On November 18, Harry Potter fans will have their first chance since 2011 to dip back into the the cinematic wizarding world of J.K. Rowling, with the first installment of the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy. That’s a five-year head start for world building and stoking the fires of fan interest. So why does it seem like Rowling is doing a half-baked rush job?
We know that the story follows British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) into the New York City of 1926, where danger and hilarity ensue thanks to the research he’s conducting for his book Fantastic Beasts. (This was inspired by the 128-page Hogwarts textbook of the same name published by Rowling in 2001 to raise money for charity.) In the meantime, Rowling has posted two new essays this year to the website Pottermore. “History of Magic in North America” and “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” fill in some of the blanks concerning North America’s magical development in her world, presumably with the goals of setting the stage for and creating buzz about the forthcoming films.
These essays don’t do Fantastic Beasts any favors. Rowling now stands accused of “cultural appropriation,” the unauthorized borrowing of elements from cultures other than one’s own. Headlines such as “What J.K. Rowling’s New Story Can Teach Us about Cultural Appropriation: Rowling messed up big time” (The Huffington Post), “J.K. Rowling Is Getting Major Backlash for Her Depiction of Native Americans” (BuzzFeed), and “Four Missed Opportunities and Problems with Pottermore’s Ilvermorny” (Entertainment Monthly) suggest that audience disappointment is not limited to a few overzealous nitpickers.
Cultural appropriation is an overused and often overinflated notion that has resulted in everything from students being expelled for wearing tiny sombreros at a party to Girls auteur Lena Dunham denouncing college cafeterias for serving inauthentic sushi. Novelist Lionel Shriver, in her pointed critique of the “fad” at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September, argued that “we fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats—including sombreros.” But she also notes that the “spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion.” These virtues are notably lacking in Rowling’s recent work. The trouble isn’t that Rowling is writing on a subject beyond her own personal experience; it’s that she’s doing a terrible job of it.
The controversy over appropriation is a symptom of a larger problem. Rowling simply doesn’t appreciate how much she doesn’t know about North America. The woman who created the wizarding world (as opposed to the wizarding nation) appears to believe that, because she knows Great Britain, she also knows the other side of the Atlantic. Her new writings, plagued by what seem to be unexamined colonialist and nationalist assumptions, prove otherwise. Rowling’s stumbles are particularly surprising and disappointing given that in her YouTube featurette “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A New Hero,” she proclaims that “people who feel set apart, stigmatized, or othered” are “at the heart of most of what I write.”
Where the Harry Potter series constantly subverted and reimagined the classic—but politically retrograde—British coming-of-age schooldays novels, Rowling’s new works on North America underscore her intellectual and imaginative blind spots, slapping vaguely American Indian window dressing on an otherwise unchanged Hogwarts-style institution, ignoring or running roughshod over both the continent’s politically charged and sometimes tragic past and its complex and multi-layered present, and utterly failing North American History 101 in the bargain.
In short, it’s clear that this time the real-life Hermione Granger didn’t do her homework.
Indians at Ilvermorny
Any fan of the Harry Potter franchise will tell you that the books and films agree: Harry’s fellow wizards and witches inhabit all corners of our globe. But until recently, Rowling had allowed us only tantalizing glimpses of her vision of magic across the pond. In the novel Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry and his friends see representatives of The Salem Witches’ Institute attending the Quidditch World Cup; in the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), Harry notes that Professor Dumbledore’s mother may have been Native American. For years, Rowling has left the rest of the details of North American witchcraft and wizardry to our individual Muggle imaginations. Perhaps they should have stayed there.
Founded by Irish witch Isolt Sayre, who came to the continent disguised as a man on the Mayflower, and her Muggle husband and adopted wizard sons, the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry eventually takes the form of a European-style castle—after all, there is no American style of castle—on top of the highest peak of Mount Greylock in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. Carvings in the castle’s entrance hall fill the role of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, placing students in one of four houses. Those selected by more than one house do get to choose, but this hardly represents an innovative departure from the Hogwarts process. (Remember that the Sorting Hat took Harry’s “not Slytherin” choice to heart when making him a Gryffindor.)
What, if anything, is American about Ilvermorny? Only the most superficial elements. Take the four school houses. Each of the members of Isolt’s family names a house in the new school. Somehow, despite the fact that these four white people have never set foot outside what is now Massachusetts, they choose names related to the mythology of different Native American cultures from across half the continent: Pukwudgie (Rowling shamelessly casts one of these creatures from Wampanoag tradition in an uncomfortably Squanto-esque role in Isolt’s personal story), Wampus (from the Cherokees), Thunderbird (presumably from the Algonquin peoples), and Horned Serpent (presumably from the Muscogees). The attributions are mine; Rowling, who takes pains to differentiate between the populations of Europe and even the U.K., tends to collapse all Native American nations into one monolithic whole.
