Red Hen Publications

Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Hogwarts & Muggles
The Potterverse Essays

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

Item I: On the enrollment of Muggle-born students.

Way back in a very early interview, Rowling stated that every year Professor McGonagall consulted the Hogwarts enrollment list and sent letters to everyone who was turning 11 that year. At that point we did not know whether Ms Rowling was referring to the academic year or the calendar year. Since an update to Rowling’s original website of December 10, 2004, the question is tacitly resolved. Ms Rowling meant the academic year. Which is to say; September 2 to the following September 1.

Since it is unlikely that Hogwarts would have any Muggle-born students at all, let alone as much as 25% of its enrollment, if all letters were delivered by owl, I — and rather a lot of other fans — thought that we must assume some simplification had been applied to this explanation. Ms Rowling later confirmed that this was indeed the case. Muggle-born candidates’ letters are hand-delivered by a special messenger.

Apparently as recently as the late 1930s this task was performed by the Hogwarts staff. As the British population, and presumably, the Hogwarts enrollment have increased it is uncertain whether this is still the case. Rowling’s adjusted population estimate, scaling the total wizarding population of Great Britain back to around 3,000, suggests that it probably could be. It is amusing to wonder whether Minerva’s occasional visits at #12, looking rather odd in Muggle dress, during the early chapters of OotP were drop-ins made during her summer delivery schedule of Hogwarts letters to prospective Muggle-born students. But we will probably never be told, one way or the other.

Given the course of scientific rationalism that Muggle understanding has been encouraged to adopt over the past 300 years, the current-day discovery among the Muggles of Great Britain of magical ability in one of their children is far less likely to “freak them out”, than might have been the case a couple of hundred years ago. Particularly if the person to contact them is careful about selecting euphemisms which march in step with current buzzwords. In the course of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince we were shown that — at least back in the late 1930s — rather more devious methods were also employed to assure the cooperation of these children’s guardians. Hogwarts and the wizarding world definitely wants these children.

Of course our own view of the matter was of how Albus Dumbledore was demonstrated to operate. Albus has probably always been a law unto himself.

In Tom Riddle’s day, and almost certainly even now, in addition to the Hogwarts Quill which records magical births onto the enrollment list, the Hogwarts Library also included a collection of books of wizarding families, i.e., genealogies, from which Tom was able eventually to trace his grandfather Marvolo Gaunt. It is probable that at that time, and perhaps to the present day such reference books are used to determine which of the children recorded on the enrollment list are likely to be Muggle-born, whose families will need to be contacted in person.

Such references are probably also used to determine if or to what degree a pair of youngsters who might have formed an attachment may be related to one another. Although the gene pool of the British wizarding world is probably more varied today than it has ever been, among a significant minority of even the present day students this is still likely to be a very real consideration.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Harry’s was probably rather a special case. Even though he was raised in the Muggle world, by Muggle relatives, those relatives were assumed to be “informed” Muggles and Harry himself is not Muggle-born. Consequently, when it was time for his Hogwarts letter to be sent the usual wizarding procedure was followed. Which seems to have been a mistake all round.

In Harry’s case, the failure to receive a return owl set whoever was in charge of the matter (and it really does not sound at all as if this was Professor McGonagall, it’s not at all in her style) into silly-ass bureaucrat mode; escalating a repetition of an action that is clearly not getting a response to the point of absurdity. It is possible that no human agency was actually involved once the original message was sent. It could have been generated by a complex charm which repeats until a response is received. I rather expect that it was Mrs Figg on the other end of the communication line, who alerted Dumbledore from Little Whinging that the Dursleys were being inundated with owls and that Vernon Dursley had taken his family, and Harry off on holiday to get away from them. Prompting Dumbledore to send Hagrid to settle the matter in person.

• • • •

In the case of authentic Muggle-borns, such as Hermione Granger, there would have to be a different procedure. One that would cover all of the ramifications in more depth, since their families can be presumed to know nothing of what sending a child to Hogwarts entails. We were told (in another early Rowling interview) that about 25% of the student body is Muggle-born, so, taking Rowling’s statement that she invented an incoming class of 40 in Harry’s year, this would entail about 10 new students every year.

In the 1930s, as we have seen, the staff of Hogwarts itself took this duty on themselves during the long summer break. If we really are only talking about a dozen or so students, this may still be the case.

An alternate possibility, however, is that since Hogwarts is administered — at least to some degree — and its test scores overseen by the MoM; in these days there may now be a small (i.e., 1 person) Division of the Educational Dept. or a Unit of the Muggle Liaisons office (perhaps a little larger, 2-3 people,) which now research the names recorded by the Hogwarts quill to identify, flag and contact the families of the actual Muggle-born candidates.

