Magical Mondays: Artificial Life in Harry Potter

Hogwarts portraits staircaseHogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has no doubt captured the imaginations of thousands upon thousands of fans. Who doesn’t want to go there? It’s got moving staircases, doors that won’t open unless you tickle them, dangerous death traps giant three-headed dogs, and talking pictures.

As someone who really loves drawing and occasionally painting, the idea of a world where pictures could talk and move really appealed to me. After all, it left so many questions. Do pictures drawn by wizards and witches automatically move, or is there a certain spell or series of spells they must undergo first? If it’s the former, when do they start moving? Is it when the picture’s done, or during the drawing process (which would make drawing really hard)?

Regardless of how it happens, looking back, I found that the whole concept of the talking Hogwarts portraits was rich with themes for potential abuse.

According to the Harry Potter books, portraits of people undergo certain enchantments to bring them to life, and they are then given certain characteristics of their subject matter, such as speaking certain phrases. However, this is also rather limited, as the portraits will more often than not know very little about the original witch or wizard in question. The only exception to this seems to be the headmasters at Hogwarts, who keep their portraits around, teaching their own paintings about their beliefs and values, so that way their portraits can continue educating long after the headmasters have passed away.

The Fat Lady Harry PotterWhile the magical mechanics of how this works are never actually explained within the narrative, the biggest question I always had while reading the series was this: are the people in the paintings at Hogwarts sentient, or just a magical form of artificial intelligence? The wiki page says that the portraits are sentient, but I’m not so certain that I agree with that. We do see portraits express emotions and distinctive personality traits—the portrait of Sirius Black’s mother is loud and angry and very verbose in her opinions, and the portrait who guards the Gryffindor common room clearly expresses fear for her own life in the third book, when Sirius attempts to slash her picture to pieces.

Whatever spells we see animating pictures, we also see affecting people’s reflections in mirrors. Mirrors are enchanted so that a person’s reflection can talk and sometimes even offer advice on fashion and looks. In one book, Harry’s reflection scolds him for not tucking his shirt in. However, the reflections are at best fleeting, and never at any point do they display the same sense of individuality and sentience that actual painted portraits do.

Unfortunately, this raises some more issues. The biggest problem with the portraits actually being sentient is that it means that wizards and witches have found a way to create life. And that not only have they found a way to create life, in the process, they have created an entirely new world within their own, one that is completely subservient and dependent on their own to exist. Portraits can move from painting to painting, interact with each other, and have their own hobbies and interests. They are sentient enough to know how to give directions, and even use other paintings to show students how to get to class. They are used to pass on information and can at times spy on people or offer good advice. Regardless of whether or not they are alive, they certainly act alive. During The Deathly Hallows, we even see Dumbledore’s portrait give Snape orders and make the conscious decision to hold secrets from him as well.

“Now, Severus, the sword! Do not forget that it must be taken under conditions of need and valor—and he must not know that you give it! If Voldemort should read Harry’s mind and see you acting for him—”

“I know,” said Snape curtly. He approached the portrait of Dumbledore and pulled at its side. It swung forward, revealing a hidden cavity behind it from which he took the sword of Gryffindor.

“And you still aren’t going to tell me why it’s so important to give Potter the sword?” said Snape as he swung a traveling cloak over his robes.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Dumbledore’s portrait.

—pages 689–690

During this scene, Dumbledore’s portrait also expresses concern for Severus and reminds him to be careful as well.

Harry Potter portraitsHowever, if they are living, their existence is rather dark. They are created literally for the sole use of people in the wizarding world and are not seen as individual people themselves. Their existence suggests that witches and wizards have found a godlike power—they can actually create life—that is used in abundance. If portraits are actually alive, then they are at best second class citizens. Like house elves, they both belong to and exist for the express purposes of somebody else, and like house elves, this is so internalized that they never question it. At no point do we ever really see a portrait suffer an identity crisis or want more from life than what he or she was created explicitly to do. Additionally, we know that portraits are forced to take on attributes of their subject matter upon coming to life, even if they know nothing about the original witch or wizard. So at any point in time are portraits thrown out or treated as insufficient if they do not live up to their real-world predecessor?

