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Mary Robinette Kowal – For Harry Potter, Magic Means More Than Hocus Pocus


In our discussions, we’ve learned time and again that the key element to fantasy is a break from the rules of the natural world. But there’s another side to that coin: Though fantasy plays havoc with the rules of nature, it’s really just swapping out one set of rules for another. We’re talking about magic here, folks, and the rules of magic for each fantasy universe are as diverse as the universes themselves. Granted, not all fantasies play by their own rules — there always has to be a troublemaker, I suppose — but for most, the established rules of magic become as solid and binding as our laws of gravity.

Take the fantasy world of Harry Potter . The rules here are both complicated and widespread. For travel, the flue network moves wizarding folk around the same way you or I might get on the subway. They might also choose to disapparate, though that requires the technical know-how and must also satisfy the legal limits on who can apparate and where. At the root of all of this magic are the wands and the words. In the Potterverse, doing magic requires a wand, the spell, and a lot of practice. The movies’ strict adherence to these rules pays off in the long run because they become essential plot points.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , for example, we meet the Dementors, who can only be stopped with the Patronus Charm. It’s a difficult spell, and we’re made to understand that not all wizards can do it. When Harry faces these Ring Wraith lookalikes, we’re terrified because we understand the rules here. Sure, he can break the laws of gravity and fly on his broom, but he’s bound to that broom just as tightly as we are to the ground. Having a solid set of rules governing the magic raises the stakes and makes for a better story.

Speaking of Ring Wraiths, The Lord of the Rings , too, has strict rules and clear limitations for its magical objects: The One Ring can make its wearer invisible, but at a cost. Every time Frodo puts the ring on, he touches the darkness that made it. It also corrupts anyone who touches it. The groundwork for this is laid out right up front and the plot hinges on the ring’s power, as when Boromir succumbs to temptation and steals the ring. Our knowledge of the ring’s capabilities drives the plot from beginning to end, and ultimately makes us care about our heroes’ plight.

Where Tolkein’s masterpiece is more “fluid” about its magical rules revolves around Gandalf and the other wizards. Gandalf’s limitations can be described thusly: If the magic will make the quest easier, it is impossible — unless of course it is the only way out of certain doom. Remember the giant eagles that save Frodo in the nick of time at Mount Doom? Why, if Gandalf has the magic to summon them, don’t the heroes just ride the eagles to the mountain and do a fly-over to drop the ring in? I’d say that this is sloppy storytelling. It smacks of deus ex machina and misses opportunities to ratchet up the tension by letting us know just what its magic can and cannot do.

One of the best magic systems I’ve seen recently is in The Spiderwick Chronicles. Here, it’s all about following the rules and reaping the consequences of breaking them. Young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) is exploring a house his family inherited when he finds a mysterious book, which says very clearly, “Warning: Do not dare to read this book for if you take one fateful look, you face a deadly consequence.” Of course he opens it, and in so doing places his whole family in peril.

The villainous ogres of the movie are also bound by a set of rules: They’re invisible to humans unless they choose to show themselves or the human looks at them through a hole in a stone. This leads to one of the most exciting sequences in the movie where the family is trying to fend them off but has only one stone between them. The magic rules here are so clean that you understand the consequences of every action the family makes. And because of that, the Spiderwick universe becomes all the more complete.

What are some other examples of fantasy movies that you think make good use of their alternate reality rules?

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is also the art director at Shimmer Magazine and a professional puppeteer. Her column appears every Friday.

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