With a new "eighth story" play out and the first of five new films set to debut soon, the million-dollar question for Harry Potter scholars is “What counts as canon?” For the past three years, a small, dedicated group of scholars has met annually at the SWPACA conference in Albuquerque, NM, (and now also at our sister conference at Chestnut Hill College) and we have been debating this issue since Cursed Child was just a short-story idea glint in Rowling’s eye. The debates have been contentious at times, but as our Chair, Chris Bell, put it, we reached an “intellectual truce” in a five-part division of Potter canon.
Five parts? Why? The Harry Potter fandom and HP Studies is highly inclusive and widely interdisciplinary. Limiting the canon question to the traditional “is or isn’t” distinction violates the fundamental nature of HP Studies and what the series means to fans. A five-part conception makes room for all the different contributions to the Potterverse while still providing a sense of vital differentiation between artifacts.Think of it like a filing cabinet versus an in/out tray: The filing cabinet has a place for everything; you just have to find the right drawer for each Potter artifact instead of saying it's either "in" or "out."
So what are these categories and why? The first is plain old canon, for almost every institution has a “measuring rod” by which it defines itself. The movies have become their own cultural phenomena, but they still require canon as an antecedent, so we dubbed these alternative (alt-) canon. We borrowed Genette’s term to label para-canon, those important HP artifacts that influence how we understand canon but which still rely on canon. Fan Studies scholars have long theorized fanon, and we saw no need to reinvent their work. This left JKR’s (constant) commentary, which became meta-canon. My video gives specifics on what Potter artifacts belong in each category.
The SWPACA Harry Potter scholars have found these distinctions a suitable method for distinguishing the different aspects of the Potterverse in ways that may help limit scholarly in-fighting as we work to gain institutional credit and respect for our work on Harry Potter.
Thank you to In Media Res for including my work in the Harry Potter Universe week!
I really enjoyed the hermeneutic deconstruction on how we determine what canon is. As a Harry Potter fan since the fourth grade, I always feel like I have my own alternate Potter-verse floating in my head of how I interpret the series (inclusive of lgbtq and poc characters abound!). By breaking down canon into 5 subsets, I think it is really inclusive and fluid for everyone's interpretation of the series to be valid. I really enjoy that you allow for multiplicity and working in between the unity of contraries to decide what can be considered valid. Bravo! (Side note: there is a Harry Potter conference? Sign me up!)
So glad you all did this
So glad you all did this analytical work for the rest of us. Who would have thought, when the last Harry Potter book was being released, that we would have so many different types of cannon in Harry Potter?
Congratulations, this is a very interesting post! I really like the five-part division of the HP canon you all came to! As a researcher on Game of Thrones’ fandom, I am similarly trying to analyze the GOT franchise, and I absolutely love the metaphor of the filing cabinet: it is exactly the kind of spirit that is needed to include as much as possible into a franchise’s universe. I carefully looked at what was in each of the 5 parts you describe and I had a question: where do you put the merchandizing? Not the fan-made one, which falls into the fanon of course, but the official HP and licensed one? Is it para-canon or do you rule it out entirely of the HP canon?
Hi Lauren. Interesting video and an interesting topic - I completely understand why it causes endless debates! I agree that arguments about what is and isn't canon can be reductive and exclusionary, so I'm very interested by your more diverse categories. You mentioned on my post about JKR that you've also interrogated this five-part split in more detail, so I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you selected certain texts/products for your categories, and whether you think the categories are hard-and-fast or perhaps more fluid? I was thinking that Fantastic Beasts, for instance, is a difficult phenomenon to assess, because while it's technically an adaptation of the Comic Relief book, its narrative is wholly original. Cursed Child is another problematic text because it does knowingly intersect with fandom but is co-created by Rowling. I think the transmedial nature of Harry Potter - and its numerous interwoven texts/media - resists neat categorisation. That's something that should be celebrated, and is part of what makes Harry Potter so important to study, but it's no wonder the canon debate continues to rage.
Delayed Response - Sorry! Answer for Cassie
Thanks for your feedback! I also appreciate your enthusiastic reception of this canon arrangement and your commentary on the HP fandom. The selection of and assigning of different things to the five parts came from EXTENSIVE discussions at the Harry Potter Studies Division at SWPACA...and yet we still don't all agree where some things go! I still stand by my decision to put Cursed Child as paracanon, though I think I could be convinced that it belongs with the films in the "alternative canon" category. (Aside, I want to use "alternative" from now on, since the alt-right has irreversibly politicized the "alt-" prefix.) Cheers! LC
Delayed Response - Sorry! Answer for Julie
Thanks for your enthusiastic feedback, Julie! I'd definitely put the merch in the paracanon. The merch is, after all, at least half of what it means to visit the Wizarding World (just like it is for Disney)! Cheers! LC
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