Since I have become a member of the MuggleNet discussion forums, I have noted, what is, in my eyes, a remarkable preoccupation with power — power in the sense of a character’s magical strength. “X is this powerful, Y that powerful.” Most references to power are of this simple kind and, although understandable, I feel they do not do justice to the complexity of Rowling’s creation.
At times it seemed as if I was reading a discussion on Dragonball Z power levels (if you do not understand, ask your kids). I do not want to patronize all the happy forum-dwellers that enjoy discussing the power of certain wizards and witches in the books, but I feel that the notion of power in Harry Potter deserves a little more perspective. For I believe that power in this magical world has a certain complexity to it that is not wholly unimportant to the theme of the books. So, let us set out and discuss this power, in its various forms and through its numerous implications, if only to find new forms of appreciation for this wonderful series.
There are a number of things I would like to consider in respect to power:
- The magical power of wizards and witches
- The power of magic in general
- The implications for several Harry Potter characters
Unsurprisingly, Rowling regularly uses the word “power” to qualify a wizard or a witch. However, this usually applies to Voldemort, and only every once in a while to a good character. Also note Quirrel’s explanation of what Voldemort has taught him about power:
There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.
And, on a much lighter tone, but in a sense just as negative, the title of a book Percy is reading at some point: Prefects Who Gained Power. Clearly, power has a rather negative connotation in the Harry Potter series. Particularly interesting, then, is that wizards are often described as having many and great powers. This use of the word appears to mean “skill” and that is much more neutral than “power.” And indeed, skill is a more practical way of talking about the qualities of a wizard. The education received by young magic adepts seems to be all about skill and knowledge. The delicate balance of ingredients for a potion, the precise movement of a wand or pronunciation of a spell, and the deep concentration behind wordless magic all require prodigious knowledge and skill. However, there are some instances where more than skill is required from a wizard or witch. The Unforgivable Curses, for example, need ill will, while the Patronus charm only works with an intense feeling of happiness, and the effectiveness of Legilimency depends upon the strength of the probing mind. So, evidently, there is more to magic.
At times the books might refer to the power of particular spells, magical substances or creatures. Clearly the power of magic is a complex matter. Let us look at several moments when magical power is important to gain some perspective on the power of magic in general. I have looked at all the instances of the word power in the books and picked out the most interesting.
“I know you haven’t,” said Professor McGonagall, sounding half exasperated, half admiring. “But you’re different. Everyone knows you’re the only one You-Know-, oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of.”
“You flatter me,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Voldemort had powers I will never have.”
“Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”
“It’s lucky it’s dark. I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey told me she liked my new earmuffs.”
This is an example of power as magical skills. In his travels around the world, Voldemort has acquired all kinds of powers. So has Dumbledore, we must assume, but the way Dumbledore talks about Voldemort here suggests that the latter has the distinct upper hand with certain types of magical power. The excerpt emphasizes the importance of having certain skills.
“Thirteen-and-a-half inches. Yew. Powerful wand, very powerful, and in the wrong hands…well, if I’d known what that wand was going out into the world to do…”
Another kind of power, that of a wand. It suggests that different wands bring with them different strengths. Some are good for specific types of magic — such as the wand owned by Harry’s father, which was good for Transfiguration — while other wands simply bring extra magical power — like the wand from this example. Presumably this simply means that such a wand can cast more powerful versions of a spell. If we consider, then, that the wand chooses the wizard, it must mean that some wizards have more raw power than others. However, let us look a little further before we jump to any conclusions.
“As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses…I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death — if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.”
Leave it to Professor Snape to make things a little more interesting. Here we have a case of power that is directly dependant upon skill. Creating powerful potions — and I do not think I need to remind you of the tremendous power of some potions — demands delicacy and precision. Again we have the suggestion that magical power depends upon skill.
“Well,” said Fred, “put it this way — house-elves have got powerful magic of their own, but they can’t usually use it without their master’s permission. I reckon old Dobby was sent to stop you com ing back to Hogwarts. Someone’s idea of a joke. Can you think of anyone at school with a grudge against you?”
This excerpt also provides an interesting example. Several times throughout the books, house-elves perform powerful feats of magic, yet we know that this magic is actually under the control of their masters — and the exceptions required intense willpower from the elves in question. It may be important to consider, therefore, that powerful magic is meaningless without control.
