Red Hen Publications

Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Transit & Communication
The Potterverse Essays

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

It is obvious that much of the functionality of any society is dependent upon the efficiency of their forms of communication, and the shape of the society is dependent upon the directions in which these forms develop.

When you stop to think about that, you have to seriously doubt that magical technology and communications were at anything like their modern level when the statutory Seclusion of the wizarding world was formally imposed in 1692 (or 1689 as it’s stated in other sources).

The very fact that wizards and witches were legally no longer able to casually travel openly (via carpet or broom) where there was any possibility that Muggles could see them must have been the spur to developing, or refining any number of the transportation and communication procedures which are now in common use within the wizarding world.

It is also fairly self-evident that some of the more common methods of both transit and communication in use today were only adopted in their current forms after the British wizarding world adopted an aggressive widespread recruitment of Muggle-born magical children, enabling the presumably limited contact with the mundane world necessary for the training and assimilation of Muggle-born wizards and witches into wizarding society. And the corresponding adoption and recalibration of Muggle technology for magical use.

Such as, of course, the Hogwarts Express. A steam train could not have existed prior to the laying of mundane railroad tracks across Britain, starting in the 1830s, or the construction of King’s Cross Station in 1852.

In particular; despite the probable use of messenger birds from the time of antiquity, the use of the Owl Post has a “modern” feel to it. To exploit the nature of animals is hardly high tech. However, traditional messenger birds would therefore be primarily only species of birds which have natures that are readily so exploited. Owls are not among such birds.

One may postulate that Owl Post might be loosely based upon the official “pigeon post” used first during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-’72. And that it was only the truly compelling usefulness of a comparatively recently developed “Post Owl”* which has driven such a very traditional wizards’ familiar as the toad “out of fashion” in comparatively recent decades.

*The Post Owl itself seems to be either a magically modified class of bird, or they are under some form of enchantment. Their speed of delivery and level of intelligence are implausible in any natural bird, particularly owls — which, mythology notwithstanding, are not known for intelligence — and a Post Owl’s tendency to eat whatever people offer them is completely off the map for any sort of raptor. Owls in nature are raptors, which is to say they are birds of prey. They do not eat bread. They do not eat fruit. Evidently whatever modifications are necessary to convert a natural owl into a Post Owl also gives them a dietary requirement for additional carbs. The fact that during his brief exile during the early portion of GoF, Sirius Black was sending his post by way of various tropical birds further suggests that an enchantment is laid upon the bird rather than that the bird is a specially-bred sub-species. Although the probability of there being specifically wizarding owl breeders is fairly high.

• • • •

A similar argument can also be made regarding the Hogwarts Express, which, we are informed, is pulled by a steam engine. In this case, the window of opportunity is fairly wide. Covering about a century, in fact. In our own mundane railroads, although the first appearance of diesel engines took place some years before the second world war, these new engines were only widely adopted in the 1940s. Consequently, the Hogwarts Express may have gone into service at any point between the establishment of mundane rail travel, beginning in the 1830s and the appearance of diesel some 100 years later. At present it seems impossible to pin it down any closer than that.

As a rather belated item of note: despite the impression given by the official canon — wherein one would easily be led to believe that the Hogwarts Express’s only purpose is to transport students between London and Hogsmeade a half a dozen times a year — once one gives the matter some consideration, one concludes that this impression is based merely upon this particular service being named the “Hogwarts Express.”

Once one examines the matter from a couple of other angles, one realizes that the Hogwarts Express is most probably only a specific service, which is contracted either by Hogwarts itself, or by the Ministry, to run on those particular days. The actual train may be owned by neither, and undoubtedly runs all year, is not usually an express, and constitutes the primary freight hauler for all of Wizarding Britain.

Not all items can be shrunk down and charmed to be transportable by an owl. Nor can all things be safely transported by Floo. For that matter, I would imagine that Large-capacity Floo stations are a good deal rarer across modern day Britain than are railroad stations. And I think it would be safe to include in that particular inventory, any number of presumed disused stations, which are never served by Muggle trains.