Such a Ministry Division, if such a Division exists, would need to be in correspondence with the Deputy Headmaster/Headmistress, at some point earlier in the year, so there would be no duplication of effort. The Deputy Head sends out the standard Hogwarts letters to the wizarding families, the annual supplies list to families of currently enrolled students, and the families of “informed” Muggles and halfbloods. As has always traditionally been the case.

Conversely, Professor Marchbanks and her colleagues in the Examinations Department at the Ministry (which definitely exists in canon) may be in charge of sending out all of the owls to all of the current Hogwarts students as well as their test results, leaving only the prospective first-years’ letters inviting them to attend Hogwarts the responsibility of the Deputy Headmaster or Headmistress.

The letters to new Muggle-born candidates are most likely to be sent out either the summer before the child is old enough to start school or at a point shortly before the prospective student’s 11th birthday. At this point we do not know for certain which method is currently in use. It is not likely that Rowling will stop to clarify this matter now that she has finished the series.

In the case of children with summer birthdays, this initial letter is combined with the annual school supplies list, as it was in Harry’s case, and that of Ginny Weasley. In the case of a child with a winter birthday, it is possible that the initial Hogwarts letter is sent out at or about the time of the child’s last birthday prior to their first Hogwarts term (their 11th) and the supplies list is sent out separately the following summer, along with those of the other students who are already enrolled. In the case of wizarding-born candidates this would be a fairly routine matter.

It is strongly suggested that all prospective Muggle-born (or Muggle-raised) students’s letters were delivered in the summer. This was certainly the case in the late 1930s. Or, at any rate, we were shown that Tom Riddle, who we know to have been born on December 31, received his Hogwarts letter, along with his first year books and supplies list, upon a day for which there was no mention of snow, rain, cold, or Christmas decorations, when Albus Dumbledore appeared at his orphanage, in person, which would not very well have taken place at a time that classes were in session. He might perhaps have done so during Christmas (or Easter) break, but he would have hardly included the supplies list and the funds to purchase those supplies some 9 months before Tom would have been able to start school.

In the case of Muggle-born students today, the child’s family may be contacted in person prior to the child’s 11th birthday and the first visit into the wizarding world is arranged soon afterward, the student’s first set of standard texts (which, except for that year’s DADA text, has probably been formalized for decades), and the student is encouraged to take the books home and familiarize themselves with the material in advance. This may have been the case with Miss Granger, whose claim to have memorized all of their course books is more easily believed if she had been given most of the previous year to do it. Since most such children’s birthdays would be taking place during the school year, such interviews, if conducted by school staff, would be conducted on weekends.

Whoever the responsibility falls upon, the messenger’s duty is to hand-deliver the Hogwarts letter and give the family a soothing and encouraging talk about their child’s “rare gifts”, informing them that a place for him has been reserved at an exclusive boarding school in Scotland where he may learn valuable training for the proper use and control of this talent. In most cases the family is flattered and intrigued, if bemused. As Rowling pointed out, the child’s family will have usually been aware of at least something strange happening related to this child over the past 10 years.

Under normal circumstances, upon a family’s agreement to permit their child to attend Hogwarts, the representative makes another appointment with the family to escort the child and his or her parents to Diagon Alley in order to lead them through the procedure of changing currency at Gringotts, and to buy the child a wand and either some background materials concerning the wizarding world, and/or their first set of school supplies. This escort also teaches the child how to get into the wizarding world himself for future trips.

Typically, the only people who still freak out are the bonafide religious (or some other variety of mixed) nuts, and even some of those may sometimes be persuaded with a little additional care and finesse in handling. As we saw in the case of Tom Riddle, some of these measures may approach extreme levels of manipulation.

In the rare cases where the family adamantly refuses to permit their child to attend Hogwarts, the Ministry representative casts an Obliviate; and a notice is forwarded to the Department of Accidental Magic Reversal to monitor the site. It is possible that upon attaining his majority, the child of such a family will be approached again, individually, and informed of the KwickSpell correspondence courses. Given the effort that Dumbledore expended on ensuring that Tom Riddle should be permitted to attend Hogwarts, it is unlikely that many magical children are denied their magical training. Except perhaps in cases of physical infirmity.

Rowling does state, however, that not all magical children in Great Britain do attend Hogwarts. Which may mean only that they are sent to Beaubatons or Durmstrang instead. Or even those uncommon magical children who are educated at home. It is probable that in this case, the child still sits the standardized tests for qualification as witches or wizards. Probably by appointment at the Ministry.

Item II: About Hogwarts Term Dates and Cut-off Ages:

It is now clear that the current 3-term system, its dates and the cut-off ages for each year’s students have been set to coincide with the term dates and cut-off ages of the most prominent mundane British boarding schools.

