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Friday, June 10, 2011

Muggle Quidditch and other Dastardly Games: a Glimpse into the World of Dumbledore’s Anteaters

By Jerry Wang

Footfalls—sneakers rustle through rich, verdant grass blades turned a bright yellow green by the spring evening. The dirty, off-white volleyball whirls as it passes from hand to hand. A motley of scrawny, energetic college-aged children dash and stumble across the length of the field in a flurry of faded navy jeans, black zip-up hoodies and plain white tees. Taunts and double entendres fly unabashedly alongside the furious blue balls.

A dark-auburn-haired third year—though not at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry but rather the University of California, Irvine—named Ambrella yells at a mischievous player to remount his light blue polymer broomstick. “Keep that broomstick between your legs! One hand on your broomstick at all times! If I see you doing that again, I’ll disqualify you!” He chuckles, repositions himself awkwardly as usual, and—as best as he can—charges forth.

One dodgy fellow, a junior high aged student related to one of Dumbledore’s Anteaters’ members, weaves in between the older players and slips the quaffle through one of three hoops suspended from the branch of a massive tree with party string. The ball arcs downward, smacks onto the grass, and rolls downhill into a detritus-covered rain gutter, coming to rest against the bony moldy remains of a passed-away rabbit. “Ew! Dead

rabbit! It’s touched the dead rabbit!” cries a student, sparking off a healthy wave of protest. Another player clasps the ball with his bare hands anyway, and the game launches off again.

Fifty yards away, a beastly black rabbit the size of a large puppy stares at the faraway players, his whiskers shaking as he idly munches away. Whispering to each other and pointing, two hipster girls excitedly approach the recessive-gened anomaly. The dark rabbit pauses to eye them for a second, loses interest, and goes back to his mulch and the game. With hardly a thought for his long gone neighbor, the black rabbit is a frequent spectator at these weekly matches.

Chirag Bharati, the Deputy Headmaster (whose muggle translation is “vice president”) and Treasurer for UC-Irvine’s Harry Potter club, settles down on the grass alongside resting teammates and speculators, exhausted from bouts of laughter and trundling about the field. He is not hesitant on timing a that’s-what-she-said comeback to a player’s careless complaint about any of the peculiar pieces of equipment. Such is the nature of this bizarre and strangely riveting event. Even curious passersby, strolling along the park’s dirt paths to class, glance over their shoulders at the spectacle’s cries and explosions of laughter.

The game is Quidditch, based off of the soaring wizarding sport in J.K. Rowling’s ever popular Harry Potter series of books, translated to the real “muggle” world (wizard vernacular for an individual without a modicum of magical ability, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the series) with adjustments such as employing a volleyball for the quaffle, plasticized blue tennis balls for the bludgers, and a human being for the fickle snitch. While rules, techniques and equipment often differ among the several variations, muggle Quidditch has rapidly spread to several college campuses, starting with the east coast. The earliest organized undergraduate game of Quidditch took place at Middlebury College in 2005, supposedly as a prank. From then on, the sport took off in all seriousness, attracting students of nearby liberal-arts colleges and eventually the public schools and ivies. Soon enough, the sport loved by James Potter and his wizard friends swept the nation.

Beyond the boundaries of ring road, Quidditch is a no-bars full contact sport, often with girls tackling guys and guys tackling girls (nothing to be ashamed of there). In colleges where the new tradition has taken root, the game is registered as an intramural sport. Injuries are not uncommon, and well-conditioned athletes participate in the games, making for extremely intense and unpredictable showdowns between and within colleges. Often, the players battle not for a House taken from the book series but rather their own university, carrying the colors and pride of their campus onto a grassy, windswept field to clash with their cross town rivals.

In contrast, Aldrich’s variation is a relatively tame and relaxed affair. In fact, UCI’s Quidditch team is relatively young and non-affiliated, not participating in this year’s International Quidditch Association west coast tournament simply due to the fact that the board members were only aware of their own organization. Currently, Dumbledore’s Anteaters play solely within the confines of rolling Aldrich Park. The campus’s first and only Harry Potter club was founded, after all, only in 2008 by then-freshmen Kaitlyn McEvoy and Michelle Maurer and currently has seven board members. Eventually, the club would draw its Quidditch rules from within its membership, listening to suggestions from foreign exchange students who were well-seasoned Quidditch players back in their home countries.

