“What Is Canon?” – Part 2: The books or not the books – that is the question

Yesterday, my brilliant partner on the site, Kat Miller, made an eloquent argument as to why everything J.K. Rowling says and writes regarding the Harry Potter series should be considered canon. Now, I will share my opinion on why I believe, along with many academics who study and teach the Harry Potter series in colleges and universities around the world, that the canon of Harry Potter should remain restricted to the seven-volume book series penned by Rowling and released between 1997 and 2007 and nothing else. Additionally, I am fully aware that of the MILLIONS of fans of Harry Potter, I am in a definite minority on this topic, and while I am not looking to alter anyone’s opinion on the subject, I do ask that you maintain an open mind to the end.

The word canon comes from the Greek word kanon, which means the measuring rod or rule to which literature is claimed as authoritative. This, as Kat correctly suggests, refers to the original book series, which cannot be disputed.

The main point of contention in this issue is that there is no such thing as “objective canon,”1 and the issue of canonical literature is certainly a thorny one. Discussions and disputes within the Harry Potter fandom on this subject, both academic and emotional, stem from the question “What else, outside of the main text, can be considered canon?” Can and should we consider her other published works, such as the schoolbooks (Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Tales of Beedle the Bard, canon? What about the short Marauders-era story she penned for charity in 2008? If we consider these items to fall within the canon, then where does it end? Should we also consider the wizard cards she created for EA Games or the Daily Prophets she wrote in 1998 and 1999? I, and many other individuals within academia, choose not to consider anything outside of the main seven-volume text part of the canon of Harry Potter but rather exceptionally fun bits and bobs of information to read that can provide brilliant insight into the level of detail that the author developed as she penned the series.

Originally, Rowling intended for the Harry Potter universe to be portrayed in seven books, and as a set, they make a complete whole that allow us, as fans, to discuss the magical world in great detail. The author is certainly free to add to the world however she wants, and there will be plenty of doctoral dissertations written on the subject by fans around the world. However, if she chose not to include a piece of information or detail of a character within the original text, then that was her prerogative, and we, as readers, can choose whether or not we want to consider her additional material as determinative. Yes, it’s from her mind, but without being embodied in and given life through officially published text, it does not exist in a nailed-down fashion the way that it does in the published novels5.

The Harry Potter series is not the first fandom to have this debate, and it certainly won’t be the last. For example, a large portion of the Star Trek fandom considers Captain Kirk’s full name to be James Tiberius Kirk, but his middle name, Tiberius, was not in the original television show or movies. His middle name came from the animated series, which fans consider to be so far gone from the original material that they don’t consider it canon. Yet, there it is, Captain James Tiberius Kirk is considered canon.2 How do fans justify allowing one snippet of material from Star Trek: The Animated Series to be considered canon but other material from the same source isn’t? Can we, as fans, just selectively choose what is canon and what isn’t? If you think the Harry Potter fan base is strict on canon, you would be right, but the Star Trek fan base is even more complex. Paula Block (who is in charge of all Trek licensed products) states, “Canon is Star Trek continuity as presented on TV and Movie screens. Licensed products like books and comics aren’t part of that continuity, so they aren’t canon.”

Before I get any deeper into the complexities of the canon in Potter, let’s examine other issues of canon in literature. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien has a similar type of canon issue. After the release of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings book series, Tolkien continued to write the backstory and develop the languages of the characters, often creating inconsistencies from the original material2. The fact remains that throughout all of the additional material the original author created or revealed, it was no more important or relevant to the original series than any other work of fan fiction writing.

Going back to the Star Trek fandom, as Gene Roddenberry, the original creator of the series, became older, he decided that his big “cause” for the development of the Star Trek universe was secular humanism2. If we follow Rowling long enough, there may come a time in her life (I hope this never comes true) where she has lost her marbles, and she states that the Harry Potter series was secretly based on Scientology and Harry Potter himself was actually an alien. If something this strange were actually to happen in the future, will those blindly loyal fans adapt this to the canon, or will they selectively discard this new information from their “Queen?” I know this sounds absurd, and I certainly hope we never have anything like this occur, but the point is, is that if we one day become selective as to what is and is not canon, then when and where is the line drawn? By having the canon isolated to the original published works only, the canon can never be in a disputed state.

If one ever wants to see how canon can change over time, just direct your attention to the mess of Shakespearean canon that includes the 36 plays contained in the First Folio and the two apocryphal plays (Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen). We have these magnificent works of art constantly being adapted and altered in both theater and text form such that the works of art that we study in school and watch on the stage include an unknown amount of Shakespeare’s original work.

Let’s move on to the issue at hand: The canon of the Harry Potter series.

One of the biggest bombs dropped by Rowling since the completion of the books was her announcement that Dumbledore, in her mind, was gay. This was an awesome revelation to the fandom since she showed exactly how detailed her world and character development was established within her imagination. However, as far as I know, this announcement was NEVER written down anywhere. It’s not on Pottermore (yet), and it is not located in any published materials. Steve Kloves mentioned it after she whispered it in Kloves’s ear during a script reading, and it was followed up shortly afterward by Rowling herself during subsequent oral interviews.

Can we consider everything Rowling states verbally regarding Potter in interviews as canon? If so, we will find a lot of inconsistencies. For example, on October 16, 2000, during a live Scholastic.com interview with classroom children, Jo stated,

There are about a thousand students at Hogwarts.

Well, this doesn’t make any sense since we know from the canon of Potter, the original book series, that there are, more or less, ten students in each house each year. This would equate to approximately 280 students total, not 1,000. Do we just disregard these inconsistencies and mistakes? A work of literature is a work of literature, independent of the author; thoughts given in interviews are interesting, but if they are not written out in fictional form, they are not canon. I would, of course, be very hesitant about casually dismissing whatever Ms. Rowling has to say in an interview, but it is not canon. This particularly applies to things she wishes she’d done differently now, such as the Harry and Hermione shipping dispute or that “Oh, maybe she [Hermione] and Ron will be all right with a bit of counseling.” This information provided by Rowling is not in the books and is not written down, so it’s not canon. Even Ms. Rowling cannot unwrite those words3.

Authors often change their minds, sometimes multiple times. Ursula Le Guin changed hers about her Earthsea Trilogy and so returned to that universe and wrote several further books4. If Rowling keeps writing fiction in Potterverse, then great, but interviews, additional material, etc. are NOT part of that universe. Once she puts her pen down, she becomes a fellow reader and interpreter, not a judge and not a continuing creator. As John Green stated after the Harry and Hermione media fiasco recently,

Finally, my argument will explore the new and exclusive material released by J.K. Rowling on Pottermore. I LOVE the new material; I find it extremely fascinating and poignant. The master storyteller herself elegantly writes the bits and pieces we anxiously read as they are released, and we reflect the material back to the original source to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the magical world. I think it is all brilliant… FAN FICTION. That’s right; I said it! I know many of you, as devoted fans of Rowling, are throwing things at your computer screen or screaming at your phone while reading this statement, but in my opinion (along with quite a few academic professors who teach Harry Potter for a living) feel that all of this new material she releases is nothing more than a form of fan fiction writing. For those who say, “How can you claim that the creator of the world is writing fan fiction?” it’s simple. She is a fan of her work, and rightly so because it is brilliant. But hanging on every word, even an author’s word, isn’t an addition to one’s understanding or appreciation of a text7.

Take, for instance, the latest Quidditch World Cup material that was released on Pottermore as written by Ginny Potter and Rita Skeeter. This material was not written prior to the completion of the published series and then ultimately edited out of the final version; the stories do nothing to change how we read and interpret the original text of the Hogwarts saga; and it is nothing more than great fiction writing by a brilliant woman. Therefore, the Quidditch World Cup stories on Pottermore are nothing more than fabulous fan fiction, and if that’s accepted as true, then how can we take the other pieces of information as anything more than fan fic? The McGonagall and Lupin stories were some of the best material I’ve ever read post Potter, but how do we know for certain that the material was not exclusively written for us on Pottermore as opposed to what she may have created in her original backstory? If this material was written exclusively for Pottermore, then is it any different than that of the Quidditch World Cup material? No… it’s just fantastic information that allows us to enhance our reading of the original text, or the CANON of the Potterverse, the seven-volume book series.

If you still refuse to have any reservations about whether or not some of the new Pottermore information provided by Rowling was written recently as opposed to being from her original backstory files, then maybe you don’t find the timing of the new Celestina Warbeck material coincidental to the recent developments at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley and their latest show featuring the singing sorceress. As for me, I find the timing for the release of this material to be very intentional, and therefore the possibility exists that the material was recently created by Jo. Yes, I’m sure Jo had plenty of background information on Celestina and she may have even shared the information with Universal Creative, but isn’t it possible that some of the new information was just recently developed for Pottermore?

We have never had a stable canon of Western philosophy, not from the Bible and all of its interpretations and commentaries nor from any major fandom like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. We simply have to learn to live and love the ambiguity of the canon, which will make for some very interesting discussions among us all1. For myself, keeping the canon of the Potterverse limited to strictly the book series means that I can enjoy the additional material and not allow it to influence or alter the way I read and interpret the book series. I like that I can keep my readings of the magical world as simple and entertaining literature through each and every reading. Books have beginnings and endings, and those are the boundaries, and you can’t go back and change that at will later on, or add to it, in other forums. Books are books6.

This debate, or differing editorial opinions, will continue past whatever Kat and I share with you as readers, and it is meant to attract opinions and responses from you as fans of the series. Whether you agree with one of us or neither of us, we ask that you respectfully share your opinions with us in the comments below.

And Kat, as long as it comes from Honeydukes, does it matter what flavor of chocolate Harry’s dancing chocolate bar was in his dream? No, it really doesn’t, but having more fan fiction from Jo is always entertaining!

*Special thanks to some of MuggleNet Academia professors for sharing their educated viewpoints in this editorial: Professor Daniel Nexon of Georgetown University1, Professor John Mark Reynolds of Houston Baptist University2, Professor Melissa Aaron of Cal Poly Pomona3, Professor Chris Gavaler of Washington & Lee University4, Professor Carrie Ann Biondi of Marymount Manhattan College5, author and Time® book critic Lev Grossman6, and Professor Elizabeth Hardy of Maryland Community College7.

Part 1: It’s All in J.K. Rowling’s Head

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  • Liese

    I think that for the most part, I think that any Author who writes a series and creates a world, will have a history for main characters and tidbits of information, that may never make it into the series, due to page count or editing.
    Perhaps the author goes back to his/her notes on just who the character is, to help flesh out the story.
    All those Notes, Back stories and interesting facts. are still CANON… because the Author made it so.

    The stories are for our enjoyment, but to disregard someone’s playground is egotistical. It’s like having someone do the work for you and you steal the credit at work, or stop hearing someone who’s speaking because you don’t like or respect what they are saying.

    We get to borrow it, play in it… but we don’t own it. Except in how it stays in our hearts.

    • But we do own it Liese, it’s my property and the property of every single reader. If she didn’t include the information in her books, that was a choice way back when she was writing them, and I’m pretty indifferent to what she says about the books after she got done writing them. It’s fun information and always a great read because she is a great writer but it’s not canon in my opinion for the reasons I stated above.

      • Evan

        You’re delusional if you think you “own” anything JK Rowling has written. Go get a hobby, you’re spending far too much energy on writing ridiculous ownership claims over something JK Rowling spent her life building for all of us to enjoy. You can have opinions (as much as the rest of us) but its clear that an overwhelming majority agree that whatever Rowling tells us about the series is cannon, whether it is in the original seven books or posted on Pottermore.

        The world of Harry Potter exists in JK Rowling’s head and her head only. Whatever we know as fans about that world is thanks to the little windows she has provided us with through the books, Pottermore, and whatever she has told in conversation. You have absolutely zero authority over that fact.

