Harry Potter, Wizards and How We Let Technology Create Who We Are

Science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Fellow technology enthusiast Arthur Weasley, of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office at the Ministry of Magic, shared a somewhat similar sentiment when he warned, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

What both of these statements are getting at is the notion that the tools we use are often opaque to us. Muggles and wizards alike are mystified by the mechanisms of objects like iPads and Sorting Hats, and this ignorance can often, ironically, create a deep sense of trust in these objects. We create stories that explain their behavior, and when our tools work, it cements the validity of those stories. How else to explain their mechanism, be it magical or mechanical? But when we allow our technologies to remain opaque, we also prevent ourselves from seeing the crucial ways they make us who we are.

At multiple moments in J. K. Rowling’s iconic series, Harry Potter is confronted with a magical object that supposedly reads and reflects back some essential component of his nature. The Sorting Hat sees what’s in his head, and diagnoses him as a Gryffindor. The Mirror of Erised knows his heart, and reveals to him the deepest desires that his own conscious mind may not be aware of. And, as everyone knows, magic wands are the most personal magical technologies of all.

But the wands in Harry Potter don’t work in the way that the series’ characters claim. Wands (like so many muggle technologies) don’t merely reveal their users’ magical selves — wands make their users magical. And while a wand may channel a person’s innate magical abilities, it is the story that we tell about the wand that, in fact, lets the wand make the wizard.

The Wand Chooses the Wizard?

When Harry finds his wand at Ollivander’s shop, both he and the reader are introduced to one of the most famous axioms from the wizarding world, one which has lingering ramifications throughout the rest of Harry’s journey. While Ollivander is searching his shelves for the right wand for Harry, he explains, “It’s really the wand that chooses the wizard, of course.”

In this statement, Ollivander is expressing explicitly a belief that wizards hold implicitly across the magical world, that magical objects have a will and an agency of their own, one that is often expressed via a judgement about a wizard’s true nature. In this way, we come to view a wizard’s wand as an indication that they belong in the magical community. Harry’s wand chooses him, we assume, because it sees magical qualities within him that it relates to. During his first visit to Diagon Alley, when Harry is himself unsure of his place in the wizarding world, his wand does some of the work of convincing him of his place. It knows that Harry is a wizard, so he can, too.

These kinds of magical technologies do not merely diagnose a wizard’s magical identity, however. In many ways, they create it. Possessing a magic wand does not merely reflect one’s identity and social status as a wizard. It is, in fact, the thing that makes someone a wizard.

“Making Up People”

In the history and philosophy of technology, scholars are interested in how technology can construct society and identity—how the material conditions of life constrain and enable particular ways of being in the world. In his essay “Making Up People”, Ian Hacking argues that kinds of people and categories of people come into being simultaneously. A person literally can’t be a split personality, or a pervert, or a millhand—to use Hacking’s examples—until those categories exist as definitions.

Among the conditions that enable those categories to exist are the social and material technologies that accompany them — these are part of what makes them real. To use an example from the magical world, although a wizard in the year 900 might be clever and witty, without a Hogwarts School, a Sorting Hat, and a Founder to create a House identity she could never be “a Ravenclaw”.

This may seem like a simple idea, but the categories in which we place individuals, and the hierarchies that we make of those categories, are crucial to the project of building a society. Questioning those categories allows us to see the fundamental assumptions that we make about each other, assumptions which are often derived from the types of technologies that we use. In the magical world as in ours, wizards come to be defined by what magical beings and beasts they are not. And one of the ways that wizards have historically policed those boundaries, as have we, has been by regulating the kinds of magical technologies that beasts and beings can access.

We can see this by exploring the role of one particular magical technology, the wand, and one particular magical creature, the house elf.

First, Some Magical History

Newt Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a compendium of so-called magical beasts, based on the author’s extensive experience at the Ministry of Magic’s Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. (The book was written by J.K. Rowling, as one of the early in-universe companion texts to the Harry Potter book series.) It includes basic information about beasts from acromantulas to yeti, including a Ministry of Magic Classification of “dangerousness” from XXXXX (“Known wizard killer/impossible to train or domesticate”) to X (“Boring”).

