Harry the Horcrux: Theory Thursday Part 2 of n

After a rather longer than intended hiatus, we return to the joys of Harry Potter theories, and the problems they contain.

In my first post on Harry Potter theories, I observed that the explanation of Draco Malfoy’s behaviour in the theory discussed there doesn’t really explain anything, and in fact raises more questions than it answers. This is a common feature of the theories that I will be discussing, and today’s theory is a perfect example of the type.

A very popular theory in the last year or so suggests that the reason Harry’s uncle, aunt, and cousin are so awful to him is because of the Horcrux in his scar. The theory goes something like this:

  1. We know that some horcruxes, such as the locket, caused those close to it to have negative emotions.
  2. Harry was a horcrux.
  3. Harry’s relatives had negative emotions towards him.
  4. Therefore, Harry’s horcrux-ness caused those negative emotions.

The theory is problematic on several levels. Let’s start with the idea that it doesn’t explain anything.

It’s hardly a mystery, in the Harry Potter books, why the Dursleys resent Harry. We get our first indications of why in the first book, where we learn that they hated and feared anything strange or unusual. For a middle class suburban family, magic is pretty damn strange and unusual. They also had a child dumped on their doorstep in the middle of the night, along with a letter telling them that Petunia’s sister had been murdered: Harry’s existence was a constant reminder that their life had been turned upside down without consulting them, and that their sister/sister-in-law had been killed by a psychopath. Later books develop the theme, with Petunia’s jealousy of Lily, the Dursley’s fear of what wizards might do to them if they were involved in their lives, and Petunia’s negative experiences with other wizards, such as Snape.

So the theory starts by attempting to explain something for which there is already a plausible canonical explanation. This is not necessarily a problem: if it is well thought-out, well argued, and textually supported, I’m quite happy to accept alternate explanations over those in canon. There are places in the wider canon where that isn’t even necessarily that difficult. This isn’t one of those places, however: I’m quite happy with the explanation Rowling gives.

The second place we are looking at this theory, then, is what questions it raises. There are several.

Firstly, the theory requires that living with Harry should cause a person to have negative thoughts about him, to the point that they abuse him. And yet, we never see that Harry’s roommates — who sleep in the same room, go to the same classes, eat and the same table, and spend their leisure time with him for six years — hate Harry. Sure, Ron has occassional fits of jealousy, and Seamus has an episode at the beginning of OotP where he quarrels with Harry, but Neville and Dean never appear to have any issue with Harry, and even Ron and Seamus usually like him. Additionally, he seems to be popular in the wider school — on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, among his yearmates (with the exception of the Slytherins, who are doubtless affected by interhouse rivalry), and among his teacher (with the exception of Snape, who again we know had his own, non-Horcrux-related, reasons for his dislike).

Secondly, the theory requires that we accept that Harry’s scar acts analogously to the locket – but differs in key respects, with no explanation. Firstly, the locket only affects people while they are in very close proximity to it: in fact, they must be wearing it. Secondly, the locket’s effects wear off when a person is no longer close by. These cannot both be true of Harry’s scar, under this theory, because the Dursleys continue to dislike him when he lives hundreds of miles away – the best Christmas present they ever give him, for instance, is a fifty pence piece, when he has spent three months away from them, the longest time they have been apart in a decade. Thirdly, the effects of the horcrux in the locket were to protect its host: the theory requires us to assume that the horcrux in Harry’s scar wants to damage its host, something else which it doesn’t explain.

Next, the other effects of Harry’s scar which are caused by its Horcrux-like nature grow stronger as Voldemort gains power throughout the series. For instance, his scar begins to hurt more, and more frequently, when Voldemort is corporeal again. By contrast, the Dursleys are less opposed to Harry later on in the series, culminating in Dudley thanking him for saving his life at the beginning of DH. The theory fails to explain this.

Fourthly, the theory assumes that negatively affecting people’s emotions is a trait common to all Horcruxes, but the evidence doesn’t support this. The diary possesses Ginny Weasley, but it doesn’t make her dislike other people, or make her jealous or irritable. If anything it makes her tired and withdrawn, which is not the kind of effect that the locket gives, or that Harry’s scar is supposed in this theory to cause. Nor do the Malfoy family appear to become more pleasant after the diary, which has been in their drawing room for a decade, is disposed of.

In conclusion, the theory basically makes no sense whatsoever. Next time on “who came up with these stupid theories anyway”, I might go back to the joys of theorising before the seventh book was released, with such classics as “Dumbledore was time-traveling Ron” and “Minerva McGonagall is a Death Eater” (the second, in particular, has an astonishingly cavalier approach to the evidence).

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“[Draco] tried to warn them”: Theory Thursday Part 1 of n

This is the first part of a potentially infinite series of posts about the absurd — and occassionally incoherent — theories that the Harry Potter fandom has come up with.

We start with one which is new to me as I write this: that Draco Malfoy gave Hermione the hint which led to her realising that the Basilisk was the monster in the Chamber of Secrets.

Screenshot of a tumblr post by indie-band explaining the theory.

The theory is based from a scene from the film version of CoS, though the author states that it “doesn’t exactly not comply” with book canon. Because I both have copies of all of the books, and know the books better than the films, I am going to examine this theory solely for compliance with the books — though many of my comments will probably apply to the films as well.

The scene in question shows Draco Malfoy ripping a page from a book (it’s a long time since I’ve seen this film, so I can’t tell whether this is in Flourish & Blotts or the Hogwarts Library), and asks why he would do such a thing. Ignoring the obvious answer that it shows that Malfoy in CoS was a spoilt brat (ignoring the obvious being a time honoured technique for Harry Potter theorists everywhere), the author suggests that this page is the one that would later be found in Hermione’s hand, identifying the Basilisk as the monster in the Chamber. This is evidence, therefore, that Draco “tried to warn” the trio of the danger.

The problem with this is that the explanation makes no sense whatsoever.

Firstly, consider Draco’s characterisation at this point in the series. Twelve-year-old Draco had been well and truly convinced by his father that his pureblood ideology was right. He hated muggleborns, Gryffindors, muggleborn Gryffindors, and especially muggleborn Gryffindors who were better at magic than he was — otherwise known as Hermione Granger. In Chamber of Secrets, not only does he first use the slur “mudblood”, he loudly and publicly speculates about which muggleborn will be attacked next by Slytherin’s monster, and he tells “Crabbe” and “Goyle” (in fact Ron and Harry) that he wishes that he knew who was releasing the monster so that he could help them. He even goes so far as to wish that Hermione will be the next student to be attacked.

