Essay / Culture

Magic Isn’t Might, No Matter What Warner Bros. Says

The final movie of the Harry Potter series is mundane where it should be magical, and magical when it should be mundane.


When you look back to the early Harry Potter movies, it’s hard to remember in this last that you’re in the same world, a world in which there was a multitude of imaginative ways to do just about anything from cooking dinner to incapacitating your enemies. Here in Hallows 2, most dueling seems to be limited to the standard Hollywood toolbox of lasers, wire work, and explosions. In general the magic is boring, and the wonder is gone.

There are some exceptions–the brief duel between McGonagall and Snape in the Great Hall, Voldemort’s cloak enwrapping Harry, the animation of the Hogwarts statues (which mostly then just stand around)–but didn’t you miss the galloping school desks? The house rubies spilling to the floor of the Great Hall? Dear horticutural Neville throwing deadly plants at Death Eaters? In the book, invention, whimsy, and wondrous things are still at work, even in such grave times.

I get that the movie wants to show you that now that Voldemort’s in control, there’s no room for the dewy-eyed wonder of 11-year-old Harry, but this world of mere flashes and bangs turns magic into mere Hollywood blockbuster might. Sparks shooting out of wands is not terribly different from bullets flying out of guns. To be mundane when you should be magical is a tacit agreement with Voldemort’s line: “Magic is Might”. Whatever magic is in Rowling’s work, it is never reduced to mere might, and it never ceases to draw out the wonder hidden in the everyday. Such wonder is palpable not only in talking letters, but also in Mr. Weasley’s passionate admiration of the gadgets of the Muggle world.

Voldemort’s whole twisted outlook is based on the idea that to be magical is to be extraordinary in ways that supersede the merely human, with himself as most extraordinary of all. He cares for nothing and is interested in nothing except what furthers his own sense of extraordinary power and invulnerability. But no matter how extraordinary his magic, he has made himself not more but less than human and also incredibly boring, more boring than the ordinariness he despises and fears.

And this is why the movie also fails to be mundane, to be everyday and ordinary and even a bit boring, at the crucial point when it ought to: Voldemort’s death.

In the movie, after an overlong locking of spells between Harry and Voldemort while we wait for Neville to finally get around to killing the snake, Harry’s spell seems to win, the Elder wand spins out of Voldemort’s hand and is caught by Harry, and Voldemort’s body is shattered into thousands of tiny, ash-like black fragments which float away into the ether.

(If I were a reporter for the Daily Prophet listening to this account, I would wonder if he really was dead this time.)

In the movie, then, Voldemort dies an extraordinary magical death, almost evaporating, but in the book Rowling emphasizes that he died not in the guise of the seemingly superhuman Voldemort, but like the man he couldn’t bear to remain:

“Tom Riddle hit the floor with a mundane finality, his body feeble and shrunken, his white hands empty, the snake-like face vacant and unknowing.”

All throughout the final duel between Harry and Voldemort in the book, Harry calls him back to this identity, calling him Tom, showing him his limits and his lacks, and ultimately calling him to “be a man…try for some remorse.” Remorse here is the only thing that can repair the soul deliberately riven apart by unspeakable crimes, and because for Rowling to be fully human is a matter of soul, remorse is also the only way for Tom to be a man, and not a self-fractured, self-tortured, self-unwanted, and unhelpable thing.

But Tom does not value his soul. He hits the floor like every man in death, only a body, a shell subject to mold and decay no less than that of his victims, both wizard and Muggle. Unlike them, though, he has maimed his soul, even destroyed parts of it in his quest for bodily immortality. Lupin’s dead body is also only a shell in the Great Hall, but we see in the forest that Lupin himself remains a whole living soul. What we see of the remains of Voldemort’s soul is enough to drive Harry to try to help his parents’ murderer repent and become whole again.

To lose Tom Riddle’s mundane body to a quasi-mystical overly-magical disintegration is to lose something key. Tom’s understanding of the mundane and of his share in the ordinary–which includes his having a human soul–is not just irritatingly elitist, but dangerously self-deluded. Voldemort doesn’t just happen to make some crucial moral and tactical errors and fail in his quest to evade death; the quest itself is the failure. Tom fails to be a man because he doesn’t think a man is worth being.

But Rowling reveals that this world is extraordinary in and not despite its ordinariness. Being a man is itself a wonder, be you magic or Muggle.

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