How does a fictional game become real on college campuses?
It starts with J. K. Rowling’s fabulously successful Harry Potter series (1997–2007), which has sold more than 400 million books in 67 languages and has accounted almost on its own for a revival of reading in a generation of otherwise distracted kids. Of course, adults have read Harry Potter novels in almost equal numbers. In fact, at our home we own duplicate copies of the set. (I was one of those parents who would stand in the queue at the local bookstore at midnight on release day to buy two copies to reduce the scrambling at home—and not just between the kids—you’re welcome Mrs. Rowling).
Harry Potter books define this generation much the way that The Lord of the Rings did for followers 30 years before. The cohort of kids who grew up with Harry and Hogwarts has gone to college and the books have continued to shape that experience. Enrollment has soared in Latin classes—the magic spells are uttered in the classical language (come to think of it Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis—Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—ended up in my daughter’s stocking five Christmases ago), and three years ago Middlebury College in Vermont inaugurated a Quidditch team. Since then the sport has taken off at campuses around the country.
Of the many magical inventions in Rowling’s work, the fictional game Quidditch may be the most entertaining. Certainly it’s the most cinematic, as the contest unfolds high above the ground with players from two aerial squadrons trying to bash or toss a floating ball—a quaffle—into one of six nets. Quidditch is a rough and tumble game; combine Irish football and stunt flying, and you’d have something like Quidditch. Mainly owing to his talent for flying a broomstick, Harry Potter becomes a star—a seeker—as he captains the Quidditch team fielded by his Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
This November, 46 Quidditch squads met in New York City to compete in the Fourth Quidditch World Cup. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, CBS News, and National Public Radio picked up the story. These teams play on the ground, of course, in this muggle (non-magical) version of the game. Seven caped players on each team straddle brooms and manage to hurl the quaffle (in this case a volleyball) with a free hand through improvised goals made of Hula Hoops. In the novels and films, the seeker pursues the Golden snitch—an enchanted, winged, zippy walnut-sized ball. But in the human game the snitch is a fast runner, a neutral player dressed in yellow carrying the prize, a tennis ball stuffed in a sock. He can roam the campus on foot or on a bicycle. But catch him and snatch the snitch and you rack up the equivalent of 15 goals. This feat also ends the game, which introduces an element of randomness and surprise, the hallmark of all exciting competitions. If you’re behind by 16 goals, your team will lose.
The sport is governed by the Intercollegiate Quidditch Association, which says it has helped organize 400 college teams and 300 teams in high schools. Perhaps this turn toward systematizing is not so surprising. Frisbee, the counter-culture college game of all time, now boasts of international championships where teams face off in stadiums. Will this contest pick up the grim vibe that’s driven the playfulness out of professionalized college sports? That’s doubtful. Muggle Quidditch is immunized from that fate by Rowling’s jokey, fantastic back story and the pretense of flight. Quidditch also inspires a healthy disregard for the rules. And then it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re comically handicapped by holding a broomstick between your legs.
With the Quidditch World Cup slated for London in 2012, it looks like the earthbound sport can go nowhere but up. Accordingly, the National Museum of Play has just added a Quidditch broom to its collections.