Critic's Notebook: J.K. Rowling's 'History of Magic in North America' Reads Like a High School Textbook

J.K. Rowling
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Unfortunately, the four works of short fiction that J.K. Rowling posted online last week possessed all the literary distinction and dramatic excitement of a high school history textbook.

J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in 2007. Since then, she has been more prolific than most novelists dream of being, having written, under her own name, the dispiriting and desultory The Casual Vacancy and, under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, three crime fiction novels.

But for the presumed millions of us who read, or read aloud to their children, every single word of the Potter novels and inevitably consumed all the resulting films, what really matters is the author's return to the spectral world behind the real one, the parallel realm of wizards and magical powers and sinister forces that Rowling so wondrously detailed in an epic work begun when she was a destitute single mother. This lingering appetite is about to be abundantly addressed this summer with the West End opening of a two-part play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which centers on Harry's son 19 years after the conclusion of the last book, and on Nov. 18 with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in a trilogy of films written by Rowling herself (starring Eddie Redmayne as a “magizoologist” arrived in New York City in 1926).

Coming in the wake of Warner Bros.' first trailer for the film, the publishing event of last week, such as it was, consisted of the daily posting, Tuesday through Friday, of four new Rowling “stories” under the banner History of Magic in North America. Dispiritingly, what appeared like clockwork each day on the Pottermore website cannot properly be called stories at all but instead resemble background notes for a press kit written to prepare journalists and the public for the forthcoming films.

The four brief texts, which steadily grow in length (as did the Potter books) from just five paragraphs to 11, cumulatively amount to a fictional precis detailing the development of witch and wizardly activity in the New World, both before and after 1492. They are called Fourteenth Century-Seventeenth Century, Seventeenth Century and Beyond, Rappaport's Law and 1920s Wizarding America, and the dryness of the titles is fully matched by the academic chapter descriptions.

As an appetizer intended to whet the appetite for Rowling's return with a fresh set of characters and stories, this History possesses all the literary distinction and dramatic excitement of a high school history textbook. And the yarn appears populated by figures none of whose names can begin to measure up to the sonorous and evocative likes of Draco Malfoy, Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape.

The author explains that, as wizards were to be found all over the world, they naturally existed amongst North American native dwellers, where Muggles, aka ordinary folks, were known as the “No-Maj” (as in non-magical). However, the author's decision that Native American wizards lacked the advanced technology of the wand, as well as her references to Navajo “skinwalkers,” evil humans who can rematerialize as animals, have already triggered the alarm for the ever-vigilant politically correct police to accuse Rowling both for cultural insult (for the natives' lack of invention) and “appropriation.” Reading further, however, one discovers that a key character in wizarding America of the 1920s is a genius Chocktaw wandmaker.

More eyebrow-raising, it would seem, is Rowling's anachronistic name for a secret society founded in 1693, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, an odd formulation given that the U.S. of A. itself was not created until nearly a hundred years later. Intriguingly, the author offers the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 as evidence of, first, greater New World intolerance for witchcraft than existed in Britain at the time and, second, of the need for the community to go deeper underground. The trials also gave rise to a prominent group called the Scourers, evil mercenaries (who, in Rowling's telling, were among the Salem judges) relentlessly devoted to ferreting out wizards who, as a result, were forced to become even more invisible in American society than they were in Europe.

This positioning of the wizarding community as being deeply hidden in American life would seem to be the main point of Rowling brief texts. One wonders if Rowling's research and imagination led her to consider mingling the Freemasons into her fictional brew, given the prominent role this group played among the founders, as well as in opposing the (wizard-oppressing) religious establishment so prevalent in Europe at the time. At the very least, a dovetailing of the Freemasons, with their significant anti-old guard and non-classist outlook, and the wizarding world would create some very intriguing dynamics.

On their own, Rowling's 36 background paragraphs do little to prepare the reader or create excitement for whatever Fantastic Beasts will be like, other than to illuminate the oppressive circumstances facing wizards in early 20th century America. And, unlike the trailer, it address the presence of “beasts” not at all. These posts represent a very academic teaser for what appears to be a more fanciful trilogy of films.

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