Magic and Technology in Harry Potter

02 Feb Andrew Byers
February 2, 2014

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Let me add a decade-late “amen” to all my friends who avidly read the Harry Potter books while I was busy reading Dostoyevsky and New Testament commentaries (though I have no regrets about time spent in Dostoyevsky… and in at least some of the commentaries).

The HP series was better than I had expected. Honestly: I am blown away. J.K. Rowling totally had me. A hunk of my heart will probably always be in a place called Hogwarts (though a slightly bigger hunk lingers in Middle Earth).

Along with adding much belated hurrahs, I will add a few belated comments on one of the negative aspects of HP’s reception among Christians: the dangers and allure of MAGIC.

I was personally untroubled by Rowling’s treatment of magic (I find HP as an exemplar in the genre Tolkien has called “Faerie,” but more on that anon). I do recognize, however, that in certain cultural contexts (like some settings in nearby Scotland) interest in magic has gotten quite out of hand.

What I want to point out here is that the use of magic in Harry Potter entailed a commentary likely unintended, and perhaps more influential than the discourse on occultic dabbling. I am referring to a commentary on what Jacques Ellul called la technique.

“Magical” is “Technical”

The magic of HP works largely because of technique. To be sure, Harry himself is endowed with special talents, and his wand can seem to have a mind of its own. But for the most part, magic must be mastered and utilized through a rigorous degree of study and applied techniques. The wand must be waved just so, the ingredients for the potion must be measured out then stirred with precision, incantations must be enunciated properly.

Magical is technical.

I really like how Rowling removed industrial era technology from the magical world. Arthur Weasley remains intrigued by Muggle technology, but when it is time for cooking or washing up in his own kitchen, his wife places utensils under a spell. Rather than sending a text to alert the wedding guests of a Death Eater assault, Kingsley Shacklebolt (what an awesome name!) relays the news via his “patronus.”

In spite of the absence of post-industrial and digital technology, HP-magic is in many respects highly technical. Futurologist and Scifi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

His point is that technology can be so advanced that it mystifies us as much as the supernatural power of a love potion or a violent curse. And today, for most of us, the technology at our fingertips (literally) is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, and, well, magical. The purveyors of technology are quite pleased for this to be the case. (Anyone scrolling through this post with Apple’s “Magic Trackpad”?)

The Magical-Technical Society

When Jacques Ellul used the term “technique,” he was referring to a cultural mindset imperceptible to most of us because it is so all-encompassing. This paradigm tends to view people, raw material, creation, etc. as means to an end; often unconsciously, it tends to elevate productivity over relationality. The acquisition of power through a variety of instrumentation—this is often the result of “the technological society.”

Ellul also reminds us that magic itself, as unscientific and un-technological as it seems, is nonetheless an expression of technique: “Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. To attain them, man made use of an aggregate of rites, formulas, and procedures…”[1].

My point here is that magic and technology can be quite comparable in functionality and disposition. And what many Christian critics of HP may have missed is that “technique” may be a more dangerous threat to our world today than occultic dabbling.

“Horcuxes, not Hallows”

Yet through her portrayal of magic, I think Rowling has providing a rather forceful critique of technology and the ethos of Ellul’s la technique. That critique can be summed up in this powerful slogan: “HORCRUXES, NOT HALLOWS.”

Harry and Ron—though not the more sensible Hermione—were tempted by the prospect of wielding the Hallows, those instruments of magical power capable of rendering their possessor “Master of Death.” Their task, however, was to destroy other instruments—the material objects in which Voldemort had embedded fragments of his soul. Rather than lustfully seeking the most powerful technical instrument of the non-technological magical world, the Elder Wand, Harry opted to destroy the objects invested with evil power.

In this respect, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are comrades with Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. This is because Tolkien’s Ring of Power is what Rowling calls a “Horcrux.” Resisting the allure of power, these heroes and heroine destroyed the evil works of our hands.

The task is technical… and magical.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (tr. John Wilkinson; New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 24.

Tags:
3 replies
  1. Seymour says:

    Yes. This post kicked up a whirlwind in my head – good thoughts. I’d never really thought of the parallels between the occult and technology, let alone applied Ellul’s definition of technique to the mix. I’ve thought a bit about technological priestcraft, for instance, but this has really provoked me in ways I wish I had more time to think through. There are lots of hanging threads in your opening paragraphs that could lead in all sorts of interesting directions, too …

    Reply
  2. Andrew Byers says:

    Thanks, Seymour! Yes, there are many threads left hanging here. I keep thinking of them myself, wondering about all the directions the comments could go. Behind the sentences is a lot of wheel-cranking. Glad your cogs are turning, too!

    Reply
  3. stephencwinter says:

    It has taken me far too long to reflect on this marvellous (a wonder? a marvel?) piece. I would love to talk this over with you some time when we are both at leisure. One question came to mind. Is Ellul influenced in his use of “technique” by Charles Peguy’s distinction between “technique” and “mystique”? If so then would Peguy see the decision to destroy the Ring, the Horcruxes, as “mystique”? I am rather excited by that thought!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: