Fantastic Beasts & Harry Potter: What Have We Learned From J.K. Rowling’s New Stories?

Rowling's stories give context to Fantastic Beasts, but are less successful in their grasp on American history or contemporary culture.

It can be easy to overestimate the similarities between British and American cultures. After all, we both speak the same language (more or less). We are both western democratic superpowers with imperialist tendencies. We both love Doctor Who.

However, if J.K. Rowling’s release of four short stories concerning the history of magic in America has shed light on anything, it’s not so much the evolution of the magical community in North America as the fact that anyone who hopes to write responsibly about the troubled, complicated history of America needs to do it with care, lots of research, and an understanding that the atrocites of America’s past inform the systemic injustices of America’s present. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in Rowling’s stories…

The lack of finesse and research that seemed to go into the contruction of these four short stories, released via Pottermore over the past week, reflects their narrow purpose: as stage-setters for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first film in the Harry Potterspinoff trilogy, set to be released in November. These stories are not meant to be consumed on their own, but as background for the magical world of 1926 New York City that will be explored in the film — and that specific purpose shows in problematic ways.

Rowling casts a wide, ambitious scope in the four informational stories — starting with the state of the magical community in the Americas of the 14th century, and eventually bringing the reader up to American wizarding culture circa 1926. That’s a lot of complicated, ugly history to tell, and Rowling tries to do so by focusing specifically on the evolution of the tensions between the magical and No-Maj (slang for Muggle in American English) communities. Unfortuntately, Rowling seems to be ignorant of some big, problematic aspects of American history and present-day culture.

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The appropriation of native cultures.

Rowling’s first story, “Fourteenth-Seventeenth Century,” delves into the history of wizards and witches within America’s indigineous populations. She specifically uses the Navajo legend of the “skin-walker” as an entry point. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a post-doctoral researcher at Brown University and the author of the popular blog Native Appropriations, has written several times about appropriation concerns re: Rowling’s transposition of the magical world onto American history. In relation to the trailer, Keene wrote: 

“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. Colonization erases our humanity, tells us that we are less than, that our beliefs and religions are ‘uncivilized’, that our existence is incongruent with modernity.

This is not ancient history, this is not “the past.” The ongoing oppression of Native peoples is reinscribed everyday through texts and images like this trailer. How in the world could a young person watch this and not make a logical leap that Native peoples belong in the same fictional world as Harry Potter?”

Following the publication of “Fourteenth-Seventeenth Century,” Keene addressed specific concerns she had about the story, including the depiction of European colonists as explorers vs. colonizers, the conflation of all indigineous cultures into one society, and the appropriation of the skin-walker myth.

“What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that …

The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not ‘misunderstood wizards’. Not by any stretch of the imagination.”

If I had to put this in Tumblr terms: our fave is problematic.

The importance of Scourers.

Things get slightly less awkward moving forward in American magical history. In “Seventeenth Century and Beyond” — the second of the four stories — Rowling introduced the Scourers, a group of magical mercenaries who hunted down magical criminals in the vacuum of an established magical government. Increasingly corrupt, Scourers generally cared more about collecting gold than serving justice, often claiming No-Majs as witches or wizards and turning them in for bounty.

This Scourer culture eventually led to the Salem Witch Trials, which eventually convinced many witches and wizards to flee America, and stalled magical immigration moving forward. Because of this, Rowling writes, America has a much higher population of No-Maj-born witches and wizards than other places, and fewer pureblood families, as more witches and wizards married outside of the magical community.

The Salem Witch Trials also led to the formation of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) in 1693, which is a pretty weird fact to include considering the United States didn’t actually form until 1776. Again, this is the sort of thing that stands out like a sore thumb if you are an American reader, but maybe not so much if you come from a British background?

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It all seems to be in the service of the narrative of the continued influence of Scourer culture within America. As Rowling writes, the first order of the MACUSA was to bring corrupt Scourers to justice. This led to some Scourers escaping into No-Maj culture where they created non-magical family lines with an intense prejudice against the magical community.

Eventually, this led to the greatest breach in the magical community’s security when, in 1790, a young witch named Dorcus Twelvetrees fell for a handsome No-Maj called Bartholomew Barebone. Barebone, a descendant of a Scourer, tricked Dorcus into revealing the locations of Ilvermorny (the American wizarding school) and the MACUSA, going to the press with the wand he stole from Dorcus. Guys, it was bad. The wizard security breach led the MACUSA to institute a strict No-Maj fraternization policy that will no doubt greatly effect the events of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. 

Ultimately, Rowling’s new stories are relatively successful at creating the context for Fantastic Beasts— and tell us a bit more about the tension between the No-Maj and magical communities that seems to be at the heart of the story — but are a relative failure at transposing the wizarding world onto American history.