“Reading, Writing, Rowling” Episode 35: “Lessons in Magical Manipulation”

Explore the more-than-magical power of words and rhetoric in the wizarding world.



This month’s episode explores Albus Dumbledore’s wisdom that “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.” Mark-Anthony Lewis (Bristol Community College and School on Wheels of Massachusetts) helps Emily and Katy understand how speech and rhetoric operate in the wizarding world. He explains why Harry Potter has a consent problem,” and the importance of not only choice but also lack of choice for certain characters and beings (like Muggles) in the Harry Potter series. Spells, of course, gain their power from words, but Mark-Anthony also points to pivotal moments when speeches are more powerful than magical spells. Dumbledore, in particular, uses speech instead of magic at critical points to persuade and to empower others in the magical community.

Mark-Anthony applies the ideas of rhetoricians like Gorgias, Kenneth Burke, Lloyd Bitzer, and Richard Vatz to explore where the power of language and speech originates and how it builds relationships and empowers listeners. Does the prophecy constrain Harry’s action through the words it relays? We consider Harry’s means of retrieving the real memory about the Horcrux conversation from Slughorn – which he thinks will involve magic but Hermione knows will require persuasion. How do free will and destiny intersect with speech and rhetoric?

The wizarding world often disdains the physical violence of the Muggle world but accepts violence generated by the words uttered in spells. Wizards are sometimes blind to the fact that words can do great damage, and to other kinds of physical communication, like the way animals or beasts speak. Mark-Anthony explains that Hagrid is more in tune with this kind of communication, in ways that other wizards are often not, and makes a quite creative connection to the gamekeeper of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Characters like Lockhart, Dumbledore, Voldemort, and Snape employ a variety of rhetorical styles and devices. We talk about Harry Frankfurt’s concept of (to put it politely) “baloney” as well as the concept of “techne” to understand how key characters communicate and persuade through their speech. Is Snape a kind of Victor Frankenstein? We conclude with some thoughts about insights regarding crisis communication in the Harry Potter series that we might apply to our current difficult times.

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Laurie Beckoff

My Harry Potter journey began in 2000 when I was six and continued through a bachelor's thesis and master's dissertation on medievalism in the series. I'm a Gryffindor from New York City with a passion for theatre, fantasy, Arthurian legend, and science fiction.