      • Iain Walker

        Sorry, but these assertions that we “own” the books or that they are our “property” are meaningless, unless you can explain in what precise sense we “own” them, and exactly how and why this “ownership” trumps Rowling’s prior ownership of her own created work. I think you really need to elaborate on this.

  • Dobbysghost

    There’s a reason academics are not creators. They may “teach” Harry Potter but they did not create it. That’s why authors, film makers and artists often laugh at academics who try to make false assumptions and untrue claims about other peoples work. It’s an arrogance which comes with having too many degrees and too little common sense.

    • Wow…lol

    • Melissa D. Aaron

      Actually, I am an academic, and Keith consulted me on this, and I disagree with him! I think the published books are canon, and I hope it didn’t sound as though that was my opinion. I also wish you would not be so dismissive of academics. We work extremely hard in our areas and we do, in fact, have common sense.–Melissa D. Aaron, Cal Poly Pomona

  • Um, Keith: “but without being embodied in and given life through officially published text, it does not exist in a nailed-down fashion the way that it does in the published novels” – What exactly precludes Beedle the Bard etc. from being considered an “official published text”? How is it less official than the books?

    And we get it, “a few academics” agree with you. No need to keep reiterating that.

    • The supplemental books are wonderful and are, of course, the grey area to this canon debate. If I chose to recognize a secondary or extended canon, then yes, ToBtB would be in that category. As it stands for me, the Tale of the Three Brothers story found within that book and the titles that Ron stated in the novels are canon reprinted within that book, the rest is just a fascinating read but is NOT canon. As I stated in my argument, once you begin to add to the original canon then where do you stop and draw the line? If you extend your canon past the original 7 books, then you might as well say that everything she has done and said is canon as per Kat’s argument. And I’m sorry, I have a problem with that as these books belong to the reader now.

      My apologies about the repetition, but I (and other academics that teach Harry Potter) needed to make my point clear! 😛

      • Generally, you draw the line at any published material that contradicts a more authoritative source. The prequel she wrote is canon. The Daily Prophet articles – should we ever be able to read them – is canon unless it contradicts the books. Pottermore is canon except where it’s wrong. ANd so on.

        I can understand you not taking Jo’s spoken word as gospel, and I’ll even concede that Pottermore/Famous Wizards/etc. is a gray area. But I just fail to see how officially published books can be considered non-canonical – the only difference between them and the seven books is the main character.

        • “Pottermore is canon except where it’s wrong”….seriously????? You have the ability and luxury to pick and choose what you think is right and wrong and if it is right it’s cannon and if it’s wrong it’s not canon? Sorry Irvin, that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

          • Um, yes, that’s how it works! By default, it’s canon, unless it contradicts the books. Requires a bit of work and a bit of debate, but that’s how we’d get the most complete and correct canon.

            I don’t see why you’re so shocked. Half of all the editorials on MuggleNet are devoted to this – “Jo says ___ on her website/interview, how do we reconcile this with canon?” How many essays have you read about how many students there are at Hogwarts or how the Fidelius Charm works?

  • Skyler Aitken

    I tend to side more with Kat than Keith, and I want to poke one hole in Keith’s argument: Books are books. Books can be rereleased and changed if the author wants. Originally in “The Hobbit”, Gollum offers the ring to Bilbo if he wins. After writing LOTR, Tolkien went back and update that sequence in the Hobbit to make it more compatible with LOTR.

    If Rowling wrote a sequel series, I don’t think she could go back and easily change things from the original series. She could if she wanted, and that would become the new cannon. Then we would all call her George Lucas — and I don’t even want to go down that rabbit hole of things he changed in star wars over his life.

    • That’s correct Skyler; however, in that case the original canon actually changed to fit the new published material. I may be wrong on my recollection from this, but I believe you are referring to the original riddle game scene in The Hobbit. Origianlly, Bilbo won the game and Gollum showed him the way out of the cave because he felt bad that he didn’t have the ring to offer as the bet. Once the LOTR was in writing, the ring was no longer just a cool magical device as it was a powerful obsessive component and the Riddle Game sequence had to change to show the powerful connection to the ring by Gollum.

      Anyway, the canon changed when the book changed. Look at a Potter example that is similar to this. In the original release of Goblet of Fire, the Priori Incantatem scene was written incorrectly, but that was how the original canon was maintained UNTIL it was corrected and released as being the correct sequence. So the canon changed from the original sequence in that scene.

      I hope this helps and sways you back to my side. 😛

      • Skyler Aitken

        You might be accurate on the hobbit situation. I couldn’t find the exact part that was changed, but I was indeed referring to the riddle scene. And that priori incantatem mistake always bothered me, so I’m glad that was fixed.

        My new question for you Keith, is where do you stand with the new pottermore information being published in the back of the books (which I found out about thanks to mugglenet, so thanks to all of you)? It’s being published in the books, but it is not part of the story. And my other is if Rowling would have published her encyclopedia instead of making pottermore, how would you have approached that information in regard to cannon?

        I’m assuming you view neither of them as cannon, but I would be interested in hearing your take.

        • The new material being printed in the back of the Bloomsbury books is nothing more or less than what Tolkien did with his Appendices. They are additional information but, as you said, not part of the original text and therefore cannot be considered as canon.

          As for the Encyclopedia, it is exactly the same as Pottermore. Excellent reading material and certainly awesome for all of my trivia needs on the site, but outside of that, I will not allow the material to shape my reading of the original universe. Remember that as owner of the books, we, the readers, can choose whether or not we want to consider her additional material as determinative.

          Cheers! 🙂

          • Kat

            Well, actually, the information came from Pottermore, and since it fits the definition of what canon is, it is indeed canon.

