Reading Harry Potter in Oxford

Back in the day, C.S. Lewis thought that industry and suburban sprawl was ruining Oxford. Decades later, industry has slid into the urban background and the suburbs are here to stay. If I had to say anything at all, I would say that the crowds make this magical city just a little less transcendent. Tourists crowd Magdalen Street, Cornmarket, and the High Street. But Broad Street is the worst. They gather in handfuls on the steps of the Bodleian, but they pack them into the next block over.

When planning the trip, tourists from all over the world say they are coming to Oxford to experience the dreaming spires, the medieval to modern architecture, the cobblestones and colleges. Really, though, they are coming for the merchandise. The trinket shops overflow with travelers trying to find something that reminds them of the stone seat of Western knowledge, the birthplace of English learning, the jewel of quadrangular and Gothic architecture, the seedbed of religious transformation. They need something, you know, that captures all of that awesomeness. Like a magnet. Or a t-shirt.

In the two years since I last visited Oxford, the store windows in these memorabilia shops have changed. Once exclusively dedicated to college clothing and postcards, now they are increasingly filled with Harry Potter paraphernalia. You can buy a wand for between £3 and £40. I can’t tell you which is the best deal: it is the trinket that chooses the tourist, not the other way around. You can get a golden snitch (doesn’t work), or a Marauder’s Map (doesn’t work), or a Wizard’s Chess set (cool figurines, but doesn’t work). Perhaps I’m too much of a believer in magic to settle for Taiwanese factory versions, but it all seems a bit pale.

Except for the Harry Potter store at King’s Cross Station—next to a clever Platform 9¾ display—there is more Pottericity in Oxford than even in London. As I just happened to have started rereading the series–trying to keep ahead of my niece, who is a reading fiend–so I was curious about why Oxford has a touch of Pottermania.

It could be that not all this local Potter merchandise is 100% approved by the Ministry of Magic’s trademark lawyers. Oxford provides enough distance, perhaps, from the Ministry’s headquarters in London.

It may be because parts of the movie were filmed here. The infirmary where Harry’s bones grow back is the Divinity School at the Bodleian (I get in because I have the magic Bodleian reader’s card). I suppose there might be a Harry Potter tour of Oxford, but I haven’t seen it. Yet.

oxford gargoyleBeyond those simpler reasons, I think partly it’s that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry makes sense here in Oxford. North American readers, and perhaps British school kids at the non-posh schools, may find Hogwarts quaint with its houses, prefects, dining halls, gowns, dusty libraries, gargoyles, and collegiate integration of arts and sciences. In Oxford, however, all those things are still a reality. Professors still lecture, from time to time, in their monastic gowns. Students living in halls will dine at the high table—the same tables where the great writers, scientists, and politicians of history have whispered to friends their plans for iconic literature, groundbreaking discoveries, and totalitarian rule. The history of Hogwarts rhymes with the memory of Oxford.

I must admit, when I see the Hogwarts Crest on a shield hanging in a window, there really is something Harry Potterish about Oxford. I think it has to do with the past—our perceived history of England and Europe. While most people lived and died in the mundane moments of farms and funerals, our hearts connect with the high moments of British history. From the Celts to Roman rule, into the Middle Ages and towards the Renaissance, England is rich with story, art, architecture, law, literature, symbol, myth, and religion. And Oxford is very much a place that captures this history. At any moment in the City Centre you might cast your eye upon a Roman stone, a Norman wall, a Medieval college, or a 17th century cathedral. I don’t know why people go to the museum here in Oxford. The streets and walls and towers are the museum.

dining hall harry potterDon’t you think it’s true that to walk through the red brick wall of Platform 9¾ is to walk into the past? It seems to me that J.K. Rowling does a marvelous job of stretching history into the present in her work. Oxford is so old we don’t know exactly when the first colleges were formed. Hogwarts is formed even before Oxford, deep in the middle ages, long before England’s so-called golden era that has given us our scientific attitude and desire for technological advancement. We enter Oxford or Hogwarts, and technology slips away. At Hogwarts we are left with coal-fuelled trains, wind-swept castles, ancient libraries, candlelight, and stone stairways (albeit, ones that are bit tricky to pin down).

361b9-potter81282I think that Oxford and Hogwarts tap into something our souls yearn for, so I’m not surprised to see that Oxford is a kind of portkey into the magic of Harry Potter—even if the Potter experience itself is somewhat forced.

You can probably see that I have fallen in love with Oxford. I can’t help it. Its magic is different than Harry Potter’s, and in the midst of all these beautiful, well-read, well-dressed scholars, I feel like a great old lump of a muggle. But it is an invigorating place to read The Philosopher’s Stone once again. Indeed, I think this town will be hard to leave when my work is done.

Perhaps it’s true that it is Oxford that chooses the scholar, Harry.