***

Dumbledore’s Anteaters meet every week of the quarter in the dead center of Aldrich Park. The original founders, Kaitlyn McEvoy and her roommate Michelle Maurer, decided to hold the general meetings under the cover of Aldrich Park’s gargantuan trees, which have roots spanning around four feet in diameter, because of their resemblance to the J.K. Rowling’s Whomping Willow on the Hogwarts grounds. The meetings, thus, are held outdoors in the breezy crisp evening on Wednesdays. When the weather turns foul, the crew collects at a room (Social Ecology II 1306) designated the “Room of Requirement,” a name drawn from a hideout in the book series used as an underground base of operation in opposition to the rule of Dolores Umbridge, considered a wintry time in Hogwarts’ long history. Dumbledore’s Anteaters is derived from the books’ Dumbledore’s Army, which was a consortium of rebels opposed to the Ministry’s paranoid control of the school (which itself was Rowling’s satire of the mid to late 2000’s in the midst of a public skeptical of government). Outdoor activities take place in Aldrich Park, while trivia and Pictionary based games are held in the Room of Requirement.

At each start of the year, the club sorts new members into houses, much like in the book, although not with a magic talking hat. The board members ask club members seemingly random questions such as “If you were a criminal, what would be the one crime you would want to commit?” or “If you were on a deserted island, what would be the one thing you would bring?” Chirag Bharati answered this last question with “water” and was subsequently placed into Ravenclaw because, supposedly, this was a practical answer and Ravenclaw is a house known for its wit and intellect in the book series. To wit, answering the questions with daring and bravery would probably land you in Gryffindor while answering them with a Machiavellian, morally questionable remark would probably send you to Slytherin. Board members award points to each house, like at Hogwarts, as reward for scoring and participating in activities, and points are tallied at the end of the year to announce a house as winner of the "World Cup.” Each house is led by a prefect, as in the books, which constitute four of the seven board positions.

From Quidditch to wizard chess (where club members stand in as chess pieces on a large board) to the annual Yule Ball held in a student center conference room each November, the club draws on Rowling’s book series for inspiration for its club activities. There is even a real life interpretation of book four’s Tri-Wizard Tournament, which gives pretense for an abundance of the trivia activities needed to award points. Additionally, club members meet and discuss the books’ material, drawing connections and literal inspiration to use in their lives. Interestingly, why Rowling’s work has grasped the interest and fondness of people across the nation shines here—the Harry Potter series is relatable and holds universal verities, making it attractive to its readers. To be sure, there is a trove of ideas that Chirag and his club members can draw from for years to come (there are, after all, seven pithy books). This is of course in addition to the less profound yet entertaining game of Quidditch.

***

The snitch, originally a dastardly golden orb with furiously beating wings and one of the game’s balls, has taken the form of the wiry Seth Strickland, a living, breathing club member. The seekers, delegated the task of finding the snitch (the game won’t end until this happens), search high and low across the sunlit and tree covered hills. Without any arbitrary boundaries, the snitch has been known on the east coast to be able to even take buses across towns to avoid capture. As time wears on, so do the seekers, who in this game spend their minutes idling and straining for a glimpse of the elusive snitch. Perhaps a problem with this picture is that the person playing the snitch does not don the elaborate shiny gold costume of his east coast counterpart and thus camouflages quite effortlessly into the landscape. While the chasers, beaters, and goalkeepers engage in lively battle, the seekers seemingly drift at the edges, demoralized by their snitch’s mischief. Amber glances at the other seeker with a look of indifference, then rolls her eyes. It’s 6:10 P.M., and the game was supposed to have ended by now, but Seth apparently forgot to return to the field at the time set by the Deputy Headmaster. He strolls in late, a keychain with a lanyard dangling out of his back pocket, which the seekers would have to snatch in order to close the game. The seekers stumble after him, broomstick handles sweeping from side to side with each step on the uneven grass, and he evades them easily with his quick, free leg movements.

With a brief, relatively quiet exchange between seekers and snitch, and a realization that the snitch had arrived late and that the game had already ended, the match concludes rather anticlimactically. The players gather their plastic broomsticks, their bags and, after a few brief announcements, head home to their piled up assignments and readings.


Reporting notes:

Interviews with: Chirag Bharati, Ambrella Frantzich, Nick Calvin Blair

Articles for research purposes:

  • Muggles' real-life Quidditch sweeps all before it - A bruising version of the Harry Potter game has become a huge hit with 1,000 teams and a World Cup - even without flying, writes Chris Ayres. Sunday Times, The (London, England) - Sunday, May 1, 2011
  • Smith, UMass students meet for friendly matchup of Quidditch teams. Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA) - Thursday, April 28, 2011
  • Articles in the LA times
A website of interest: International Quidditch Association

Videos that provides insight into the scale of the IQA (particularly on the east coast)

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