Before we get into your favourite Harry Potter books, can I ask what subject you’re reading at Warwick University?
Is there a subject bias among Harry Potter Society members—does Harry Potter appeal mainly to scientists, or are there lots of people studying English?
Our society is the Harry Potter and Quidditch Society. There’s quite a split between the quidditch players and the Harry Potter side of things: I’d say the majority of people on the quidditch team are doing STEM subjects; those who just come to the Harry Potter-themed events are mainly English or languages students. But there’s a mix across the whole society.
You wear both hats don’t you—quidditch and Harry Potter?
Yes, but I didn’t initially. I joined not having read any of the Harry Potter books, or seen any of the films. I joined just for the quidditch and then, as I got more involved, I thought well, I should probably try and integrate myself a bit more. Slowly I’ve switched over to being a part of both.
Tell us a bit about quidditch. I’ve seen it being played in the films. I also live in Oxford where I see students playing it in the University Parks. How closely can you replicate the rules of the game as they exist in the books? And do you play between universities or even internationally?
It’s quite similar to the books. You have all the same positions—keeper, chaser, beater and seeker. Instead of a small snitch ball that flies around we have an impartial referee, who runs around with a tennis ball in a sock attached to their shorts. It’s like tag rugby. You have to grab the sock to end the game, but instead of being worth 150 points, it’s worth 30—just to make it a bit more even, because each goal is still worth 10 points, so a win would be guaranteed if catching a snitch was 150 points. With 30 points, either team can still win, despite not having caught a snitch.
“I think the overarching theme is friendship”
Instead of beaters with bats you have dodgeballs, and you throw the dodgeballs at people to temporarily knock them out of the game. Chasing and keeping are pretty similar. You have a volleyball and you just have to put that through the hoop to score 10 points.
Do we play it internationally? Yes. There are teams all over the world—USA, Uganda, Australia—everywhere. So, we play locally, nationally and internationally. Internationally there’s a World Cup, a European Cup, an Asian Cup, and more.
Where was the last quidditch World Cup held?
The last one was in Florence in Italy. It was supposed to be held again this year in the US—in Richmond, Virginia—but was postponed because of coronavirus. In 2021 I think it might be moved back to Europe.
And how many countries participate?
There are teams in over 40 countries across the world. Twenty-nine countries participated in the 2018 World Cup.
Is there a quidditch equivalent to FIFA—an international oversight body?
There’s the International Quidditch Association, which oversees the sport internationally, and then each country has its own governing body. Ours is QuidditchUK.
Does J.K. Rowling have any kind of presidential veto over rules? Or is she totally uninvolved?
No. We acknowledge that our roots are with Harry Potter, but we try to distance ourselves a little bit from J.K. Rowling. She’s aware of our existence, but she’s not involved in any way.
I imagine you must have been born roughly when the early books were being written. I was going to ask you whether the Harry Potter books were what started you reading in the first place but, given what you said earlier, it clearly can’t have been.
For a lot of people I think it is. But it definitely wasn’t that way for me.
And have you found Harry Potter a gateway drug for other fantasy series like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?
I know a lot of people in the society for whom that’s definitely true. They find they can escape the real world into these fantasy worlds. I actually read Lord of the Rings before I read Harry Potter, and didn’t like Harry Potter until recently. In order to talk about the books with you, I’ve collected the opinions of people in our society who’ve liked Harry Potter for ten-plus years, because my personal opinion probably isn’t the most representative.
Got it. Next question—and do base your answer on what others have said—do you think people read them differently as adults than as children or, fundamentally, is the appeal the same for all ages?
I definitely think there’s some difference. If you look at Twitter, for example, there are always debates going on about the deeper meaning of the books. Pottermore—or Wizarding World as it is now—is the official Harry Potter fan base website. J.K. Rowling releases short stories online there which adds to the books, creating more discussions as people’s view point matures with age. As a child it is more about the magic and the adventures on the surface of the plot, rather than the politics behind it.
Do you think that a lot of the appeal for children is that they actually like the idea of going to a Victorian boarding school?
Yes, I think so. Especially in America, after the release of the films you see a lot of people looking at Oxford where some scenes were filmed. The grand architecture adds to the magic of the stories. For younger readers, the thought of sleeping in a dorm with friends and all eating in the great hall together is exciting.
