The Cursed Canon Conundrum
I have waited to chime in on the canon debate because I needed time to collect my thoughts on Cursed Child. But now I have, and reached a rather depressing conclusion: [W]e may never agree on a universal canon again. But because there have been so many impassioned arguments all over the spectrum, I’m going to take most of this essay to outline the debate as it currently stands before throwing in my two cents at the end.
Before I launch into it, I think it’s worthwhile to take a step back and address a rather intriguing point that was brought up in a comment thread: [W]hy do we care about defining canon? Is all this angsting for naught? The answer: [W]e need it to inform all further discourse on the series. Analysis of the Harry Potter books has always incorporated apocryphal material to help us better understand it, and analysis of the books is one of the bedrocks of the fandom. How can we have fulfilling discussions if we can’t agree on what we’re discussing? That’s why the question of canon is such a touchy one… and why Cursed Child may actually have a dampening effect on book discussion instead of revitalizing it.
The issue of Cursed Child is that it does not fit on the linear spectrum of what is accepted as canon. Prior to Cursed Child, it was easy to map HP fans somewhere on the canon spectrum. On one side, you have the extreme canon minimalists (as exemplified by Keith Hawk), who acknowledge only the seven books and nothing else as canon. On the other side, you have the extreme canon maximalists (as exemplified by the HP Wiki), who accept literally everything ever associated with Harry as canon, even including the movies.
Most fans fell between these extremes – even the minimalists acknowledged Fantastic Beasts, Quidditch Through the Ages, and Beedle the Bard as canon; even the maximalists disregarded the films. Between the two, there was the apocrypha – additional material that was accepted as canonical unless it contradicted what was found in the books themselves. This included the James/Sirius short story, the Black Family Tree, Pottermore, Rowling’s interviews, the video games, and even the theme park. If one compiled all this apocrypha, as I have, it comes out to about a quarter million words, roughly the length of Order of the Phoenix.
It was then a question of how far one delved into the apocrypha before disregarding the source as canon, and that was the primary debate before this year. Do we accept Rowling’s interviews? Do we accept writing on Pottermore? But because there was a fairly clear hierarchy, it was still possible to debate. (For example, few people who accept Rowling’s interviews as canon would disregard the Black Family Tree.) And because Rowling was so meticulous, it was possible to create a definitive canon even for the maximalists – this is where the HP Lexicon’s role came in, to reconcile all the apocrypha into something that made sense.
The cracks in the system began to show this year, when the quality of Rowling’s writing on Pottermore plummeted. While I’ve never been a big advocate of her writing on Pottermore to begin with, given that even the earliest entries had continuity errors, it was mostly nitpicks that could be overlooked. But the last two pieces – “History of Magic in North America” and the history of Ilvermorny – were problematic on a whole other level. Both in terms of continuity and for a whole host of other reasons that more qualified voices have spoken to, they weren’t up to snuff. But this did not blow the canon debate wide open because Pottermore was still on the linear spectrum of apocrypha – fans could just move in a minimalist direction if they so chose, and that was that.
This all brings us to the most cataclysmic event to happen to Potter canon in recent memory: the release of Cursed Child. The entire problem facing the fandom is that Cursed Child does not fall on that linear spectrum – we cannot collectively agree whether it’s more or less legitimate than Pottermore or than Rowling’s interviews. The degree to which fans accept Cursed Child is a wholly independent axis, having almost no correlation to their positions on the rest of canon. So while most minimalists can comfortably reject it, and the maximalists will accept it, the rest of us are at a loss and each making individual decisions on whether or not to accept Cursed Child.
The factors going into the decisions are myriad. First, there’s the perceived quality of Cursed Child. My evidence may be anecdotal, but among both the fansites I frequent and the NYC fandom, the majority of fans consider Cursed Child to be somewhere between “okay” and “a complete affront to my childhood, literature, and theatre everywhere.” I fall somewhere in the middle of that (which is quite novel for me, I’m used to having the extreme controversial opinions!). So with apologies to those who did like it, there’s the simple consideration of most people not wanting Cursed Child to be canon.