And he can hardly be said to be more concerned for Ron and Harry. Ron is the youngest son of a family with a long-lasting feud with the Malfoys, resulting in their fathers being involved in a brawl in Flourish & Blotts, he has been at odds with Draco since they first met on the Hogwarts Express, and his father has spent the year trying to have Lucius Malfoy convicted of possessing illegal Dark artifacts; while Harry and Draco can hardly be said to get on well either.

So why would Draco be so concerned with attacks on muggleborns? It doesn’t make sense. It makes even less sense when you consider that according to this theory, he’s sufficiently concerned to warn Hermione, who he has special dislike for, but not any of the other muggleborns. Why would he not instead, if he knew what the monster was, pass that information to an actual adult? Surely he wouldn’t think that Hermione had the capabilities to defeat a Basilisk…

Draco doesn’t have the motive, then, to do this. What if he did, though? What if his anti-trio actions are part of a ploy to get other Slytherins on-side, or to try to flush out the Heir of Slytherin?

Well, aside from the fact that Draco Malfoy aged 12 was not subtle enough to play a long game like that, we still come up against a host of other problems:

  • How did he discover what Slytherin’s monster is in the first place?
  • How did he get this page to Hermione in such a way that he could be reasonably sure she would read it?
  • How did he get this page to Hermione in such a way that she would realise it was about Slytherin’s monster?
  • Why did he choose Hermione rather than anyone more competent than a second-year to get the warning?

No, however you slice it, the theory doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t explain anything (except, perhaps, Hermione’s cavalier treatment of a library book, but that could equally well be explained by the seriousness of her situation and her thinking that the ends justify the means), and it raises more problems than it answers. All it does is establishes that Draco is secretly a sympathetic character as early as CoS, which simply doesn’t mesh with the evidence at all: in PoA, he spends his time trying to get Buckbeak killed and Hagrid fired; in GoF, he is busy slandering Harry and enabling Rita Skeeter; in OotP he is productively occupied shoring up Umbridge’s misrule; and in HBP he is the world’s most inept and indiscriminate assassin, who lets Death Eaters into Hogwarts and gets Dumbledore killed. Draco’s turn away from the dark side doesn’t even begin until Half-Blood Prince. There’s absolutely no reason to have him committing random and inexplicable acts of altruism in Chamber of Secrets.

Tune in next time for my opinions on the theory that the reason the Dursleys are so nasty to Harry is because he’s a Horcrux. (Spoiler alert: I think it’s a massively problematic idea.)

Why there are more than eleven wizarding schools in Harry Potter

According to Pottermore, there are eleven magical schools in the wizarding world. Of these, we know that Hogwarts is in the Scottish Highlands, and appears to serve students solely from the British Isles; Beauxbatons is in France1 , and serves students in France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium; and Durmstrang is in Scandinavia, though serves students as far away as Bulgaria2. Elsewhere in the books, we hear of a school in Brazil (in GoF), the acting school W.A.D.A (in Tales of Beedle the Bard, though even if JKR had remembered a throw-away joke from a tie in book she might well not have counted this as one of the eleven schools of magic: it’s a school of acting which happens to be magical), and Salem Witches’ Institute3.

Four schools, then, we can place from the books with varying degrees of accuracy. Four more we know of from Deuterocanonical sources: the US school which is promised to appear in the upcoming film of Fantastic Beasts and where to find them, which is not in New York; Uagadou, somewhere in Africa4; Koldovstoretz, somewhere in Russia; and Mahoutokoro, in Japan. The Japanese and Russian schools are named only in the videogame Wonderbook: Book of Potions (which I consider so far down the list in terms of canonicity that I rank well-thought-out fanfiction ahead of it), but Ouagadou is mentioned at the end of a 2014 edition of GoF, in a supplemental ‘Did you know?’ section.

In the absence of better information, consider the implications if we treat all of this as canonical.

Firstly, we know of three schools definitely in Europe. There are fewer than 750 million people living in Europe: just over one tenth of the world’s population. Yet more than 1/4 of the world’s wizarding schools are in Europe. If the Russian school is also in Europe, then more than 1/3 of all wizarding schooling serves 1/10 of the population. This makes little sense.

If we take Hogwarts’ student population to be 500 (a reasonably high estimate, following my previous post here) and assume that the average wizard lives to the age of 100, then the British wizarding population is likely to be a little over seven thousand. If a significant proportion of wizarding children are homeschooled, we might push this up to 10,000. The muggle population of the UK in 1991, when the Harry Potter series began, was a little over 57 million. The Republic of Ireland at the same time had a population of just over 3 million. Thus, the ratio of wizards to muggles in the British Isles in 1991 was at most around 1:6000. The population of the whole of Europe in 1990 was ~720 million. at 6000 muggles per wizard, that’s 120,000 wizards, or 8,400 secondary school-aged wizarding children, spread over four schools. Even accepting that Durmstrang, at least, is meant to have a larger population than Hogwarts, four schools might be able to educate half of that. That leaves about half of European wizards being homeschooled.

The situation is even worse in the rest of the world: in the Americas, about 10,000 students are being served by between 2 and five schools. Even with five schools of 1,000 each, half of these are homeschooled. In Asia, 45,000 students are served by no more than four schools. In Africa, more than 10,000 students are served by no more than four schools. And to get even these numbers, the three unknown schools must simultaneously be in three separate continents. It simply doesn’t make sense.

To put it another way, the population of the world is currently about 7 billion. There are therefore more than 80,000 school aged wizarding children in the world, assuming that the magic density in the UK population is broadly average. There are a few possible conclusions to draw from this:

  1. The wizarding population of the world outside of Britain is inexplicably massively less, proportionally, than it is inside Britain. Massively less. Total magical population, assuming 11 Hogwarts-sized schools, and 50% of magical population is schooled, makes fewer than 160,000 wizards all told. There are 40,000 muggles for every wizard globally, versus 6,000 British muggles for every British wizard.
  2. On average, each school has about 11,000 pupils and Hogwarts is massively anomalous.
  3. The vast majority of magical people outside of Britain are homeschooled.
  4. There are many more schools, and JKR cannot do basic arithmetic.
  5. Some combination of the above.

