Out of My Mind

The Musings of a Woman Who Thinks Too Much

Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron
Location
California,
Birthday
May 01
Bio
You can email me at "nengoron@gmaildotcom" & follow @NelleEngoron on Twitter. My archived radio shows on last season's Mad Men are available (for free!) at: www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk **My "Mad Men" commentary for Season 5 is on Salon rather than here -- go to http://www.salon.com/writer/ nelle_engoron/ to find all my Salon articles. **My book, "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4," is available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions.** I'm a writer/editor/consultant who lives in the SF Bay Area. I write about all kinds of things, but am particularly intrigued by movies, relationships, gender issues, belief systems and "Mad Men." (Scroll down left sidebar for links to a selection of my blog posts.) I'm working on a novel and a memoir, neither of which is about Mad Men!

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Editor’s Pick
JULY 14, 2011 8:59PM

The Unsolved Mysteries of Harry Potter

Rate: 15 Flag

 

HP

 

 

As the final film (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2) unspools in Muggle theaters, there will be no real surprises for the fans, who know full well how the saga ends from having read the books (to pieces, in many cases). But even after watching that final scene at Platform 9 ¾  play out (through tears, I’ll wager, for more than a few), there will be unanswered questions about the wizarding world that J.K. Rowling conjured up.

No, not just what the appeal of drinking pumpkin juice could possibly be, or why eating chocolate helps when confronted by Dementors (chocolate helps with everything, after all). If I were to share a butterbeer with Rowling, here’s the top five questions I’d want to get answered:

 

Hogwart Xmas

 

#5: Why do witches and wizards celebrate Christmas?

As an ex-Catholic and ex-Fundamentalist Christian, I’ve always found it both funny and sad that some believers think the series promotes the work of Satan when it’s actually profoundly Christian. After all, its twin messages are that you should exercise your free will to selflessly do good rather than selfishly do evil, and that love is the answer to all things. (Not to mention that it portrays a young man giving up his life and being resurrected to save his world from a snaky figure who leads people into wrongdoing.)  A resolutely moral tale in the tradition of Pilgrim’s Progress, it instills all the best values in children under the guise of simple entertainment. But that’s all subtext. I’m still trying to figure out why wizards and witches celebrate a holiday combining a religious belief they don’t hold with human traditions they weren’t raised in. Perhaps they simply enjoy any excuse to get presents and overeat, just like we Muggles do.

 

galleon

 

#4: Why do magical people need money?

Throughout the series, much is made of the fact that the Weasley family is poor while other families such as the Malfoys are rich. (Unsurprisingly, it’s the Malfoys who point this out at every opportunity.) Goblins oversee the gold-stuffed personal vaults at Gringott’s, the sole wizarding bank (which must surely be too big to fail). Even if you allow for one of Rowling’s rules, which is that items can be transformed but not created by magic, it still leaves unanswered the question of why wizards and witches need money. Even if they require it for buying essentials, why should having more of it be any better than having just enough? Surely you could conjure at least the illusion of whatever you’re lacking? (And isn’t that all that shopping does for you, anyway?) And where do they spend this money? The only shopping district we're told about is Diagon Alley, which is not exactly Rodeo Drive. And there doesn’t seem to be a grocery store anywhere near the Burrow. We might guess that they shop online, except it’s obvious that there is no magical internet, or they wouldn’t have to spend all that time doing research at the Hogwarts library.

 

 Ron

#3: Why does magic work for some things and not for others?

Why is Ron stuck wearing dowdy old clothes to the ball in Goblet of Fire, while his father can rustle up a luxurious interior to a tiny pup tent at the Quidditch World Cup? Why doesn’t Ron just wave his wand and turn his fusty hand-me-downs into a magnificent tux? If you can transform one object to meet your desires, why not another? And while we’re on the subject, is there some rule that forbids turning your partner into someone else for the evening when that old magic just isn’t working for you anymore?

 

 wand

Dumbledore wand-ering what it's all for 

#2: What is all that magic good for, anyway?

The hippogriff in the room no one talks about. Seven years of study at Hogwarts and a lifetime of practice to become an adept wizard or witch who uses those astounding skills for…what, exactly? Yes, they are fantastically handy when you need to fight off a dark lord, destroy horcruxes, play a game that involves flying, or simply make dinner without being stuck stirring the risotto. Party tricks take on a whole new meaning, and you can imagine the enormous kick of refining your magical skills and showing them off to your friends. But these people have a (literally) stupefying amount of power, from the ability to kill with a curse or a potion, to the wherewithal to tame a dragon, to the ability to transform into another person or creature. What’s the day-to-day use for all this incredible yet arcane knowledge? And with all that know-how at their disposal, why haven’t they used it to help the Muggle world? Merlin knows we need it. (We could also use some of that gold at Gringott’s to pay down the deficit.)

