“George,” said Fred, “I think we’ve outgrown a full-time education.”
“Yeah, I’ve been feeling that way myself,” said George lightly.
At a glance, Hogwarts looks like a childhood/adolescent fantasy run amok. Gone are subjects like math and science. No one at Hogwarts has to learn a differential equation or even study the proper use of a gerund. Instead, students are taught, often literally, how to remake the world to fit their whims through the power of magic.
This has led me to several questions over the course of the series. One question is what children in wizarding families do for school before Hogwarts. Due to underage magic laws, they’re not learning magic in those first 11 years of their life; Ron Weasley comes to Hogwarts not able to do magic any more than Harry and Hermione. Presumably those kids are learning language skills and other typical stuff, but I’ve seen no mention of pre-Hogwarts schools. Are every wizard family’s kids home-schooled early? What if both parents work? A lot goes unsaid or unanswered.
But the most persistent question in my mind has been job prospects. The glimpses we’ve seen of the wizard economy hardly seem large enough to support the significant number of wizards and witches. We never see many career choices at all beyond bureaucrat (everyone working for the Ministry) or small-business owner (shops at Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, etc.). The educational system seems flawed in relation to those prospects. There doesn’t seem to be any magical higher education beyond Hogwarts. So we’re told students have to achieve certain levels on their O.W.L.s (or N.E.W.T.s) for certain jobs. Meaning a test you take when you’re 15 determines your entire life trajectory. The only career aspiration we’re ever told for Harry is Auror, and if not for a change in staff, he would have been denied any chance at it. Seems harsh.
Of course, wizards and witches could always try to live Muggle lives. But unless you’re Muggle-born, that seems unlikely to work. Arthur Weasley was the head of Misuse of Muggle Artifacts department of the Ministry for most of the series, and is a self-confessed obsessive of Muggle culture. Yet even he can’t grasp most basic Muggle concepts or even words. We repeatedly see that most wizards and witches are somehow incapable of even dressing like Muggles, much less blending in with it.
And even for those Muggle-born wizards, they’ll be lacking many basic skills for normal society. From age 11, they’re taken out of that world for all but a couple months a year, meaning they’ll essentially miss all Muggle education beyond grade school. There was a scene in Sorcerer’s Stone where Dumbledore is giving out last-minute points, and students are struggling to add up the totals in their heads. Well, of course they can’t! They aren’t learning math. There’s an optional class with the vague name of Arithmancy, which apparently deals with the magical properties of numbers, but that’s not really the same. There’s Muggle Studies, but that’s only the study of Muggles, not what Muggles study – and even that seems questionably effective with how little the widespread wizard population understands its normal counterparts.
All of which is to say, there’s a lack of real choice that feels stifling. If you want to look for it, the whole notion of the HP universe as a youthful fantasy starts to unravel. School might not have the same subjects that tortured us when we were young, but it’s still school. There are still mean teachers and unreasonable piles of homework that interrupt all the fun. Government is no better than in the real world; even before Voldemort’s agents infiltrate it at every level, the Ministry of Magic is shown to be untrustworthy simply because of normal human flaws. Worst of all is the penal system. Every society values law and order, but the wizard world punishes its criminals by sending them to Azkaban, a hell on earth where Dementors suck out all their happiness until they die. There’s a depressing undertone to this: Entering a world of magic and wonder doesn’t free you from The Man; it just means that instead of a suit, The Man is wearing wizarding robes.
Enter Fred and George Weasley.
From the first time we see them, the Weasley twins play the role of the Trickster, conning their mother into confusion about which is which. As the series goes on, they continue to good-naturedly torture their mother by caring about all the wrong things. Their older brothers are all very successful wizards, former prefects and Head Boys who break curses, handle dragons, and, well, suck up to the Minister of Magic. But the twins are always different. They’re running on a divergent path. While everyone else stresses over O.W.L.s, Fred and George are indifferent to their poor performance on them. They’re the characters who seem to most appreciate the real bliss of magic, accumulating knowledge not for tests but to prepare for a lifetime of creating happiness.
At the least, the Weasley twins are a consistent source of comic relief, a well that Rowling draws upon at all the right times. Their mockery of Ron when he becomes a prefect was one of the more amusing scenes of the series. If this world of magic really were the youthful fantasy it at first appeared to be, then there would be no need for the twins to ever evolve beyond that humorous role. But as already covered, darker facets are ever present. It might not be 1984, but there are definitely Orwellian elements to the way oppressive forces work in this world. And perhaps nothing has been as overtly oppressive at Dolores Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix.
Umbridge, with her domineering rules and her façade of sweetness, was one of the series’ most effective villains. And it was her who provided the catalyst for Fred and George to become more than comic relief; they became agents of subversion. This was only possible because of their carefree outlook; if they hadn’t already set their sights on a more joyful end goal for their magical skills than academics had to offer, they probably couldn’t have had the nothing-to-lose attitude necessary to be the most important factor in Umbridge’s downfall.
And make no mistake, they were the most important. It may have been Hermione’s fast thinking and some possibly rapey centaurs that finally toppled her, but the first blow may have been more important than the last. Think about Umbridge’s trajectory to the point of the Weasleys’ departure. She had gone from the newest teacher on staff to the Headmistress in a matter of months. She had outmaneuvered Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his generation. She had the full backing of the Ministry of Magic. The first real effort to fight back had been forming Dumbledore’s Army and holding its regular lessons, but that had ended with Dumbledore, the only person who’d been holding Umbridge somewhat at bay, having to flee the school. The resistance had more or less been crushed.
But not the Weasley twins. Dumbledore fell on his sword as a last resort to save Harry from expulsion; Fred and George practically jumped on their swords just to be a distraction. Unburdened by any concern for consequences, they turned half the school into a swamp. When caught and facing dire punishment, they suddenly flipped the script right when Umbridge (and Filch) was on the cusp of triumph. You could just see Umbridge’s face falling from smug satisfaction to shocked horror as the twins called their brooms and sped off, beyond her command.
Suddenly, the youthful fantasy element came roaring back. Every daydream you ever had about telling a teacher to take this school and shove it was played out in the most blindingly awesome way imaginable. The moment was pure, unadulterated joy to read. I found myself wanting to shout with support.
From there, I would say Umbridge’s downfall was inevitable. After watching Umbridge consolidate so much power, we finally saw the first crack in the armor. Their departure created a prankster vacuum that nearly the entire school tried to help fill. Even other teachers found ways to rebel, feigning helplessness to get rid of the swamp and running Umbridge ragged to deal with the pranks that sprang up from inspiration by the Weasley twins. Umbridge responded by cracking down even harder, trying to take out Hagrid and getting McGonagall as collateral damage. But the damage had been done; I don’t know that any authoritarian measures she could have taken would have ever fully extinguished that spark of rebellion. Harry and friends were the actual instruments of the coup, because it always has to be Harry, but Fred and George Weasley really ignited the revolution.
The next time we see them, we see that they’re living their dream: successful business owners with an uncanny knack for the market and an insatiable customer base. But they had already lived the dream of many a student on that day when they kick their brooms off the ground and declared that school was out — not just for summer, but forever.