The first possibility can be dismissed right away, as almost impossible. 2/3 of the entire magical population of the world would have had to have been at the Quidditch world cup final in GoF for this to work. Even on the assumption that Britain is representative, and with a rather generous estimate of how large the British wizarding population might be, 1 in 10 of the world’s magical population would have been there, which is stretching things far enough.

The second possibility seems so unlikely as to be barely worth considering. There is no canonical evidence for it, and it requires explaining why every other school is so large, and serves so large an area, if Hogwarts is so small. Aside from anything else, Beauxbatons only serves, if we take Pottermore to be canon, an area of about 160 million muggles; it might be three times the size of Hogwarts, but certainly not twenty or more times bigger. And once we drop another school, the populations that the remaining nine would need to sustain increases again, making the anomalies even more anomalous. Durmstrang, it is true, seems to serve a huge area — it is located in Scandinavia, and yet the Bulgarian Viktor Krum goes there — but Krum is a world-renowned Seeker. It seems entirely understandable that he might travel thousands of miles to go to a more prestigious school, possibly one which offers more scope for practicing magical sports, even if there were a school closer to home for him. And at any rate, we know that Durmstrang doesn’t teach muggleborns (at least according to Draco Malfoy in Goblet of Fire). It is possible, of course, that no muggleborns in Europe east of France are taught magic, but it’s not exactly believable: aside from anything else, it would be a huge strain on the Statute of Secrecy, and we have no evidence that it is in fact the case.

The third possibility, that a large number of magical people are homeschooled, is possible, but again not likely. In Goblet of Fire, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione go to the Quidditch World Cup, Harry points out “a large group of teenagers who he had never seen before”(GoF p.78). Presumably, these are not obviously foreign, or Harry would not consider it surprising that they didn’t go to Hogwarts: even Harry, with his famously bad observational skills, must have noticed that there are, for instance, virtually no Chinese students at Hogwarts. Ron, however, immediately infers that they go to “some foreign school”. Therefore, we can draw two conclusions: firstly, that the proportion of wizards who are homeschooled, at least in the UK, is not significant (Ron doesn’t even consider it a possibility); secondly, that there are no other magical schools in the UK (Ron immediately identifies the school as foreign). These conclusions are, granted, not certain: it is possible that the reason that Harry was so sure that the students were not from Hogwarts, or that Ron was so sure they went to a foreign school, is because they were obviously not British (possibly even obviously not-British in a way which a pureblood like Ron would pick up, but a muggle-raised child like Harry wouldn’t, hence Harry’s confusion and Ron’s certainty). But the low level of homeschooling for secondary education in the UK, at least, is I think defensible even if the second conclusion isn’t: Ron doesn’t say they must be foreign, but that they must go to a foreign school. If he thought of homeschooling as common, he would have restricted himself to the observation that they were foreign.

The fourth conclusion, that there are more than eleven magical schools, strikes me as easily the most likely conclusion. Not only that, it is actually supported in Goblet of Fire, where Dumbledore, discussing the history of the Triwizard tournament, says that it was originally instituted by the three biggest schools of magic in Europe(GoF p.165). “Some seven hundred years ago”, then, at least, there were more than three European schools of wizardry. Now, it’s possible that the rest of those schools have shut down, but in the muggle world, there are significantly more schools today than there were seven hundred years ago, and I see no reason why the same shouldn’t be true of the wizarding world. It’s also possible that those other European schools were Pottermore’s Russian school, and some of the three remaining schools. Here we begin to have enough European wizarding schools to solve the problem of magical education in Europe: if they average 500 students each, then the European wizarding population would be 50,000, which would put Europe’s wizard-density at just less than half of the UK’s.2 If they averaged 1,000 students each, then the wizarding density in Europe would be only slightly under what it is in the UK (1:7500 vs 1:6000, though we remember that one wizard for every 6,000 muggles was a high estimate of the number of wizards). Averaging 1,000 students each would only require the other six wizarding schools in Europe to average just over 1,100 pupils, assuming Hogwarts had 350, and we would expect Beauxbatons to have about 1,000 anyway, given that it serves three times as many people as Hogwarts does.

The problem with the seven schools in Europe scenario is that seven hundred years ago, when the Triwizard tournament was set up, those other four schools which must have three to four times the population of Hogwarts, must have been significantly smaller than Hogwarts. This requires an explanation which doesn’t exist in canon. An explanation which makes sense to me is that while the other schools in Europe expanded their catchment areas to places where magic had previously been taught informally, Hogwarts continued to have exactly the same catchment area: people who lived in the British Isles.

A more serious objection is that we now have four schools (one each in North and South America, Africa, and Asia) to teach the rest of the wizarding world. Either there’s much less formal magical education outside of Europe (including, inexplicably, in places whose muggle education system is massively influenced by their European colonisers), or we need a heck of a lot more schools. India and China each need more magical schools alone than Europe does: neither have a single one. Japan, who have the only magical school in the entirety of Asia, have twice the population of the UK: even assuming that it’s significantly larger than Hogwarts, there’s not all that much space for students from any other part of Asia.

The best way to make the data we have fit is that when JKR tells us that eleven wizarding schools fit, what she means is that there are eleven of comparable age and/or fame to Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang. Either that, or you throw everything JKR has said on Pottermore out the window, which is certainly a tempting response to some of the things she has come out with.

  1. Specifically, according to Pottermore, the Pyrenees, though her interview here puts it near Cannes. Cannes is nowhere near the Pyrenees.
  2. Oslo to Sofia is 2,600 km. That’s one heck of a catchment area.
  3. Which, though many fans seem to believe is a school, is really a joke on the Women’s Institute and the Salem Witch Trials.
  4. Possibly related to Ouagadou, in Mali, Wagadu, a former name for an area of Mauritania and Mali, or Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, all of which are in West Africa.
  5. Alternatively, this would put Europe’s wizarding-density at a similar level to the UK’s if Hogwarts’ student population was slightly smaller, and the number of home-schooled children wasn’t so high.

Hogwarts’ Population Part II: The Sorting Ceremony and the Great Hall

Following on from my last post on the evidence we have of the human population of Hogwarts, there are a few pieces of evidence which do not give us any hard numbers, but which can provide some level of sanity-check for any estimate of Hogwarts’ population. Two of these — the size of the Great Hall and the Sorting Ceremony — I will discuss here.

