Turning 21 With the World of Harry Potter
Authors Note: This post was written in 2014 on Medium before being picked up for publication in College of Wizardry: The Magic of Participation in Harry Potter Larps. The text has been reposted here for archival purposes.
If you were to ask me what I thought about Poland, I’d probably note, with reverence, that it’s an old place.
It most certainly feels so at least, especially when compared to what the United States feels like. The woods and fields of my home still feel rather new — and perhaps truthfully so, as only one country has ever existed there after the colonies. But the lands of Poland have seen multiple states rise and fall. Even today, the shells of buildings barely stand in the countryside, and the air is almost revolutionary despite the millennia which have passed.
It’s perfect for witchcraft and wizardry.
I remember when my friend texted me about this larp. Signups had just opened, and she said tickets were selling out like crazy and to grab one before they were gone. My first thought was “Poland? How could I possibly make that happen?”
My second thought was “I turn 21 a week after that. This is a perfect present.”
The next few minutes were a blur, if only because I ran clear across a college campus to my room and computer to snag a ticket. The rest of the day was spent in a stupor of “I’m going to Poland in November, and I’m doing so on a whim.” I didn’t know how to plan the trip by myself, or how I would get there, or even if I possessed the money for plane tickets and hotel rooms. I didn’t know what to expect, only that come November, I would explore a 12th century castle and play in the world of Harry Potter the weekend before my twenty-first birthday.
Months afterward, I still say that it was the single greatest larp I have ever played thus far. In the country of Poland, the Danish became some of the most gracious hosts I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing company with — to no one else’s surprise, of course. Their reputation in larp preceded them, after all. As an art form in Denmark, it’s used for social understanding, introspective exploration, and especially educational purposes. Here, however, they all came out to have some fun, and this time, we got to join in.
In its first run, College of Wizardry attracted larpers from eleven different countries in a mass conglomeration of incredible role-playing. And for a time there in Poland, it might as well have been the Wizarding World, and I might as well have been a wizard.
Meet Alexander Zamoyski. He is nineteen years old and hails from Warsaw, Poland. But he is nobody’s typical hero. Aleks is a pureblood bully who isn’t afraid to call you some sort of Mudblood if you so much as don’t like Quidditch. He’s smug and radiates confidence, but only because he’s capable of defending himself with a wand and putting a few good shots in you. But his grades are sub-par at best, and he’s rude to just about everybody. This doesn’t make earning points for his house so easy.
When it came to prepping our characters, however, we were given incredible leeway. None of the organizers minded if we wanted to overhaul our characters. We only had to run things by them if we wanted items like time turners, portkeys, and other things which need to be handled properly for the larp.
I wasn’t inclined towards any of this, though. In some true, Scandinavian manner, I wanted my character to explore a social problem that was and continues to be a hot-button topic in the United States today. The ultimate twist and secret of my character, then? He was a victim of domestic abuse.
I did a lot of research as I crafted the character’s history. Aleks inherited a love of Quidditch from his father, but didn’t think he was good at it. And he couldn’t imagine trying to fly on a broomstick again after his father died in a botched Auror mission. Afterwards, it was noted that a muggleborn blew their cover.
That muggleborn cost Aleks a father alone, but afterwards, his mother began to beat him and his little brother. Was it because she was drinking or perhaps out of grief? I never answered that question. But it was inevitable that Aleks developed a fairly decent hate of Mudbloods because of this. (This also made it much easier to role-play spite and hate.)
In crafting the story, I knew that this larp session was a one-and-done deal. I knew that while I would love to see his secret out, his stories told, and his persona redeemed somehow, Aleksander could also sink even further into his psychological problems, social issues, and perhaps experience enough woe to turn him to the Dark Arts. It was upon this balance that I risked everything, in the hopes that the tale might come around for a happy ending.
After that, November rolled around, and I was off to Poland.
After over eighteen hours of traveling, the bus finally pulled up to the Czocha Castle grounds. I was a little loopy from a lack of rest on the way over. I’d successfully reconvened with fellow Americans on the other side of the Atlantic, and between chattering excitement and much-needed naps, all the larpers were rearing to play.
As evening crept upon us, we saw Czocha for the first time, and I was awed. Pictures can’t capture the true magnificence of this castle. But being there in person–and then knowing we had free reign to explore–was amazing to the point that when my phone went missing, I couldn’t complain. It seemed a small price to pay. I wasn’t stressed out or overwhelmed. After all, cell phones aren’t quite that common in the Harry Potter world of witchcraft and wizardry, and Aleks wouldn’t dare be caught dead with one.
