I grew up reading Harry Potter, and it shaped my life to the extent that I have a Deathly Hallows tattoo. As an adult, I wish J.K. Rowling would just me enjoy her books in peace.
Harry Potter hit me at just the right age—namely, ten, when I still had time to hope that I’d get a Hogwarts acceptance letter in the mail. I started reading the series around the time the third book was released, and family friends brought me back an early copy from their visit to England. Like a lot of children at the time, I was hooked on Rowling’s vision of magic, and her righteous hero, the eponymous Harry Potter. Seeing the strength of this literal child’s convictions was inspiring to me. He always tried to do the right thing, even if he was at times a bit dim. Also, just like Harry’s friend Hermione Granger, the brightest witch of her age, I also had buck-teeth, bushy hair, and was an insufferable know it all. I was destined to become an incorrigible Harry Potter fangirl.
I stayed a fan as an adult, too. Years later, my then-boyfriend brought over a friend of his who had been training to become a tattoo artist, and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. The relatively simple design of the Deathly Hallows, a plot point from the final books, seemed like an obvious choice for me. It’s a vertical line encased in a triangle and a circle, a simple enough design for someone still learning to tattoo people. Also, at that point, my love of Harry Potter had stayed with me through my twenties. I’ll probably like it forever, I thought, or at least be able to justify that the series had been a significant enough part of my life.
Now, nearing 30, that tattoo is as much a source of embarrassment as it is a source of pride. It’s not like Harry Potter is any less a part of my life, or that the books suddenly got bad. I have some quibbles with Rowling’s world building—how does magic work, exactly?—but they’re the same funny, readable books they always were. The issue is that Rowling can’t seem to help herself from tacking more details on to the books after the fact, and as far as I’m concerned, her additions have only made the series worse.
For me, the trouble started with Rowling’s declaration, after the series was finished, that Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore was gay. This was not an unwelcome piece of knowledge, but Rowling’s method of delivering the information did puzzle me. If Dumbledore’s sexuality was important to understanding him as a character, why wasn’t that explicit in the books? There aren’t any characters in the Harry Potter series that have a same-sex partner, and Dumbledore was beloved. Up until his death, he had largely seemed to be celibate, and the only hint that he might have gotten close with anyone at all was in the final book, which described his relationship with the dark wizard Grindelwald. When I read that book, Dumbledore’s closeness with Grindelwald did strike me as possibly romantic, at least on Dumbledore’s part. But I also knew that other readers could come away thinking that it was just a close friendship, especially because Grindelwald didn’t appear to be as devoted to Dumbledore as he was to him. If the message of Harry Potter was about tolerance and acceptance, then why not just make him gay in text?
Since that Dumbledore reveal, Rowling has added even more details to her series retroactively. When Rowling came under fire from fans for not supporting a cultural boycott of Israel (some fans told her Harry would be disappointed in her), she wrote a Twitlonger explaining her stance and implied that, by the end of the books, Harry would be on her side. “There comes a moment in the final book, though, when Harry, whose natural inclination is to fight, to rush to action, to lead from the front, is forced to stop and consider the cryptic message the dead Dumbledore has left him,” she wrote. In this moment, Harry knows there is a powerful weapon that he could use, but ultimately opts not to. “Harry cannot understand why using that weapon would be harmful, yet—grudgingly—he decides to act against his own instinct, and according to what he believes are Dumbledore’s wishes,” she continued.
A cultural boycott of a country is hardly the same as a powerful magic weapon. That’s beside the point, though. Harry Potter has many allegorical elements, and Rowling is using her books to explain her point of view. In the process, though, she’s also giving us Harry’s supposed stance on Israel and Palestine, and because she’s the author, does that mean it’s canon? This question came up again when Rowling was annoyed that fans of her work kept comparing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to Dumbledore.
