Gaming Harry Potter III – Blood And Fire

For today, it’s an offline question, summarized as “are there any more really problematic pieces of magic in the Potterverse outside of the “Deathly Hallows” themselves?”

Yes indeed, there is at least one more really major problematic magical effect or spell in the Harry Potter universe – but I didn’t see much point in addressing it the last time around since you have to replace it to make the story work. The series just… kind of falls apart without it. Now I’m hardly the first to point it out, and there are doubtless some in-depth analysis of the problem out there – but here we go anyway.

The problem lies in the (nameless) blood protection effect that protects Harry through his childhood and which and forces him to keep going back to the Dursleys.

“While you can still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her blood became your refuge. You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you. Your aunt knows this. I explained what I had done in the letter I left, with you, on her doorstep. She knows that allowing you houseroom may well have kept you alive for the past fifteen years.”

-Dumbledore, in The Order Of The Pheonix.

It is this mysterious force that keeps Harry Potter safe as long as he lives with Petunia occasionally.

What’s problematic there?

Well… do those forces keep the rest of the household safe when they’re away from home? If not… why not just eliminate Vernon, Petunia, and Dudley? They go to work, shopping, and school don’t they? Kill them – or even just Petunia – and the protection soon ends. It’s not like Harry’s location, or the existence of the Dursleys, is a well-protected secret either. The sheer number of people who were hanging around when Harry was brought to the Dursleys tells us that.

They definitely don’t stop muggle aggression or non-magical forces or monsters. Otherwise other kids couldn’t join Dudley in “Harry Hunting”, the Dementor couldn’t have attacked, and Harry would be immune to household accidents (and to Dudley repeatedly punching him in the nose). So why not hire a muggle hit squad, or load a truck with something explosive and blow up the entire block, or drop a plane on the house, or send some monsters, or any of a million other ploys?

There are supposed to be LOTS of magical families which fell victim to the war. Was Harry’s mother the ONLY parent or grandparent or other relative who sacrificed themselves to try to save someone when they could have escaped? Why isn’t this kind of protection a reasonably common thing? Even if the activation spell Dumbledore used was rare (acceptance by a relative is not going to be all that hard to come by), why aren’t there plenty of related charms? Since reflecting the Killing Curse (and apparently a variety of lesser curses) and destroying the user didn’t call for anything but the sacrifice… why isn’t the death curse known for occasionally backfiring?

What kind of relationship is sufficiently close for the general protection spell anyway? Isn’t everyone in the world related? Why wasn’t a blood relationship and an activating spell and acceptance into a household required when Harry made a personal sacrifice to protect the other students at Hogwarts? After all, that apparently worked just fine and he didn’t even have to actually die. He just had to offer himself.

These mysterious forces suddenly stop working when Harry “comes of age”. But isn’t “coming of age” a legal fiction that varies between cultures and times? Why does the magic of love and sacrifice pay down-to-the-minute attention to a technicality?

According to some sources, the effect only protects Harry, and only while he’s actually at the house. That just makes it worse. Harry went to school before Hogwarts and surely spent as much time as possible away from the Dursleys. Of what use was this much-vaunted protection then? Why was having it worth a childhood full of abuse if there were other ways to provide a safehouse?

If visiting “home” briefly once a year is enough to recharge these mysterious forces… why not board Harry at Hogwarts for most of the year much earlier? After all, acceptance letters came addressed to the “Cupboard Under The Stairs” so they KNEW that Harry was being mistreated and – at the least – had intentionally avoided looking into it. What makes “growing up famous” more problematic than growing up “being physically (at the least we have in-book confirmation for Dudley beating him, pretty much necessarily with Vernon and Petunias approval – and abuse from them is very strongly implied) and emotionally abused and being chronically malnourished?” Why not at least pay the Dursleys to treat Harry better? Are they incorruptibly above bribes but not above mistreating a child?

Of course, this also allows Harry to unquestioningly turn his back on the “muggle” world – allowing him to (among many similar items) ignore the moral problems of actively erasing awareness of magic among muggles – thus preventing them from taking any measures to protect themselves against magical conflicts and monsters, treating them as second-class citizens at best (and as chattel at worst), and condemning people to death rather than sharing those fabulous magical cures with them – without bringing his “noble good guy” status into question.

