This Side of the Pond – July 14

By Sarah Pridgeon

An example of dual nationality working decidedly in one’s favor: when J.K. Rowling announces there is an American version of Hogwarts and you realize that you’re perfectly within your rights to try out the sorting hat. After all, were I a witch instead of a muggle, I’d need to transfer my affiliation to Ilvermorny House now that North America is my home.

If you’re not familiar with the Harry Potter novels, I must first congratulate you on having managed to avoid one of the most pervasive pieces of pop culture ever created. It’s the Beatles of books, the craze that swept the world and now the best-selling series of all time. It’s also hope for all of us who wrangle words for a living, as its popularity has created the world’s first billionaire author.

For the uninitiated, Harry Potter series is all about a boy wizard who survives a near-fatal attack from an evil magical lord whose name must not be spoken. But we’re not afraid of jinxes here at the Times so we’ll call him out regardless: Voldemort.

As he grows up and prepares for his big battle against the Death Eaters, Harry must, of course, attend to his education. He does so at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is split into houses along the same lines as many real British schools.

My own elementary school, for example, was divided into houses named after the four saints of the kingdom: George, Patrick, David and Andrew. At sports days and prize givings, we cheered for our housemates louder than for anyone else.

Hogwarts, on the other hand, is divided into houses named after its founders: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. These houses also compete to be the best in the school, but perhaps with more fervent rivalry than their real-life student counterparts.

With the books finding an ever-increasing audience worldwide and stage plays, games, movies and theme parks springing up beside them, the canny Rowling released a website full of extra information and an interactive journey around the universe of Hogwarts. It also included the opportunity to try on the Sorting Hat, the magical piece of headwear that discerns which house will best suit each student.

(I mentioned that these books are theoretically for kids, right?)

It did not surprise me to discover that my place would be in Ravenclaw, the house with the eagle as its emblem for the students that “soar where others cannot climb”, intellectually at least. It’s full of oddballs and nerds, the kind of wizards who invent dancing cupcakes and prefer to communicate by sending puffs of smoke from the end of their wands.

Rowling says it’s the house for witches that like to ask questions – even if that question is, “Can I wear a jellyfish as a hat?” Excitingly, it’s also the house where you have to answer a riddle to be allowed into the common room.

Starting a semester at Hogwarts would have rolled back the years for me, with a few alterations here and there. We didn’t learn Transfiguration and Charms, but we did wear the same style of uniform, complete with ties and scarves and jumpers bearing the school colors, and we did attend assemblies in the great hall.

No candles floated on the ceiling and house elves didn’t bring us our meals, sadly. Instead, we sang hymns and psalms and then returned to our classrooms, socks pulled up to our knees and strict teachers watching our every move. And while I can’t speak for every school in Britain, my own was staffed by a similarly eccentric array of characters.

I had teachers who used water pistols to encourage us to conjugate our Latin verbs properly and teachers so severe they parted students like the Red Sea as they stalked the halls. I even had teachers with their own whispered mythology, such as the librarian-and-history-professor who was rumored to have reached the highest ever entry score on a cerebral quiz show called Mastermind, but never appeared on the show because she stood up too quickly on a bus and cracked her skull on a metal pole.

My own schools were essentially Hogwarts minus the magic wands (and arguably less instructional because of it), but I would imagine that Ilvermorny House won’t quite be the same. Democratic and far from elitist, Rowling tells us that statues of its founders flank the doors and the sorting, in this case, is done via the symbol of a Gordian Knot.

Students stand on said symbol and wait for one of the enchanted carvings to react. The Thunderbird beats its wings, the Wampus roars and the Pukwudgie raises an arrow into the air, but for me it was the Horned Serpent who replied, the crystal in its forehead lighting up.

These houses are rather different to the original quartet in the Harry Potter books and are said to represent, respectively, the soul, body, heart and mind. I suppose, on balance, it’s little surprise that a Ravenclaw be sorted into the house of the mind.

Not much additional information is yet available about Ilvermorny’s houses, though I’m sure we’ll learn more before the next movie from Rowling’s universe reaches the silver screens. It’s always heartwarming when my culture follows me across the ocean – I’m just not sure I want the school uniforms to do the same.