HP2: Voodoo Boogaloo: On the Art of the Wizard’s Duel

Posted: July 17, 2011 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

So, the big problem that I always have with Harry Potter is that no one seems to actually give a crap about magic in it.  I don’t just mean the characters in the stories (except for Fred and George, whoever uses magic to actually do something they think is interesting?) but I mean the filmmakers, the FX guys, and, to a certain extent, the writer.

Now, ostensibly, who cares?  From a dramatic standpoint, we don’t need to see guys shooting fireballs at each other or conjuring poisonous snakes or making it rain shards of glass or something to get what’s going on:  we need to know that some people are winning and some people are losing, that sometimes people are behaving aggressively and sometimes they’re behaving defensively.  The actual nature of the spell is irrelevant in terms of the plot:  only its function actually matters.  This is something to do with signifiers and signifying that’s a little too lit-crit-theory for me to fully understand, I guess.

So, it’s not necessary, and there are people who will tell you that there should never be anything in your movie or your book or your whatever that isn’t strictly necessary to the story, and I think those people are stupid.  This is a fantasy movie in first place — it’s already strictly UNnecessary.  You may as well take the time to make even the tiniest corners of the world as awesome as you can, because why the hell not?  Making stuff up is fun.

I am therefore going to talk a little about wizard dueling, relating to you what I learned when I was in wizard school.  Unlike certain celebrity boy-heroes, I actually paid attention in dueling class.

Timing and Tempo

The first two things you need to know about duelling are these.  Timing and tempo are everything in a fight, and getting them down will save your life.

Timing is about how long it takes to cast a spell.  Some spells, obviously, are longer than others and that can make them difficult to get off quickly.  But more than that, even shorter spells have a limit as to just how fast you can manage them.  You can’t really do a spell at the speed of the Micro-Machine Man, because pronunciation — exact pronunciation, down to cadence and aspiration and minor changes in vowels sounds — is vitally important.  Getting even a little bit wrong can be catastrophic.  At best, probably just nothing — or nothing useful — is going to happen.  At worst, something completely unexpected is going to happen, and that is not what you want in a wizard duel.

Coupled with that is the often-intricate wand-motions that need to accompany spells, and the fact that the timing of the wand has to precisely match the incantation for the spell to work:  so, even if you are really good at Micro-Machine-Man spells, you’ve got to match that with exceptional hand speed.  (There are some exceptions to this, I’ll get to them later.)

You can see the problems that timing engenders:  someone starts a spell and you have to immediately guess what that spell is and respond with an effective defensive spell before they can finish.  The good news is, most defensive spells are faster than offensive spells, but you’ve still only got a few syllables and a gesture to guess what’s going on if you want a defense up in time.

That’s timing.  The second issue is tempo: something that comes up in both chess and fencing.  See, let’s say someone hurls an offensive spell at you, and you respond by erecting an impermeable barrier to deflect it.  Great!  You’re alive!  But you haven’t taken control of the action; in the time it takes you to finish your defensive spell, you’ve given your opponent enough time to prepare another offensive one.

You’ve parried, as they say, without riposting:  protected yourself without seizing control of the action.

There are strategies that rely on this, of course:  absorbing attack after attack with brilliant defenses, waiting for the opponent to exhaust himself, or to make a mistake, or to use just the wrong offensive spell at the wrong time and expose a precise vulnerability.

And there are strategies that rely on completely aggressive action, using powerful attacks that just plow through incoming attacks, ignoring defense in the hope that the fullisade of spells leveled against your adversary won’t give them time to respond.

But for now, we’re going to look at some straightforward parry-riposte engagements, as well as a few feints and changeups.  Okay?  So, let’s consider the basic attack:

The Arabian Fire Eagle

Fire is typically pretty hard to control, which is why ancient middle-eastern wizards developed a method of conjuring a kind of animal spirit into the fire.  Different animals are good for different things:  lions are pretty impressive, roaring and posturing before tearing off left and right.  Dragons will whirl around you, setting everything on fire before they take off into the sky.  And eagles will drag a column of fire directly towards what you’re aiming at.  It’s a short spell, with a straightforward gestural component, and so it’s one of the first offensive spells anyone ever uses.

Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere

This was the traditional defense against the fire eagle.  It’s another fairly easy one that you can throw up quickly, and creates a sphere that’s really a kind of standing pressure-wave, keeping the fire off of you, and generally causing it to splash around.  It’s also fairly useful at keeping away larger objects (such as conjured bats or snakes, we’ll get to those), though it does have certain weaknesses.

The sphere lasts a for a few seconds once the spell is done (a few seconds in a duel can be a lifetime), and it appears fairly quickly once it’s begun, but will disappear immediately if the spell is interrupted.

The tempo use of the Resilient Sphere against the Fire Eagle is pretty straight forward:  either you bring it up just long enough to splash the Eagle around you and immediately respond with an attack of your own (causing the sphere to immediately collapse — it’s risky, due to all the fire around you, but was traditionally effective enough), or you finish the spell, and hope that the lingering effects of the sphere will last long enough to protect you from your opponent’s second attack while you prepare one of your own, in the hopes of seizing control of the fight back.

This is your standard attack, parry, riposte exchange.  Go practice it a hundred times and come back.

Good.  Now, here are some interesting complexities that apply:

The Coravesi Variation:

This is a variation on the Resilient Sphere. By eliminating the aspirations in the last third of the incantation, and changing the last wand gestures to an aggressive forward diagonal cutting action, the Resilient Sphere takes on the form of the Coravesi Variation:  a moving pressure-wave in a kind of wedge-shape.  This will simultaneously divide the Fire Eagle column — causing it to spread out to either side — and then crash into your opponent.

The Coravesi wave isn’t usually deadly, but it is enough to knock someone off their feet and, if they land on something hard, potentially crack some ribs.  The important part, though, is that one way or another, they’ll HAVE to respond before they attack again, thus giving you control of the action.

The Chirhydrone:

The “water-hand” is actually one of the very first conjuring spells ever devised.  It is, basically, just what it sounds like:  a long column of water that ends in a fist, and that you can use to punch someone with.  It hurts, and has a little less force than a fire hose, which is often enough to knock someone off their feet.  It fell out of use for a while — because if you could punch someone with a hand made of water, or hurl an EAGLE made of FIRE at them, what would you do? — but then someone noticed that accompanying the spell with an undulating motion of the arm caused it to repeat itself in waves.  And that, if these waves were timed correctly, the fist could slip past the standing wave of the Resilient Sphere in a way that the Fire Eagle couldn’t.

So, here’s a common exchange, one of the first drills that you’ll practice:  I attack you with the Fire Eagle; you respond with the Coravesi wave.  I protect myself with the Resilient Sphere, which gives you time to use the Chirhydrone on me, knocking me down and giving you time to prepare your own Fire Eagle.

Good.  Now, let’s look at a few more advanced spells.

The Eagle’s Obsidian Feathers:

This is a classic, tricky, and often dangerous maneuver, but can be very effective.  The middle third of the Arabian Fire Eagle spell is almost identical to the first half of the Shower of Black Glass — a spell that conjures a stream of flat, sharp shards of volcanic rock.  By switching the spell mid-incantation, the Fire Eagle will dissolve into a deadly rain of black glass.

Now, this glass will typically bounce off of the Resilient Sphere, as only shards that have no horizontal torque can pass through.  But it’s extremely effective when the Fire Eagle has been disrupted by the Coravesi wave.  The wave divides the Fire Eagle in half, the aggressor changes the spell, and now the two columns of fire are redirected as deadly streams of black glass at his opponent.

