J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America” marks the first instance of the Harry Potter author weaving her wizarding world’s history deeply within the history of our world. And it’s not going well.
Pottermore, Rowling’s online Harry Potter portal, has been releasing the author’s “History” in small episodes this week, creating context for her Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film trilogy, which is set to debut in late 2016. Fantastic Beasts is set in New York City in the 1920s and it is likely that the trilogy will involve the North American magic school of Ilvermorny as a setting; exploring cultural differences between English wizarding society and U.S. wizarding society.
The first two “episodes” of Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America” are sparse, giving few details even though they chronicle over four centuries of history. Massive culture-defining aspects of North America between 1500 and 1800 CE are entirely omitted as a result, and what isn’t omitted is described with sweeping generalization. Were Rowling primarily discussing a fictional or familial history–as is often the case when history is discussed in the primary Harry Potter series–then the omission and generalization would be exciting, igniting the imagination of readers eager to know details.
Rowling’s insertion of wizarding culture into existing history does not prompt that kind of eagerness, however, because the details already exist. Instead of having control over her story, Rowling must instead negotiate with the course of history. The concept of “history” is not unyielding in this regard, as history is essentially the story we choose to tell of our origins based on evidence that survives to the present day. Fiction is a story we create, and history is a story we find, but the opposite is also true, and this makes the structure of both very similar. In this sense, history isn’t a barrier for Rowling so much as it is a co-writer. This is new territory for Rowling as an author, and the “History of Magic in North America” presents a chilly relationship between the author and her co-writer, with Rowling seemingly unwilling to acknowledge the story developments introduced by history
Subsequently, “History of Magic in North America” is worrisome at best and enraging at worst. Rowling starts off well, even intriguingly:
In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.
History and fiction are melded perfectly in just these two sentences. Native American tribal populations had legitimate similarities and differences with the European proto-nations of the 14th century and Rowling’s introduction of magic users, instead of dismissing the variations present within these societies, instead adds to their complexity. It isn’t stated in the text, but the extrapolation is that Native American societies, because of their established history, found it easier to openly integrate magic users. So the narrative of history is off to a great start.
But then oh no:
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact.
First, the legend is not “Native American,” it is thought to have originated as a belief of the Navajo tribe, one of many many many different tribes in existence in North America in that century. But mainly, the legend of “skin walkers” is a legitimate piece of heritage and when a writer, any writer, retroactively copy-pastes the specific historical heritage of real people into their fictional world, there are going to be equally real implications.
It’s not “your” world. It’s our (real) Native world. And skin walker stories have context, roots, and reality. https://t.co/mRZD0M1UCf
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) March 8, 2016
There are ways to use the concept of “skin walkers” in a story, but they require careful study because, as opposed to Hagrid’s heritage as a half-giant, heritage that is Rowling’s to design, these concepts are part of the identities of real people. Information about the Navajo and “skin walkers” is readily available, even without direct research, but Rowling does not appear to have done any research, and this makes her resulting fiction feel both dismissive and opportunistic.
Author N. K. Jemisin also underscored the implications of Rowling’s dearth of info-gathering:
It would’ve taken some work for her to research Navajo stories and pick (or request) some elements from that tradition that weren’t stereotypical or sacred — and then for her to do it again with the Paiutes and again with the Iroquois and so on. But that is work she should’ve done — for the sake of her readers who live those traditions, if not for her own edification as a writer.
As well as how Rowling took pains in the Harry Potter series to avoid the generalization of the entire European continent:
Pretty sure she would never have dreamt of reducing all of Europe’s cultures to “European wizarding tradition”; instead she created Durmstrang and Beauxbatons and so on to capture the unique flavor of each of those cultures.
This lack of research into the history of North America is even more puzzling, because fictionalizing magic-users into pre-colonial North America doesn’t need to draw on cultural assumptions. The established history of the existing North American societies, as well as the change wrought by European exploration and colonization, are dramatic enough on their own, and easy to learn about once you start looking. For example, Rowling doesn’t at all mention in “History of Magic in North America” the innovative and bloody empires in Mesoamerica, like the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztec, which is weird because the progress of their civilizations is practically steeped in magic. The Aztecs built an island metropolis because they had a vision of an eagle landing in a lake. That metropolis is still there and Rowling could probably buy it.
