|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008-9|
Even if you haven’t read the books don’t try to claim you don’t have some familiarity with Quidditch, J.K. Rowling’s impossible invented sport. Players zoom through the air on broomsticks, Beaters battle Bludgers, Chasers lob Quaffles, Keepers guard goals, and Seekers pursue Golden Snitches.
I need to pause right here and interject the obvious, namely how could anyone be comfortable riding an object just a couple of inches in circumference? Indeed, how could anyone even stay aboard such a thing? Even balance beams are four inches across – and flat, not round. On this point, I can think only that the usually logical Rowling felt compelled to stick with tradition. In her world, however, tradition often is tweaked, so wizards as well as witches ride astride.
The rules of Quidditch are relatively simple, but the rules are not nearly as fascinating as the broader question, why? Why would the self-admittedly non-sporting Rowling go through the trouble of inventing a sport for her Wizarding World? Asked that question during an interview in 1999, she responded:
Oh, Quidditch; the irony of me inventing a sport! I managed to break my arm playing netball, which as you know is not a famous contact sport. I was thinking of things that unified society, and I decided that one thing would have to be a sport, and that would be an opportunity for the wizards to meet in secret, and all congregate together, and it would just be too difficult for them to congregate and watch baseball or something. We'd notice! They'd get upset. They'd fire their wands off and stuff in the crowd. That wouldn't work so they'd have to have their own sport. So I had a lot of fun making up the rules of Quidditch. It's a violent and dangerous game and I'd be appalling at it, but it's fun to think about.
– National Press Club interview broadcast on NPR
Many writers, including children’s book authors, are adept at world-building. Rowling, though, has managed to induce a verisimilitude that has captivated not just her target readership, but adults as well. Her magic has limits, sometimes voluntary, but usually either natural or proscribed. As she said in another interview that same year:
I spent a lot of time inventing the rules for the magical world so that I knew the limits of magic. Then I had to invent the different ways wizards could accomplish certain things. Some of the magic in the books is based on what people used to believe really worked, but most of it is my invention.
–Barnes & Noble interview
Quidditch has both a purpose and its own limitations within the magical world. Critics who suggest Rowling lacks imagination notwithstanding, in 2001, writing as Kennilworthy Whsip, she laid out the rules of the game and the invented history of the sport in Quidditch Through the Ages (net proceeds going to the British charity Comic Relief), summarized in a 2000 unauthorized but useful compendium of her work.
The magical game of Quidditch, an aerial sport resembling an amalgam of soccer, basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, dodgeball, rugby, cricket, and polo, is organized and regulated….
Played in an arena somewhat like a soccer field, the wizard sport resembles basketball with goalposts fifty feet high…. Each side has seven players: two Beaters who use clubs to chase the two balls called Bludgers that try to knock players off of their brooms; three Chasers who try to throw the large red ball called the Quaffle through one of the three designated goalposts for their team (a total of six goalposts line the field); a Keeper who guards the goalposts; and the Seeker who chases the elusive Golden Snitch whose capture ends the game and decides the winner.
– Elizabeth D. Schafer, Exploring Harry Potter
In Quidditch, Rowling writes that the game evolved from the very human desire of the magical to fly. The key word is “evolve” because she outlines several manifestations of the game-playing that eventually becomes Quidditch in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is evident that the purpose of the game is the same in its essentials as any other team sport in real life, and that is the point. That also is the strength both of Rowling’s invented game and world. As with J.R.R. Tolkien, the deeper you dig, the more there seems to discover, which surely is, or should be, a defining quality of world-class world-building.
Always fearful of revealing too much too soon, until after the release of The Deathly Hallows, Rowling was often regarded during interviews as offering less than the warm personality expected of a writer for children. Although certainly one to maintain her privacy, the unfair characterization was caused primarily by her need to keep the secrets of the story safe until the ultimate denouement in the final book.
Some bits and pieces of business became evident relatively early on, however, such as why Harry Potter wears glasses in an age of contact lenses and laser surgery. If Madame Pomfrey can heal broken bones, why can’t she mend Harry’s bad eyesight? Rowling’s rules of magic apparently preclude such an intervention, just as it doesn’t prevent the aging of wizards, albeit they seem to age quite slowly and apparently stay healthy into their elder years.
The big advantage to Rowling in giving Harry bad eyesight is symbolical; it’s a physical manifestation of his inner vulnerability. That Harry becomes an ace Seeker in spite of his eyesight is vital not just to the permutations of plot, but essential to his personality. Harry is who he is because of his willingness to conquer his own shortcomings, and his bravery in facing not just Voldemort but his own fear of inadequacy in the face of tremendous odds.
Another of Harry’s attributes is his quick and clear thinking when faced with difficult choices. It is perhaps a holdover from his unhappy days with the Dursleys when he had to choose quickly, or face unfortunate consequences. In The Chamber of Secrets Dumbledore makes it clear to Harry that choices are coming and he must choose wisely. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Despite his specific skills, Harry is no more than an adequate student, except when circumstances play to his strengths. The only Hogwarts activities Harry excels in are Defense Against the Dark Arts, for obvious reasons, and Quidditch. Making fast, sound choices is essential to a Seeker. Thus, Quidditch hones not just Harry’s physical skills but his mental processes as well, as any sufficiently challenging sport should.
Harry encounters Lord Voldemort in the first book, but his Quidditch skills do not come into play directly until the third. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s innate talent at flying something not easily controlled is put to the test when he and Hermione board Buckbeak the Hippogriff to rescue Sirius Black from the clutches of the foolhardy but not yet corrupt Ministry of Magic.
In the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, Harry does not play Quidditch but his years of practice catching the Snitch, as well as his flying skills, come into play. His first task in an involved and dangerous tournament is to steal a golden egg from a large and rather nasty dragon Rowling refers to as a “Hungarian Horntail.” Other competitors try to quell their own opposing dragons with complex magic spells, but Harry works on only one, a summoning charm. With that simple spell he beckons his broomstick, flies rings around the fire-breathing Horntail and bags the golden egg.
In the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry once again finds himself flying strange creatures. This time he navigates a Thestral – a sort of skeletal, sometimes invisible, flying horse – all the way to London. At the Department of Mysteries in the Ministry of Magic, Harry’s skill once more saves the day when he and the bad guys play catch with a delicate prophecy sphere. Harry chooses whether the sphere will break, and why.
Finally, in The Deathly Hallows, Harry’s game-playing logic and “the unerring skill of the Seeker” take him to his final victory against the forces of evil. Could he have defeated Voldemart without it?