Well, This Was Never Going to Go Well: J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World Leaves Britain

While Boomer-controlled media offers a non-stop critique of the millennial generation, from our supposed laziness at breakfast time to our scorn for the classics, there’s really only one thing that unites millennials: we were raised on Harry Potter. Which is why we were all so excited to see the wizarding world expand into Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as J.K. Rowling returns to the series almost a decade after the last novel.

I suppose we should have seen it coming: whenever the British left their cold, damp, little island, it always went badly for the rest of us. Still, though, with a woman of color playing Hermione in the stage play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it seemed that there was some real hope that Rowling might create a diverse, respectful, multicultural depiction of wizard societies overseas.

That does not appear to be happening.

The first signs of trouble came in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first installment of an upcoming prequel trilogy documenting the adventures of Newt Scamander in the 1920s. Moving the series from rural Scotland to New York City seems to demand a diverse cast, and we all hoped for the best. Lol, no: the cast is almost entirely white, at least in every major role. Still, that could be blamed on Hollywood’s racist practices, overbearing any creative vision. The studios can turn the gods themselves into white men; what hope is there for the creations of a simple human author?

eddieredmayneandwheretofindhim

Can’t knock the coat, though.

However, Rowling would go on to announce the existence of four international magic schools—in the United States, Brazil, Japan, and Uganda—balancing the three European schools. While a welcome expansion of the wizarding world, it led to some raised eyebrows. The series is steeped in British and Western mythology and folklore; are those cultural bases going to be exported to the rest of the world, or was the series planning to knit together international tales of the supernatural to graft on to its own universe? The latter is a difficult task to be sure; would there be a commitment to the research required to do it right?

Rowling’s description of the Uagadou, the African school located in Uganda, is brief, but already shows the iffy nature of this project. We are told, for the first time, that the “wand is a European invention, and while African witches and wizards have adopted it as a useful tool in the last century, many spells are cast simply by pointing the finger or through hand gestures”. Wandless magic is a clever idea, but since the technique is being supplanted by wands, it suggests that African magic is weaker and less refined than European magic.

uagadu

Not to scale, presumably. Otherwise, that cloud is 3,000 miles wide.

Oddly, wands are only catching on overseas in the 20th century—that is, during the adult life of Albus Dumbledore, and 700 years after Europeans first laid hands on the Elder Wand. This doesn’t hint at a cultural exchange, but rather the modernization of the Third World. Further, the brief description plays along with the common, ignorant belief that Africa is a single country: this one school attracts students from a diverse continent of over a billion people. And don’t worry, Uagadou also manages to play around with the usual safari imagery of elephants and cheetahs.

The others are no more encouraging. Japan’s Mahoutokoro tells us that its students fear disgrace, a Japanese stereotype more at home in the routine of 1980s sketch comedy. It attracts students from all over Asia, so a remote Pacific island appears to be the nearest institution that would matriculate, say, Turkish wizards. The wizards from a population of several billion additional people, with hundreds of languages between them,  will also line up at the other stations on the Mahoutokoro express. Apparently, any Muggle conflicts are unknown in those walls – including World War II, since Mahoutokoro is located on Minami Iwo Jima,  near the site of the battle. The island is uninhabited, and the nearest civilian Muggle population to the only school in Asia is actually in the Northern Mariana Islands. That is, in the United States.

Brazil’s Castelobruxo is a rainforest temple whose headmistress is named after the (European) legend of El Dorado. It appears to bring in indigenous and Afro-Brazilian mythologies, but there’s no indication that these groups are represented in its student body. Castelobruxo appears little more than Hogwarts mashed up with a half-watched Travel Channel show about Carnival.

Which brings us to North America, home of Ilvermorny, a magical school with a name no typesetter could love (it’s a capital “I” and then a lower-case “L”, by the way). Naturally, this will be the primary focus of the upcoming series; there is magic all over the world, but the series will commit to English-speaking white countries. Rowling has promised a connection to Native American magic, rather than European magic alone, and we all held our breath.

So far, we know very little about the school itself, but Rowling has published a history of North American magic, and it looks bad. Real bad. What’s striking to me is Rowling’s apparent ignorance of conventional, white/Anglo-American history. If the series struggles to incorporate the most privileged culture in the world (outside its own), its prospects for anything requiring more sensitivity are grim.

To begin, we’re told that European and American wizards were in friendly contact before Columbus. A fine bit of secret history, but it carries the implication that European wizards stood by while their Muggle brethren slaughtered and enslaved their acquaintances across the Atlantic. That would be perfectly in character for the society that put Voldemort in power not once, but twice, but the Potters’ ancestors don’t seem to merit any reproach.

Then, once Europeans started settling the New World en masse, we’re told that their wizards came right along with them. Many joined Native American communities, who were, like Squanto, “generally welcoming and protective”. This must have gone as well for them as it did for the Wampanoag, because Native Americans abruptly vanish from the narrative.  Far more capable writers have addressed Rowling’s mistreatment of Native American culture, which is littered with offhand references to skinwalkers and other cultural traditions.

If European wizards were welcomed by Native Americans, they were unimpressed by the hospitality. Wizards coming to North American found a “country with few amenities, except those they made themselves”, and complained about the lack of apothecaries, wandmakers, and institutions of higher learning. There isn’t a conflict with the local wizard population that excludes the Europeans; it just lacks the advancement of the English. Wizards or no, Rowling still imagines the Native Americans as savages in teepees and, like African wizards, they’re known not to use wands before the modern era.