“So it’s a school in the mold of British Hogwarts, but the house names are taken from Native Americans,” notes Katharine Trendacosta at io9, “this is practically the platonic ideal of cultural appropriation.” Rowling’s choice to rip the beliefs of contemporary living peoples from their contexts for her storytelling convenience becomes even more problematic when you realize that she fails to include any actual indigenous human characters in the school’s backstory.
The Ilvermorny tale comes three months after Rowling’s earlier “History of Magic in North America” drew vocal criticism for explaining away the Navajo concept of skinwalkers, dangerous shape-shifters who play an ongoing part in Navajo faith, in terms of her own magical Animagi who were stigmatized by jealous and deceitful medicine men. “Native spirituality and religions are not fantasy on the same level as wizards. These beliefs are alive,” Cherokee scholar Adrienne Keene explained on her blog Native Appropriations. “We fight so hard every single day as Native peoples to be seen as contemporary, real, full, and complete human beings and to push away from the stereotypes that restrict us in stock categories of mystical-connected-to-nature-shamans or violent-savage-warriors.…when you’re invisible, every representation matters. And the weight and impact of the Harry Potter brand can’t be ignored.”
If Rowling had made her narrative choices with informed thoughtfulness, if she had done her homework, she might have gone a long way toward bringing attention to populations historically “set apart, stigmatized, or othered”—attention that could have political and social ramifications as Native nations continue to seek self-determination and autonomy in both the U.S. and Canada. A distinctly American magical culture respectfully informed and inspired by real traditions could have helped Rowling build a compelling new part of her beloved wizarding world. Instead, she shoved some stereotypes into European-shaped boxes and declared it a job well done.
Harry Potter’s Schooldays
This messy pastiche is all the more painful because we have seen what Rowling can do when she is working with a full deck. The original seven Harry Potter novels and their eight film adaptations offer audiences a Western cultural literary primer. Here we have the familiar hero’s journey and coming-of-age tale, grounded in multiple traditions of storytelling, knowledgeably drawn from classical mythology, Arthurian romance, Gothic horror, alchemical literature, social satire, detective fiction, history, etc. But if more than a decade of teaching undergraduate and graduate university courses dedicated to Harry Potter has taught me anything, it’s that to appreciate the original Harry Potter saga fully, we first must understand its primary model and frame of reference: the British schooldays story.
This story makes perfect sense as Rowling’s template, geographically and culturally speaking, because Harry Potter is British, and he attends Hogwarts, a school in Scotland that accepts magical students from Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland. To many in Rowling’s home audience, the British schooldays story—a genre that, mirroring the middle-class boarding-school experience itself, flourished from 1857 to 1940 and boasted such classics as Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes and Eric by Dean Frederic W. Farrar—no doubt strikes a very familiar chord.
For non-British readers and viewers, however, discovering the British schooldays genre is like solving the riddle that unlocks the hidden language of the Harry Potter saga. The genre’s major themes are staples in the Harry Potter tales. School is the world in miniature, and what happens in the sports arena (in this case, on the Hogwarts Quidditch field) serves as a dress rehearsal for politics, war, and the tests of leadership. Like life, school is full of moral dilemmas, conflicting loyalties, unfairness, and hard knocks, and we have to learn for ourselves how to distinguish between right and wrong and how to rise up through the ranks. Most of all, our choices make us what we are, and we must accept responsibility for the actions we take.
The British schooldays story is an inherently political one. The actual British boarding school experience provided training for middle-class bureaucrats in the Age of Empire. As scholar James Gunn points out in his essay “Harry Potter as Schooldays Novel,” readers had need of both therapy and rationalization for this system: “By condemning young boys to spend their childhoods among strangers, the system better prepared them to serve the Empire for decades in foreign climes.…Those for whom the process succeeded went abroad in service to the Empire, married late (if at all), and sent their children back to England at an early age to undergo the same experience.” The schooldays story provided a reassuring blueprint for success in this system while reinforcing the values (both overt and unexamined) supporting it.
One of Rowling’s strokes of subversive genius in the original Harry Potter works, then, was to employ a storytelling model that had enabled the British Empire in order to relate a saga that is vehemently anti-imperial. Harry ultimately triumphs over the most obvious would-be monarch seeking to expand his realm, Lord Voldemort, but in every tale Rowling critiques the ongoing prejudice, ignorance, and greed that leads one group to impose its authority on another, often projecting British and European history backward into her fictive universe in order to drive the point home.