The actual train’s normal route, may indeed be every bit as erratic as that of the Knight bus. And in fact, they might even both be run by the same parent company. Further considerations regarding the Floo network and the Knight bus are examined below.

• • • •

Widespread use of Portkeys is a method of transportation which appears to be somewhat uncommon in the modern wizarding world and is subject to strict Ministry control despite their apparent ease of production. Our impression is that Portkeys are usually only deployed for closely regulated and scheduled foreign travel, or for special events. This form of transit may be another comparatively recent development. Or it may be so closely regulated due to some issue which has only cropped up in recent times. In either case, we have not been informed of the matter.

Apparition, to be sure, is clearly a very old technology, and one that was developed long before the Seclusion. But Apparition is a difficult skill to master, and to this day not all wizards can manage to do it well enough to be granted a license.

It should be noted that in HBP when we finally saw Apparition taught, neither a specific wand movement nor an incantation were specified. This suggests that Apparition may be another form of magic which can be performed wandlessly, despite the strong suggestion that the Apparating wizard must maintain hold of his wand.

However, to keep hold of one’s wand while Apparating may be no more than a guard against accidentally leaving it behind, or as a precaution in case one should land in a situation where one might immediately need it. It is certainly old enough technology to date from the days when all magic was Dark magic, making it a dangerous process to master.

And indeed, it may still qualify as such. I would hesitate to assume that it is a process which could be readily recalibrated for “domestic wizardry’s” methods of indirect channeling.

• • • •

We ought probably also to take at least a couple of moments to consider the issue of flying carpets which are another highly traditional means of wizarding transportation, and one which was only banned in England in comparatively recent memory. Barty Crouch Sr, who, if he is indeed the “1s” notation appended to the record of Charis Black’s marriage to Caspar Crouch, might have been born around 1940, recalls his own grandfather’s Axminster which could seat 12. It does not matter whether that would have been either his Black or his Crouch grandfather since both families were purebloods of fairly equivalent status. But this would suggest that the ban has probably been imposed after the start of the 20th century.

Once so considered, my first thought was that perhaps the post WWI building of skyscrapers had prompted the ban, or that the growing suburban development across the British countryside might have made the possibility of spotting a flying carpet more likely.

It was pointed out to me however, and very reasonably too, that to disguise a flying carpet would have probably been easier than to disguise a broom. The underside of the carpet would need only to be charmed to reflect the sky above it to conceal it from being spotted by anyone on the ground.

However, I had overlooked the fact that, in our world at least, Muggles developed heavier than air flight themselves by 1913, that aircraft had reached a fairly useful level of sophistication during WWI, and that commercial air travel was in place by the end of the war. So perhaps it wasn’t just the fact that there were more Muggles on the ground that was the deciding factor in banning flying carpets. Muggles in the air, were a whole new problem that no one had encountered much earlier than say, around 1920 or so. And, unlike with hot air balloons, which could be readily avoided, I doubt that a flying carpet is capable of moving at a speed which would make it possible to get out of the way of an aircraft. Even before Muggles developed jet propulsion technology.

And pushing back the ban on flying carpets to around 1920 or 1930 might explain the reason that people no longer discuss them much. That’s an argument that has been over for a long time.

• • • •

Ministry oversight appears to be a hallmark of most of the more common forms of transportation in current use in the wizarding world today. The Floo network, one of the more widely used modes of casual transportation in modern Wizarding Britain, is administered and maintained under such a bureaucratic overlay which constitutes a strong counter-indication against the likelihood that such a widespread network would, or indeed could have been set up and maintained in the absence of a centralized authority. The old Wizards’ Council is unlikely to have been able to command the resources necessary to establish such a network.

However, given that the invention of Floo powder dates from some time in the 13th century, we have ample reason to suppose that some earlier form of transit and communication by way of fire, operating on the same underlying principle as the modern Floo network may have developed quite some time before the Seclusion.

