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J.K. Rowling Selects Local Setting for New Story

06/29/16

First there was Nathaniel Hawthorne, then Herman Melville, and later, Edith Wharton. Now, J.K. Rowling – the creator of the Harry Potter fantasy series, one of the most popular book and film franchises in history – has claimed her own connection to the Berkshires, placing her newest story in a location steeped in MCLA tradition, and with a sweeping view of the campus.

Described as “one of the greatest secrets of the magical world,” the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – also the title of the story – is set right in MCLA’s back yard, atop Mount Greylock.

Through this story, Rowling prepares readers to explore the next era of her magical world, and sets the stage for the upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel to Harry Potter.

“It’s a longstanding MCLA tradition for new students to hike Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts,” said Gina Puc ’07, director of MCLA’s Office of Admission. “We certainly can understand why J.K. Rowling would pick Mount Greylock as the setting for this story.

“What better place to put Ilvermorny?” Puc continued. “It’s fun to imagine that Rowling’s young characters might go on pursue their education at MCLA, an obvious choice as she describes Ilvermorny as ‘the most democratic’ of all of her fictitious schools – not unlike MCLA, the Commonwealth’s public liberal arts college.”

In “The House of the Seven Gables,” Hawthorne colors his Gothic novel with suggestions of witchcraft and the supernatural, perhaps setting the stage of what’s to come in Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The heroine of Rowling’s story is Isolt Sayre. This orphaned Irish girl, a descendant of Hogwarts co-founder Salazar Slytherin, is “the offspring of two pure-blood wizarding families.” She makes her way to America – and Massachusetts – via the Mayflower.

MCLA students regularly travel “across the pond” to the United Kingdom. While abroad, they explore British literature, history and culture through on-site experiential learning and research.

For example, famous literary sites – such as those written about by William Shakespeare – are just a few of the highlights of biannual trips with Dr. Rosanne Denhard, as part of her “Arts of Medieval and Renaissance Britain” travel study class.

Our students often travel to literary landmarks in the Berkshires to follow some of the 19th century’s finest writers. Some of these excursions are led by English professor Dr. David Langston, who teaches a class about Melville and Hawthorne.

The region also attracted Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, along with Melville one day in 1850, joined Hawthorne – who lived in the Little Red House, set on the Stockbridge-Lenox border – for a picnic on Monument Mountain, a famous ridge in the southern Berkshires.

There, they read Monument Mountain, by Berkshire native William Cullen Bryant, a poet and editor of The New York Evening Post, who lived in Cummington. Soon after this experience, Melville purchased a farmhouse in Pittsfield – better known as Arrowhead – where he wrote Moby-Dick.

In Lenox, Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome, designed and built The Mount – now a National Historic Landmark – in 1902. In addition, many writers from across New England, including Henry David Thoreau, spent time on the summit selected by Rowling for this new work.

In Ilvermorny, Rowling’s Isolt Sayyre doesn’t wish to risk living among the Puritans. So, the young witch wanders westward across Massachusetts until she reaches Mount Greylock. There, along with some friends she meets along the way, including a former Plymouth colony resident, she builds a home that becomes the magical school.

It’s not the first time that Mount Greylock has been part of a famous writer’s story. Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand – A Chapter from an Abortive Romance was set on Mount “Gray-lock.”

Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry may be read at www.pottermore.com.