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 The Limits of Magic

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Professor Mavis Cerdwin
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PostSubject: The Limits of Magic   7th January 2010, 14:33

The Limits of Magic
by Caius Marcius
"No spell can reawaken the dead."
-- Albus Dumbledore (GF36)

We
all know the amazing things that magic is capable of in JKR's
narrative. I'd like to look at some of the things that magic is
apparently unable to do in the JKR universe (as opposed to things that
wizards don't do, such as the Unforgivable Curses, for legal reasons or
because of societal norms).

1. Magic can forestall death, but
it cannot resurrect the dead. Wizards are able to extend the normal
human lifespan; the Elixir of Life, a byproduct of the Philosopher's
Stone, can make its drinker "immortal". However, the Elixir is
exceedingly rare and difficult to obtain; its only known users, Nicolas
and Perenelle Flamel, measured their lifespans "only" in terms of
centuries, not millennia; and when the Philosopher's Stone was
destroyed, the Flamels surrendered to their mortality (PS17, JKR).

2.
As we all know from our frequent visits to Madam Pomfrey's infirmary,
magic can treat a variety of ailments and injuries in a manner far
beyond our medical technology. Perhaps her most amazing intervention
was to regenerate the bones of Harry's arm after Lockhart inadvertently
made them vanish (CS10). But there are limits on what medical magic can
effect. The case of Mad-Eye Moody is perhaps the best example: he is
hideously scarred from his many battles with Dark wizards, and has lost
(though the details of his encounters remain frustratingly vague) a
leg, an eye, and part of his nose. For some reason, his injuries could
not be repaired. This may be due to the design of the Dark wizards'
hexes, which we may assume are intended to be irreversible. To be fair,
this may also be by choice: Moody very likely enjoys the fear his
ghastly appearance generates. But Neville Longbottom's father and
mother, who were also Aurors like Moody, were driven incurably insane
after being tortured by Dark wizards in search of Voldemort's
whereabouts; they are now hospitalized at St. Mungo's Hospital for
Magical Maladies and Injuries, and do not recognize Neville when he
visits (GF30, OP23). And of course, Harry himself wears glasses and no
one has offered to fix his vision with magic, something they would
certainly have done for him if it were possible. There are clearly
limits, then, on what magical medicine can do.

3. Skills and
knowledge cannot be obtained by magical methods. There is no spell that
professors can perform upon their students to fill their noggins with
the requisite magical knowledge: still less can students perform such
spells upon themselves when finals are approaching (or George and Fred
would have surely already done so). We've heard little about cheating
on exams at Hogwarts, save for Anti-Cheating Spells that the professors
make use of (PS16), but I would suppose that a would-be cheater would
be compelled to resort to pretty much the same methods that his Muggle
counterparts might employ. Otherwise, the honest Hogwarts student must
laboriously assimilate knowledge the same way we mere Muggles acquired
our degrees: through intensive study, rote memorization and practice,
practice, practice. Hermione, the scholar par excellence, stands out in
the same way that she would stand out had she remained in the Muggle
world - through her diligent and painstaking study, or as one law
school student once described it, the chronic and habitual application
of butt upon chair.

4. Most poignantly of all, material
possessions cannot be magically acquired, and stigma of poverty cannot
be covered up through magical means. Harry could summon his Firebolt
when he battled the Hungarian Horntail, but he couldn't Transfigure a
rock into a flying broom (as Cedric Transfigured a rock into a dog)
(GF20). And this wasn't merely due to his youth and inexperience:
Sirius Black, a skilled and experienced wizard, had to purchase the
Firebolt for Harry (PA22) much as we might purchase our gifts off the
Toys-R-Us or the Lands Ends website.

Similarly, Remus Lupin
knows how to deal with Boggarts and Grindylows, but he can't conceal
his shabby looking robes "that had been darned in several places," or
his battered luggage which had to be held together with string rather
than magic (PA5). Arthur Weasley can erase the memory of Muggles and
can charm a car to fly, but he can't make the Burrow look like anything
more than the cozy but dilapidated hovel that it is, or provide a new
wardrobe for his children. Ron must wear hand-me-downs and clothing too
small for him, and complain of his poverty. The wealthy families, such
as the Malfoys, have seemingly acquired their pelf in much the same
manner as Muggle families.

The restrictions on economics may
reflect the fact that the wizards live in a capitalistic society. A
great portion of the Wizarding world's populace make their living
through commerce, and it would be destructive of their livelihood if
other wizards could magically create the goods that they offer. Why go
to Diagon Alley if you could magically create your own robes, wands,
textbooks, and Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans? Now, perhaps the laws
should be altered so that every wizard could magically create what they
needed? But a society where every person is totally self-sufficient
would be ungovernable, just as a person who could satisfy his every
desire would become quickly bored and satiated. As Dumbledore once told
Harry (PS17), "As much money and life as you could want! The two things
most humans would choose above all - the trouble is, humans do have a
knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them."

©️ 2000 by Caius Marcius
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