“After all this time?”
Let’s face it, the main reason we love Harry Potter is the characters. There is a depth to them that tugs at our heartstrings and makes them come alive. The friendships that are formed invite us to come join the circle, and the magic and mystery transport us for a little while to a different world.
But the world also leaves an impact on you. How many of us read the books and wished with all our hearts that an owl would drop an acceptance letter on our doorstep? Why are we lining up to get into Universal Studios’ Hogwarts and Diagon Alley sections of the amusement parks?
Because it’s a gorgeous example of world building.
Harry Potter is a unique study in world building because it’s basically a “portal fantasy” inside our own world. Instead of a wardrobe that leads you to a different, parallel world, the wizarding world is hidden inside our own. Its denizens walk alongside us, hidden in plain sight, and yet quite beyond our reach without magic to let us inside.
So, Rowling sets the wizarding world within the framework of our own. And therein lies the brilliance of her world building. She doesn’t have to bother with geography or maps or languages or history (though there definitely is history in the form of backstories, of course, but I simply mean that she doesn’t have to create an entire world history, because our own already exists), and this allows her to focus in on the microcosm of the wizarding realm (specifically a single school, though the world expanded slowly throughout the series) while still allowing it to feel like it was set in a much larger world that is both familiar and realistic.
And it’s the details that make this story, because they allow us to become fully immersed in the world, to experience it along with Harry as he discovers a whole world sitting right next to him that he was never aware of, but is now invited into.
Some of these fabulous details include things like sports, food, and transportation. Chocolate frogs that hop away and you have to catch to eat them. Jellybeans that are literally EVERY flavor imaginable. Brooms, trains hidden behind magically-disguised brick walls, and flying creatures that are only visible to people who have seen death. The idea of a sport called Quidditch which you play while flying on a broomstick sounds like such fun that even people who don’t love sports wish it actually existed. Various people trying to score points while also smacking a heavy ball at their opponents’ heads in a fast-paced, high-soaring demonstration of acrobatics and a tiny golden ball that one teammate is tasked with finding while also attempting not to get knocked out of the sky and end up in the hospital? Sounds epic and thrilling, no?
The Hogwarts castle itself is another detail that is allowed to be deeply investigated, and with is moving staircases, ghosts, and moving portraits that help guard the castle/school grounds, a dining hall with candles floating about your heads or where it snows indoors at Christmas, and a secret room that provides for our most pressing needs, we find an ethereal, haunting beauty to this place that invites us to stay a while. Isn’t this every child’s dream place to explore?
But that’s not to say that the wizarding world is a mile wide and an inch deep! On the contrary, there is plenty of depth and intrigue when it comes to cultures, social classes, and politics here! Rowling spent plenty of time explaining how the various races interact as well as unfolding the social classes among the wizards, which added plenty of tension to the story and between various characters.
But one of the things I think Rowling did especially well when it comes to world building, was her invention and use of magical creatures. Of course, we have all the regular animals of our own world included in this world, but the sheer number of magical creatures included in this world is staggering. She didn’t even make these up herself. Most of the magical creatures in her world already existed in various mythologies, but the way she seamlessly wove creatures from different cultures’ mythologies together into the series and gave them page-time that furthered the plot and characterization (either through the Magical Creatures class, or encounters that Harry and co had with them) was impressive. She changed the mythology around for a lot of them, tweaking them to fit them into her world, making them recognizable and familiar while also making them wholly her own. When you are creating your own fantasy realm, you will have to consider what creatures to include (we will talk about this more later this month), and this is just one way to do it.
What are your thoughts, dear Reader? Which world building aspects of Harry Potter most made you wish you could visit the wizarding world? What are your favorite moments from the story?