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(This piece originally appeared as the 01/11/02 installment of the Random Encounter column. Due to its incredible popularity, it has been updated and now has its own page.)




he great astronomer Carl Sagan may have said it best (even if he wasn't the first) when he said "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

More than a few times, the claim has been made that both Harry Potter and Dungeons & Dragons books contain real spells that can really be cast.  In fact, a site called Demonbuster has this to say about the Harry Potter series:

"Some of the Christians who defend HP books claim that one could never learn enough to truly practice magick or sorcery by reading them. That sort of statement could only be made by someone who was comparatively ignorant of sorcery. "

Demonbuster also tells us that we should never burn candles or wear cologne, perfume or any clothing with a paisley print, so they must know what they're talking about.  Bold statements like those are never made by crackpots, after all.

Likewise, many claims have been made that Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks contain real-world occult (pronounced AH-cult) procedures.


"The intense occult training through D&D prepared Debbie to accept the invitation to enter a witches' coven." - Dark Dungeons, Chick Publications' anti-RPG pamphlet.

"...for we now understand the D&D can readily be a form of mind-control which also uses real occult techniques to foster possession by evil spirits." - William Schnoebelen, Straight Talk About Dungeons & Dragons

"The game contains a summary of the principles and an introduction to the fundamentals of the occult. By repetition and recitation, D&D enables children to rehearse occultic basics in a fun, easy-to-learn fashion. Thus, D&D really is a catechism of occultism. " - Peter Leithart & George Grant, A Christian Response to Dungeons & Dragons

These are extraordinary claims, and I don't think it is unreasonable to put them to the test and see what sort of extraordinary evidence can be found to support them.

With that in mind, I am going to take my Harry Potter books and my Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook and attempt to cast the arcane spells contained within, all in the name of science, and at great risk to my body and soul. 

You heard right.  These claims of authentic, functional magical abilities will be put to the test before your very eyes.  Do these spells really work?  Will your kids be able to cast them after a casual read?  Will I survive unscathed?  Stay tuned to find out.

The spells that you see the characters casting in the Harry Potter series consist primarily of a few pseudo-Latin words spoken loudly while waving your magic wand or pointing it at your target.  This should be a piece of cake - if there's one thing I can do, it's speak pseudo-Latin while waving a stick around!

First, we'll need a wand.  According to the books, wands are usually made of a magical wood, with some sort of powerful item inside - like a unicorn hair or phoenix feather.  I'm not sure where to find a phoenix or unicorn - in fact, I suspect that neither of them really exist.  But I could be wrong.  After all, according to Demonbuster, any kid who reads these books will be able to start throwing spells around like there's no tomorrow.  So a wand can't be that hard to make.

One official Harry Potter wand! Now to get the pine smell off of my hands...The Harry Potter books tell us nothing about how to construct a wand, so I will have to improvise.  We have a border collie (no horn), a parakeet with a very bad temper, and a yard full of transplanted Christmas trees (and there's GOT to be some kind of magic in THOSE).  So for the purposes of our experiments, I will be using an evergreen twig with some dog hairs and a parakeet feather taped to it.

This part wasn't easy.  The parakeet got a few good bites in, and the dog won't get anywhere near me now, but that's okay.** Any wizard worth his salt can cast spells with a bandaged hand, and the dog would only get in the way anyway.  Now we have one official Harry Potter wand, capable of performing all kinds of nasty magical effects.  Let's pick up one of the books and look for a spell to cast.

Spell Name: Lumos

Source: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, page 335 (hardcover).  Harry makes his wand shine like a flashlight:

" "Lumos!" he whispered.
The wandlight showed him the trunk of a thick tree..." *

That should come in handy the next time the power goes out.

Test Method:  This should be simple; say the word and wave the wand.  What could be easier?

Results:  My results went something like this:

"Lumos."  (wave wave) 
"Lumos!"  (wave wave wave)
"LUMOS, DAGNABIT!"  (wavewavewavewavewave)
Nothing.  That's odd.  I did everything the book told me to.  Maybe I need more dog hair.  Or an easier spell.  Let's try the first book instead.  I probably shouldn't have tried something from the third volume, since Harry was a third year at Hogwarts in that one.

Spell Name: Body-Bind

Source: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, page 273:

"(Hermione) raised her wand.
"Petrificus Totalus!" she cried, pointing it at Neville.
Neville's arms snapped to his sides.  His legs sprang together.  His whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board." *

Test Method: This one seems a lot more powerful than the old instant-flashlight trick.  Still, Hermione is a first year when she casts this, so it should be no problem whatsoever.  I can see where this spell would be very handy when the kids are getting rowdy at the supermarket.  Rather than risk one of them getting hurt on the hard tile floor and possibly run over by a shopping cart, I think I'll cast this one on Paula in the living room, where the carpet will gently cushion her fall.  We'll have a good laugh over it afterwards, once I figure out how to undo the spell (hopefully, they cover that in Goblet of Fire somewhere...)