When things really got underway, we started with workshops. Workshops are the Nordic form of the announcements and briefings I see in the United States. For College of Wizardry, the workshops covered safety terms and made sure everybody knew the mechanics by teaching them one last time. We learned about casting offensive and defensive spells, as well as the mathematical potions system. We were also given gossip mechanics, whereas any rumor was fair game to blow out of proportion. Finally, we were turned lose until 19:30 and told to report outside the gates for lay on at that time.
I picked up character ties left and right until the beginning of the larp, if only to play a sophomore better. Despite all my preparations, I felt nervous. I was about to larp with incredible people, but many remained strangers. And there I was in a foreign country, thankful that everyone would speak English during game. Of the five houses (Faust, Molin, Svendivogius, Libussa, and Durentius), I was in Faust, which had won the House Cup for the last two years, and whose seniors wanted a three year streak. Already, the stakes were high as the game began. Nicolas Hornyak was left back in my room. Aleksander Zamoyski was on the loose.
“Move,” Aleks ordered. The audacity of this junior to take a seat that so clearly belonged to House Faust, and on the first night, too! Probably a Mudblood as well. She ought to be set straight.
“We’re a family. I sit with the Faust,” Aleks said rudely.
“Well!” she huffed, grabbing her bag. “I guess I know which house I don’t want to get into.”
Interesting. Aleks thought as he sat in the empty chair. Not many juniors would’ve fought back like that, even if only for a moment.
“I accidentally said ‘I sit with the Faust’ back there. I think we should make that a thing,” he joked to a nearby housemate, who grinned back. Inside, Aleks was scheming some.
She doesn’t want to go to Faust now, huh? It would be a shame if she was sorted here anyway. She’ll regret fighting back for the next three years, then.
Of course, none of this hostility is real, but I’d made a huge choice: I opted to alienate myself from my American friends for the larp. The player of that junior was Shoshana Kessock, a fellow larper with whom I’ve role-played relationships spanning mentorships and deep-seated friendships. I’ve also designed games with her guidance and helped run some of hers. Sticking by her would’ve been a good choice during the larp.
Then I didn’t make that choice. Even better: another American player, Josh Harrison, was right next to her when it happened. A grand first impression indeed! I would later discover that he was a Lockhart, and so I spread nasty rumors of all kinds about his character. Fun indeed, but risky. To keep playing now, I would have to throw myself to the strange hands of larpers hailing from all around the world.
With that, I ate dinner and headed to my house’s common room. Classes started tomorrow.
It’d been an irritating day. First day of classes always made Aleks feel like an idiot. He always did better in the heat of an encounter. Fortunately, his classes this semester included physical education and physical defense. But every morning, there would be Defense Against the Dark Arts and Potions before lunch.
It wasn’t shaping up to be all that pleasant of a start, of course. He got House Faust points in D.A.D.A., but Potions had gone horribly wrong. Their potion turned a bloody red, rather than the deep blue elixir they were trying to make. They were sure to get a bad grade, and Aleks sulked about it quite a bit.
Physical Education was the harshest blow, though. Because of the no-fly zone due to the werewolf threat in nearby Germany, they couldn’t even play Quidditch! Now they were stuck on the ground. And of all the things they could do, the Muggles had come up with Muggle Quidditch! Aleks wanted to puke.
This is so awkward. He held the broom between his legs, and not a twinge of flight shuddered through him. Completely disenchanted.
Professor Steinberg coached them through drills, and the entire time, that famous Seeker was watching. Apparently, he was scouting for the Polish National Team. But Aleks thought he had no talent whatsoever, and certain he wasn’t good at this. Wasn’t much good at anything.
And then he was a beater for a game. More than once, he hit the opposing chaser with a bludger, allowing Link, his roommate, to swoop in. A couple times, he even scored off the steal. Link was an incredible chaser to say the least, and Aleks was pretty happy to cheer him on.
The shock came after, when Link said that Aleks wasn’t so bad himself. Then the Seeker said there was a lot–a lot–of potential talent at Czocha College. And Aleks could’ve sworn those eyes were on him as he announced tryouts later that day.
Am I actually good at something besides fighting?
Aleks couldn’t believe his eyes, so he asked the question. “What are you?”
