“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,
Books belong to their readers.
— John Green (@realjohngreen) February 2, 2014
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.