Like it or not, those mysterious forces are a pretty basic part of the series setup and drive a number of major plot points down the line – and they don’t make a lot of sense. While the target audience will probably never notice the problem, gamers tend to want a lot more detail. Unfortunately, given that this bit of magic reeks of “poorly thought out plot device” there really isn’t one to give them.

Is there anything which works better?

Perhaps. Let us start from the beginning. We’re outright told that no one knows what happened the night that Harry’s parents died. Even Voldemort apparently didn’t fully understand and he didn’t seem all that interested in explaining what he did know anyway – and there were no other witnesses who were willing to talk about it. (Voldemort might have had an aide or something along – but if he did, and Harry was actually the target, then disposing of an injured baby doesn’t call for magic. Babies are fragile).

What was known to the magical authorities of the time was that Voldemort personally attacked two other high-powered magic users and – at the end – a baby who was in the house had suffered a non-lethal magical injury and all three of the people fighting were apparently dead.

So… like it or not, the “innocent baby survives a terrible magical attack and defeats the dark lord!” story was invented for public consumption, whether by the magical authorities or by someone at the Daily Prophet. The fact that authorial fiat made that story turn out to be more or less correct doesn’t change the fact that it was invented out of whole cloth.

Given the evidence they actually had… any sane investigator would have concluded that “Voldemort and the Potters took each other out and the baby was bloody lucky that he only got grazed by some nasty magic – likely a rebounding spell, corona effect, something that got interrupted during casting, or a part of a disrupted spell – instead of being killed”.

After all, “the power of love” would have done !@#$ all against the ceiling falling in, or the house burning down, or some such.

So why didn’t the surviving Death Eaters go after Harry as a small child?

Because the surviving Death Eaters were not outrageously stupid (that sort of goes along with “surviving” part) and were not inclined to accept the statements of the authorities or the newspapers at face value or they wouldn’t have been Death Eaters in the first place. They looked at the actual evidence… and concluded that the baby was a completely unimportant bystander, and had possibly been set up as a trap. Sure, killing the kid might have been satisfying – but they didn’t know that Voldemort would be coming back or that he would care.

Letting the public have their charming little story cost them nothing at all. It might even benefit them; having the public put their faith in miraculous child-saviors meant fewer calls for actual effective investigations and precautions.

And so they did not give a damn about Harry until Voldemort returned and started issuing orders again.

Oh, the prophecy?

Well, first up… Prophecies are kept secret. So nobody except a few individuals with high ranks in the government and an interest are going to know about it. Secondarily, that “prophecy”… is pretty vague.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches. Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies. And the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not. And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.

Couldn’t anyone vanquish a Dark Lord if they just got REALLY lucky? Which Dark Lord? Approaches in time, in space, or from another dimension? What does it take to defy him? What calendar? What kind of mark? Maybe on a magic test? What power? Is “the other” a third party? Why not? Neither can live while the other survives? Doesn’t that let out anyone who is alive?

So… Dumbledore, with a war to finish, a country to rebuild, Death Eaters to catch, a school and a government to run, and a thousand other tasks… schluffed off Harry on his relatives (as he was probably legally required to do anyway) using “otherwise he will die!” as a reason to get them to take the unwanted kid. The Death Eaters stayed away because there was no reason for them to bother – and if there WAS, the prophecy implied that they’d be unable to do anything anyway, as it wasn’t their destiny. And so Harry was neglected, and fell through the cracks, and the story could pretty much proceed as written whether those mysterious forces beyond his Mothers blessing ever actually existed or not.

Explaining “He turned seventeen and was suddenly attacked”? Well… Voldemort was back and “The Order got wind of an upcoming attack and decided to move him” actually covers that well enough.

If I ever run a Potterverse game… I think that I’ll just go with that. It will make things SO much simpler.