The empires of Mesoamerica also had the most direct connection to Europe during these centuries, beginning with (just as opportunistic!) mercantile explorers like Columbus and progressing up to conquistadors like Cortes. The countries and kingdoms of Europe had a huge financial and geographical stake in North America, and this shaped the trajectory of both continents starting in the 15th century. This historical drama alone seems like a perfect point to weave in the the financial and tyrannical interests of magical families and wizards who were trying to escape them.
In Rowling’s exploration of North American magicians in the 17th century the author cites the need of certain wizards to escape Europe, but again she asserts her own story over the narrative of history, instead of alongside. From the second installment of “History of Magic in North America”:
Not only had conflict developed between the immigrants and the Native American population, which struck a blow at the unity of the magical community, [the non-magical immigrants’] religious beliefs made them deeply intolerant of any trace of magic. The Puritans were happy to accuse each other of occult activity on the slenderest evidence, and New World witches and wizards were right to be extremely wary of them.
This is the kind of broad generalization that one expects from an elementary school class making pilgrim hats before Thanksgiving break. While Puritans did emigrate to the New World, their colonies were simply the first step in a massive, centuries-long colonization involving millions of people with a variety of interests. Puritan influence was negligible against the financial interests of the various European colonies, and even those financial interests eventually gave way to the intellectual and political interests of the United States’ founding fathers.
Rowling seems to have missed the forest for the trees in writing about this era in North America, though:
[The burning of witches prompted by Puritans and their wizard-sympathizers the Scourers in] Salem was significant within the magical community for reasons far beyond the tragic loss of life. Its immediate effect was to cause many witches and wizards to flee America, and many more to decide against locating there.
At first this seems like a logical fictionalization, and it echoes sentiment from the present day. A U.S. citizen not originating from the Middle East region is more likely to decide against locating to, say, Turkey, because of the western media’s general rhetoric regarding the region. And Rowling cleverly points out the same construct in her fictional history:
Pure-blood families, who were well-informed through wizarding newspapers about the activities of both Puritans and Scourers, rarely left for America.
Rowling shows a keen awareness of the effectiveness of propaganda, but this still doesn’t make sense, because while the Puritans fled Europe to avoid persecution, 99.99% of colonists to North America went there to seize resources and make money. WE LOVE MAKING MONEY. We love it so much that we even love making statues out of commerce-savvy colonizers! Half the statues in Central Park are of ancient money-makers. (Hell, I bet Still Hunt made more money than I ever will.) This statue in Montreal is practically bursting with them. Rowling’s own statue is, I’m sure, imminent. Wizards, especially well-off pureblood families with the means to hire security, would not be scared off from grabbing an entire state’s worth of land by a single murderous town in Massachusetts.
Rowling’s insistent ignorance of the narrative of history could itself be ignorable if it didn’t also paper over the massive atrocity that the U.S. was partially built upon: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. 12 million slaves shipped to the U.S. over the course of two centuries deserves more consideration than this sole sentence:
Such Scourers enjoyed bloodshed and torture, and even went so far as trafficking their fellow wizards.
But then what happened? Did the Scourers keep magical slaves in order to jockey for control against each other and “No-Maj”s? Did this affect the wizarding school in Uganda? Slavery is clearly something that the English magical community has a blind spot towards, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Did the slave population bring inherent magical skills that enhanced and added to the ones taught at Ilvermorny? Which English magical families benefited from the slave trade, and does one of their surnames rhyme with “Blalfloy”? How did this affect the Revolutionary War? The Civil War? Are black students allowed at Ilvermorny by the 1920s? Are there segregated magical schools in North America? Slavery and segregation are huge, huge influences on North American culture of any kind, and to ignore them is to blind yourself to the world we live in.
As of the writing of this article, Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America” has only chronicled the events of the magical community up to the beginning of the 18th century, so it’s possible that she addresses these issues retroactively in a later installment. Still, for an author who has proven consistently deft and imaginative in her worldbuilding, “History of Magic in North America” is a surprising stumble. Did Rowling simply not do the research? Or, since this arguably the first time Rowling has worked in a global scope, did she not realize the necessity of doing that research?
Chris Lough writes about fantasy and superheroes and stuff for Tor.com.