Results: Failure.  Paula didn't bind.  In fact, she snatched my magic wand away and told me to take the trash out. 

I really don't get it. I did everything that the characters in the book did, as closely as I could - I waved my wand, said the magic words, and nothing happened at all. 

Oh, crap.  This must mean I'm a muggle.  How embarrassing.

Ah, good old D&D... where ANYONE can be a magic-user - muggle or not - as long as they meet the Intelligence requirement!

The spells contained in the Player's Handbook consist of a block of statistical information - the time it takes to cast the spell, the duration of the spell's effect, and what components are required to cast it.  The components can be verbal, somatic, and/or material, in any combination - but it is rarely supplied to the reader what the exact "magic words" of the verbal component are, how you should gesticulate to perform the somatic component, or in what way the material components are used.

Some would suggest that this means that these spells aren't really meant to be cast by real people, and that they're just make-believe.  But we know better, because we're not "comparatively ignorant of sorcery" like most people, right?

Okay, this should be easy.  Let's pick something simple, a nice First Level spell... 

Spell Name: Hold Portal

Components Required: Verbal

Spell Effect:  Turning to page 214 of the Third Edition Handbook, we find that Hold Portal will hold closed a door of up to 20 square feet per level.  Since I've been playing D&D for 20 years now, I've got to be at least 20th level, right?  So I should be able to hold a door that is 400 square feet in size. Man, oh man... the pranks I could pull with that kind of power...

Also, the spell description says that "the magic holds the portal fast, just as if it were securely closed and normally locked."*  That should easily keep my two daughters from running out of the playroom every two minutes to bother me as I write this.

Test Method: The book tells me that the only thing we need to cast this spell is a verbal component... but it doesn't tell me what that magic word is.  Still, a 20th level mage like myself should know all of this by now.  I'll just shout a few lock-related magical power words at the playroom door.

Results:  Failure.  The results went something like this: 
THUMP!  "Daddy, can we have something to drink?"
"Rats.  Let's try again:
THUMP!  "DADDY!  Nolah's pulling my hair!  Tell her to stop!"
Okay, I know what's wrong.  Aylish must know the counterspell! light as a 200 pound feather...Spell Name: Feather Fall

Components Required: Verbal only

Spell Effect: Feather Fall's purpose is to decrease the speed of a falling object -  very useful if you find yourself a sudden victim of gravity.

Test Subject: Self

Test Method:   To test this, I will climb onto the roof of our garage, leap off, and shout the verbal component - which I suspect in this case may be "Mary Poppins."  If the spell works, I should float to the ground like the suggested feather.

Results: Attempt failed.  Children traumatized; oldest daughter resorted to poking daddy with a stick to determine signs of life.  Driveway is very hard.  Ow.

Spell Name: Spider Climb

Components Required: Verbal, somatic, and material.

Spell Effect:  Spider Climb allows the caster to climb walls and ceilings like... well... a spider.

Test Subject: Self

Test Method: I will attempt to climb back onto the roof of the garage, and possibly give Feather Fall another go once I'm up there.  As usual, no verbal component is supplied, so we will be using the word "McFarlane" (and if you don't know why, then you're not enough of a geek).  The material components are the hardest to swallow - literally.  In order to successfully cast this spell, I must eat a live spider and a drop of bitumen (an asphalt).  Ack.  Oh well, it's all in the name of science...

Results: Driveway is still hard.  Ow, ow.  And for the record, live spiders taste horrible... but after the last two experiments, I've begun to acquire a taste for asphalt.

I am an enchanter! There are some who call me 'Tim'!Spell Name: Burning Hands

Components Required: Verbal and Somatic

Test Subject: A stuffed dragon that is in no way connected with the Disney Corporation.

Spell Effect: The effect of a Burning Hands spell is a sheet of flame that shoots forth from the fingertips in a fan-like spray.

Test Method: The spell description tells us that the somatic component is performed by holding the hands outward, palms down, fingers spread, with both thumbs touching.  No word is given on the verbal component, but in the Big Dragon Battle Scene of the Dungeons & Dragons movie, Profion seems to shout "fire" as a verbal component.  This seems a little too obvious, so I will be using the phrase "Disco Inferno" instead.

Results: Nothing.  Good thing, too... my kids love that dragon.