Her stories depict the plight of the half-bloods under pure-blood domination; the second-class citizenship endured by magical creatures such as werewolves and goblins, not to mention the servitude of house-elves, under a system maintained by the Ministry of Magic; and even the forced removal and near genocide suffered by the giants at the hands of witches and wizards. Again and again, Rowling’s work argues for tolerance and mutual respect, self-determination and autonomy, empowerment and freedom.
Thus it comes as an unwelcome surprise that her new essays bear the unmistakable imprint of at best a failure of due diligence and at worst colonialism. Most of Rowling’s depiction of magical North America is merely magical Britain 2.0, and she either erases or appropriates everything else. An odd nostalgia permeates her writings, as if Brexit-era Rowling is trying to recapture the safety and stability of the now-lost British Empire.
The White Wizard’s Burden
When she turned her eyes across the Atlantic, Rowling might have turned the narrative on its head, as she did with the subversive anti-imperial content she poured into a pro-Empire mold. Instead, without a sense of irony (and with a grossly outdated sensibility), Rowling’s Ilvermorny reduces Native American symbols to—you guessed it—mascots.
Ilvermorny, we are told in “History of Magic in North America” and “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” both draws its house names from Native traditions and also educates American Indian students. Prior to European colonization of North America, Rowling says, indigenous witches and wizards were Noble Savage–like: “gifted in animal and plant magic” but utterly ignorant of the technology of wands or the organization for wizarding law enforcement. Apparently the White Man’s Burden is for magical folk, too.
For Hogwarts, Rowling retells the historical British middle-class boarding school experience as memorialized in the British schooldays tale inside her magical world to produce an authentic and well-grounded backstory. That same experience was not widespread for North America’s Muggles, though, and there is no reason to think it would have been widespread among witches and wizards, either. Rowling’s other European wizarding schools reflect their respective national histories and identities, but Ilvermorny does not. She ignores the one crucial boarding school experience unique to North America, and thus not only runs roughshod over a difficult and still all-too-relevant subject, but also completely misses one of the awareness-raising, teachable moments for which she otherwise is justly known.
The North American residential school system began as an idea in 1869, with President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Peace Policy,” and became practice in 1879, when U.S. Army officer Richard Henry Pratt established the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at a former military installation in Pennsylvania. The goal of the school—and the hundreds it inspired, including some managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and others maintained by religious organizations across the U.S.—was assimilation. “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Pratt pronounced in 1892. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Canada quickly adopted this same system. “Killing the Indian” in both countries meant separating Native American children from their families and stripping them of not only their clothes and hair but also their languages, histories, and personal names—a fact that renders Isolt’s imposition of the Anglo name “William” on a Native Pukwudgie in Rowling’s Ilvermorny tale particularly difficult to stomach.
After years in a severe boot-camp-like atmosphere, those residential students who survived—disease, neglect, and abuse claimed appalling numbers of lives—found themselves strangers in a strange land; they could read and write in English, show outward adherence to some form of Christianity, and demonstrate all the skills necessary for passing into urban manual labor markets, but many had lost the ability to converse with their relatives in their native tongues or integrate into their peoples’ more rural economies. None could reclaim years of lost nurture in their original home communities and family settings.
This history is not part of the distant past. The Indian Boarding School system existed into the 1980s, well within living memory. Many survivors and their families currently seek to document what occurred under this system, creating groups like the Boarding School Healing Project, documentary films such as Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools (2008) and We Were Children (2012), and dramatic films inspired by true events such as Where the Spirit Lives (1989) and Older Than America (2008).
Furthermore, the governments of both Canada and the U.S. recognize the failure of this system. On June 11, 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal Statement of Apology to former students of its Indian Residential Schools: “To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes,” it read. “We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions.…We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled.…The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.” A year later, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law an Apology to Native Peoples of the United States.
Rowling inherited the British boarding school legacy and its literature, and from those ingredients created a new and subversive story; she likewise had the North American boarding school legacy to work with—or at least to acknowledge—when devising a magical history for the North American continent. This presented a chance for the former Amnesty International employee and current human rights activist to shine a light on a subject still affecting lives while also addressing themes at the heart of her past books. By altogether ignoring the tragic history of American Indian boarding schools and their ongoing effects, Rowling not only misses a tremendous opportunity to enlighten her audience—she also reduces Native America to a cardboard set piece decorating what is not a truly American tale but instead merely a rehashed British one.
Other actors on the North American stage receive equally wince-worthy treatment in Rowling’s essays. On the one hand, slaves and free people of African descent are absent from “History of Magic in North America.” On the other, Rowling tackles segregation—using that very term—in the essay through a very problematic metaphor: the separation of Muggles (known by the less colorful and more practical “No-Maj” on this continent) and magical peoples.
