I've just re-read Summer Knight, and in it, there's a lot of mentions of how outmatched Harry always is. Now I'm listening to Dead Beat, which is the seventh book in the series, and it's talking about how he's in the top-10 for power, he just has no fine control.

Was there an actual switch where they started acknowledging that Harry's a bit of a powerful but imprecise magician, or did it just evolve during writing? And has this ever been discussed by Jim Butcher?

EDIT: To be clear, I'm aware that Harry was always this powerful, my question is at what point did the books start drawing your attention to it?

  • You're a wizard, 'Arry! – John O Mar 23 '13 at 19:03
  • "I don't do parties." - Harry Dresden – Jeff Mar 23 '13 at 21:38
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    It's the difference between a level 4 wizard and a level 7 wizard - this is also why there can only ever be 20 Dresden files books unless someone buys Jim Butcher a copy of the D&D epic rules. – user11154 Jun 21 '13 at 8:06
  • @Mechatankzilla: No way he was level 1 in the first book. Fugeo is not a 1st-level spell. Gotta be at least a 3rd-level spell, which puts Dresden at least at level 5. – Jeff Jun 21 '13 at 13:19
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    I beg to differ - Fuego is quite clearly Burning Hands, a level 1 spell. however I'd guess that Harry has a feat of some sort that either increases his caster level or boosts his damage – user11154 Jun 24 '13 at 11:23

Harry Dresden has described himself as 'easily in the top 40, world-wide, for raw power'. What he lacks is precision, experience, and technique.

His power has never really 'spiked' without outside assistance. Rather, his technique and precision have improved and he has gained experience. He's gotten more powerful as well, but that is because magical ability grows as you exercise it.

He is actually very rarely outmatched. Of the foes he faces in his normal life, he's more than a match for them. The books, however, focus on the times when he's up against serious opposition. Harry throws down with vampires, werewolves, Fae, evil practitioners, etc. These are hardly your run-of-the-mill opponents.

For reference, let's consider a situation in Changes (book 12). I will attempt to keep this spoiler-light, since you likely haven't read it yet.

Harry's fairy Godmother, Lea, is outfitting him. She feels that, for the upcoming event, Harry must look the part. She magically changes his clothing at a whim, and layers the clothes with magical protection. Unlike his coat, this protection covers his whole body (even where the cloth itself doesn't) and can stop rifle rounds with no ill effect.

Harry is miffed - this spell far exceeds the protections he's built into his coat, and Lea has shown little or no effort in doing it. Then he asks how long it will last, remembering that his most recent tweak to his jacket's spell will last almost a year before being refreshed. Lea's spell will last less than 24 hours.

This should be taken as a perfect example of what I started off with: Lea is 2nd in power only to the Winter Queens. She is an immortal who has millennia of experience. Her technique has been refined for centuries or more, and her precision is exceptional. Her spell is outside of anything Harry could accomplish without a lot of time and effort...but he could do it.

To quote his brother, “He's Gandalf on crack and an IV of Red Bull, with a big leather coat and a .44 revolver in his pocket.” Even Gandalf, however, has Sauron and Balrogs. Harry meddles in things that are typically beyond mortal ken, mouths off to literal deities, and spits in the eye of monsters that would give the Faerie Queens pause. When you're going up against things that powerful, you ARE outclassed, even if you happen to be really strong.

Edit: I think I may have thought of the exact moment when the change happened. Spoilers for the end of Dead Beat:

It might, just MIGHT have been when Harry decided he had nothing better to do with his Saturday night than to

Raise a 65-million year old Tyrannosaurus Rex from the dead and ride it through downtown Chicago to save the Wardens, including his former night-terror-inducing boogeyman Morgan, from the Disciples of Kemmler (himself one of the more potent necromancers ever known). He even brought along his very own one-man polka band, to provide background music.

Or maybe it was when he realized that his actions, in addition to saving the Wardens, the city, and possibly the world from a necromantic death god, had compelled Morgan (who spent the first book hounding Harry unjustly, and still caused him the odd nightmare) to have to

wear said polka suit in public.

If you haven't read the books, I'm not joking about a single point. I swear, it makes perfect sense in context.

  • I see. What I mean is that initially in the books, there's far more about how outmatched Harry is, and over time, there's far more about how powerful he is if only he could concentrate. I'm wondering if there was a deliberate moment between Summer Knight and Dead Beat where the focus changed. – deworde Mar 25 '13 at 9:57
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    No, it was more a matter of a slow change of focus. Recall that the books are told from Harry's perspective, so it's indicative of how his self-perception has changed. Especially as he begins finding his place within the larger wizarding community, he sees himself as less of an outmatched outcast and more as an unfocused powerhouse...especially once he joins a certain group and can match himself up against them. – Jeff Mar 25 '13 at 13:14
  • Cool, that explains why the shift is so much more jarring when re-reading 4 and 7 back-to-back. – deworde Mar 25 '13 at 14:34
  • Note, however, that even as of Cold Days Harry is still commenting on how outmatched he is against non-human things like Sidhe or Outsiders. – KutuluMike Mar 25 '13 at 19:46
  • @MichaelEdenfield: Yes. Yes, he is. He's a bit whiny, no? – Jeff Mar 26 '13 at 2:32

You are comparing apples to oranges with those two comments.

When Harry says he's "in the top 10", he means that he is among the top 10 most brute-force-powerful human wizards alive in the world. In other words, he places himself in league with the White Council members in terms of the amount of raw power and force he can manipulate at any given time. (He often describes himself, especially in comparison to his apprentice, as the magical equivalent of a thug or bruiser).

However, he is constantly outmatched in two specific area:

  • He has very little fine control over his magic. Other Wardens with much more experience than him can do a lot more with far less magic. For example, contrast his use of fire, basically fireballs and fire lances, to another Warden's use of fire in the form of pencil-thin laser beams.
  • He is way outclassed in most situations because the things he's fighting are not human. For example, he continually runs afoul of the Sidhe Queens, like Titania and Mab, who can squash him on a whim. He faces vampire sorcerers, fallen angels, gods, demons, etc. for whom magic is a part of their nature, and often to a degree he cannot hope to match.

Of course, Harry cannot remain as outmatched and limited as he was in the first book, or the series would get very boring. He's continually going up against things that way outmatch him and winning, so the things he faces have to keep getting more powerful. Harry compensates by getting better at the fine control (in the last few books he does things he claims would have been lethal for him to try in the beginning). He also finds new an exciting sources of power to supplement his own and counteract some of the inherent unnatural power of his enemies. There is no "spike" in his power, but there is a gradual but continual increase in what he's capable of as the series progresses.


He is leveling up, bit by bit. Harry, however, is always the last to know. He's a bit of an unreliable narrator on this point. He finally realizes at least part of what's going on when he visits the island in Turn Coat ... the White Court guys who show up to "arrest" him look nervous, and he mentally goes through his resume, noting that these guys don't realize how much luck, help from friends, and improbable coincidence were involved in his victories against some heavy hitters.

Harry also doesn't realize that many of the guys who intimidate him are in the same situation; they got where they are through a highly contingent series of events also.

The books explain it pretty well. In Changes the guys tell Harry that things went bad in Chicago after he vanished, precisely because he had such an intimidating reputation. In Cold Days, Vadderung tells Harry that his recent antics in Changes and Ghost Story have started to draw the attention of parties who would have found him irrelevant before.

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