Written at the back of the Lamb and the Flag, an Oxford pub where the Inklings met for a short period when they were boycotting the Eagle and Child.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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38 Responses to Reading Harry Potter in Oxford

  1. wanderwolf says:

    I loved your description of the magic that takes place there in Oxford. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That was a lovely piece, Brenton. Thank you. I once tried to persuade Oxford to take me as a student (Hertford College, the one that is connected by its own version of The Bridge of Sighs. They said, no. I was disappointed but have always loved it and it was a particular pleasure, at one time, to be a tutor on a Masters Degree in Applied Theology for ministers in service that the Oxford Divinity Faculty awarded. The tutors meetings and the summer schools were always a treat to look forward to.
    I don’t know the story of the boycotting of The Eagle and Child. Why did that happen?
    I do hope that you enjoy the rest of your stay in Oxford.


    • I’ve lost Hertford in mind as I trip around these streets… I am disappointed I haven’t schooled here.
      I can’t remember the boycott–ran out of cider, or wouldn’t let them use the back room. Does anyone remember why they walked across Magdalen street for a bit?

      Liked by 1 person

      • You turn up Catte Street at the end of Broad Street in the direction of High Street and the Bridge of Sighs is just a few yards along it on your left with the Sheldonian a little further along on your right. And I didn’t rely on my memory but on Google maps (!) and offer that with my own sigh…
        What Google cannot yet replicate is my memories of that walk, in recent years from Blackwell’s bookshop in the direction of the Quod restaurant and the anticipation of an excellent lunch in good company.


  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Lovely. I have yet to make it to Oxford, but hopefully on my next trip! I will confess: I have yet to read Harry Potter. It came out just at the right time for my kids to read it but there was a strong backlash against it in the Christian school they attended (sigh) so although I didn’t discourage them from reading it, their teachers certainly did. But they have read it since then and enjoyed the books. And none of them were zapped by the heavenly lightning of disapproval so there’s that. Anyhow I mean to read the books. Maybe I’ll pick up a copy at Oxford.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sdorman says:

      possibly the backlash is related to differing humor? i found Rowling playing with the magic, in a mocking sort of way. very funny, hilarious. the classroom, textbook magic, that is — not the other, the marvelous, the supernaturalness, which Christians JRRT and CSL worked with to heighten its qualities.


      • That’s a good question, about reaction especially by religious people who would read Narnia. I always thought it was because of the paraphernalia. Magic underpins Narnia, but the handful of magic users are bad guys. People on the good side tap into the deep magic through its significant principle: the surrender of self in humility.
        In HP, the magic is part of the up-front physics of the world–not just the resonant mythic framework, but the elements that the magic people live with day to day. This triggers the religious person, who sees wands and witches and curses and all the rest and connects it to the magic prohibitions in Scripture.


      • L.A. Smith says:

        Well, I’m not sure exactly. I think basically magic is seen as evil and therefore to be avoided. Most of the critics won’t have read the series, I wouldn’t think.

        Liked by 1 person

        • sdorman says:

          it might perhaps provide a way to work innocuously with believing adolescents (home-schooled or otherwise), by showing (as teacher) just how hilarious Rowling’s story magic is. mockery of certain kinds of folly can be a tool in the pedagogic kit …which is how JKR seems to use it. the narrative contrast between real evil and real good, in spiritual terms, might then perhaps be dealt with in more serious terms to good effect. …possibly…. if adults don’t read these they can’t figure out how to deal with it. kids will go it on their own.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Moychandizing, moychandizing!”, as we say, echoing Yogurt in Spaceballs, as we wander the department store among the Hogwarts pyjams, or I try on the XL Chewbacca lounging onesie soon to be mine…

    “Don’t you think it’s true that to walk through the red brick wall of Platform 9¾ is to walk into the past?” Yes! – I keep thinking, as the Wizarding World is so largely non- and so pre-electrified, ‘Dickensian, at the latest’.

    “Hogwarts is formed even before Oxford, deep in the middle ages,…” Yes! – more following on from the world of the Venerable Bede and Alcuin, before the rise of the universities – as institution, I suppose, for the building certainly has a later, higher mediaeval feel (lots of rebuilding, in typical mediaeval fashion?). I remember wondering if Godric Gryffindor might be named after St. Godric – but no, he lived before his time! And if Ollivanders were “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC”, I wonder where – or, if ever on the same spot, among whom?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here is the line of the day: “the XL Chewbacca lounging onesie soon to be mine”!
      Dickensian might be right. Is the train the newest technology? They have photographs, obviously printing, clocks–all in that industrial period.
      The saint would be named after the wizard, though I doubt their paths crossed. As the boring teacher said, there was much persecution in that period.
      I always love the clever joke of putting “BC” on a sign.


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