“Knew! Knew! Of course we knew! How could you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that — that school — and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was — a freak!”  So said Harry Potter’s Muggle aunt, Petunia Dursley, whose family would have otherwise had a perfectly wizard-free life if her sister had not been born a witch. Under no circumstances would she or her husband have allowed Harry to become aware of his magical origins. Earlier in her life she loathed the inordinate pride her parents showed in having a witch as a daughter, an extremely rare occurrence among Muggle families. As an adult, she resolved to completely shun every aspect of the magical world from her life. She shuddered at any mention of her sister’s family, and when Harry’s parents died, the Dursleys raised Harry in their home with utter disdain. Although he was initially unaware of his magical origins, his guardians often chastised him for unintentional and odd behavior, such as causing a glass window to disappear or growing his hair back from a haircut overnight .
But what exactly causes Harry Potter’s Muggle family to fear magic so much, and how can understanding this shed light on ways in which we interact with technology in our own society? The wizarding and Muggle worlds are actually quite similar in some respects; both are characterized by rampant greed and consumerism. As such, one would expect that the wizarding world would appeal to Muggles, but this is not the case. Perhaps the attitudes that Muggles have towards magic arises from the longevity of the Dursleys’ exposure to it; they may have spent so much time with Harry and his mother that particular aspects of magic, especially the seemingly non-human, disillusioned them in ways that did not affect Muggles who had little or no contact with the wizarding world. Those “non-human” aspects may include the strange ways in which wizards position themselves in relation to magic and other creatures, and their behavior in the Harry Potter series encourages us to reflect on the ways in which we interact with our own technology.
Comparing the wizarding world to the Muggle world will allow us to analyze the causes of the Dursleys’ contempt of magic thereby helping us elucidate the fundamental differences between these two realms. Elizabeth Teare, an English professor at the University of Dayton, suggests that the Dursleys’ attitude arises from the distance between their commercialized world and Harry’s “purer” one . But throughout the series the entire wizarding world shows a greedy side to its character not unlike that of Muggles. In fact, the notion of greed presents itself at the outset of the series, when the sign reading “Enter, stranger, but take heed of what awaits the sin of greed…” welcomes Harry into Gringotts Wizard Bank . The mere existence of a bank in the wizarding world signals the fact that wizards have subscribed to an economy much like ours. Wizards cannot simply conjure riches; their magical abilities are limited. Thus, a wizard like Mr. Weasley has to support his large family by working. Such concerns for money contribute to differences in wealth; the poorer Weasleys contrast sharply with the wealthier Malfoys .
This greed in both the wizarding and Muggle worlds hints towards a larger phenomenon that they both share: consumerism. In Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, Harry himself, not as “pure” as Teare suggests, is drawn to the Firebolt, whose “aerodynamic perfection”, “unsurpassable balance”, and “pinpoint precision” significantly dwarfs those of Malfoy’s Nimbus Two Thousand and One [2, 4]. Young wizards collect trading cards [1, 5], and visit a local village to buy candy, toys, and butterbeer [2, 4]. Acquiring these possessions, especially the latest broomsticks, becomes a sort of status symbol, and indeed, serves as an essential part of the wizarding life. Students at Hogwarts cannot perform any magic without first buying their materials: spellbooks, cauldrons, wands, and the like [1, 2].
As such, the consumerist behavior rampant in the wizarding world resembles that which we see in the Muggle lifestyle. At a young age, Dudley Dursley is already constantly pampered by his parents with sweets and toys. On his eleventh birthday he received thirty-seven presents and still demanded two more because he had received thirty-eight gifts the year before; he stored his toys in a second bedroom that he used in addition to the bedroom that he actually slept in. Nearly everything in the room was broken, except for shelves filled with books that remained untouched . And like the wizards’ implicit use of broomsticks as a status symbol, the Dursleys try to keep up with the latest technologies not for the sake of practicality, but rather appearances. Dudley is too fat to ride his new bike and does not need his new computer; his parents seem to replace their traditional fireplace with an electric one simply for the sake of having bought the most fashionable model . In these ways, the wizarding and Muggles worlds both end up sharing the same qualities of consumerism. Thus, it is more likely that the Dursleys’ scornful attitude towards Harry arises not from his being allegedly “purer” than his Muggle family, but rather from inherent differences between both the magical and Muggle worlds. But what could these differences be?