This volume begins with a short history of the legal distinctions between magical beasts and magical beings, a question that has been troubling the magical community since the fourteenth century. (Or, at least, a question that has been troubling wizards.) A magical being is described as “a creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance of the magical world”, leaving beasts, presumably, to be those magical creatures not worthy of legal rights or representation.

For several centuries, wizarding officials attempted to define magical beings in various ways, though they were relatively unsuccessful in this pursuit. For a time, having two legs qualified one as a being; later, the ability to “speak human tongue” was proposed as a prerequisite. Finally, in 1811 the Ministry determined that a magical being was “any creature that has sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws.”

Now, setting aside entirely any problems inherent in the notion of an intelligence test for a definition of personhood, there is a glaring omission from Fantastic Beasts. It discusses at length the problems posed by the classification of beings and beasts like werewolves, centaurs, and merpeople, but does not discuss even in passing the place of the house elf in the magical community.

By all of the definitions proposed, house elves must be considered magical beings: they walk on two legs, they’re able to communicate with humans, and they’re highly intelligent. They also are extremely adept at magic that closely resembles human, wizard magic. Unlike many magical beasts, house elves can wandlessly move and levitate objects — and people — as well as Apparate. Furthermore, they can perform this magic even when it violates explicit restrictions or enchantments placed by wizards, such as by Apparating in places where wizards cannot, like Hogwarts.

These abilities are part of the reason why house elves are relegated to an unclassified, liminal status in the wizarding community. Their parallel magical abilities make wizards uneasy, and only elaborate restrictions on their rights and their agency can quiet this discomfort. Among other limitations, house elves are forbidden to disobey a master’s order, can’t be freed from service without their master’s consent, and can’t have children without permission.

One particular house elf restriction stands out, a restriction that actually applies to all non-wizard magical beasts and beings. Despite the long history of debates surrounding the legal rights and representations of various creatures, the laws regarding magical tool use in the wizarding world are far more restrictive. Clause three of The Ministry of Magic’s Code of Wand Use states that “No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand.”

“No non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand.”

We learn about this wizard law for the first time at the 1994 Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. After Ireland defeated Bulgaria and the crowd returned to their tents for the evening, a group of masked Death Eaters began terrorizing the attendees, torturing Muggles and causing a panic. As the frenzy started to build, the Dark Mark was cast in the sky above the camp, instigating full-on chaos.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron, who happened to be standing near where the spell originated, were immediately surrounded by people trying to apprehend the wizard responsible. The trio was questioned by three men, Barty Crouch (Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement), Amos Diggory (father to Cedric Diggory, Hufflepuff Quidditch star), and Arthur Weasley (skeptic of thinking objects and father to Ron). When Hermione described hearing someone speak an incantation in the nearby trees, Mr. Diggory went to investigate. Who he found was Winky, Mr. Crouch’s house elf.

Mr. Diggory immediately jumped to the conclusion that Winky had cast the spell and conjured the Dark Mark. But Mr. Weasley contradicted him. “You don’t seriously think it was the elf?” he asked. “The Dark Mark’s a wizard’s sign. It requires a wand.” “Yeah,” replied Mr. Diggory, “and she had a wand.”

The wizards went back and forth during the conversation that followed about the likelihood of Winky casting the Dark Mark. They questioned her, threatened her, and accused her of stealing a wizard’s wand, despite knowing that as a house elf owning and using a wand was not her place. Eventually, Mr. Diggory magically determined the last spell cast by the wand that Winky was carrying — which was, in fact, the Dark Mark.

Even more shouting followed, including Mr. Diggory yelling that Winky had been caught red-handed. Mr. Weasley asked where Winky would have learned how to cast that particular spell, and accusations flew about who may have taught it to her.

