Magic Systems

In fantasy writing, there are two types of magic systems: soft and hard. At their basic levels, a soft magic system is vague, undefined and intentionally mysterious in order to create a sense of wonder and unpredictability. Hard magic systems have clearly-defined rules and limitations but allow the audience to connect easily with the characters and the world. For example, Tolkien’s magic is soft, whereas Full Metal Alchemist’s magic is hard. These systems were originally coined and best explained in Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Laws of Magic’ essays. However, this article is not explicitly on the pros and cons of either as separate systems, but rather on a series that effectively combines the two and is rewarded for it. 

Although it errs on the soft side, J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is perhaps the best example of the two systems used in combination. To briefly explain magic in the series, it’s ‘hard’ because wizards mostly require a wand to perform spells along with stating incantations aloud. However, it’s also ‘soft’ because later in the series, the audience is exposed to wandless magic, and there are very few magical limitations placed on the world. There are spells for everything, and they are introduced when necessary. This is best shown with the introduction of the ‘Expecto Patronum’ spell to combat the dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban. We can also see this with the characters too. It’s a hard system because Harry’s power is limited to the spells he learns, which are largely those that the audience reads, whereas wizards like Dumbledore and Voldemort are soft magic characters because the reader isn’t really aware of their capabilities as wizards, only that they are exceptionally powerful.

So, how does Rowling’s combination of magic systems contribute towards the franchise’s success? Firstly, it makes her world much more appealing to a wider age bracket. In general, adults are more attracted to realism because they are more grounded in the world that they live in. Children on the other hand are less inhibited by the limitations of the real world and are prone towards the imaginative and wondrous. Children can run around with DIY capes and sticks shouting ‘Expelliarmus!’ in their gardens at one another, but adults can also visualise descriptions of the non-verbal, wandless magic later in the series. 

Secondly, Rowling alters her systems alongside her characters. In the first couple of books, the characters are children and far more innocent as they enter into their first few years at Hogwarts. More than likely, Rowling knows that the people reading The Philosopher’s Stone are young children too, so caters her system towards them. The magic earlier in the series is harder, all wands and incantations. As the books go on and her characters mature, her magic system gets softer. Therefore, her books cater towards two types of readers: the first-time, young reader, and the reader who has grown up with the books and its characters, such as myself. Magic systems generally must be consistent to work in a fantasy setting. Rowling’s flexible, transformative system is not consistent, but the moulding of her system to fit with her ever-changing world and character development is. What we are left with is a perfectly balanced system. 

To conclude, J.K Rowling’s magic system is a great example of a fantasy world being enriched by the combination of the two magic systems, and it is an example that future fantasy writers should not shy away from. 

By Cameron Phillips






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