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The Hogwarts Fallacy

Posted on February 25, 2012 in Default

Harry Potter has never done it for me. I wasn’t a big fan of that kind of thing when I was a kid so I’m hardly likely to be into it now. That doesn’t mean I have a problem with it though. So I’ve watched my 9 year old get into the books over the last few months without disapproval. It’s also been useful for me as, through watching snippets of the films with him, I’ve learnt more about the Harry Potter universe.

While my knowledge is, I admit, fragmentary, it’s clear that there is one aspect of Harry Potter’s world that is central to its attractiveness, but is founded on a fallacious understanding of a venerable British institution. I’m talking here of Hogwarts school, which is clearly based on the British public school tradition (note to non-UK readers – in the UK a ‘public school’ is actually a private school).

Hogwarts is the centre of Potterworld, anchoring the adventures in the story of an adolescent’s progress to adulthood. It is an all-consuming place, full of passion, intrigue and excitement. I can imagine that for many of the young fans of the book, Hogwarts represents a deeply alluring fantasy of schooling.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it’s striking what Rowling’s creation of Hogwarts gets wrong about the public school system. Hogwarts works as a literary device as it presents the familiar trappings of the public school – houses, crinkly old masters, arcane sports etc – and transposes them to a fantasy world of magic. It therefore relies of familiarity to work. The problem is that Rowling, misses out one vital thing about the British public school – the insouciance.

Harry Potter and his friends care about their school. They are massively invested in their house, their teachers and their work. Quidditch competitions and the like are the occasion for massive outpourings of emotion.

Now I don’t deny that sometimes the British public school can be like that. But at the same time there is a counterweight: the public school boy has to affect insouciance, has to show he doesn’t care too much; he must never be seen to be trying too hard. In a real Hogwarts, analogues of Harry and his friends might exist, but they’d probably face ridicule and have to show less passion or face ostracism. Perhaps the key demonstration of this in literature is the episode in Hartley’s ‘The Go Between’, where the main protagonist is bullied at his minor public school after a passage in his diary is found in which he expresses delight after his school wins a Rugby match.

So the Hogwarts Fallacy is that the public school is a place of all-consuming passion and engagement. It is partially, but the insouciant counterweight is a powerful thing. Is the fallacy dangerous? Probably not. It does bug me though. It’s not the wizardry that makes Hogwarts unrealistic, it’s the passion.