One of the reasons I started this blog is to have a place to post when I go off on a pop culture rant, so here’s the one that occurred to me today.
Harry Potter was possibly the first piece of pop culture I was ever really obsessed with. I suspect that’s true of many people of my age, the kids who literally grew up along with Harry. So I still very much love those books, but these days I also enjoy (lovingly) picking them apart a little. I’m not the first person to point out the gaping holes in the Hogwarts curriculum, and as a game developer, it’s obvious to me that the game of Quidditch has never been properly balanced since the introduction of the Golden Snitch. But the aspect that I was thinking about today is how little evidence we see of wizard pop culture.
I’d have to go back and reread the books to confirm this, but it seems to me that we hear very little about fiction produced by and for wizards in-universe. The Tales of Beedle the Bard gives us some traditional children’s stories from the magical community, and in Ron’s bedroom we get a glimpse of a stack of comic books (“The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle”). But if there’s a fiction section in the Hogwarts library or Flourish and Blotts, we don’t get to see it. There’s certainly a wizard publishing industry, and some nonfiction books that might qualify as pleasure reading, but aren’t there any novels? Short stories? Poetry?
Some of this comes back to the wizarding educational system. Children who go to Hogwarts have at best received a primary school education in a Muggle classroom; many children from magical families seem to be homeschooled. In the best-case scenario, everyone enters Hogwarts at about a fifth-grade reading level, give or take individual variations. And there they stop. Hogwarts offers no instruction in grammar, spelling, vocabulary, creative writing, essay construction, or literary analysis, and you can forget about being assigned to read fiction. (Unless you count “nonfiction” works that are actually a pack of lies, such as Lockhart’s memoirs and whatever the Carrows assigned.) It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: children aren’t exposed to literature, so they’re not inspired to grow up to write fiction, so there are no great works of literature for the next generation to read. Heck, forget great works of literature; there aren’t even any dime novels, pulps, or guilty-pleasure beach reads. Or if there are, they’ve somehow escaped Harry’s notice completely. Given the general wizarding ignorance of Muggle ways, we can safely assume that there’s little to no exposure to Muggle literature.
So much for written fiction. What about other media? We do hear about wizarding popular music, from such artists as Celestina Warbeck, the Weird Sisters, and the Hobgoblins. While we don’t get a good look at Ron’s Martin Miggs comics, they imply the existence of comic book writers, artists, and publishers. We can only guess what those artists might do if they didn’t find work drawing comics, because there’s no mention of museums or art galleries. Presumably they make ends meet by working in advertising or illustrating stories in The Quibbler.
Coming back to the educational system again, Hogwarts has a total lack of classes, or even extracurriculars, in the arts. But there’s hope elsewhere. The only reference in canon to post-secondary education for wizards comes from a footnote in The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Dumbledore notes that Professor Beery, mentioned in the context of a disastrous pantomime production of one of Beedle’s tales, went on to teach at WADA, the Wizarding Academy for Dramatic Arts. So right there, we know that there is a pool of wizard actors. The logical next question is, where do those actors look for employment? Is there a wizarding West End where they can perform live? We know that there are potions that can make photographs move, but disappointingly, no one seems to have tried it on video film. If wizards did have cinemas, surely there would be one in Hogsmeade that students would flock to on their weekends off.
The possibility that really interests me is wizard audio drama. We already know that wizards use radios and have their own radio stations. Radio plays have fallen out of fashion in America (though podcasts are bringing the format back), but they’re still alive and well in the UK. If there’s a pool of wizard actors and no television or films, maybe they’re finding work on the radio.
Finally, coming back to my own field, are there any wizarding game developers? I’m inclined to say no. The lack of electronics means digital games are right out, and for tabletop games, wizards seem to stick to traditional favorites like wizard chess, Gobstones, and Exploding Snap. And while there are at least two joke shops, where are the toy stores? That absence is harder to explain as something that simply escaped Harry’s attention; I can’t imagine eleven-year-old Harry, who probably made do with Dudley’s hand-me-downs when he had any toys at all, completely failing to notice a toy store in Diagon Alley. Maybe there’s an owl order catalog for toys and games. After all, someone has to manufacture chess sets and Gobstones and Exploding Snap decks.
So maybe the state of pop culture in the wizarding world isn’t as dire as it seems at first blush, but it’s still pretty sparse. Even if wizard novels, plays, and radio dramas exist, we don’t get to see anyone consuming them, and therefore we can only guess at their contents. Pop culture in Muggle society says a lot about what we value, what we fear, and what we dream about, even if we can’t explain why vampire romances or zombie apocalypse tales happen to resonate with so many people. For that matter, reams of essays have been written on what the popularity of Harry Potter says about us as a culture. By depriving the reader of the cultural artifacts of the wizarding world, Rowling missed a fascinating opportunity to flesh out wizarding society and explore what makes it tick.