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Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Potterverse Subjects - Examining the Poverty Issue
Potterverse Subjects

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

A recurring question about the inner workings of the Potterverse is that if you can transfigure anything into anything, and you can conjure up any sort of food you want (which Rowling only contradicted in DHs to make the winter camping trip more “difficult”, there’s no trace of any such difficulty earlier in the books), why do you need to have money at all?

It isn’t only the reader who finds themselves confused on this issue. Even Harry brings this question up himself in reference to Merope Riddle’s destitution, toward the end of her pregnancy, after her unloving husband had abandoned her. Albus certainly did not offer any contradiction to Harry’s contention that Merope could have supported herself by the use of magic.

Rowling evidently forgot about this particular reading of what magic could or couldn’t do. Harry’s protest in HBP that Merope Riddle could have got herself food by magic was not met with any reminder of Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfigurations or it’s five exceptions.

Yet somehow, neither Harry and his friends on their endless camping trip, nor Neville and the DA were able to keep themselves fed by means of magic. Despite all those the plates of endless sandwiches and magically refilled bottles of wine to which we had been treated in canon prior to DHs, it seems clear that somewhere, someone had, once again, fumbled the logic ball.

The following is an exercise in an attempt to haul this issue back into something that passes for a rational interpretation of what we had previously been shown over the course of the series — yes, specifically the first six books to that point — and to extrapolate something that isn’t too complex to be workable.

• • • •

Clearly, it would appear that if some form of housing is available, a witch or wizard seems to need a minimum of actual funds in order to live in a reasonable comfort in the Potterverse. Depending upon one’s skills, in a modified degree of luxury even.

So why don’t they? Or do they?

Or, as the question is usually stated more baldly, why are the Weasleys supposedly so poor?

I am inclined to think that where the Weasleys in particular are concerned, the matter does boil down to economics. But it does not necessarily boil down to finances.

It also, as one of my correspondents pointed out to me, probably boils down to the conservation of resources. And I think he is right. Indeed, this factor probably applies to a lot more than just the Weasleys’ standard of living.

There is a finite limit to just how many spells any given wizard or witch is going to be able to learn and memorize. Or how many spellbooks one can reasonably house and still be able to search efficiently enough to find whatever specific spell one is looking for, at any given time. Particularly in an emergency. A master database probably would be enormously helpful, but, insofar as we know, any random British wizard does not appear to be able to instantaneously Google the correct spell to produce sunglasses, a tube of sunblock, and a bottle of mosquito repellent at need.

Because at some level, eventually you hit the wall. The devil is in the details, and the tendency of spells to specialize will ultimately stymie you.

For example; up until DHs when Rowling decided to abruptly invent difficulties, just to make the endless camping trip even more of a hassle, we saw that wizards could to all appearances conjure food. Admittedly, Rowling had stated, on her official site that things conjured from thin air do not last (a bit of poor judgment on her part, given the contradiction inherent when applied to foodstuffs, imho, but let it pass). But existing real materials can also presumably be transfigured into edible foodstuffs which do not disappear before they finish digesting.

However the spell to transfigure a cobblestone into a potato is unlikely to be the same spell as the one to transfigure it into an onion. The same may be said for every separate ingredient in a recipe. Or for conjuring a finished dish. In most cases, it is probably just plain simpler to purchase what you need if you possibly can. Even if, theoretically, everything a wizard needs in order to live comfortably can be produced by magic.

The Weasleys, for their part, seem to eat very well. And their house is kept clean and tidy. However, Molly does not seem to have also had the time and energy to master a host of sewing and tailoring spells in addition to all the ones she needs to keep her house clean and her family fed. Apart from her hand knits (which may or may not be produced with magical assistance) the Weasley family’s clothing seems to all be purchased. Madam Malkin, on the other hand clearly did master those spells and makes an apparently good living from them. But we don’t know whether Madam Malkin takes the trouble to cook.

• • • •

My own interpretation of this specific issue is that the Weasleys are not especially poor. Admittedly, they do appear to have a cash-flow problem. Which is not exactly the same thing. And, for that matter even that may well prove to have been temporary.

But the family’s actual circumstances has a great deal more to do with their personalities than anything more tangible, like money.

As stated above, you will notice that the Weasleys seem to eat quite well, there is always enough at their table for guests, and they seem not to be lacking any of the real necessities of life. They sent seven children to Hogwarts without resorting to the fund that is available for children in financial hardship.