Such systems would have been a haphazard affair, privately owned and maintained at the destination point to which authorized individual fireplaces might be briefly connected by prearrangement, or through a shared connection among a closed ring of associates. In a central, privately-owned service there would be a common destination to which all travelers are bound. In the shared “ring” there would be a limited number of destinations, none of which is accessible to outsiders. Neither of these duplicate the semi-public “network” service theoretically available to all, overseen and maintained by the Ministry itself, as is the case today.

We are told by way of her chocolate frog card that Floo powder was invented in the 13th century by one Ignatia Wildsmith in an attempt to address the slowness and physically exhausting effects of conventional (broom) travel. It is my own contention that Floo transit in this earlier form was probably also soon widely adopted and utilized as a “sure-fire” means of quickly transporting a wizard, who might be seriously endangered to a place of safety by way of a route that no Muggle would be likely to attempt pursuit. The unfortunate result of this practice is that it would have tended to reinforce the growing Muggle contention that only through demonic assistance is magic possible.

Floo travel was probably also quickly adopted as the favored method of transporting students to the Wizarding Academies prior to the development of less subject-to-misadventure forms of Muggle-compatible technology such as the Hogwarts Express and it’s continental counterparts, if any. The various references in some of the more virulent of documented Puritan rantings to the practice of passing one’s sons or daughters “through the fire” as being anathema suggests this to be the case, as does the lingering accusations of cannibalism which has traditionally been applied to witches in folklore.

It is very likely that wizarding households characteristically maintained significantly larger than average hearths or fire-pits leading to such an assumption. The inspiration of the witch’s “oven” immortalized in the Muggle household tale of Hansel and Gretel may have been no more than an hysterical Muggle’s misinterpretation of the use of an early Floo station.

Such Floo travel would have been difficult to coordinate over the full range of the Hogwarts catchment territory on an ongoing basis, however, and might have been a considerable drain upon the resources of the school — unless my speculations are correct that, until comparatively recently, Hogwarts Castle served wizarding Britain in other capacities, in addition to that of being the location of wizarding Britian’s predominant School. Any such problems would have been even more acute over the broader catchment areas of Beaubatons or Durmstrang.

• • • •

The information given us in DHs that much of the wizarding population of Great Britain once wizarding Seclusion was imposed had tended to cluster in the vicinity of a half-dozen or so semi-wizarding villages would tend to have facilitated the travel by Floo of children from such communities to Hogwarts, since all children in the neighborhood would be able to gather at a single, outlying area at an arranged time and transfer smoothly, one after another.

The modern adoption of the Hogwarts Express has reassigned and redistributed the responsibility of transporting students to the school between the Ministry of Magic and the students’ families, leaving the school to concentrate upon the students’ training once they have arrived.

I will mention the Knight Bus again at this point, only to state that this particular service in its current form is clearly of at least early-20th century origin. Omnibuses, however, go back to around 1890 or so. The modern Knight Bus may have replaced some earlier form of service, but it is difficult to see how such a service might have been operated prior to mechanized transit. Post Owls may fly faster than their natural counterparts, but it is difficult to imagine any sort of a practical operation of a magical omnibus drawn by magical creatures which would be expected to operate without being noticed by Muggles.

Although such a service might have used Abraxans or Thestrals, the general comments regarding the Hogwarts Thestral herd (flock?) which has been acquired and trained under Rubeus Hagrid’s tenure as groundskeeper implies that it is both of recent development and unique, and Beaubatons’ team of Abraxans are all too visible.

Which as mentioned above, appears to have ultimately been the problem with flying carpets, as well. Although prior to the 20th century it would have been easy enough to conceal the presence of a flying carpet by camouflaging the underside to reflect the surrounding sky. It is unknown whether similar bans on flying carpets have also been imposed by the other Ministries of western Europe, but such a possibility seems likely.