He stood alone in the Forbidden Forest just outside the College, save for a magical creature with goat legs and ram horns. “I’m a satyr.”
Of course you are. Aleks thought, trying to ignore the thoughts of sexual deviancy satyrs were known for. He glanced around and spotted Link coming through the castle gate. With him was Maryla, a Mudblood-turned-tolerated-friend-and-rival. Act natural.
Eventually, their cautious conversation around the fawn turned to the rumor of the Golden Snitch. Apparently, Czocha was missing theirs after it flew off into the Forbidden Forest. The three of them knew that finding it would be a long shot, but it was worth points, and they had nothing better to do on their break. So they hoofed it down the stairs and roamed the woods for a while.
Of course, they didn’t find it. But when they returned to the woods near the gate, the satyr had moved on, and in his place were two dryads. Or rather, one dryad and one half-dryad. Because the latter was not only clearly half-human: he was half-Faust, and apparently died on the same day house ghost Corvus did…
“Ah, you’re just in time! For three points from Faust, one from Libussa, and one from Molin!”
Are you fucking kidding me? Aleks thought as he arrived with the other late students. He’d been on time in the cellar where the class was supposed to take place! And then when the professor didn’t show up, they’d gone searching. A good load that did them! Aleks sat at the end of the benches in a huff. Herbology sucks.
He fumed all the way through re-potting a stinky plant and into the Forbidden Forest, where the professor fed his house-elf something poisonous and told them to find ditany to cure it. The house-elf’s cries of “Please hurry” were pitiful. It may have cost House Faust points the night before, but it was a magical creature, and for that, Aleks abhorred Professor Radek for the treatment.
And again, he told himself he wasn’t good at anything. Nobody found any ditany; it’d all been plucked. Poor house-elf. Hell, poor Aleks. Tryouts were almost upon them, and he doubted himself again…
Quidditch tryouts went better than he thought it would. For all it mattered, Aleks could be deadly accurate with bludgers.
But that wasn’t what sent him reeling. What got to him was that for the first time in ages, he thought he might be good at something else. Something new. And perhaps he could try becoming a Quidditch player instead of an Auror. After all, the Ministry of Magic faced numerous problems with the latest scares of the Dark Arts. Families uprooted and imprisoned for their relatives, priceless artifacts destroyed left and right — he didn’t want to become an Auror that did things like that.
Something concerned him more at the moment, however. Far below the bridges into the castle, three elves danced around in the fog, and Aleks was horrified to discover somebody with them, clearly enchanted. If only that man hadn’t been Link.
“Link!” Aleks called down.
“Oh, hey Aleks,” he replied, his voice higher than normal as he slurred. “Come dance.”
Aleks growled and started down the stairs behind him. He never made it all the way down; Link met him there, but so did an elf. Aleks drew his wand.
“Stay back!” he ordered, pointing it. “Link, come with me.”
“Come and dance,” one of the elves called out melodically.
“No! Later! But Link, I need you right now,” Aleks lied.
“I want to dance…”
“Link, I’ll let you dance in a moment, but I need to talk to you! Alone!”
“Come dance with us.”
“Later!” Aleks shouted back. “Link, come with me!”
It took some coaxing, but Aleks finally managed to lead Link back up the steps where, of all people, Professor Crumplebottom, former staff speaker at Czocha College, was waiting.
“What’s going on here?” she asked, Irish accent thick on her throat.
“I’m just helping my friend. Hold on,” Aleks replied as he emerged into the light, turned, and pointed his wand through the doorway. “Finite Incantatem!”
A moment passed. Then: “What happened?”
“Elves, m’boy,” the professor replied.
Then Aleks started laughing. “They got you good, didn’t they?”
“Anyway, leave them alone,” Professor Crumplebottom said. “And if they become a problem? Disperseo should do it.”
The next day wasn’t good. At all. Every time it seemed to be getting better, it got worse. D.A.D.A. was boring, House Durentius sabotaged his potion in Potions class, and Physical Education…well, that was alright. He spelled two witches trying to evade him in an exercise, although he couldn’t hit Link when he tried. But the first real tragedy came from Quidditch tryouts on break. Aleks was terrified about the haiku they’d all been asked to write up because his was so personal. Link practically shoved him forward when his name was called. And then, in seventeen syllables, he confessed his dead father loved Quidditch and now his mother beat him. He left in tears.
He didn’t want to think after that. Just finish the day. Finish the day without further incident. There was a ball tonight. He’d gotten a date. He only needed to make it that far.