The danger of this is fairly obvious:  it doesn’t provide a response to the Coravesi wave, and instead relies on either a) the aggressor just surviving the impact of the wave (possible, but obviously risky) or b) the defender abandoning the Coravesi wave to protect himself.

The Third Brother’s Magnificent Weight:

No one knows who the third brother is, and this spell doesn’t have anything to do with weight (though wizards used to think it did), so the name of the spell is almost completely misleading.  What it is is a very short, very easy spell that permits you to magnetically attached every cell in your body to the core of the Earth.  It will crush you to death if you use it for too long, but if you use if for just a few seconds, it will let you ride out the Coravesi wave essentially unharmed.

Paracelsus’ Phantom Armor

Not to be confused with Chiron’s Fantasmic Armor, the Phantom Armor doesn’t provide armor at all, it actually makes the user briefly intangible.  This provides no real protection against heat, sound, or any number of other attacks, but it will protect you from the Obsidian Feathers, and it’s pretty quick to use.

So, now, practice this drill:

Your opponent attacks with the Arabian Fire Eagle.  You respond with the Coravesi wave.  Before it hits him, he uses the Eagle’s Obsidian Feathers, and then Third Brother’s Magnificent Weight to absorb the force of the Coravesi.  You use Paracelsus’ Phantom Armor and the feathers pass harmlessly through you.  The exchange is complete, now you attack with the Fire Eagle.

The Well of Fire:

This was a pretty common technique in the old days, but it’s fallen into disuse once the Chirhydrone was rediscovered — I’ll explain why in a second.  The Well of Fire conjures a sort of fire-tornado around you.  It’s an excellent defense in that it can absorb the Arabian Fire Eagle and then quickly redirect it, as the final refrain of the Well incantation is also the beginning of the Fire Eagle incantation.

Eagle-Well-Eagle-Well was a pretty common practice routine, especially at the Arabian school of wizardry in Baghdad.

The problem with it is that it makes you vulnerable to a particularly deadly feint:  A wizard preps the Arabian Fire Eagle, making the wand gestures pretty obvious.  His opponent responds by conjuring the Well, secure in his defense.  Then the first wizard changes up, and uses the Chirhydrone instead:  only, instead of a fist made of water, the Well superheats the Chirhydrone into a column of steam.


We don’t use the Well of Fire very often, anymore.

The Balkan Swastika:

(Named before the Nazis; calm down.)

You’ve noticed that almost all of the above spells are physical ones:  fire, water, stone, pressured air.  But attacks come in all sorts of forms.  Standard disarming spells, confusion, blindness, and muteness are all mediated as a form of magic energy (we call it “odyllic energy”, in case you were wondering).  These are problematic to use in dueling, because of the Balkan Swastika: a very fast, comprehensive whorl of…well, it’s hard to describe, exactly.  Imagine a wave of odyllic energy that is “sharp” in the sense that it cuts through and disrupts other odyllic structures.  This isn’t exactly right, but you get the idea:  the Balkan Swastika is your basic counterspell for incoming odyllic effects.  It’s also fairly malleable — you can set it up and keep it spinning around you to disrupt multiple attacks, you can send it spinning off in a few dozen directions to disrupt attacks all around you, you can keep a small one spinning around your hand and just use it like a shield.

You can use this as multiple-attacker drill:  two or three opponents start hucking disarm or muteness spells at you — use the small-form Balkan Swastika to defend against them.

Conjurations & Transfigurations:

Direct transfiguration of your opponent is almost never feasible in a fight.  It takes too long, for one thing — humans being fairly high up there on the complexity list.  And for another, it’s too easily disrupted; the spell is mediated odyllically, and the Balkan Swastika can cut it in half fairly simply.

