20 ways Harry Potter changed the world

The word 'Muggle' is now in the dictionary, quidditch is a college sport, and magical newspapers abound in London. And that's not even scratching the surface.

WORDS By Toby Skinner
October 2017

Two decades after the first book appeared, more than 450 million copies of the Harry Potter series have sold, with translation into over 70 languages. The blockbuster films about the boy wizard have grossed more than $7.7 billion at the box office. But J.K. Rowling’s series is much more than numbers. It’s an epic morality tale that has defined a generation, changed lives and is still thriving a decade after the last book was published. With a new exhibition opening this month in London, we look at the lasting impact of Harry Potter.


Harry Potter changed Xandra Robinson-Burns’ life. “As a 9-year-old, I remember moving from Ohio to Virginia. It was this difficult time, but I was given the first book, which gave me this whole different world. We moved a lot, but somehow every time we moved, there would be a new Harry Potter book. It gave me this idea that there’s something more magical out there to be discovered.” After studying English at Oxford University and moving to Edinburgh to pursue her master’s degree, Robinson-Burns now runs Heroine Training, an online personal-development school that includes courses inspired by Harry Potter, Jane Austen and the theater. “I’d spent my childhood reading Harry Potter and my early adulthood reading personal-development books,” says Robinson-Burns. “I found myself seeing patterns and thinking, Oh, I remember that from Harry Potter. It came to me that I could use this magical world as a way to encourage people to achieve their goals.” Now living in Edinburgh (“I always knew I’d end up here”), she runs her online course and hosts Heroine Training Tea Parties at literary-minded locations. “So much of personal development can be quite vague,” she says. “But if you relate it to Harry Potter, it resonates. For me, the books really represent possibility.”




According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a muggle is “a person who lacks a particular skill or skills”—after the non-magical folk in the Harry Potter books. It was added in 2002.


In 2005 at Middlebury College, Vermont, freshman Alex Benepe and friend Xander Manshel had a “typical lunchtime conversation” that would end up creating a whole new sport. “The fourth Harry Potter movie was about to hit theaters,” Benepe recalled in a 2014 TED Talk, “and we had a simple idea: What if we tried to play quidditch in real life?” The pair came up with what Benepe calls “a simple but bizarre set of rules” involving broomsticks between legs, a volleyball as a quaffle, dodgeballs as bludgers and a human snitch wearing a tail—as in flag football. The next weekend, the first-ever quidditch match took place between a group of friends, “with people wearing towels as capes.” Benepe recalls chasing the snitch all over campus, “feeling foolish but exhilarated.” From there, it grew. The first inter-collegiate quidditch match was held in 2007, followed by a tour and, in 2010, the first Quidditch World Cup held outside Middlebury, which drew 46 teams to New York’s DeWitt Clinton Park. Today, quidditch is played in 26 countries around the world. It’s different from other sports, says Benepe, “because it’s born out of creativity and literature, and because it brings men and women together. I believe it can emerge as one of the biggest sports in the world.”




Gathering $123,000 for victims of the Haiti earthquake and sending five relief planes to the ravaged country isn’t a bad achievement for a book series. The Harry Potter Alliance’s contribution to Haiti victims in 2010 is one of its many examples of good work since
initially forming in 2005. With 225 chapters in 35 countries, the group has donated more than 300,000 books, built schools in Rwanda and Uganda, launched youth leadership programs and fought to raise awareness of everything from gender equality to immigration. The idea for the alliance came to co-founder Andrew Slack, an activist and sketch comedian, when he saw that young people got more excited by popular culture than activism. “His big idea,” says Harry Potter Alliance spokesperson Jackson Bird, “was, ‘What if we could combine their enthusiasm with real-world issues?’ The concept is find your hero identity, find your community, then act.”

The idea has gone beyond Potter, whether it’s the Alliance’s “Superman IS an Immigrant” campaign or education about inequality inspired by the Hunger Games franchise. But Bird says that, even now, the boy wizard still resonates most powerfully. “There’s nothing like it in terms of that deep immersion for a whole generation,” he says. “The books have so many themes that are relevant—from tolerance to anti-violence. For a fantasy, it’s amazing how many very real issues the books dealt with. It’s a realistic view of the world, but an optimistic one. That’s so powerful.”



The Glenfinnan Viaduct


The Glenfinnan Viaduct

The Glenfinnan Viaduct is a beautiful piece of architecture near Fort William, on Scotland’s scenic west coast, which in summer hosts rides on the old steam train Jacobite. After the train appeared as the Hogwarts Express in four of the Harry Potter movies, police had to issue warnings to curious muggles not to walk on the tracks for photos.


The Elephant House

This Edinburgh coffee and tea shop, home to 600 model elephants, is one of the places J.K. Rowling worked on the early books, in the back room overlooking the castle. Today, expect Potter-centric graffiti in the loos (and great tea, coffee and cakes).


Alnwick Castle

The gorgeous late-11th-century castle north of Newcastle, England, stood in for the exterior of Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies and has also appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Downton Abbey. It now offers Potter-inspired broomstick training.



The Market Porter Pub

This rowdy pub in Borough Market, London’s foodie epicenter, isn’t just a proper English boozer (think real ales and steak-and-mushroom pies). It was also the Third Hand Book Emporium in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.



Leadenhall Market

This market, which dates back to the 14th century, is now a stunning piece of Victorian London architecture. In the first Potter movie, it stood in for the area around Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron, increasing its appeal for selfie-takers.



For his book Harry Potter and the Millennials, author Anthony Gierzynski surveyed more than 1,100 college students. He found that Potter fans were more tolerant, less authoritarian and less likely to support deadly force than non-fans. Using controls, he proves that the series had an independent effect on its audience. That, if true, is magic.


