The Polyjuice Potion Has Worn Off
Why I have lost respect for J.K. Rowling—and what she must do to regain it.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
My childhood has always stood at a crossroads between fantasy and reality. I always believed—to some extent—that the universe I had immersed myself in was real. Perhaps in some parallel universe, I would wield my aspen phoenix-feather wand, taking care to say “Wingardium leviOsa,” not “leviosA.” Perhaps in that universe, I’d dance away troubles and trials until midnight and wake to stars in the sky.
Yet in unprecedented times, I can no longer afford to stand at these crossroads. The crushing reality of George Floyd’s murder, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, has left me grasping for remnants of the fantasy worlds I so cherished.
There was a time when the announcement of a new J.K Rowling book—Harry Potter or not—would have fans like me raising Butterbeers in celebration. Rowling’s novels have sold over 500 million copies worldwide and created a loyal fanbase of Potterheads, much to the derision of Muggles and Squibs.
Why then is there a muted response toward her new book?
Rowling began unveiling “The Ickabog” on May 26, intended for children, and will continue to release it chapter by chapter, free of charge until July 10. The online release comes with an illustration competition, in which winning drawings will be featured in the book’s print edition.
Three days after the release of “The Ickabog,” however, Rowling shared a drawing from a nine-year-old girl on Twitter accompanied by the accidental copy-and-pasted commentary: “In court, Wolf claimed the Facebook post in which he’d said he wanted to ‘[EXPLETIVE] up some TERFs’ was just ‘bravado.’”
This refers to trans activist Tara Wolf, who was found guilty of assaulting transphobic activist Maria MacLachlan in 2018. Though it isn’t identical, the language in the tweet is similar to a transphobic transcription of the trial, in which Wolf is misgendered.
The tweet also mentions TERFs, which stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” TERFs believe a trans woman’s identity is illegitimate and further assert that trans people and gender diverse individuals threaten the feminist movement.
Though Rowling didn’t intend to send this tweet to a young child, this comment is not surprising given that she has voiced controversial transphobic opinions before. It is also an undeniable fact that “Harry Potter” fails at diverse representation. Out of the 1,207 minutes across all “Harry Potter” films, characters of color speak for a grand total of five minutes and forty seconds. In an attempt to be more inclusive, Rowling has made numerous additions to the “Harry Potter” series that have failed to achieve the desired impact. Though the final installment of “Harry Potter” hit the shelves over 13 years ago, Rowling hasn’t stopped.
Dumbledore is gay. Nagini is a cursed Asian woman. Hermione is aracial. Call it creative liberty; call it retconning; call it blasphemy; I dislike it.
These retrospective revisions don’t serve any other purpose than to boost Rowling’s reputation. Diversity in literature usually gives the novel’s message a lasting impact. But slapping on labels and ethnicities doesn’t equal diversity, especially if there hasn’t been a pre-established connection in literature. If Rowling had attempted to incorporate these changes into the original series or the “Fantastic Beasts” movies, they might have held meaning or importance. The additions do not, which is why they are problematic.
“Harry Potter” wasn’t written to deal with the social complexity of the real world. It was written as a fantasy world of adventure, loyalty, bravery, and magic. Hogwarts shouldn’t have to expand to fit the real world since the whole point of a fantasy is to create an escape from reality.
Each step Rowling makes toward amending the series simply pushes it further into the darkness. Most stories with impactful, racially diverse characters do not add every possible ethnicity into the plot. Rowling’s attempts at adding diversity to the characters in the series only emphasize how she is missing the point. Rowling’s “progressive” additions do not fulfill their intended purpose, which is to cultivate representation and inclusivity.
The saying “never meet your heroes” is true. Rowling used to be one of mine, and it's heartbreaking to see her fall.
Unfortunately in the current world, art is often inexorably linked to the artist. Try as I might, I cannot disassociate Rowling’s “progressivism” and transphobic views each time I reread the series.Rowling, however, is beginning to redeem herself through “The Ickabog.” The first 10 chapters that have been released shine some light onto Rowling’s current predicament.
“The Ickabog” conjures a fantasy world devoid of excess references to race, gender, or sexuality. It revives the magic and spark of “Harry Potter” and presents Rowling at her finest. In the prosperous country of Cornucopia, the celebrated but rather vain king, Fred the Fearless, rules. Rowling’s writing, though simplistic at times, is consistently timeless, filled with clever quips and colorful splendor. The kingdom stretches from the lush, comfortable parts of Baronstown, Chouxville, Kurdsburg, and Jeroboam to the comparably barren Marshlands and outsiders who reside there. Rowling’s well-crafted exposition creates a vivid landscape ready for the reader to devour—filled with potent pastries, wines, and cheeses. The following chapters dive into the intrigue to come: the legend of the Ickabog, a mythical monster said to devour sheep and children alike.
“‘The Ickabog’ is a story about truth and the abuse of power,” Rowling wrote. “The themes are timeless and could apply to any era or any country.”
Timeless indeed. Though I cannot see myself—after all, a fourth-year at Hogwarts—reading “The Ickabog” as a bedtime story, I can imagine the splendor and wonder the tale will bring home to younger readers across the world amidst the current times of chaos and uncertainty. The death of Floyd, coupled with the pandemic, makes the future seem bleak and daunting. “The Ickabog” offers the escapism that fantasy novels are made for.