Note – Check the end for an update to this blog, and a confirmation that, yes, Harry Potter used some filming locations in Oxford.
Why is there so much Harry Potter merchandise in Oxford? Walk down Broad Street and look into the shop windows. Prominent among the usual tourist detritus is every type of Harry Potter material. Hogwarts varsity jackets and sweaters. House-themed scarves. Wands and sorting hats. Varieties of broomsticks and other quidditch paraphernalia. There’s even a really creepy Dobby statue, one who is dressed up in seasonal gift wear.
The obvious answer to the above question is that tourist hotspots sell the crap people expect to find there, no matter how false it may be. Take my hometown as an example. Belfast is a city always at war with itself over how Irish or British it should be. The only place a truce is called on this conflict is inside the Ireland-themed gift stores across the city, where every manner of shamrock-coated paddywhackery can be bought for absurd prices. Leprechauns, cartoon sheep wearing clovers, pots of gold, Guinness themed hats. Regardless of our willingness to kill and die over the green-ness of our passports, we Belfast-ians/Bealfeirstians know what visitors expect to find on the emerald isle.
Locals around the world have a somewhat distant and ironic attitude towards tourist crap. This was summed up for me by a story my brother told after he returned from a trip to Australia. Chris was in a small town gift shop buying souvenirs for me and my sisters. The shop owner, seeing the range of kangaroo-boxing pens and boomerangs and koalas that Chris was buying, laconically commented that his own stock was, ‘a lot of old shit, isn’t it?’
The question for Oxford, then, is why it is a load of old Harry Potter-themed-shit that outsiders expect to find in the city. There are no internal textual reason for connecting Harry Potter to Oxford; as far as I know the town or its universities are never mentioned in the books, movies and expanded universe. There is a current BBC series, adapted from a book, about witches in Oxford, but these are not of the lightening-scar-badly-concealed-public-school-messiah-metaphor kind.
Nor does Oxford have any particular claim to a magical history. There’s a small community in Oxford of religions that outsiders might identify with magic, Wiccans and Pagans primarily, but these are not world famous. Oxford does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any particular association with the British witch-hunts of the early modern period. Even if such associations were at the forefront of people’s minds, neither possesses a clear connection to the very late-20th-century view of magic that is described in Rowling’s books. The magic of harry potter is a sort of non-scientific creation of the extraordinary, and not the contract between a social outcast and demonic forces that was imagined in the 17th century.
The connection between Harry Potter and Oxford has more to do with their status as important symbols of Britishness in the 21st century, and with Britain’s commodification of an imagined heritage. Oxford is a world famous name. The university is one of the oldest in Europe, and sells it’s ‘ancientness’ better than any of the other contenders for the title of oldest place of higher education. If one asked a citizen of Japan or Zimbabwe or Chile to list place-names they associate with England or the UK, I imagine that Oxford would be a fairly common choice.
Harry Potter too has become part of the international short-hand of the UK. Harry and his pals are probably the most famous Britons since the Beatles. The books are a literary phenomenon on a scale that is comparable to the spread of major religious texts. The films have pulled in billions of pounds, and forever lodged the decreasingly youthful visages of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson into the subconscious of the worlds’ under-forties. Other than the Queen, can any Briton match the appeal of the fictional trio whom these actors played?
Harry Potter’s popularity is based not only on the chemistry of its cast or the imaginative power of its world, but also upon its re-working of some popular British tropes. It takes the fantasy of a boarding school, and sheds the elitist, classist and abusive baggage that is attached to the real-world public schools. These 19th century engines of privilege are re imagined as a sort of permanent summer-camp cum university campus. The language that the kids speak is recognizably modern English, and the costumes and set-designs chosen by the films’ production designers lean into the expectations of the audience. The children wear school uniforms and live in an impossibly scenic castle. That the outdoor scenes were shot on an actual castle, itself almost cartoonishly picturesque, only adds to the mystique of Britain.
