“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is NOT canon.”
I stood before a class of Early Christianity students emphatically punctuating the air with a declaration of canon loyalty—Harry Potter canon loyalty that is. The 2016 publication of a two-part West End stage play as the newest “addition” to the wizarding world of Harry Potter was met with much resistance from fans of the beloved children’s book series. For one, Jack Thorne, not the original series author J.K. Rowling, composed the script and only loosely based it upon a short story that Rowling co-authored. Some canon purists saw the co-authorship as proof that Cursed Child better resided in the realm of fan fiction – and a poorly conceived example at best. This position further justified the fan outrage at the plot itself, which introduced an unbelievable secret love child between two major characters and meddling alternate timelines, all the while focusing on the not-so-engaging life of middle-aged Harry. The fan fury prompted Rowling to attempt to settle the canon debate:
Despite Rowling’s authorial claims, I began my Early Christianity lecture about the formation of the New Testament canon by introducing my own insistence for a proper wizarding canon. The students had come to class having read Letters 39 and 40 of Athanasius’ Festal Letters, which preserve the earliest list of the twenty-seven books that formed the New Testament canon, as well as David Brakke’s short article “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria’s Thirty-Ninth ‘Festal Letter.’” The first to call the New Testament books canonized (κανονιζόμενα), Athanasius established criteria for composing his closed bible canon. He claimed the works on his list were the earliest divinely-inspired texts deriving from apostolic times, used continuously in Christian settings. Thus, the students had some working knowledge about the kinds of concerns animating canon formation, but I wanted to further demystify the aura of sacred text and canon by translating the same sorts of canon impulses to a more familiar context.
One of the challenges of teaching a class covering religion and ancient history is persuading students that this material is relevant to their lives. Canon debates in antiquity can conjure images of old men shaking fists in a dark chamber, akin to the scenery of C-Span and just as engaging. For students who might be hearing about porous and alternative bible canons for the first time, it may be hard to envision a biblical table of contents open for debate. I didn’t want my students to consider the stakes in the biblical canon’s composition on an intellectual level alone; rather, I wanted them to feel the stakes. I therefore chose to ignite their fire (and ire) with the canon debates of our modern time. Hence my impassioned insistence that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not—nay must not—be included in the wizarding canon. Canons are more than mere lists; they are the products of investment in an imaginal world driven by a host of concerns.
My Cursed Child declaration was met with knowing smiles from a number of students, just as invested in the Harry Potter fan community. I quickly explained the controversy for the rest of the class and probed their general feelings toward the inclusion or exclusion of additions to imaginal worlds. Then I turned their attention to the chalkboard.
Upon the board, I sketched the possible contenders for the Harry Potter canon. I intentionally listed the more obvious choices—Books 1-7, Movies 1-8—with more contentious categories: Pottermore.com, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fanfiction, J.K. Rowling’s tweets, and yes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Each contender held a different relationship to authorship, popular use, and conformity to the tenants of the wizarding world, which I highlighted in their descriptions so that even students with limited exposure to Harry Potter would understand the mediums at play. With our priming conversation in mind, I tasked the students to construct their own Harry Potter authoritative canon. To this end, I gave them three guidelines:
1. Develop your criteria for what counts as canon and apply these criteria to your canon list. Be prepared to defend your claims to the class.
2. Order your canon list in terms of how “canonical” each contender feels to you. So, if both Books 1-7 and Pottermore.com are in the canon, are they ranked differently?
3. In a separate space, note which contenders did not make the canon and explain why. Are there any that you deem heretical?
The students paired into groups of three and entered a micro canon debate. After 10-15 minutes, we returned together and each group shared their lists and defended their choices. As expected, Books 1-7 were largely accepted with high canonical status. Not only were the books authored by J.K. Rowling, but they occurred earlier than the other options. They were more resonant of a pure origin. (Although, one group did mourn the “loss” of J.K. Rowling’s early drafts, which they privileged in their canon).
Once we moved past the books, groups drew different boundaries. For example, the movies proved a point of tension. For some the wide availability and celebrity of the movies necessitated canonical status. They argued that it did not matter whether J.K. Rowling technically wrote the films as they were adapted from her words and viewed by millions of genuine fans. Another group challenged this assertion and designated the movies to a special non-canonical but still worthwhile status, akin to Athanasius’ own subcategory (ἀναγινωσκόμενα). For Athanasius, this subcategory comprised works for instructional status only, including the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Sirach), the Wisdom of Solomon, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. This second group felt strongly that the author’s hand should be the elevated criteria for canonicity, though the movies could serve as supplementary material for fans.
Yet the medium of the author’s words proved a fraught concern. It may be easy to accept the writing of J.K. Rowling in both book and essay form, but what about her Twitter interjections? J.K. Rowling has long delighted and frustrated fans by adding to canon through her twitter account.
