Dresden’s Hogwarts: Politics

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(Another bit of worldbuilding to go with last week. If I’ve done the math right on my blog vs. story scheduling, everyone’s finally at Hogwarts and starting school after an eventful summer. What a great time for you to start reading.)

Imagine that soccer is the best-kept secret in the world. Some children display an inexplicable facility kicking balls, and then, by their 11th birthday, they’re tracked down and informed by FIFA that they are soccer players. They can either train in the sport, or forget that it even exists. FIFA runs elite training schools for those truly serious about it, but it’s also possible to go to smaller camps, or simply apprentice to an adult soccer player. When you become an adult yourself, you may do whatever you want with your life, but, when you’re playing soccer, you’re beholden to FIFA’s rules. Rules made by administrators in the organization, who almost entirely came from the elite schools. Most soccer players have day jobs, and use their athletic prowess to give them a bit of a leg up in life. The truly professional players and administrators exist in their own high-stakes world.

Okay, sue me, it’s a tortured metaphor because the world only has one thing that’s like magic, and that’s magic.

The best estimates I can find suggest there are 60 thousand magically talented folks in Britain, or around one for every 1,000 muggles. This isn’t a hard rule or anything, just the current demographics. Before modern medicine, the ratio was probably significantly higher for wizards, who’ve long had the magical health care necessary to live well into their second century. It probably also helps to be able to use magic to get access to food and shelter and to avoid having to die in international wars. Though wizards often had violent, secret wars of their own.

Hogwarts takes 40 students a year. Fewer than one in ten British wizards attended the school. But if you look at Ministry bureaucrats, aurors, healers at St. Mungos, and the wealthiest individuals, it seems like everyone you meet has been there. And that’s after you realize the muggleborns that make up a small but meaningful fraction of Hogwarts students aren’t represented. What I’m saying is that the core of British wizarding society is an old-wizard’s club far worse than even America’s obsession with an ivy-league education. Virtually every position of power is held in the vice grip of a conspiracy of purebloods who went to Hogwarts.

What about the other fifty-something-thousand magical individuals in the country? If you work in a big enough muggle company, you probably have at least one in your office. Does it seem like Renaissance festival folks take it way too seriously? They’re over-represented there. Carnies, artists, musicians, psychics, and other jobs where you can get away with being eccentric also feature far more magicals than one in a thousand.

Most of them aren’t very well-trained. For the vast majority, the Ministry’s satisfied if you can do enough basic spells to convince them you’re not going to do accidental magic in an emotional moment, and that you understand the world of consequences they’ll bring down on you if you break the Statute of Secrecy.

But keep in mind that well-trained is relative. Hogwarts teaches students to levitate things, start fires, make precise cuts and repairs, unlock doors, and transfigure inanimate objects in their first year. Even figuring out a handful of minor spells is a huge advantage in the muggle world. The honest go into crafting or service professions where they can do way more work than a muggle can (because muggle tools have to follow the laws of physics). The dishonest can easily become master criminals. And the Ministry doesn’t pay too much attention to crime against muggles if it wasn’t obviously caused by magic.

Ironically, the wizards that are struggling the most financially are often the purebloods raised so completely in the Hogwarts pipeline that they can’t figure out how to make a go of it in the muggle world, but who are also near the bottom of the hierarchy when it comes to cushy Ministry jobs. I love the Weasleys to death, but they baffle me.

The other irony of wizarding life is, the more powerful your magic, the harder it is to truly fit into the muggle world. Magic violates all the laws of science, and that also means that strongly magical objects, areas, and individuals cause problems with technology. Physics and chemistry develop inconsistencies in a strong magical field.

At Hogwarts and other sites of power, this field is so strong that even synthetic materials break down. Part of the reason they’ve stuck with quills is that plastic pens slowly melt into goo (though that’s no excuse to not at least use fountain pens). The process is slow enough that the muggle kids outgrowing their tennis shoes and elastic underwear probably don’t notice that much how they start to sag, but don’t bring your beloved polyester-blend t-shirts and expect them to be more than rags in a year or two.

I’ve also heard that, near the strongest fields, items that rely on precision machining start to have problems. Magic makes materials flex very slightly on a molecular level, and the more precise your machine, even if it doesn’t use electricity, the more likely it is to have problems. For example, modern guns don’t work consistently at Hogwarts, because the barrels and mechanisms are so precise, any flex at all can cause them to jam. Wizards, who still exist in a primarily hand-made materials economy, never even notice.

