Why I’ll Never Be a Witch in Harry Potter’s World: Language, Politics, and the Elitism of a Magical Education

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Pottermore via Hypable

Pottermore via Hypable

I.

I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the year I turned 11. Like so many other Harry Potter fans, I was hoping against hope that Hogwarts was real and that I’d get a letter inviting me to attend (of course, no such thing happened). But then, I read a phrase that I didn’t realize the magical potency of until years later:

Harry laughed but didn’t voice the amazement he felt at hearing about other wizarding schools. He supposed, now that he saw representatives of so many nationalities in the campsite, that he had been stupid never to realize that Hogwarts couldn’t be the only one. (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 85, US hardcover edition)

So even though my eleventh birthday passed (and my twelfth, thirteenth, all the way to my seventeenth) without my ever getting a letter and I eventually outgrew the series, I could always hold on to the hope that maybe somewhere in Harry’s world, there is a Philippine wizarding school and I or some fictional character like me was magic enough to attend.

Fast forward around a decade later. The Harry Potter fandom was recently abuzz with Pottermore’s release of information on four of eight other wizarding schools (not counting Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, and Hogwarts). I breezed excitedly through the article, but in the end, it gave me so many feelings that I ranted to at least three people. Why? Because these four new schools–Ilvermorny, Castelobruxo, Uagadou, and Mahoutokoro–were located in North America, South America (Brazil), Africa, and Japan, respectively.

My hopes were crushed.

II.

I’ll preface this by saying that I am still holding out for information on the other four schools and that it occurred to me that judging this incomplete information may seem a little unfair. But even four additional new schools won’t be enough to appease my uneasy feeling toward there being only 11 wizarding schools on the face of the planet. Is the magical strain in each person so limited that only 11 schools can educate them all?

I’m going to begin by talking about Uagadou, the African school built into a mountainside and shrouded in mist.

Pottermore via Hypable

Pottermore via Hypable

It is apparently the oldest surviving school, out of many other smaller schools. That half-assed explanation almost appeased my rage, but how is it that Africa–which has 1,500-2,000 languages, an indeterminate number of tribes, and anywhere between 47 to 55 countries depending on whom you ask–has only one school of magic, which purportedly takes in students from all over the continent? And given that Europe has three schools of magic with three clearly different languages of instruction–seriously, why? What language of instruction are Uagadou’s teachers using and how are the students even getting along, especially if they are from warring tribes? What does this mean for the magical mechanics of the African brand of magic? (The same, in fact, can be argued for having only one school of magic in all of the South American continent.)

All that aside, do you notice how–and this is not new in pop culture–the Pottermore article and many of the news articles written up on it appear to be referring to Africa as if it were one country?

But hey, I’m not from any country in Africa by birth or by blood (although this person is qualified to speak further on the matter here and here), so I’m going to talk about the school that’s a little (sort of) closer to home.

Pottermore via Hypable

Pottermore via Hypable

Mahoutokoro (by the way, it is pronounced Mahōtokoro, at least get your pronunciation right) is situated on a supposedly uninhabited volcano island of Iwo Jima. Given that there is already a Harry Potter theme park in Japan, having a school there makes sense for practical reasons. But what really bugs me is, as of now, Mahoutokoro is the only magical school in all of Asia–and as the first one released, it is the best known. Of course it’s Japan–it’s the only Asian country the West seems to know, right?

(This is probably a quibble, but the fact that kids at start age seven and are given robes that change color according to your marks in class screams the Smart Asian stereotype to me.)

And the worst part is, nowhere does the text explicitly state that it takes students from all over Asia; it even says that it has the smallest population of all 11 schools. But even if it did take students from all over Asia, there are so many caveats–as someone who spent a few days in Japan, I can tell you that you’d need to have more than a working knowledge of conversational Nihonggo and the ability to read katakana, hiragana, and kanji if you want to live in Japan.

And then there’s the money. You can argue that traveling is for free in the wizarding world, but let’s not forget how much schooling costs. Do I even need to state that Japan, just like Britain and the US, is a rich nation?

III.

I have a theory as to why these schools were so short-sightedly located and why the mechanics seem so short-sighted, too. Rowling was probably thinking with the mindset of a native English speaker living in a primarily English-speaking nation–meaning, everyone speaks one language (or at least knows the dominant/common language) and so, they can all go to the same school. At least, that’s what I think must be one of the rationales behind Uagadou’s holding together such a diverse population of students. Yes, I know they don’t need wands and presumably words to perform magical acts, but let’s put magical mechanics aside and talk about practicality in education. The same goes for Castelobruxo and might probably be true for Mahoutokoro (regional dialects aside).