          • Oh Katnip…we agree to disagree here. 🙂

          • MrSleepyHead

            Forgive me, but “the definition” is merely an interpretation of a cherry picked definition of many available. Wikipedia’s explanation of fictional canon is not the only explanation for what “canon” means in a work of fiction, nor is it concrete: most definitions center around the material as being “accepted,” “acknowledged,” “recognized” (even the original canon of the Bible is canon only because it was accepted by the Church, and there’s inherent bias in that acceptance). Therefore, there is inherent ambiguity in the definition cited in Part 1: canon is “the material accepted as part of the story.” Using that as a definition is uninformative, in my opinion, as this debate centers around what *is* accepted (and who is the authority to accept/recognize: in this discussion we make the assumption that it is the fans). So claiming that this definition supports your perspective is a circular argument: “the accepted material of the Potterverse is all published material by JKR, therefore all published material by JKR is canon.”

            I tend to accept canon more in vein with your interpretation, Kat, but comments like these do not – for me – support our arguments. =) Basing our arguments on a definition of canon that is ambiguous is purposeless and avoids the highly personal nature of canon, in my opinion.

  • Marissa

    We are constantly asking her for more explanations and stories and information and she is graciously giving it out. I think it is ungrateful to throw it aside as “nothing more than…fan fiction writing.” There is a major difference between “fan fic” and the actual author. Fans can only borrow ideas from what they already know before they expand upon them to make a new story. They have to use names and places already prepared for them as their basis. The author is their original creator and has all the specifics (revealed or not) in her head and is choosing to gradually share all of that with the fans who love her works and her world so much.

    I think my biggest issue with this is with the Pottermore argument. We live in an WIFI driven world now! We get out news, we stay in touch, and we share ideas all on a little device that fits in our pockets. JKR took advantage of that in a way that no other author before her has or was able to. You are comparing JKR to other authors (like Tolkien) who do/did not have the outlet to continue their story like Pottermore. It was created specifically to be a companion to the books by the author herself. She wants readers to know how characters became developed and how that impacted Harry’s story. Even though it didn’t make it into the seven core books, it still had a great deal of impact on how characters and places impacted Harry’s story. We just weren’t allowed to read it in the books because it wasn’t Harry’s personal journey.The fact that Pottermore gives her an a chance to sit and think and edit before going public makes a huge difference in whether we can consider it canon compared to some of the things she says off the cuff when being interviewed.

    Also, I think Kat’s (and my) biggest argument with our idea of “extended canon” is that it cannot contradict the original seven books. Those seven are the end-all-be-all to the canon discussion and trump everything else. But you have to be able to distinguish between the opinions and the story.

    • Your opinion is duly recognized Marissa and I choose to disagree with it. Fan fiction writers do not need to use previously created characters in their writings. If you have ever read fan fiction you will know that many writers create their own characters and just utilize the magical world that Rowling created; be it Hogwarts, the Ministry or whatever part of the world they want but they follow the magical rules and laws established by Rowling.

      Just because we have WiFi and the author has a method of sharing information doesn’t mean the canon argument has to change. I personally feel that once the books were published they become public property and I don’t want to have an author changing the meaning or method for which I enjoy the books. The Books belong to the readers!

      If you don’t think it changes the way we read the books, then tell me if you can possibly read the book series without thinking of some aspect of the additional information we have learned from Pottermore during your reading that you did not know when you first read the books. For example, when reading about Lupin and how he is a werewolf and bitten by Greyback, do you not envision Greyback attacking Lupin because of his father’s position at the Ministry? Or when Dumbledore is wearing his purple cloak with stars, you might think “How did I not see that the character was gay form the first time I read the story? How did I miss that?” These small instances mean that the additional information provided by the author altered the way we re-read the books now.

      Again, I know we disagree and guess what…that’s okay. It’s the beauty of fandom and the ongoing canon debate.

      • Marissa

        I don’t expect everyone to agree on this. I agree with the point that it is one of the reasons this fandom is beautiful. That we can all have our voices heard. I just wanted to comment that yes, what I call “extended canon” does change the way I read the book, but the way I red the books changes every time anyway. I will never get that same feeling back that I had the first time I read the books (which I think we all want back to some extent). But even every time after that I am always finding something new or thinking something else as I read. And it’s not always influenced by the extended canon. For instance, I just finished reading the first book recently and Harry had the dream where he saw Malfoy who turned into Snape. For the first time I made a connection here to the Death Eaters. That has nothing to do with extended canon at all, but my experience still changed. To me, the extended canon only enriches my reading and understanding of the characters and their actions.

        As a side note, I actually have read quite a few fan fics and listened to quite a few episodes of Audiofictions. But I feel that you just restated what I said. Sure, new characters and/or places can be created but there is still the foundation of the Wizarding World. For it to be fan fic there has to be an obvious link to the original work, otherwise it would just be another regular story. So, something (be it a character or a place) has to be borrowed. However, you cannot borrow what you already own and the author owns the idea of the world which they have the right to improve.

        • I love this Marissa.

          Yes, each time we re-read the series, we do learn something new just as you made the connection to the Death Eaters in that scene. That wasn’t influenced by Pottermore or outside of the original canon, that was a visual connection you made within the canon itself. The canon of Books 1-7 is a whole universe with tons of discussion points, and the extra stuff (while wonderful to read) is not necessary to add to the main text. We just like it because it’s fun.

          On your last point, I disagree wholeheartedly…she is borrowing it since the books are public property. They are my property and your property and every reader’s property. As one owner of the book series, I determine whether or not the additional material will influence my experience, she can’t force me to alter my reading unless she changes the original text like Tolkien did for The Hobbit (see a different discussion thread in this post).

          Please don’t take my arguments personal Marissa, they are my stron opinions on this subject and nothing more.

          • Marissa

            That is exactly why we are going back and forth so much. We both have strong and opposing opinions. But, you hit the nail on the head when you said “As one owner of the book series, I determine whether or not the additional material will influence my experience…” Doesn’t that basically wrap this discussion up? You choose to take the extra stuff and wave nicely at it and thank JKR for another story. I choose to take it as extended canon and incorporate it more heavily into my own reading experience and discussions.