 

the trio

  A familiar scene - Harry and Hermione talk while Ron listens in the background

And my #1 question: What in the world does Hermione see in Ron?

OK, I get it. Despite the fact that they’re a natural and obvious couple, pairing off Harry and Hermione would have been too pat. And Rowling knew that her readers would want to see the main characters end up with someone from the series that they knew and loved. So Harry makes the homoerotic choice of marrying his best friend’s look-a-like sister and Hermione is left with the option of a Weasley or a Longbottom. While Ron’s humor and all-too-human neuroses are endearing, and he is the loyalest of friends, I can’t imagine what the brilliant Hermione, the "most talented witch” of her generation, sees in him. What exactly do they talk about at the dinner table after they’re married? Both in the books and the movies, the lively dialogue takes place between Harry and Hermione, or Harry and Ron, but rarely between the two supposed lovebirds, unless they’re bickering. I guess it could be a sex thing, although that’s not obvious, given Ron’s surprise at learning that romance is “not all about wandwork.” But why we love someone is the ultimate puzzle, the answer to which can’t be found stashed in an orb in the Department of Mysteries. And as Voldemort himself painfully learns, love is the one force in the universe that can defeat magical folk just as it does Muggles.

 

 

 

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I've never been good at memorizing all of the "do's and don'ts" of completely fictional worlds (which is why I'm not a Narnia fan), and I must admit that I have struggled with some of these same mysteries.

It always perplexed me that these magical beings could inhabit a world that, at its core, was so much a carbon copy of the dull as dirt muggle world. It seems like a real lack of imagination to me.

And by the time I got to the last book, I had forgotten so much of what went before, I ended up just skimming large sections. And I've only seen the first two films, so I won't be standing in line for this one.
Glad this is finally over.
Great! Many folks on OS are not particularly fond of HP as I've found out this week. Yes, there are a few things within the books that are too convenient (I'm thinking Fawkes the phoenix in Chamber of Secrets), but J.K. Rowling has done something that we (at least most of us) have dreamed about--making ridiculous amounts of money to WRITE.

Nice work!
R
You always surprise us with your take on things. I haven't followed HP, but what you write is fascinating and highly original, as usual.
5. Christmas is a PAGAN HOLIDAY stolen by the Church. It's most appropriate for Witches and Warlocks to celbrate it because Winter Solstice is Theirs

4. They're Magical but thay're not dishonest -- save of course for He Who Must Not Be Mastercarded.

3. Magic is arbitrary -- not absolute.

2. Finally a good question. In the finale (SPOILERS) Harry discovers his wand posesses more magic than anything on earth -- so he destroys it. Morality trumps Power.

1. Gingers are Magic.
I can help with #5! (And no, Christians didn't "steal" the winter solstice, which belongs to all. Unless those pagans are celebrating the birth of their savior, it's not stealing. Many cultures have winter solstice celebrations - the point is it doesn't matter WHEN Jesus was born - the important thing for believers is that He WAS. I don't get to claim that everyone celebrating their birthday on MY birthday is stealing it. But I digress)

There are, to my way of thinking, 4 kinds of witches:
1.) Practitioners of Wicca, the pagan religion.
2.) Worshipers of Satan.
3.) Fairy tale witches - evil, but not overtly in the same camp as #2. Think "Hansel and Gretel".
4.) Witches and wizards in "Harry Potter" - magic seems to be a innate ability. You are either born with the ability, or not. Muggle parents can have a witch (Hermione) and a Witch and Wizard can have a non-magic child ( Filch). It has nothing to do with religion, I point I have to make repeatedly to Christians who regard the series as somehow menacing. Unless your children are stupid, they should be able to differentiate between fiction and their religion. If they can't, the problem isn't the novels. Given the implied word-wide nature of the wizarding world, I would imagine there are Jewish witches and wizards, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. They probably celebrate various holidays of their country's Muggle culture, and given that Hogwarts is in the U.K., with a strong Christian heritage, it should be no surprise that they celebrate Christmas. In addition, there are many who celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday in our own culture. While they celebrate Christmas there are no religious overtones to the celebration other than the symbolic nature of things like a Christmas tree. Plenty of people are happy to decorate a tree without contemplating its symbolic nature as representing eternal life through Christ. So raise your butterbeers, for Christmas, witches and wizards of Harry Potter's world!
I can help with #5! (And no, Christians didn't "steal" the winter solstice, which belongs to all. Unless those pagans are celebrating the birth of their savior, it's not stealing. Many cultures have winter solstice celebrations - the point is it doesn't matter WHEN Jesus was born - the important thing for believers is that He WAS. I don't get to claim that everyone celebrating their birthday on MY birthday is stealing it. But I digress)