The bad guys in this story are the Scourers, a corrupt and brutal band of mercenary wizard vigilantes, who gained power and influence because the “wizarding community in America was small, scattered and secretive”. Again, the ancient, indigenous wizarding community has ceased to exist. Lest we fear that the Scourers were the ancestors of our heroes, we learn that they come from “many foreign nationalities”. They also begin “trafficking their fellow wizards” with the implication being that white, English wizards were the victims of slavers in the Americas. Scourers teamed up with the Massachusetts Puritans to oppress wizardkind. The importance of the Puritans here is part of a pattern of turning the Americas into North America, North America into the United States, and the United States into New England. How does a small community on the rocky shores of New England dominate two entire continents? Never mind Native American civilizations; Rowling appears to forget about the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. And say what you will about John Winthrop, he’s not the one who executed the king and set up a Puritan dictatorship.

cromwell.jpg

Yo.

In any case, we soon get to the Salem Witch Trials and their aftermath: the creation of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, or the MACUSA. What’s the first “A” for? Shut up, that’s what. The MACUSA proudly predates its Muggle equivalent by a century, which truly makes no sense. There isn’t some region generally known as “the United States”. It’s a name that reflects a very specific historical moment. It reflects the former colonies’ belief that they were sovereign entities—states—and their wish to come together into a united federation. We’re told that the English magical communities in North America were small and scattered, lacking real governance. How could they see themselves as states, independent from each other or the motherland? How were they pushed into a union because of Muggle nonsense in the Massachusetts Bay? 21st century wizard society shows little of the political thought that led to the idea of the United States; it’s hard to believe that the wizard colonists were exceptionally early adopters of John Locke or the (unborn) Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It all feels very strange, unfinished, and ultimately, ignorant. We leave Britain to find a world where even the history and society of the United States is poorly imagined, and then we’re asked to accept even more threadbare stereotypes of wizarding societies outside of the English-speaking world.

In any case, the whole experience apparently left the American magical community in an isolated, paranoid state of mind. Which is a potentially interesting commentary on American history, except that the paranoia is entirely justified. In the 18st century, the Scourers make a return, as the Muggle Bartholomew Barebone attempts to exterminate American wizards. His information, we’re told, came from a lovesick witch named Dorcus, who “was as dim as she was pretty.” Hang on. Gotta puke.

Bart—who shares a surname with an English Puritan, not an American—doesn’t actually catch any wizards, and ends up imprisoned by Muggle authorities for shooting at a random group in 1790. He did manage to stir up an awful lot of trouble in the Muggle community during the Washington administration, which I guess everyone just forgot about. No redemption for poor Dorcus; she spends a year in prison and ends her days in seclusion talking to animals. As a bonus, we find out that American wizards still use her name as an insult. Charming.

Finally, we time-jump to the 1920s, with another dose of nonsense. American wizards apparently fought in World War I, their seclusion apparently no impediment to their rage over the assassination of some Austrian archduke, or the invasion of Serbia or whatever. They even somehow join the war three years before their Muggle counterparts. Magical influence in World War I is the hugest incursion Rowling has yet made into Muggle history, but it’s thrown aside here in a sentence. It’s too big to get such light treatment.

We also find out about mandatory wand registration in America, a very strange bit of lore that does not appear to connect to anything, or make sense given American values in general. This leads into a description of the top four American wandmakers, one of whom, Shikoba Wolfe, is the first Native American to earn a name, but still no particular character. Of course, since wands are not part of Native American magic as Rowling’s said, this is little more than an acquired skill with the invaders’ technology, either in the aftermath of a genocide or as simply a token inclusion of a wizard of color. Other than an aside about wizards’ resistance to Prohibition (is the MACUSA even bound by the United States Constitution?), we’re done.

Maybe there’s more to come, maybe it can all be fixed. But it’s looking very, very bad. It appears to be a half-finished, thoughtless attempt to market an upcoming movie, and ends up a disappointing dilution of the entire Harry Potter universe. The racial and cultural insensitivities bring it from obnoxious to offensive and undermine the entire project.

Sometimes, you just need to stay in your lane.


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9 thoughts on “Well, This Was Never Going to Go Well: J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World Leaves Britain

  1. Oh my, that is horrific…

    There was a young girl accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692 who is named Dorcas in one text, but her name in the church registries is Dorothy. But, one can more easily turn “Dorcas” into “Dorcus” and make it sound pejorative, I suppose.

  2. I have quite a few issues with this article, but I’ll start with this; most of the issues I’m seeing you have with the new info actually make sense if you think about them with an open mind, such as the very first point you raised, that the cast for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is mostly white, and that you expected more racial diversity. I was disturbed by this at first as well, but after a few minutes of searching, I discovered an interesting fact about 1920s New York. Did you know that the population was dominantly white until post-WWII? So why would it be strange that pre-WWI New York doesn’t display racial diversity? Unless you mean the racial differences between the Dutch, English, Scottish and Irish, immigrants that made up most of the population at the time, because I’d LOVE to see some diversity between all those Europeans.
    Seeing the issue here? I did, and a few more clicks of the mouse and some good ol’ fashion logic broke some gaping holes in the criticism being heaped upon JK, who I might add is NOT perfect and never will be. Expecting her to do research is fine, but expecting her to become a cultural and historical expert on ever country on the planet is an impossible hope, and one that will leave you disappointed every time.

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