            There it is again. The “choices” theme that we know so well in Potter.

          • Lisa

            I think the problem is that as long as one wants to be part of a community of fans, for the sake of discussion we have to reach some consensus about what canon is. Obviously in our heads we can ignore anything or define canon whichever way we want, but when discussing the books with other people it creates problems. For example, ever since the revelation that Dumbledore is gay, people have been unable to start discussions about other potential romantic involvement for Dumbledore because as soon as you want to discuss it, people start referring you to Rowling’s interviews. Same thing applies to Pottemore or whatever else she has mentioned, whether in writing or spoken. So it’s more complicated than just saying that people can do what they want/accept what they want.

          • Lisa, thanks for submitting your thoughts on the subject.

            This discrepancy of canon has existed for centuries and will continue in this fandom and many others for the reasons stated above. Academia is not even clear on this. While I have tons of support from leading Harry Potter academia Professors and scholars, I also have a few that disagree with me. Isn’t that right Professor Aaron? 😃

            No matter how you feel about this subject, it is always something one has to defend a decision on based on how they interpret the definition. Kat and I disagree on this subject with a passion, but I think we both respect each other and our opinions enough that it allows us to work so closely on a daily basis running the site without biting each other’s head off.

          • Agreed!


  • I agree with Keith and I’m shocked at how angry his argument makes people! To me, canon is the original texts (books 1-7) and material written by JKR after that, in any medium, is ‘canon-adjacent’ (a term I recently heard used on Pottermore). As I see it, books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, or Quidditch Through the Ages, are supplemental to the original story, as is anything new that has come out on Pottermore or via other media. I love everything that JKR writes (well, HP-related, anyway) and would consider myself a hardcore HP fan, but I do think that canon refers only to the seven-book story. But either way, I love the debate and how passionately people feel about their respective opinions. Yay fandom!

    • MrSleepyHead

      For me there’s no doubt that the companion books, Pottermore, and interviews are supplemental to Harry’s story, but why does that disqualify them from being a level of canon? If JKR’s supplemental information is more in line with fan fiction, why do we care at all what she says? Why not discount it as frivolity and immaterial if it is merely an interpretation of the world she created, just like ours’? If we read DH and wonder how goes the story of Babbitty Rabbitty that Ron references, would we consider JKR’s or ILUVHPOTTER127’s version more “accurate” and real? Certainly if someone is reading the seven books just as seven books and Harry’s story, they need not feel bounded by JKR’s supplemental information: the “book canon” gives freedom to invent one’s own version of Babbitty Rabbitty. But if one wants an answer, to know what Babbitty Rabbitty is really like why not trust the creator’s explanation even if it lay outside the series? I make the concession that this version is not at the same level as the series itself: it has not withstood the editing rigor or timeline of development or writing, but it comes from the creator who is most intimate with the world.

      I would liken this scenario to a woodworker – or some other ‘creator’: if I admired a table fashioned by J. K. Wooodworker and wondered what a chair would be like in that table’s world (i.e. as created by JKW at the same time, from the same wood, etc.), I could envision that chair or just look at the chair JKW actually created – albeit 5 years later but in the same style, out of the same tree’s wood, etc.). Yes, nothing prevents me from imagining the chair, but what makes the chair that was actually created less realistic? Sure, the woodworker’s style and skill may have changed slightly with time, but doesn’t the woodworker still give us the best representation of that chair? I may not hold it to the same level of work or expertise as the table, but I would consider it true to the style and ‘world’ – a continuation of the woodworker’s line of work, progressing from the table, to the chair, to the unknown. Pottermore, to me, is very similar – it is a progression of the world of Harry Potter. If you only cared about one part of the world you could limit your perspective (e.g. just the table), but if you wanted a more holistic outlook, you would look at the creator’s compendium of work on that world (e.g. the table and the chair). With Pottermore, I take some things with a grain of salt (I, like Keith, see the connection and possible motivations behind the Celestina Warbeck entry and current events), but in a world about which I am eager to know everything I do consider most of what JKR produces “factual” within the wizarding world – though always supplemental to the canon of the story.

      The whole idea of ‘canon’ is muddled, and I think a “universal canon” is more or less unachievable in the fandom since there are concessions that must be made from either side. As Keith says, what happens in the unlikely scenario that JKR loses her marbles and publishes something inconsistent with our interpretations of the book canon, though not inconsistent with her world (e.g. if in Book 8 Hermione has three Horcruxes, Luna loses her magic, dementors talk, and Harry begins to wrangle centaurs)? Do we embrace it, justify it (e.g. Hermione may have had a nasty divorce with Ron that’s caused her to lose her sanity, Luna becomes so depressed after not finding a Crumple-Horned Snorkack, dementors have probably been able to talk all along, etc.), or discount it? In which case, why discount this over McGonagall’s back story or coverage of the World Cup? This is why I see a tier system to canon, which checks the ‘power’ JKR has to dramatically change the world while acknowledging her supplemental information as the most likely and trusted resource.

      • Very well stated MrSleepyHead.

        As stated, I love the information and I think her writing is brilliant, but since it is not part of the original text I can (as I said) choose whether or not it is determinative as a reader and owner of the story.

        Love the wood working analogy, but here is the flaw that I see in your example. The chair is indeed made by JKW, but after a year, JKW sends me a stain and says I need to put this color on, then the following year sends me a new style arm rest for the chair, and so on and so on…each time changing or altering the original chair I loved. Now how do I feel about sitting in my chair. I would be writing to JKW saying “Please don’t meddle with my chair that I own anymore. If you have a suggestion on how to improve it, that’s fine, but don’e force me to change it.” Make sense? 🙂

        Thanks for the feedback!

    • Cheers! 🙂

  • Melissa D. Aaron

    I think it’s important to note that the material in Fantastic Beasts, Quidditch Through The Ages, and Beedle The Bard are closely inter-related with the seven books. It makes no sense at all to me to exclude them.

