Why I chose to teach Harry Potter

A chance encounter introduced Martin Richardson to the boy wizard. Now he lectures in Harry Potter at Durham University...

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The boy who lived. The title to the very first Harry Potter chapter gives it away, really. The series of books penned by J.K. Rowling created a world that lives both within and beyond our own. 

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I first came across the boy wizard by accident: I was involved in a research project sponsored by the EU looking at history, identity and culture; and when our group met for the first time in Austria we introduced ourselves.  When I described my university at Durham, with its professors, gowns, high tables, balls and formal meals, one of the group said that it sounded, ‘just like Harry Potter’; and I suppose it did. 

From then on I started to make reference to Potter in my three undergraduate modules in the School of Education.  Thus, when looking at the public schools of the nineteenth century, I was able to make links between Harry Potter and Tom Brown, as well as Dumbledore and Arnold – the latter a real headmaster.  Yet, intriguingly in many ways, it is the myth and legend of Arnold that is more influential than the real man.

Similarly with my module looking at identity, culture and education, I explored the way in which, both in print and through film, the Harry Potter series had sent an image of Britain around the globe that was as narrow and time-locked as it was persuasive. 

Citizenship education too, my third module, was given a magical makeover. Is Harry a good citizen? It seems that Harry turns his back on the pleas of his government in its attempt to overthrow Voldemort, refusing to be ‘the Ministry’s new poster boy.’

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Is Harry Potter a good citizen?

All the pieces were beginning to come together – the blurring of fact and fiction; a changing Britain with some trying to cling a little too much to its past; and the intriguing question – can you be a good person, but not a good citizen?

The more I read, and one should never forget that first and foremost Potter was and is a literary phenomenon, the more I saw that here was a world that in many ways mirrored our own. Philip Pullman sees fiction, whether it be in print, on the stage or screen, as a way of inducting people into the School of Morals. It soon became clear that these were books not solely for children – the themes were so vast they were for everyone. 

The exponential growth of the Potterverse was unprecedented – added to the books were the films, the merchandising, the studio tours, and significantly the internet. This latter gave the international fan base the opportunity to write their own stories, produce their own videos and even share recipes for Harry Potter themed cakes!

Can Potter be dismissed as mere froth – entertainment for the masses, the product of media hype and clever marketing? This is clearly the position held by some – but it doesn’t account for the books. There is a commitment here to reading – especially given seven volumes of increasing length and complexity. Whatever the reason, it seemed that right from the start people cared about Potter – all sorts of people cared, and people of all ages and in all countries.  Potter was uniting the planet. 

Indeed, it is the universality of the series that makes it so appealing. One can consider the moral ambiguities of Dumbledore or Snape, or talk about Draco’s Judas moment in Malfoy Manor when he chooses (the key point) not to identify Harry – when to do so would have rehabilitated his whole family. Draco in effect saves Harry and at the same time his own soul. Of course, many authors have explored such moral issues, but none have done so to half a billion readers on every continent.

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The 2014 Sorting Ceremony for students of Durham University

I held the first sorting ceremony for the Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion module in the Great Hall of University College Durham, which incidentally was originally to have been the Great Hall at Hogwarts but it was not free for the three weeks needed for filming. Announced on the BBC, the sorting garnered a lot of media attention. It was certainly fun; with students sorted into their houses and asked to take their place at their House table bedecked in their House colours. However, it was more than just an undergraduate jollification. This was serious – theatre with a purpose. When were you first sorted? At birth? Does it matter which family you belong to? Which school or university you attend?  Which course you are on or college you are in? 

I don’t know when I realised just how rich the Potterverse was – and I’m not sure that I fully understand even now.  I do know that it encourages children to read, that it has brought families together and that it poses questions that will stretch even the most able. Is it our choices rather than our abilities that show us what we truly are? Is death the next great adventure? Can someone be born evil?

Here was the magic – the whole series allows everyone to reflect on what it is to be human and enrol in the School of Morals.

Dr Martin Richardson is Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Education at Durham University

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