Like many kids, JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series was an integral part of my childhood. I pre-ordered the books and went to the midnight premieres of the films. I own a Gryffindor tie, scarf, and sweater, as well as replicas of Harry’s wand and glasses.
It’s because I loved the original series so much that I find myself frustrated over Pottermore’s attempts to apply Potter logic to the entire globe. It’s a story that just doesn’t scale well — at least not without bringing in consultants and guest writers, which is clearly not what JKR did.
When a British author spends 1,084,170 words on a story set in the U.K. and then writes 300 to 1000 word snippets meant to flesh out countries she’s clearly not familiar with, you know there’s going to be issues.
The reason the original series worked was because there was a distinct specificity to the world. You could picture every nook and cranny of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley. Most importantly, it was set on Rowling’s home turf of Britain. “Write what you know” is an overused saying, but it’s true.
If you’re not writing what you know? You need to consult and research. Or, you know, when you have the acclaim and power of JKR, maybe hire writers from the countries you’re writing about to help you fill in their own magical histories? Otherwise you risk writing something shallow, stereotypical, or offensive.
Let’s look at how JKR portrays the United States. It’s been a few months since she released her four-part series “A History of Magic in North America” as supplemental material for the upcoming film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Since March, many Native Americans have raised concerns that the stories equate various Native American beliefs with fictional magic — for comparison, imagine a writer dismissing Christianity as fake — and that it reinforces the problematic and emphatically false narrative of friendly relations between the Natives and the white colonists. One baffling sentences reads that Native Americans were “generally welcoming and protective of their European brethren.” I grew up with history books saying the same nonsense, but it’s hard to believe in 2016 we’re still perpetuating that lie. JKR has yet to officially address these concerns.
“A History of Magic” is written from a European, pro-colonial point of view, which makes me question if she worked with any American historians on it or if it had to be written at all. North America is written as a magical wilderness, only tamed when the Europeans bring over their wands and universities. The Hogwarts equivalent, Ilvermorny, appropriates the stories from different Native American cultures of the Thunderbird, Wampus, Pukwudgie, and Horned Serpent as the houses despite having a white founder.
Unsurprisingly, the anthology portrays Americans in stereotypical fashion: the American wizards do not have Prohibition, so they’re often drunker than their No-Maj counterparts. Wizards have what feels like a poor equivalent of the Jim Crow laws with Rappaport’s Law, which segregates wizards from No-Majs. But the reason Rappaport’s Law is passed is because a dim and flighty American witch falls for the wrong man. JKR also suggests that the European wizards would never have passed something like Rappaport’s Law, thus suggesting, as people often do, that the British are less racist than Americans. It’s not true, you guys.
The rest of the world gets tiny snippets in relation to their magical schools, and I just have so many questions. Europe is clearly portrayed as the center of magical innovation and acceptance compared to the rest of the globe. Only Europe is credited with creating the wand and Quidditch, which were adopted by every other country. It’s not really mentioned if any other countries contributed anything as major, despite the fact that in real life we have Asia and Africa to thank for most modern inventions.
The schools in the non-white countries all feel a bit stereotypical and barely fleshed out. The Japanese school of Mahoutokoro is known for its “impressive academic prowess” and its strict laws of dealing with disgraced students. The African school of Uagadou is known for students turning into cheetahs and elephants. The Brazilian school of Castelobruxo has a ridiculously short description but JKR makes sure to mention it “offers an exchange program for European students.”
The Pottermore supplementals just raise more questions than they answer. JKR says many wizards across the globe have visions and have been in contact with each other since the Middle Ages…and yet history played out exactly as it did in the real world? With the original series being mostly confined to one fictional place, these questions were easier to ignore. But now that JKR is attempting to write world history, this can of worms is open and it’s not going away.
I will always love “Harry Potter.” I love that over the years JKR continues to give us more insight into Harry’s world. But all of the latest writings feel like a huge misstep that just misrepresent a lot of the globe. JKR has a lot of power to influence the way a generation thinks, and unfortunately she wrote about things she’s not knowledgeable of.
I would love if, for future stories about the other countries, she worked with writers of color on them. Otherwise, research and consultation, JKR. Even famous authors need to do it.
Clara Mae is a twenty-something English major grad from UC Berkeley. Works somewhere in the San Francisco financial district. If not at work, is probably off eating ramen, petting dogs, or attempting yoga. Blogs too little and tweets too much at @ubeempress.
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