Spell Name: Change Self

Components Required: Verbal, somatic

Test Subject: Self (as if this wasn't obvious)

Test Method: The Change Self spell allows the caster to alter his appearance in any way he chooses.  Using this spell, I will be altering my appearance to resemble rakishly handsome film and television star Bruce Campbell.  For the verbal and somatic components of the spell, I'll sing a verse of "Karma Chameleon" while voguing.  But you probably didn't want that mental picture.

This is Bruce.
This is Bill. Notice the difference?

Results: Nothing.  Rats.

One standard issue rope, ready for animating.Spell Name: Animate Rope

Components Required: Verbal and somatic

Spell Effect: This spell causes any piece of rope to move about under the wizard's control.  Once cast, the rope can be used to entangle, bind, or trip an opponent, creature, or annoying neighbor's kid that keeps throwing dirt clods into your yard while you're trying to concentrate on spell casting.

Test Subject: One length of rope.

Test Method:  Cast spell, throw rope over the fence, command rope to tie up the kid, then feed him some dirt clods.  Wait, the dirt-clod-feeding step isn't really part of the spell.  Scratch that.

Results:  No moving rope.  Where did I leave the receipt for this blasted book?

Spell Name: Charm Person

Components Required: Verbal and somatic

Spell Effect: A Charm Person spell convinces the subject that you are a friend, no matter what your prior relationship may be.

Test Subject: Random passerby.

Test Method: Choosing a random passerby, I will ask a simple question: "Would you like to be my friend?", while holding both arms out for a hug.  This will act as the verbal and somatic components of the spell.  A positive response should signify that the spell is a success.

Results:  My target, a female, appeared to have a counterspell of some sort, with a material component that looked like a small red can.  The resulting gas cloud was both painful and blinding.  My spell appears to have failed, but hers seems to have been very successful.  I wonder what level she is?

Where is that blasted horse?!?Spell Name: Mount

Components Required: Verbal, somatic, and material

Spell Effect: The Mount spell summons a horse, complete with saddle, bit, and bridle, that is friendly and willing to act as your steed for two hours per level of the caster.  That should give me free rides for almost two whole days!

Test Subject: Self, I guess...

Test Method: The material component is a bit of horse hair, and for a combination verbal/somatic component, I will be shouting "Hi Ho Silver!" and making pretend horsey-riding motions.

Results: Waited two and a half hours.  No horse.  Police drove me home.

You want a piece of this? Bring it on, then...Spell Name: Mage Armor

Components Required: Verbal, somatic, and focus (a material component that is not consumed in the casting of the spell)

Spell Effect: Mage Armor protects the subject with a force field that is capable of improving the target's resistance to incoming attacks. 

Test Subject: Self

Test Method: An assistant will attempt to hit me with a weapon (a rusty old pipe wrench was chosen for both heft and visual effect).  If properly cast, the blow will be deflected by the magical force field.  The focus for this spell is a small piece of cured leather - my battered wallet should do the trick - and for the somatic and verbal, I will be clenching my fists and shouting "Sticks and Stones!"

Results: Failed.  Ouch.  And I can't find my wallet now.

Everybody now: I AIN'T GOT NOOOOBAHHHHHHDY!!!Spell Name: Cause Fear

Components Required: Verbal and somatic

Spell Effect: Cause Fear does just that - incites fear in the people and creatures around you. 

Test Subject: Self

Test Method: I never really got around to casting this spell because...

Results: ...the simple act of walking around wearing a wizard's cap and carrying a tree branch with dog hair taped to it appears to have the same effect as casting a Cause Fear spell.  Therefore, my research into this particular spell is inconclusive, since I never cast it in the first place.

The Harry Potter and Dungeons & Dragons books paint vivid pictures of wizards and witches throwing spells around in great doses of fantasy fun - but do not supply enough information to show you how to do it yourself, any more than reading Zane Grey can show you how to be the fastest gun in the West. 

Anyone who disagrees is welcome to jump off of the roof of my garage.  I'll leave the ladder out for you.

Play nice,


* Information taken from the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is the property of the respective publishers and authors.
** The author wishes it to be very clear that neither of his beloved pets were harmed in the preparation of his official Harry Potter wand.  It was molting season for the parakeet, and the dog needed a bit of a trim anyway.
Extra special thanks to Henry Peel (photos), James Peel (pipe wrench wielder & idea consultant), the whole Peel family (for letting us borrow their wonderful home), and the neighbors of the Peel family (for not calling the police).


The fun doesn't stop here! Be sure to read The Magic Mailbag, a collection of the best of the email responses to Spellcasting 101.