Transfigurations do have certain uses though.  One of my personal favorite techniques is one I invented myself: Braak’s Assault With Many Bats.  (I couldn’t think of a good name for it, sorry.)  It is basically exactly what it sounds like:  well ahead of my opponent, I use a short transfiguration spell to turn something into a flock of bats.  Cobblestones work well, as do leaves (obviously, you have to be somewhere where there are a lot of the same sorts of things lying around).  The bats aren’t particularly dangerous, but they are disruptive and they make it hard to see:  as an opening salvo or a defensive maneuver, it simultaneously gives me time to prepare a number of attacks, while inhibiting my opponent from both seeing what I’m doing and preparing defenses himself.

Similarly, Salazar’s Swarm of Serpents is a pretty effective attack, conjuring a wave of poisonous snakes that can be hurled at your opponent, which then continue to trouble him on their own.  They can be easily kept at bay with the Resilient Sphere, or swept back with an expansion variant, but the time it takes you to do that is time that I get to prepare something new.

Another interesting conjuration is the Grasping Crimson Bands.  This is sneaky, and not always effective, but what it does is conjure flat, unbreakable red ribbons of energy that will bind up your opponent’s hands.  This makes gestural magic impossible, leaving them only attacks like Alonso’s Argument (a very painfully loud word that is difficult both to control and to defend against, relegating it to somewhat of a last resort spell), or The Unnatural Silence (this is a good, blanket disruption spell — predicated on the Six Un-Words — that will clear away most enchantments and make new ones difficult to create; as above, it’s usually a last resort spell because, without spells to use, wizards are forced to actually try to fight each other with their hands, something that rarely carries any dignity in our profession).

What makes the spell so sneaky is that the Bands are odyllic — meaning they can be easily disrupted by the Balkan Swastika — but they look material.  Someone unfamiliar with the Bands will typically respond instinctively with the Resilient Sphere, which doesn’t even slow them down, thus causing your opponent to waste crucial seconds on an ineffective defense.

The Tachyon Wall is another interesting conjuration:  this is a wave of…well, for the sake of argument let’s call them “anti time particles.”  They expand away from you in a sphere that slows things down in inverse proportion to their distance.  So, thing that are very close to you will be almost completely stopped, while things that are more than, say, thirty feet or so away are barely slowed at all.  The timing on this is tricky, obviously, since if you wait too long — so that you can be sure of freezing an attack — you run the risk of losing tempo, but if you respond too early the defense will be ineffective.  But if you manage it right, letting the Wall hit the incoming spell at just the right distance, it will be slowed well enough for you to respond with a more complex attack, protecting you and seizing tempo.

Environmental Considerations:

Now, you’ve got a strong set of dueling principles here — the issues of timing and tempo that are the foundation of every duel — and a suite of both offensive and defensive spells that you can use in a variety of ways.  There are, of course, many, many more options and you’ll need to practice a lot to get the hang of it.  Typically, the first few syllables of a spell will tell you what kind of a thing you’re dealing with — whether or not it’s material, or odyllic, or a conjuration — and this will give you an idea of how to respond to even unfamiliar spells.

Likewise, you can get creative with a lot of this stuff.  There are a number of ways of indirectly disrupting your opponents that are hard to counter:  coating the floor with ice, for instance, or conjuring smoke to obscure your activities.  Daghda’s Thumb causes explosive plant growth, and simultaneously turns most plants aggressive and partially motile — this can be hugely effective at confusing and interrupting your adversary.  Likewise the Rei Locomotor sequence (seven to fifteen different spells, depending on how you count them; there is some debate), which cause different sorts of nearby objects to become animate, can be wildly useful.  The New Transported Man is a kind of combat-apparation that let’s you reposition yourself fairly easily with respect to your opponent, and is especially effective when combined with my own personal variant of the Fractured Mirror: this is The New Schizoid Man and it causes you to apparate to somewhere nearby while simultaneously conjuring six illusory copies of yourself that will all behave aggressively and even appear to perform their own magic.  They can be dispelled by the whirling Swastika variation, but that takes precious seconds, and often an opponent will react instinctively by trying to defend himself against one of the illusory spells.