Which means that, until information on the other schools come to light, in Harry Potter’s canon, every other Asian in Asia cannot go to magic school

(Side note: the Patil twins are Indian in heritage, but they might as well be white [the Goblet of Fire movie does a better job of at least displaying their heritage by giving them Yule Ball dresses of an Indian design]. If there is no magic school in India, this seems to imply that Indians need to travel to England, their ex-colonial master, in order to get a magical education.)

Because I am a writer who can attribute her love of fantasy chiefly to the Harry Potter series, this revelation regarding the canon led me down the road to a worldbuilding exercise.

So, going by the language rationale and judging by the schools’ tendency to be housed in ancient temples or royal landmarks (not so sure about Uagadou, sorry), if there were to be a school in South East Asia (SEA) that took in students from all over the region, it would most probably be in Malaysia, with Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia tied for second place. I am thinking of Malaysia because it’s such a melting pot of cultures and because as a former British colony, English is widely spoken and the SEAsians can best understand each other using English. If there were ever a Philippine school, it would probably be in a Spanish colonial building on Siquijor (well known as our Witch Island) and the medium of instruction would be primarily English, given our past as an ex-colony of the US.

But this tends to ignore how each SEAsian nation has its own mythologies, cryptozoologies, and brands of magic. Because of its archipelagic geography, the Philippines alone has many brands within its own culture–for further information, read Paolo Chikiamco’s essay “Philippine Magic: A Course Catalogue” in vol. 1 of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. But for now, here are Paolo’s words on the essay.

LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction vol. 1. Image from LontarJournal.com.

LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction vol. 1. Image from LontarJournal.com.

My solution to that problem: make a magic school for every country. If you want to learn about another country’s magic system, the Castelobruxo entry clearly states that there is an exchange program.

IV.

Argument: Chill out, these are just books!

Maybe, but I clearly recall instances of several churches burning copies of the books because they purportedly influence children to engage in Satanistic practices or whatever. Whether a “good” book or a “bad” book, books have power. Specifically, her books made me want to write my own. Specifically, I am a fan trying to engage with a series that was a huge part of her childhood with the rhetoric of an adult. As we say in my country, walang basagan ng trip (or roughly, “let’s each have our fun”).

Argument: Much of the Harry Potter series is already problematic, so why bother dissecting it when others already have?

I know it is. I love other problematic works of literature, like Lord of the Rings, but sometimes, I ponder on what it could have done better. My friends and family can be problematic too, but I love them and I often think on their flaws. am a problematic person and I definitely think on my own flaws (that’s why I’m such an anxious, neurotic person). I am trying to make sense of something that is known to a lot of people because I am trying to figure out what it means for me. 

Everyone who isn’t the right skin color or gender or sexual orientation has a story that serves as their entry point to the diversity talks. I thought for a long time that I was one of those people who read stories about white people’s adventures and didn’t have any strong feelings on invisibility toward them because on some level I knew that their problems and cultures were so far away from my own so as not to concern me. But I felt a strong push when I read an article on the 11 wizarding schools because Harry Potter was one of the few books that burrowed deeply into my psyche as a child, and now, I am confronting what makes the series problematic head-on, in much the same way that a child comes to terms with the fact that his/her parents are not gods.

Argument: The books were written a decade before the diversity and race talks became mainstream, so don’t critique it using modern standards.

Literature majors do this kind of thing all the time for the senior thesis, so why can’t I do this for fun? But that aside, the existence of Pottermore and the continual release of new information regarding the world of Harry Potter means that it will be subject to criticism using modern-day standards. The fact that Rowling revealed that there are Jewish wizards:

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And gay wizards with the outing of Albus Dumbledore (who became asexual later in his life), means that she is acknowledging the incredible diversity of the Harry Potter fandom. But it’s not enough.

Argument: The fact that there are schools other than Hogwarts means that Rowling is trying, so shouldn’t you be thankful for that?

am thankful for that. But look here, though she names one Jewish wizard, where are the others? Though she says that Hogwarts is a great place to be gay, where are the other queer characters in the series? I honestly expected better from her, given that in her graduation talk called Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, she states that she was

as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.

And that she used to work for Amnesty International, where she encountered many refugees of African countries. I don’t want her to stop trying. As a long time fan, I want her to try harder.

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21 responses »

  1. This is an amazing article. I raised some of these points myself with good friends, and you have brought more to my attention.

    I had no idea that JKR once worked for Amnesty International. If she did then she should be very aware of the diverse languages in Africa, you’d think that would factor into her world-building when creating a school on the continent.

    Here’s to hoping she does a better job at expanding her universe.