    • Anna

      I agree with many of Keith’s points but I also agree with you that published material by the author should be considered canon. I have discussed this matter on different forums with fans and we agreed that interviews cannot be canon as they are not a work of art, they have never been published in an artistic form (yet). However, both Pottermore and the companion books fit the definition of canon, as I see it. I’m interested in how Keith defines canon, sorry if it’s in the article and I just missed it. According to the definitions I’m familiar with, canon is the defined as the collected works of an author.

      • Hi Professor Aaron and Anna, thanks for your comments.

        As I stated in the article, the secondary published material is and always will be the grey area to this debate. Many people do consider it to be canon, but if one does consider it to be canon, it needs to be part of the Extended Universe and not confused with the authoritative canon of the main books. The problem for me considering these schoolbooks, Tales of Beedle the Bard, etc. is where do you stop? If you considered only published material, then you need the Marauders Prequel, the wizard cards, the Daily Prophets, etc. In my humble opinion, they are not canon, so I draw the line at a very determinative place….the books 1-7 from 1997-2007…Period!

  • Iain Walker

    As a minor niggle, the number of students at Hogwarts is not firmly established in the books, since we do not in fact know that the forty students in Harry’s year is representative, and there are plausible canon-consistent reasons for assuming it to be smaller than Hogwarts’ usual annual intake. Simply, the books are not consistent when it comes to information regarding student numbers (e.g., the spectators at the Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match in PoA add up to 800). The best one can do under those circumstances is make the most plausible estimate one can based on all the available data in the books, but you’re still going to find the occasional passage that simply doesn’t fit (I personally favour something closer to Rowling’s later, revised estimate of around 600, since 280 is simply too small given what we see of Hogwarts and Wizarding Britain as a whole over the course of the series).

    So two points:

    It’s unwise to label things as canon when they are either unsupported (or inconsistently supporting) by the source one is taking as canonical.

    And since the books themselves are not always self-consistent (albeit mainly in small background details like this), this rather undercuts any argument that Rowling’s interviews can be ignored from a canonical standpoint simply because they sometimes contain inconsistencies.

    (I may post a more general comment when I have time – I’m not entirely unsympathetic to your position, but I find your arguments in support of it uncompelling.)

    • Here is the canon proof of the number 280 from notes in the book:

      1) There are 20 broomsticks. Set up for the first flying lesson in PS/SS for Gryffindor and Slytherin students.

      2) In double class of Herbology with Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs, Prof. Sprout had 20 pairs of earmuffs in COS.

      3) In double potions with Gryffindor and Slytherin, there were 20 Cauldrons set up.

      4) Several times in the series, Harry saw hundreds of students in the Great Hall, the Quidditch Pitch, and the Dragon enclosure.

      5) The general quickness of Sorting new students each year. Like the time it took for McGonagall, Harry, and Hermione to have quick discussions and return to the Great Hall after the sorting was completed in POA.

      6) If it were indeed 1000 students, a sorting session would take a long time to sort 120-150 new students.

      7) Gryffindor dormitories: there are 5 beds in each level of the Gryffindor tower for boys (assuming girls is the same) and there is a floor for each year of students.

      Therefore, even though some of these points are more generalized than a specific number, I find it hard to believe that we never would have crossed paths with other students in Harry’s class if there were more than the 8 we know and the 10 we suspect (2 additional female Gryffindors that we never ran into based on her original notes from her website).

      This is where I believe there are roughly 280 students at Hogwarts. But to add the final proof, Rowling even admitted to the error in math when she stated 1000.

      We all make mistakes and when she is providing a verbal answer to a question in an interview or public event, even the brilliant Rowling will make an error or two when she is unable to research and formulate her response before giving it. Therefore, all verbal material is to be disregarded from consideration as stated in my argument.

      • Iain Walker

        I was hoping to avoid too much of a derail into the old “How many students at Hogwarts” argument, but since you’ve chosen to address that aspect of my comment in some detail, I’ll follow it up …

        Points 1-3 relate only to the number of students in Harry’s year, which we aren’t actually disagreeing over. As I’ve already pointed out, we have no reason to suppose that that year’s intake is typical in size, and plenty of in-universe reasons to suppose that as the generation born during the height of a war, it is likely to be smaller than Hogwarts’ normal annual intake. Consequently we cannot simply assume that multiplying the number of students in Harry’s year by seven gives us an accurate total for the school as a whole.

        Point 4 is inconclusive and could refer to any number between 200 and 900.

        Point 5 is suggestive, but still consistent with a higher student population if Hogwarts’ intake is still lower than normal by the time of PoA (although admittedly this is when you’d expect the post-war baby boom to kick in, and intake to start rising again). However, it’s not clear how much weight to put on this, since it seems that there isn’t enough time to plausibly Sort even forty students by the time Harry and Hermione get back to the Great Hall, and may simply be more a matter of Rowling trying to keep the narrative moving at the expense of realism. Much the same applies to the Sorting in later years – Rowling doesn’t need to draw it out and so she doesn’t. In any case, even granting this point, it’s just one piece of evidence, not conclusive in its own right, and so needs to be weighed against the rest.

        Point 6 is irrelevant since neither I nor anyone else was suggesting that Hogwarts has 1,000 students (apart from Rowling, briefly, before she realised this was too high). A normal intake of (say) 60-80 students is still manageable without the Sorting becoming completely unwieldy.

        Point 7 is pure speculation and not canon at all. We know that Harry’s dorm has five beds, because that’s the number of Gryffindor boys in his year. We don’t know the number of beds in the dorms for the other years, since we never see them (or indeed the girls’ dorm for Harry’s year) from the narrative POV, nor are we told the number of occupants in any of the other dorms. Also, remember that Harry et al share the exact same room from year to year. They don’t move to a different dorm when starting a new year – rather, the sign on the door to the previous year’s dorm changes from (e.g.) “First Year” to “Second Year” (as seen in CoS). So we don’t get to see the other dorm rooms in Gryffindor Tower at all. Ever.

