Not everyone is a fan of Harry Potter’s worldbuilding. A recent viral Twitter thread demonstrated the ‘flaws’ inherent in the Wizarding World. Why does poverty exist where magic replaces labour? Do Scottish students have to travel to London, then take the Hogwarts Express, to get to school? Why so few magical schools globally? Spells can hide anything; what’s the point of the Invisibility Cloak?
I’m sure there’s a smug satisfaction associated with spotting plot holes (which don’t matter) in a fictional world, built on imagination, whimsy and the desire for adventure. J.K Rowling took inspiration from The Wind In The Willows, The Little White Horse and Macbeth, three stories not submitting to the fashionable ‘hard vs soft’ magic systems or rational worldbuilding. The latter two concepts are new to fantasy. For centuries, fantasy writers were not interested in their fantastical worlds, but the emotions evoked by characters. Such is the charm of Peter and Wendy; whilst Neverland is the charming home for villainous pirates, restless children and mischievous fairies, the storytelling surrounds the characters and plot, not the mere setting. We recall Wendy, looking outside the window, appreciating the wisdom gained through adulthood and life – not the mechanics of flying children during the London night sky during the Edwardian period.
Worldbuilding is a flaming-hot and fascinating topic: there are forums, software and communities dedicated to helping writers in creating fictional worlds. Various YouTubers, such as Hello Future Me, invest significant time in educating viewers on the nuances of worldbuilding, from fictional governments to writing islands. It’s obvious these communities have accomplished incredible research and thought into their stories. Most worldbuilding content and conversations are thoughtful and well-informed. This article doesn’t come from a negative perspective; rather, I wish to illuminate my view on fantasy literature, which may appear antiquated, like a literary movement from the Victorian age about fairies. Regardless, a critical analysis of worldbuilding will hopefully lead to substantive discussions on fantasy storytelling.
Another problem lurks. Many ‘plot holes’ or perceived inconsistencies in worldbuilding do not (really) matter. It may annoy readers that taking the Hogwarts Express to school requires proximity to King’s Cross station. However, this annoyance is quite minor and doesn’t remove the characters, theme, story structure and narrative. This nit-picking also removes the magic from the Wizarding World and morphs it into a high school science paper, where parts are either ‘true’ or ‘false.’ Writers should watch potential inconsistencies, especially ones brewing inside characters and their motivations. Limits exist, however. Fantasy will always have inconsistencies and leaps of the imagination.
I’m concerned fantasy writers are wasting time ensuring a manuscript free from inconsistencies, rather than writing the best story possible. Fantasy has never been a rationalist genre. The folklores, myths and fables, many dating to Antiquity and the Middle Ages, rarely treat magic as separate from the reader. Professor Sophie Page (University College London) has published, with the British Library, visual references about medieval magic, concerning astrology and manuscripts. Page depicts the ‘medieval universe’ as consisting of superstition, dreams, theology, ritual, animals, talismans and magical books; frequent extensions of medieval history and thought. She’s not alone, either.
Dr Julia Mannherz (Oriel College, Oxford) has published numerous articles and a monograph on occultism and esoteric thinking in modern Russia. Her research is reminiscent of the beloved The Master and the Margarita, a censored satire about a devilish cat, magic, crucifixion and Moscow. Other fantasy novels reflect this, too, from The Chronicles of Narnia to Howl’s Moving Castle. The ambiguous magic systems, particularly potent for children’s literature, helps establish wonder and discovery. Much is done through symbolism; I’ve long maintained that Harry Potter’s charm partially stems from Western European architecture and art from the high to late Middle Ages. Hogsmeade is comparable to Rothenburg ob der Tauer (Southern Germany) while Diagon Alley mirrors the Shambles (York, England)
Fantasy’s roots are found in medieval art, folklore and fables, Egyptian papyri, chivalric romance, classical epics, European languages, mythology and the intellectual trends of modern European history, such as Romanticism. I’m concerned this dynamic interpretation is being stripped away and replaced with a sterile and rationalist view, one against this historical richness.
My opposition to nitpicking comes from personal preference. I don’t need, nor want, everything explained to me. I like making my own connections, working motivations and story beats out as well as developing my own curiosity. J.K Rowling should never explain the entirety of the Wizarding World; it should be shown. Besides, secrets are fun!
I’m a novelist. Trying to explain every plot hole or potential inconsistency would disrupt the pace and flow of the novel, where the readers’ attention suffers due to bad storytelling.
We should move on from nitpicking plot holes. It’s dull and adds little to ongoing discussions about literature, quality and magic. I have no issue with worldbuilding, however, I question the emphasis it earns.