Bonus:  Lightning Is a Bad Idea:

When I was a dueling instructor, the first thing kids wanted to learn was how to shoot lightning at each other, and let me tell you what a waste of time this is.

First of all, there are two basic ways to conjure lightning:  the first is point-to-point (the Fulmen Maximus).  This is a lightning bolt that goes from your wand, to your opponent.  The second is sky lightning (the Fulmen Caeli), in which you call down lightning bolts from a conjured, overhead storm.

These can all be very impressive, and good for maybe fighting an ogre, or terrifying some peasants, but they’re almost always useless in a duel.

The Fulmen Maximus is a pretty long spell, in the first place.  In the second, it works like this:  you create an odyllic channel between yourself and your opponent.  You then conjure lightning to ride that channel into your enemy.  You see why it’s so long; it’s actually two spells, and the first is both harmless and easily disrupted.  The Balkan Swastika can easily slash the odyllic channel in half, and then where does the lightning go?  Usually right into the ground.  Sometimes, it will jump backwards and hit you in the face.

The Fulmen Caeli are even more difficult to create, and typically even more difficult to control.  You have to first conjure a storm (though obviously not if there’s already a storm above you), then create odyllic “targets” where you want the lightning to hit, then trigger the lightning bolts themselves.  The problem is that the targets still don’t guarantee that the lightning will strike your opponent — it can still be diverted by lightning rods, trees, large bodies of water, &c.  Not only that, but those targets can be easily disrupted again with the Swastika, and furthermore, your opponent can easily create his own odyllic lightning rod to divert the lightning around himself, or just put a target on your head, too, making you equally vulnerable.

Basically, my advice is that until someone figures out how to conjure an animal spirit into a lightning bolt (like we did with fire), leave off the lightning except for terrifying the normals.

  1. […] can electrify pretty much anything. « Armchair Screenwriter: The Martian Manhunter HP2: Voodoo Boogaloo: On the Art of the Wizard’s Duel […]

  2. Here’s what I liked about all the wizard dueling: MacGonagal finally got to DO something.

    But aside from his snakehandling, Neville should have been allowed to see off Bellatrix.

  3. Carl says:

    You’re completely right about the wizard dualing. This should not come as a complete shock, though, as the creative types in Hollywood will reliably give you one-dimensionality when working with a carte blanche imaginary world (see also, the dreamscape of INCEPTION, in which the only things that can apparently be conjured into existence in the deepest of sleep are various kinds of semi-automatic weapons).

    Alright, look, I didn’t read the books so I’m just encountering certain details of the complete narrative for the first time in seeing this movie, but is NOBODY else bothered by the fact that a solid 25 minutes of this 2-hour movie is dedicated to Harry’s discovery of (and the process of coming to terms with) the fact that HE HIMSELF is the final horcrux needed to kill Voldermort– and then that plot thread is COMPLETELY discarded without explanation when he gets zapped at their final confrontation!?

    “So, I absolutely have to die to rid the world of the ultimate evil because the ultimate evil is INSIDE me?”

    Yes, Harry, that’s right.

    “Like, the Evil that’s inside all of these knick-knacks I’ve been destroying over the course of seven movies, I’m the last one that needs to be destroyed in order to free both the wizarding and muggle worlds of an unspeakably evil despotism?”


    “That’s what I’ve been meant for all this time? To sacrifice myself for all human kind?”


    “My parents, teachers, and loved ones all knew about this from the get-go and have raised me to be the person I am, so I would be able to make this single, indescribably important, inescapable moment of fated-ness possible?

    You got it, kid. Sucks, I know. Only way.

    “Alright then. Sigh. Here we go.”

    Nah, nevermind, kidding. We’re tossing that entire plot-point now. The Evil, yeah, it got inexplicably zapped out of you. Yeah, somehow, I dunno. Sorry for wasting all that screen time and narrative energy and emotional build-up. Go ‘head, go marry Ginny.


