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I’m not really a big fan of Harry Potter, so this won’t be a polemic about the books.  (Not this time, anyway.)  Still, the Wunderwiz and his World of Wand have been more or less unavoidable for the last few years, most noticeably when a new book or film came out.  The streets would fill with fans in cloaks and scarves, the more committed or craftminded bearing broomsticks and what were doubtless deliberately wonky glasses.  There would be midnight bookshops openings, afternoon cinema visits and (since I was an undergraduate at the time) Hogwarts tea parties in college common rooms.  This being Oxford, the costumes were particularly easy to mock up. A city where every student has an academic gown and every other week seems to involve a “skool uniform” bop at some college or other?  Not to mention the gargoyle-encrusted towers, stone staircases and the odd clique of supercilious nasties in dinner jackets.  It’s the perfect Potterstorm.

Of course there’s a reason that it’s so easy to impersonate J.K Rowling characters at our ancient universities.  And why those books translated so easily to the movie screen, with chunks of Christ Church College, Durham Cathedral and various other university buildings being knitted together for the backdrop.  These places look wizardy because they’re where a lot of the wizard stories came from.  For example, Roger Bacon, nicknamed “Doctor Mirabilis”, was a thirteenth-century English philosopher who lectured on Aristotle at Oxford, with a bit of reputation for alchemy and magic.  There’s a story (detailed in Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay) that he tried to construct a talking head out of brass that could answer any question posed to it, a project believed to be described in the lost Codex Gailtrimbul.  He also wore long grey robes and did his thinking in a tower on Folly Bridge, in an apparently prophetic attempt to pander to stereotypes which didn’t exist yet.  Clearly a wizard, on this evidence alone.  Bacon’s fellow Franciscan Robert Grosseteste showed a similar disdain for Oxford rumours, doing his work on optics and the scientific method in robes and a beard which also made him look, let’s be frank, a bit Gandalftastic.[1] [2]

Roger Bacon, "Doctor Mirabilis"

Doctor Mirabilis, wearing a non-pointy hat in an attempt to disguise himself as Someone Not Quite So Obviously Sorcerous. Divelish cunning, these university types.

Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan Bibliomancer, mathematician and angel-botherer, was a Cambridge man.  I’m told they have a certain quantity of gowns and creepy-looking mock-Gothic stone buildings over there too.  Dee gained a reputation for magic whilst a student, apparently after he designed the spectacular special effects for a show by the Greek playwright Aristophanes.  Easy to laugh at the Cambridge locals who labelled him a wizard after some stage trickery, but he did go on to write on alchemy, practise divination and attempt to converse with supernatural beings.  They were probably just used to spotting a raving Merlin wannabe by the way he handled his astrolabe.  The good Doctor turned down the offer of a post at Oxford for a more lucrative career inventing mystical glyphs, advising Queen Elizabeth I to invade everywhere else (for its own good), and getting all up in the spirit world’s business.  To give one last example, Giordano Bruno, the Italian cosmologist and philosopher who knew a lot of the same gang as Dee, hung around the university in an unsuccessful attempt to gain a job there.  After returning to Italy, he was eventually burnt for heresy.  Many years later, the Italian people, having decided he was not a wizard after all, put up this statue in his honour.

Giordano Bruno, statue in Rome

Definitely not a wizard.

So dressing up as a wizard from a fictional magic school in the common room of an Oxbridge college seemed ironic at best and deeply myopic at worst.[3] Surrounded by the towers and libraries where some of history’s most famous (alleged) magicians lived and worked, why play at being in a magic story?  Do the detectives of the Metropolitan Police read Sherlock Holmes to each other in the pub?  Do the airmen in the Officers’ Mess at RAF Cranwell dress up as Biggles?  It was a little irksome having tourists strolling around on tours which promised to show them the Harry Potter locations: few of us enjoyed having our beloved university, with its eight centuries of history, treated as a minor competitor to Disneyland.  But to those of who get didn’t get the lure of Potter, to whom they were fun and fluently-written children’s books and nothing more, fellow students taking that attitude verged on a betrayal.  We were all the inheritors of this place and our gowns were not costumes, they were the thing itself.  Oxford was not magical because it looked a bit like Hogwarts, Hogwarts was magical because it was built from bits of our colleges and legends from our history.  “Stop!” we wanted to cry, rising like a furious Partridge from a crucible of ashes, “Stop getting Oxford wrong!”

Of course, we squawked no such thing.  We grumbled a bit under our breath and wandered off to the pub or to the river.  Strangely enough, we rarely followed these grumbles by disappearing off to the library, and following the example of Doctor Mirabilis or the learned Grosseteste by long hours of study.

This is the first part of my piece on Harry Potter, fans, wizards, and university.  The second part, in which I change my opinion, entitled “Reading Things Into It, or, ‘Quads and Quidditch’”, can be read here.  Feel free to wait to see how the story develops, comment on what I’ve written here, or just generally pile on.


[1] “…the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition.” (A.C Crombie).

[2] “…tradition of BEING A WIZARD!” (The unconvinced good folk of Oxford.)

[3] I am aware, though, that these are not the worst or most ill-advised things Oxford students dress up as during festivities.  I read the lefty papers too.

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