I was never invited to Hogwarts. In this episode I offer you the Wizarding World as seen from an outsider’s perspective. This is a muggle’s story.
Hey everyone. You’re listening to Paracosms where my goal is to help you get to know your fiction. I’m Arthur McMahon and I’ll be taking todays episode down a different path. Rather than peering deep into the inner workings of the Harry Potter universe, I’ve decided to offer you the wizarding world as seen by an outsider, someone who hasn’t experienced the entire story. Me.
Yes, it’s true. I’m one of the few people out there who doesn’t know all there is to know about Harry Potter. I haven’t read all of the books, nor have I seen all of the movies. I don’t know the wizarding world, not well enough to put it through the wringer like I have with other worlds in past episodes.
I missed that train to Hogwarts, the one that it seemed like the rest of the world had a ticket to ride.
I don’t want to go off about why I don’t like Harry Potter or list you the things I think are wrong with the series. There’s enough criticism out there and I know the millions or billions of die-hard fans out there don’t want to hear it. And I do like the story and the characters, as far as I know them at least. I just haven’t had the drive to finish the story.
So instead I just want to tell you my story as way to give you insight into how I missed out on the fandom, because I know I’m not the only one.
Yet in many situations I felt like an outsider for not having experienced this fictional world, and looking back at those moments I now find them fascinating. It was never anything serious, but how could I be scoffed at or shunned for not knowing the rules to quidditch or the names of the houses? Why did I have to be the one to feel awkward for not knowing how to react when a friend mimicked a wand-waving motion and yelled Expelliarmus at me?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? That this awareness and knowledge of a fictitious place had become so ingrained in our culture that kids like me were pressured to experience it. I succumbed to it, eventually. Let me share with you my experiences with Harry Potter.
I was eleven years old when the first book was released, the prime age to become a fan. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone found some early success in the UK and then was published a little later in the US where it was renamed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The skinny, scruffy-haired boy turned eleven years old in that first book. Him and I could have been best friends, a match made in wizard heaven, but sadly it wasn’t meant to be.
Let’s go back to that time— to the year 1997. I was a kid living on the second floor unit of a two-family home in the urban New Jersey community of Bayonne. It’s a town that is a literal neighbor to New York City, and has always seemed to be a place that no one has ever heard of. My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Chetkin. She caked colorful makeup on to her face every morning and wore even more vibrant clothing. Surviving in a 1200 kid elementary school was no picnic, but I held my own and did well in my classes.
I wasn’t much of a reader back then, but I do remember picking up plenty of Goosebumps books from the Scholastic book fair that would appear in the school library every so often. The choose your own adventure editions were my favorite. I had classmates who preferred mystery books like The Hardy Boys, but I couldn’t get into them. They seemed really boring. Why would I be interested made up mysteries?
I was ultra-competitive at the time though and it wasn’t uncommon for me to go far beyond my limits to be seen as the best. I would pull the biggest books I could find off the library shelves, pretending to read and understand Encyclopedia Britannicas or ridiculously oversized novels like War and Peace.
I didn’t ever read at home though, only at school. So you’re probably thinking ‘ok, so he didn’t read— that’s why he doesn’t like Harry Potter’, but that’s not the whole story.
It was mostly due to my English teacher. Mr. Koch sparked my interest in fantasy.
As an eleven year old boy I spent my free time playing with friends. All of my free time. I’m not trying to hold that over anyone’s head, it’s just what I did. The moment I came home from school I was outside or over a friend’s house until dinnertime, and then once I was done eating I was out again until it was bedtime. We were playing stickball in the park or hockey out on the street. Jimmy, Joey, Jonny— all the guys and I were out playing sports, exploring the town, or hanging out playing with video games and Pokemon cards.
There were books I had to read for school, but I didn’t make the time to read any others. Reading for fun— Who did that?
But Harry Potter wasn’t big in 1997, nothing like it was destined to become, especially in the United States. It took years for the ball to really get rolling for the franchise. I never actually heard of Harry Potter until the first movie came out near the end of 2001. At that time I was a high school freshman and was still figuring out what interested me in life. It was about then that I started getting into writing and literature.
It was mostly due to my English teacher. Mr. Koch sparked my interest in fantasy. Among Shakespearian classics such as Julius Cesar and poems by Walt Whitman, Mr. Koch exposed my class to The Hobbit.