An analysis of wizards’ relationship with magic can be extended to an analogous relationship between Muggles and technology. Margaret J. Oakes, an English professor at Furman University, suggests that both magic and technology are used as ways to control our natural environment . Science and engineering allow us to surpass the limitations we faced only a few decades ago, while magic allows wizards to become invisible, transform into animals, transport themselves to their destinations in an instant, or create light. In these ways, wizards and Muggles alike use their abilities to change their environments to their advantage.
Perhaps the ways in which Muggles and wizards interact with their environments play a role in transforming their own human nature to the point of becoming almost non-human. Peter Appelbaum, a professor of curriculum theory and math/science/technology education at Arcadia University, argues that in building machines, humans have used their powers of creation and destruction to assume a dominant position of “creator”, which may possibly be one step further in the evolutionary process . Oakes suggests that humans have ascribed a sort of consciousness to their technologies to the extent that there is a sense of familiarity as we interact with them; “we converse with them, learn the idiosyncrasies of their workings, curse them for perversely inexplicable actions, and cherish or disdain them according to their cooperation with our needs” . Perhaps in this way we have become “creators” in the sense that we have humanized our technology.
If Muggles’ interactions with their technology uniquely transform their own human existence, then it follows that wizards’ interactions with their magic shape their human existence in a distinct way. Indeed, wizards are in a position superior in power to humans, but their refusal to abuse this dominance returns them almost — if not completely — to the same level as humans. The Unforgivable Curses, to which Muggles are defenseless, allow wizards to kill, torture, or control the wills of their victims, but the magical community freely chooses to prohibit wizards from using these curses .
Not only does the wizarding world’s restraint set them equal to Muggles, but wizards also interact with magic itself as equals. While Muggles confer the human element in technology, wizards are interacting with magic that already contains a degree of consciousness. To enter Gryffindor Tower, one must first verbally give the password to the fat lady on the portrait, who is prone to being frightened and fleeing her post at the entrance. Before being sorted into Gryffindor House, Harry has an internalized conversation with the Sorting Hat; in fact, he specifically demands that the Sorting Hat not place him in Slytherin. Moreover, a game of wizard chess requires the players to give verbal commands to their pieces, who may give advice back to the players. In these instances, the wizards are not interacting with magic as creators of magic, but rather as humans who are interacting with other living things [1, 3].
The differences between the relationships that Muggles and wizards have with technology and magic, respectively, are only part of the great divide between the magical and Muggle worlds. To the average Muggle, the wizard lifestyle would seem quite peculiar, almost non-human. Petunia Dursley’s scornful referral to her sister as a “freak”, therefore, was motivated by the way her sister’s exposure to the already peculiar magical world may have transformed an initially normal sister into a different kind of human being.
Appelbaum recommends that when analyzing this sort of literature we ask not “What is it about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books that has made them so popular?” but rather “What is it about our culture that embraces the Harry Potter books and has turned Harry Potter into such a phenomenon?”  As readers we embrace literature that conforms to our particular biases. That is, books become popular only if the readers identify aspects of their literary worlds that resemble our own. In the Harry Potter series, we recognize the wizards’ obsession with technology, along with its larger consumerist culture, as realistic. Furthermore, the readers do not find it implausible that wizards would restrict their own powers for the sake of integrity, nor do they doubt that Muggles would deplore a culture that is not their own and is simply too peculiar to them. These observations compel us to critique our own consumerist culture, and also to consider whether the mostly domineering attitude with which we handle technology should rather be marked with restraint.
- Rowling JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 1st American ed. New York: Scholastic; 1998.
- Teare E. Harry Potter and the Technology of Magic. In: Whited LA, editor. The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press; 2002. p. 329-42.
- Oakes MJ. Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches: The Hi-Tech, Low-Tech World of Wizardry. In: Anatol GL. Reading Harry Potter. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger; 2003. p. 117-28.
- Rowling JK. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic; 1999.
- Appelbaum P. Harry Potter’s World: Magic, Technoculture, and Becoming Human. In: Heilman EE, editor. Harry Potter’s World. New York: RoutledgeFalmer; 2003. p. 25-51.
- Lipscomb BJB, Stewart WC. Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology. In: Baggett D, Klein SE, editors. Harry Potter and Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court; 2004. p. 77-91.
- Image: Ableman S. Ollivanders. Flickr; [taken 2010 Nov 5; cited 2011 Apr 11] Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ableman/5202936499/ [Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND]
Edgar Pal is a first-year student at the University of Chicago pursuing a double major in economics and public policy studies. Please join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter.