Queering Hogwarts: Fantasy Books That Succeed Where Harry Potter Fails

Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy aren’t queer, but their counterparts in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Carry On, Simon Snow and Basilton “Baz” Grimm-Pitch, are.

In our current “post-Potter” age, a new crop of published queer magic boarding school novels has emerged that directly challenge the lack of LGBT representation in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Collectively, they reimagine a series that was quintessential for the childhood and teenaged years of many young queer people, by giving them center stage.

These published stories are expanding the limited space for queer people in the magical boarding school genre by taking core elements of Harry Potter—what it means to be a Chosen One, tropes of villainy, magical societies, living in boarding school, school romance—and making it queer.

The publication dates of these new novels all occur after the end of the Harry Potter series in 2007, and this is no coincidence. Why did these stories start popping up after the Deathly Hallows’ release? Looking at the magical boarding school genre that came before these queer stories—namely Harry Potter—is a good place to start.

[Warning, here be dragons! This article contains spoilers for Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling.]

 

The Magical Boarding School Trope

While the magic boarding school genre pre-dated Harry Potter, with novels like A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life, the Harry Potter series cemented the trope within pop culture. Harry Potter brought a sense of familiarity to the trope—it took place in our own world and Hogwarts strongly resembled traditional British boarding schools, complete with school houses and uniforms.

The familiarity between our world and Rowling’s world invites readers to pull up a metaphorical chair at The Hog’s Head Pub for another round of butterbeer. Not only is our world in Harry Potter, but Harry Potter is in ours. Immersive experiences like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the extensive Hogwarts house product marketing (there are only so many Slytherin scarves one human being can feasibly own) further prove that the Harry Potter series encouraged readers to put themselves in the stories. As with Hermione, it didn’t matter if our parents weren’t magical, maybe we would one day receive our owl with an invitation to Hogwarts.

Yet, as much as Harry Potter invites readers into the world, Rowling primarily wrote about only a portion of the population: straight (and primarily white) people. The Harry Potter series takes place in an otherwise realistic Britain where LGBT folks are assumed to exist, but the lack of LGBT wizards and witches sends the message that while LGBT people might exist in Britain, they have no place in the wizarding world. And it’s safe to say they certainly aren’t going to get a Hogwarts letter.

 

Harry Potter and the Disappearing Representation

Harry Potter as a series, and J.K. Rowling by extension, has a long documented history of failing queer audiences. “But what about Dumbledore? He was gay!” some fans will no doubt shout. Sure, he was, but his coming out was through Rowling’s statement at Carnegie Hall that Dumbledore was “gay, actually” when asked by a fan if he had ever been in love. Yet this comment only discussed his sexuality long after Dumbledore was safely dead and gone (and after the final book in the series had been published). She also chose to make him celibate for the rest of his life. Not a great start. This small action is similar to J.K. Rowling’s problematic idea that Professor Remus Lupin’s lycanthropy was a metaphor for AIDS. Both comments echo the ways that J.K. Rowling has alluded to LGBT representation in her books: in passing, or not at all.

Unfortunately, this trend has continued into the extended world of the Harry Potter series. The supposed “eighth book,” the 2016 play The Cursed Child, follows Harry’s son Albus and Draco’s son Scorpius as they navigate their own time at Hogwarts. It rehashes the same plot of the first seven novels: prevent Voldemort from winning, this time by going back in time to re-live some of the series’ most memorable moments.

Yet, for many queer folks reading the series, there was something new. Albus and Scorpius’ relationship seemed really, really gay. The play had lots of talk of fated companions, jealousy over potential girlfriends, and a seriously heavy-handed metaphor for Albus being sorted into Slytherin as him being the queer black sheep of the family.

The play was pulled apart by media critics like Aja Romano and Ilana Masad, who saw the heavy-handed queerness of Albus and Scorpius’ relationship and the subsequent rushed heterosexual romance between Scorpius and Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter, to read as “queerbaiting,” a tactic used when creators hint at queer content but fail to deliver it.

Although the casting of a black actress in the role of Hermione in the play points to some progress towards a diverse depiction of the wizarding world, thanks to both its time-travelling trope and the absence of any visible queer people, The Cursed Child was more interested in reliving the commercial successes of the past than expanding the magical school trope into the future.

Another element of the expanded Harry Potter universe is the recent film series based on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. David Yates, the film’s director, stated that despite featuring a young Dumbledore fighting his past male love interest, they would not address his sexuality explicitly. These lackluster responses continue to demonstrate that in J.K. Rowling’s world, visible LGBT people are as rare as surviving the Killing Curse.

Thanks to the gaping holes in representation, several series have popped up post-Potter to offer critiques on Harry Potter’s shortcomings by featuring LGBT characters in similar settings.

Some of these stories rise above the post-Potter haze of pop culture, playing with the magical boarding school tropes while queering them without directly acknowledging or attempting to replicate the original—including Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com, 2016) and The Lord of the White Hell series by Ginn Hale (2010). Each takes place in a magical boarding school and includes LGBT characters. In particular, Every Heart a Doorway is significant for its inclusion of LGBT characters outside of the common relationship-defined queerness in young adult LGBT fiction, while The Lord of the White Hell series is notable for doubling down on the eroticism of same-sex lodging in boarding schools, with the main character Kiram Kir-Zaki and Javier Tornesal having sex while rooming together.

But more important are the stories that offer a critique simply by existing. These are the direct responses to Harry Potter written by self-professed fans that not only acknowledge the lack of LGBT characters in Harry Potter, but fill the LGBT hole with their own published works. Two notable examples are In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (2017) and Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2015).

 

Living in a Post-Potter World: In Other Lands

In Other Lands follows Elliot, an obnoxious bisexual boy who is able to cross into a magical land where smuggled-in technology explodes and mermaids exist. He attends the magical school, the Border camp, in the Borderlands, a part of Britain that only some special people can cross into. The Border camp resembles a magical Sparta more than an old, cozy castle and it is here that Elliot meets Luke Sunborn, the chosen heir to the Sunborn clan, and Serene, an elf who comes from a fiercely matriarchal elven society.

Elliot is influenced by the legacy of Harry Potter in the narrative itself. In Other Lands is well aware of its position within popular culture and the ways it will be referenced in comparison with Harry Potter. Elliot states, “I don’t need you to explain to me the concept of a magical land filled with fantastic creatures that only certain special children can enter. I am acquainted with the last several centuries of popular culture. There are books. And cartoons, for the illiterate.” The book lets readers know that it is aware that is exists in connection to Harry Potter by sharing the same genre and tropes.

This tight connection with Harry Potter is made even more apparent when Brennan herself writes in a blog post, “I found Harry Potter fanfiction and I thought it looked like fun, so I decided to write it too. I wrote about my favourite character [Draco Malfoy] … and what-if scenarios and turning into rats and fighting crime and any number of romantic entanglements.” These romantic entanglements included fanfiction written by Brennan between Draco and Harry.

By being aware of its connection to Harry Potter both outside and inside of the story, the novel serves as an effective avenue for critique. Elliot, despite being the novel’s protagonist, is not the Chosen One. Instead, he begrudgingly acknowledges himself as Luke’s side-kick or, at worst, as Elliot himself describes, “an Iago, a pathetic pseudo-villain.”

What is special about Elliot is the way he refuses to complete the arc his character trope should naturally follow; he refuses to play the Draco to Luke’s Harry. Elliot decides not to plot against what he perceives to be Luke’s position as the protagonist-apparent or golden boy. Going a step further, Elliot and Luke end up romantically involved at the story’s end. Having a relationship between the supposed Chosen One and “pathetic pseudo-villain” can be seen as similar to Draco and Harry’s arrangement, although both boys break these stereotypes, as Elliot becomes a pacifist and stubbornly refuses to partake in war and Luke is an introvert who does not fit the social mould of the charismatic “Chosen One.”

Elliot and Luke’s relationship and their connection to traditional romantic tropes is far from the only LGBT element of their novel, and it is hardly what defines it as a queer reimagining of the magical boarding school genre.

As Brit Mandelo stated in Tor.com’s review of the novel, one of the many striking aspects of In Other Lands is the way it allows its characters to have sex. Elliot sleeps with both men and women and lusts after various magical creatures throughout the novel. He’s so horny, and, gosh, is it endearing… Long gone are Harry Potter’s chaste kisses and forever loves, replaced with Elliot trying to hunt down books on how to eat out his elf maybe-girlfriend and struggling against homophobia in our world.

This is not to say that Elliot doesn’t attempt to slot himself in with Harry Potter’s rather archaic notions of “forever” romantic love. About his then maybe-girlfriend, Serene, Elliot declares: “If you must know, she is the one soul destined for my own, and we are going to be together forever.” Luke’s response critiques the alarming idea throughout the Harry Potter series that life-long romantic partnerships are determined in your preteen years: “That’s weird…We’re thirteen.”

Try to imagine marrying your middle school crush and you may begin to see Luke’s point.

Brennan’s novel tackles exclusion by having the magical human society (the elves are less accepting of queer male relationships as a staunchly matriarchal society) lack ingrained homophobia. No one really cares that golden boy Luke Sunborn is gay.

By having the composition of the main trio be two-thirds LGBT, with the last third, Serene, possessed of a complex view of gender and gender roles, the story refuses to accept the fantasy of magical schools as being devoid of sexual and gender minorities.

 

“The Gay Harry Potter”: Carry On

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, is perhaps the most meta criticism of Harry Potter on the market. It functions as the final installment of the Simon Snow novels, a fictional series that originates in Rowell’s previous novel, Fangirl. In Fangirl, the main character, Cath Avery, writes fanfiction about the two main characters of the Snow novels, Simon and Baz, much like many fans of the Harry Potter series wrote stories about Harry and Draco. Carry On, the final novel of the actual Simon Snow series, makes those fanfictions reality and—spoiler alert—Simon and Baz really do end up together in the end.