        And yes, Rowling admitted that the 1,000 students figure was an error – and revised her estimate to more like 600, which is still greater than 280, but is more or less plausible if we assume Harry’s year to be smaller than normal, and also given the likely demographics of Wizarding Britain as a whole (as derived from other hints in the books). Actually, I suspect that this is more like the normal expected enrolement, and the actual total during Harry’s attendance would have been closer to 400-500 (again, due to the first war against Voldemort).

        So, as “canon proof” for a figure of 280 this simply won’t wash – at best this is canon evidence that there are approximately forty students in Harry’s year, and that there are an unspecified number of hundreds of students in total. But then I wasn’t disputing either of these points. Again, the evidence for student numbers at Hogwarts is vague and inconsistent, and the best you can hope for is an estimate based on all available evidence (and not just selective citations).

        As to your concluding point, the fact that sometimes Rowling makes mistakes in her verbal answers does not automatically invalidate all such answers. Some are off-the-cuff (and usually clearly so), while others (such as Dumbledore’s sexuality) are just as clearly thought out. It’s not impossible to establish independent criteria for canonicity and evaluate Rowling’s individual pronouncements accordingly. True, a blanket disregard for verbal pronouncements simplifies matters, and I’m not entirely committed to the idea of including them in canon. I just think your case for disregarding them isn’t particularly strong.

        • Iain Walker

          As an addendum to the above, re your Point 5. Rechecking the books, the descriptions of the Sorting in GoF and OotP emphasise how slow they are (e.g., “The Sorting continued … the line dwindling slowly as Professor McGonagall passed the ‘L’s.” – GoF, Ch12, p159, and “Slowly, the long line of first-years thinned.” – OotP, Ch11, p188) and how relieved everyone is when it’s all over and they can finally eat. And in HBP Harry misses the Sorting because he gets left behind on the train and then has to walk to the castle, which is portrayed as a lengthy journey (“Having always travelled there by carriage, Harry had never before appreciated just how far Hogwarts was from Hogsmeade Station. With great relief he finally saw the tall pillars on either side of the gates …” – HBP, Ch8, p151) and then he has to hang about to wait for Snape. All of which allows the Sorting he missed to be another fairly lengthy one.

          So your suggestion that the Sortings are typically quick is not only not supported by the books but actually contradicted by them. In fact the Sorting in PoA is an anomaly, since Harry and Hermione don’t seem to have been gone for much more than 15-20 minutes, which seems to imply an implausibly brief Sorting, especially as this also includes the time required for everyone else to be seated, the first-years to be gathered together, prepared for the Sorting and then led into the Hall. Leaving maybe 10 minutes to Sort around forty students? I don’t think so. In other words, the main example you cite turns out to be an oddity which doesn’t fit at all well with the Sortings that we actually get to see. To me, it looks like a miscalculation on Rowling’s part, or to be more charitable, a narrative shortcut to keep things moving (or possibly Hogwarts’ intake in PoA was a mere dozen students or so, but one would expect someone to have commented on that if this were the case). Either way, it’s not a good example to cite as a “canon proof” of anything, and so I withdraw my provisional acceptance of Point 5.

  • Alex

    this has nothing to with harry potter, but about your ‘star trek’ example to explain your view on canon. I was talking to my father about this article, and he told me that ‘tiberius’ is Kirk’s middle name and that it was in the original series, which he has watched countless times.

    • No it wasn’t. It was added from Star Trek: The Animated Series and then after it caught on by the fans, they placed it in a movie (which made it a canonized addition since the movies and television show are considered canon). In the original series with William Shattner, it was Captain James T. Kirk.


  • Theo1506

    In my opinion, it has all to do with the amount of influence these pieces of information, so well-called ‘canon-adjacent’, have over the Potter novels. These delicious bits help us to understand (sometimes with a different point of view) the true importance of the role some characters played in the plot, taking McGonagall’s and Lupin’s examples. In such cases, the way we read the stories is susceptible of being altered, and with she, after all, as the author, the term ‘canon’ might be applied. On the other hand, learning about the relevance of the Gobstones club in Hogwarts, or how the Hogwarts Express was built, is overwhelmingly satisfying and amusing, but, being product of the brilliance of an extremely talented, magical writer, it is also the result of a deep admiration, from Rowling, for the world she created. I’ll go with Keith on that one. But I mostly agree with Kat, calling it “beautifully arranged, perfectly written adjustments to the novel basis”. Believing and giving more credit to whatever Jo writes on Pottermore (which I consider as the 8th book, Harry Potter Encyclopaedia, whatever it was meant to be) than to any fan fiction.

    • Theo1506

      I’d also like to point out I don’t quite agree with all this concept of “once the author finishes writing, the work is no longer hers to adjust/complement”. What?! And my definition of “canon”, contrary to Keith’s (though I’m completely respect his and similar points of view), lies on the premise: “everything an author writes (and please note: writes!!!) about a specific fictional reality, fruit of his/her imagination, must be considered as truth in such scenario.”.

      • I understand I am in the vast majority on this subject when it comes to those who are reading this. I am dealing with passionate, hard core Harry Potter fans who all call J.K. Rowling their “Queen!” LOL…I have no shot at becoming the majority winner here, nor is it my intention.

        I only approach this discussion by removing my hard core fan hat, which I own in triplicate, to view the topic from an academic point. As I said many times, I love love love the information she writes and I hope it never stops because it’s fun and engaging! I just don’t believe in calling it canon material since it’s not in the books. Her original goal was to publish 7 stories on The Boy Who Lived. The rest is fan fare to keep the magic alive and give fans a “thank you” for being so loyal to her.

        • Theo1506

          Oh, I see… Indeed, apart from a fan perspective, we may conclude that Rowling might be failing to keep her original posture in what concerns the continuity of the series and consequently the canonical basis of the world she conceived. Good point, actually.