Myths are at their most potent when they draw on, relate to, or tap upon the quotidian. The power of the modern mythology of advertising is grounded in it’s ability to relate the fantastical to the everyday; the film star in a shaving advert who momentarily convinces the watching middle aged men that they too can be as refined and desired as a millionaire who employs five people to maintain his image, the swoop of a shampoo-models hair that, for just a moment, reminds the viewer of their own, allowing them to view the product as a path to an obtainable luster.
In a similar way, Harry Potter’s fantasy-Britishness is not totally detached from the reality of modern Britain, and in this way it gains some of its power. The movement from the real to the unreal is seen in the sixth movie, which starts with a unsettlingly normal scene. Harry is dressed like an unfashionable teenager, reading a newspaper at a café in the London underground, trying to summon up the courage to ask a barista on a date. His potential romance is interrupted when he spots his wizard headmaster standing across the platform and admiring an advert. A real world symbol of London, the tube and its mix of the depressing and charming, elides into Harry Potter’s world of internecine magician conflict and high fantasy. This movement allows the audience to more easily to slip into a vicarious viewing, imagining themselves as a potential wizard, escaping the banalities of ‘muggle’ life.
I think it is this seamless connection between the real and the unreal that has allowed Harry Potter to be confused with what is authentically British. National identities are just one more thing that has been subsumed within this international content machine.
Oxford’s myth has some resemblances to Harry potter. It exists in people’s minds as a sort of fantasy city, like Paris or Venice it is a real place that outsiders like to imagine is unreal. A citadel of learning, of dreaming spires overlooking cobbled streets, of ancient libraries and hidden knowledge. The real town does indeed contain many beautiful buildings and public spaces, and it is indeed lovely to watch the sun go down one summers evening and listen to all of the college bells chime, but Oxford is more than this image. It is easy to understand how people might hope to find Hogwarts, or as close an analogue as can be managed in reality, in Oxford
Visitors coming to Oxford want to be sold a fantasy, and there is no modern British fantasy, or fantasy of modern Britishness, more compelling and popular than Harry Potter. The shop owners of Broad street are not just following their Australian and Irish cousins by selling to tourists just any old shit they can, but rather tapping into one of the global mythologies of the twentieth century.
Update – 25/05/21
Harry Potter used some locations in Oxford for filming. A number of these locations are publicly available to visit. As a number of people have very correctly pointed out, this explains at least some of the appeal of Harry Potter for Oxford tourists, without recourse to the sort of amateur cultural criticism I was attempting in this blog.
My goal with starting this blog was to have somewhere I could post writing more reguarly without spending long periods of time agonizing over the quality of the content. I still think this is a good use of the site, and it’s been moderately successful at encouraging me to share more of my writing publicly. There is a clear downside to this type of usage though, namely that a quick and dirty writing process will make errors or a lack of clarity more likely.
So the blog’s prose does contain at least one key error in regard to the linkage of Harry Potter to Oxford. Despite that, I actually think the biggest issue this post suffers from is a lack of clarity. I was trying to link Britains imagined or invented pasts with the appeal of Harry Potter, and my lack of focused writing .
And I don’t think that a few shots across a huge film series adaequately explains the nature of Harry Potter tourist stuff overflowing in Oxford. The shops that sell creepy Dobbies and broomsticks and Hogwarts sweaters also sell fake Oxford Varsity gear and red buses with Union Jack’s painted on them. Why the concatenation of these pieces of Ukanian culture? Why is Harry Potter such a British – or perhaps such an English – pop culture phenomenom? Why and how is this type of history and entertainment commodified and sold to tourists?
For people interested in these questions and the larger issues they link to, I hope this blog holds some interest for you. I want to thank the people who have, correctly and kindly, pointed out the errors of fact in the prose of this article, as well as its general lack of clarity.
 Metaphorically speaking; the Irish passport is disappointingly brown