They also seem to own their home, as well as enough property to buffer themselves against the inconvenience of any close Muggle neighbors. The fact that that home seems to be a rickety old place clearly held together by magic probably owes as much, or more, to a disinterest on Molly and Arthur’s part in the principles of engineering than to not having enough money to do something about it.

These are wizards, remember? What would they do with the money, hire a restoration architect? Hardly. If anything, they might hire a specialist wizard. Well, hey, there’s certainly no shortage of wizards in that household! So what if the place is obviously held together by magic? How do you know that Arthur and Molly don’t prefer it like that. Regardless of how much it may embarrass their teenaged kids.

(Oh, like that’s a major consideration.).

And whenever they do get a bit of money ahead, they tend to blow it on travel abroad.

I suspect that Molly and Arthur simply don’t care about the aesthetic or structural state of the house so long as it keeps the weather out. A simple lack of hard cash does not typically result in so obvious and so profound a lack of the understanding of basic structural principles, aesthetic taste or engineering design as is apparently so demonstrated by the Burrow. In fact, Arthur, being Arthur, probably prefers to do-it-himself, with his own unique interpretation of what is needed. The current state of the place says much more about Arthur’s character than it does about Arthur’s presumed poverty.

And in any case the place was probably quite unremarkable before Arthur enlarged it to hold a family of nine. He and Molly may even have always intended to undo the additions once all the chickens have flown the coop. They’re wizards, remember?

• • • •

For that matter, the fact that the Weasleys haven’t much in the way of savings does not automatically imply that they are exceptionally poor, either. Rather a lot of people from the blue-collar end of the socio-economic spectrum count it as almost a point of honor to live right up to the last penny of their income without ever tipping over into debt. And I definitely get blue-collar vibes from Molly, who also seems to be the one to handle the family’s finances.

With seven children (five of them still at home at the beginning of the series) the Weasleys do indeed initially appear to be “cash poor”, which was later confirmed by Harry’s glimpse into their vault at Gringotts, and with an income which would probably be quite comfortable for a family of four having had to stretch to cover a family of nine for most of the past decade, they do not have the wherewithal to purchase everything shiny and new, replace everything that wears out at once, or to buy every fad item that the kids are likely to decide they want.

But indulging children is probably not so widespread a practice among wizards as it is among Muggles. The wizarding world as a whole takes a good deal less interest in children than the Muggle one, and the young Weasleys all have the books and robes they actually need for school, even if at second hand. (And if you expect the kids to grow out of them by the end of the year, why do they have to start out new?)

In addition, throughout the series, every child in the family who manages to pull off a socially recognized “achievement” is materially rewarded for it. Percy and Ron were respectively given an owl (and new robes), and a new broom upon becoming Prefects, the twins almost certainly got that matched pair of Cleansweeps for Christmas right after making the team at the beginning of their 2nd year, and it is safe to assume that Bill and Charlie were also both rewarded upon their becoming Prefects (and in Bill’s case, Head Boy) as well. In fact, Charlie may have gotten his current wand after either making Team Captain or upon becoming Prefect, for he managed both. (Yes, Charlie was a Prefect, even if he did not go on to become Head Boy. We saw Molly being volubly overjoyed at Ron having become the fourth Prefect in the family.)

No, I really don’t think that the Weasleys are as poor as all that.

• • • •

But that does not seem to go very far in answering the question as to why currency is required in the wizarding world, and used as a standard of wealth in a society which is assumed to be able to transfigure whatever is available to whatever it needs. And I cannot fully answer that question either, although, as I say above, I can easily see where there might well be some limits to attempting to live by magic alone.

(And while the fact that such an exclusively magical family as the Gaunts don’t seem to have managed, or to have even thought to attempt to achieve even some degree of basic cleanliness — despite the known existence of such charms as Scourgify, Evanesco, and Tergio, requiring no monetary expense whatsoever, and little physical effort — may be intended to symbolize some profound level of moral turpitude. In the event it merely introduces yet another logic hole for us to tumble through. Just what exactly was Rowling attempting to illustrate there?)

On this issue I may be very far afield from Rowling’s intentions. But then it is getting more and more evident that Rowling’s interpretation of magical technology, or indeed almost any kind of technology, is strictly from Toontown. Still, I’ll continue to soldier on until I’m told otherwise.