The Evidence of The Sorting:

The Sorting ceremony is a serious problem for any argument for a large Hogwarts at the time Harry and friends were there. We know that it happened in front of the entire school, immediately before the beginning of the start of term feast, and while there are no clear indications of how long the Sorting tended to take, we can make some deductions, which render Sorting enough students to have a school of 1,000 absurd.

Our best canonical description of the Sorting comes in Chapter 7 of PS/SS. We know that all the students other than those to be Sorted are already seated in the Hall, when the deputy head leads the first year students into the hall to be Sorted. The Sorting Hat is then brought out, sings its song, and the deputy head gives brief instructions to how the Sorting works. Finally, the students are called up one-by-one, Sorted, and go to join their new house, before the next person is called up.

If we try to construct how long the Sorting would typically take, it is clear that the majority of the time would be taken up by the actual Sorting itself. However, the preamble to the Sorting and the headmaster’s announcements afterwards must also take up some time. To start with, there is Professor McGonagall’s going to fetch the students, bring them in, and then bring out the Sorting Hat and its stool. This must take a good few minutes — say five. Then there is the Sorting Song: between everyone being ready for the Sorting to begin and the hat starting to sing we know that “for a few seconds there was complete silence”. After that, there was the Sorting Song itself, which I can read at a reasonably fast pace in just over 50 seconds. Rushing through it with barely a pause and talking as fast as possible that can be brought down to almost 30, though at this point much of it must be indistinct to listeners. Call it a minute. There is then applause, and probably an outbreak of whispering among the first years — Ron certainly comments to Harry that Fred was talking about wrestling a troll during the Sorting, and once order is restored Professor McGonagall unrolls the list of names and briefly introduces the procedure. All together, this must take about 10 minutes. Certainly it couldn’t be fit into fewer than 7-8 minutes, and depending on how long it takes to fetch the first years, line them up acceptably, and various other points of uncertainty, it could entirely feasibly go on for 15 minutes.

The actual Sorting is the most time-uncertain part of the event. Simply the reading out of names takes on average around two seconds per name. When we take into account the time the first years take to register that it is their name, come up to the stool, put the hat on, remove the hat, and go to sit by their housemates, we are talking about 10 seconds plus of overhead per student. If we assume that the Sorting is always instantaneous, then the Sorting would take 6m 40 for a 40 student year, or 23m 20 for a 140 student year. This is the minimum possible bound.

We know that not all students are Sorted instantaneously, however. Harry observes during his Sorting that sometimes students were Sorted at once, while sometimes the Hat took “a little while”[PS90] to decide. How long that tended to be is not stated, and nor is how common that was, but Harry notes that Seamus took almost one minute. There is no evidence that this amount of time is abnormally longer than anyone else, though, so we can assume that while it’s probably one of the longer Sorting times (at least by that point — Finnegan is alphabetically ninth out of the 29 surnames of Harry’s year which are known) it is not massively anomalous.

Although this is more tenuous, the fact that Harry observes that “some” students were Sorted instantly, while “some” were not makes it sound like this was a roughly equal division. If the distinction were pronounced, surely Harry would think that “most” students were sorted very quickly, or “almost all” took more than a few seconds, or similar. Say, then, that half are sorted in the first few seconds (averaging perhaps 12 seconds of time, including Sorting), and the other half form a bell curve of which Seamus’ sorting time is on the upper slope, with a mean of perhaps 45 seconds. This is somewhat arbitrary, and the Sorting times will change depending on where you put the mean Sorting time, but that’s the best estimate I can do. This half of the students take on average 55 seconds all told. A student thus takes on average a little over 30 seconds to be Sorted, from their name being called to the next student’s name being called (in fact, given the assumptions made in this paragraph, 33.5s). Let us take the reasonable lower bound of 30 seconds per student for a lower bound on the Sorting — rarer students who take significantly longer can push the upper bound quite far, but we have no data on how often students take significantly longer than 90s or so here. At ~30s per student, Sorting 40 students would take 20 minutes. Sorting 140 students would take 70 minutes.

Once the Sorting is finished, pre-dinner announcements are over relatively quickly. All told, then, Sorting 40 students probably takes up 30-40 minutes before the feast at a minimum, and Sorting 140-150 — enough to sustain a school of 1,000 — cannot possibly take much less than one and a half hours. Expecting a roomful of adolescents to put up with this without complaint, at least some of them having not eaten a proper meal since breakfast — the train leaves at 11.00 and doesn’t appear to serve lunch, and not all will have the foresight to pack food or the spending money to buy chocolate — is stretching the boundaries of plausibility at best.

Deuterocanonically, we can do one more thing with the Sorting times. Pottermore tells us of the term “hatstall”, which refers to a student who takes longer than 5 minutes to be Sorted, which according to Pottermore occurred on average only once every fifty years. Near-hatstalls appear, according to Pottermore, to be significantly more common, however, and there were apparently three students in Harry’s year — himself, Hermione, and Neville — who took longer than four minutes to Sort. If we model our Sorting times as three distinct populations now, taking 12, 55, and 250 (four minutes exactly, plus 10 seconds of admin time), distributed in the following way: 37, 37, and 6 out of every 80 students respectively, then the expected Sorting time per student can be calculated as 37/80*12 + 37/80*55 + 6/80*250 = 49.7. Assuming that Harry’s year is not particularly unusual, then, the Sorting time for 40 students might be expected to be 33 minutes, and the entire wait for the feast would be around 45 minutes. For 140 students, the Sorting would take 116 minutes, and the wait for the feast would be, all told, over two hours. If we accept Pottermore as accurate in this instance, it is an even more compelling argument for the idea of a relatively small school population than the Sorting Ceremony would otherwise be.

If the ~60 student years suggested by OotP chapter 12 are assumed, the sorting would take 50 minutes and the wait for the feast would be one hour, which is on the high side, but at least more plausible than the 85-student years to make numbers up to 600, or the 140-student years required to approach the 1,000 student mark, at 80+ and 125+ minutes respectively. If we discount Pottermore and the three near-hatstalls known to be in Harry’s year, the Sorting would tend to take around half an hour, and it would be rare for the students to have to wait more than 45 minutes all-told to eat their dinner. That would be perfectly believable.