It should probably also be mentioned in passing that we have seen that the Ministry of Magic currently owns and operates at least a small fleet of conventional-appearing automobiles.

• • • •

A Floo connection, however, is not always a particularly effective means for the transfer of large items such as bulk supplies or the transportation of large shipments of merchandise in order to stock shops. Which observation leads me to assume that the most common method of such goods transport today is probably by rail.

However, bulk transit by Floo would certainly have been possible in such special cases as castles, where there are fireplaces large enough to roast whole oxen*. But apart from a few early wizarding landowners (on a large scale) most wizards probably did not have such facilities available to them.

*It should also be noted that the development in Muggle architecture of the domestic fireplace and chimney is a comparatively recent one, generally dating to the 15th century. Prior to this period, the heating of large interior spaces such as a Great Hall was accomplished by means of a fire-pit in the middle of the Hall with a smoke hole in the ceiling above.

Such an arrangement via an unenclosed firepit would have been vastly more convenient for transit by fire, but the very name of “Floo” transit suggests that this form of communication and travel was developed, or widely adopted, only after the popularization of the chimney, or “flue”. Which calls the 13th century attribution of the development of Floo powder into some question.

Wizarding architecture, however, may have incorporated the chimney somewhat earlier than the constructions built by Muggles, and, indeed in the Potterverse may have provided the model from which later Muggle structures were taken. In addition, this observation may not necessarily apply to the kitchen fireplace, once the kitchen was separated from the Hall, which was a reasonably early development. The kitchen’s fire was primarily intended for cooking rather than simply heating. Its function would have been very much assisted by being placed in an enclosure which contained the heat generated rather than allowing it to disperse throughout the room. Such an enclosure would have required an escape route for the smoke thereby generated which would lead it away from the rest of the room.

Most wizarding fortunes also appear to have been made well after the era when heavily fortified structures were being commonly built. The traditional Manor house, intended to house only one extended family and their retainers, rather than a small village, plus livestock, during any local emergency, typically does not run to quite such a scale, although it is possible that wizarding manors which were built as such, by such, may have incorporated this feature specifically for this purpose. It is reasonable to suppose that such Floo transport stations are still commonly in use in any wizarding-inhabited castle, by whatever family or institution may now be housed in it.

• • • •

A distinction probably also needs to be drawn between Floo transit and Floo communication. The modern variant which appears to combine both functions may be a conflation of two separate earlier technologies which originally had very different requirements and methods. And for that matter Madam Wildsmith’s development of the Floo powder now used for transportation may have been an adaptation of an earlier communications aid.

If this is the case, the original form of Floo communication might have not required a full deployment of a managed “network” for simple station-to-station contact. All that may have been necessary was the correct powder or potion and an active fire at both ends of the link. If so, merely to speak through a Floo connection may have been quite common at quite an early date. Such communications may have been the template upon which Madam Wildsmith based her more advanced technology.

And a very reliable form of contact it would have been, too. In an era when almost all household functions were performed at an open hearth, it would have been reasonable to expect to be able to find a lit hearth with someone in attendance at nearly any intended destination, at nearly any time of day, and within call at night.

The popularity of such a process would have rapidly evolved into a rather dangerous situation, however, giving a whole new level of meaning to the term haphazard. Such a “user-friendly” technology would soon have developed frequent complications due to collisions when two parties were attempting to access the same station. Inadvertently butting heads would have been the least of it.

Some form of managed network would have needed to be initiated before the process could be really regarded as safe. To send a written message through such a connection might have been an alternative, however, if some method could have been developed to safeguard the parchment from the heat of the fire. It needs to be remembered that even at so early a period the majority of trained witches and wizards were at least semi-literate. However, I would suspect that rather a larger percentage of messages landed at the wrong destination, than was really optimal.

