“What Is Canon?” – Part 1: It’s All in J.K. Rowling’s Head

Since the release of the last Harry Potter novel and the invention of Pottermore, there has been a great debate bubbling and brewing within the Harry Potter fandom: canon – and what exactly it envelopes. J.K. Rowling continues to entice the media (ridiculously so – but that’s another topic) with “short stories” that take place within the wizarding world. Since Harry Potter is a large part of our lives, we at MuggleNet find ourselves discussing the topic often. It always seems to creep into the conversation. So we decided to argue both sides of the coin and then let you decide for yourself.

NOTE: This editorial is debating canon of the written word only. The films are a completely separate entity and will not be discussed at this time.

Before we can delve into the answer of “What Is Canon?”, we must first take a closer look at how “canon” is defined. According to Wikipedia…

In fiction, canon is the material accepted as part of the story in an individual fictional universe. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction.

This is, of course, the modern definition of the word. By this definition, in my opinion, anything written by an author that is accepted by the readers as true, is canon. It doesn’t directly mention published works or novels, just that the material be a part of the story and take place in the individual fictional universe. So basically, anything that comes from J.K. Rowling, takes place in the Harry Potter universe, and doesn’t completely alter what she already wrote (IE: Lily’s eyes are suddenly blue), is canon. Right? Right – at least, I think so.

I think we can all agree on the fact that the seven Harry Potter novels – the first stories from Jo’s world, the timeline of stories that all other stories are based off of – are the base canon. This is undebateable. However, one has to consider the other published works by J.K. Rowling that also take place in the wizarding world – Tales of Beedle the Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages. Are these less worthy of being canon simply because they weren’t in the original seven Harry Potter novels? I say no, they aren’t. In my eyes, they’re extended canon, meant to enrich the universe yet with absolutely no bearing on the original Potter novels. They are accepted to be true by readers, take place in the Potter universe, and don’t alter anything that J.K. Rowling had previously written (let’s ignore continuity errors because honestly, no one is perfect – not even the Queen herself!). Therefore, using the definition above, in my interpretation of that definition, those books are canon.

Now let’s move on to the website that everyone loves to hate: Pottermore. I am actually a big fan of Pottermore. I got into beta on the first day, have made thousands of points worth of potions, and have 100% on every single moment. I love the artwork, listening to Jim Dale reads bits from the novels, and of course, the new, exclusive information from J.K Rowling. Sometimes it is backstory on our favorite characters, (McGonagall, Lupin), or it’s bits about activities in the wizarding world (Gobstones, colors), or even expansions on the history of the universe, such as the information on Durmstrang, Beauxbatons, and other wizarding schools. We have even been given eyes into an entire Quidditch World Cup tournament, penned by Rowling through the voices of Ginny Potter & Rita Skeeter, thanks to Pottermore. Yet, this information is, more often than not, what is brought up when conversations turn to the canon debate. So is it canon?

Let’s examine the information using the lens of the definition above. Does the information take place in the individual fictional universe? Yes. Is it generally accepted by readers as being true? Yes. Does it alter anything J.K. Rowling has written in the past? No. So by definition, since it meets the three criteria set forth in my interpretation, I guess that means this information is canon – extended, but still canon.

The idea for this article has been brewing for a while but was prompted into fruition by our managing editor, Keith Hawk, who responded to the new Celestina Warbeck information listed yesterday on Pottermore, saying that anything outside of the Harry Potter novels, the seven-volume series, was “fan fiction” and that it’s NOT CANON, so please don’t treat it as such.” This started a debate that involved many friends and MuggleNet staff members alike. I would like to add to my evidence a few of their points. I take no credit for the thoughts, just the words written below.

How can it be fan fiction if J.K. Rowling has written it? She is not a fan but the author. This is a totally, completely valid point. Sure, J.K. Rowling may be a fan of her own work (who would blame her?), but she is, first and foremost, the author. Author trumps fan, and therefore, anything outside the Harry Potter novels that is written by Jo cannot be fan fiction.

The Harry Potter novels were written from Harry’s point of view and were heavily edited. J.K. Rowling has said that there are entire subplots and backstories that had to be cut for the sake of the story, length, or at her editor’s advice. One could argue that because it never made it into the series, or because Harry didn’t see it firsthand, that it isn’t canon. But what if it had made it into the series? Would it then suddenly be canon? Does the fact that J.K. Rowling stated, after the novels were complete, that Dumbledore is gay, make it not so? That is a piece of information on a central character in the series. J.K. Rowling didn’t put it into the novels for reasons only she can know, but that doesn’t make it less important – or less true, or less real.

It is widely believed that in the academic world the majority of fans of the Harry Potter novels subscribe to the “books only” canon theory. During yesterday’s debate, I had a chat with Marissa, Hogwarts Radio host and grad student at University of Arkansas, who added this fuel to the fire:

I like to consider myself an academic type of person. I am a year into work on my Doctorate in Analytical Chemistry. Just try [to] tell me that’s not academic! It’s not anywhere near fiction, but I feel that I can think and discuss on the same intellectual level as the people who study literature, history, biology, rocket science, fine arts, and everything else. With that said, I don’t believe you have to be an ‘academic’ to discuss these things. As long as you truly know what you are talking about and can argue valid points, then your opinion can carry some weight. 

So how do I view canon? There is a realm of canon with subcategories that hold it all up. There is book canon, which is universally held as the ‘head canon,’ [and] there is movie canon, which is sometimes too frustrating to discuss. The part that gets people is what we call the ‘extended canon’ that Kat explained. The usual problem with this is new media (Pottermore being the perfect example). JKR has totally taken advantage of this! And why not? She loves the wizarding world just as much (if not more) than we do. It’s her brainchild! Why can’t she share every aspect of that with us? It helps round out the world she created. The same world we all crave to live in. Her backstories helped her create the books we love. They influenced the characters we connect with and the ‘canon’  wouldn’t be the same without it.

Marissa has a very good point here. What would the Harry Potter novels look like without that background information? Without all the bits and bobbles that are inside of Jo’s head? The backstories, histories, extras – they are what make the stories rich, detailed, and able to be debated for years after completion – and for many years to come. They are backbone of the novels, the seven-volume series, so how can we discount them from the canon?

Whether you consider yourself an academic, a mega fan, or a casual reader, the issue of “What Is Canon?” is likely here to stay. In my opinion, as long as the content is written by J.K. Rowling, takes place in her wizarding world, can be accepted as truth, and doesn’t directly contradict anything included in the Harry Potter series, it’s canon. If she comes out and tells the world that Harry had a dream about a dancing chocolate bar after a particularly gruesome Dementor attack, then I say hurrah! I look forward to reading about whether it was milk or dark. Bring it on, Jo.

Part 2: The books or not the books – that is the question

Kat Miller

I am a 40-something Ravenclaw/Slytherin from Massachusetts. I've been lucky in life and can attribute a lot of that to Harry Potter. Without it, I wouldn't have at least 80% of the things I do today, including my career & closest friends. I truly despise Sirius Black.