Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Hogwarts: A History"?

This past Saturday, I fulfilled a dream of mine: I was accepted in Hogwarts. Or at least, I paid the entrance fee and was allowed admittance into Alnwick Castle, the location used for many shots of Hogwarts in the first and second Warner Brothers’ films. Before going, I assumed that the experience would offer me little more than the chance to indulge in the behind-the-scenes magic (sorry I really couldn’t resist that one) from the films, but to my, and I think my travel companions’, surprise the visit to the castle did offer some more substantial history.
            Although we visited the exhibits and staterooms in the castle, the highlight of the experience was the “Battleaxes to Broomsticks” tour that’s offered daily. Our very excited, not to mention in medieval character, tour guide Ryan took us around various sites inside the castle and described the various scenes from the first two Harry Potter movies that were filmed in those locations. Occasionally, he mentioned small facts about the structure of the castle itself, but for all but the final stop of the tour, the focus was the Harry Potter movies.
I won’t go into all the details (it’s far more fun when you’re actually there and when you have a very exuberant tour guide leading you around), but one story in particular stood out to me. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), there’s a beautiful shot of the castle all covered in snow while Hagrid drags in a giant Christmas tree. You know all that beautiful fluffy white snow? Yeah, it’s fake. That scene was shot in July, which meant that the film crew had to create snow. Their solution was to wet shredded paper and blow it around the inner bailey. The only problem with this plan? They didn’t account for the blustery summers of Northumberland. So the tiny shreds of paper blew all over the castle walls, grounds, and visitors. For weeks afterwards, cleaning crews had to pick all the paper off the stones of the castle, because they would have caused permanent damage if they had been left for any length of time.
Above: "Battleaxes and Broomsticks" tour guide Ryan center, with the England Field School '13

I relate that story because it is an example of an unpleasant history. It is by no means a difficult or dark history, but it isn’t a completely happy, triumphal tale either. As my friends and I left the castle discussing how little history we felt we learned, it occurred to me that while we did not learn much about the family or the people who have worked at Alnwick Castle throughout the centuries, we did hear a good bit of history. Just because something happened in the recent past or it’s a little more lighthearted does not mean it is worthless. To the contrary, as a preservationist I was appalled at the damage the very films that drew me to the castle had wrecked on the structure. The “myth” of Harry Potter drew me to “Hogwarts” Castle, but in the process of indulging my childhood fantasy, I found myself learning about the history of Alnwick Castle. Before the day was over, I realized I may not have learned a great deal about the real people who inhabit Alnwick Castle, but that I had in fact heard “Hogwarts: A History.”*

*Hogwarts: A History is the name of the most common reference book regarding Hogwarts Castle in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

For more information on Alnwick Castle:

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