We’ve all been to performances. Whether it was a rock concert, a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, or a video game live stream. In all these cases, people perform for our benefit; they goof around, say silly things, and act weirdly just to make us chuckle or pump our fists in the air. It is great fun.
But, performance has another meaning as well. Believe it or not, our gender is a performance. Famed gender theorist Judith Butler famously theorized as much decades ago with the release of her seminal book Gender Trouble, where she pontificated that our very notions of “male” and “female” were defined by how we acted. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it illustrates a poignant point: “performance” is more than an artificial display erected for our amusement. It is us as individuals.
So, if something as deep-seated as gender can be performative, can other things as well?
In the real world, that is something I cannot answer, but in the world of Harry Potter, I have a very different answer—yes! The answer? Magic.
It is a subtle thing but definite. Most of the time, J.K. Rowling is keen on having her characters utter some words with a spell. This is standard practice in fantasy. What witch or wizard, after all, casts a spell on their foe without the customary babble which accompanies the flourish of the wand? And yet, throughout the series, we see repeated references to magic which can be cast without the flourishing of wands. This is what I call “performative magic”.
To list off some moments of performative magic: in book one, Harry and friends control life-sized chess pieces with their voices; in The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry automatically forges a connection with Peter Pettigrew (the so-called “wizard bond”); then, we have the Dementors who use their “kiss” to steal the souls of their victims; meanwhile, when a witch or wizard transforms into an Animagus, they do so by their own power; perhaps most famously, Lily Potter’s counter-charm against Voldemort is an act of performative magic in that the magic is enacted, literally, by her bodily movements; finally, in the Cursed Child, Delphi flies without a broom, an act done merely by her own will, amazing as it is.
Of course, there are additional moments of performative magic (such as the wizard in The Leaky Cauldron who stirs his beverage with his finger or Dumbledore himself who casts spells by merely silently voicing them), but this is beside the point I wish to emphasize. The point is that magical folk are not reliant on merely their wands. Why?
I feel that the answer lies in medieval understandings of magic.
You see, way back in the middle ages, people understood magic to be different than it is today. There was nothing like “wands” or even, necessarily, “cauldrons”. To be sure, there were accessories to magic but these were merely instrumental in the creation of certain magically derived substances; moreover, these items were relatively commonplace and used also by doctors and alchemists. Magic, then, was something primarily practiced through incantations (vocal movements); anytime where props were used, it was by wealthier to do magicians able to augment their occult activities. It was, then, poor witches who had aligned themselves with Satan who were blessed with the linguistic powers needed to wreak the havoc magic supposedly wrought; following Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of magic as derived from a supernatural entity, magic in the middle ages was understood to be derived from an outside, non-human source.
In a sense, then, the medieval understanding of magic was very vocal. Sure, props were used on occasion, but the real “show” was in verbalization. After all, a witch wouldn’t accomplish much wrongdoing if they were constantly flourishing fancy wands and brooms and lugging around bulky cauldrons which would have belonged to people well outside their class. Magic, then, by necessity, needed to be covert and subtle. It needed language.
So, it appears that in Harry Potter, witches and wizards in Harry’s day, being no longer “among” the Muggle, had no more or a reason to protect themselves by practicing with language; wands, apparently, offered an easier alternative to magic using and since magical communities were established, no one had to live in hiding anymore. It is safe to say that the knowledge was lost because the danger vanished. Evidently, with the vanishing of danger, also comes the lack of knowledge.