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The Continuing Story of the Boy Who Lived

Arts & Culture | February 18, 2014

A few weeks ago, J.K. Rowling shocked fans of the Harry Potter series by questioning her plot decisions in an interview with Harry Potter actress Emma Watson for Wonderland Magazine. During the interview, the author admitted that she regretted romantically pairing characters Ron and Hermione, saying that Hermione should have married Harry instead of Ron. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron,” she explained. “It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility.”

This comment has begun a massive online debate, questioning the appropriateness of revising work post-publication and drawing attention to the continuing world of Harry Potter. Seven years after the publication of the final book and three years after the release of the last film, the world of Harry Potter is still alive and well in popular culture and mainstream media. The rise of the wizarding sport quidditch on college campuses, the continuation of Harry Potter fanfiction writing, and the creation of apps, such as the Parseltongue Translator, point to the vibrancy of the Harry Potter community.

Rowling’s recent comment has highlighted the extent to which she is still editing the Harry Potter universe. Rowling’s website, Pottermore, allows users to actively engage with the saga, retelling the story in an interactive format and releasing Rowling’s thoughts and unpublished texts. She has written three Harry Potter spinoff books based on textbooks that Harry and other Hogwarts students read in the series: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In September, Rowling and Warner Bros. announced their plan to create a Harry Potter spinoff movie focusing on the adventures of Newt Scamander, the fictional author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling’s website also publicized her intent to create a theatrical version of Harry Potter with theater producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender.

This continual release of new Harry Potter information has received mixed responses from fans. An article about the subject on the Harry Potter news source, Mugglenet, received 718 comments, and Twitter exploded with tweets about the breaking news. “Vindication at last! H/Hr Forever!” Mugglenet user Christina Hardin posted on the website. Tufts freshman Avneet Soin was more critical, saying, “I honestly thought it was a little bit publicity oriented.” Freshman Lucy Kania stands in the middle. “I think some of the info she releases on Pottermore is really, really great. It’s exciting and it keeps the work alive,” she concedes. “I think it’s exciting to learn new things, but I don’t think she can take back anything. I don’t know why she had to rain on all of our happy parades.”

The comment regarding Hermione’s romantic choices followed another  controversial announcement by Rowling in 2007. “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay,” she declared, referring to Harry’s headmaster and mentor. The famous “outing” was met with applause, though some readers felt it better to leave the books as they were. In a letter to Rowling published in Entertainment Weekly, Erin Strecker wrote, “It kills a little bit of the magic when I hear statements from you that contradict what I’ve read dozens and dozens of times.… My greatest Potter-related wish now is that these new additions don’t come at the expense of what we first learned and loved in the novels.”

Rowling’s return to the story comes as a surprise considering her website’s statement, “I have no immediate plans to write another Harry Potter novel and I do think that I have rounded off Harry’s story in the seven published books.” Yet after publishing two adult books, The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling is returning to the world of Harry Potter, although the new film does not relate directly to Harry’s story.  “Her later books had not-so-great reviews.… She has such a legacy from the Harry Potter series, it’s hard for her to part with it,” Soin speculates.

Rowling is not the first to revisit a work after its assumed completion. The upcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is comparable to famous fantasy author JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Like the upcoming Harry Potter film, The Hobbit is set in the same land as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy but tells a separate story with separate characters. Tolkien also revised his work after publication, making certain changes to The Hobbit to accommodate his later work in Lord of the Rings. Likewise, Charles Dickens rewrote the ending of his coming of age tale, Great Expectations, after a friend told him that the initial ending was too depressing.

“Books belong to their readers,” tweeted young adult fiction author John Green after the release of Rowling’s Harry/Hermione comment. To a large extent this is true of the Harry Potter saga, which continues to be crafted by its readers through HarryPotterfanfiction.com, an online forum through which fans post stories inspired by the Harry Potter series. As of Wednesday, 81,479 stories had been published on the site. In many ways, Harry Potter has taken on an aura similar to that of the Odyssey and the Iliad centuries ago. These stories were passed down orally, with storytellers revising them as they were told. More recently, the characters of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond have been employed in the stories of many different authors. Through fan fiction, Kania remarks, “Harry Potter is the popular mythology of our generation.”

So will Harry Potter continue as a permanent cultural institution? A July Guardian poll indicates it might, with 68% of respondents voting that the Harry Potter series “deserves to be considered a classic.” Some literary critics have augmented the series’ relevance by deeming it worthy of literary analysis, such as in Elizabeth E. Heilman’s book, Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. “When Shakespeare was writing it wasn’t literature, it was popular entertainment,” says Kania. “No one was thinking, ‘in 400 years people will be standing around in an English classroom talking about this.’ I think that’s comparable to Harry Potter.” “Of course it’s a classic,” asserts Sophomore Stina Stannik. ” It’s more that just a book… I think nothing else has come close to having the cultural resonance that this did.”