  • WatchStone

    I like how we all think so differently about this. Personnally, although I can understand Keith’s academic explanation of canon, I fail to see why that eplanation should trump the other just because it has been adopted in academia (or the majority of it–after all, nobody said that all experts everywhere with no exception). What Keith and colleagues agree on is logical for the purpose of scholarly discussion, in order to produce consistency in their work and know what they are discussing. However, the academic definition should stay in academia, it does not apply when it comes to general readership. It does not apply to real life when you consider that the author did not have the liberty to officially publish all of her work in the canon defined way.
    I don’t see any problem with discarding the obviously contradictory material when it appears. After all, thebooks themselves contain errors. And how do you justify accepting correction to her published work but not the extra? Why should you then take her word for it when she stated that she meant to publish Harry’s story in seven books when you don’t believe anything else she says? To come back to the ealier chair analogy, she would still be justified because she gave you no reason to believe that the chair was to remain in the original shape. If you don’t like it then you should look for another chair maker and accept that this chair is not for you.
    I have a question for Keith. What happens if in the future it is discovered that an author’s sequel book was kept hiden away from the public by her editor? Even after she had given her definite instruction that it should be published?

    • This is very well said and I agree with a lot of it (not all, but a lot)…so well done!

      To answer your question, I think I would need more information. If you are stating that JK Rowling penned a Harry Potter and the Mystery of the Editor novel as Harry Potter book 8 and it was not published because of an editor, then I’d be beyond upset. If there is any book 8 written as an extension of the Hogwarts canon, then it’s publishing would be added to the canon…no question. But if it never made it to print and public domain then how would we know about it’s authenticity?

      For the record, I am as anxious as anyone for the Encyclopedia, or “The Scottish Book.” But even when this information is released, it’s still not canon to me. It only adds to the amazing world she created, as stated above.

      • WatchStone

        But that is what I mean, isn’t it very restrictive to consider that print is the only way something becomes canon? Like I stated, canon as you describe is more for practical purposes than anything else.
        About the question, I was thinking of a scenario where she continued writing after DH and submitted the book to her editor only to disappear suddenly (say some near-apocalyptic event happened or whatever). Then we have a book that sits on some shelve for however many years until a fan stumbles on it. This fan, being very generous, scans it and publishes it online for free. The book is authentically JKR’s, and she had authorized its delivery, but it did not make its way to us in the conventional way. Very much like Pottermore.
        Now, according to your argument, it would not be canon even with the certainty that had the world not almost ended it was going to be published. After all, why take this to be canonical when you reject Pottermore? But why would you not take it as canon given the fact that it was to be published but ended up being released in an alternative manner instead?
        P.S. Fun speaking to you here. I like Mugglenet Academia very much.

  • Iain Walker

    There are times when adopting a minimalist approach to HP canon is very, very tempting (e.g., when looking up something on the Harry Potter Wiki and finding material from the books, films and video games all infuriatingly muddled up together). However, your arguments for canon-as-the-novels-only don’t seem to me to be overly compelling.

    So an unspecified proportion of academics in the relevant field hold to such a view? Okay, in an academic context it makes good sense to define one’s subject matter as unambiguously as one can, and limiting “canon” to the novels is certainly one way of doing that. However, Rowling was (and is) writing primarily for the enjoyment of a general readership, not just for academics to tease out insights from her work. So while restricting canon might make a certain pragmatic sense in academic contexts, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is reasonable to do so elsewhere.

    Your core argument seems to be that if we start including supplementary texts like “Fantastic Beasts” etc, then “where do we stop?” This is a clear case of the slippery slope fallacy, since although you give a few examples of Rowling’s somewhat debatable interview pronouncements, you give no actual reasons to suppose that any widening of the canonical net beyond the novels must needs be arbitrary. In fact, one can establish quite adequate, non-arbitrary criteria for canonicity beyond the novels, e.g.: Does the material come from the same creative source as the novels (i.e., from Rowling)? Is it intended by said source to be part of the same body of creative work as the novels? Does it in fact form a continuity with that body of creative work, i.e., by expanding upon it, answering questions etc. while maintaining the work’s internal consistency and cohesiveness?

    I’m sure this could be tightened up a bit, but it’s still a workable set of criteria that would include (e.g.) the supplemental books and the Pottermore exclusive content, but would exclude poorly thought-out off-the-cuff remarks like the student numbers comment you highlighted and would also exclude the much misquoted Wonderland interview (which consists of retrospective personal and metatextual musings and so is irrelevant to questions of canon anyway). Does it avoid grey areas or ambiguous cases? Of course not, because that’s never going to happen, but as long the criteria can sort canon from non-canon most of the time, that’s all you need.

    (On which note, even a novels-only approach to canon will have problems. Which versions are you going to use? For example, is it canonical that Marcus Flint is a 6th Year in Philosopher’s Stone? It is if you take the early versions. If you take the later reprints as canonical, with the error corrected, then he’s a 5th Year. Or does Dumbledore have a taste for sherbert lemons, as in the British editions, or lemon drops, as in the American? Because they aren’t the same thing at all.)

    So by all means restrict the HP canon to the novels if you find it useful to do so in an academic context. But I’m afraid you’ll need better arguments if you want to convince that this is the optimal approach in general.

  • GK

    Regarding how many students are attending Hogwarts: I think there have
    been several times in the books where there are hints to it being approximately
    1000 students at Hogwarts. I think one time they said something about it being
    30 Gryffindors in the classroom, and during one Quidditch match there is a
    sentence saying something like “the cheers from the 200 Slytherins”. But I
    agree that it doesn’t really make sense.

    Do you consider “Quidditch through the ages” as canon? I picked up the
    book in the store once but ended up not buying it. The reason was the comments
    from Harry/Ron/Hermione. I just thought it was very uncharacteristic for
    Hermione to taint a book by writing unimportant things all over it. (Though he
    rips out a page in a libaray book and writes “pipes” on it during CoS so maybe
    she would…)

    I also see the extra information as “just fantastic information that
    allows us to enhance our reading of the original text.” Think I’m still
    heading more to it being canon than you do, though.

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