I’m back at Overthinking It, this time comparing magic and the law in fiction, particularly Harry Potter. I accidentally used some language that is probably going to sic the Libertarians on me, so look to this space for some follow up later in the week.
Hogwart’s School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is all about teaching young magicians the laws of magic – say this spell, and you get that result. Magic may allow you to defy the normal rules of life, but you can never escape all rules. In any fiction involving magic, there are always laws or rules that constrain what you can do with magic – Aladdin can’t wish for more wishes and we are told that even Albus Dumbledore can’t conjure up gold from nothing. Without rules, the conflict is too easily solved and the story is boring.
Because it’s so bound up in these rules, the treatment of magic in fiction can be compared to how we deal with the more mundane laws of black letters on white pages. Magicians and lawyers are similar in that they rely on nothing more than their ability to turn words into power. They toil over long lost tomes and puzzle over the meaning of baffling arcana to find that one turn of phrase or trick of logic that allows them to accomplish their goal. This transformation of language into power is scary and frequently seems craven or backhanded. It creates hatred and distrust among the general population for both the Wizard and the lawyer – until you need an incantation or a contract written. Magicians, like lawyers, are both the cause of and solution to all of our hero’s problems.
The first party to the second party owes the third party…I don’t understand ANY of this.
When we hear about the downfall of King Midas, it’s easy to imagine some lawyer behind the scenes, figuring out how to construe the wish “Everything I touch turns to gold” in the most evil way possible. Fiction is full of stories in which the rules of magic come back to bite someone, a single errant word bringing their entire plan to ruins. We hear those stories and are reminded of the “2 Million Dollar Comma” and our friend who lost his house because of an obscure clause in his mortgage contract. Words are slippery, tricky things, and magicians and lawyers both rely on mastery of them for power.
Our own everyday laws are based on a kind of magic. In the United States, when you’re being interrogated by a police officer, the phrase “I want a lawyer” has roughly the same effect as a magical spell. A particularly powerful incantation, those four words alone will both ward off the government employees threatening you with the death penalty and conjure up a different government employee that will do everything in their power to get you off scot-free. If the spell doesn’t work right away and the police ignore you, it induces amnesia at trial, making the court “forget” everything you said after invoking the right to an attorney.
Law is full of “magical” words and actions. Instead of waving a wand to seal a bargain, we sign our names, but if has the same “magical” effect of turning words on paper into a binding agreement. We don’t have “Avada Kavadra,” but a Judge saying “I hereby sentence you to death” has the same practical (albeit delayed) effect. Put the right people in the right room and have them all say “Aye” and a bunch of symbols on the page become binding law.
The “magic” of law is perhaps most apparent in the fiat money system. Money is valuable because the law says so. A dollar bill is valuable only because it was minted in a particular place and the right person waved a Federal Reserve Wand over it and said “this is money now.” Imagine that you know how to make a 100% perfect replica of a $100 bill. While you might be able to get away with spending that money, the law is very clear that the object you’ve just created is not worth $100. Even though it’s physically identical to a “real” bill, the fact that no one waved the government’s Legal Tender Wand over your bill makes it a counterfeit, regardless of physical properties.
It’s not surprising, then, that in fictional universes that make use of magic, magic often serves as a direct substitute for law. King Arthur’s kingdom didn’t have complex election rules or billion dollar elections – a magic sword just picks the right person. In Harry Potter, the marriage of Fleur Delcour and Bill Weaseley isn’t sealed with a state certificate and the signature of witnesses - they use a magical spell. Nowhere is the Magic-Law substitution more apparent than in the magical bargain – from Faust and Rumplestiltskin to Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean’s Davey Jones, magical agreements drive the plot to many magical tales. Perhaps because it is the type of law that most of us encounter in our day-to-day lives, the magical-agreement-gone-wrong is one of the most common tropes in stories involving magic.
When you sign a contract, the only thing that changes is the threat of legal sanction for non-compliance – if the other side changes its mind, a piece of paper with a signature has no special powers over them. If you want to get compliance, you have to sue them and convince a judge that they broke the agreement, who will then order them to follow it, with various civil and criminal penalties attached. With magic, you can cut out the middle man and literally force the other side to comply with the agreement. The magical contract is typically portrayed as sacrosanct – in the Little Mermaid, Ursula’s contract with Ariel is so binding that even King Triton is powerless to undo it. In Harry Potter, House Elves aren’t bound to their masters with something as flimsy as a piece of paper and the threat of legal sanctions, or even as fickle as the threat of violence – House Elves are literally unable to resist their master’s commands, in the same way that they are unable to resist gravity.
Throughout the Wizarding World, magic is used as a substitute for traditional contracts and enforcement of agreements. When Hermione is worried about the other students telling Dolores Umbridge about Dumbledore’s Army, she doesn’t pull out Non-Disclosure Agreements and threaten to sue the other students if they don’t comply – she just hexes the parchment and the punishment for breaking the rules follows automatically. When Narcissa Malfoy wants to be sure that Snape is going to help her son, she doesn’t pull out a contract – she makes him take an Unbreakable Vow.