01 September 2007

Harry Potter's Guide to Britain

Periodically I muse about how certain children's fantasy novels reflect national cultures or interests: hyperpower America in the Percy Jackson series, technophile Ireland in Artemis Fowle, post-colonial Britain in the Bartimaeus trilogy.

I've been wondering how J. K. Rowling's books fit into that model. What self-portrait of Britain has this most lucrative of British exports created?

Rowling herself is English, by ethnicity and early upbringing; she was born and grew up in Gloucestershire. She started planning the books while living and working in London. They're published by a London press named after a London neighborhood.

On the other hand, Rowling's family moved to Wales when she was nine. She went to secondary school near the Welsh border, and university at Exeter, in England's southwest.

Rowling has also shown an international outlook at times in her life. She worked in London for Amnesty International, a global non-profit, and then moved to Portugal and married. Returning to Britain with her baby, Rowling settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she famously completed her first novel. Now, with all the money she could need, two of her three houses are in Scotland.

Thus, many of Rowling's most important experiences took place outside London, outside the nation's center of establishment power.

In the US, we have many centers of power: New York is the capital of print media and finance, but Washington is the capital of government, Los Angeles the capital of mass entertainment, and so on. For the UK, in contrast, London is the capital of all those things and more. For centuries British society has experienced tensions of various sorts between the metropolis and the country.

I see that dynamic at work in the Harry Potter novels as well, with the British countryside coming across as a lot more appealing and homey than London. Harry has felt at home in only three places:

  • the secluded village in western England where he lived with his parents as an infant.
  • Hogwarts School, a long train ride to the north in Scotland.
  • The Burrow, the Weasleys' home in the village of Ottery St. Catchpole, apparently in Devon.
In addition, in HP7 Harry finds refuge in the seaside Shell Cottage and in a magical tent pitched in various forest clearings, far from urban areas.

In contrast, the series' metropolitan London contains:
  • the Dursleys' awful house in a bland southern suburb.
  • Diagon Alley, a crossroads of good and bad magic and mailing address of the unreliable Daily Prophet.
  • the besieged Black mansion, a refuge that's hostile even at the best of times.
  • the feckless and then oppressive Ministry of Magic.
  • King's Cross station (as shown above, via Flickr thanks to the Pang family)--which is most notable in being a gateway out of London. It's never as much fun coming back.
In sum, the London of the Harry Potter series is, like the London that we know, the center of British commerce, media, and government. But you really wouldn't want to live there. It's not nice.

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