The Wizarding world, as revealed to Muggles by J. K. Rowling, has attracted gazillions of book-readers, movie-watchers, fan-fiction-writers, fake-Quidditch-players and wistful Wannabe-Wizards, whose rampant (sometimes rabid) enthusiasm is testament to the unprecedented popularity of the Harry Potter stories. Although most people ascribe the wonder of magic as the thread that not only links the stories together but also has a stranglehold on fans’ imaginations (not to mention their wallets), it’s actually a larger idea of the quality of life in the Wizarding world that is to credit for their success. It’s a matter of Wizarding taste.
Rowling’s descriptions of the environments in which her stories are set are terrifically engaging, as are their cinematic representations. But it’s not just the storytelling that draws in readers; it’s the particular quality of the world on which she reports: one with a clear aesthetic preference that even Muggles can understand, since it is part of their history, too. It is a direct echo of the forward-yet-backward-looking taste that bubbled up in England for a few decades starting around 1850. Backward in that it intentionally ignored many, if not most, of the period’s technological innovations, forward in its democratization of art-making. This is the movement that slips back and forth between a new appreciation for medieval art and architecture, the invention of a bold polychromatic Gothic revival, and the blossoming of the Arts and Crafts. What these related-but-distinct ideas have in common is their rejection of the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution and abhorrence for its poofy “Victorian” consumption and taste, and their value for art and design that manifests of the unique qualities of individual human spirits.
The nineteenth-century aesthetic that informs the backdrop of the Wizarding World is neither the maneuvering of moviemakers nor the whim of a writer. It is a revealed world that is parallel to, but simply better than, the one that twenty-first century Muggles inhabit: it’s in better taste. And there’s a reason for that, a reason with a story of its own, which takes us back to the eighteenth century.
It is of great consequence that this particular set of stories drawn from the Wizarding world is set in Britain, the seat of the Industrial Revolution which began around 1750 in the English midlands (no more than a few hundred miles from Hogwarts, which—as good readers should know—was already established for over seven centuries by the time the first blast furnace was fired up). During the century (or so) that defined the first phase of the Revolution, Wizards took careful measure of its possibilities and fruits and, unlike Muggles, selectively chose to engage in only part of it—and not because magic could already accomplish what Muggle technology was only then attempting—and this is key. Wizards use technology too, but are more selective about it, having had the sense to sidestep the ugly side effects of the Revolution.
Why? Because Wizards are more discriminating. In short, they are characterized by taste, not haste, and that is the distinction that distinguishes Wizards and Muggles to even a deeper degree than the capacity to do magic. Haste, speed, efficiency: these are the enemies of taste. Taste is usually inconvenient; taste requires forethought and reflection. Wizards accept that, and their world is the richer for it. This is quite the opposite of the Muggles, who all too often assume that just because a person can do something faster/cheaper/easier, that a person ought to do so.
That kind of thinking led Muggles to adopt the cheap products of the Revolution much more quickly than Wizards did. Most of the latter aligned themselves with the teachings of John Ruskin (at left), who started publishing right about 1850 (again, coincidence? we think not), and warned of the dangers inherent in sacrificing the sacred work of the hand to the god of efficiency. He saw the medieval world as a guide to the modern one in rejecting both industrial manufacture and (in another branch of this particular rabbit’s hole) the dogmatism of Classicism–both of which enslaved the artist/craftsman and removed true joyous beauty from everyday life. Although classical taste is present in the Wizarding world, it manifests very different values than does the medieval/Gothic/Arts and Crafts. Ruskin’s articulation of the tenants of taste describe the most admirable element within the Wizarding world. (And not surprisingly, since—spoiler alert!—He belonged to it.)
Surveying the potentials and pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution, the Wizards of the mid- to late-nineteenth century saw that not all was good. They did appreciate some conveniences (steam trains and multi-decker busses come to mind). But more often than not, they ignored it, and continued to ignore it, sort of freezing their world and, through the twentieth century and beyond, admitting only those innovations that could achieve an important benefit, but never at the expense of taste. And thus Wizards are blissfully free of the following mistakes that plague Muggles: telephones, pagers, airport security, drive-throughs, bell bottoms, skinny jeans, the Olive Garden, instant coffee, i-Everythings, cars, expressways, suburbs, urban planning, Brutalism, Abstract Expressionism, plastic, asbestos, reality TV and frozen pot pies.
Ruskin’s ideal is evident, to a certain extent, throughout most of the Wizarding World, especially among those whose surroundings are most clearly informed by the natural or vernacular, the artsy-craftsy, the gothic—all of it relevant, workable and delightful in the “modern” world. No surprise, the heroes of Rowling’s stories exemplify nineteenth-century taste as per Ruskin. In the archetypal scene to the left, Molly Weasley rushes along Platform 9 ¾, one of the clearest examples of the Wizarding World’s (limited) acceptance of industry (efficiency with no sacrifice of style). Molly herself is an Arts and Crafts symphony, wrapped in garments that are the product of her own knitting needles (no matter that her hands do not actually touch the needles; her mind is still in control of the production).
The Weasley family home is also a testament to the commitment the family brings to Arts and Crafts. The Burrow is, by both traditional academic and modernist criteria of judgment, a visual disaster, an aesthetic joke, an artistic catastrophe. But given Arts and Crafts delight in handcraft, in variety and domestic comfort, it is an extraordinary assemblage, a testament to excellent Wizarding taste.