There are, to my way of thinking, 4 kinds of witches:
1.) Practitioners of Wicca, the pagan religion.
2.) Worshipers of Satan.
3.) Fairy tale witches - evil, but not overtly in the same camp as #2. Think "Hansel and Gretel".
4.) Witches and wizards in "Harry Potter" - magic seems to be a innate ability. You are either born with the ability, or not. Muggle parents can have a witch (Hermione) and a Witch and Wizard can have a non-magic child ( Filch). It has nothing to do with religion, I point I have to make repeatedly to Christians who regard the series as somehow menacing. Unless your children are stupid, they should be able to differentiate between fiction and their religion. If they can't, the problem isn't the novels. Given the implied word-wide nature of the wizarding world, I would imagine there are Jewish witches and wizards, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. They probably celebrate various holidays of their country's Muggle culture, and given that Hogwarts is in the U.K., with a strong Christian heritage, it should be no surprise that they celebrate Christmas. In addition, there are many who celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday in our own culture. While they celebrate Christmas there are no religious overtones to the celebration other than the symbolic nature of things like a Christmas tree. Plenty of people are happy to decorate a tree without contemplating its symbolic nature as representing eternal life through Christ. So raise your butterbeers, for Christmas, witches and wizards of Harry Potter's world!
Inventive questions and theories. Ten points for Nelle's house.
Great question all Nelle. But I have mixed feelings about question #1. I too don't get why Hermione would be so attracted to Ron. But then I've gone through life wondering why some desirable woman was so attracted to some jerk, or why some exceptional woman was attracted to some guy so ordinary.
Hi there,
I really enjoyed reading this!
Let me try to answer the money question... It's one that I've been worrying about, too. Could it perhaps be a status symbol thing to have REAL precious stuff as opposed to enchanted goodies? I mean, translated into human terms, wouldn't you think it's ridiculous if someone stuck an Apple symbol on their ancient no-name laptop? Or if they sewed a Versace label into a jacket bought at a supermarket? In the wizarding world, where transformations and make-believe are so easy to do, maybe it's some sort of cultural code of honor to leave your status symbols (or lack thereof) alone? That would include clothing... Besides, Ron TRIED to charm the robe (to remove the ruffles), but the outcome wasn't satisfying.
- Which leads me to another concern: couldn't his mom or dad have done the magic for him? It just occurred to me that most spells don't last forever (e.g. the Imperius curse has to be renewed, c.f. the scene with the goblins at the Gringotts break-in in the last movie!). So, for example, if you transformed some stones into food, maybe they would turn back to stone a few hours later, which would probably be pretty unpleasant... As for the robe, it would have transformed back into its old state soon after Ron's arrival at Hogwarts, I guess...
Concerning all the magic you learn: actually, my thought while I was watching HP7 was that I WISH we'd learned this kind of useful stuff in school :)
As for Ron and Hermione: A friend of mine and I have always been compared to her. As a teenager, I saw the appeal of a Ron, but now I'm married to a Lupin. My friend, on the other hand, never had a boyfriend throughout high school... until her senior year, when she met a Ron. They're getting married this summer. Besides: Ron isn't dumb as much as he's socially awkward. Remember magical chess? He rocked that board in HP1...
Rated :)
5. Magic and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. The hagiographies of the middle age saints are full of miracle stories. The folks at Hogwarts good be, gasp, Anglicans.

4. Passing through life is not about getting money, but having something to do. Its England. They all work for the Government in the Ministry of Magic. Why does anyone do anything else rather than what they are doing now, when they could be doing something else more spectacular? Same reason.

3. Ron's clothes are a sight gag. If he didn't play along, he wouldn't be Ron.

2. Openly using magic would be hard for Muggles to take, which is why it is hidden from them. Magic is very useful for witch medicine and there seems to be a fair amount of separatism among witches - luckily mud bloods keep them somewhat up to date.