Hogwarts Great Hall

We don’t know how big Hogwarts’ Great Hall is, but we can work out how big it must be in order to accomadate the entire student population. If there are 280 students, then there must be room for 35 seats on each side of each house table. At 2 feet per person, that’s 70 feet of table. In addition to that, there must be space at either end of the tables, as well as space for the raised area on which the high table is situated at the end of the Hall. This is corroborated by the size of the Hall of St. John’s College Cambridge, which was originally 70 feet long and has been since somewhat lengthened, which seats up to 300 on a similar layout to that of Hogwarts.

By contrast, if the Hall in Hogwarts seats 1000 people, then the tables must be around 250 feet long, and the Hall itself around 280 feet long. That is just over the length of 1.5 olympic sized swimming pools, which is a huge space for a single room to take up. If we take the higher end of estimates for a smaller Hogwarts than JKR herself suggests — 400 people, say — then the tables will be 100 feet long, which is large, but nowhere near as absurdly huge as the higher end of the estimates for a 1,000 person Hogwarts would give us.

When we consider the width of the Hall, it seems unlikely that it would be more than 36 feet wide — four four-foot tables, and four feet of space between each table and either the wall or the next table. A Hall large enough for 280 students would thus be just over twice as long as it is wide; one large enough for 1,000 would be seven and a half times longer than it is wide. These dimensions are so massively disproportionate that it seems unlikely that no one would notice or comment on them. A Hall large enough for 400 students, however, could reasonably be about three times as long as it was wide — 120×40 feet, which while definitely long and narrow is not quite on the same level of absurd disproportionality as the larger population would argue for.

The only other possibilities, though, would be absurdly wide tables and absurdly wide spacing in between them. In order to have the hall 100 feet wide, even 10-foot wide tables — far too big to have conversation across, which we know happens — would need to be separated from each other by 10 feet, and 15 feet away from either side wall. With more believable 6-foot wide tables, and the 10-foot wide gaps between the tables, there would be 23 feet of dead space between the tables and the wall on each side — something else that we might reasonably expect a character to comment on.

While not conclusive, then, the evidence of the Sorting and of the Great Hall are taken into account, then, the highest possible “small Hogwarts” estimate, of 60-person year groups, seem to be on the very highest end of what might be thought to be plausible, and an average year group size of somewhere between 40 and 50 persons — somewhere slightly above 300 students all told — seems to be the most plausible.

Hogwarts’ Population

What is the population of Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Who would have thought that such a seemingly simple question would be so vexed? It seems like working out the population of Hogwarts would be a simple process. Sadly it isn’t, not least because the population of Wizarding Britain simply doesn’t make sense, as far as I can work out. The fact that JK Rowling’s statements on the subject are horribly inconsistent only exacerbates matters.

Firstly the alternative hypotheses:

  • The “small Hogwarts” hypothesis: Harry’s year is normally sized, at ~40 students. The human population of Hogwarts is normally ~300.
  • The “medium Hogwarts” hypothesis: Harry’s year is smaller than average, at ~40 students. The human population of Hogwarts is ~600, but normally closer to 700.
  • The “big Hogwarts” hypothesis: Harry’s year is significantly larger than 40 students. The human population of Hogwarts is 1,000+.

In interviews, JK Rowling has suggested 600 and 1,000 for approximate sizes of the student population of Hogwarts. She has also estimated Magical Britain’s population at around 3,000 at the time the books took place. Simple arithmetic quickly shows that this, at least, is pure nonsense. If there are 300 students at Hogwarts, then 1/10 of the population is at any one time a student at Hogwarts, suggesting an average magical lifespan of no more than 70, which is just about possible, even with the existence of characters such as two Dumbledores, Griselda Marchbanks and so on clearly well over 100, but fairly unlikely, and clearly makes nonsense of her two in-interview positions on the population of Hogwarts.

JK Rowling’s statements in interviews, and especially those having to do with orders of magnitude, basic arithmetic and so on, are notoriously unreliable, however, and so we must go back to first principles to estimate the size of the student population of Hogwarts. In doing so, we will start from the facts which are indisputably canonical — that is, the information given to us in the seven published novels concerning the life of Harry Potter — and then shall add in evidence from the other “deuterocanonical” (to borrow a term) sources: the three supplementary books by Rowling (Quidditch through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Tales of Beedle the Bard), anything else written “in universe” by JK Rowling (for instance, the short story featuring Sirius and James, and set before the events of PS/SS), and Pottermore. Evidence from JK Rowlings own statements in interviews and on any material other than that enumerated above may be discussed but will not be taken as evidence as to the workings of the wizarding world.

Hogwarts in the Books

Most of the evidence from the books points to there being no more than 40 students in Harry’s year:

  • There are 29 students mentioned by name in the books who we know are part of Harry’s year. 8 are Gryffindor, 8 Slytherin, 6 Ravenclaw, 4 Hufflepuff, and 3 whose houses are unknown. There is also at least one character (Zacharias Smith) who is likely to be, but is not necessarily, in Harry’s year.
  • In PS/SS, there are 20 brooms set out for the Slytherin and Gryffindor students’ flying lesson.[PS109]
  • In PS/SS, when the first years are first shown to the Gryffindor common room, Percy shows the boys “their dormitory”, implying that the first years only have one boys’ dorm. The same is true for the girls.[PS96]
  • In CoS, there are “about” 20 earmuffs set out for the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff students’ herbology lesson repotting mandrakes.

Unfortunately, an incident in chapter 12 of OotP complicates things:

  • In OotP, there are “thirty eagerly listening classmates”[OOTP221] in Harry’s Defence Against the Dark Arts.

There can therefore be no more than “about” 20 Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs together, and no more than 20 Slytherins and Gryffindors together. There are at least 8 Slytherins, 8 Gryffindors, and 4 Hufflepuffs, and it would be strange if there were significantly more than eight Gryffindors — how could any of them have avoided being mentioned throughout the six years that Harry was at school with them? As there are at least 8 Gryffindors in these classes, there are at most, therefore, twelve Hufflepuffs and Slytherins.

To make up the thirty-one students in Harry’s Defense class in OotP, therefore, there must have been either 21-23 Ravenclaws and 8-10 Gryffindors, or a class made up of three or four of the houses, including Gryffindor. There is no evidence in the book either way — all the characters referred to in this scene are Gryffindors — but it seems… implausible, to say the least, that there would be a class made up of three of the houses but excluding the fourth. Thus, Harry’s OotP class either contains 20+ Ravenclaws, for a total of around fifty students in the year, or 31 students from all houses. (A third possibility is that there were originally more than 31 students from the four houses combined, but a significant number either have left Hogwarts, were ill on that day, or had heard how Umbridge taught and decided to skip class. We know at least one student, Sally-Anne Perks, had left by the end of OotP, and she could bring the total original number of students in Harry’s year up to 32, but that still seems to be on the low side.)