In the first place, keeping Rowling’s statement above in mind, you probably can’t get something from absolutely nothing. Or not and be able to keep it. Which would tend to disallow conjuring food that you could live upon from thin air (marvelous aid for Bulimics, though, I suppose. Much less of a strain on stomach lining and tooth enamel). There are almost certainly some principles of transference or exchange in action.

At a guess, I’d imagine that you can probably transfigure a pot of plain boiled potatoes into a savory stew, and the stew will stay in the pot until you eat it all. And it will nourish you when you have eaten it, too. But I suspect you may end up with a noticeably smaller volume of stew than you started with of potatoes unless you are willing to put more of yourself, or your own energy into it than you might prefer. You need to work from some sort of a starting point. And if you really are working from nothing then what you are putting into the process is entirely yourself. Your energy and possibly even a part of your physical (caloric), or magical “substance”. Which will renew itself in time, but will leave you somewhat depleted until it does.

• • • •

Plus, I suspect that magically-produced goods (which is what you will be purchasing in any wizarding shop) have been deliberately made resistant to any further transfiguration or charms. It would not be in a magical artisan’s best interests to produce items which can be readily converted to replace other items which the shopkeeper may also wish to be able to sell you. For that matter, the charms upon many magical items appear to be semi-permanent, requiring the subsequent purchase of replacements when the charm wears off, to increase volume of sales.

Muggle-produced goods probably lack this particular resistance. Which is a major part of what makes the practice of charming Muggle artifacts so very tempting to wizards. For example, A skilled witch could reasonably expect to be able to put together a very nice wardrobe of Muggle fashion by purchasing once-stylish rags from second hand shops, restoring them to something close to their original condition, transfiguring them into a custom fit and adjusting whatever variables (color, fabric, etc.) she chooses. And these changes would all “take” and be quite permanent if she has the skills to make them so. But second-hand robes from Diagon Alley would strenuously resist such treatment.

Hogwarts student robes (and probably teaching robes as well) are almost certain to be particularly resistant to user-initiated spells, since they are probably already heavily charmed to resist spell and potion damage, damage from scorching in the lab, and are probably even charmed to grow, in at least some sort of pace with the child through the duration of an academic year. We’ve not had to accompany Harry and Co. back to Madam Malkin’s for new robes more than every 2-3 years, anyway.

At least not until HBP and the acknowledgment of a sustained growth spurt (which we were told had started by the beginning of OotP). Transfigurations may work on wizarding wear, but they either do not last, or there is some other unwelcome side effect. Wizarding tailors, after all, want to sell you new robes.

In fact, much of the reason that there even is a Department of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts may not be so much for the protection of Muggles, or even the security issues attendant upon charmed items falling into Muggle hands, but as an intrinsic part of a system set up for the protection of wizarding trades.

All of which would tend to make Arthur Weasley and his co-worker Perkins rather unpopular should they get too zealous in performance of their duties.

Since it is probably impossible to attempt to trace all potential modifications to Muggle artifacts, I suspect that many wizards and witches do routinely charm Muggle purchases to suit their requirements. It is only the act of charming the items to do things independently which the Ministry has any hope of being able to prove and prosecute.

• • • •

From many indications, Muggle-produced goods are continually entering the wizarding world, but wizard-produced goods are not supposed to leave it. There is a whopping “trade deficit” in action here.

Foodstuffs, I suspect, unless purchased outright in Muggle shops, are typically brought into the wizarding world by wizarding consortiums, from Muggle suppliers (who have no idea that they are supplying wizards) and are generally accepted to be fair game for whatever modifications the purchaser may choose to make on them. Foodstuffs are particularly well suited for such magical enhancement. You will notice throughout the books that everyone in the wizarding world seems to eat very well indeed, regardless of their economic station. (Unless you are a half-deranged pureblood, living rough and wandlessly in an attempt to fly under everyone’s radar, like Sirius Black during Harry’s 3rd and 4th years.)

The classroom exercises which we have seen the characters engaged in are exactly that; exercises. And it is very likely that the objects and creatures used in those classroom exercises are almost certainly specially provided ones produced, or brought in from Muggle sources, specifically in order to offer no additional magical resistance in those classes.

