Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Wand Chooses the Wizard

A couple of days ago, the first poster for the last Harry Potter movie was released.  I thought it was awesome in its simplicity.  Harry facing off against Voldemort with only the Wand of Destiny clenched between them.

However, can you think of a more cliched article of fantasy writing than the wand?  What witch, warlock, mage, or sorcerer would not be properly attired without the final touch of this powerful weapon, whether it be a traditional stick of wood or a staff of power...or perhaps even a light saber.

And if you're a writer of fantasy or paranormal, you have probably worked a wand of some sort into your own manuscript.  But as writers, we seek to always bring something new to whatever we create.  And breaking out from old cliched devices is incredibly essential to giving our reader OUR fresh perspective.

JK Rowling does exactly this with her creations, even when they come from traditional lore.  We can learn a lot about putting a fresh spin on an overused device by what she does with her magical wands.

From the very beginning we learn that "the wand chooses the wizard."  Not the other way around.  Wands have their own lore, their own power, their own loyalties, and another's wand will not give you the same results as the one that chose you.  Each wand is unique in its craftsmanship, like the owners they choose, and the wand's maker, like Ollivander, take great pride in their craft and remember every wand sold.

As the series progresses, we see hand-me-down wands, broken wands, brother wands, dueling wands, and spells that tell a lot about wands, such as priori incantatem.  With each of these examples scattered throughout the series, the reader's knowledge of the unique place wands have in this world grows.  Thus, JKR prepares her reader for the final showdown and the most important wand of all.

Since ancient times, sticks of one sort or another have been used as symbols of power and authority over people.  From Pharaoh's was to Moses' rod, to a royal scepter, to the Pope's papal staff -- what person can hold power without brandishing a stick of some sort?  Do we imbue these wands with power because of ancient images of a shepherd's guiding crook, or the disciplinary rod of a father over a child?  Or perhaps they go back even further in our collective memory and hint at a primordial time when the holiest of places, the highest authority, was found in a grove of trees?

Whatever the reason, sticks of wood convey authority and power and JKR used this to her full advantage, with her own twist, in the final book, Deathly Hallows.  The Elder Wand that Harry and Voldemort both seek to claim, the symbol of protection against death, lies in a sacred tomb that Harry refuses to disturb, but Voldemort violates.  It is this attitude that no one matters besides me, contrasted against Harry's self-sacrifice for the love of others, that is ultimately Voldemort's undoing.  No totalitarian authority is allowed to live forever when those oppressed finally are roused to rebel.  Not even the Deathstick, that magical ultimate weapon of mass destruction, can save Voldemort from a simple boy's kindness of heart.  For it is Harry's nonviolent disarming of his classmate Draco which has won the loyalty of the Elder Wand.  And it is his casting of a non-lethal spell into the face of Avada Kedavra, that turns the killing spell back onto its caster, and bring the end to He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named.

In her intricate plotting, JKR thought deeply of the themes she pursued throughout her series and how these themes would live in the world she created.  Her wands tell us a lot about how the author views the magical world, and our own.  As Dumbledore said, "Voldemort himself created his own worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress?" (p. 510, HBP)

Recent events in the MiddleEast have shown what Voldemort learned too late -- even in the real world we witness that how ruthlessly a ruler wields his wand of power is often an indication of how brutally he will be brought down by those who've suffered under him.

Writers -- Look at your symbols, your cliched items of your genre.  What fresh spin can you bring to the tired symbols and tropes?  Think deeply about your story, your world, your hero, and your meaning.  Are your themes reflected throughout?  And if not, what can you do to weave your own Wand of Destiny over your creation and make it truly come alive and sing with your Voice?

Deathly Hallows poster credit
Was scepter image credit


  1. Oh I LOVE your posts! Yes! Every story has been told, every trope used, but never the same way YOU use it. Each author brings something unique to the table, and it is the execution of this uniqueness that decides whether the book is merely okay or holds something MORE. JK obviously is in the latter category. Let's strive to join her.

  2. Thanks so much Julie and Lisa! I'm so glad if my obsessions offer something useful. :-)

    And Lisa you're so right -- every time I think I've come up with a wonderfully unique idea, the next minute I discover it's already been done. But not the way I want to do it!

  3. Great post and great information. I love Harry Potter, and Rowling's story telling is a wonderful place to learn about the craft.

  4. Wonderful post. Thanks! I love the Harry Potter books, but I hadn't given much thought to how the ending ties in with the themes. Time to read them again, maybe--as a writer this time! ;)

  5. Great post -- very thought-provoking and challenging. Thanks!

  6. Hi Shelli, Erin, and Heather! Welcome to the blog and thanks so much for your comments. And yes, re-reading the books as a writer is a fabulous exercise. That's what I'm trying to do here with this blog, so please, check out my labels and look around! :-)

  7. Amazing assessment. I always try to put a fresh spin on things myself, but Rowling just wins. Great post!