For hipster Harry Potter fans, the MinaLima gallery and shop in Soho, London, is about the coolest place around. Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima met in 2002 to create the graphic universe for the Potter film series, and their work for sale at the Soho store includes limited-edition prints of the Daily Prophet newspaper and The Quibbler, a tabloid in the Potter-verse.



According to Durham University professor Eleanor Spencer-Reagan, the Potter series was “the first book series to have a real digital afterlife, especially on social media.” Witness Rowling’s 12.2 million Twitter followers, to whom she famously announced in 2007 that Dumbledore was gay; and the Pottermore website, launched in 2011 with Rowling at the helm, which caused a controversy in 2015 with the author’s official Sorting Hat quiz. Many Potter fans thought they were Gryffindor but found themselves Slytherin. Uh-oh.


Like, $25 billion, as of 2016, and that’s not counting the Fantastic Beasts spin-off franchise: The first movie earned more than $700 million at the box office.


The increasingly long and complex Harry Potter books—Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix clocked in at 870 pages—have been credited with helping make kids’ books longer. According to The Booklist Reader, in 2006 the average middle-grade book was 174.5 pages long; by 2016, that had leapt to 290 pages. Who says kids these days can’t concentrate?



The Wizarding World of Harry Potter themed area opens at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, with the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride carrying the audience through Hogwarts on an “enchanted bench.”



“The Making of Harry Potter” tour at the Warner Bros. studio in Leavesden, north of London, launches. According to TripAdvisor, the in-depth, behind-the-scenes tour has been one of the U.K.’s most popular attractions ever since.



“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opens at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. The same year, Universal Studios Orlando opens a Diagon Alley-themed area featuring a hybrid coaster whisking riders through the Gringotts vaults.



The third “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opens at Universal Studios in Hollywood.



Steve Petrick’s trove of Harry Potter memorabilia in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, isn’t just $107,000 worth of stuff. To him, it’s far more than that. “Harry Potter literally saved my life,” he says. “As a teenager, I was depressed. But seeing this skinny, nerdy kid deal with issues in life inspired me. He proved that life is worth living, and taught me to love the part of me that’s different. The Potter books have gotten me through the hardest times.” At age 11, Petrick’s grandma gave him the first book while he was grounded for failing an English class. He quickly became obsessed. “I wanted to be at Hogwarts so bad, I decided to bring it to me. Every birthday, every Christmas, I’d get Potter stuff. One day, when I was about 14, I looked around and thought, Well, this is a collection.” Of all the things he’s amassed over the years—from stuffed owls to chess sets—his most valuable possession is a signed letter from Rowling. “I’d given her a letter at a book reading, and she’d written back to say that she found it humbling, inspiring and all the other good –ings. It’s special to me.” Petrick is planning a trip to “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” in Florida with $3,000 to spend on “special additions” to his collection, including a broomstick. Though most of it is in his parents’ attic, he hopes that one day he will find a space to display it. After all, he’ll always be a fan. “Harry Potter will be with me for the rest of my life,” he says. “Hopefully, the collection will keep growing.”


Since 2012, London’s central station, King’s Cross St. Pancras, has sported its very own Platform 9¾, with an adjoining gift shop selling all things Harry Potter, including Hogwarts house quidditch jumpers. Expect lines at all times.

The most famous Potter course is the module on moral citizenship, “Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion,” which was started in 2010 by Martin Richardson in the School of Education at Durham University, one of the best in the U.K. “It had become this huge frame of reference at the university, where everyone always says the cathedral looks like Hogwarts,” says Eleanor Spencer-Regan (above), vice principal and senior tutor at Durham. She's a Potter fan who has begun teaching the course, specializing in feminist readings of the Potter books. The Potter course quickly became the most over-subscribed at the university—but Spencer-Regan insists it’s more than a gimmick. “Part of the brilliance of the series,” she says, “is that, as the books get longer, darker and more complicated, so do the ethics. Readers realize that they’ve judged characters wrongly: that Snape isn’t the bad guy that they thought at first; that the twinkly-eyed Dumbledore isn’t, in fact, infallible, either. The books teach young people to develop empathy for others, and to embrace complexity.” Spencer-Regan, a specialist in 20th- and 21st-century British and American poetry, says that many of the themes running through the books concern a very universal morality. “All the books are, in some form, about equality and tolerance, celebrating the oppressed, and resisting the allure of power for power’s sake. They also celebrate the values of community, friendship and love.” In real life, she points to the so-called Hermione Effect—the celebration of smart and bookish women, and a supposed inspiration for cleaner living and academic achievement among today’s teenagers—and the high number of Potter-related placards at this year’s women’s marches. As for whether the books stand alongside great works of fiction, she says: “It’s young adult fiction, so the prose style can’t be like Dostoevsky or Henry James. But while the prose is accessible, the vocabulary is so rich, with words like ‘muggle’ and ‘quidditch’ entering the language. As a linguistic innovator, I think J.K. Rowling is the equal of Tolkien or Lewis Carroll.” Durham isn’t alone. From Ohio State to Kansas State to Georgetown, universities across the U.S. are offering courses based on the series.



Inspired by Potter, the Georgian House Hotel in London’s Pimlico area opened a Wizarding Chamber in full Gothic Hogwarts style, concealed behind a bookcase door. If that’s not available, try the resplendent St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which was used as the entrance to King’s Cross station in the movies. It’s one of London’s great Gothic buildings.





A major new show at the British Library in London, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” opens Oct. 20, drawing links between ancient magic traditions and Rowling creations, such as Fawkes the Phoenix. The exhibition showcases wizarding books, manuscripts and magical objects from the library’s archives- alongside material from Rowling’s personal stash, including original drawings by illustrator Jim Kay and an early handwritten draft of the “Sorting Hat” song.




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