Unlimited Power! – A Discussion on How Magical Power Works in the Harry Potter Universe

I love magic. I really do. To have the ability to summon the storm of the centuries to destroy all of my foes. Or maybe necromancy to summon an army of minions to do my bidding. Perhaps shapeshift in a plethora of mythological creatures to deal with the annoying people around me. And hey, if we’re going to dream; how about blood magic to enslave the population and rule over the- euh, stop all wars and make people get along and create butterflies and pretty flowers! But alas there is but one problem: no matter which kind of magic I would have, the laws of fantasy literature states that I will have certain limits. The same counts for the magic in Harry Potter. What kind of limits? Well, let’s discuss…

Before I start this article I need to make two disclaimers:

  1. this article came into being after having a discussion with Analyze regarding the power and components of wands and us trying to guess what the original wand of Dumbledore would be like. Rowling remains silent on the subject like a drunken sailor guarding his last bottle of rum, so we have to speculate for ourselves.
  2. Everything you’re about to read is mere speculation. Rowling has a general habit of dodging questions, so I can’t really base myself on her own words. Rather I will focus on what the books (and to some extent the movies) provide.

Now, I have found that there are several indications that determine how powerful a wizard can become. Some of those are innate and therefore something you have or you’re simply shit out of luck. Others are acquired through hard work. That’s why you see some very talented wizards and witches become mediocre in terms of power while some mediocre wizards end up becoming pretty damn powerful (coughcoughLongbottomcoughcough). Let’s look at the list:

Genes

Power from genes

The Black family line full of inbreeding goodness

Let’s start simple: in order to get magic you need to have magical genes. No fancy genes, no magical sparkles. You need to have magical ancestors to start poking your wand in other people’s business. This explains the concept of “Muggleborns” being born with the ability to cast magic. It’s stated in the books that a lot of wizards and witches married muggles throughout the centuries. Sometimes that magic died out only to re-appear several generations later. We call such magical folks without magic squids. They usually become social pariahs. Yes, even in a world full of magic we still have people bullying each other. What’s the best way to get rid of this bullying? Why, marrying a muggle and moving into their neighbourhood, of course!  Those squids end up having kids and every once in a while magic resurfaces in those beaufitul, magic-sucking babes.

Yet blood purity doesn’t seem to be the sole factor in power. Sure, full-blood wizards tend to be more powerful than most. James Potter is an excellent example of this. But there have also been many cases of muggleborns and half-bloods being just as powerful.  Lily “everyone-wants-to-bang-her” Evans is a good example of that. A talented and powerful witch in her own right, even though she has a sister who’s as muggle-esque as you can find them according to dear ol’ McGonagall.

Wand

It’s sad to say, but some wands just are more powerful than others. The Elder wand is the most obvious example, A huge factor into this is the core of your wand. It determines both the power of your spells and what kind of magic your little friend has an affinity for. James Potter’s wand was described as “pliable” and “excellent for Transfiguration.” Thus theoretically James will have had an easier job turning household items into exotic animals. You know, useful spells needed on a daily basis…

In the Potterverse the core of a wand is one of the following items; all of which carefully are procured by killing the animal involved and disrespecting its body:

  • Dragon heartstring is useful for power spells
  • Phoenix feathers make it easier to cast a large variety of different spells
  • Unicorn hair consistently allows you to cast magic of the same power.

Unfortunately that same dragon heartstring is like a girlfriend who’ll happily move on to the next person if he proves to be a tad stronger. The phoenix girlfriend is the one who is very picky on who she chooses in the first place and the unicorn girlfriend is a very clingy girl indeed. There are many other materials that can be used for the core, but their effects haven’t been stated yet.

