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How to talk about Harry Potter if you’ve never read Harry Potter

27 Harry Potter terms defined (by someone who has also never read Harry Potter).

It’s standard, when magazines such as this celebrate a particular cultural artefact, to include something by someone who doesn’t get it. This time, said traditional role, which is somewhere between a Sin Eater and a Judas Goat, falls to me. But don’t worry, I’m not going to try and tell you I think you’re all wrong. I have no desire to spoil anyone’s fun. As a lifelong Doctor Who fan I am never in a position to mock anyone else’s malfunctions. It’s nice that people enjoy things, and Harry Potter is clearly good and its popularity deserved. It’s just something I’ve missed out on.

By the time the first Harry Potter book was massive I was already in my twenties, and halfway through an undergraduate degree that required the reading of two novels a week to stand still, which made any question of recreational reading moot. By the time I was even vaguely in a position to consider reading things that weren’t on a prescribed list, there seemed to be loads of them, of exponentially increasing girths. It was the release of, I think, the fourth one, which my then-flatmate placed next to a Penguin Classics of Clarissa to demonstrate just how gargantuan a tome it was, that made me realise I was never going to catch up.

I went to see the first film because I have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for popcorn films, despite not particularly liking popcorn itself. I can remember little about it except that it was alarmingly static-looking for a blockbuster. I didn’t see the second. I did see the third, because it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and of that I can remember not very much, except that it was rather good, and roughly what I’d expected the first one to be like, with the camera doing more interesting things in its trailer than in the whole of the first picture.

There, nearly 15 years ago, is where any attempt I made to have a relationship with Harry Potter ended.

Except it didn’t. Because it couldn’t. Because it’s everywhere.

I frequently attend a local pub quiz where, due to the quizmaster’s own proclivities, there’s almost always a question on Harry Potter. At which point I tend to go to the bar and subcontract any attempt to answer to my teammates. Occasionally, though, I know the answer anyway. Because the vocabulary of Harry Potter has seeped into everyday life. Just as people can know more or less exactly who Kirk and Spock are without having seen a second of Star Trek, I’ve wound up having a vague notion of what some of the argot of Harry Potter means, purely through a sort of cultural osmosis.

So, for those even less well-versed in the series than I am, here’s a brief primer. My attempts to define something from Harry Potter based on the words given to me by my friends. For your convenience, my passes are not included.

Albus Dumbledore: “The Headmaster. He’s the Merlin figure. Well, the Obi-Wan figure. They’re all Merlin figures, I suppose. He’s Richard Harris, then he died, so he regenerated into Michael Gambon.”

Argus Filch: “Oh, that’s David Bradley’s character. I read that in Doctor Who Magazine. This is going to be easy.”

Chamber of Secrets: “Sounds like the sort of shop they had in Soho before the Berwick Street market redevelopment.”

Deathly Hallows: “That’s the band Ed Miliband interviewed on the radio last week, surely?”

Dementor: “Sounds like a fairground ride. A Victorian one. Steam powered.”

Draco Malfoy: “I’m pretty sure he’s in Game of Thrones.”

Hagrid: “Oh, that’s Robbie Coltrane. Except for in deleted scenes, when it’s Jonn Elledge.”

Hippogriff: “That’s not from Harry Potter, it’s from Virgil’s Eclogues.”

Hermione Grainger*: “She’s the female lead. Some people were really cross she was played by the brilliant Noma Dumezweni in the stage play of one of them.  And by ‘people’ I mean ‘racists’.”

Hogwarts: “That’s the school. Tourists have it on sweatshirts.”

Horcrux: “These are sources of power. Probably evil. But I’ve a vague idea they need to be collected. So something on the spectrum between a Pokemon and a Death Star. I’m now imagining a Death Star sized Pokeball. That’s quite cool.”

Hufflepuff: “Is this a slang term for someone mediocre? I could happily be a Hufflepuff. It sound cheerful.”

Luna Lovegood: “Someone who really likes the moon?”

Mudblood: “I know this one. It’s a racist insult.”

Muggle: “So’s this.”

Order of the Phoenix: “You ordered the phoenix? You eat the phoenix!” (I’m sorry. Not very though.)

Neville Longbottom: “It that a name? It sounds like something a Minion would say. Oh, hang on. Neville and Luna? Is that why there are cats on twitter called Neville and Luna? They’re nice cats.”

Newt Scamander: “Isn’t that Eddie Redmayne’s Matt Smith impression? I’ve seen the trailer for that one.”

Patronus: “This is like a deliberately non-culturally appropriative spirit animal concept, right? You know that lazy dachshund in the insurance adverts on the tube? My wife says that’s my Patronus.”

Philosopher’s Stone: “The first one. Also a real thing. Well, a real made-up thing. A thing made up before Harry Potter. Like the Hippogriff. And it’s a Satyajit Ray film. Which is better than the first Harry Potter film. I went there.”

Prisoner of Azkaban: “That’s the third film. The Prisoner is David Thewlis. Or possibly Gary Oldman. At a stretch, it could be Tim Roth. Who I often confuse with Gary Oldman. Because they played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern together.”

Quidditch: “Flying hockey. Space Polo. Posh kids on wood in the air, basically.”

Ron Weasley: “That’s his best mate. Harry’s best mate. One of my mates has a quote ‘dirty little crush’ on him.”

Slytherin: “There’s a running joke that George Osborne was in this. So it’s an organisation. Is it like the Young Conservatives?”

The Sorting Hat:  “I’m guessing it’s a sort of hat?”

Snape: “I think this is Alan Rickman. And he’s a good guy who turns out to be a bad guy, or possibly vice versa. Or both. Alan Rickman was good at the acting.”

Voldemort: “This is a thing you are not allowed to say to Ralph Fiennes when you work with him on other things. So I’m told. Apparently that’s funny. If you know anything about Harry Potter.”  

*Editor’s note: spelling author’s own.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist