Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Harry Potter and the Old School Tie

Oxford, England is a town dedicated to higher education of a very exclusive sort. Everywhere you look, there are turrets, bell towers, twisting staircases, and elaborate iron gates. Also tea shops, bicycles careening down the High Street, and charming little establishments vending fountain pens. and vellum notebooks. It all looks like a medieval theme park, crossed with a swath of Victorian kitsch. Or, of course, a page out of Harry Potter.

I’ve read that J.K. Rowling, as a young woman, applied for admission to Oxford but was not accepted. If so, writing a series of internationally top-selling books has certainly been her best revenge. When the seven Harry Potter novels were filmed, the stately halls of Oxford were chosen to fill in for Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft as well as its neighboring village, Hogsmeade. Theoretically, these key Rowling locations are supposed to be found somewhere in Scotland. But filmmakers know that you can’t do better than Oxford when it comes to quaint and musty medieval-looking structures. (It also is a mere two hours from London.)

Today’s Oxford tourists—of whom there are many, from all over the globe—are so attached to the Harry Potter universe that  gift shops display Potter memorabilia and there are walking tours dedicated to pointing out which college building is featured in which scene from which of the Potter films. Though I didn’t spring for any of these specialized tours, my own wanderings still put me in contact with the wonderful world of Harry and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid and Dumbledore. My guide at the venerable Bodleian Library, which dates back to at least 1602, announced with some pride that the ancient hall known as the Divinity School—noted for its spectacular fan vaulting—was used in one film to stand-in for the Hogwarts Infirmary. When I toured Oxford’s Christ Church College, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, I learned that a certain noble staircase was the spot where Harry and friends had a key conversation with Professor McGonagall. And there was more: the Christ Church dining hall, with its long rows of banquet tables and an impressive dais for faculty members, became the model for the dining hall that plays such a key role in the first Potter film. Christ Church is served by a so-called Custodial Team, fitted out in bowler hats and formal uniforms, who explain to visitors the college’s long and illustrious place in history. They’ll grudgingly discuss the Harry Potter phenomenon, but woe to the kid who innocently asks to be shown Harry’s regular seat, or inquires about his favorite foods. When a tyke dared to ask such a question in my presence, the custodian snapped out his answer: that Harry Potter is not real. .

Try telling that to the Oxford shopkeepers who supply visitors with wizard robes, wands, and Gryffindor hoodies. .One sidewalk placard announces its shop’s allegiance as follows: Wizards Welcome. Muggles Tolerated. Of course, the rest of England is trying hard to jump on the lucrative Potter bandwagon too. A throwaway London travel guide announces (just above an entry for Westminster Abbey) family tours of Warner Bros. London studio, where you can see the sets representing Diagon Alley, Hagrid’s Hut, and the brand-new Gringott’s Wizarding Bank. And London’s King’s Cross Station now boasts its own Platform 9 ¾, to reflect the famous magical platform where Harry and his peers board the train to Hogwarts. It started out as a mere sign, but now has its own memorabilia shop, complete with a professional photographer to deck you out in appropriate Potteresque garb.  

For Roz Arnold, my fellow Oxford explorer.
A Christ Church College custodian

The Divinity School, which morphed into an Infirmary
Dining Hall, Keble College, Oxford

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