Harry Potter's Magic

The Potter controversy shows that the struggle between science and magic isn't entirely settled.

BY: Alan Jacobs

Excerpted from "A Visit to Vanity Fair," by Alan Jacobs, Brazos Press, 2001.

It was not obvious in advance that science would succeed and magic fail. In fact, several centuries of dedicated scientific experiment would have to pass before it was clear to anyone that the "scientific" physician could do more to cure illness than the old woman of the village with her herbs and potions and muttered charms.

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Isaac Newton, whose name is associated more than any other with physical mechanics, was continually absorbed by alchemical research, as John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, learned when, in 1936, he bought Newton's alchemical manuscripts at auction. A stunned Keynes wrote a paper in which he revealed that Newton, far from being "the first and greatest...rationalist," was instead "the last of the magicians."

This history provides a key to understanding the role of magic in Joanne Rowling's books, for she begins by positing a counterfactual history, a history in which magic was not a false and incompetent discipline but rather a means of controlling the physical world at least as potent as experimental science.

In Harry Potter's world, scientists think of magic in precisely the same way they do in our world, but they are wrong. The counterfactual "secondary world" that Rowling creates is one in which magic simply works, and works as reliably, in the hands of a trained wizard, as the technology that makes airplanes fly and refrigerators chill the air--those products of applied science being, by the way, sufficiently inscrutable to the people who use them that they might as well be the products of wizardry. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "Any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic."

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