Technology is magic
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra () - July 26, 2009 - 12:00am

Fantasy novels harbor an ideological suspicion of technology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, the traitor Saruman forsakes nature for “metal”. In Jim Butcher’s delightful Dresden Files, the creatures of the “Nevernever” fear all forms of “ferromancy”. So it is of great interest in our technologically cocky age that the most commercially successful series in publishing is about a student wizard named Harry Potter.

The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and the movies based on them have grossed billions of dollars, reminding us that even wired societies want to believe in magic. In fact the more technologically-advanced a society gets, the greater its need for magic. It’s as if people have to reassure themselves that there remain mysteries beyond their comprehension. If you can explain everything, then there’s no one left to pass the buck to. You’re responsible.


While watching Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince and working out the turns of the plot—Why is Harry mooning over his friend’s sister, what happened to the Asian-looking girl he had a thing for? Why is everyone still so afraid of the guy with no nose that they can’t mention his name? What is the problem with Snape and why does he express hatred by drawing out his consonants? — I found myself comparing Harry Potter with The Lord of the Rings. Comparisons are not odious in this case, Tolkien being the grandfather of fantasy novelists. The differences between Rings and Harry seem to reflect the differences between Tolkien’s era and its nostalgia for the idyllic pre-Industrial Revolution society, and our own era with its obsession with machines.

The most obvious difference is scope. Tolkien sought to create a national epic. To this end he invented an entire world he called Middle Earth and filled it with different cultures and languages (he was a philologist). That is why, if you are over the age of 15 when you first pick up Tolkien, you will find it a difficult slog.

Professor Tolkien’s prose is on the purple side. His details have details: pages and pages about Tom Bombadil and barrow-wights, and they don’t even make it into the movie.

Rowling’s avowed ambition was homier: to entertain her children and get published. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, we do what we must. By all accounts Harry Potter is a charming, un-put-down-able read that would not tax a 12-year-old. It is a coming-of-age story in which the orphan discovers his birthright and his destiny.

With scope comes the stakes. In Rings the whole world is in peril: if Sauron wins, all the races of Middle Earth and particularly men will be enslaved. In Harry Potter if Voldemort wins, there will be a change of management at Hogwart’s school. (At least that is what I have gleaned from the movies, which are said to be inferior to the books.)

It will probably be bad for regular people too, but in the movies a kind of apartheid exists between the wizards and ordinary humans (“muggles”). Occasionally we witness the casual destruction by dark forces of some famous London landmark, but few in the wizard dimension seem too perturbed. Since we are left in the dark about what’s at stake (Do we lose all our noses?) the war between good and evil has all the urgency of a battle for control of the high school drama guild.

Then there is the depiction of magic and its application. Gandalf the wizard of Rings has a staff, but he doesn’t go hurling bolts of light at the enemy unless it’s absolutely necessary. On the bridge in Moria with the Balrog in pursuit, he pretty much had no choice. It’s not easy to summon up that kind of power; it consumes your energy. When Gandalf fights he has to wield a sword (or a sword and staff, very cool) like everybody else. The world is teeming with magic, but it’s not something you toss around.

In Harry Potter everyone has a wand and they cast spells according to their level of ability. It looks easy. Magic is available to the characters the same way technology is accessible to us.

Then it hit me like a troll’s fist: Harry Potter is essentially elitist, while The Lord of the Rings is populist. I know how odd this sounds. Tolkien was a conservative, a member of the privileged class, and a defender of the old order. J.K. Rowling is a billionaire now, but at the time she wrote her novels she was a struggling single mother. But the hero of Tolkien’s epic is not Aragorn the reluctant king, Legolas the brave elf, or Gandalf, it’s little Frodo Baggins.

The smallest, most ordinary, least remarkable creature in the world changes the course of history. Power resides in the community of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits united by valor and sacrifice.

In contrast Rowling’s Harry Potter is a top student at a school so exclusive that ordinary people are unaware of its existence. There he competes with the other gifted kids, and by the sixth movie he is acknowledged as the chosen one who will save the world from the unspeakable evil. Power resides in one.

 So The Lord of the Rings honors ordinariness, while Harry Potter exalts the special. Tolkien tells us that the desires of the few must be sacrificed for the good of the many; Rowling tells us that some people (by implication the readers of the Harry Potter books) are marked for a special destiny.

Of course, a Harry Potter fan could argue the exact opposite. We do live in a more individualistic time where the emphasis is on self-esteem, self-actualization, and other values that begin with self. Those who bring up the common good are suspected of being politicians.

The science-fiction master Arthur C. Clarke famously declared that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. To a person from 1909 today’s common technologies would seem like magic.

Making all of us, by default, wizards. It would seem that the age of Gandalf, who wanted to do his duty then sail away to the Grey Havens, is over. We live in the age of Harry the celebrity wizard.

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