It’s September 1, and the Hogwarts Express is pulling away from Platform 9 ¾. Another group of first-year students are about to begin the most exciting chapter of their lives.
Aboard the train are Muggle-borns, who are still trying to wrap their heads around this whole “magic” thing. There are purebloods, who will do their damndest to act cool and all-knowing about the wizarding world, because right now their knowledge is their only social trump card. And of course there are half-bloods, who, let’s face it, are really going to miss their smartphones.
But whatever their background, every single one of these lucky SOBs are going to lose their sh** when they reach the edge of the lake, and their eyes drift up from the tiny little rowboats waiting to take them home.
There, perched on a cliff in the distance, lit up by a thousand tiny lights, it stands: the home of our imagination, and our childhood refuge. The place where regular children become witches and wizards, and where magic happens. Hogwarts.
To quote directly from the greatest book ever written, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (p. 83, British edition):
The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a great black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.
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That passage is enough to invoke chills in even the most grown-up, disillusioned Harry Potter fan.
We all have our favourite aspects of J.K. Rowling’s iconic series. For some it’s the themes of loyalty and friendship. For others it’s the romance, or the mystique and allure of Severus Snape. Maybe the idea of being Sorted based on your personality appeals to you. Maybe it’s the Wizarding World concept as a whole.
Or maybe it’s simply Hogwarts, and everything it stands for. Hogwarts is not just a school, that would be too banal of a definition. Hogwarts is a home, a friend, and a world all of its own. For young adults reading the series, a big part of the appeal is of course that Hogwarts is a place of freedom – freedom from family, and local problems, and the monotony of real life. A safe yet exciting place to grow up, and discover yourself among like-minded peers.
But the thing that truly sets Hogwarts apart (making it more than just your average British boarding school) is the magic. As much as Rowling tries to instill realism into her series, and remind readers that magic really doesn’t solve all your problems, let’s face it… it’s still magic! You can wave a stick and call objects to you, you can apparate from one place to another, and fly on broomsticks. You can learn how to transform yourself into an animal, you can make fire, and you can talk to the paintings. It’s like real life, sure, but brighter; everything is more alive, and the potential for discovery and exploration is endless.
And not only do you learn magic at Hogwarts – the school itself is magic. While the movies fail to capture this, the magic weaved into the foundation of this structure causes Hogwarts to behave almost like a living thing. No, the staircases don’t just mechanically swing back and forth; the interior design of the school constantly shifts and changes in marginal, undetectable ways, which is why you can be walking down any given staircase and suddenly find yourself three flights up. That is magic. And it’s wonderful (unless you’re late, in which case it’s probably a bit annoying).
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. (Philosopher’s Stone, p. 98)
Plus, unless you’ve got a cheat sheet (read: The Marauders’ Map), you can lose yourself looking for hidden passageways and chambers. The older you get, the more areas you unlock. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to walking through a real-life video game (you know, if Hogwarts was a real place and all).
Another fascinating aspect of Hogwarts is its history, which we have been teased with since the series first started. The concept of the four Houses, based on the original Founders, raises so many questions – and if ever there was a story from the Harry Potter universe begging to be told, this’d be it.
Godric Gryffindor, Rowena Ravenclaw, Helga Hufflepuff and Salazar Slytherin all poured their essence into the school; everything the school is, they once were. But who were they? How did they meet? How, exactly, was Hogwarts created? Has the Forbidden Forest always been there, or has the school’s magic slowly been seeping into the trees and the earth, attracting magical creatures to it? There are so many questions – and maybe they are better left unanswered, so we are free to imagine the answers ourselves.
And then, of course, we have to mention the most widely discussed aspect of Hogwarts: the Houses. Unfortunately, the importance of the Sorting itself can partly be dismissed since the reveal that you can essentially choose your own House – and yet, the basic premise as outlined by the Sorting Hat still remains: you are assigned a House based on your dominant personality trait. The Sorting Hat looks into your mind, and pulls out your innermost self. There’s no second-guessing your answers on Pottermore, and trying to figure out if going into the castle ruins makes you more of a Gryffindor than if you go to the beach.
If I went to Hogwarts, I’d like to think that I’d let the Sorting Hat guide me to my true House, rather than demand the one I wanted. Whatever my personal preference, I’d rather be Sorted honestly, and end up with my true peers, than spend the next seven years trying to make myself into something I’m not (because I was too stubborn to admit that I should probably have been in Hufflepuff).
Let’s go back to the original, basic definition of the four Houses, and take a moment to think – where would we feel the most at home?
You might belong in Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve and chivalry,
Set Gryffindors apart;
You might belong in Hufflepuff
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true,
And unafraid of toil;
Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;
Or perhaps in Slytherin,
You’ll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means,
To achieve their ends.
However far we travel in life, and however long passes before we next re-read the series that captured and defined our adolescence, Hogwarts will always be with us. Hogwarts was where we went to escape the real world, and though Harry has long since left it behind, we can go back there whenever we want. That is the true gift J.K. Rowling has given us: a collective safe, exciting, magical place to inhabit in our dreams.
Though we might never get that owl we’re all secretly still waiting for, we know that in our imaginations, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome us home.
Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood.
Hagrid raised a gigantic fist and knocked three times on the castle door.