If Harry Potter had been set in America: What we learn from Fantastic Beasts

By Jessica Contrera

The world of Harry Potter is quintessentially British. From broomstick flights over London to meals of treacle pudding, it's hard to imagine the beloved series taking place anywhere else. But as readers learned when international wizards appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the magical universe does indeed exist outside the United Kingdom.

Now, as the Harry Potter franchise carries on with the release of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Muggles (non-magical folk) finally get to learn about the wizarding world in a place where it has found a substantial portion of its readers: America.

The new movie - which debuted to US$75 million ($107 million) at the US box office - is set in 1920s New York City, a far cry from the early-1990s England where fans first meet Harry, Ron and Hermione. As Brit Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island and sets out into the industrial city, viewers learn that all the trappings of Harry's world exist in the United States, too.

Here, a muggle is called a no-maj, short for no magic. There's a Hogwarts-like school and a government as domineering as the Ministry of Magic. But because of the history of witch-hunting in America, the rules that govern wizards are quite different than across the pond.

Along with explanatory essays released by J.K. Rowling in recent months, Fantastic Beasts reveals what Harry Potter might have been like if the series had been set in America.

The wizarding school

The school that educates young witches and wizards in North America is named Ilvermorny. It was founded by an Irish witch named Isolt Sayre, who arrived in America in 1620.

"Her journey aboard the Mayflower had led her to deduce that a witch was unlikely to find many friends among the Puritans," Rowling wrote in Ilvermorny's origin story on her website, Pottermore. Eventually, Isolt fell in love with a muggle named James, and together they adopted two young wizarding boys as their sons. When the boys turned 11 and it was time for them to start school, Isolt and James founded their own: Ilvermony.

"As might be expected of a school part-founded by a no-maj, Ilvermorny has the reputation of being one of the most democratic, least elitist of all the great wizarding schools," Rowling wrote.

The scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
The scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The four houses

Just as Hogwarts has Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin, Ilvermorny has four houses with reputations for the types of students they accept. Ilvermorny's houses are named after magical creatures: Horned Serpent (scholars), Pukwudgie (healers), Thunderbird (adventurers) and Wampus (warriors).

As Harry Potter was sorted into a house by placing a sorting hat on his head, Ilvermorny students also participate in a sorting ritual. Each stands in a circular room that holds wooden statues of each house's magical creature. When a house chooses a student, its statue comes alive. J.K. Rowling (a self-professed Thunderbird) wrote a quiz that will sort Pottermore users into Ilvermorny houses.

Magical government

Even wizards have to worry about Congress in America, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, that is. Or MACUSA, for short (pronounced Mah-cooz-ah). In her story about the founding of MACUSA, Rowling draws upon the true history of the Salem witch trials, which took place in 1690s colonial America.

"A number of the dead were indeed witches, though utterly innocent of the crimes for which they had been arrested," she wrote. "Others were merely no-majs who had the misfortune to be caught up in the general hysteria and bloodlust."

To keep wizards safe - and to capture scourers, wizards who had turned against their own kind - a government was formed. MACUSA employs aurors who serve as law enforcement.

In Fantastic Beasts, MACUSA is located inside the Woolworth Building, an iconic New York skyscraper. (Look closely next time you're on Broadway: there's an owl carved above the Woolworth's grand front door.) Instead of a Minister of Magic, MACUSA has a president.

The scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
The scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Wizard laws

Like their British counterparts, American wizards follow the International Statute of Secrecy mentioned in Rowling's books. This keeps magic hidden from no-majs. But in America, the laws that govern relationships between no-majs and wizards are far stricter. They are not allowed to interact beyond "that necessary to perform daily activities". Wizards caught fraternising with no-majs are punished. This harsh policy came about in the 1790s, after the daughter of a MACUSA official exposed the wizarding world's secrets to a no-maj who was intent on killing all magical people.

In a not-so-veiled reference to the countries' respective muggle governments, the British Ministry of Magic sends its criminals to Azkaban, the wizard prison. As Newt soon learns, the American MACUSA has the death penalty.

Harry's distant American cousins

Maybe it's too much of a stretch to imagine Harry Potter attending Ilvermorny and growing up to be an auror for MACUSA. But in J.K. Rowling's world, Harry does have relatives who live in the United States.

When she described the foundation of MACUSA, Rowling wrote that the first dozen wizards who volunteered to be aurors in America were held in high esteem in wizarding history.

One of those aurors was named Abraham Potter. Abraham's "distant relationship to the famous Harry Potter would be uncovered by eager genealogists centuries later", Rowling wrote. Anyone feel a sequel coming on?

- Washington Post

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