Have just heard that James S Potter has been Sorted (to nobody's surprise) into Gryffindor. Teddy Lupin (Head Boy, Hufflepuff) disappointed.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) September 1, 2015
.@juliannedapdap Ron's Patronus is a Jack Russell, which was our last dog.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) May 1, 2015
In honouring Snape, Harry hoped in his heart that he too would be forgiven. The deaths at the Battle of Hogwarts would haunt Harry forever.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) November 27, 2015
.@HotmHayles @lankytwat Moaning Myrtle's full name was Myrtle Elizabeth Warren.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) May 11, 2015
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione 😘 https://t.co/5fKX4InjTH— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 21, 2015
.@benjaminroffman Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 16, 2014
The students struggled to preserve privileged authorial status amid their skepticism of the digital platform. More groups were willing to entertain Rowling’s essays on the digital medium Pottermore.com than her Twitter musings.
Lest we think cries of heresy were laid to rest in antiquity, some groups made clear which canon contenders were not acceptable as even supplementary material. A few groups followed my lead and banned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to heretical oblivion on the grounds of authorship and orthodoxy concerns. Others denounced Twitter and Pottermore.com because they failed to conform to their notions of a stable text.
Most heretical was fanfiction, which a few groups viewed as a bastardization of the author’s intentions. I used this opportunity to introduce the idea of interpretive communities. In fanfiction cultures, canon is not so much a fixed list as a bounded imaginal world. The imaginal world inspires a sacred or revered multi-authored, cross-media canon where fans can generate ideologically reworked texts and new stories inspired by popular characters, gaps in the plot, or textual contradictions. Canons occur over time independently from authors and any one authoritative text. Thus, when we talk about canon loyalty, are we talking about loyalty to the texts themselves, to authoritative authors, or to the ecosystem of the imaginal world? I introduced ancient Jewish and Christian literature as embedded in a biblical ecosystem, exhibiting different engagement with scriptural texts, stories, and authoritative authors. Just as the students themselves could not come to a canon consensus, so too groups in the ancient world differed in their preference for certain texts.
I compiled each group’s canon into a working list on the board—drawing connections between groups—and it remained physically central as we transitioned to the early Christian context. Together we worked through Athanasius’ Festal Letters and used the criteria we had collectively employed (authorship, antiquity, mediums, access and use) to think both about the process of selecting a Bible canon and the ways criteria become complicated. We thought about authorship when it came to the pseudonymous letters of Paul, asking whether Pauline attribution functioned similarly to the impulses of Cursed Child or Pottermore.com. We weighed the antiquity of the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas against the four canonical gospels, whose own timelines and plots varied with inconsistencies. We thought about the reworking of Hebrew Bible texts in Tobit and its relationship to fan fiction. Suddenly, Athanasius’ canon categories seemed a little less neat when compared to the students’ own parsing of the Potter films, extant literature, and Twitter. The New Testament canon no longer seemed like a self-evident inevitability; rather, it took on the complicated resonances of our own classroom conversation.
The exercise generated intuitive criteria that the students used to construct their canon lists. I did not have to tell them to think about authorship, divine inspiration, or antiquity; they felt the intuitive pulls themselves. They found themselves weighing what they meant by authorship and what forms were deserving of canonicity. They were torn by the interjection of “outside” voices weighing in on the persona of Harry and frustrated by new technological mediums. Even the quietest students suddenly had something to say about textual canons, when the subject was Harry Potter. I strategically used this moment of unguarded interest to humanize the process of writing, compiling, and canonizing scriptural texts. The authors and compilers of antique Jewish and Christian literature were just as invested in the biblical ecosystem as the authors and fans of the Harry Potter wizarding world. In short, the students experienced just how impassioned and fraught canon lists can be.
Using modern fan cultures to teach the formation of the Bible is a dynamic tactic to breakdown the rigid presence of canon. It is difficult to suspend modern teleologies informed by religious traditions and the printing press in order to engage the porous canon processes of the ancient world. By expanding the definition of sacred from stable text to imaginal world, we are better able to teach the relationship of ancient readers and hearers to a wide textual corpus prior to rigid canon boundaries. Further, thinking through the lens of modern canon debates demonstrates how canons remain living entities, ever-evolving as fans choose which texts to emphasize and which to ignore. Fans of Harry Potter and fans of the biblical ecosystem have more in common than our students would immediately recognize, making this activity an excellent way to bridge the modern and ancient worlds.
And to anyone who wants to argue that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child should be canon, I leave you with Athanasius himself:
For this is a work of the wickedness of those who have conceived of mixing one or two inspired texts so that, through such deception, they might somehow cover up the evil teachings that they have clearly created. Therefore, it is even more fitting for us to reject such books, and let us command ourselves not to proclaim anything in them nor to speak anything in them with those who want to be instructed, even if there is a good word in them, as I have said. For what do the spiritual Scriptures lack that we should seek after these empty voices of unknown people? (Letter 39).
Krista N. Dalton is a PhD Candidate in Ancient Judaism at Columbia University.