'Harry Potter' real-world appeal: quidditch leagues and rock cake recipes

The parallel universe of the Harry Potter books has launched real-life offshoots: A quidditch league is among the most visible, but the books' values are inspiring many others.

Kate Olen/Courtesy of Alex Benepe/IQA
The 2009 International Quidditch Association World Cup took place in Middlebury, Vt. This year's, held last week, drew 700 participants.

As leaked bits of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1“ throw online morsels to hungry fans, devotees of the Boy Who Lived and his pals know that though the books and films may conclude, the life inspired by J.K. Rowling’s magical characters lives on.

Whether it’s in fan fiction, quidditch leagues, or searching the galaxy for the perfect – and actually edible – recipe for rock cakes, the legions of Harry Potter lovers have taken that world to heart and pushed it back out into their own worlds.

This is due, in part, to the very particular sort of fantasy fiction the Potter books are, says Cecilia Konchar Farr, a professor of English at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. She uses the seven Potter books to teach literary theory.

“They are fantasy, but they do not create so much an alternate world as a parallel world,” she says. This gives readers a sense that Harry and all his friends palpably exist right around them in their present world, she says. “This is not an escapist world, as perhaps the Narnia or even Lord of the Rings series are,” she notes. Her students report that the books teach them “how to live in a world with terrorism, for instance,” she says.

Take sports. Only a true Harry Potter-inspired fan would understand that a game based on soaring broomsticks and a golden, winged, flying ball must be transportable to the real world. When a buddy proposed it to the now 23-year-old Alex Benepe, Commissioner of the International Quidditch Association (IQA), five years ago, he didn’t bat a quaffle.

“It was just a matter of adapting the rules to the things we can do,” he says matter-of-factly. Now the just-incorporated, nonprofit league, having wrapped its second annual world cup event this past week, has launched a membership drive. Some 55 dues-paying members ($200 for colleges, $100 for high schools) help it look forward to a long – and potentially profitable – future.

A cheeky mix of dodgeball, flag football, lacrosse, rugby, and basketball, real-world quidditch will survive well beyond its origins as a gimmicky homage to a beloved book, Mr. Benepe says. “We have plenty of players now who may or may not read the Harry Potter books,” he says, but that doesn’t matter. "What does," he says, "is that something that has been an essential part of the way we grew up has inspired us to create something new in the real world."

This response goes to the very heart of Ms. Rowling's books, says Emily Strand, who teaches at the the University of Dayton and has written about the parallels between Harry Potter and Christianity. “The most important lesson in the book is the power of love,” she points out. This is expressed in such loving gestures as self-sacrifice and valuing human rights – all issues the Potter characters passionately engage with, she says.

It is completely natural for this to find expression in real-world actions, Ms. Strand adds. Famous among her students for dying her hair in accord with liturgical seasons, playing in a rock band, and throwing Harry Potter-themed parties, she says that the books have inspired her to cook.

“It’s been very hard to find a good recipe for pumpkin pasties,” she says, but adds with a laugh that a friend recently sent her a recipe for edible rock cakes, “something Hagrid never seemed to be able to do,” referring to the half-giant, half-wizard gamekeeper in the books.

The fact that college students are playing the broom-based game of quidditch, unlikely people are trying their hands at fiction, and fans are thrilled by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure doesn’t surprise Greg Garrett, a professor of English at Baylor University and author of the recently released book “One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter.”

“All that is about more than fun,” he says via e-mail.

“The universal – and ageless – appeal of Harry Potter suggests that people who consume the Potter story are gaining real comfort and wisdom from it,” he says. A fan community this large and this dedicated doesn't develop around simple entertainment, he adds, although people are certainly being entertained. "Fans who return to Harry's world over and over again identify with the characters and their struggles, and as with all great stories, they're simultaneously inspired and moved as well as entertained.”

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