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Can The Harry Potter Fandom Survive A New Canon?

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I found the Harry Potter fandom in 2000. Giddy with the thrill of internet access at home, I googled my way from the official Warner Brothers website – which was promoting the imminent first movie – to the unofficial world of fan-made websites and Yahoo groups. Of course I joined HP4GU (Harry Potter for Grown-Ups), a busy hub of fan theories, but I also joined a Yahoo group dedicated only to the manners and motivations of Lucius Malfoy, because the fandom was already large enough to support niche interests. Nascent but already obsessive, the Harry Potter fandom was on the brink of an unprecedented revolution. It was about to move from mailing lists to LiveJournal and, from there, grow like one of Hagrid’s hatchlings into the beast we see today.

There are many reasons why the Harry Potter fandom became one of the most far-reaching and recognisable the world has ever seen: partly because of the immense international success of the books and films themselves, partly because of the way personal internet use grew as Harry did. But a great deal of it was because, at the turn of the millennium, every Harry Potter fan was about to wait three long years between the publication of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the fifth, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and a lot of fans filled that void with fan-made content. Goblet of Fire ends with a nail biting cliffhanger: Voldemort is back, Cedric is dead, Dumbledore has told the still-enigmatic Snape to go off and do something mysterious. With so many beloved characters in limbo, the Harry Potter fandom exploded, filling that void with fanfiction, fan art, and fan theories about what would happen next.

Millions of words of fanfiction were produced, shared on mailing lists, LiveJournal, and, later, dedicated archives like Fiction Alley, Sugar Quill, and the ubiquitous fanfiction.net. Often these fics were about relationships that didn’t happen on the page. There are thousands of stories about Hermione and Draco’s potential star-crossed romance, and even more about Sirius Black and Remus Lupin’s tragic puppy love. For Remus and Sirius, fandom did what it often does and stepped up to expand on the queer relationships that languished in subtext. For me, fandom became all-consuming. I wrote fic and essays. I was even part of huge online roleplaying communities, one set in the Hogwarts of the 1970s, one set in a future where Voldemort had won. By the time Order of the Phoenix finally arrived, the fandom had a momentum that wouldn’t stop.

It grew colossal. It had eras. Harry Potter fandom at its height was so huge, so multi-faceted and balkanised that there were parts of it that had no idea what it happening in other parts. I was so busy in my part of the fandom, writing stories about Remus Lupin and Sirius Black and the other characters of the Marauders era, I was never aware of the massive ship wars being fought over whether Hermione ought to date Ron or Harry. I only discovered some of those factions when I went to one of the earliest Potter fan conventions, Phoenix Rising, in New Orleans in 2007, as part of a panel about fanfiction and conventional publishing with fandom academic Henry Jenkins.

As the rest of the Harry Potter series was published we, the thrilled fandom, never wanted our tale to end. In the Mirror of Erised all we would have seen was more and more Harry Potter books, endless stories. But an end came, as we knew it must. Harry Potter is a story about mortality, about the complexity of death. It teaches us that death is something we must learn to accept. No matter how hard.

And you know who didn’t agree with that? Voldemort, that’s who. And, like Voldemort, the Harry Potter series came back from the dead, faster than you could say, “Hang on, what is Peter Pettigrew doing in the graveyard?”

The final book might have been published, but that didn’t mean the story was done. In interviews, J.K. Rowling began to reveal more about the world of Harry and his friends. She responded to critique of the lack of queer characters by saying Dumbledore was gay, which frustrated fans given that Sirius Black and Remus Lupin – and the line where Remus "embraced Black like a brother" – are, like, RIGHT. THERE. And one of the plots of book seven was Rita Skeeter’s scurrilous tell-all book about Dumbledore, which said nothing about Dumbledore’s romantic life. Did Skeeter really miss a scoop that big?

Then came the revelation that Ron and Hermione may not have been happy together after all, causing the reignition of one of the biggest Harry Potter shipping wars, long after that epilogue had closed the issue.

And then the Potter franchise revealed its first Horcrux – Pottermore – and it was clear that the Harry Potter story really was going to reach for immortality as if it had never read Deathly Hallows.

New Harry Potter canon became more expansive, causing more clashes with fandom. When Pottermore revealed details of the North American wizarding school Ilvermorny, not only were fans dismayed at the way the descriptions of the house’s origins made disrespectful use of Native American myths, but American fans who had long considered themselves Slytherins, say, or Ravenclaws, didn’t want to be sorted into a US house that didn’t have the same resonance for them as one of the big four from the books, when part of the point of claiming yourself a member of a particular Hogwarts house was part of a richer imagining of yourself as part of the beloved story.