This was the first time I had ever read a Tolkien novel, and it was the first book I can remember falling in love with. We read and discussed the book as a class, then we got to watch the 1977 cartoon movie of together on VHS. This was one of the most memorable, and perhaps most defining experiences of my childhood. Mr. Koch continued to feed our enthusiasm by organizing a field trip for the class to go see the newly released Fellowship of the Ring movie in theaters.
It was amazing. I was pulled right into the magic of Middle-earth and was so disappointed that the movie was over before Frodo and company had made it to Mt. Doom. I could have easily sat in that theater for another six hours.
In the weeks that followed I borrowed each of the Lord of the Rings books from the library, even going so far as to read the Silmarillion— twice. I had become a fan of wizards and magic, but of a different sort.
The first Harry Potter movie debuted at about the same time as the first Lord of the Rings film. The tickets to Hogwarts were their for the taking, but I was never offered one. I wasn’t invited like I had been to Middle-earth.
I can remember one friend I had who was reading the books. He was my only exposure to the Wizarding World. Corey was so excited to talk about Harry Potter, but the rest of us kids on 15th street didn’t get into it. Corey wasn’t convincing enough, I guess. It was just one of those things where we shared a common interest, but we were on slightly different paths that never quite crossed over one another.
Fast forward a few more years to when I met Jill. She was my girlfriend back in 2006, and now she’s my wife. Through Jill and her friends I was introduced to a great many worlds of fiction that I had never before experienced.
I was in college at the time, which meant that I was being exposed to many different aspects of life. I learned a lot about myself in those formative years. The student culture around my school helped me figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like. Of course I learned plenty of important lessons in my actual classes, but I also learned a lot about people and life through the process of figuring out how to be an adult, how to live on my own.
The parties were abundant, but I found out that I didn’t like partying all that much. Reading kept falling in and out of my favor as well, though I was still fond of imaginary places. I watched more movies and TV at the time.
Reading was tough because I had so much of it to do for my classes already. It was just a lot easier to veg out on the couch in front of the boob tube after a long day of classes and homework. Plus there were just so many social obligations to keep up with, my girlfriend being one of them.
I didn’t really have a choice when it came to learning about Harry Potter, not within my circle of friends at least.
Like I said, she exposed me to new fictional worlds, but I didn’t really get into many of them. I remember she was really into Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth. I read the first book and enjoyed it, but I wasn’t interested enough to pursue it further. There were other books and movies and such too, but I think I was in still in the mindset of figuring out who I was, so I didn’t really want to accept other people’s ideas of ‘good’ entertainment. I wanted to find stuff on my own.
When Jill and friends learned that I had never read Harry Potter or seen the movies I was bombarded by their sudden outburst of love for the series. They pushed it on me, but in that self-defining stage of my life I didn’t want to be associated with what by then I had considered a kid’s story.
They had all grown up with Potter and the Gryffindor gang. To them the characters and world had matured as they did, but for me I would be starting fresh, reading a story about an eleven year old kid who fussed about bullies and rode around on a broomstick.
For me it wasn’t going to happen.
But as the years went by I partially succumbed to the peer pressure of it all. It seemed like everyone I met had experienced J.K. Rowling’s creation, and that’s probably close to the truth since hundreds of millions of copies of the books have sold and the movies are some of the biggest box office hits in history.
I saw the first movie, and I think the sixth. I’d caught bits and pieces of all of the others ones on TV over the years as well. The problem now was that everyone had been talking about Harry Potter for so long that no one cared about spoilers anymore. I didn’t really care either, and so I had listened in on countless conversations that were sorted and categorized subconsciously by my brain. I had pieced together the story by mostly second and third hand information.
I knew everything there was to know about Harry Potter, at least it felt like it. What point was there to read the books or sit through the movies now that the lore had already forced itself into my life?
So I borrowed the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s was a quick read, and I loved it.
I didn’t really have a choice when it came to learning about Harry Potter, not within my circle of friends at least.
You know what got me to finally sit down and start reading the books? This show. I wanted to do an episode on Harry Potter, and if I was going to go through with it I was damn well going to read the books.
So I stopped by my local library. They had several copies of each edition, and more in storage I was told. None of them were taken out. Harry Potter’s time in the spotlight had passed, it seemed. In 2017 the demand for the books had dwindled to nothing, and it was then that I had decided to jump in.
So I borrowed the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s was a quick read, and I loved it. The presentation and pace of the story were a breath of fresh air. Right before picking up Sorcerer’s Stone I think I had just finished a couple of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan books. I was doing some research for my next scifi novel. Harry Potter was exactly what my brain needed to recoup from the hardcore science lessons.
