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Mount Greylock Gets International Fame For A Spell

On Tuesday we learned that the Berkshires are now a part of the fictional world of Harry Potter. So why did author J.K. Rowling pick this region and what might it mean?The world famous author of the wizarding world recently released the second story in a series titled Magic in North America with a video on Pottermore.com. And for people in WAMC’s listening area, a familiar landmark sticks out.

“Far across the oceans and thousands of miles from the legendary Hogwarts, high atop Mount Greylock, hidden by forests, cloud and spell stands one of the greatest secrets of the magical world - Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” the video details. “It’s enchanted stone walls have stood strong through the ages. Surviving fierce some battles and weathering powerful storms to become one of the wizarding world’s greatest schools.”

At 3,491 feet, Mt. Greylock is the highest point in Massachusetts. As the video mentions, the peak certainly experiences some severe weather. In fact the 93-foot granite Massachusetts Veterans War Memorial Tower that stands atop the mountain is currently being renovated. Since its construction in the 1930s, the tower has seen water seep inside its walls and wreak havoc because of the subsequent rapid freezing and thawing that occurs nearly 3,500 feet above sea level. But beyond the fog and weather, why did Rowling pick Greylock? The witches were supposed to be from Salem, right?

We went to English Professor Alison Case of nearby Williams College for some answers.

“It is a very magical place,” Case said. “It was an inspiration to Hawthorne and Melville, two of the stranger and more mystical writers of the American cannon, so it makes perfect sense to me.”

As Case mentioned, Melville and Hawthorne joined Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry David Thoreau in writing about or drawing inspiration from Mt. Greylock. Some of Thoreau’s work is engraved in rock near the summit. And for Melville, staring at the mountain from his Pittsfield home conjured up images for another popular tale, according to the Berkshire Historical Society’s communications director Peter Bergman.

“He found in the view of Mt. Greylock from his study a persistent view of a white whale emerging from the ocean. It was his inspiration for Moby-Dick. He faced it every day.”

Can you imagine what the story would have been if Melville had seen a Hungarian Horntail instead of a white whale? Like most regions, the Berkshires has its own tales and myths. Case says Rowling has a fertile imagination for creating characters that resemble but are not identical to folklore figures — typically ones hailing from her native Britain. 

“Rowling makes use of all of that, but she also transforms it,” Case said. “But she’s definitely drawing on all of it. So I would assume and I would hope that she would do the same thing here.”

One of the four houses of the Ilvermorny school is Thunderbird, named after a beast that can create storms as it flies. Brave souls can attest to this: skiers fly down Mt. Greylock’s Thunderbolt Trail. A project of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, it hosted championship races for what is now the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. There’s no recorded history of it hosting a triwizard tournament — yet. Locally the Thunderbolt is known as the path that 19 men cut their teeth on before serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They would go on to fight in the mountains of Italy during WWII.

So being included in a series that has spawned blockbuster movies, video games, food and theme parks can be considered a pretty big deal. John Dudek, manager of Bascom Lodge, which sits atop Mt. Greylock, says the venue’s visitation number will likely climb above the 250,000 seasonal mark.

“We have had speakers do presentations on legends and myths about the mountain and people who have been to the mountain and live on the mountain,” Dudek said. “So I’m sure we will put in special Wednesday and Sunday night programming that might tie into other legends and myths.”

Maybe the International Confederation of Wizards Quidditch Committee will be called in for crowd control.  In any event, for the local Harry Potter fan, including Professor Case, living in the shadows of a very real mountain that is now home to a fictional magic school is pretty exciting. 

“I live in an old stone church and I’m convinced that’s it probably a magical backdoor to the school on Mt. Greylock,” said Case.

Soon enough local shops may be selling invisibility cloaks, spell books or broomsticks passed down through generations. But watch out for those port keys!

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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