Monday, June 26, 2017

Before Hogwarts, There Was Greyfriars

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Potterverse. Twenty years. Wow. Cheers!

I was too old to be swept up by Pottermania when it conquered the world, but if I had read the books when I was younger, I can easily believe they would have colonized my mind, laying eggs in my imagination like some conceptual xenomorph. So brava, Rowling! Brava!

And from a fellow writer's perspective, I've always been impressed by Rowling's skills. It's fashionable among uber-nerds to get all critical-theory and talk about cliches and overused tropes and blah-blah-blah. But a trope gets used because it works, and cliches don't start off that way. Katherine Trendacosta over at has written a handy article that makes those points and a few others.

But most bloggers usually overlook the real wellspring of Hogwarts: the school story. The school story isn't just a story set in a school. Clueless isn't a school story; neither is The Perks of Being a Wallflower nor The Betsy-Tacy High School Stories nor anything by Judy Blume. In fact, the school story as a genre had been dead for thirty years when, in 1997, JK Rowling brought it back to life...with magic.

To really understand the school story, you need to read some Orwell (sorry) - an essay called Boys' Weeklies. (And you could also read the book that started it all, Tom Brown's School Days, or the one that kind of stood it on its head, Stalky & Co.Basically, school stories are set at British boarding schools in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They're told from the point of view of the students; there are student intrigues, student types, sports madness, hallowed halls, prefects and houses, nasty teachers, sympathetic headmasters, and a variety of other tropes that get heavy use...any of this ringing a bell?
Stalky & Co

The school story was ultimately brought low by changes in British society - especially the collapse of the elite class assumptions that made the school story so appealing to so many readers who would never meet a baronet, let alone study at Eton. But for almost a century the genre was popular enough to support more than a dozen weekly magazines, not to mention novel series and movie and radio adaptations. In fact, Greyfriars, the setting of the school stories available in The Magnet, (which ran weekly from 1908 to 1940) had the same allure to readers that Hogwarts has today. There were maps of the school, detailed bios of the characters, notes on school history, a veritable Potterverse of subsidiary information.

The dissolution of the British Empire seemed to be the death blow to school stories. But then, when it looked like the genre was condemned to a ghostly afterlife attended only by literary scholars, Rowling substituted magic for the British class system, and brought it back to life. One genre writer to another, she is my hero.

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