The INSIDER Summary:
• Fans are disappointed by J.K. Rowling’s stories on wizards in the United States.
• Rowling has made numerous factual mistakes about American history.
• The ‘Harry Potter’ author also did not make American wizards very likable.
With her new film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” J.K. Rowling is coming to America.
The first film, which will be released in theatres on November 18, is about a wizard and magizoologist named Newt Scamander who has adventures in 1920s New York.
The problem is, J.K. Rowling is having trouble writing about Americans. Especially Native Americans.
In writing these stories, Rowling has already made significant missteps. It started with her first major Pottermore piece, “History of Magic in North America.”
In the piece, Rowling clumsily and insensitively used elements of Native American folklore in her own imaginary world. “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,” Rowling wrote.
In reality, skin walkers are only part of Navajo lore, not any of the other hundreds of tribes. Rowling lumped a complex tapestry of beliefs into a single story, and used “medicine man” stereotypes by writing things like “The Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic.”
“It’s very flattering that she would want to extend her world into [the Native American] world, but it’s not a very good fit, because it’s too good of a fit,” Walter Fleming, the head of the Native American Studies department at Montana State University, told The Christian Science Monitor.
“What happens is that you’re taking an assumptive fictional community — the wizarding world — and you’re trying to apply it to a culture where it’s not an assumptive fictional world. There are elements that are believed and practiced.”
Given the backlash, one might think that Rowling would be more sensitive about using Native American folklore in her own invented magical universe. But later, Rowling revealed a sorting test for the four houses of Ilvermorny: Thunderbird, Pukwudgie, Horned Serpent, and Wampus.
The first three are all animals from different Native American mythologies.
Had she consulted with Native Americans about her concept or explained the roots of these house names, perhaps then her fictional world may have been viewed as more respectful. But Rowling’s 5,000-word story about Ilvermorny’s origins second story, “Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” only mentions that Native Americans attended the school. European settlers founded it.
She also makes easy factual errors, including that MACUSA — The Magical Congress of the United States of America — was founded in 1693, nearly a century before the United States of America was so named (you can’t have ‘MACUSA’ without the ‘USA’). And she places the MACUSA capital in Washington, D.C., in 1777, before the city was founded 13 years later in 1790.
These may seem like small errors, but they would have been very easy to fact check.
She doesn’t know how to translate her political ideas into an American context.
In the “Harry Potter” series, Rowling was generally adept with her allusions to the Muggle community’s historical events and issues. The rise of the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald coincided with the rise of the Nazi Reich.
Lord Voldemort’s obsession with blood purity touched on similar themes. She made Dumbledore, one of the series’ most beloved heroes, gay.
Her subsequent non-“Harry Potter” works are even more openly political.
Rowling stumbled, however, at translating her political beliefs to an American context. Her most recent work, about the founding of MACUSA, brings up signature American problems like segregation and the relationship with the powerful and the powerless.
But she doesn’t seem to know how to handle those issues.
MACUSA’s longstanding Rappaport’s Law makes marriage between a wizard or witch and a No-Maj (the American word for Muggle) illegal. It echoes the United States’ historical laws against interracial marriage.
But what is the connection, exactly? It doesn’t appear that the American wizarding community oppresses the No-Maj community, or vice versa. From what we know, the law was introduced as a misguided safety measure. But if marriage laws in Rowling’s world bear no relationship to marriage laws in the historical United States — especially the 1920s United States, where laws prohibiting interracial marriage were still on the books — then Rowling has evoked a complicated and sensitive social topic without knowing what to do with it.
Furthermore, while her three stories broach the topic of oppression, Rowling never once mentions slavery, America’s greatest crime that still has a profound, lasting impact in present society. She has chosen to step into the world of American politics and omit its core issue.
It’s possible, of course, that “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” will have fully developed thoughts and allegories about racial segregation and slavery, but there is no indication so far that it will.
Rowling largely depicts America as a moral failure.
When Rowling chose to write about American history, the American wizards come up short. Take the example of the Revolutionary War. According to her recent writings, MACUSA hotly debated whether they should join No-Maj Americans in the fight against Britain’s tyrannical colonialism. Ultimately, wizard government demurred, taking no position on the matter.
Rowling mentions, as an aside, that “unofficially there were many instances of intervention to protect No-Maj neighbours.” That’s it.
In the “Harry Potter” series, the protagonists were marked by their moral goodness. For Harry and Dumbledore, their stories are a matter of good triumphing over evil. And like Rowling’s novels, American history often intertwines heroism and moralism, from Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Tubman. Their stories are occasionally simplified in the historical record, but American history lionizes people who stood up for the moral good.
But Rowling, much like her wizarding population in the US, largely decided to stay out of these matters. Her American wizards simply aren’t very heroic. The one MACUSA president she describes in depth, Thornton Harkaway, is actually a pretty bad guy. He bred Crups, a type of magical dog that is hostile to No-Majs, and his pack
“savaged several local No-Majs, who afterwards were only able to bark for a period of 48 hours.” Rowling goes on to say the magical community drove No-Majs to mental hospitals because so many of them thought they were going insane.
Not that Rowling ever gave Americans much credit in the first place. Her only mention of the US in the main “Harry Potter” books comes in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” where there was a coven of American witches with “a spangled banner stretched between their tents that read: THE SALEM WITCHES’ INSTITUTE” at the Quidditch World Cup. In “Quidditch Through the Ages,” she writes that the US Quidditch teams are inferior to the Canadian ones, and that Americans like to play a knockoff game called “Quodpot.”
The only real-life political controversy Rowling commented on is in the second-to-last paragraph of her MACUSA piece. She mentions that the American wizarding community, like the real-life No-Maj one, uses the death penalty.
“A significant difference between the wizarding governments of the United States and the UK of this time was the penalty for serious crime,” Rowling writes. “Whereas British witches and wizards were sent to Azkaban, the worst criminals in America were executed.”
Rowling is trying to assert a higher moral ground: Britain doesn’t have the death penalty while the barbaric Americans do. But readers should not forget that one of her British characters, Remus Lupin, once said that the Dementor’s Kiss, still issued to British criminals, is even worse than death.
So, is J.K. Rowling taking a dig at American culture? Of course not — she just doesn’t quite know how to write about it.
Rowling’s universe may be fantasy, but she seems to be taking liberally from very real people and events. Writers don’t always have to write what they know, but in this case, more research would have gone a long way.
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