Cultural Stories vs. Cultural Practice

All of these reactions are striking in light of the cultural narratives that, so far, we had been told about magic wands: The wand chooses the wizard. Only its owner can use it properly. According to the narrative, the wand knows who is, and who isn’t, a naturally appropriate user. But a group of elite and knowledgable users agree — without discussion or debate — that a house elf is capable of using a wand. Underscoring their accusations and their questions is the knowledge that Winky had the magical ability, if not the training, to use a wand to cast a very difficult spell.

What these reactions reveal — as do the laws restricting wand use — is that wands perform a function far more complicated than the wizarding world admits. While, as Ian Hacking would agree, there are innate magical abilities that a wand may detect, the meaning of those magical abilities is highly contested. If a wizard believes that a wand detects and responds to his exceptional magical ability as a wizard — the same ability that distinguishes him from magical creatures — then a creature using this tool would be highly threatening.

Mr. Diggory’s reaction to Winky is a clear example of this threat. Winky is a trembling mess when she is accused, cowing before powerful wizards and begging them to understand her, but Mr. Diggory shouts at, bullies, and belittles her for flouting the rules of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. For this elf to use a wand was a profound and infuriating breach of the sociotechnical order. Seeing an elf use a wand indicated to Diggory that this elf was in some ways being a wizard, throwing the balance of a supposedly natural hierarchy completely off kilter.

Magical Biological Determinism

This might seem a little extreme, given the ways that we usually understand species to be biologically determined groups. Many readers, like many wizards, initially believe that there is something inherently natural about the division between wizards and house elves, and this biological fact is the basis for their differing social positions. But as we learn in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even biological categories are contingent, and continually renegotiated, in the wizarding world, just as they are in our own

It isn’t such a leap to claim that wand use could make an elf a wizard if the reverse is also true; that not having a wand could make one not a wizard. As we all know from the series, there are many different categories of wizarding and nonwizarding humans: Muggles, Squibs, Purebloods, Muggle-borns, etc. And when Death Eaters began ascending to power and sought to establish the supremacy of Purebloods over all other wizarding and nonwizarding people, one of their tactics was to seize wands.

Harry Potter was witness to such an event in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: the trial of Mary Elizabeth Cattermole, a muggle-born witch. During her questioning, Dolores Umbridge (head of the Muggle-Born Registration Commission) addressed the accused: “A wand was taken from you upon your arrival at the Ministry today…Could you please tell us from which witch or wizard you took that wand?” Mrs. Cattermole, of course, claimed the wand was her own, explaining that she bought it when she was eleven years old. She insisted, “It chose me.” Umbridge laughed. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so…Wands only choose witches or wizards. You are not a witch.”

The tactics in this instance are clear. Umbridge utilized the popular narrative of the wand, but turned it on its head; she believed that Muggle-borns were not wizards, and this proved that Mrs. Cattermole’s wand must have been stolen. We can see how easily this logical turn could, in the long term, naturalize the superiority of those who were born to magical parents. Once the wands of all the Muggle-borns have been taken — once they have been put in the position of the house elf — it would be very easy to turn the fact that they lacked a wand into the objective proof that they are nonwizards. This story makes it obvious: wands are not mere neutral witnesses.

The Power of Our Technologies

In neither of these situations do the qualities or the talents of the individual in question change. This is the power of the tools that we use, and the ways we understand them. They literally form our identities and societies. This is why it is crucial to both identify and question the stories that we tell about technology. What are they based on? What effects do they have? Whose interests do they serve?

We have seen how the stories that wizards tell about their tools don’t match up with how they’re used in practice. The wand chooses the wizard, because that’s what wizards want to believe about their type of magic. In this story, wizards are special, and wands are objective proof. In another example, the Sorting Hat is believed to reveal one’s true identity, until an arguing student reveals that the Hat’s interpretation — and its social consequences — are much more negotiable than its song would imply.

In this (and many other) ways, the wizarding world exists in parallel with the muggle world. This essay began with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” By pointing out some of the ways that the technologies of the wizarding world are constructed — and the kinds of wizards they construct — we might also be better able to see the workings of our own muggle magic. As we go about our lives using our mysterious technologies, what kinds of people are we enabling them to make up?