up loose endings. Sure, life doesn’t work backwards, so when something happens, it doesn’t have a specific and in mind. Life also doesn’t have a last page by which all major stories should come to an end. Life just goes on. Books don’t. If a story had several story lines going on, and only one of them comes to a satisfying end, readers and viewers are disappointed. Sometimes when authors notice those loose ends, they just put something in the world that makes them end.
These issues are often less pronounced in works where the whole series has been thought out before the first book was published. Notable examples are N.K. Jeminsin’s Broken Earth trilogy, or Seanan Macguire’s October Daye series. They are very different series, with one being a trilogy that works from start to end on one story, and the other one being a many novel series where different stand alone stories are connected with a longer story.
So, how do these issues apply to Harry Potter? The problems in the Harry Potter universe are two-fold: One is a very shoddy world building from the pure standpoint of “does it work”? the other one is a moral issue: “Are the things depicted as moral and heroic actually moral?”. I’ll add that I come from a perspective of having loved Harry Potter, been immersed in the fandom, and then having first sobered and then soured on the novels, long before their author revealed herself as a racist Queen Terf.
Let’s start with the first part: Why the Harry Potter universe doesn’t work.
Harry Potter play in Britain, where a parallel magic world exists that is kept secret from the non-magical people, although it keeps interacting with it. The major issue here is size. Let’s start with the central location for the novels: Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the one and only boarding school in Britain and Ireland where almost all wizards and witches send their kids to, plus the kids from non-magical families who show magical abilities. This means we have all children of the magical population in one school. This should give us an idea about the size of the magical population. If you look at Harry Potter’s year, this comes down to around 40 kids, give or take a few. We know most of Harry’s housemates by name (Harry, Ron, Neville, Hermione, Dean, Seamus, Padme, Parvati, Lavender,…), and a few from the other houses. Always two houses a year share one class, which means that two houses have about 20 kids together, so it’s 40 in a year. If we suppose that each year is about 1% of the total population (wizards live in general longer, but some still die young, and it’s a ballpark figure anyway) that leaves you with a total wizarding population of about 4000 people.
That’s not much. That in and on itself isn’t the problem. the problem is the rest of the world, because it’s a world with really huge specialisation in work. The ministry alone has several highly specialised branches with their own training and prerequisites. How many Aurors are there? The Mystery department? Then there’s several competing companies that just specialise in brooms much like there are car brands. It’s made clear that they are luxury items that are often handed down within families. Unlike cars they aren’t even useful for your everyday life, since public transport works in less prominent ways, for example via the chimneys (another major part in the wizarding world we only learn about in book 4 or so, presumably because the author needed a plot device). Even if broommakers were just family businesses, there’s not enough demand to actually sustain them, especially with a new model being developed and going on the market every year or so. Not to mention that there are apparently several companies that produce sweets and clothing, let alone magical artifacts. Even if they source all their material from the muggle world, where does stuff come from?
And where do people come from? In a community of a few thousand people, everybody will be related to everybody else. Yet strangely, people don’t seem to have relatives. There’s Narcissa Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange and that’s about it. The Weasleys have a hell lot of kids, but no cousins? Come on, my town is much larger than all the wizarding world combined and even I went to school with my cousin. One explanation given is that wizards tend to marry Muggles, but that only gets you a whole other bunch of problems: Where do they meet? The wizards are so oblivious of non-wizarding world, they hardly manage to take public transport, but they manage to engage in meaningful relationships with Muggles*?
Another area where numbers don’t add up is Quidditch. Now, the game as such doesn’t make much sense apart from establishing Harry’s status as super hero, but even if we accept the ridiculous premise, who’s playing the game? We know that all kids are in Hogwarts. Hogwarts has 4 houses, 7 kids play in a house team. That makes 28 junior players at any given time, yet for some reason, outside of Hogwarts there’s a whole league outside of school. And the Captain of the school’s most successful team can only get a job as an extra once he leaves school?
Now, all of these things can be dismissed as “nitpicking”. They don’t distract from the magic world, you can simply ignore them, and indeed, it took me some time to spot them, and I am after all somebody who studied literature and is therefore trained to view such things with a critical eye. What I found far more annoying was the deus ex machina called the Deathly Hallows. Somehow, the Deathly Hallows are a fundamental part of wizarding folklore, yet they never appear within six books. The Horcruxes, they make sense. They felt natural within the world. Throughout the books it was hinted that Voldemort had done things that made him basically immortal, enchanted artifacts make sense within the world, and, well, that’s also knowledge you wouldn’t throw at preteens and young teens.
But the Deathly Hallows? How did they never come up, even as some figure of speech? Just think about how our fairly tales influence our world, how we will casually call somebody “Sleeping Beauty” or “Cinderella”. Hoe my husband will use Harry Potter’s own “Lumos” while turning on the lights, or how we have taken to call somebody naive “my sweet summer child” from GoT. Yet, nothing. Six books and not even Ron ever mentions how Harry’s invisibility cloak is damn special, just like the one in the fairy tale. Indeed, the cloak isn’t treated as extraordinary throughout those books. Ron, who is our wizarding encyclopedia, treats it as another luxury item his friend got, but not as beyond attainable. In the end, the Hallows feel like an easy way to finish up the story without giving it too much thought.
I could go on and on about the problems with the world, not just in HP, but the other works like Magical Beasts (please explain a Jewish wizarding girl in New York to me), but I’ll leave it at this. I’ll write about the ethical problems another day , since the post got long already.
*How those relationships are portrayed is a different matter for the “Ethics” post.