Just compare the Molly’s home to the office of Dolores Umbridge, which is also informed by the nineteenth century, but which presents about as stark a contrast of taste as possible. Here we see more of what Ruskin railed against: the worst of “Victorian” taste. Everything is over-stuffed, over-wrought, over-done, over-pink (and definitely over-cattified). All of it, from the draperies to the doilies, mass-produced and lot-dyed to match. (Except for the animated plates and Dark Magic pen, it’s not too different from the Dursley home, in being a showplace for bland consumption and mob-mentality mass-marketing rather than a place for individual expression of domestic delights.) Umbridge’s ironic alignment with Muggle fashion is in just as bad taste as her politics.
The Weasley’s identification with handmade, vernacular and Arts and Crafts elements is an informal and individualized manipulation of principles that go back to the Middle Ages, and which are seen most clearly in the most formal and important setting of the books: Hogwarts School. Built across many centuries, it is a showcase of the many eras of artistic change in Britain from the Saxon to High Gothic periods. Its foundations can still be discerned in the round-arched Slytherin Dungeon—
in this photo, still waiting for its capitals to be carved. The later inspiration of early Gothic is visible in the more noble Gryffindor Common Room—
—which features nascent pointed arches and a tapestry that the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris thinks it owns. The flowering of that period is evident in the heart of the building, the Great Hall—
—the symbol of unity within the School. Although its enchanted ceiling is not “roofed” in the way Muggles understand the word, it is covered in such a manner that is no less lofty, lacy, and ephemeral than the fan vaults that Muggles figured out how to build by the fifteenth century. Built in a similar time frame, the excellent Study of the Headmasters reveals similar characteristcs—
This stop at the study, seen during the tenure of Albus Dumbledore, suggests the importance of decorative arts to this consideration; Wizard clothing is particularly instructive. As Prof. Dumbledore (you saw him way up at the top of this post) showed time and again, the best-dressed Wizards are those who adopt the late-nineteenth-century admonition against restrictive, laced-up, body-shaping clothing, in favor of loose, comfortable robes in rich colors that are just as functional when a person is contemplating how to overthrow a Dark Lord as they are when one finds oneself dueling said Dark Lord. Functional and fashionable—just look at that embroidery!
Now on the other hand is the yawn-inspiring, obvious blackblackblackness of the Death Eater, who also tends more toward the fussy trussing of formal dress in the nineteenth century. Even a barmy cabbage like Bellatrix is always all corseted up. No wonder she is nutters; blood has not been able to flow properly to her brain since she hit puberty.
Bellatrix brings up another point: it is a truth through all history, that cultural values are revealed not only by what a civilization makes and builds, but also by what it destroys. Case in point: here is the darling who laid waste to the Great Hall, and who is the poster child for the devastation to be rained down on the whole of Hogwarts in the last battle. Bellatrix’s destruction (like Umbridge’s decoration) is further evidence of a truth communicated in the stories: not all Wizards are cut of the Weasley and Dumbledore cloth. They are given away not only by their willingness to unleash an Unforgiveable Curse, but also by their inexcusable decorative arts.
The Darkest of Dark Wizards (and other shifty characters) seem to take pleasure in aesthetic categories that Ruskin warns us from. Although they are never shown in a fully-industrialized setting (and indeed, they do some pretty significant damage to Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge in London), they often appear in settings that would seem innocuous to the untrained eye; but would set off a Sneakoscope attuned to decorative arts. In addition to the stuffy Umbridgian interior, the simillary oppressive language of Classicism, in all its forms and iterations is a sign of potential treachery. Witness Gringotts Wizarding Bank which, while not evil in and of itself, is a symbol of authority conveyed through a woppyjaw wizadish version of Classicism while attempting to mask the shady character of the goblins who run the place.
More specifically however, it is the Dark families who are associated most directly with this idiom. Witness the Black family home, Number 12, Gimmauld Place. It is a grim old Georgian place indeed. However, it is worth noting that it must have been the city home for the Blacks, as it is relatively small for such a prestigious and ancient family, and built only in the later eighteenth century. The Black country house must have been older, and of a different style, perhaps like Malfoy Manor. That manse, which appears from the exterior to have been built in that unfortunate “Elizabethan” period that blends High Gothic and Renaissance features, must have been “updated” in a later period, as seen through interior views of the Great Room (see below), which received a Classical makeover as a more appropriate setting for creepy Death Eater festivities. Wizarding theory of the Orders must assume that the curve of the volute in those Ionic capitals is not the symbol of a woman’s curled hair, but rather is the coil of the snake.
Of course there are variances within this matrix, oddities that, by breaking the rules, would seem to disprove them. But the murky quality of certain, select characters in the Wizarding World—as in the Muggle one as well—, reveals only the aesthetic complexity of both. And no more significant person embodies, and is embedded with, this contradictory aesthetic nature than Severus Snape. Where does Snape belong? Is he the shifty potions master plotting Harry’s demise in the round-arched, Slytherinesque dungeon?
Is he the virtuous professor striving to impart the intricacies of his challenging subject to his students, whom he meets in the delicately vaulted lecture room?
Is he the Dark villain who stands idly by as humble vernacular homes of goodly half-giants are blasted to oblivion?
Is he the gloomy recluse who maintains his dodgy family home in a crummy industrial town to be near the birthplace of his lost true love? The richness of diversity among these settings reflects the depth and mystery of Snape, whose taste, as a reflection of his character, resists easy categorization.
Absolute consistency in the exercise of taste is only possible in academic screeds and fictional portrayals, when “characters” are subject to the laws of clarity that are expected of inventors, architects and authors, including those who write fairy tales and architecture theory. Not in the real world, Wizarding or otherwise.