Electricity is a bigger problem. Changes to chemistry are slow, but changes to physics are fast. Casting a spell causes havoc in nearby sensitive electronics, and powerful enough wizards can interfere with delicate electronics simply by standing near them. Most of my pop culture knowledge of films comes from sitting safely in a theater where the projection equipment is far away, because I’ve killed every TV I’ve ever tried to watch for longer than an hour or two. That’s another reason for magicals to go into non-office jobs, particularly as they become more reliant on technology: even a weak wizard will quickly kill any computer by sitting at a desk right in front of it for eight hours a day.

What you’re left with is a three-layered society.

In the center is a strange core of pureblood-centric elites who almost entirely eschew muggle society for various reasons, not least of which is that their eccentricities and effect on technology make them inherently dangerous to the Statue of Secrecy. They “govern” the other layers insofar as they have a chokehold on power and are generally better educated in magic, so can win in a conflict even against superior numbers.

The next layer are strong but were either not trained to the same level or were, but were muggleborns who couldn’t fit into the core society. They are smeared in a gradient between non-elite jobs in wizarding society and jobs in muggle society where one can avoid technology and get away with being unusual.

Finally, the weakest and worst-trained almost entirely live in the muggle world, indistinguishable from muggles with an obscure hobby or religion. With even a few magical talents, they tend to be successful beyond what their station in life would otherwise suggest, and mostly just ignore the magical government until they can’t avoid it.

Honestly, when there’s not a dark wizard throwing around spells that only the best-trained have any hope of protecting themselves against, the current standard of living in muggle society means that the people that purebloods most look down on probably have it way better than those with superior magic.

Dresden’s Hogwarts: Magic


Part of the reason for my months-long hiatus from blogging was that I finally read enough Harry Potter fanfic that I went from “I could do this” to “I have to do this.” If you’d like to see more of my writing, on a more regular basis, the first book of a Dresden Files/Harry Potter crossover is now getting posted twice a week on fanfiction.net. Dresden winds up going to Hogwarts after his mentor’s death, instead of a farm in the Ozarks. Shenanigans ensue.

The interesting thing about crossover fanfic is using one work’s worldbuilding to shore up the other’s, and this is potentially useful for designing games as well. My goal for the series was to make as much of the magic style from Dresden Files be true as possible without explicitly contradicting the worldbuilding in Harry Potter. Since the worldbuilding in Harry Potter is diaphanous enough to ride an elephant through in a lot of places, this had the interesting result of shoring up the whole into what feels to me like a much more reasonable structure. So this could probably be a good way to round out a setting you’re running a game in, if the supporting fiction is too thin: find a somewhat compatible property and use it for inspiration to round out your world.

Interestingly, in creating a hybrid magic system, I also came across a potential way to wrap my head around how the traditions work together with incompatible paradigms in Mage: the Ascension.

Without further ado…

This is the summary of how magic works as Justin taught it to me and I explained it to the kids who came to my enchanting tutorials. Hogwarts doesn’t explain most of this unless you take arithmancy, and even then, some of the theory is lost in the practice.

Magic is, quite simply, imposing your wishes on reality. Those with access to the gift can want something impossible to happen badly enough that it happens. When a wizard is young, this “accidental magic” is the only way he knows to enact his gift. When a wizard is old and powerful, he can, likewise, merely think magic into being. In the middle, wizards are taught complicated practices to organize this into spells that they’ll eventually try to abandon. The difference between the untrained child and the ancient master is control over these wishes. Accidental magic doesn’t do exactly what you expect to happen when you want it, but a master can create magic, when needed, every single time.

The first question you need to ask to understand how the process of magical training works is: why are most spells in Latin?

The reason is because it keeps the magic separated from your speech. If magic spells were in English (or whatever modern language you speak), you’d risk accidentally casting them in normal conversation. The pathways of your brain that control the instinct to create the magic get trained by the wording of the spell. Hogwarts professors probably don’t work hard enough to get kids out of the habit of referring to spells by their incantation rather than their English name. One day, some kid is going to talk about the fire-making charm as “incendio” and accidentally set a friend of fire.

As I understand it, every culture with magic similarly uses a language that’s not frequently used for conversation as their language of incantations. The Romans used ancient Greek, Aramaic, or Etruscan. Non-Western wizards use outdated forms of their own local languages.

Of course, you can’t just say the Latin word for something and consider that a spell. The use of a meaningful word in Latin is useful, but that’s because even if you don’t really speak it, it does have a meaning that you can latch onto. “Incendio” is a word that more or less means “I set on fire.” You could probably make the magic work with a different series of sounds, but it would be harder to remember.

