Harry Potter and the ‘Word of God’

Jamie Parker, Sam Clemmett and Poppy Miller star in “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Photo by Charlie Gray via The New York Times.

The Harry Potter play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” opens at the end of July after several weeks of previews. The New York Times’ Sarah Lyall had a nice piece about the anticipation of it all, which then took a turn into a discussion of why authors can’t let go of their characters — especially when fans are involved. I was particularly struck by this passage:

But not everyone agrees, and this speaks to a debate deep within fandom culture, starting with what counts as the canon in a fictional world like Harry Potter’s. Should the plot snippets that Ms. Rowling lets slip — that Hagrid can’t conjure the soul-like being known as a Patronus, that Hogwarts has Jewish students but not Wiccans, for instance — be considered part of the series, or something outside and apart? (In fan fiction, ex parte remarks by an author or, in the case of a television show, by a writer are known as the Word of God.)

“Some people say the canon is within the actual covers of the seven books and that anything she says afterward you should take as opinion,” Ms. Anelli said. “Others say that anything she says is true, no matter if it’s on Pottermore or on Twitter or wherever — no matter what she says, it’s canonical.”

Reminds me of Sayre’s Law, a saying sometimes credited to Henry Kissinger:  “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

I mean, who gets to decide?

You’d think that Rowling, the “God” of Harry Potter World, would have the final decision. After all, it’s her creation, starting with that fateful 1990 train ride from London to Manchester in which she first came up with the character. She’s incorporated bits of her life, reflections of the world at large and a distinctive British whimsy into the whole stew. (I’m still fonder of the first three books than the last four because of the Monty Python/Douglas Adams tone, one that got lost amidst the dark doings of He Who Must Not Be Named and his followers.)

But these things take on a life of their own. Just as George R.R. Martin, who’s long been pressured to hurry up and finish “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Or Arthur Conan Doyle, who killed off Sherlock Holmes only to bring him back after a public outcry. Or George Lucas, who went and changed his own movies. (He made no secret of his weariness in interviews prior to “The Force Awakens.”)

The irony is that Sayre’s Law probably doesn’t even apply, because the stakes are actually pretty high in these days of intellectual property and billion-dollar franchises. Harry Potter isn’t just a seven-book series; it’s a very profitable film franchise, a theme park, a website … it’s an empire. And decisions in that empire mean not just power, but money.

So who gets to decide? God, his disciples or the tribe?

It’s a never-ending argument.

Because humans like doing this, don’t we? If something is popular enough to inspire a group of people, inevitably they argue over what matters and what doesn’t. No wonder “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” had such fun with adherence to doctrine.

It can make for some pretty petty arguments — or pretty big wars.

I prefer to think of what a rabbi used to tell my old Torah study group. He’d start a session asking what was on our minds, which could range from Middle East politics to celebrity gossip. That would lead to opinions and arguments and the usual mishegas. Soon enough, some people would press him to get to this week’s Torah portion.

“It’s OK,” he would smile. “It’s all Torah.”


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