With each new story set in the wizarding world comes a new opportunity for fans to nitpick. Why didn’t Barty Crouch just make the portkey out of something simple, like Harry’s broom? Why does Polyjuice Potion change your voice in some of the movies and not in some of the others? It’s part of the fun of inhabiting J.K. Rowling’s universe: She’s explained so much of her world so thoroughly that each tiny inconsistency feels worth interrogating.
Rowling’s newest story, the New York–set Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has its flaws, but it’s certainly gratifying to be back in Rowling’s sure storytelling hands. There is, however, one big question I’m having trouble getting over, one that comes up from nearly the first moment of the movie: Why the heck does Newt Scamander have to take a steamship from England to America? He’s a freaking wizard!
Look, plenty of people took steamships in 1926, just like plenty of people fly on airplanes now. But seriously, if you were a wizard, why would you ever travel anywhere by muggle transport? You’d ride a broomstick, or apparate, or use the Floo Network or something. You certainly wouldn’t hop on a smelly steamship for a journey that might take a week or more.
Now, it should be noted that the problem of international magical travel has never quite been solved in Rowling’s source material. Some magical schools have highly individualized travel methods, such as enormous carriages pulled by a dozen winged Abraxan horses. Flying carpets have been banned in England by Harry’s time, although it seems likely Newt might have been able to use one. Wizards travel to the Quidditch World Cup from all over the world by portkey, it seems, though the specifics of that system are never quite made clear.
And of course there’s apparation. There are hints in the books that magical teleportation gets more challenging the farther you’re trying to go. In Quidditch Through the Ages, there’s a mention of the difficulty of international apparation; it apparently should only be attempted by very skilled wizards. But Newt is a very skilled wizard! He can turn his whole suitcase into a freaking magical-creature zoo! Surely a magizoologist whose job requires him to travel the world would save himself months of travel time and just get good at apparating.
Needless to say, fans struggling to write their own Potter stories have explored many alternative possibilities. An international Floo Network? Daisy-chain apparation, including popping into existence 100 feet over the Atlantic ocean as you hop from location to location? A system of portkeys from government-approved checkpoints? The more you consider these options, the more you start to think about the worldwide ramifications of wizardry. What’s to stop wizards from going wherever they want? Why are there even nations at all? Why do wizards need money if they can just conjure food out of midair? Couldn’t the Weasleys just use magic to make Ron some nicer robes?
Oh man, we’re back to the nitpicking. It’s so satisfying though! We’ve picked this particular nit with Rowling herself over Twitter, and we’ll update this post if she replies.
Update, Nov. 18, 2016: Screenwriter/universe creator J.K. Rowling has weighed in on this important issue on her Twitter account. I grudgingly accept this explanation.