3 Responses

  1. […] for today it’s a question about a Harry Potter article (and II and III) – and why it assumed that the Wizarding Population was fairly […]

  2. …Honestly, ever since read HP:MoR I’ve dismissed thinking of normal harry potter characters as being rational. There are so so many things about the way everything is organized that just don’t make sense.

    • Ah, Harry Potter and the Methods Of Rationality.

      An entertaining work, but one that puts its authors cognitive biases on display.

      For example, Harry concludes from the behavior of Professor Binns and some quite questionable logic (after all, there is no guarantee that magical portraits and ghosts – or even all ghosts – have the same underlying mechanism) that “souls” do not exist and ghosts are mere recordings.

      In which case, why would the Headless Hunt have arisen? Why would Nearly Headless Nick have wanted to join? Those are desires that necessarily arose after death and becoming a ghost. For that matter, how can portraits act as witnesses, remember new passwords, and interact sensibly if they cannot process information and form new memories?

      Similarly, it has Harry show Malfoy the error of ideas of Blood Purity with a simple explanation of Mendelian genetics.

      The first and most obvious error is the idea that this will work. Mendelian Genetics has been known for quite some time. If calmly explaining it would be enough to eliminate strongly held (if unscientific) beliefs about race and heritage, those ideas should have vanished long ago. It is fairly obvious that they have not. Human beings are not actually very responsive to logic.

      Secondarily… if the hypothetical “magic gene” is dominant, then you cannot get muggle born wizards save through some amazing mutation – and it is far too common for that.

      If it is recessive, then you cannot have muggles or squibs born to two wizards save by an even more amazing double mutation – and that is, once again, far too common for that.

      Therefore there cannot be a single “Magic Gene”.

      Could it be a complex of genes, allowing various degrees of magical ability depending on the exact combination? After all, Wizards and Witches are said to vary in power, although what that means is never clearly explained.

      On the other hand, all Squibs seem to have the level of magical awareness. Ergo, magical ability cannot be controlled by a group of genes or there would be variations.

      We’re out of possibilities. Whatever causes someone to be magical might be influenced by genetics, but it cannot actually be genetic.

      Harry’s argument is obvious nonsense. Yet Malfoy – who is now supposed to be so well introduced to rationality that it is overcoming a lifetime of conditioning – swallows it whole.

      This can be forgiven of course. The work is intended as a teaching tool, meant to introduce elements of logical thinking to a large audience, not really as Fanfiction (much less an independent novel) – and so some adaptions are necessary; just as, for my purposes, some spells would need to be adapted or ignored to use the setting for a role-playing game.

      If you’re discussing a literary work on it’s own merits, then the challenge becomes “why does this make sense within the context of the story and the setting?”. If no way can be found, then you have a plothole – and a point for criticism. If a way can be found, then you do not have a problem.

      For an example of that approach I wrote a quick article on the Puzzle Rooms in response to an offline question – but I didn’t bother to mention the most trivial in-canon explanation for why Quirrell / Voldemort didn’t bypass them:

      Fidelius; “it is possible to obtain the philosopher’s stone without solving the series of puzzle chambers in accordance with their creators intent”.

      Since the secret cannot be discovered unless the secret-keeper reveals it, anyone seeking the stone can only conclude that they have to solve the puzzles. They literally cannot realize that any other method might succeed. That keeps Voldemort / Quirrell from using the (presumably wide) selection of spells at their disposal to cheat. On the other hand, the House-elves can get into the rooms to clean up and feed the troll since they aren’t looking for the stone – and the secret-keeper can walk in a rear door without bothering with the puzzles to put the thing in or fetch it if it is needed.

      I’d have to say that HP MOR really isn’t a good guide to flaws in the Harry Potter series; it ignores entirely too many in-setting facts in favor of making points about logic, fallacies, and cognitive bias. The author betrays his personal bias with one, simple, statement – that he has only given Harry some of the basic principles of Rationality, because giving him more would make him too powerful.

      If using those principles actually provides power, and he knows them well enough to teach them… why isn’t he in charge of a country or in a major position of power himself?

      It’s because it doesn’t work that way, no matter how much rational people think that it SHOULD.

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