Let’s move on to the books. We’ll take them in the chronological order that they were printed. But I notice that you’ve basically missed out the first two in the series. So you’re starting with number three. Did J.K. Rowling only get into her stride after the first two books? In any case, you think the third in the series and the first we are going to discuss, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the best of the lot. Is that right?
Yes. The first one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US and India] is quite nostalgic for people who read it in their childhood and it’s the starting point of it all in terms of the plot. But both of the first two lack depth. The second one, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn’t really add anything to the characters.
The reason we think the third one is the best is because it’s the most magical. And you start to delve into things outside of Hogwarts—the whole wizarding community. You start to learn a bit more about the backstory and so it’s really the beginning of the rest of the series.
And the ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ is Sirius Black. And he’s out to murder Harry Potter.
That’s the way it seems when the story begins. [SPOILER ALERT] Then you find out that, actually, he’s Harry’s godfather. You assume that he was the one who betrayed Harry’s parents and killed his friend, but it turns out that the friend who people think Sirius Black killed was actually the murderer and the one who betrayed Harry’s parents. So he is coming back to Hogwarts, not to kill Harry, but to kill Peter Pettigrew, the person who actually betrayed the parents.
Peter Pettigrew, the actual murderer, turns out to be Ron’s pet rat. You find out that Peter has been hiding out with the Weasleys for the past eleven years or so. Ron then takes his ‘rat’ to Hogwarts with him, which is why Sirius Black is coming back, not to kill Harry but Peter Pettigrew.
And what makes it the outstanding book compared to all the others do you think?
As I said, it delves further into the wizarding community and magic. As the books become longer, they also get darker, with more plot twists and interesting events occurring. You find out about characters back stories, and so it’s easier to connect with them.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, you are introduced to Harry’s parents and the Marauders, who are Remus Lupin (who ends up as a teacher), Sirius Black, James Potter and Peter Pettigrew, the original four. These characters add a strong comical element to the book, which a lot of people enjoy, intertwined with the evil that you can sense getting stronger.
Let’s move on to the next book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Before we do, do you need to read the books sequentially, or is it easy to pick up each of them at random and understand the story? Each covers a year of his life at school, but is each a self-contained story?
I think the sequence is important. It doesn’t matter too much in the early books because there’s not much character development but, definitely, as you get into the series you need to have the backstory to understand what’s going on.
Where does Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire take the story?
In this book, there’s a wizarding competition between Hogwarts and two other wizarding schools. The students from the three schools have to be of a certain age to enter the competition. If they’re of age they can enter their names and then the goblet will pick out the names of the three it thinks most worthy. Then those three will compete for the honour of being Triwizard Champion.
Harry is underage, but somehow his name is picked out of the cup as a fourth champion, so there are two people competing from Hogwarts. There are three tasks that he completes and this is one of the reasons people enjoy the book so much. There’s a good variety of exciting and new challenges Harry has to face which is different to the format of the earlier books. However the plot isn’t particularly complex, which is why is doesn’t rank higher up.
“As the books become longer, they also get darker”
These puzzles make it quite a fun book. At the end of the last challenge, a maze, Harry and Cedric Diggory, the other champion from Hogwarts, win together. Reaching the end point is supposed to transport them back to the edge of the maze where the audience are, but instead it takes them to Godric’s Hollow. Here they face Voldemort, who is ‘reborn’. Cedric does not survive. This creates a darker tone ready to go into the next book, which deals with the implications of Voldemort being ‘back.’
Let’s move on to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Not many people believe that Voldemort’s back because they only have Harry’s word for it. And the Ministry of Magic doesn’t want to believe it, either. They tag Harry and Dumbledore as liars. Harry forms a group called Dumbledore’s Army to train people to face Voldemort because the school won’t teach them the necessary skills to fight.
The Order of the Phoenix is a group now run by Dumbledore who also exist to fight back against Voldemort and his followers. It’s the first book with an overall dark tone, but of course has plenty of humorous moments. The story has shifted from being about magic itself, and more towards defeating this evil character.
Is there anything particular to say about the book in terms of its style or tone?
