As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge. Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate. I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far. Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations. As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer. Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field. I didn’t know that, of course. Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.
I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies. There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire. I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things. Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive. Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself. My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.
Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared. Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions. I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so. As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city. I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch. And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all. If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.