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  2. I was sent here by my friend Sam and this was honestly wonderfully done. Said friend I spend hours talking about the problems in the Potter fandom.

    It’s true, though, you cannot bring out new information that you’ve kept stored and bottled for over fifteen years and not expect to face modern criticism. I feel like she really should update it if she chooses to do this or at the very least, just keep her mouth shut about it. I know she means well but it’s all coming off very wrong.

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    • It seems we and our groups of friends have similar hobbies. 🙂 Honestly, I would’ve preferred she kept her mouth shut about it if this was all the effort we were going to get. That’s not to say she might not make an effort in the future to amend this, but this first attempt was unnecessarily hurtful to a lot of non-Western and non-white fans.

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  3. Oh, well done! Good points, all, especially Africa and the multitude of languages & cultures. I’ve been fixated on China. Seriously. How is there no school in China, when there should be at least one with spells based on Cantonese and one on Mandarin?!

    Don’t get me started on Southeast Asia, either. Or Hawaii. Or — I’d better stop now.

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  4. Great article with some really excellent points that JKR neglected :-). It’s a very limited view at the rest of the world. China? India? Why is there no school in Egypt? I always would have assumed that the oldest schools can be found in those countries.

    That argument with race and diversity doesn’t even work if you look at Harry Potter in a solely European context. The European schools are in France, Great Britain, and Russia. What about the rest of Europe? There are currently 46 different countries in Europe and while some speak the same language (German for example is spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland), they are more the exception than the rule.

    Even if you argue that students start learning a foreign language at age four or six (as they do in Germany), they won’t be fluent enough by eleven to follow complex instructions in a foreign language (a few exceptions might but not the majority). Hogwarts also had no students that hailed from continental Europe. So which school are the German, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Norvegian, Polish, Greek, Tschech etc. students attending?

    It also makes me wonder what language the student would have spoken when Hogwarts was founded. Gaelic or Old English?

    As someone who has a background in languages (JKR has studied French and speaks German as well) she’s rather shortsighted about the issue of langauges and the complexities involved. Not to mention culture. Since she studied in France for a year, she has some first hand experience about living in another country and trying to communicate in a foreign language. Pity she didn’t use that.

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    • Thank you for commenting! I have always wnated to hear the perspective of someone with knowledge of the European countries not represented in the series. It disappoints me further that JKR had some background in other languages and didn’t apply it to the books.

      A friend and I were talking earlier about how it is possible that in JKR’s mind, what she believes (or believed) literature should do for young minds is not what many of us readers think it should do today. Her view of morality in the series was already very much black and white, with no room for nuance (until today, I refuse to believe that all Slytherin students are evil). Unfortunately, the same compartmentalizing process seems to extend to nuances in other cultures and the HP world at large.

      No one can fix the worlding problems in any of the books now. I think what hurts the most is that years later, this attempt at it is only further alienating old fans (and possibly potential new ones).

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  5. Speaking from the editorial POV…and being devil’s advocate: Rowling has only so many hours in the day and only so many pages to write at any given time. She didn’t know in the beginning that there would be a Potterverse. And I suspect editors had to tell her to whittle down the number of pages. She’s trying.

    I’m disabled by way of being deaf. The disabled are invisible in the Potterverse. Does this bother me? After dealing with 59 years of exclusion and discrimination? Hell no. Not here. Because this is HER story to tell and she can tell it any way she wants to. Period.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I wasn’t criticizing the lack of diversity in the books. That can’t be undone, and yes, she didn’t know the series would become this big. But she left a tiny opening for fans across the rest of the world with that quote from the book in the top part of this post that made me feel like the racial invisibility didn’t matter, because I could always make conjectures with that opening.

      What I am criticizing is the extra stuff Rowling is coming up with today, more than a decade after the publication of the series. Times have changed and the book’s fanbase is huge and spans people of all stripes. She can very well afford to hire a researcher to gather information for her. She could very well have afforded to make worlding additions to the story that better included the kinds of people who were previously invisible in her books, because she definitely has the time now.

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  6. Wait, what, the school that serves the most populous continent, the one with two 1 billion+ countries, is the smallest of all? Is wizardry much more rare in Asia in general than in Britain? And how do you work North and South Korean students going to the same school? Or, for a long, long time, Chinese and Japanese students? I mean, I’m not educated in the undoubtedly various and rich culture and history of Asia and I can already see so many problems with that.

    By the way, how did Hogwarts deal with Irish (not from Northern Ireland) students? Surely, there must have been epic clashes?

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    • Apologies, I was only quoting the info his wiki page. As my knowledge of LGBTQIA terminologies and experiences is limited, I could not tell if there was something erroneous with the phrasing of someone “becoming” asexual.

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