1. Astrology. They just click - that's why they fight. Harry and Hermione would be like kissing your sister - also Neville and Hermione, since because Harry and Neville are astrologically similar - sharing a birthday (why the prophesy also applied to Longbottom killing Nangani), they would not click either. I am frankly shocked that Harry did not hook up with Luna at some point. They actually seemed to get eachother. Maybe Luna and Neville? Probably also the astrology.
"Unless those pagans are celebrating the birth of their savior, it's not stealing. Many cultures have winter solstice celebrations - the point is it doesn't matter WHEN Jesus was born - the important thing for believers is that He WAS"

Ask a Christian about Winter Solstice. Stand back when you inform them that it's a Pagan Holiday cause their heads will explode.

Jesus -- if he indeed existed (and there's considerable doubt about that) -- was born sometime in July. But there's no Pagan Holiday to poach then , so they moved it to Christmans. Same was with Easter which is another Pagan Holiday.

Christianity is Theft.
Thanks for all the comments and for carrying on while I was away!

Hi Jeanette! It's true that Rowling doesn't have them living radically differently than we do and I'm guessing that's because she wanted young readers to relate to the characters in a way that wouldn't be possible if they lived truly fantastic lives. She wanted to bring magic down to earth. Or perhaps magic is just the window dressing that enabled her to tell stories she wanted to otherwise, on themes that were important to her. (Just as David Chase changed his personal story about going to therapy to deal with his mother issues to that of a Mafia boss in order to intrigue viewers and make it more dramatic.)

OES, I think many people feel as you do, including Frank Bruni of the NYT, who wrote a funny column this week about being glad that he doesn't have to feel outside of a cultural phenomenon any more.

Rose, Thanks! Yes, Rowling is indeed the ultimate writer's hero, not least because the first HP book was turned down by quite a few publishers before Scholastic was smart enough to buy it. So we can always take solace that even she was rudely rejected many times. I always found that stunning, since whether it appeals to you or not, I don't know how you could start reading that first book and not understand that it would appeal to loads of children.

Lea, high praise!! Thank you so much.

David, thanks for setting me straight. I don't think Rowling would agree that in the world she created magic is "arbitrary, not absolute." I'm not that up on all the arcana of HP but apparently she designated certain rules of magic and suggests they are inviolable (the one I mentioned about transforming vs. creating being one). As for Christmas - if they were celebrating "solstice," I would have no quibble. But it's "Christmas," and you can't miss what the first syllable in that refers to.

Coming home, I like your explanation about cultural context, although how separately they live from the Muggles is emphasized many times. e.g., Mr. Weasley works with "Muggle artifacts" at the MoM and yet he has to have Harry explain how some fairly ordinary human items work. Still, I think you have a good point about them not being homogenous or confined to the UK. I liked that Rowling brought that aspect in at various points.

Mary, ha! Thanks, and my house would be Gryffindor, naturally.

Abra, yes, in a way, Hermione's story isn't that odd. Even with magic, there's apparently a shortage of good men to marry.

Sophie, thanks for all the ideas! I think you have some really good ones, especially about how enchanted objects would have less value. That leads me to another question, though, which is where they get their money in the first place? I assume it's both inherited and earned by working just as it is in Muggle world. It's a bit of a depressing thought (per Jeanette's comment above) that you might still have to work a dreary job like tending bar or being a bureaucrat, even though you have magical powers! As for Ron, I think he's more lazy than dumb, but he's definitely not an intellectual interested in learning about or discussing ideas, while Hermione is, in spades.

Michael, thanks for your fascinating explanations! Have you really looked into the astrology of the characters? I also thought Harry and Luna had a cool relationship (I love Luna). And I had a similar thought to yours, which is that the government (Ministry of Magic) seems to be the biggest employer in their world. Which raises the question: do magical people have to pay taxes? And if so, do they have a Tea party faction that's protesting all that government bureaucracy?
Fun questions, and I don't care about the answers! I love the HP books. The movies, meh, but the books--I just suspend belief and enjoy.

I re-read the whole series in preparation for the release of the Deathly Hallows part 1 movie, and was surprised at how much I still enjoyed them. I won't touch them again for a while, but I'm sure in 10 years or so I will pick them up for one more (final ?) read and I expect to enjoy them just as much then.

JK Rowling accomplished something extraordinary with that series.
This was great, and congratulations on a very well-deserved EP! I see a lot of people have written their thoughts and theories below, and some sound quite reasonable, like pointing out that Christmas was also the time of a pagan holiday (I hadn't thought about that). I always took the whole thing to be very BRITISH. The British in general seem to love Christmas, so why wouldn't wizards who in many cases have connections with Muggles? I feel like it says a lot about the culture that celebrating this holiday is like a given. Also, it helps to continue the rhythm of the school year in a way many readers worldwide can relate to.