However, before you start drooling over the prospect of owning the perfect wand just for you:  the wand chooses the wizard, not in reverse. If you don’t have the right temparement and qualities the little blighter wants you’ll end up alone at the end of the day, with a different stick-like object in your hand.So the wand is definitely a factor that determines how powerful your spells become, but it’s a factor you have little control over. Unless you fancy stealing other wands over and over again, that is…

Flexibility

With flexibility I mean the ability to effortlessly wave the signs that certain spells require. I don’t think I need to explain why it’s pretty handy to have a natural dexterity to do this, because the person who casts the spell first tends to win. That’s why Neville Longbottom, the lovable underdog, tends to be incredibly weak in the first five books. He’s clumsy, falls over practically everything and tends to just wave his wand and hope something happens.

Power from Finesse

Wingardium Lev-io-saaaaa!

Another example, and arguably the best one I can give, is a scene in the Philosopher’s Stone movie: the Wingardium Leviosa charm. Ron and Malfoy, two full-bloods, have trouble with the spell because they don’t make the right wand movements. Hermione, our feministic Muggleborn, makes the right sweep and up the feather goes, much to the annoyance of her future hubby.

I would also like to speak about (silent) incantations in this paragraph, because the sixth book explains its power. It’s a very useful tactic during duels, because not hearing the spell your opponent just used lowers the time you have to counteract it. But I will state that your spells themselves don’t become more powerful. It’s simply an element of surprise. So while it makes you a better duelist it doesn’t make you more powerful.

Willpower and Emotions

Willpower seems to be relevant in a number of ways; it seems to be the case that if you cross your heart and pray to the magic gods they will grant you your wish and let you cast your magic. No seriously; a desire to cast the spell plays a role. Harry fails at using the Crutiatus curse in book five because he’s doesn’t actually want to hurt Bellatrix. He’s pissed off as hell, but he’s still not a killer. Compare that to book seven against Amycus Carrow who dared, had the UTTER temerity, to spit in McGonagall’s face.

This desire to do magic is also bound to your self-confidence. Neville is the biggest example in book five, where he makes huge strives in learning defensive magic, to the point Harry finds it scary. And this because the well-composed Bellatrix escaped from Azkaban, the girl who tortured his parents into insanity.

Power from will

Voldie doesn’t like Harry’s love and willpower

Willpower and your personality also seem to be important for resisting certain spells. Harry demonstrates this in book four. He’s the only one to semi-resist the Imperius Curse in a Defense Against The Dark Arts class with Barty Crouch pretending to be Alastor Moody. Harry is noted to be a very stubborn fellow and he’s anti-authority, to the point that he’s somewhat able to resist Voldemort trying to control his body. Thanks to the power of love, no less. *rainbow*

So the lesson we can take out of this is that being a thick-headed rebel tends make you more resistant towards manipulative magic. I’m not sure if the same applies for resisting damaging spells. We know that Harry can somewhat resist the Cruciatus curse from Voldemort, which is more powerful than most. but the only other point of comparison we get for that spell is Alice and Frank Longbottom being tortured into insanity. Though I will say that you shouldn’t hope to survive an Avada Kedavra in your face, even if you’re an extremely talented wizard or witch.

Ambition

Ambition doesn’t make you directly powerful, but ambitious people tend to work very hard and do a lot of things to improve their power. The most prominent example is Tom Riddle; a person who devoted his entire life to chasing Horcruxes and who acquired a massive amount of dark magic because of it. The result of this is that he became known as the most powerful dark lord walking around.

I’d actually debate that Grindelwald is more magically powerful, but Voldemort had a lot more followers and connections, therefore giving him a lot more social, cultural, organised and various other forms of societal power. But Voldemort isn’t the only wizard who shows a healthy amount of dark ambition: both Gellert Grindelwald and Albus Dumbledore also shown signs of this. Gellert was expelled from Durmstrang Institute because he conducted dark experiments. In the last book and the new Fantastic Beasts movie we learn that he is dead set on getting rid of the magical laws. That way that he can rule over the Muggles in a benevolent way, a plan Albus was initially on board with.