We then get into the issue of what matters more – what fans want or what Rowling wants. This is where the arguments tend to turn ugly since it becomes a question of whether Cursed Child is canon regardless of whether it should be. And there are certainly arguments to be made on both sides about entitlement and so forth. One commenter made the distinction between “official canon” (what Jo says) and “our canon” (what we accept as such). This then devolves into a debate over terminology and semantics that is very rarely fruitful. Essentially, is “official canon” merely canon and everything else is “headcanon,” or is “official canon” just Jo’s “headcanon” and no more legitimate than anyone else’s?
The issue is that the very term “canon,” once a very useful catch-all for the wizarding world, has not been used in enough contexts for there to be an agreed-upon definition.
1) If going by the Oz books, everything published by the same publisher is considered canon (a point that is being contended in that fandom nearly a century later). This creates a wholly inconsistent world, much as it did for Oz, which seems to defeat the very purpose of having a canon.
2) Going by other definitions, canon is everything written by the creator. This opens up a further can of worms, because while Jo officially co-wrote Cursed Child, very little of the script seems like it was actually written by her. This seems to be the final stand of many in the Not Canon camp – Jo slapping her name on something does not legitimize it as canon. (And if you disagree, then what about the movies, which were also ostensibly done with Jo’s blessing?)
3) The third definition is everything officially licensed, which many Star Wars fans point to opening up a whole Expanded Universe concept in canon that creates different tiers of canon. This seems to be as close to a consensus as anyone is likely to go, but for now no one is exactly moving toward compromise on this. It’s similar to comic books, where one has different realities, and we can just say Cursed Child happens on Earth-2.
Compounding the difficulty of discourse is a whole host of other terms people throw around that are similarly ill-defined. Chief among these is the accusation that Cursed Child is “fan fiction.” Sometimes this is used in a derogatory way; to be fair, there is a heavy use of tropes in Cursed Child very reminiscent of fan fiction. And since Cursed Child is fiction written by a fan (Jack Thorne), it is the textbook definition of fan fiction. However, does officially sanctioned fan fiction become an oxymoron?
Finally, there is our version of “why can’t we all just get along?” – why can’t we decide that Cursed Child is apocrypha and try to reconcile it with canon as best we can? Because Cursed Child is too drastically inconsistent with the established canon to easily reconcile. Sure, people are trying – Steve and the other fine folk at the Lexicon are trying to make sense of Cursed Child in as discerning a way as possible.
This is not like Pottermore or interviews, where it’s a small thing we can brush aside. Cursed Child fundamentally contradicts the laws of magic (time travel, Transfiguration, Fidelius Charm), history as it happened (Delphi’s existence), the themes of the books (Delphi’s existence), and the characterizations from the books (Ron, most glaringly). I feel that we could spend days twisting ourselves into pretzels to make sense of it, but when every fundamental of the established canon is disregarded, then why bother? Sure, we could take Albus and Scorpius’s characterizations as canonical, but does it make sense when they’re surrounded by nonsense?
So that is the canon debate as I understand it. There’s no right answer here, and it appears that our discourse will forevermore come with disclaimers on what we acknowledge as canon. What’s interesting is that Cursed Child seems to have created a bit of a migration toward being canon minimalists among some fans. Where once there were fans who accepted everything from Rowling as apocrypha, there now are fans who are thinking critically about what they will accept into their canon… and that is even being applied retroactively to other apocrypha.
As for me personally, I view Cursed Child as an average-quality fan fiction and do not acknowledge it as canon. In fact, I came to that realization about fifty pages in and found that quite improved my enjoyment of the story (at least until the disastrous fourth act – I cannot get past Delphi). I pay it no more mind than I would a fan fic – I read it, I got some entertainment value out of it, and then I moved on and forgot about it. I think this is why I regard the script with much more equanimity than many fellow fans.
And just think, we can go through this debate all over again come November, with Fantastic Beasts!