Harry Potter and the Mechanics of Magic

I recently re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (in anticipation of going to see the movie) and was reminded of something that bothered me the first time I read it: the Sectumsempra spell.

I don’t read much fantasy – The Lord of the Rings being the major exception – so I’m not intimately familiar with the genre’s tropes and conceits, but I’ve always been under the impression that magic was, for lack of a better term, a naturally-occurring phenomenon (“the bloodstream of the universe!”), and it would be best to not ask too many questions about how it actually works.

But in HP6, things are a little different. Rowling makes an off-hand mention of someone “inventing” spells in an early chapter, which isn’t so problematic in itself – people invent new ways of using of using, say, radio waves, so inventing new ways of using magic is conceivable. But, well, I couldn’t see the word “radio” in a book somewhere, throw some electronics into a cardboard box, call it a radio, and then have a functioning FM radio. Things don’t work that way – unless, that is, they’re magical things.

So Harry Potter ends up with an old, used, full-of-notes copy of a potions book, which formerly belonged to the titular Half-Blood Prince. Most of the notes are about, well, making potions, but Harry finds two spells written in the margins: Levicorpus and Sectumsempra. There are no explanatory notes (beyond “for enemies,” which appears next to sectumsempra), and Harry apparently knows nothing about the pseudo-Latin which spell names are constructed from, because he has no idea what sectumsempra (always-cutting, ever-cutting) does (he’d seen levicorpus in action, sort of, in HP5). No idea, that is, until he decides to use it on fellow-student and insufferable git Draco Malfoy, who was totally pissed when Harry caught him crying in the bathroom, and suddenly there’s blood everywhere.

This presents us with a problem (if, you know, you take YA fantasy lit seriously – to which I say, I take everything seriously): the textual evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that Snape (the Half-Blood Prince; sorry if I ruined that one for you) invented the spell; it didn’t exist until teenaged Snape decided that a spell that cut people and produced fountains of blood would be, well, awesome, and did whatever it is you do to invent a spell – and then, magically, the made-up word sectumsempra (when said forcefully by someone brandishing a wand, anyway) would cause slicing and dicing and general carnage. But how do other people know it will do that?

Before Snape turned it into a spell, sectumsempra was just a collection of sounds that sounded mostly like Latin, a made-up word that was close enough to real words to have some sort of meaning. But after Snape turned it into a spell, it was a thing of power, and uttering it – even without any idea what it meant or was meant to do – unleashes that power. It went from being a word which had (no) power because of the (lack of) meaning assigned to it to being a word which was inherently powerful, a word whose meaning is derived from that inherent power. Words like that don’t exist, except in fantasy stories, and Rowling has (inadvertently, I assume) drawn our attention to one of the genre’s unspoken assumptions, one of the things for which we suspend disbelief, and pointed out the absurdity of it – and it’s a little jarring.

But only, I guess, for people who take everything (too) seriously.


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