“If I say it myself, Harry, I’ve always been able to charm the people I needed. So Ginny poured out her soul to me, and her soul happened to be exactly what I wanted…I grew stronger and stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful, far more powerful than little Miss Weasley. Powerful enough to start feeding Miss Weasley a few of my secrets, to start pouring a little of my soul back into her…”
The next example is far trickier. Riddle’s power here appears to be directly related the strength he gained from Ginny’s emotions. Typically for Voldemort, he only uses negative emotions, but they seem to be an important part of his magical strength. When he says, then, pouring a little of my soul back into her, is he speaking merely metaphorically? Is he just sharing with her the anger and hate needed to strangle the chickens and such, or is he literally giving her power? It is an interesting question, especially considering Ginny’s future, and directly suggests that feelings are important in the sphere of magic.
“But Sirius Black escaped from them,” Harry said slowly. “He got away…”
Lupin’s briefcase slipped from the desk; he had to stoop quickly to catch it.
“Yes,” he said, straightening up, “Black must have found a way to fight them. I wouldn’t have believed it possible…Dementors are supposed to drain a wizard of his powers if he is left with them too long.”
Magic powers are drained along with positive feelings, for that is what dementors do to people; they steal happy thoughts. Sirius explains that by relying on a negative thought — the knowledge of being innocent while locked up — kept him sane. One can imagine that such a feeling of injustice is very powerful and it was enough to fuel his magic powers for some time. The fact that such “fuel” is needed is very significant.
Harry sat down too. He explained what he’d seen; how, as the nearest dementor had lowered its mouth to Harry’s, a large silver something had come galloping across the lake and forced the dementors to retreat.
Hermione’s mouth was slightly open by the time Harry had finished.
“But what was it?”
“There’s only one thing it could have been, to make the dementors go,” said Harry. “A real Patronus. A powerful one…” “But it must have been a really powerful wizard, to drive all those dementors away…If the Patronus was shining so brightly, didn’t it light him up? Couldn’t you see–?”
There is no doubt that Harry’s Patronus is a powerful bit of magic, not just because he mastered it so young, but also because it was enough to repel a hoard of dementors. Here is a spell that clearly needs power to be really effective, but specifically the power of happy feelings.
To their surprise, Professor Moody had announced that he would be putting the Imperius Curse on each of them in turn, to demonstrate its power and to see whether they could resist its effects.
As we all know, Harry easily manages to withstand the power of the Imperius Curse, even when the spell is later attempted by Voldemort himself. This feat reveals a remarkable amount of will power, but it is unclear why Harry would be better at this than, for example, Ron.
”Imagining things, am I?” growled Moody. ”Seeing things, eh? It was a skilled witch or wizard who put the boys name in that goblet…”
”Ah, what evidence is zere of zat?” said Madame Maxime, throwing up her huge hands.
“Because they hoodwinked a very powerful magical object!” said Moody. I”t would have needed an exceptionally strong Confundus Charm to bamboozle that goblet into forgetting that only three schools compete in the tournament…I’m guessing they submitted Potter’s name under a fourth school, to make sure he was the only one in his category…”
Here we have a magical object that is powerful. Such an object would have been enchanted by a wizard or witch at some point. This, in turn, would have required great skill, since Moody observes that the wizard who fooled the goblet was also very skilled. So, clearly, skill can cause great power.
“Your adversary has no warning about what kind of magic you’re about to perform,” said Hermione, “which gives you a split-second advantage.”
“An answer copied almost word for word from The Standard Book of Spells, Grade Six,” said Snape dismissively (over in the corner, Malfoy sniggered), “but correct in essentials. Yes, those who progress in using magic without shouting incantations gain an element of surprise in their spell-casting. Not all wizards can do this, of course; it is a question of concentration and mind power which some” — his gaze lingered maliciously upon Harry once more — “lack.”
Snape is suggesting here that Harry lacks mind power — and with reason, considering the Occlumency training — and yet Harry was quite proficient at resisting the Imperius Curse. It goes to show that mind power is difficult to define, but also that it is perhaps a separate factor we should consider as contributing to the power of magic.
How can we shape all these examples into a single understanding of the concept? We must assume that being powerful at magic is a combination of possessing a great variety of magical skills and knowledge, a measure of will power and control, and a quantity of power that is innate to the wizard or witch. However, that power seems to be at least related to feelings.
Let us now consider what our wider perspective of power means for certain key characters in Harry Potter.
If we consider Harry as a magic student, he is not all that remarkable. His O.W.L.s suggest that he is reasonably good at most magical subjects, but, with the exception of DADA, it is nothing special. And yet, he performed some astonishing feats of magic for one so young, or so we are told. Does he have some hidden talent? Harry would say that his only real talent lies with Quidditch, but I do not think that is true. Harry has a talent for power itself. Think about it. He produces an incredible Patronus in his third year and learns to resist the Imperious Curse in one lesson. At one point his shield spell is described as powerful enough to throw back Snape — this is supposed to be a defensive spell! — and he manages to summon his broom all the way out of the castle, over the grounds to his dragon fight, which is a long way for someone who just got a hang of the spell.