Our favourite school professor has shades of this as well, as we’re told that from the moment he entered school he was a very ambitious person. He wanted to prove himself because of the bad reputation his father gave him. Luckily for most of us this ambition can be a natural part of your personality or something that is created through certain events. Albus Dumbledore dedicated his life to teaching after his sister died and I will theorise that spending so many years in a magical academy taught him a thing or two about new forms of magic.

Creativity

Power from creativity

Young Snape being a better teacher than old Snape

This is another indirect method of gaining power, in the sense that creative people can create their own spells and make alterations to already existing methods and spells. The most prominent example is Severus Snape, who made modifications to his N.E.W.T class potions handbook.  These modifications caused Harry to improve massively. Snape also made a lot of new and powerful spells, the spell Sectumsempra being a prominent example. And let’s be honest: if you can create a lot of new spells you tend to know how they work. You know how to best use them and you know how to counter them. If you have full control over your spells you can find ways to improve them.

Intelligence and studying

As I said before even the most talented wizard can end up becoming very mediocre if he doesn’t really put any work into his training. Studying is something every wizard and witch has to do, no matter how much they try to pass their exams by cheating. The more knowledge you have, the more spells you know and the more magical power you somehow acquire. There is a fun little moment in book one where Hagrid has to drag Harry away from some curse books in Diagon Alley. Harry says that he was looking for ways to curse Dudley, but Hagrid says that it’s useless as he hasn’t studied enough. You need to know the basics before you can move on to more advanced spells and you need to keep on learning new things, new spells, new subjects, new whatevers to acquire more power. This doesn’t just mean studying from a book. As I said before both Gellert and Voldemort performed dark experiments to acquire new knowledge and became very powerful as a result.

As you may imagine, being the clever little lad or lass that you are, intelligence plays a big role. If you’re good at memorising, thinking in different ways and applying logic to most situations you’re going to have an easier time learning new things. Harry, Ron and Hermione all show this: Hermione is a neeeeeeerd because of her strong love for studying and ends up becoming an extremely powerful witch in her own right. She admits that her main strength is books and paper, but those allow her to consistently cast spells far above her year throughout the series.

Harry and Ron become powerful wizards as well, but moreso because of the following element:

Practice

Power from practice

Wow Harry, why aren’t you dating that chick? There are definitely some sparks here

Practice makes perfect and Rowling is very keen on showing so. I think the best example of this is Harry during book four. In the previous three books Harry is a fairly mediocre wizard. We do see some innate talent when he masters the Patronus charm in book three, but beyond that he’s a lazy student mostly leeching off of Hermione to get his assignments done. But give this boy a drive and you’ll be surprised at how powerful he becomes. And he gets that drive in book four, when he spends day after day practicing one defensive spell or another to survive in the Triwizard Tournament. The result? He ends up becoming a very powerful duelist in his own right and manages to teach a lot of children pretty advanced Defense Against The Dark Arts magic by making them practice it during their little sneak sessions in the Room of Requirement. This is important, as book five goes out of its way to show that to pass an O.W.L. You need to practice the spells. This then sets up the B plot with Ombridge and the whole malarky that happens there.

Wow, we’ve just gone through eight different ways that you can become more powerful in the Harry Potter universe. As you can see magical power in this book series is a very diverse and complex issue, which people can acquire in a ton of different ways. So even if you aren’t born into a pureblood family you can still acquire a vast amount of magical powers if you do the necessary work. So no leeching off the magical patriarchy here.

Although it’s interesting to note that all characters don’t just get their power from one source. Harry is a half-blood, but he also works, has certain characteristics that are relevant, acquires a fairly powerful wand and has enough drive to prove himself, as the sorting hat so eloquenty states in the very first book.  I do not want to get in his way when he starts casting, because I’ll probably end up in the hospital unable to write more of these articles. On to the next! *pops away*

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the Harry Potter movies. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. The Harry Potter movie series belong to J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers Studios.

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