As to the practice of conjuring items from thin air; I suspect that in many of the cases where we have been shown of this, up to Book 6, what is going on is actually an instantaneous retrieval of items from their usual storage locations. This would be a charm considerably more advanced than Accio! which merely summons the item and enables it to make the trip on its own.

In some apparent cases of “conjuring”, such as Molly Weasley’s white sauce, what is going on may be a far more complex and specialized spell which summons the necessary ingredients and combines them into the finished product without the need for intermediate steps. A magical “macro” in fact. Something like creating a white sauce (the example shown in the books) would be a particularly suitable procedure to simplify by a piece of specialized magic since it is basic to a wide range of cookery and is a tiresome chore to have to go through every single time before you can move on to the main task.

One would expect that any true conjuring of an item “from thin air” should reasonably be expected to be accompanied by some modified form of thunderclap, caused by the remaining atmosphere slamming together across the sudden vacuum previously occupied by either a solid object or the now-transfigured block of air — such as is the case when a wizard Disapperates. And the loudness of the clap may be related to the density of the item and the volume of air necessary to create it. (Particularly loud reports upon Disapparition may be due to a practice of not only transporting oneself, but also all items — including the air — for some distance around one’s body in hopes to avoid splinching.) I have no explanation for the corresponding report at the point that a wizard (or House Elf) Apparates. (Although we have already a disconnect on this issue, where the DEs’ appearance in the Little Hangleton graveyard was accompanied only by the swishing of cloaks.)

• • • •

As to the matter of actual currency; we already know that the wizarding world only formally split off from the mundane one some 300 years prior to the opening of the series. By that time wizards would have become fully accustomed to the advantages of dealing in a regulated currency for business transactions, rather than a barter system. It is noted that wizards do not appear to have made the further transition to the use of some form of treasury “script” or paper money, but continue to do their business only in metal coinage.

I also am inclined to suspect that some materials may be very difficult to reproduce magically. Gold, for example, or the idea of a Philosopher’s Stone would not have been so very attractive to the avaricious for its ability to transfigure base metals. This would tend to reinforce the continued use of such materials for anything that you wish to ensure will retain a widely agreed upon stable value. Particularly in those cases where some form of currency really is the simplest and most broadly-applied solution, such as paying the rent, or the actual purchase of goods from wizarding shops. A barter system has drawbacks. You cannot really get change from a goat. (Or not without using a truly inappropriate Charm...)

I suspect that it is almost certainly possible to magically produce a metallic substance with all the beauty of gold for the express purpose of adornment (and one which probably does not turn your skin green, either) but this false gold would be detectable as such by fairly simple revealing spells, which for the sake of counting coup in status-oriented pissing contests would totally defeat the purpose. But it might explain the Hogwarts table service.

Such revealing spells would also be used as the first line of defense in a safeguard against counterfeit. Otherwise the wizarding world would be swimming in false Galleons. It is likely that the silver used in sickles is also of a specific alloy with a magical “authenticity” tracer for the same reason. I am less certain that the bronze knut is similarly protected, but I would not put the possibility beyond the Goblins who oversee the ww’s monetary welfare. It would be a very careless shopkeeper who failed to cross-check any of the coins he accepted to determine that they were genuine.

• • • •

What is far less clear, because until this point it has been completely ignored within the series, is how does finance within the wizarding world actually work? Is there a counterbalance to the aforementioned trade deficit? How is the taxation of wizards accomplished? And at what rate?

For there must be some form of taxation. Or else where does the money come from which pays the salaries of the Ministry employees? It is obvious to the reader that the largest single employer of trained wizards and witches in wizarding Britain is the Ministry of Magic. Their services are not being paid for by Muggle imports. Or does the British Muggle government wittingly or unwittingly subsidize the Ministry of Magic?

We have been informed in interviews that there are no fees required for Hogwarts attendance, although books, materials and uniforms are the responsibility of the students. And post-HBP we know that there is a fund available to children who are in financial hardship.

But the funding to operate such state-supported schools and government agencies must come from somewhere. The most likely source would be the Muggle government through some treaty or subterfuge, but we do not know this to be the case.

Surely this isn’t all being underwritten by the Goblins of Gringotts!

Or is it?

Certainly discovering and recovering treasure was one of Bill Weasley’s responsibilities as a Gringotts employee. Do the Goblins not only manage the wealth of the wizarding world, but provide it as well?

If that’s the case, small wonder Cornelius Fudge is painted as having ambitions to control them!