There’s an exclusive private school in the hills. Youngsters from all over come to attend, drawn by programs and curricula that are simply unavailable anywhere else. It’s a boarding school, of course, and the students rarely, if ever, come into town. Frankly, there are rumours that all that goes on within those ivy-draped walls is not entirely savoury.
And, though the whispered stories are wildly contradictory, there is a kernel of truth. For up in the hills, aged professors are teaching a select cadre of youth the secrets of magic/psychic force/vampirism/VCR programming.
Of course this sounds familiar. The wizarding school conceit was not new when Harry Potter’s invitation arrived by owl, but it certainly made a grand re-entrance. Since Harry Potter first stepped off the Hogwarts Express, any number of new magical boarding schools have cropped up. The most notable perhaps is Brakebills, the more grownup Hogwarts of Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy. Brakebills, which is a college rather than a high school, is a conscious deconstruction of the Hogwarts mythology. Students are accepted from families both wizarding and muggle. Students live on campus and are assigned into houses of sorts, though replace Gryffindor with the wine-sotted Physical Magic cottage.
And the story, as in Rowling’s books, takes great delight in the exploration and description of the grounds. From the great flowing field of grass known as The Sea, to the subterranean cellars where demons are summoned and bound, to the mysterious Brakebills South Campus. A large part of the narrative in both Potter and The Magicians surrounds the developing relationship between the students and school itself. In Harry Potter, it can easily be argued that Hogwarts itself is one of the most important characters in the series, with Dumbledore and Hagrid acting primarily as its corporeal manifestations.
The Magicians Trilogy, incidentally, is fantastic. I was lamenting recently that I could not purge it from my memory so as to read it again for the first time. Not long after I made this pronouncement, a friend gifted me a copy of Lexicon by Max Barry. I was surprised to discover that perhaps, with Lexicon, I could indeed achieve a reasonable approximation of experiencing The Magicians as a new reader. In Lexicon, 16-year-old itinerant street performer Emily Ruff is recruited into a secret boarding school in Arlington, Virginia known simply as The Academy. There, she is educated on the true language, buried unconsciously in the fabric of the human psyche, that allows a wordsmith to concoct commands which cannot be disobeyed.
Lexicon is a dark story full of mass murder, torture, human experimentation, rape, and the potential enslavement of all mankind. And yet, it unabashedly devotes pages to such things as course selection, anxiety over midterms, and varsity sports. Every professor is a vital character and every room, every hallway, every tradition, of the school an integral part of the story.
There is also P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series of YA fantasy romance novels, in which teenage vampires are spirited away to a — you guessed it — secret boarding school to learn mastery over their vampiric powers. And the wizarding school on Roke where, as in Lexicon, wizards in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series learn the power of true names. And, for that matter, let’s not forget the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.
Is it not strange? What is it that is so appealing about being whisked away to a land of magic and adventure, and then having to go to school there? What trick of our mind allows us as readers to become almost equally invested in whether Harry avenges his parents and whether he gets a D in Herbology?
At its root, it must be a fascination with the classic British boarding school system. It represents a sort of adventure all on its own, living in an ancient building on ancient grounds among your peers and far from your parents. Despite the strict regimentation, it represents a sort of freedom, independence. The rich traditions and esoteric laws of the oldest colleges in England comprise a sort of mythology all their own. There is a delectable exoticism to the weightiness attributed to such arbitrary things as the house system. And this is a world that the vast majority of readers have not experienced and, being adults, never will. It is another world, forever inaccessible.
In that way, it seems the boarding school story is a natural fit for genre literature. Old buildings with secret passageways, apocryphal histories, and shadowy student fraternities: It is a rich vein of the fantastic. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the great Canadian mainstay of YA boarding school fiction, Gordon Korman’s Macdonald Hall series, began to dabble in science fiction and mystery by the third book. It could just be that the setting invites fancy.
But there is more to it than that, I believe. From the author’s standpoint, there is a great structure provided by a boarding school. It defines the limits of the setting, for the students may not leave. It allows for arbitrary rules to be enforced, so that we may swallow the idea that Ron Weasley doesn’t just go magic his way into the vault of a muggle bank at the first opportunity. And it provides a sense that power must be acquired slowly, through diligence. You don’t become a wizard overnight; it takes six years of study. So when we see a character of great might, we know they worked hard for it.
In a world with magic, whatever its form, some method of providing structure, limits, is vital. A school is not the only option available, but it’s certainly a good one, and we should enjoy it while it’s in ascendance.
D.F. McCourt is the Editor of AE.