Whenever Harry performs remarkable magic, there is great strength behind it, which is also what makes him good at DADA. However, and this is one of those very big howevers, Harry does this by drawing upon his feelings. This is not conscious, but innate. It is very true when Dumbledore explains that Harry is special because of his capacity for love. Love grants him strength and it gives him a drive. If you are still not convinced of this power in Harry, consider then that it also works the other way around. If love enables Harry to perform magic that most other wizards cannot, then this love must be something really special. It is truly a talent.
What Harry must learn now is a measure of control. As Snape showed him and us, his power will not do him much good if he is not able to keep his mouth shut and his mind closed. If Harry learns this he could become a very strong wizard. Considering book 6 in particular, it seems as though everything is set for a final confrontation between Harry and Snape. It will be an important preparation for his final confrontation with Voldemort, but I am convinced it is still not possible to confidently predict how this will play out.
The Dark Lord too has a talent for power. If that does not speak for itself, then consider that the wand that chose him was, according to Ollivander, very powerful. He is very similar to Harry, with the big difference that what drives him are feelings of superiority and hate. But, I think we can say that Voldemort has come to value skill and knowledge, especially Dark knowledge, over the power of feelings. This is understandable. After all, knowledge is power, the familiar saying tells us. However, although Voldemort knows how to use feelings such as fear and jealousy in a strategic manner, he does not understand them and that is crucial. We can see this in Voldemort’s apparent, secret fear of darkness and in the fact that Voldemort chose to split his soul in seven, thereby sacrificing the power of a “pure” and “untarnished” soul, a soul with feelings. This lack of understanding is destined to be Voldemort’s undoing.
The books contain several seemingly random remarks about how surprisingly powerful Ginny actually is. I understand this has annoyed many people, since, apparently, she has done nothing to deserve this, and she is not a very nice girl, or so they say. Of course, this is not to the point in any way. From the start, Ginny has been there as some sort of counterpart to Harry. She is quite a bit like him. Firstly, she is not an orphan, but the only girl of seven siblings, which could not have been much fun either. Secondly, her mean streak is not unlike some of Harrys nastier characteristics, such as his disregard for the rules and anger in book 5. Thirdly, they are both quite passionate, which plays a role in their magic. Fourthly, and very importantly, both have faced Voldemort, although Rowling stated that the business with the diary has not left anything of Voldemort in Ginny. Nonetheless, I dare say it has made her rather unique. I think it is very important that we consider Harry and Ginny together in the light of the storys resolution. Their relationship and its power — and I am aware this is nothing new — will be crucial.
Neville is one of those characters that continue to bug me. He is probably very important to the plotline, but it remains unclear in what way. Is he still part of the prophecy? Voldemort chose Harry, thereby making him the one who will undo him, but if Neville, as a baby, had the potential to be the one in the prophecy, then that potential must still be there. And indeed, although Neville at first appeared to be a very poor wizard, in book 5 he begins to show powers nobody thought he had. His drive is clearly vengeance and if his sudden strength is any indication, this is a very powerful drive. In this light we must compare him to Harry. Harry has similar feelings of vengeance, but with him they are secondary. More important is his need to protect others; it constitutes a hero complex, as Hermione puts it, but is based on his ability to love, as we have already discussed. Neville is different, though. Clearly, he is not a bad person, but, unless his parents return to normal, I fear his lust for vengeance will break him up. It is a tragedy in the making.
Has Dumbledore, then, mastered the ideal combination of knowledge, power, feelings and control? We must assume that Dumbledore does not have “power the Dark Lord knows not” like Harry does, otherwise Dumbledore would have been enough to finish Voldemort. However, Dumbledore does seem to understand that power — at least, that is what the books, and this article as well, are relying on. Well, Dumbledore is probably the biggest unknown in the books, even more so than Voldemort, so I will not attempt to explain him. I do believe that, although he is dead, we have not heard the last of him.
With book 7, Rowling stands before the daunting task of satisfyingly bringing closure to a considerable number of variables. Many questions need answering and no doubt some will not be happy with many of her answers. It is unavoidable with expectations this high. Still, I think Rowling has given us a story development, so far, that is both sophisticated and makes sense. I doubt she will disappoint me with her last book. The concept of power I have outlined here, and particularly Harrys power, may be an important part — for us readers — of accepting what happens in book 7. “It is essential that you understand this!” Dumbledore said to Harry about this very matter, and perhaps he was not just talking to him. It has been said that growing up is about defining your own power in relation to others. Understanding that magical power comes from conviction and feelings, in relation to others, is an interesting elaboration upon this idea. We have seen Harry do many things beyond his age, but completely accepting this lesson will be the real test for the young wizard.