WOT vs HP: magic systems

This essay contains spoilers to both Wheel of Time and Harry Potter.

Nothing is more associated with the genre of fantasy than magic. There is hardly any work fantasy without magic of some kind. However, magic differs greatly among fantasy authors. In some works magic is only a plot device, whereas in other works magic is essential to the very story.

In this post I would like to compare the magic systems in The Wheel of Time and Harry Potter. In both series magic is virtually indispensable from the story and the reader will notice several similarities between the two magic systems.

Both in WOT and HP people have to be trained to handle magic safely and there are special educational institutions for this very purpose: the White Tower in the former and Hogwarts in the latter. Another similarity is that the ability to use magic in both series is a hereditary trait. (See here for my theory on the genetics of magic in WOT.)

Notwithstanding these similarities the differences are quite large. Where WOT magic is highly developed, HP magic appears to me mostly ad hoc – with things invented whenever the plot requires it. I will explain with I mean with this.

Robert Jordan explains in great detail how his brand of magic works. We have the One Power, which is divided in a male half (saidin) and a female half (saidar). Both consist of five powers, earth, air, water, fire and spirit. Anyone one who channels the OP makes “weaves” from those powers.

In contrast HP wizards and witches usually cast spells to perform magic and indeed the majority of the Hogwarts curriculum seems to consist of learning the proper spells. Though we know what the use of particular spells is, we do not know how this work. In this respect HP spells resembles computer commands: give your computer the right command and it will execute the right function.

One might wonder whether this actually matters. No, it does not really matters – at least if you are just interested in the story. However, a story gains credibility if its magic system is more consistent. For instance its is suggested by Rowling that language matters when it comes to spells, i.e. UK wizards may use different words than their foreign colleagues for the same application.

So the actual wording is not the determining factor in what a particular spell does. Something else does, but what? From Professor Snape’s discourse on nonverbal spells, we could guess had intention plays an important role in casting spells. However, if intention is key, how could it be that someone finds an unknown spell and cast it and having some predefined effect (such as Harry Potter using sectum sempera causing Draco Malfoy to be seriously injured)?

No such ambiguities exist in WOT. All weaves have the same function, everywhere and at every time. Weaves do not depend upon language or intention, but solely on the nature of magic. And though magical education in WOT requires learning a hundred different weaves, a proper theoretical understanding of how it works seems to even more important than the particular weaves themselves.

Experiments with magic are described in both HP and WOT. In case of the latter we can easily how this works, take a known weave and start tinkering with it a little bit. How experiments works in former case, we do not know. Do HP wizards just take a random spell and look what will happen?

It appears to me that Robert Jordan took a lot of time to design his magic before writing WOT, while J. K. Rowling started with a teenage wizard and then worked out the details. (Actually we have evidence for this “suspicion”.) The result is in my opinion that HP is primarily a plot-driven story and that magic is invented ad hoc. I will give an example.

In book 7 Ron and Hermione discuss the limits of magic and in this context she cites “the Five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration”. This among other thing means that one cannot produce food from thin air. What is interesting about this scene is not that Hermione knows more about magical theory than Ron, but this exception is only introduced in the final book. One would think that learning one cannot get food from nothing by magic, should be taught in the very first lesson in transfiguration – even if the formal name of this rule is not mentioned explicitly.

And it is even more amazing, if you realize that Ron is born in an old wizard family which applies magic for daily tasks, as is shown at numerous occasions in the series. So that Ron does not know something fundamental about magic, is quite strange. Honestly I cannot imagine that Molly Weasley never mentioned this simple fact. My guess that the sole purpose of that scene was to explain to the reader why the trio did not use magic to get food, rather than to develop HP magical theory.

Another issue I would like to discuss is prediction. In both WOT and HP prophesies are essential to the plot, without Trelawney’s prophesy Voldemort would not have tried to kill Harry as an infant. And without a foretelling that the Dragon had been reborn, Moiraine would not have left the White Tower to seek Rand. But how does these predictions work?

In WOT predictions are simple as we have the Wheel of Time that generates a pattern which determines the course of history. Some people have the gift to see parts of this pattern at times. No one in the series question the existence of foretelling, though characters occasionally questions a specific prophesy.

HP wizards, however, are much more skeptical about divination. Even leading characters as McGonnagal and Dumbledore do not really believe in this field of magic. The latter even considered to scrap it as a subject at Hogwarts. Also the headmaster has suggested that in the HP universe prophesies are mainly self-fulling. Compared to WOT this is quite a bleak explanation.

Another issue I have with HP magic is house elves. Throughout the books we are told elf magic is different from human magic, but why is never explained. I do not think that would be possible as HP fundamentally lacks a consistent magic theory.

There is, however, a similar issue in WOT. We are told that Ogier stedding are closed to the True Source. (Ogier are giant beings from another world or dimension and they live in places called steddings.) Though in the later books we learn that there are ter’angreal which could block an entire city from the True Source, it remains unclear why Stedding are shielded from it.

Clearly it is not simply because they are inhabited by Ogier, as there are deserted steddings which have this very same property. Of course, it could be that there is a ter’angreal in every stedding – but would the White Tower not have seized the opportunity to collect those from empty steddings? After all, the White Tower believes that it owns all ter’angreal in the world.

In terms of internal consistency, I would WOT magic is better that HP magic. Also HP magic appears to me as primarily an adaptation of traditional folklore (wands, potions and flying brooms), whereas Jordan seeks to invent his own stuff. However, this should not be understood as a negative judgement of the HP story itself, which I still consider to be great.

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