Some Random Observations on “History of Magic in North America”

This past week, J. K. Rowling has sketched out a “History of Magic in North America” in four brief daily installments. As you may have heard, Native Americans have expressed disapproval at how their culture is depicted especially in the first of these snippets. (Yes, I’m quite aware Native Americans represent more than one culture; that’s part of the problem.) Others have found these essays wanting for other reasons. Though I am unwilling to call it a “travesty from start to finish,” I do believe it is a disappointing effort. Given the nature of this blog, I thought I owed it to my readers to share a few random observations on the matter.

1. J. K. Rowling Is Not the Devil

On the contrary, she strikes me as a considerate and thoughtful person. She has certainly inspired many, both through her personal story and the stories she has written for the world. My daughter is a great Harry Potter fan—as am I. I will continue to enjoy Harry Potter, and I look forward to seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, though I will admit that “History of Magic in North America” has caused me some misgivings about how this latest project will shape up…

2. J. K. Rowling Doesn’t Seem to “Get” America

I’m sure she has visited the States on many occasions. She probably has American friends. But her account of wizarding history in North America strikes me as somewhat tone deaf. As but one example, Rowling makes Puritanism and the Salem witch trials of 1692 a benchmark for all of wizarding North America with hardly a thought to the facts that (1) other colonies had different religious sensibilities and were founded purely in the interests of economic gain and (2) England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe were undergoing their own bouts of witch hysteria in this same era.

I understand this is most likely done to set up the plot of the Fantastic Beasts movie, but it strikes me as presenting a “theme-park” version of American history. One of the things I enjoy about Harry Potter is how British wizarding culture builds upon, parallels, and even satirizes British Muggle culture. For instance, even as a non-Brit, I know a bit about “A-Levels” in the British education system and can chuckle at their corresponding wizarding “OWLs.” It looks to me like Rowling has written the history of wizarding America in such a way that these parallels are not likely to exist, which is likely to diminish my enjoyment of Fantastic Beasts.

3. America’s History of Racial Violence Should Be Handled with Great Care

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity. Lumping all Native Americans together in one monolithic culture doesn’t do that. Neither do references to Native American medicine men as charlatans who only “fake” having supernatural powers. Nor do comments about Native Americans excelling at animal and plant-based magic, especially when paired with the observation that Europeans introduced the wand to North America. To me, this sounds like Native American wizards have plenty of raw power, but need the refinement and sophistication provided by European wand technology. I hope I don’t have to go into why that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

4. Fanfic Might Have Fixed Some of This

Disclaimer #1: At least 90% of all fan fiction is crap.

Disclaimer #2: I have written my fair share of Harry Potter fan fiction.

But here’s the thing. Lots of Americans  have wanted an American version of Harry Potter’s wizarding world for years, and some of them have wanted it enough to write their own. There is even a community at fanfiction.net for Potter stories set in America. Some of these spin out entirely new characters and settings in a world that is clearly the same as the one inhabited by Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest. Some of them send familiar characters across the Atlantic for new adventures in the States.

What makes even bad America in the Potterverse fanfic worthwhile is that it is all written by Americans. This means that even unimaginative, half-cocked stories depict an authentically American vision of what Magic in North America might be like.

I’m not saying Ms. Rowling should have done her research at fanfiction.net! (Heaven forfend!) I am suggesting, however, that it would not have been too difficult for her to have found some thoughtful American fans to take “History of Magic in North America” for a test drive and point out aspects that didn’t quite ring true.

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