Harry Potter and the magic of place

“When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does,” claims Meg Ryan’s bookstore-owning character in the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail.”

Books we read, especially as a child, stick with us. Characters extend beyond the pages their tales were written on, and the places those tales happen grow into our own catalogue of places, perhaps only in our imagination, but still there, just as real.

One of those worlds, for myself and for many around my age who grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is certainly the magical world established in the Harry Potter series, spanning and expanding seven novels released between 1997 and 2007 that follow young wizard Harry and his two friends, Ron and Hermione, and their adventures in the wizarding world. From the majestic and mystical Hogwarts Castle, where students go to school, to Diagon Alley, the magical, cobble-stoned district filled with shops and stores selling all kinds of magical robes, animals, and wands, to the snow-covered village of Hogsmeade, filled with warm pubs serving up cream-topped butterbeer, the places of Harry Potter’s magical world stand out sharply in anyone’s mind who grew up with the series or who have watched its films. A simple mention of those places — Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade — evokes a strong sense of place, an image, a feeling conjured up in the minds of those familiar with the series.

Those places of the wizarding world have now physically become spaces, as Universal Studios has capitalized on the Harry Potter phenomenon, building numerous blocks that mimic the set created for the movies. One can wander the small, snow-peaked shops of Hogsmeade, walk through the stone walls of Hogwarts Castle, and enjoy a butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks.

What makes those fictional places so iconic and feel so real? What makes their hold so powerful, so meaningful, that millions of people a year will come to a theme park to try to experience part of the magic of them?

That feeling you get when you think of a place — the feeling they evoke, the stories they tell — is what is referred to by “sense of place.”

Sense of place is the uniqueness that makes a place the place it is. Not only its physical uniqueness, but all of the intangible meaning we add to it: memories, history, feeling, value.

Author J.K. Rowling’s writing conveys those places in such detail that the reader feels a part of them. By the end of the series, the reader has spent a significant amount of time with those characters and in those places, and, in doing so, the reader has been welcomed into that shared experience with the characters and the story being told.

Hogwarts Castle is no longer just a physical castle. It looms in the reader’s imagination, its halls filled with moving, talking portraits, its secret passageways, every twist and turn of its stone walls and chambers filled with history and enchantment. After seven books spent in the castle, it has become, for the reader, like the students and professors, a second home.

Diagon Alley isn’t just a strip of stores, it’s Harry’s — and the readers — first experience into the magical world. With an umbrella touching three bricks on a London wall, the muggle (non-magical) world transforms into something enchanted, filled with cobblestone streets, moving storefronts, magical goods and sellers, and shopkeepers that will soon become our friends.

Places, both imagined and real, hold an immense power to us, as they become sites for us to root our memories, history, and, most importantly, our shared experiences — and the people that we share them with.

May we see the magic in the real places we experience. It is certainly there.

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.