Over the “3-year summer” between Harry’s years 4 & 5, various Brits on my discussion lists were diligent in explaining that under the regulations of the English educational system, all children must have reached the proper school-starting age (6 years, I believe) by September 1 in order to commence school in a given year. If the child’s birthday falls on Sept 2, they must wait to start in the following year. It is almost unheard of for a child’s family to manage to get the educational authorities to make an exception. The child’s entry into secondary school follows upon the same principle.

Prior to December 2004, almost all of Ms Rowling’s statements seemed to have been geared to the reading that Hermione was the youngest of the trio. Indeed, in her World Book Day interview of March, 2004, she went so far as to state that Hermione had started school early because of her intelligence (and, evidently, the fact that she had parents willing to jump through the proper hoops to make it possible).

If such had indeed been the case, it would have added another layer of complexity to the situation in that the Ministry representatives would need to notify the parents of any Muggle-born witch or wizard who started early during the year before they would have normally been eligible to enroll. The ww has no advance warning if a child has started Muggle school early.

In view of the above information: as of March 2004, we concluded that we had been unambiguously informed by Ms Rowling that Hermione is the youngest of the Trio. I personally was inclined to believe that this may have been an unfortunate decision on Ms Rowling’s part. But she had apparently made it plain that she meant it like that, so we were forced to accept it.

Since that point Ms Rowling evidently rethought that statement, for in her website update of December 10, 2004 in the FAQ entry asking whether Hermione was nearly 11 or nearly 12 when she started Hogwarts Ms Rowling even more unambiguously stated that she was nearly 12, since you have to be at least 11 to attend Hogwarts. Which, if taken in conjunction with the March statement that she “started early” only suggests that Hermione might have had an extra year of Muggle secondary school before starting Hogwarts. Ergo: Hermione is not the youngest of the trio. She is the oldest. All timelines claiming the contrary had now been rendered simply, wrong.

Unless, that is, JKR decides to flip-flop on the issue again. (Given that she has now shown Hermione passing her Apparation test in the middle of 6th year, I suspect we can safely accept that she is the eldest of the three.)

This statement also complies with what she had already shown us in the text. Both Cedric Diggory and Angelina Johnson were 17-year-old 6th year students by the time of the commencement of the TriWizard Tournament at the end of October, and Angelina, at least had had her birthday just the previous week.

Otherwise, any discontinuity with the academic year and birthday “cut-off” dates — which would occur with at least some regularity — would be bound to have led to at least occasional conflicts with the Muggle educational system, and if this is the case, it would be astonishing if nothing was done to remedy it and bring the Hogwarts academic year into compliance with what has been standard practice for at least a quarter of its students.

In the theoretical, and very rare case of wizarding children (halfbloods) attending Muggle primary schools, this might well be facilitated by a Ministry requirement that any family which enrolls its children into the Muggle school system should file this information with the Ministry, which would ensure that the proper measures should be taken to coordinate the dates of Hogwarts attendance, as well as to alert the Department of Accidental Magic Reversal that they should have some form of monitoring set up at the school in order to run damage control in case of breakthroughs. For a few months this indeed seemed to be a possibility. Rowling did state that some magical children did attend Muggle primary schools.

As has so often turned out to be the case, Ms Rowling did not stand by this statement either. Ms Rowling has since indicated that virtually all wizarding children who end up attending Muggle school are, in fact, Muggle-born.

We have also been given some indications either in interviews, or on the original official website that a wizarding-born child in a Muggle primary school may not be not merely rare but actually prohibited. Given the determination of the Ministry to keep it’s constituency separate from Muggle society, despite the fact that the majority of wizards do not, and are unable to actually live completely separate from it, it very much appears that any wizarding couple who produces children is automatically constrained to educate them at home at their own expense and on their own responsibility, or to make other arrangements for their education without Ministry supervision or assistance, in the absence of any wizarding primary schools.

In short, the Ministry of Magic takes no interest whatsoever in education, per se. Only in its constituency’s magical training.

Except, of course, in the case of Harry Potter.

It was perhaps due to some oversight that no monitoring of his school site appears to have taken place, and that Harry Potter, a known wizarding child was actually permitted to be enrolled in a Muggle school.

But then, there is always the possibility that Potter’s exact whereabouts were being kept under wraps and information concerning his location was not released to the relevant Ministry departments until after Potter was formally enrolled at Hogwarts. As Professor Snape so frequently has pointed out, the normal rules do not always seem to apply to Potter.

Item III: Early School-Leaving:

This particular issue has nothing to do with the Muggle-born experience of Hogwarts, but it is the most appropriate place to tuck it into the collection.