According to Rowling, this segregation became nationwide practice with Rappaport’s Law (in effect from 1790 to 1965), which drove American witches and wizards underground and “further entrenched the major cultural difference between the American wizarding community and that of Europe.” Readers learn that the law came into being because one silly and love-struck witch, who was “dim as she was pretty” (Seriously? Is this the same writer who created heroines such as Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, and Minerva McGonagall?), outed the entire wizarding world to her sweetheart with unforeseen results.
Trivializing the roots of segregation and then implying that the law served a legitimate purpose by protecting the wizarding community—”the leak had been so serious that the after-effects would be felt for years”—undermines the metaphor completely. Adding the deadly violence of wizard-hunting Scourers to the mix ratchets up the discomfort factor another notch. Why Rowling handles serious and sensitive—and, more to the point, still politically unresolved—North American topics so cavalierly in these new essays is unclear.
Two essays cannot compete in terms of world building and storytelling with seven doorstop-sized novels. That said, in the past Rowling has proven skilled at showcasing the depth and sophistication of her creative vision with admirable brevity. Just think of how she unveils her magical world in just a few paragraphs in the Chocolate Frog card sequence of the first Harry Potter novel, weaving together real history (Agrippa, Paracelsus), legend and myth (Morgana, Cliodna), and original creations (Alberic Grunnion, Albus Dumbledore). Such name-dropping scenes effectively invite audience members to follow Rowling’s trail of literary breadcrumbs on their own. It’s only natural that fans assumed her portrayal of North America and its school of witchcraft and wizardry would be built on equally well-informed and enticing foundations.
On the contrary, Rowling gives us very little to research or explore. “We were simply shocked it wasn’t more well done—that it wasn’t more careful,” one of the hosts of the fan podcast MuggleCast said in episode 292, “because J.K. Rowling to us, to our minds, has a lot of care for…using things in her world that have previously existed. It just seemed forced, rushed, blunt, and painful so far.”
Rowling’s North America does indeed appear thin, short on specifics, and surprisingly poorly researched. For instance, according to “History of Magic in North America,” after the Salem witch trials, the wizarding community formed MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, in 1693—nearly a century before there even was a United States of America! On a similar note, in “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” Isolt’s adopted son marries a “Mexican Healer” well over a century before Mexico gained its independence. Rowling’s shaky grip on North American geography routinely trips up her essays, and she asserts that Ilvermorny is the “most democratic, least elitist of all the great wizarding schools” without ever explaining how this translates into practice.
Rowling’s U.S. apparently had no slavery, no Removal Era, and no Civil War. And she misses ideas as much as events; for example, she apparently sees no contradiction in the notion that a culture historically protective of the right to bear arms would spawn a parallel wizarding community that would embrace mandatory wand registration as early as the 19th century. The list could go on and on.
In another article at io9, Trendacosta summed up the problem as many see it: “Creating a second history for an existing place that is not your own is not easy. It requires a lot of research. Research Rowling clearly didn’t do.”
And why not, after the years of exhaustive work she devoted to her Harry Potter series? Why, when she has proven repeatedly willing to stand up for those who lack her public visibility and wide-reaching voice, would she ignore some groups in North America and perpetuate stereotypes about others? Why, after subverting the narrative of empire in the Harry Potter series, does she write as if North America were nothing more than a second Britain? Why set her new film in a place she does not—and seemingly cannot be bothered to—understand?
Other British authors have bridged “the Pond,” literally and figuratively, to wrestle with the unique heritage and soul of North America, and done so with success. Just read Neil Gaiman’s Hugo and Nebula Award–winning American Gods—an imaginative portrayal of the struggle between the country’s old gods (both indigenous and imported) and new gods (born of modernity and technology)—if you don’t believe me.
Perhaps Rowling is unaware of her own unexamined nationalistic assumptions, and the limitations they impose on her creativity. Perhaps she has too many commercial irons in the fire (including the current production and publication of a two-part play, the generally well-received The Cursed Child) to conduct needed investigation into this subject. Or perhaps, deep down, she simply wants to return to Hogwarts and, like her character Isolt, she’s trying to recreate it in a New World. But as any student of history (or a handy copy of Alexis de Tocqueville’s work) can tell her, transformations occur when people, institutions, and ideas are exported across the Atlantic, and even then those transplants make up only part of the continent’s story.
We can only hope that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them reflects a broader vision than its myopic introductory texts. In the meantime, Rowling hardly can cry foul at these complaints. The high standard to which audiences hold her is one she set herself.
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