I think it really moves the story along in terms of how, not only Voldemort is after Harry, but also the Ministry of Magic and the wider wizarding community, who all see Harry as an attention seeking liar. It explores Harry’s feelings of isolation, and of course they are teenagers now so there’s that to deal with. It gives a lot of important backstory and delves into it in a bit more depth.
It’s the longest of the novels, isn’t it?
Yes. It does a lot to set up the story for Voldemort to plot his return to power. Now that he has a physical body he can start trying to take over again. The book really sets the scene for the beginning of the end.
Next up is The Half-Blood Prince. This is where the story gets even darker. Who is the ‘Half-Blood Prince’?
The Half-Blood Prince is Severus Snape, one of the teachers whom Harry notoriously doesn’t get on with. Snape doesn’t like Harry because Snape was in love with Harry’s mother, Lily, but she married James instead. So, there’s a bit of resentment there. Harry gets an old potions book with a load of amendments that the Half-Blood Prince has made when he had the book. As a result, Harry becomes really good at potions and wins a vial of liquid luck.
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The overarching story is that Dumbledore is trying to get a piece of memory from one of the other teachers about how Voldemort has managed to survive. This memory reveals that Voldemort made horcruxes, which are parts of his soul. He split his soul into seven and that memory is of the teacher explaining to Voldemort how to split yourself and that’s how we find out how Voldemort survived. Harry ends up using the luck he earned for being good at potions to find this out.
You think Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the next best after The Phoenix of Azkaban, right? And Deathly Hallows the best after that. So the last two are great books in your opinion?
Yes. As you said, it gets a bit darker in these last two books. But there’s also comedy and the big plot twist of Severus Snape being the Half-Blood Prince. It explains how Voldemort survived all these years. Another reason it’s a fan favourite is the character of Slughorn, the teacher they’re trying to get the memory from. He is a really interesting character, a bit different from all the others. He’s also a Slytherin, which is normally regarded as bad, but Slughorn, despite his flaws, cares about his pupils and their achievements.
That leads onto Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is the last book, where we see the final confrontation with Voldemort. What happens in this book?
We’ve previously learnt that Voldemort has split his soul into seven, and here we find out that he has put the pieces of his soul into different things that mean a lot to him, like the diary that was in The Chamber of Secrets, a ring, a locket and his pet snake, Nagini. The story is Harry, Ron, and Hermione trying to find all of these pieces of his soul and destroy them, because that’s the only way that you’ll destroy Voldemort in the end. On this journey they get captured, and escape with a house-elf called Dobby who dies trying to save them. It ends in a big battle and eventually Harry overpowers Voldemort using a powerful wand. Voldemort dies at the end, ending his reign of terror over the wizarding world.
Finally, in very big broad terms, what are the Harry Potter books about?
I think the overarching theme is friendship. There are the three main characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione and they all have their own thing that they bring to the table. This is represented well in the first book where Hermione uses a spell she learnt, Harry his flying skills, and Ron his chess-playing talent to get them to the Philosopher’s Stone.
“There are teams all over the world—USA, Uganda, Australia—everywhere”
Other big themes are conflict and having a moral compass. Then, of course, there’s just the magic and being able to do magic, which appeals to the child in all of us.
Are there any particular reference books related to the Harry Potter series that you would recommend, either to understand the culture of the books, their symbolism or underlying philosophy? Is there a Harry Potter encyclopaedia or anything like that that you would recommend on top of the books?
Outside of the main series there’s a really good book called The Case of Beasts, which talks about the behind-the-scenes filming of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. It covers the costumes, the sets and the scripts which I found interesting.
On the original series there are things like Quidditch Through the Ages, which is an in depth look at the history of fictional Quidditch, or Short Stories From Hogwarts. But they didn’t make our top five because you have to a mega fan to find it interesting, I think.
Do those have J.K. Rowling input?
They’re not written by her, but they are official Harry Potter books. I think she had some input, but it wasn’t her writing.
Anyway, The Case of Beasts, which is about the Fantastic Beasts movie, whose script was written by J.K. Rowling, is the thing you would recommend after the novels themselves.
Yes. It gives a good behind-the-scenes look at the work that went into the film, and it’s got pull-out parts where you can fill out your own wand-registration form and posters and things like that. It’s a good book.
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