On a recent trip to London, my 9-year-old, Violet, wanted to visit the places that composed what she referred to as “the real Harry Potter.” It turns out there is a whole industry —bus tours, cab tours, boat tours—of visiting hallowed spots in London that are featured in the books and movies and devoted to pilgrims like her, and these pilgrims are not all, or even mostly, 9 years old.
There is, for instance, at King's Cross station a brick wall that is or claims to be platform 9¾, which Harry Potter and his friends run through with their luggage carts to catch the magical train to their school, Hogwarts. When I visited recently, a woman in a conductor's uniform taking photographs of people in Gryffindor scarves pushing a luggage cart that is disappearing through the platform confirms what I can see myself. The line waiting to pose with the luggage cart is mostly not made up of kids; they are adults, young ones, from countries all over the world, including England.
The Harry Potter tourists and devotees seem to understand that the world of Harry Potter is not real, but nor is it quite unreal. Another way to put this is that if you read a book 10 times, it probably is more real than, say, a sandwich you eat without thinking.
I sometimes notice in my undergraduates a reverence for Harry Potter that they don’t quite have for other things. Once when we were searching for an example of someone treading too far into sacred space, one of them brought up a critique of J.K. Rowling as being anti-Asian or not respecting Asians enough (I know. I have no idea.) My student’s point was that you can critique almost anything, but to critique J. K. Rowling was just … well, that was going too far. Another student said, “The universe of the books influenced greatly my development as a person. I dreamt of Harry Potter, but the dreams were not about Harry, they were about me.” I notice in many of my students a deep emotional connection to Harry Potter that can’t entirely be grasped by those of us who grew up without Harry Potter; their childhoods are mixed up with Harry Potter’s in a way that we just didn’t quite feel with Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
The true devotees want to see actual issues of the Daily Prophet; they want to hold wands, to revel in and touch the details of the fantasy world. They resemble nothing so much as pilgrims lining up to see a shred of fabric that may or may not have been worn by the Virgin Mary; they are interested in the bric-a-brac of the Potter universe the way pilgrims are interested in relics. There is some greater hunger that can’t really be explained away by general consumerism and the desire for fantasy brought to life in plastic things. They are in thrall to a deeper desire, a less material need. The more I think about it, the more I think religion offers a better way to understand the powerful, passionate embrace of Harry Potter than the idea of a mere book.
It seems to me that this is a pretty singular phenomenon. After all, generations have adored the The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz without quite wanting to touch them in the same way.
Rowling has clearly tapped into the eternal children’s book fantasy of the weird outsidery kid who is, somewhere, understood. The regular (Muggle) world neglects, ignores, can’t see the strengths of the outsider kids, and then they are absorbed into a magical world where all of their outsidery weirdness is explained and repurposed as a gift; it turns out that what distinguishes them from Muggles-- their strangeness, their alienation, is that they have magical powers (that is, they are powerful.) This is a seductive idea, and it goes on being seductive long past childhood.
To get a sense of the more dedicated end of the culture you can watch grangerdanger16’s oddly fascinating videos, some of which get more than 90,000 views, in which a twentysomething Potter aficionado lovingly unpacks and narrates various Harry Potter artifacts both bought and hand made. Or you can watch the charming, also grown-up TessaROXX, with a Harry Potter lightning bolt scar magic-markered onto her forehead, recount 100 Harry Potter things to do when you are not at Hogwarts. Or you can watch a video like “Save Ginny Weasley from Dean Thomas” by the sweet, though not necessarily musically talented, indie band Harry and the Potters.
J.K. Rowling’s genius was to create a lush magical world that exists just beneath the surface of the regular, mundane world, which carries on oblivious to its existence. Which is to say implicit in Harry Potter is the idea of slipping through, of stepping in, through a fireplace, through a toilet, through a brick wall at King's Cross station, through a bright red London phone booth, to the magical world. The portals are beckoning, you just have to find them. It is this tantalizing sense the fanatics are after; the vivid magical world so close you can touch it, just out of reach.
The pinnacle of our Harry Potter tourism in London comes when we visit the Warner Bros. Studio where the films were made, and where the props and costumes originate. I am again surprised by how many among the throng of visitors filtering in are adults. There are groups of schoolchildren and some young tourists like Violet, but there is also a huge number of twentysomethings in couples and groups roaming past the potions classroom and Diagon Alley and climbing onto the Knight Bus that saves wizards in need.
Violet is very serious when she tours the studio. She is not here for fun. She takes photographs of everything. She is documenting. One might imagine the experience would be disappointing, to see the sets: the Gryffindor common room, the bed Harry sleeps in, the cupboard under the stairs. One might imagine that seeing behind the scenes would break the spell, lift the illusion, but somehow it doesn’t. The props and costumes, the issues of the Quibbler, the Quidditch quaffles, the invitation to the Yule Ball, are so intricately detailed, so lovingly rendered that they feel or look like they belong to the world she has in her head.
There are rumored to be people who have spent 11 hours in the studio. We spend more than three, though Violet would have happily gone for 11. She drinks the butterbeer Harry and his friends drink. She sits in the motorcycle sidecar that Harry rode in when leaving the Dursleys for the last time. I can tell that the longer we are there, roaming the old studio lots filled with the exquisitely detailed knick knacks of Harry Potter, the more the line blurs between Rowling’s world and what I am still pretty sure is reality.
Whatever one thinks of J.K. Rowling and her literary gifts, she has created a powerful and vibrant world, a world that rivals in charisma and vividness for many, many people, our own.
Violet, meanwhile, is reading the series for what I am pretty sure is her seventh time. I sometimes wish I would look over and see her reading a different book, but as her teacher put it, “There is still something in there she needs.”
I think she half expects that on her 11th birthday she will receive her Hogwarts letter (“Dear Violet, We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry”) and who am I, really, to say whether she will or she won’t.