Rowling is free to dislike Corbyn, but her readers are also free to draw parallels from her books into their own lives. At least, that’s the logic behind the literary criticism practice of “Death of the Author,” although in this case, the author has seemingly made Harry Potter a living document, since she keeps on tweeting more additions to the text. Her insistence that Harry Potter must be read one way—her way—and her continuing to add on revisions to the text has only made me like the books less. It also reveals problems within the text that I was able to overlook, at least until Rowling kept pointing out the extent to which her own politics are supposedly supported by her characters.
When she talks about whether or not her characters are like Corbyn, who campaigns for a Labour party that supports the many and not the few, I can’t help but remember that while she criticizes the classism of old, rich families like the Malfoys, similar prestigious families like the Potters don’t get the same scrutiny. When she waffles on whether or not to boycott Israel (and claims Harry would have felt the same way), I recall the strange portrayal of race is portrayed in her books—both the portrayal of her “fantasy” races and the human races from our actual world. There’s the house elves, who are totally okay with their perpetual enslavement, and then there’s the human characters of color, who are simply not given the same amount of character development as other characters in Harry Potter.
The major characters of color, like Dean Thomas, Cho Chang or Parvati Patil, rarely take the spotlight. In Thomas’ case, the official Harry Potter lore website Pottermore reported that Rowling had intended for him to have a bigger part in the first book, but that “his backstory was cut to make way for Neville Longbottom’s (necessary) storyline.” Patil and Chang both serve as short-term love interests for Potter and Ron Weasley respectively, until both heroes end up with the (white) girls that they eventually marry. Patil and Chang’s affections are portrayed as either over-emotional and draining or superficial and flighty. None of these characters get the growth or empathy that Rowling’s main trio do. As much as I related to Hermione growing up, I wished there was a major character that turned the tides of the Second Wizarding War that was also black, like I am.
Notably, in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Hermione is portrayed by a black actress. The play has also sparked debate among Potter fans who think that aspects of it don’t line up with the accepted canon. Those additional elements, including the question of Hermione’s race in the books, remain in limbo. Rowling, meanwhile, has pointed out that “white skin was never specified” for Hermione in the books. So, it’s perfectly conceivable that Hermione could be black, but she’s also portrayed in the movies by Emma Watson, whose sleek curls are a far cry from the bushy hair that comes out of my head.
It’s also weird that there are no explicitly Jewish characters in a series of books that makes analogues to and draws on the imagery of the Holocaust. The prison that Grindelwald built to house his opponents, in which he was later jailed, is called Nurmengard. That name sounds very similar to Nuremberg, a site of Nazi rallies that later became the site of a prison for Nazi war criminals. The villainous Voldemort also preaches about the purity of blood and his intentions to wipe out wizards from mixed families. The ethos of the Death Eaters, his followers, also echoes that “blood purity” ethos of real-life white supremacist groups, as well as Nazi Germany, which introduced blood purity laws.
Now, Rowling has said that Anthony Goldstein was Jewish in the series, although it’s not mentioned in the books at all. If she can include a tutorial on how to pronounce “Hermione” disguised as a conversation between the heroine and her then boyfriend Viktor Krum in the fourth book, you’d think Rowling would have found a way to include one Jewish character.
In Fantastic Beasts 2, the next entry in the Harry Potter franchise, Rowling has yet again introduced a new element to her text. Nagini, Voldemort’s pet snake and a macguffin late in the series, has been revealed to be an East Asian woman that was cursed to be a snake. Rowling has explained that her inspiration for this came from Indonesian mythology, as well as Betawi, Chinese and Javanese cultures. Yet the actress who plays this character is South Korean. She will eventually be an evil white man’s pet, and retroactively, this disturbing piece of information about Nagini is now canon.
The Harry Potter books feel like an ever-growing house of cards. Rowling can’t seem to help herself from adding more and more cards to the tower, and even though all I want to do is cherish my memories of reading these books as a child, I can’t look away from the impending disaster.