However, no matter how we deal with the Defence class in OotP, it can’t be used to justify Harry’s year being bigger than 56 students (8 Gryffindors, 12 Slytherins and Hufflepuffs, 23 Ravenclaws, Sally-Anne Perks leaving before 5th year). If that’s a normal sized year, then Hogwarts would have about 400 students, which is higher than the smallest possible number of students, but doesn’t even approach 600, let alone 1,000.

Equally, there is evidence that the school is relatively small overall, or that Harry’s year is not abnormally sized:

There only appears to be one teacher for each subject. Harry is always taught by the same teachers except when it is explicitly stated that they leave the school, and the teachers at the High Table in PS/SS are all ones of which we know from other sources. If there were more than two class groups per year, there would not be enough teachers. There is a little bit of play here — in muggle schools in the UK, the standard class size is closer to 30, so the school could be 50% bigger than the 280 Harry’s year would imply. But we still cannot get close to 600 this way.

There is also evidence compatible with the small school hypothesis which is also compatible with larger population estimates:

“About a hundred owls” appear at breakfast every morning.[PS101] We know that this isn’t only those owls which have post, because Harry observes that though he hasn’t yet had any post, Hedwig often comes to see him and be fed bacon. Though we don’t know what proportion of the students have owls, this is certainly compatible with there being a relatively small number of students.

Harry sees “hundreds of faces” in the Great Hall at the sorting feast.[PS87] If there were many more than one thousand, he would probably say “thousands of faces”, but this is compatible with both big- and small-school suggestions.

Some evidence, though, appears to argue for a significantly larger school population:

Firstly, in PoA ch. 15, there are 200 Slytherin supporters at the Slytherin-Gryffindor quidditch match. As “three quarters of the crowd” were said to be wearing Gryffindor colours, the crowd must be around 800 strong. Even assuming that the “two hundred” Slytherin supporters is only accurate to a single significant figure, there must be at least 600 people in the crowd. It seems implausible that fully half the crowd are not students, even if we accept that Quidditch is a massively popular sport and that the entire school has turned out to watch this match rather than being in detention, having too much homework, not liking Quidditch, or one of a myriad of other reasons that one might not want to turn up to the match. The size of the crowd can fit with the small-school hypothesis, but it is more likely that the student body is in fact over three hundred based on this one scene.

Secondly, the thestral-drawn carriages which carry the second to seventh years to the school from the station are said to number “at least a hundred”[PoA68]. They can fit at least five students in[OotP179]. Their capacity is then at least 500, and at least once the carriages have fewer than five people in them — there are only four in Harry’s carriage in Goblet of Fire[GoF151]. All, or almost all, of the carriages must be used, as Draco and his friends are forced to kick some second years out of a carriage in OotP[OotP178] in order to get a carriage to themselves. We don’t know what the average number of students in a carriage is, but we never see fewer than four students in a carriage, which argues that there are 400+ students excluding first years, or on average 66.6 students per year, totaling almost 470 students. This is still not close to the 600 or 1,000 that JKR suggests, but is significantly bigger than the lowest estimates of <300. (Hogwarts' maximum capacity, going by the thestral-carriages, might be as much as 700, if six students can fit in each carriage).

Marauder-Era Hogwarts:

In the pensieve memories that Harry sees in OotP ch.28, we see the Marauders’ year group sit their Defence OWL. Harry sees that there were “more than a hundred”[OotP564] students in the examination hall, which taken at face value suggests that there were more than 100 students in James Potter’s year, and therefore more than 700 students in the school during the Marauders’ Era. While populations do change over the course of a generation, this seems like a huge change — the school population must have halved between James’ and Harry’s generations.

Later in OotP, we discover that when Harry and co sit their written OWLs, they do so with a NEWT class at the same time. This is perfectly compatible with real-life examination procedure, where frequently multiple different exams are taken together in the same room — it saves on invigilators, if nothing else. This was probably also the case when James Potter took his OWLs.

We don’t know which exam(s) the Marauder Era defence OWL was shared with, nor do we know how many more than a hundred there were in the exam room at the time — Harry is as terrible at estimating quantities as his creator is — but it could easily be the case that there were 60 OWL students and as many as 50 NEWT students for a popular NEWT — there are only 12 NEWTS apparently offered, after all, and most students choose at least 5 out of the 8 or 9 OWL subjects they usually do. When we consider that some NEWT subjects are almost certainly virtually empty — History of Magic, for instance, or Muggle Studies — this is perfectly believable.

On the other hand, there could be a smaller NEWT subject in the room, in which case 90 or more of the students could be in the Marauders’ year. This is not, however, compatible with any of the other evidence in canon. 50-60 students in James Potter’s year is perfectly compatible with this evidence, and so continues to be the most likely population of Hogwarts.

Conclusions:

There is absolutely no evidence in the books that at the time that Harry was at Hogwarts, the school had even close to 1,000 students in residence. Nor is there any evidence that the school has the capacity for 1,000 boarders — there aren’t enough thestral-drawn carriages, and there aren’t even close to enough teachers. The highest population estimate one can come up with seems to be 800 from the Quidditch match in PoA, assuming that there are no spectators from outside Hogwarts and that Harry’s estimate of 200 Slytherins is accurate.

The minimum possible population estimate of 280, assuming forty in Harry’s year and this being typical, seems to be too low. Not only does it ignore the evidence from Harry’s Defence class in OotP, it would imply that there were on average only 2.5 students in each thestral-drawn carriage, which seems unlikely. It would also necessitate at minimum 320 spectators at the Quidditch match, or 15% more non-students than students, assuming a 100% turn out. The more accurate we assume Harry’s estimate of the turn out to be, the more unlikely this requirement becomes. (That’s not to say that it is impossible: the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, to take an extreme example, had 7.3 million watch it on television in 2013, and an estimated 200,000 go to watch it live — vs. around 40,000 students from the two institutions combined. This is clearly an extreme example, but Quidditch is a significantly more popular sport in the Wizarding world than rowing is in the Muggle world, and a higher proportion of British witches and wizards seem to have ties to Hogwarts than British Muggles do to Oxbridge.)