As for Ron's clothes, and the Weasley's general sruffy air, I've often thought it had to do with their character. Sort of like some people in real life. My sister and I, for example, make roughly the same amount of money, but she usually looks more professional and sleek than I do - I tend to go for sort of eccentric, artsy fashion. Our houses, of course, are different-looking, too. I've always thought that if the Weasley's were different, they'd pay more attention to appearance, but in general it must not be a priority - they are good, honest, hardworking people, and that's all that matters. The Malfoys, on the other hand, hold appearance and status highly. They may have access to the same spells as the Weasley's, but they'll use them differently, to create a much more imposing look. I guess that makes your question about what money matters, even more pertinent. I have to say, sometimes when reading the HP books, I've even forgotten that the wizards and witches HAVE a monetary system. It really does seem useless. On the other hand, when Rowling wrote the first books, she most certainly had her own money woes, being unemployed with a child. So maybe that detail of the wizarding world reflects where its author was at, more than anything else. All authors have their fixations, fascinations, and obsessions.

Lastly, with Ron and Hermoine, who can say? Some couples get together and it just doesn't seem like it would work, and they end up having a great marriage or couplehood till death do them part. I think Hermoine may not be able to get intellectual stimulus out of Ron - but on the other hand, she's always been smarter than anyone else around her, so that's status quo for her.

Okay, I will stop now, but thanks for a wonderful, intelligent post with some very good questions!
I loved this, Nelle. Totally with you on #5 particularly, which I've found a curioddity and pondered at length. What does Hermione see in Ron? Family. Thanks for this delightful foray into the final installment, which I enjoyed this weekend, most especially the epilogue. To know that everyone has married into the Weasleys helps me sleep better at night.
Hell, many American Hindus celebrate at least the secular aspects of Christmas. There are trees and lights and presents. It doesn't seem to me THAT weird that witches and wizards would (esp. since a fair number of them have relatives or dealings in the Muggle world.)

And we do have to remember that these are CHILDREN'S books, despite their length. Writing for kids and teenagers doesn't give you an excuse to be stupid or sloppy of course, but you aren't going to get the nuance of Dostoyevsky here.
Maybe Rowling explains it in the book, I don't remember, but why does Harry still need glasses -- if magic and potions can mend broken bones and heal other ailments, you'd think the wizards could find some spell that would fix nearsightedness -- or at least invent some glasses with invisible frames. :)
Harry's glasses are in tribute to that most powerful of all wizards, Harold Lloyd.
You lay off Ron Weasley, hear?

[My simple interpretation: 1) no intellectual competition for the very competitive Hermoine and 2) he is as emotional as she is cerebral, innocent as she is sophisticated, complementary, provides what she lacks and 3) what Ehrenstein said.]
I'm about to reveal myself as a huge nerd, but I can answer 4, 3 and 2. Witches and wizards learn all kinds of things at Hogwarts, and they are better at some than at others. No one does all their own magic. You mention the tent that the Weasleys use at the World Cup, but Mr. Weasley didn't magic that tent. Someone who was exceptionally good at that brand of magic did, and then someone else paid good money for that. Fred and George are exceptional at potions, and Romilda Vane pays several Galleons for their love potion. There are people who make brooms fly, and the Firebolt is worth more than the Cleansweep because it's a better-made broom. I suck at math, so I pay someone to do my taxes. Just because I know that math exists and I took classes in it, doesn't mean I'm any good. While Neville can plant one hell of a garden, I'm positive he shells out good money for anything that needs to be transfigured or (god forbid) made into a potion. That's what magic is good for, and that's why they need money. No one person (with the possible exception of Hermione) can do everything at a professional level.

And, as for #1, Hermione loves Ron because he's wonderful. He's kind, he's fiercely loyal, he's brave and he's loving. There are way worse qualities to have in a husband. I'm sure her professional life provides her with ample opportunities for intellectual conversation. Then, at the end of the day, she gets to go home to someone who can provide a respite from the stress, anxiety and perfectionism of her day. Hermione was a pain in the ass at the beginning of the series. If she hadn't had Ron as a friend, she would never have learned to relax a little bit. She's a better person because of him.

Let me know if you have any questions about Star Wars, too.
I love how this post is bring out the Harry Potter nerds! and haters out, too.
I especially agree with nerd cred and Krim :)

**Harry Potter Forever**
This is such a treasure trove of good info. To see Harry Potter all grown up after watching the first few films the other night on TV really makes me feel older. The history and perspectives you have added here are also so much part of this vast series. I am sure the children who have grown up with this will be forever smitten as I was for the Wizard of OZ.