We do not at present have any indication of just when the communication mirror was developed, but this is also has the feel of an old technology, given that references to such communication may be found readily enough in Muggle folktales which long predate the Seclusion of wizards. This is likely to have originally been a device only used by wizards and witches of a more exalted social level than that of those who could have been expected to usually be found tending their household fire in person. Given the cost of a really good mirror, particularly a glass mirror, in Muggle society up to the Seclusion period, I think the assumption that this was primarily a wealthy wizard’s form of contact may be safely taken as a given. We have no information as to whether it is possible to actually network mirrors, or if they are designed to work only in pairs.

• • • •

An addition to the subject of variant forms of communication in use in the wizarding world was introduced on JKR’s first official website in July 2005.

As the answer to a recent FAQ poll question we were informed that the Order of he Phoenix communicates with each other by means of their Patroni.

Say what?

Well, as a messaging system which would be extremely resistant to tampering by 3rd parties, such a form of communication would probably be beyond compare. Of course to either send or to receive such a message would make you stand out like a sore thumb. The blooming things are as conspicuous as all get out. You might as well send a running footman. In livery.

And until the release of DHs, as a means of sending any message more complex than “sender needs assistance” it would appear to be utterly useless. Rowling never established in canon that a Patronus can speak until we were solidly into the final book. Lupin certainly didn’t inform Harry of that.

And the way the whole issue was finally handled was pretty clumsy.

Although I will admit that Kingsly Shacklebolt’s lynx delivering the message that the Ministry had fallen, in his voice, was fairly impressive.

The implied message (back in HBP) that Tonks’s Patronus had become a wolf because of Lupin, which was kinds/sorta confirmed by the (interview, not canon) statement that Lily’s Patronus became a doe because of her relationship to James was tacky but comprehensible.

But, will you please explain to me where the “single, very happy memory” comes from that would explain Snape’s doe?

We’ve been given to understand that Dumbledore taught the speaking Patronus to the Order, and he taught it to Snape as well, but Snape had no direct contact with the Order members (apart from, presumably, Minerva) until Harry’s Year 5.

And, besides; we are now supposed to believe that a silver doe in memory of the woman whose death he believes he *caused* is produced by a *happy* memory? Sorry, Jo. You’ve fumbled the logic ball again.

By everything we have seen to date, Patroni are normally a manifestation of a personality facet of the wizard who casts it, much as an Animagus form would be (we saw that Minerva’s Patronus is identical to her own Animagus form, that of a tabby cat with spectacle markings), and capable of existing temporarily on both the physical and the spiritual “plane.” (A Patronus is the recommended protection from both Dementors, a spiritual menace, and the Leithfold, which is classified as a Fantastic Beast, or Dark Creature.)

But until DHs they did not appear to be capable of carrying a physical message. Nor was there any indication to that point in canon that they were capable of producing any sort of vocalized sound, or of communicating by telepathy or perhaps one should rather suggest, by transmitting a message through Legilimency.

Indeed, even in the wake of DHs I’m afraid that the “message-bearing Patronus” strikes me as a very good candidate for classification as balognium — particularly in the light of Snape’s silver doe, which, however evocative, makes not the slightest bit of sense.

Which is a classification which the Patronus has avoided up to now in that up to DHs it served only a single purpose, which it served with some distinction. The *speaking* Patronus of DHs is another pair of shoes. It does however manage to narrowly evade the full balognium classification in that it has not yet been demonstrated to be absolutely necessary for the plot to function. No, it still hasn’t. Useful as several of the message-bearing Patroni were over the course of the book, only Snape’s doe served the requisite pivotal function. And Snape’s doe was mercifully silent.

But even now that we know that they are capable of speaking, I’m afraid that I am still inclined to be very rude about the message-bearing Patronus.

In the manner of all those bad “Lassie” send-ups, in fact:

“Honey! It’s Lassie! She’s come back alone!”

“Lassie! What is it? What’s wrong, girl?”

“It’s Timmy, he’s in trouble!”

“The bridge over White Gulch is out! She wants us to follow her!”

“No! First she wants us to call the rescue squad, find the first aid kit and write a letter to our Congressman!”