It has been speculated that since one must receive qualifying scores in the standardized OWL exams in order to continue study in most of the subjects offered by Hogwarts at NEWT-level, it is probable that at least some Hogwarts students do not continue their formal education beyond 5th year.

Ms Rowling does not ever openly state this particular option within the course of the text until Book 5, when she hands us the Weasley twins’ flamboyant school-leaving before sitting the NEWTs, and later, Harry’s stated intention to not return to school for his 7th year.

Nevertheless, while Harry may have chosen to drop out, he did not flunk out. Nor has his family withdrawn him, as was briefly the case of several of his classmates at various points of the series.

Squinting between the lines, amid the usual brangle over the scrambled statements regarding the birth dates of the Weasley children, it is possible to speculate that the twins may not have been the first children in the family to have left school after their OWLs. If Charlie had done the same, with the blessings of Professors McGonagall and Kettleburn, in order to take a prestigious trainee post at the Dragon reservation in Romania much of the contradiction and muddle over the Weasley children’s ages evaporates. This is examined more closely in the essay below entitled ‘The Weasley Calendar’.

And for that matter, it is virtually required to speculate that Andromeda Black must have eloped with Ted Tonks and not returned to school after her OWLs if we dismiss the dates on the Black family tapestry sketch in order to fudge matters enough for Bellatrix to have still been at school, even if for only one year, at the same time as a Marauder cohort which was born in 1960.

Rowling also gives us a strongly-implied example of at least one other possible Hogwarts dropout. Probably a more representative example.

And yes, I do mean poor, feckless Stan Shunpike.

Stan Shunpike has never had any difficulty recognizing Harry Potter once he was introduced to him. Stan is quite chuffed about knowing such a celebrity as Harry Potter, in fact.

But he didn’t recognize him the first time Harry boarded the Knight bus in the summer before his 3rd year.

Why not? Harry had not exactly kept a low profile throughout his first two years at Hogwarts. In the first place, like every other student, he was Sorted in the full sight of the entire school, by name, AS a major celebrity, upon whom everyone’s attention was fully focused. And then he was brought to public attention again as one of the three students who had lost Gryffindor 150 points by being caught out of bounds. He was also brought to the attention of the whole school at the end of the year by Dumbledore’s grand points reward after the Philosopher’s Stone brouhaha. The outcome of which had been known throughout the entire school by the time Harry woke up in the Hospital wing.

He was also the youngest student to have become a Seeker on a House team in a century.

In year two he was thrown into the limelight again by the Heir of Slytherin nonsense, and again at the end of the year after destroying the Basilisk.

And only a few weeks later Stan doesn’t recognize him.

Well, hey, Stan’s out of school, right?


But if Stan was only 21 at the time of his arrest in ’96, at the beginning of Harry’s 6th year, he would have only been 18 when Harry first boarded the Knight bus in the summer before his 3rd. i.e., he would have only just finished his 7th year at Hogwarts. He would have been right there at Hogwarts for Harry Potter’s first two years.

But Stan didn’t recognize him.

Stan Shunpike ought to have been starting his 6th year in Harry’s 1st year. Stan’s 7th year ought to have been the Year of the Basilisk. Harry Potter got a lot of attention during those two years.

And Shunpike flatly didn’t recognize Harry Potter.

He’d never seen him before in his life

Ergo: Stan was lo longer at Hogwarts by the time Harry started there.

Well, hey, he’s a young fool, but he isn’t subnormal. He’s a qualified wizard. He probably scraped an Acceptable in a couple of his OWLs. But an Acceptable won’t butter any parsnips if you want to study Transfigurations, or Charms, or, ghod help us, Potions at NEWT level.

We don’t really know for certain whether there is much that a meager Acceptable on the OWLs would qualify you to continue studying. Although we do learn in passing that remedial classes are available for some subjects, so it is hypothetically possible for a student to return for a 6th, or possibly even a 7th year in order to study to sit the OWLs again in hopes of passing them on a second try. But such remedial classes seem to be held separately from the regular 5th year classes, for we never actually encountered such a student. Perhaps, above the 5th year, rather than being split by House, there are only two classes available, NEWT-level, and remedial OWL-level. And we do not know just which fields offer remedial OWL-level classes. Not all of them are likely to.

And I suspect that not all students are prepared to make the attempt, either.

Well, after all, the prospect of returning to Hogwarts to sit and listen to Binns drone on about Goblin wars is hardly a compelling prospect, is it?

Indeed, even the restriction of being unable to openly use magic for the a few months of one’s first year after one drops out after sitting the OWLs in one’s first attempt is less likely to feel unproductive than that.