These revelations, now the books are done, seem like afterthoughts and small in scope compared to the theories that Harry Potter fans have already come up with. There are essays and videos postulating that that Snape is a vampire, that Draco is a werewolf, and that Voldemort’s pet and soul-holder Nagini is the same snake that Harry frees from London Zoo in the first Harry Potter book. J.K. Rowling has claimed that none of these theories are true, but does that really matter? Now the books are done, Harry Potter belongs to the fans. And, look, there really is a lot of evidence that Draco got bitten by Fenrir Greyback.

What I am saying here is, do we really need Pottermore when fanfiction.net alone houses over 700,000 waxings on the past and future of every Harry Potter character imaginable? Can you really expect the reveal that Dumbledore is gay to have that much impact on a fandom that has already convincingly argued that Dumbledore is both a time-travelled Ron Weasley and death itself?

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In 2015, when the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was announced with a plot shrouded in secrecy and a marketing campaign saying that this was the eighth part of the series, fans were initially excited by the idea of a substantial new slice of Harry Potter.

In the run-up to the first night, hopes were high, the secrets of the plot were well-kept, and the show was positively reviewed by theatre critics. Tumblr had already buzzed with approval at the news that a black actor, Noma Dumezweni, had been cast as Hermione. (Fan theories placing both Hermione and Harry as people of colour had long been popular in fandom, drawing on the book’s explicit plots about the Death Eaters' efforts to preserve wizarding racial purity.) But when the book of the script was released to great fanfare and huge sales, the Harry Potter fandom was almost universally scathing.

The plot of Cursed Child was described by the fandom as being like “bad fanfiction”, with many even comparing it to My Immortal – notoriously the worst fanfiction story ever written (and a personal favourite of mine). It’s not to hard to see why fans drew these conclusions: My Immortal’s plot also revolves around time-turners, young Voldemort, and a mysteriously beautiful girl. A ridiculous line from the show worthy of Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way herself – “You’re ruining Voldemort Day!” – became a running joke on Tumblr.

Cursed Child also leans hard on one of fandom’s earliest obsessions, the fractious relationship between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, focusing on the intense friendship between Harry’s son Albus and Draco’s son Scorpius. Fans saw this relationship as toying with the way Harry and Draco were shipped back in the day, making it feel like queer-baiting.

The jumping-off point for Cursed Child is the death of Cedric Diggory, which happens at the end of Goblet of Fire. This is the very same point from which the fandom leapt when we were left on that cliff for a three-year hiatus, meaning a lot of the material in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – the Marauders Era, the grown-up golden trio – is inevitably well-covered by the fandom. It’s our territory. The Cursed Child plot about a world where Voldemort had won was something I’d explored as part of that roleplaying group 15 years earlier.

There’s a quote that goes around on Tumblr that is often attributed to Henry Jenkins, who I sat with on that Phoenix Rising panel a decade ago, although there seems to be some confusion about whether he said it. It’s almost as if the quote itself is a piece of Henry Jenkins fanfiction. It runs: “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.” The popularity of this idea on Tumblr suggests that fandom doesn’t always see canon as a benevolent source of inspiration. Sometimes it’s something we need to rescue our characters from. More canon can just mean more stories we need to repair. Or, worse, canon returning to mess up the fixes we’ve made to a story we found lacking.

Fandom, though, is the last place anyone should feel that their ideas of how a story should be told aren’t welcome. When it’s the creator – with all the extra weight that brings – and when their ideas feel like a retread of things fans were doing decades ago, fan disappointment is inevitable. Especially when, by coming back from the dead, the Harry Potter canon is undermining the key message of the books about the acceptance of endings.

Perhaps the solution lies in what Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has chosen to do. There are fan concerns about the Fantastic Beasts movies – around the casting of Johnny Depp and the first film's lack of characters of colour – but these issues seem resolvable, unlike the horrorstruck reaction to Cursed Child. And by telling a story (the rise of Grindelwald) that was detailed far later in the book series, it’s found a place where there is much less fandom content to compete with. Back in 2000, we had barely even heard of Grindelwald.

Interestingly, Fantastic Beasts is already developing a fandom of its own, with fans spotting slash-y potential in the charged relationship between Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves and Ezra Miller’s tormented Credence Barebone. Tumblr has also noted that thanks to that comment by Rowling about Dumbledore’s sexuality, we should be seeing a “young, hot, gay Dumbledore” in the Fantastic Beasts movies. Given fandom’s frequent preoccupation with male/male relationships, this seems like something that could generate a lot of excitement.

With fandom coming along to fill in the gaps left by Fantastic Beasts, the natural order is being restored. Fantastic Beasts feels like a new story, not a reanimated noseless monster. Once again, fans are playing with the creator’s toys, and not the other way around. Like Fawkes the Phoenix, the Harry Potter fandom rises again to spread its wings. So – while we're waiting for the second movie – can I interest you in a controversial fan theory that Fawkes is Dumbledore’s own Horcrux?


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