The most important thing is that “incendio” is four syllables, and arithmantically adds up to a 5-4-4-6 structure (i is the 9th letter plus n is the 14th, which adds up to 23 which combines down to 5). There’s no way I could effectively summarize the exact practicals of how that number adding works or why 5-4-4-6 is a similar numerical array to related spells. You’re either just going to have to take my word for it or commit to five years of arithmancy class. Essentially, any word that was close enough to a 5-4-4-6 cadence could be used as the incantation for the fire-making spell. Why are some incantations really bad Latin? Because the more correct Latin didn’t fit the arithmancy.

There’s a ton of math in figuring out an incantation, and that’s just half of a spell. The other half comes in using your focus.

At the simplest level, the foci that I use for my magic (staff, blasting rod, etc.) are limited to particular types of spell. Spells that create or change motion are fundamentally similar in their arithmancy, so I was able to fit a bunch of them into my staff, and I have to differentiate between them by the different incantations. Also, turning the staff into different types of gestures improves the spell (but I can get a weaker version by just holding it and yelling). I’ve embedded a spell matrix into the staff, which is a three-dimensional (some say a four-dimensional) shape that also defines its parameters. The arithmancy of the incantation hooks into the arithmancy of the matrix to basically create a momentary bubble of possibility for the wizard’s thoughts to fill with the magic.

It’s all extremely technical, which is why any Hogwarts student that skips arithmancy and ancient runes has pretty much no idea how it works. They’re training engineers, not scientists. Most wizards never need to know how their tools work.

A wand is the most complicated piece of technology that wizards have come up with. If my staff is an abacus, a wand is a mainframe computer. Both can help you add numbers, but the computer can do so much more but is so much harder to understand. In a tiny, concealable form factor, wandmakers create a focus that can allow you to perform any spell, theoretically up to the maximum possible power possible.

The first drawback is the finesse issue. For whatever reason, I and a lot of other wizards have a really hard time using wands. It’s some combination of conceptual and down to sheer manual dexterity (I have really long arms and that messes up the precise spell gestures). There are probably a ton of great wizards who leave wand-focused schools thinking they’re bad at it, because they just can’t figure out the only technology those schools teach.

The second drawback is compatibility. While every focus has some degree of resonance with the aura of its user, wands are 100% locked into it. I picked the materials for my staff because they worked for me, but it’s still extremely effective in any wizard’s hands. A wand that’s a poor match, however, may barely work at all.

It comes down to the secret technology of how they fit all those spell matrices into one focus. My suspicion is that the wand bonds to the wizard to basically turn his whole body into a completion of the matrix. A poorly-matched wand means all your matrices are malformed before you even start casting.

The third drawback is the gestures. Most of the matrix for a spell is in my staff so I can get away with just pointing. But a wand has to fit every possible spell in, which means it can only carry the most common arithmantic elements of all spells, and algorithms for transforming wand motion into the rest of the spell matrix. Why do you have to swish-and-flick to levitate something with a wand when I just have to gesture with my staff? That precise motion is finishing the matrix for the spell, which I’ve already fully encoded into my staff. Wand users have to get very good at training their muscle memory.

Ultimately, advanced users tend to start getting into magic without words or foci. Without the words, you have to create the spell in your head without the mnemonic aid triggering your brain. Without the focus, you have to fully visualize the matrix. Without either, you’re basically relying on your imagination to fully generate an extremely complex mental construct with no aids other than your own brainpower. You quickly find that using words and tools to train your unconscious mind to do the heavy lifting makes a big difference.

And, when it comes down to it, all of this is training your brain. Arithmantic correspondences and spell matrixes aren’t real. Non-Western traditions use completely different methods of structuring their magic. Western wizards use the structures they do because they’ve been codified and imbued with meaning, so it’s something your brain can latch onto. I’ve heard some people suggest that part of it is also a “universal unconscious” thing: if enough people with the power to make their wishes reality think that the letter A is equal to 1, then that becomes true. I’ll leave that up to the Department of Mysteries to weigh in on. All I know is that every bit of it is a mental construct.

You are a wizard. Your thoughts and desires can make impossible things happen. Every bit of magical praxis you’ve been taught is simply about making it easier to do what you want and harder to have accidents. It all comes down to: if you wish hard enough, you can change the world. Magic is just a set of tools to help you make the best wishes you can.