These questions are never answered within the books. While it’s entirely possible that portraits are no more alive than say, a character from a video game, their ability to interact with the real world, be opinionated, learn, make friends, etc. suggest otherwise. It is entirely possible that portraits don’t question their existence because the spells animating them don’t allow them to do so. But in many ways, that makes their existence even darker, since they are certainly sentient enough that they should be able to do so. The fact that they don’t indicates that limitations are being placed upon them that are not placed upon anyone else.

The existence of these pointless things from the third movie is even more alarming.

The existence of these pointless things from the third movie is even more alarming.

While the Hogwarts portraits fascinated me as a child and certainly helped add more life and mystery to the concept of the wizarding world, now that I’m older, I find their existence and their potential sentience problematic. Harry Potter is a world that deals a lot with racism and second-class citizenship, yet when it comes to portraits, it seems to have passed up a golden opportunity to talk about those issues more in depth here.

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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

6 thoughts on “Magical Mondays: Artificial Life in Harry Potter

  1. Whoa. Awesome work. Thinking now, thinking.

    I think something very present in Harry Potter, but not really quite discussed by the good guys, is that magic is inherently undemocratic. For most people, it will simply never be possible – Muggles and Squibs cannot gain wizard powers through any amount of training and study. They were born wrong. Meanwhile, the magical world exists among many non-human intelligences, none of which are full members of society – giants, portraits, ghosts, centaurs, goblins, spiders, house-elves, and many more. The centaurs and giants seem to maintain full parallel societies, which only rarely touch on the wizarding world, and are good enough, it seems, to gain access to wizard society in full (Firenze, Hagrid). Maybe. House elves and goblins apparently never receive letters to take classes at Hogwarts, ghosts and portraits live a magicked semi-existence within the walls.

    In that context, I think it becomes easy to see why Voldemort (and Grindlewald before him) was so easily able to build up a movement, and one that could outlive his death. Magical domination of other entities was so intuitive to most wizards, Hermione seemed to be among the first to even question it. Even Dumbledore happily accepted systemic inequalities, despite his experiences with Grindlewald. If respectful treatment of non-humans was a matter of Dumbledore’s ethics and politeness, then oppression was just a change of philosophy. If they were independent, rights-having beings, oppression became morally wrong. But the status quo endured, and Voldemort rose, because there were no theoretical grounds to resist him. And his cruelty to Muggles made as much sense as anything else.

    Muggle-born wizards (like Hermione), of course, were the disruptors to this system. Which is why their suppression was paramount. Even in peaceful times, they were potential rabble-rousers who threatened the base functioning. At war, they were going to be a problem needing resolution. So suppression.

  2. I’ve also noticed an interesting difference between painted portraits and photographs in the wizarding world. Portraits seem “more alive” than photos, which seem to only have a limited range of actions, and aren’t often described as making sounds (remember Sirius’s wanted poster silently screaming in the third movie?). It’s unclear whether figures in photographs can leave their frames and enter other photos. More often we see the figures in photos just interacting with the other figures in the same photo. I wonder why that difference exists? Is it because paintings require more effort than taking photos does? We learn in book 2 that photos can move once you develop them in a special potion. Maybe that’s entirely different from what brings portraits to life? And I honestly have no idea what implications that has for your argument. XD

    • Wizard photos are a tech-free version of an animated gif!

      I guess the other question too – if the portraits are sentient, and they’re being abused, is the suffering borne by the portrait itself, or is the portrait an aspect of its image? Horcruxes distribute one’s soul. Do portraits?

  3. I remember having read a fic that touched on this, briefly – one in which a portrait of a student who died (who shall remain unnamed, in case it’s still a spoiler for anyone) during the Battle of Hogwarts was put up, and later even put to use as a teacher; except this created all sorts of issues with the family of the deceased not properly moving on, and failing to treat the portrait as an independent subject, instead treating him as an extension of the person who had been killed. The portrait eventually decided that his continued presence as he existed was undesirable, and walked out of his portrait, presumably forever, by walking toward and beyond the horizon line in his painting.

    That fic aligns with my own thinking, that the portraits are sentient; personally I think that they’re some variation of a Horcrux, which carries its own unfortunate implications as you’ve so clearly laid out.

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