There is some reason to make a case that Harry’s year is exceptionally small, and that the normal population of Hogwarts is somewhat above 500. The most cogently argued essay to put Hogwarts’ student population in the 500-700 range that I have read is here. The thestral-drawn carriages and the quidditch supporters in PoA both point in this direction.

Even the smallest estimate of the medium-Hogwarts crowd at ~500 students during Harry’s time there seems extremely implausible, however. There cannot be more than one Defence teacher at Hogwarts — we are told multiple times that no defence teacher has stayed at Hogwarts for more than a year throughout Harry’s time there, and there has never been more than one teacher introduced — and yet one teacher would struggle to teach the ten classes of 35 students that this would require from years 1-5, let alone the NEWT classes on top of this. At best, students could expect to receive 2 hours of teaching per week in a core subject, even during their NEWT years. By contrast, A-level students in England, studying 3-4 subjects, receive around 5 hours per week. Even accepting that more NEWTs tend to be taken than A-Level equivalents — 5 appear to be standard, vs. the three which is common for A-levels — Hogwarts students must be significantly undertaught compared to their muggle counterparts.

I simply cannot believe that there can have been any more than 420 students at Hogwarts during Harry’s time there — Harry’s year being on the small side with only 50 students, and a more typical year having about 60. The canonical evidence seems to point to a number squarely between 350 and 420, and there’s simply no way that the school as it is described could have accomodated many more students than that. The PoA Quidditch match must be explained by a combination of Harry possibly overestimating the number of spectators, and amateur Quidditch fans and students’ relatives coming to fill out the stands’ numbers from around 300-400 to 600 or more. It seems implausible, but it is the only way to make the numbers work, and depending on how popular amateur Quidditch is, and the size of the wizarding population as a whole, it is eminently possible for a key match. The thestral-drawn carriages are in fact compatible with a much smaller school than the 5-600 that they make possible — nothing says that all of the carriages were full, just that all of them were in use. The carriages must have had on average 3 to 3.5 students in them, which is perfectly believeable.

Romanticism

Preface

I think about human sexuality a lot, largely because despite having been human my whole life, I still don’t fully understand either my own sexuality, or sexuality in general. The specific thing I understand least about human sexuality is possibly the concept of romantic attraction. The fact that it is so confusing for me is making me increasingly convinced that I don’t actually feel it, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, and failing, to work out what it is. This post is the culmination, for the moment, of my thoughts on romanticism.

Warning: as ever when I start thinking about human sexuality, this is extremely long, doesn’t really come to any firm conclusions, and is at best dubiously comprehensible.

I. Types of Attraction:

When people talk about orientation, especially in asexual and queer circles, you will often hear the model which goes something like this: sexual attraction and desire are just one form of desire, along with romantic, aesthetic, sensual, emotional, kinky and other forms of desire. Unfortunately, while the model itself is valuable, it suffers from a lack of coherent and agreed upon definitions. So, in accordance with xkcd’s prophecy, I shall do my best to add another set of conflicting definitions to the mix.

‘Sexual’

This is probably the easiest to define. It’s what most people mean when they talk about desire. Desire to do sexual things (PiV, anal, oral and manual sex, foreplay) with a person. This kind of desire leads to arousal. Can be triggered by, or require, some combination of sensual, emotional, and aesthetic attraction.

‘Aesthetic’

Aesthetic attraction is another easy one. It’s looking at someone and knowing they are ‘pretty’, or ‘handsome’. Not necessarily connected to any desire for emotional or sexual connection with a person, simply appreciating their appearance. Can, however, cause sexual desire — this is why ‘sexy’ can be used to describe someone’s appearance. By contrast with sexual desire, which is a wish to do sexual things with a person, aesthetic desire is a wish to look at a person, or otherwise appreciate their appearance.

‘Sensual’

Desire for non-sexual touch. Hugs, kisses (some of them, at least), massages, hand holding and so on all come under this category. For some people, this is so intimately connected with sexual desire that they cannot understand how people can hug or hold hands with those other than their partner. For others, notably people on the asexual spectrum, it is entirely divorced.

‘Emotional’

The desire to get to know someone on a personal level, to share feelings, and to be vulnerable to (and conversly protect) someone. Demi-sexual people often require this to feel sexual desire.

‘Intellectual’

Similar to emotional. Unlike emotional, however, where bonding is over opening yourself up to become vulnerable and share feelings, intellectual attraction is stimulated by admiration of intelligence, whether that manifests itself in quick wittedness, knowledge, polyglossia (why do you think being talked to in a foreign language is thought of as a turn on?), or simply ability to keep up with your own thoughts.

‘Kinky’

Desire for non-sexual kinky play — either domination or submission. Can manifest in the desire to be tied up, or beaten — or to tie up or beat someone else. Professional dominatrixes who refuse to engage in sex aim to satisfy their clients’ kinky, rather than sexual, desires.

‘Romantic’

The hard one. The AVEN FAQ, which one would think provides a useful definition here, unhelpfully and tautologically defines ‘Romantic attraction: Desire of being romantically involved with another person’.

It is usually accepted that romantic attraction is distinct from all of the foregoing types, with the possible exception of emotional attraction, with which it is sometimes conflated. Actually defining it, however, is surprisingly difficult. Many attempts at definitions end in the definers giving up and saying that, as Justice Potter Stewart wrote:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

For example, there is this example post from the AVEN forums, saying at one point “I can just feel the difference between romantic love and other kinds”.

This is, however, not that helpful for people who are aromantic, and want to understand romanticism, or for those who are not sure whether or not they are romantic. In an attempt to find a more coherent and useful definition for romantic attraction, it might be useful to look at the definitions and descriptions that others who have attempted this have come up with.

Some have suggested that romantic attraction is defined by its contentless nature: that is, that it is attraction not to any particular quality, of for any particular reason, but generally to a particular person: “It’s not that you feel drawn to the other person because of some other thing, you just feel drawn to the person, full stop”.

Others have suggested that romantic attraction is a desire to be in what is in some way A Relationship, either in a way that is distinct from, or in a way that is somehow more than, an ordinary platonic relationship.

Many attempts at definitions include the desire to be near the object of romantic attraction, and to have attention from them, often exclusively. For instance:

“Signs include intrusive thoughts of the person, an acute emotional pleasure at the mere thought of them or any kind of attention from them, a level of emotional possessiveness elevated beyond one’s other emotional attachments”.

“Becoming obsessed with a person”.