  4. braak says:

    Well, in the books there’s a little more time devoted to it, because we can see Harry’s interior monologue. And it was telegraphed pretty obviously from the moment that Horcruxes were introduced.

    But yeah, she kind of doesn’t really dwell on it. “Well, he shot me with the death curse, but instead of killing me, it killed the part of him that’s inside me.”

    Okay, I guess…I guess that could be a thing that’s true.

    Here’s the other interesting part, that my brother brought up: this would all make a lot more sense if there was an easy way that people could be brought back from the dead. Especially if it was some kind of small object that you could hold in your hand. Maybe some kind of small stone. You know, like some kind of RESURRECTION STONE.

    If only something like that existed, and Harry had been holding it in his hand when Voldemort zapped him, and the stone let him come back to life.

    That whole exchange would have made perfect sense if Harry had held onto the Resurrection Stone for five more minutes. But obviously he didn’t, because ultimately the Resurrection Stone didn’t do anything, because the only reason it was there was because Rowling had called it the Deathly HallowS, so there had to be more than one, and two didn’t seem quite satisfying.

  5. Carl says:

    Meredith said precisely the same thing about the Resurrection Stone (one-upping my complaints about plot construction) when I began griping about the unceremonious jettisoning of the Harry-as-horcrux plot thread. Though, wait, didn’t the stone make it possible for Harry to chat with his dead family members in real time? Get some closure with Mom, hang out with Sirius again? That was the impression I got from the movie, anyway. So its narrative function as I understood it was to allow Harry to draw strength and courage from those who have preceded him across the great divide as he goes off to his INESCAPABLE, NECESSARY-TO-THE-NARRATIVE DEATH. Honestly, it really feels like Rowling had set this whole thing up to have Harry-as-sacrificial hero (as you say: signs of his being a horcrux all along, coupling Hermione and Ron rather than Hermione and Harry to avoid the bitter pill of writing a Hermione pieta, etc.) and then just couldn’t bring herself to follow through when it came time to submit the final draft.

    Also, about Slytherin: right on. Why the hell IS there even a Slytherin House 19 years later if its been pretty well demonstrated to reliably pump out Death-Eaters and opportunist shit-head Wizards? Why not dissolve it and replace it with Dumbledore House or some such? And man, come on, Rowling: you’re killing people off left and right anyway. Why not let Draco Malfoy stand pat there at the end when his parents call him back to their side, have the Dark Lord kill him, give the Malfoy parents their comeuppance, and allow for the possibility of growth and change in people while showing that all Slytherins are not irredeemable.

    But then what do I know, I guess. There are some people who like her books exactly the way they are.

  6. braak says:

    I was troubled by the getting-closure-with-his-mom storyline, because she died before he was born. If Harry isn’t drawing strength and courage from his friends — is still motivated by his imaginary fantasy of his mother (which we already know, based on his gross misunderstanding of his father, is pretty much just fantasy) then he’s actually kind of got some serious issues here. The Resurrection Stone actually kind of undermines what should be the moral — that life is for the living, and whatever’s happened to us in our past we have to grow and move on — because it doesn’t really offer any significant temptation.

    Someone else suggested that Draco Malfoy should have refused to cross the line (yes) and that Voldemort should have tried to kill him, but Lucius should have intervened to sacrifice himself. This would have redeemed Draco and Lucius, and underscored the inevitability of Voldemort’s defeat: in the end, love is always more powerful than evil.

    In a sense, though, I’m not sure that Harry as a sacrificial hero who survives is necessarily a cop out. In this case I think it is (especially because his isn’t the last death, which it should be), but if you look at Stranger Than Fiction, that part where she talks about a person who goes to meet his death willingly and how that’s the sort of person that you’d want to keep alive — well, there’s a lot to willingly going to what you believe will be your death that’s the real thrust of the emotional arc, you know? As long as he did that, he could have survived and the story could still be satisfying.

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