Rowell herself has commented on this connection to Harry Potter in various interviews. In an interview with Pop Sugar, she states, “The references to Harry Potter and other stories are really intentional in this book […] I want you to feel like, oh this is familiar.” She goes on in an interview with Vanity Fair to suggest that she knows Harry and Draco as characters because she invested in them as a fan and took joy out of referencing them through Baz and Simon.

By making the Harry (Simon) and Draco (Baz) stand-ins both LGBT characters, Rowell presents some interesting twists to the Chosen One narrative that both stories grapple with. What does it mean to be an LGBT Chosen One trying to save a world that doesn’t fully acknowledge your existence? Much of the story involves Simon coming to terms with what it means to be The Mage’s Heir, though, ultimately, when Simon loses the very power that made him the Chosen One, it is not the world that defines his position, but his boyfriend Baz.

“I’m not the Chosen One,” he says.

I meet his gaze and sneer. My arm is a steel band around his waist. “I choose you,” I say. “Simon Snow, I choose you.”

Rowell admits that, “After living with these [Chosen One] stories for so long, I found myself really interrogating them.” As a queer reader it is also hard not to interrogate the fantasy genre’s Chosen One narratives since they select the strongest person amongst them to save society—and that savior is usually white, male, and straight. Since traditional fantasy has a penchant for tokenizing or flat out excluding queer people, queer people are not usually viewed as society’s greatest weapon for good, no matter the advances and contributions they make.

Simon might wonder what Carry On’s Dumbledore-equivalent, the Mage, will say if he finds out Simon’s kissed a boy, but Simon knows that so long as he’s expected to save the world, there is no time for him to think about his sexuality.

“In the end, I just do what’s expected of me. When the Humdrum comes after me, I fight him. When he sends dragons, I kill them. When you trick me into meeting a chimera, I go off. I don’t get to choose or plan. I just take it as it comes. And someday, something will catch me unawares or be too big to fight, but I’ll fight it anyways. I’ll fight until I can’t anymore—what is there to think about?”

Being the Chosen One and constantly sacrificing himself to save the world means Simon can’t spend time wondering if he is anything other than straight. The Chosen One doesn’t get that luxury.

The boarding school trope itself is approached from an LGBT perspective. Much like The Lord of the White Hell where roommates are eroticized, Baz and Simon are chosen to be together by “The Crucible” who determines room placements through magical force. What follows is years of sexual agony for Baz upon realizing he’s attracted to Simon and Simon’s growing obsession with Baz’s constant whereabouts.

“It made us roommates,” [Simon] says.

I shake my head. “We were always more.”

“We were enemies.”

“You were the centre of my universe,” I say. “Everything else spun around you.”

Here, much like the Sorting Hat, the Crucible appears to know the wants and desires of the students. In this case, it acknowledges the queer desires of Baz and Simon even before they themselves acknowledge it, by putting them together as roommates. The Sorting Hat McGuffin apparently ships with the best of them.

Carry On is a triumph in this sense. It takes the Harry Potter narrative and the dynamics of Harry and Draco that drew many fans to a queer reading of their relationship and makes it canon. It openly acknowledges this and invites readers space to see themselves and their experiences on the pages of a popular fantasy novel. It’s not coincidence that it is hailed as “the gay Harry Potter” by many fans. This push to be seen and visible, one that Harry Potter as a franchise struggled with, is such a key point of the novel’s creation. Rowell makes this fact clear: “People kept saying, ‘I can’t wait for the subtext,’ and I have such a negative reaction to that. No, this is not some cheesy, will-they-won’t-they, subtext-y thing. That’s not a game I’m interested in playing […] As a culture, we are ready for text.” Carry On, more than any other novel, stakes down these issues of being visible and puts them on the page for all to see, loudly and proudly.

 

There is joy in the resistance of taking a piece of media and making it your own. There is also something giddy and wonderful about reading stories that queer old tropes or, in the case of Carry On, quite literally rework a piece of fiction into something new and subversive. Yet it cannot be denied that re-working a narrative to include minorities points to a larger problem: that the text failed to include them in the first place.

When J.K. Rowling declares that Dumbledore is gay after the fact of his death, alludes to queer-coded characters, or engages in queerbaiting, it is a disappointment to LGBT fans, people who perhaps more than anyone need an immersive story that whisks them to a new home that breathes magic. In Other Lands and Carry On truly do the heavy lifting by acknowledging the Harry Potter series and creating a place within it for queer people, queer experiences, thereby critiquing the earlier books’ failure to include them.

These new authors recognize the lasting impact left by Harry Potter in their stories and have queered it—instead of waiting to be welcomed to Hogwarts, they have sent out their own parliament of owls, inviting a new generation of readers into new, more inclusive magical worlds.

Jessica lives in Ontario, Canada with her embarrassingly large 1970s shōjo manga collection. She recently completed her MA where she shouted about LGBTQ media representation. Her free time is spent writing queer fantasy stories, petting dogs, and drinking tea. Can be found through Instagram or owl post.

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