Excerpt from A Wizard of Their Age, a collection of scholarly essays by college-aged writers about the Harry Potter series, due out within the year. My mother and I wrote the introduction, and these are my sections.
Teaching Them to Love What They Have Loved: Harry Potter Goes to College
The summer I was nine years old, my mom, my little brother and I embarked upon the long and familiar drive from our tidy neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, to the grand, dusty Utah desert. We were going to drive part way with my grandparents, then visit old friends we had left behind in Provo five years earlier; the musty orange tent bouncing in the trunk signaled our plans to camp outside Moab while we were there. For the whole trip, the three of us alternated reading aloud from a new book that my mom’s friend had just finished reading and then recommended for us—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. My brother and I bickered over how long each of us got to read before the other’s turn; he was only six years old and I was a recent third-grade graduate, but we both were eager to practice our quickly blossoming reading skills on an exciting new story of a shy English boy and his motley crew of magical friends.
In Moab, we spent hours huddled together in the tiny tent, reading about Harry as a wild desert summer storm lashed the red dirt outside. When we turned the last page in the car on the way home, we sped toward the next town to pick up the newly released Chamber of Secrets as quickly as our still-sandy vehicle would take us. Reading Harry Potter with my mom and my brother was the first time I ever discussed a book with other people who loved it as much as I did; it was during that road trip that I discovered how much I delight in talking about literature (especially while camping out in southern Utah), something that feels as natural to me now as red sand between my toes.
Not red dirt, not a red train, but a red bus bore me back to Hogwarts, and I learned of my acceptance through an e-mail rather than a letter in green ink. I was twenty-one – ten years late. I cringe a little to put it in those terms; having never quite taken to the Harry Potter movies, few things about being in Oxford annoy me quite so much as the breathless way fellow American students explain to me, “Christ Church’s dining hall is the Great Hall in Harry Potter, did you know that? Did you know Magdalen’s cloisters are where Malfoy got turned into a ferret?” As I write, I am halfway through my year abroad here, and in what little time I have, I prefer to enjoy Oxford as Oxford, my real school, with wonders and charms of its own and no need for fictional embellishment. But my eye rolls aren’t entirely honest, either. I think it must feel strange for all of us who have loved Rowling’s books to enter, as adults, something resembling the most cherished fantasy of our childhood. And even though I wouldn’t say that my love for Harry Potter drove me to Oxford as a means of realizing my younger self’s Ravenclaw aspirations, I do think that I got here because of what I learned from reading those books: falling in love with characters, examining my world through texts, finding the joy in wordplay, and hanging on for the long haul – perhaps my frenzied reading and re-reading of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, my favorite books in the series as well as two of the longest, forecasted my more recent attachments to Ulysses and Moby-Dick.
No matter how many times I combed my program’s website for some little bit of information I may have missed, now it seems that I made all of my most significant preparations for my time here through reading novels. I received images and atmosphere from Harry Potter, culture from the occasional Buck Mulligan jest, and a little bit of geography from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I have had other English students here describe to me what they knew of Oxford before arriving in terms of Brideshead Revisited or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I know that something of my experience with Harry Potter always is bound up in my time in Oxford; through all of my worldly and literary travels, I carry with me the adventure, the intellectual thrill, and maybe even the magic I felt as I held my flashlight aloft (Lumos!) and read those pages like they contained a spell to keep us safe and dry in the storm.
These days, my mom and I argue about the Blooms’ as well as Snape and Dumbledore’s moral ambiguity, and coffee-and-book dates with her are one of the things I have missed most in my time away. But it’s okay – for now, I have a different cafe, different texts to read, different people to discuss them with, and a different world to explore. Before I came here, Oxford was as shrouded in mystery and hopeful, hesitant expectation as Hogwarts once was, and now, as it happened with Harry and his friends, I am starting to feel at home.