A few miles from my home in West London is an Anglican church constructed in the Gothic Revival style. Built in the 1880s to house congregations of up to 1200, a century later it was declared redundant and earmarked for demolition. A passionate campaign by local people succeeded in saving the building and converting it to an arts center, which is what it is today.
I can’t claim to know the whole story behind these events, but perhaps the locals might have rescued the church by reopening it and then attending services there. However, the passion that saved the building seems to have been a passion for views of flying buttresses, pointed arches, spires, and turrets—not a passion for the Christian religion that every single brick was meant to serve and express.
I thought of all this recently when the twentieth anniversary of the first Harry Potter film rolled around, with all of its accompanying hype. Members of the cast returned to Hogwarts for a school reunion, packaged up by HBO as a lavish New Year’s Day special. From what I’ve seen, gushing interviews with the stars formed a large part of the proceedings. In reality, though, every scene was stolen by, well, the scenery—those same buttresses, arches, spires, and turrets. Plus towers, trefoils, cloisters, vaulted ceilings, vast dining halls.
The medievalist concoction of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is an example of our modern culture wallowing in a simulacrum of an older culture that it simultaneously affects to despise. Whenever anyone wishes to suggest something awful and retrograde has reached its nadir—from the return of the Taliban to abuses of science in the COVID era—they reach for a Middle Ages comparison, shaking either their heads, or their fists, or both, at the thought of our society hurtling backward to those benighted times. And this is not a new or purely Anglophone habit, either. Back in 1977, the late French historian Régine Pernoud could cite examples of comparisons with the Middle Ages being deployed to critique labor strikes at Electricité de France, the national power supplier.
Yet given the chance, many contemptuous moderns would gleefully jump in the boats that, twenty years ago, in a classic scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, carried gobsmacked new pupils across the lake to their castle school for the first time. Up to that point in the film, the unfolding of Harry’s destiny as a wizard had included recreations of two other, peculiarly British cinematic dreamtimes: the Dickensian era represented by Diagon Alley, where he is brought to purchase wands and books before departing for school; and the Edwardian age of steam epitomized by the Hogwarts Express. But it is Hogwarts itself, with its air of a “Towery city and branchy between towers,” which proves to be the apotheosis of all the enchanted worlds that a trainee wizard is heir to.
The grip of this imaginary school on popular emotion is fierce. There are, for instance, countless videos on YouTube dedicated to the look of the place. On the other hand, “Potterheads” are actively dissuaded from forming any real respect for the period responsible for the aesthetics their imaginations crave. On the first page of The Prisoner of Azkaban (the third volume in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series), Harry is writing an essay with the title “Witch-Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless—discuss.” It would have been far more historically accurate if Harry had been asked to discuss the fact that witch-burning in the fourteenth century, and in the Middle Ages as a whole, was virtually non-existent, relatively speaking, and had been told to concentrate on the seventeenth century instead, the period when the practice truly exploded. But that would have meant grappling with complex historical truths that no modern youth, wizard or otherwise, is ever exposed to.
So what is going on? How does this massive feat of cognitive dissonance, a simultaneous rejection and embracing of the Middle Ages, actually work? One of the marks of the Middle Ages was the ubiquitous eye of faith, which, as David Bentley Hart once pointed out, saw hints of an intelligible order everywhere, an order that called out for translation into artifacts, institutions, rituals, and customs. Jean Leclerc, for example, noted how medieval monks had to find melodies that would “translate” into music “the acceptance by redeemed man of the mysteries that he celebrates.”
Modern people are irresistibly drawn to these artifact-translations, whether these come in the form of originals, revivals, or Hogwarts-type simulacra. But, at the same time, we cannot seem to bear to examine what they are translations from: the intelligible order glimpsed by the eye of faith. The beauty and magnificence of the artifacts serve to soothe the circumambient despondency of modern living (Hart again), but rather than prompting any return to the sources, the power of these medieval artifacts and customs is often tamed and transformed with a protective coating of modern values that makes them more amenable and less threatening to contemporary sensibilities. For example, Hogwarts is a seminary of sorts, but a co-educational one. The novels and films retain Latin, or something Latin-like, but as a vehicle for the transformations wrought by the magic practiced by wizards, rather than the transformations wrought by the sacraments administered by priests.
In The Recovery of the Sacred (1974), James Hitchcock ventured this point:
The benign ritual of the Catholic church is perhaps the most effective antidote to magic to have evolved in Western culture because, instead of denying the reality of magic and the anxieties which give rise to it, this ritual counters them in their own terms. The weakening of traditional sacred symbols and traditional systems of meaning tends to stimulate belief in magic as anxious individuals search for new protection against the suddenly revealed chaos of the universe.
Could the cod Latin, the architectural stylings, and much else about Hogwarts be a modern way of inching a fraction closer to older, truer sources of knowledge and protection without yet daring to admit it? It will take many more reunions and revivals before the question is broached—if, that is, it is ever broached.
John Duggan is a freelance writer based in Surrey, England.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.