Chapter 31 of The Order of the Phoenix is entitled “O.W.L.s.” Let me just say that the concept of these examinations is still a bit hard for me to grasp. I realize that the OWLs and NEWTs are the Wizarding World equivalent of some sort of test that British kids take during their school years. But we don’t have anything like this in the US where I went to school. Like the students at Hogwarts, we took exams at the end of every year — in fact, we took them twice a year at the end of every semester. But there were no massively important supertests at the end of middle school which determined our future careers. Okay, we did have the ACT and SAT tests which showed how ready we were for university, but that isn’t the same thing.
But while I find the idea of the supertest a bit confusing, I really want to tackle a more problematic concept: Astronomy.
First of all, why do the kids have to take Astronomy at all? Yes, I realize that there are connections between some magical spells and celestial events like the phases of the moon. But are those connections so important that Astronomy is a required class for all students, even though it requires the kids to stay up well past midnight on a school night every week? We have to assume that Astronomy is a lot more integral to understanding magic than it would seem.
Second, why do they need to learn such random things as the composition of Jupiter’s moons? We could argue that they’re just learning physical science like any school kid would, but we don’t see them studying any other traditional and far more important school subjects like reading or math, so why would they need to study the minutiae of planetary science?
Well, it must be important. That’s about all we can say. Understanding celestial mechanics must be foundational to understanding the functioning of magic in the world. We’re just going to have to take Rowling’s word for it.
But in this chapter we’re faced with another small conundrum. Rowling describes the Astronomy OWL as taking place atop the Astronomy Tower at 11 pm on a Wednesday night a few weeks into the month of June, 1996. The sun would have set around 10:15 that night, so the sky would certainly be dark enough by 11 to be called nighttime. However, she also says that the grounds are bathed in moonlight, which means that it’s hardly a good night for stargazing. Bright moonlight washes out the sky and makes everything a lot harder to see.
Just for the sake of being a complete nitpicker, let’s try to figure out what would actually have been visible in the night sky on that date in Scotland. The moon didn’t actually rise until midnight. Venus set that night around 10:30 PM, before the class even started. Jupiter would have been visible, low in the southern sky, but the constellation Orion would not have been visible at all.
Okay, we know that Rowling doesn’t bother to check these things, but I’d like to suggest that the telescopes themselves are magical and allow the students to see whatever they need to see, even if they have to point them downward to aim in the right direction. Perhaps the Astronomy Tower itself is magical, rather like an astronomical version of Platform Nine and Three Quarters. That would account for its name. So any planet or constellation would be visible in a great dark sphere of sky all around, a full sky created magically in that lofty magical vantage point.
That doesn’t account for the late-rising moon, however. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this chapter, like all the rest, is yet another delightful example of Rowling’s storytelling magic. And that’s what keeps us reading and re-reading, isn’t it.
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