Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Narnia? They’re all about academia

And Lord of the Rings is about being a PhD student, explains Jeremy Singer

August 10, 2015
Harry Potter, daniel radcliffe, JK Rowling

When I was a PhD student in the early 2000s, an amusing email was doing the rounds on all the scientific mailing lists. Its title was The Lord of the Rings: an allegory of the PhD?

The hobbit Frodo is cast in the role of a young and inexperienced research student, with Gandalf as his mysterious and elusive supervisor. Frodo battles through many challenges, including conference presentations, encounters with embittered postdocs and arguments with evil external examiners.

The story concludes when Frodo travels west across the ocean as part of the brain drain. This humorous allegory was constructed by David Pritchard, in between submitting his thesis and his viva.

David is now a maths lecturer at Strathclyde University, and he ruefully acknowledges his “silly email forward has probably been read by more people than all my academic publications combined”.

In a recent moment of light-hearted relief (read: procrastination to avoid exam marking), I wondered whether I could shoehorn other aspects of academic life into popular fantasy worlds. I came up with three plausible suggestions before my marking deadline.


Harry Potter
An allegory for student experience

Throughout J.K. Rowling’s popular series, student experience is the key theme.

Despite the fact that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry does not participate in the National Student Survey, there is a familiar learner bias in favour of exciting classes with easy-going professors.

Everyone prefers Professor Sprout’s herbology over Professor Snape’s potions. Professors fall into three clear categories – good, evil or (worst of all) boring.

Even the best professors give late feedback. For instance, Dumbledore, the headteacher, seems to say nice things to Harry only at the end of each book, or after his demise in The Deathly Hallows – which is late feedback indeed.

Actually, although the Harry Potter novels occasionally describe teaching, storylines more often focus on student social life, sport, and extra-curricular adventures.

To be perfectly honest, this is probably what most UK university students concentrate on too.


Game of Thrones
An allegory for academic rivalry

Many warring families and factions are competing for the Iron Throne of Westeros in a classic zero-sum game.

To my mind, this storyline has a remarkable fractal property for academia.  Research groups fighting a departmental power struggle have their Lannisters and Baratheons. So do departments in a university, or universities across the country.

The most strategic action is to put others down, by fair means or foul. Anyone with a sense of honour (such as Ned Stark) is written off as weak and gullible. Clearly an old-school academic idealist without a managerial bone in his (now headless) body.

Such vaguely amiable characters inevitably come to a sticky end – just like that reader in medieval Arthurian romance I haven’t seen on campus lately.

In the Game of Thrones, you play to win or die – which sounds like what my boss said at my last annual performance and development review meeting.

Sell-sword mercenaries switch allegiance before major skirmishes (think research excellence framework census dates). Shadowy high-ranking administrators like Baelish and Varys hoard gold and avoid battlefields. Now, does that remind you of anyone on your university payroll?


The Chronicles of Narnia
An allegory for sector optimism

Aslan, the leonine hero of the Narnia series, is the ultimate deus ex machina who turns up to save the day whenever required. Although sometimes everyone else wishes he might have popped up a bit sooner to avoid so much trouble.

Do we have a similar just-in-time saviour for the academic sector? Jo Johnson, universities and science minister, needs to kit himself out with a lion skin – however, there is a salutary story of a donkey dressing up in a lion skin in one of the later Narnian tales I vaguely remember from my youth.

We will need to hear a Johnsonian roar to gauge whether or not he is the genuine Narnian article or the asinine impersonation.

A cheery note on which to finish. There can be no doubt that Narnia was devised by a career academic.

Heaven, in The Last Battle, turns out to be the summer holiday. And how we long for it! Alas, the inexorable onset of the new semester must therefore be Paradise Lost.

Jeremy Singer is a lecturer in the School of Computing Science at the University of Glasgow

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