Author Ownership and Canon

Next week, Robyn and I will be in London to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. While I am obviously excited to return to the Wizarding World and to see what new story will be told, I am also cautious, especially given the latest Pottermore articles that have come out as promotion for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. On one hand, I love the Harry Potter series and the world that was created around it. On the other hand, the newest expansions on the Wizarding World have far from excited me and have failed to spark the same interests and magic within me. After almost ten years since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the new Pottermore content has me wondering about author ownership and canon, particularly in a fandom as large as the Potter fandom.

As an English major in college, I learned that author’s intention isn’t what matters in the end. What matters is how you interpret the writing, how it is able to carry over many years later, whether it holds the same weight that it did when it was initially published. It’s something I’ve accepted as someone who has studied English but something I’ve struggled with as a writer. It’s much easier to accept it when it comes to old literature – it’s so old that it will undoubtedly have a different meaning now than it did then. At the same time, those authors are dead, and very well can’t come back and retcon or explain further their choices in the books they’ve made.

This question of who owns the Harry Potter canon in particular has come up a lot lately, especially with the series’ on the non-European Wizarding Schools and Magic in North America. For one, the fandom is so rich and full of imagination that the fanfiction, headcanons, and fanart have been able to keep the magic alive way more effectively than the new Pottermore releases have. J.K. Rowling has even been know to encourage the fandom’s imagination, even taking from it to add to the actual canon of her world, like when it was announced that Noma Dumezweni would be playing Hermione Granger in the Cursed Child. Despite never once mentioning Hermione’s race, and undoubtedly seeing her as white in her own mind, Jo praised a black Hermione in a way that was initially heartwarming and later eyebrow-raising.

The reason this is so frustrating is that while she is completely able to go back and add diversity on the backend of the stories (again, it’s been ten years since the release of the last book), she hasn’t been able to add people of color on the front end of her new content, other than in ways that are offensive and on the periphery. Other than the content that fleshes out the world specifically around Harry Potter, Pottermore has been an example of what not to do when you’ve finished a series. None of the new work she’s produced about the Wizarding World has held the same weight or been nearly as powerful as the original Harry Potter series, racism aside. Both the Wizarding Schools series and the Magic in North America series feel as if they were solely created to sell Fantastic Beasts (which would sell without it) and as a result lack any originality in their conception. Rather than explore new themes – themes that could actually include many more kinds of people than the series does now – Rowling seems stuck in her own loop, bringing up pale imitations of the themes and thought that she put into the original Harry Potter series.

To me, I think she should just leave it alone as she originally intended. When she told us that she would no longer write about Potter, of course I was upset but it also made sense. The story was a contained one that happened in a specific amount of time, and to expand it even more not only leaves holes in the story, but actually ends up taking away from themes and lessons learned in the original series. As a writer, I totally understand being unable to stop your brain when it comes to worldbuilding, but these Pottermore series feel more like she’s trying to pull a story out of herself rather than like it’s a story she can’t contain within herself. The lack of research and consultation with people of the countries she’s writing about alone shows a laziness that wasn’t exhibited in the original series.

These latest stories also bring up questions of when it’s time to close up a story. How much ownership do the readers have if the story isn’t fully closed? How much ownership does the author have? At what point should the ownership pass from author to fandom? Sure, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home, but if J.K. Rowling keeps adding and changing things, will it even look the same as you imagine it in the end?