And then Herbology. That damned Professor Radek brought the half-dryad in.
Damian used to be human, but then he tried to absorb a dryad, and thus, nature, in order to become more powerful. The dryads cursed him for the attempt, and so he lived like one for 150 years.
Throughout the class, the sophomores and even some curious professors debated what to do. They talked about putting him out of his misery. They wondered if Damian’s soul could survive a transfer. And eventually, it came down to their attempt; they attached the sapling of a magical plant to his bark, and considered spells which might drive Damian’s spirit into the sprout. Then, Aleks remembered the spell Professor Crumplebottom taught him. So when he brought it up, of course he was asked to cast it before the class.
He did so, hesitantly. He hoped it would save Damian. But it killed him instead…
“Yes?” he replied as the class walked away from the now-glowing sapling they planted in the Forbidden Forest, in memory of the half-dryad named Damian.
“Did I kill him?”
“Well, no. I think he was dead before this.”
“But was it the right thing? Casting that spell?”
Aleks barely listened after that. He earned another point for the feat, but it stung more than anything. A point for a life, and he even forced a smile about it. Pathetic. He really wasn’t good at anything but fighting, and now, killing.
Except…maybe Quidditch. Quidditch is the way out.
Please let it be the way out…
Aleks wasn’t entirely sure how things had escalated to this, but he knew exactly how he’d gotten himself into this, and it was because of house points. It’d all started when he spotted his Defense Against the Dark Arts professor on the warpath, headed to the fields on the castle grounds. Aleks asked if he could help, and Professor Glossop didn’t necessarily reply in the affirmative, but he doubted that following at a distance for a bit would cost him points.
But when he spotted three students and his roommate stumble off some stairs ahead, somebody called out words that sparked terror in his heart.
Aleks hoped it wasn’t true. That it was a mistake. But just because You-Know-Who was defeated sixteen years ago didn’t mean Dark wizards and witches disappeared.
The situation spiraled out into a soft chaos. Professor Glossop led Aleks and Link into the fields. On the other side, four lanterns surrounded a giant rune of unknown purpose. Between it and them stood a masked man — clearly a Death Eater. And as the professor exchanged words with the man and ordered him to leave the college grounds, he insisted he was welcome, and even if he wasn’t, none of them could stop him. Aleks didn’t believe him, but he knew better than to utter a single incantation until Glossop did.
A lot of people might die. Aleks thought, glancing at the lit windows and walls of Czocha Castle. He gladly obeyed when she ordered him and Link back. Aleks retreated a fair distance before noticing that his roommate barely moved.
Come on, Link! Aleks thought angrily. Surely, his roommate couldn’t be so stupid as to stick around and not get help with him.
“Confundo,” he heard the whisper and glanced at the man hiding against the nearby wall.
Son of a… and Aleks was gone, steadily swaying in place, his thoughts as abstract and absent as any person bewitched. Centaurs? Where did that come from?
“Stupefy,” Aleks felt the blow more than he registered the spell, and he crumpled into a heap of robes in the brush. When he came to, a Death Eater was kneeling over him, and he dared not move against the wand brushing his chest.
There was more than one Death Eater…
Aleks ran for his life. They may have got him earlier, but something came for them all. At first, he thought it was a werewolf when they heard it and his captors ordered him to hide. As the creature attacked the female Death Eater, a squad of Aurors engaged from across the field.
“Stupefy!” he screamed as he approached, intending to handle the werewolf and then the Death Eater for a better escape. Only then did he feel the temperature drop and ice run through his blood.
A dementor! Aleks thought before making a break for it, wand in hand. Please no one hit me!
Holy shit! That was too close!
Aleks almost screamed, but training and instinct kicked in. He put on more speed as he approached the battle lines. Professors and Auror students were in sight.
He saw the ledge of the rock wall. He jumped and flew over, tumbling into the small path and ducking to avoid even more spells. He was safe again!
But soon enough, as the battle died down, he looked at his hand and noted the damage to his wand. He would have to borrow a spare wand until his was repaired, and those tended to be finicky in his hands…
Aleks stood on the dance floor, and Bea held his arm as that Seeker announced the names of those who’d made the team.
When he finished, Aleks cheered for the Faust housemate who made captain. But he didn’t make the cut. He really wasn’t good at anything but fighting and killing.
