Fantasy’s Essence

After complaining about bad economics in the Harry Potter world, Megan McArdle describes the essence of such fantasy:

It is the meanest sort of Victoriana, the fantasy world of a child Herbert Spencer. There is a hereditary aristocracy of talent, and I am secretly at its apex. There is an elite school almost nobody can go to, and I am one of the chosen. People fall quite neatly into the categories of good, bad, or clueless, we are the good ones who get to run things in the end. That’s powerful fantasy stuff, which is why it’s so common.

Being in a contrarian mood, I’ve chosen this Harry Potter week to read Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy.  It is deeper than Potter’s world, though uneven, has the same essence at its core, and its economics isn’t that much better.  But I was charmed by this self-description:

Philip Pullman believes firmly in the virtues of healthy exercise and a moderate diet – for other people. It makes them feel virtuous, and makes them feel good if not happy. The most exercise he normally takes is unscrewing the top of the whisky bottle.

and his preferred writing process:


essenceWell, then you take your big piece of paper with the plot on its yellow Post-It Notes, and your careful notes about the characters, and your photocopied information about castles and Finland, and you bundle it all up into a heap and you throw it all away.  

Forget it.

It’s useless.  

And you start writing something completely different, something that you have no knowledge of, something that just came into your head, something that is utterly strange to you.

And you’re seized by a fever of excitement. It’s like falling in love; it’s like setting out on a thrilling voyage; it’s like no other joy in the world. You are possessed. You feel radiant. You give off light.

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I wonder what a Harry Potter world would be like if there was only a .7 correlation in wizardry talent between identical twins, and if the offspring of two wizards tended to regress a bit towards the unmagical mean?

  • TGGP

    I don’t see what Herbert Spencer has to do with Harry Potter.

  • Nathan Iver O’Sullivan

    Exercise bias is prevalent in America. Alas, it’s too late for me–I’m already addicted. But to those who are considering a vigorous workout routine, please do yourselves a favor and read the studies first.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Hopefully, a great question.

    Nathan, what studies?

    TGGP, Spencer is known as a “social Darwinist.”

  • Doug S.

    Harry Potter doesn’t have bad economics so much as undefined economics. The inherent capabilities of magic just aren’t explained. It’s apparent that the “wizarding” world has money, trade, and scarcity in a sort of mirror image of the real world, but the underlying reasons for that are never stated. It’s also implied that there is a science of magic that determines how and why spells work, but again, it’s just taken for granted and not explained in detail. Hermione Granger could, presumably, explain some of it from her studies at Hogwarts (to the extent that any bright high school student could explain how modern technology works), but J.K. Rowling just doesn’t present the reader with any sort of fundamental theory of magic.

    One writer that does go to great lengths to describe “magic” in terms of imaginary physics is L. E. Modesitt, Jr., especially in his Recluce series; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saga_of_Recluce for more information. His fantasy worlds seem stuck with a medieval European style of government with economic policies based more on mercantilism than Adam Smith, though, which also leads to some rather predictable consequences for those without either political or magical power – they get preyed on by those that do.

  • TGGP

    The description doesn’t sound Darwinian. Read this and ask which camp would idealize the magical world of Harry Potter and how well Herbert Spencer would fit in it. To take another “Social Darwinist” who had quite different beliefs from Spencer (he is famous for less than complimentary comments made about the book Social Statics), what of Oliver Wendell Holmes? I think the “squishy sentimentality” in Hogwarts would make him “puke”. The world of Harry Potter is, like most fantasy traditionalist and idealist (the former aspect has been attacked by David Brin and Michael Moorcocke). The “Social Darwinists” were neither.

  • TGGP

    Whoops, like like I forgot to close an html tag there.

  • savagehenry

    “Harry Potter doesn’t have bad economics so much as undefined economics. The inherent capabilities of magic just aren’t explained. It’s apparent that the “wizarding” world has money, trade, and scarcity in a sort of mirror image of the real world, but the underlying reasons for that are never stated. It’s also implied that there is a science of magic that determines how and why spells work, but again, it’s just taken for granted and not explained in detail. Hermione Granger could, presumably, explain some of it from her studies at Hogwarts (to the extent that any bright high school student could explain how modern technology works), but J.K. Rowling just doesn’t present the reader with any sort of fundamental theory of magic.”

    My guess, as someone who has not read a Harry Potter book or seen a Harry Potter movie, but has read many other fantasy novels, would be that the underlying principles of magic in the Harry Potter world are similar to nearly all of the workings of magic in every other fantasy world. So the author feels no need to greatly elaborate on them because she probably assumed many people interested in her books (granted they have a larger appeal, but c’mon, it’s still a book about wizards, so it’s obviously geared towards nerdier folk) already have a basic understanding of magic in traditional fantasy and its nature has nothing to do with the story itself (I’m assuming).

    I should probably read the books before I spout off on this… but it’s been my experience that most western fantasy draws heavily from previous works and as such common elements such as magic tend to be very similar. Scarcity in magic is almost always defined by how big your mana pool is. Mages with access to more mana can cast more spells before being mentally exhausted.

  • Brian Moore

    Well, perhaps you will enjoy the upcoming movie adaptations of Mr. Pullman’s novels, the first of which is scheduled for 12/7/07.

    I personally can’t wait until people start to actually read the books because of the movie… and get a load of the philosophy espoused within. I will enjoy the carnage.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Brian, it was seeing the movie trailer that pushed me over the edge to read the books.

  • Michael

    My guess, as someone who has not read a Harry Potter book or seen a Harry Potter movie, but has read many other fantasy novels, would be that the underlying principles of magic in the Harry Potter world are similar to nearly all of the workings of magic in every other fantasy world.

    This is ver much not the case. Most authors have the good sense to define their worlds in such a way that magic is rare and special. JKR’s world makes an attempt at this by walling magic off from the muggles, but she utterly fails to do in within the wizard community. They use magic to a degree that is absurd and that seems to have no limits of costs. The Weaselies have a flying car and self washing pots and pans, but somehow can’t afford robes that are newer than the people wearing them.

  • http://completeconfusion.com Russell Johnston

    I’m with you… pity their aren’t more “wish-denial” novels for children! Why is that, anyway?

  • Doug S.

    To be fair, they didn’t actually own the flying car.

    Now that you mention it, if there are self-cleaning pots and pans, there ought to be automated robe-making machines that drive down the price to the cost of raw materials. There’s no explanation whatsoever as to why some things are scarce and others are not, given that using magic seems to be about as physically demanding as typing on a keyboard and it can have any effect that the author wants. It’s implied that the magic using world has an economy that is a mirror image of our real world, but as almost all the limits to the application of magic are left to the reader’s imagination, it takes quite a bit of either imagination or suspension of disbelief to accept that physical property is scarce in the Harry Potter world. Intellectual property is another matter, though. Maybe they can’t use magic to make robes because somebody copyrighted the spell! 😉

  • TGGP

    Speaking of the political orientation of fantasy and children’s literature, “Hogwarts is a winner because boys will be sexist neocon boys“, which highlights the right-wing slant of British children’s literature, and Steve Sailer‘s explanation of why boys rather than girls seem to dominate tv cartoons.

  • TGGP

    Shoot, now it appears I forgot some words and the above isn’t even a sentence. I predict in the future such concerns will be passe, and a hindrance to more effective linking.