Hogwarts in America: In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling Crosses the Atlantic and Makes a Hash of North American History and Culture

By Sturgis, Amy H. | Reason, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Hogwarts in America: In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling Crosses the Atlantic and Makes a Hash of North American History and Culture


Sturgis, Amy H., Reason


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 school-days 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. …

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