The pain hit as he danced the Czocha Polka and waltzed with his date. It burned slowly, and he ached for freedom, for release — there’s was so much buried in him, but none came out. He was so strong, but so weak to not speak the words that mattered. For a while, it seemed a miracle to even survive the night. It really felt like his last celebration.
Then, Corvus called him over as he took a break. “Aleks? I have someone to introduce to you.”
The house ghost motioned to a ghost the boy had never seen before. “I would like you to meet Damian.”
Aleks almost couldn’t believe it. He didn’t kill Damian. He’d brought him back!
He cried on the spot. He helped give life, and that made all the difference.
After that, it all almost went to hell.
Aleks stood behind Link, wand outstretched at a bearded man before them. Link said he’d defend them if Aleks threw every offensive spell in the book at this shade of Grindelwald. He nodded, but feared the worst.
And yet, there were a lot of students, professors, and even a couple honest-to-God Aurors who stood against Grindelwald in the Forbidden Forest. Some students may have resurrected him, but they would fight him back into the ground. Even if it meant dying.
“Alright! Enough! Are we just going to stand here, or are we going to kill this fucker?” Caitlin the Auror yelled. Aleks smiled at that and raised his borrowed wand, adding his Blasting Curse to the rest. Surely, he won’t survive this.
A second later, he froze in terror. Grindelwald lived, and began to stalk their way.
“Protego!” Link shouted.
“Stupefy!” Aleks screamed as the dark wizard advanced.
Suddenly, Link dropped, and Grindelwald skulked over his form. Aleks stumbled back in his dress robes.
“No! Get back! Reducto!” Aleks screamed. Grindelwald glided to the left and started tossing curses at the sophomore.
This is it. I’m going to die.
And then he felt a little tingle through his arm. Some odd connection newly forged, as if…
The wand is a match! Aleks thought. This wand belongs to me!
“Protego!” he screamed against a purple curse. The Shield Charm blocked it as Grindelwald started casting a widespread spell.
Oh no you don’t! Aleks thought. “Protego Horriblis!”
I need help! He realized as another curse flew from the dark wizard. “Protego Totallum!”
Then, and only then, did other witches and wizards join the fray, tossing in as many spells as they could.
“Expulso!” Aleks added, and Grindelwald crumpled against the bombardment. All fell silent through the forest.
A moment later, he stumbled over to Link’s form. “Link? Link, no!”
He knelt down besides his roommate, putting his head to his chest and listening for a heartbeat. “Link? Please, Link, you can’t die…”
And then he heard it. It was faint, but it was there. He could make it! He just might make it!
“I need a healer!” Aleks screamed in the flurry of excitement — joyous or hopeful at the defeat as frantic healers searched for the wounded.
They were alive. They were really alive.
All things, even wonderful things, must come to an end. The larp ended with House Faust winning the first House Cup of the school year. By then, I was content to drop the act and meet everybody’s players. The game was called, and throughout the castle, we partied into the night.
The first thing I did was find my American friends and offer them hugs from me, as opposed to insults from Aleks. We grinned, we cleared the slate without a second thought, and got to talking with everyone else.
Our new community embraced us with open arms. My best friend hailed from Slovakia, and my date lived in Finland. Some other new friends asked us where we lived, and when we said New York, we were immensely flattered to hear that they thought we were Danish. After all, it’s not every day you’re compared to what you consider the larp heroes of the world.
At some point in the night, though, I stepped outside with a drink, searching for the chilly air of the Polish countryside. Our little castle still seemed tucked away in a little, magical corner of the world, and I never wanted to forget the feeling. So I leaned against that bridge alone, thinking about how Aleks somehow found love and redemption through the tears I cried for him. In a way, I owed him a lot. I was never popular in high school; I didn’t even have a date to my senior prom. But he moved me to grow again and taught me how to hope. He reminded me of the worthwhile costs of friendship and love. Perhaps that is the true magic of Harry Potter. Without a doubt, those are lessons I will treasure forever.
Sometimes, though, you start to think about how you ended up at the College of Wizardry in Poland. You remember taking a chance on larp in college with a few friends from high school. You recall that it took months before you were larping regularly, and even longer before you found other larps to play. Nearly three years later, you’ve traveled to Europe just to play pretend and renewed your youth as a magical teenager who got the girl, saved the day, and somehow made up for his sins along the way.
Age 21 is an important milestone in the United States, because three years after you’re allowed to vote, you’re allowed to drink, and that’s when you’re really an adult. In that moment, on the bridge at Czocha, I think I’m ready to turn 21.