“For me, romantic attraction is wanting to be around someone, A LOT.”

Finally, there is at least one example of someone who claims that romantic attraction goes along with a desire to nurture and care for the object of their attraction.

II. Romantic Attraction: Working Towards A Definition

Let us look, then, one by one at the different proposed definitions and components of romantic attraction.

  • ‘Friendship + Sex’
  • The opposite of a platonic relationship
  • the same as the desire for a platonic friendship, but more so
  • Desire to be in ‘a relationship'(tm)
  • Relatedly, the desire to be in a monogamous/exclusive relationship.
  • Desire for physical closeness
  • Desire for sensual non-sexual contact
  • Possessiveness
  • ‘Contentless’/’Reasonless’ attraction

At least some of these definitions are obviously flawed. ‘Friendship + Sex’ implies that friends with benefits are in a romantic relationship. This is inherently self-contradictory — friends with benefits, in conventional usage, refers to people who have a platonic relationship, and not a romantic one, and yet still have a sexual relationship. On the other hand, this definition would imply that those who are in a long term relationship and no longer have sex, whether by choice or medical necessesity, no longer count as in a romantic relationship — again, contrary to what popular culture would suggest counts as a romantic relationship.

‘The opposite of platonic relationship’ implies that romantic desire and platonic desire are mutually exclusive, which strikes me as a bizarre position to hold. Relationships are often built out of friendships, and it would be odd to say that friends who are now in a relationship are no longer still friends, and equally odd to say that they are still friends but no longer feel platonic attraction to each other.

‘The desire for a friendship, but more so’, seems to be, again, in contradiction to established usage — people use ‘romantic relationship’ to refer to something seperate to ‘friendship’. In addition, romantic attraction is often explicitly gendered — people talk of being ‘homoromantic’ or ‘heteroromantic’, but wouldn’t dream of only having friends of the opposite sex — although some people, regardless of romanticism(?) seem to think that it’s only acceptable to have friends of the same sex.

‘The desire to be in a relationship’ is a mostly useless definition. Either it refers to the desire to be in a romantic relationship with someone, in which case the definition is circular, or it refers to the desire to be in any kind of relationship (sexual, kinky, friendship-based) which is, once again, in contradiction to established usage. The desire to be in an explicitly monogamous relationship is little better — it excludes all poly people a priori, which seems premature. The desire to be in an exclusive relationship is perhaps a little better. Poly people can be included, fuckbuddies/friends with benefits are excluded, as are purely platonic friends. However, this definition excludes monogamish people, and those in an open relationship, or other forms of poly/non-monogamous relationships which are not exclusive.

The next three definitional components suggested: “desire for non-sexual contact”, “desire for closeness”, and “possessiveness” all seem to me to be more symptoms of romantic attraction than definitions of it. While people might feel desire for non-sexual physical contact, and desire for physical closeness, with romantic partners, they might equally feel the first about friends with benefits, and the second about family members. In neither of these cases does society consider the relationship to be romantic. Possessiveness and jealousy is a characteristic strongly associated with romantic, as opposed to any other, types of relationship, but I am by no means persuaded that it is universally felt: there are plenty of poly-type people in what they call romantic relationships in which they feel compersion much more than they feel possessiveness over their partners. Compersion can, of course, coexist wih jealousy or possessiveness, but by the same token it doesn’t always, and not all poly people who feel compersion but not jealousy consider themselves to be aromantic.

By process of elimination, then, we are left with only ‘Contentless, or reasonless, attraction’ as a workable definition for romantic attraction which is not trivially shown to be in contradiction to accepted usage of the term. If romantic attraction can be reasonably defined, this is the best suggestion I have yet heard.

Another possibility that one might suggest is that romantic attraction doesn’t really exist seperately from the other forms of attraction listed above, and that it is essentially the same as emotional attraction. However, it seems that it is perfectly culturally appropriate to be emotionally attached to close family members, whereas a romantic relationship between close family members would be seen as inappropriate. This suggests one of two things: either there is a difference between platonic emotional bonds and romantic bonds, or the fact that something is labelled as romantic, and the cultural expectations which go along with that, would be the problem, not the relationship itself.

Conclusions: True Romanticism is Incomprehensible

This blogpost has been lying around on my harddrive, in varying similarities to its current form, for months. Before that, I had had a similar attempt to work out what romanticism is lying around on a different harddrive for almost a year. In all this time drafting, re-drafting, deleting, and undeleting a definition of romanticism, not only am I still unable to clearly articulate what it is, I find myself even more confused by the concept than I was before I started writing this.

From this, we learn two things:

  1. People who don’t understand romantic attraction shouldn’t try to define it.
  2. I don’t understand romantic attraction.

1. From Stewart’s concurring opinion in Jacobellis vs. Ohio

Unix Console Fonts: Urxvt and Inconsolata

I spend much of my day on my computer. Of that, all of it, with the exception of my web browsing – well, most of my web browsing – is done inside a terminal emulator. And when working in a terminal emulator – with pure, unadorned plaintext – it is very important to have a readable font. And by readable font, in this context, we mean a monospaced font where it is unambiguously clear what every character is. Aesthetics are second-place.

For a long time, that font for me was Terminus. It’s fairly good: it has properly crossed zeros, distinguishing them from O, the I is distinct from the | symbol, and so on. It’s not unattractive, either, as monospaced fonts go.

However, it’s not perfect, partially due to the fact that it’s bitmap, and so scales badly, and partly because some characters, especially l, 1, and I, are insufficiently distinct. Inconsolata is better on all of these counts. Making the change was harder than first anticipated, however.

From what I had read, it was fairly clear what the process should be. My .Xresources (that’s the file where you configure various settings, including the font of my terminal emulator, urxvt, for any non-technical people who have got this far) currently had this line:

Urxvt.font: terminus-14

It should instead have this line:

Urxvt.font: xft:inconsolata

Unfortunately, this didn’t work. It should have done, because inconsolata was correctly installed on my system. I knew that because I tested it out on xterm, and it worked perfectly fine there.

To cut a long story short, I eventually realised that when I had originally installed urxvt I had installed the package rxvt-unicode-lite, rather than the full rxvt-unicode. rxvt-unicode-lite, it turns out, doesn’t have support for xft fonts, of which inconsolata is one, compiled in.

The moral of the story is, if you are having trouble getting xft fonts to work on urxvt, make sure that your version has support for such fonts at the beginning of the endeavour.