I told Jill how much I loved Sorcerer’s Stone and she was overjoyed. I soon went back to the library and picked up the Chamber of Secrets. This was the most excited I had been about reading in a long time.
I read through the Chamber of Secrets. It took longer for me to get through than Sorcerer’s Stone. I still enjoyed the story but, it was a bit of a drag for me. That sense of exploration and wonder which had flared during my read of the first book had faded. The characters were the same, the plot was achingly similar to the first book, and it just felt a little dull. Been there done that.
I didn’t give up hope though and grabbed Prisoner of Azkaban. This was Jill’s favorite book in the series and she was so excited for me to read it. Things were going to pick up, I was sure of it.
That hardcover copy with the cover illustration of Harry riding a griffin sat on my coffee table for six weeks. I had read the first hundred pages, but by then I was over it. I renewed Azhkaban from the library over and over again, hoping that I would be inspired to give it another try, but that never happened.
I returned the book. You can’t say I wasn’t determined, though. A month later I went back to the library and took the book home again, just wanting to give it one more shot. But I still haven’t made any more progress. It’s on my table right now, right next to where I’m putting together this episode.
Like I said earlier, my intention isn’t to badmouth the books or the writing within them. I’m not trying to convince anyone that they are bad. How can I? The success of the series is a testament to how amazing it is.
I love fantasy worlds and I get the fandom behind Harry Potter. I really do. I’m glad that it exists and that so many people have experienced J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world.
It just hasn’t struck a chord with me. I haven’t needed Harry Potter in my life, not yet. I had Pokemon and sports to entertain me when I was a kid. Hobbits and elves introduced me to the world of fantasy. Girls, beer, and my quest to find my own identity occupied my young adult life.
Now I have this show, the books I write, and plenty of new media to explore. Where does the Wizarding World fit into my life? Its old hat for me now, even though I haven’t actually experienced it all yet.
Being an outsider to the world of witches and wizards is a bummer…
Maybe the future Arthur McMahon will be strolling through the bookshelves one day, looking for a new world to explore. Maybe he will see an old, weathered book on the shelves, pick it up and be reminded of a time when a boy wizard took the world by storm, inspiring millions of children to read the pages of his story.
Arthur will open that book, breathe in its pleasant smell, the one that only old books have, and decide that its time to give Harry Potter another chance. The young wizard has faced insurmountable odds before, hasn’t he? Perhaps he’ll succeed yet again.
Arthur will take that book home and set it on his armchair table while he goes and makes himself a fresh cup of coffee to enjoy. He’ll sit down with his warm drink and flip through the pages, not yet reading them, but glancing at the familiar names and places, rousing his excitement as he anticipates the story within.
He’ll wait in his chair for the sounds of the bus pulling up to the curb in front of his house. When it stops the hoots and hollers of young schoolchildren fill the air for a few seconds, and then the bus engine roars and it all fades away.
The door opens and in walks an eleven year old boy.
“Welcome home,” says Arthur. “How was your day?”
“Good,” says the boy. “What’cha got there dad?”
“Have you ever heard of Harry Potter?”
“Um, maybe. What’s it about?”
“I was hoping we could find that out together.”
This has been an episode of Paracosms. Thank you all for the reviews on iTunes and for Tweeting me and supporting the show on Patreon. You rock. Seriously, I’m so happy to be growing this show and the Paracosms community with you.
Let me know how you liked this episode. It was definitely more personal than any of the previous ones. I hope you appreciated my muggle perspective. Being an outsider to the world of witches and wizards is a bummer, but Hogwarts hasn’t sent me a proper invitation, not yet anyway. Maybe one day I’ll get there.
I’m sure many of you are big Harry Potter fans. I want to know why you love it. What are your favorite parts of the world?
Email me, tweet me, find me on Facebook— whatever. All the links are available on Paracosms.com. Just let me know what you think of the show. Tell me what you want to hear about, what worlds you’d like me to explore. I want to give you more of what you want to hear, so send me a message!
And don’t forget to grab a free audiobook from Audible. You can download any of the Harry Potter books or choose from thousands of other great novels. By using our link you are helping to grow the Paracosms podcast and you get a free audiobook of your choice. Just go to audibletrial.com/Paracosms to start a free 30-day trial today. Your supports means the world to me and I couldn’t be more grateful to Audible for sponsoring the show.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you at the next.
- Expecto Patronum by Goblins From Mars
- Feel Good Instrumental by Broke For Free
- Invisible Sun by Fatal Injection