“All was well.” Those were the famous last words when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows published almost nine years ago. Harry watched his children Albus Severus, James, and Lilly board the Hogwarts Express, and, after readers turned the last page, we were all left to believe that the new generation of the Wizarding World got whisked away to shining days full of Fizzing Whizzbees, and that our time in the world of Harry Potter was over.
It wasn’t though. The Wizarding World is not done with us mere Muggles (or No-Majs for us American Potterheads). It’s a whole franchise now, with stories both beyond Harry Potter and before him, surpassing and contextualizing the original seven books. It makes sense, then, that if the world is expanding, so is the conflict. Conflict makes for adventure. Adventure gives characters we love opportunities not only to entertain us, but to grow and change themselves. In an ongoing story, you can’t say, “All was well.” In an ongoing story, that sentence is impossible.
And so Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with a story developed with Rowling’s participation, but scripted by Jack Thorne and directed for the stage by John Tiffany, starts at the precise moment when all was well, and makes the decision to show readers how it wasn’t. Over the course of the story, Harry and Albus Severus butt heads because his youngest son doesn’t want to bear the burden of his father’s legacy, and Harry, for his part, finds it extremely difficult to raise this child in particular (readers see James and Lilly briefly, but they seem to be doing okay for themselves, and don’t receive much page time in the script). The two-part play becomes a story about fathers and sons, the burden of rising to meet the glory of legends, the sad truth that we must confront death with a clear heart, the realization that we can change neither ourselves nor those we love, and that, no matter what we are, we are stronger in friendship. These are all familiar themes to the lifelong Harry Potter fan.
It’s not surprising, though, that this has bothered some of the fandom. There are comparisons of Cursed Child to fanfiction because the plot makes heavy use of Time Turners, the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and alternate outcomes for the beloved characters, especially romantically. Furthermore, there are fans elsewhere on the Internet who, fueled by these complaints, are basically saying, “I don’t like this new thing, so it’s not real.” In addition, a popular justification of this is that, while Rowling said this new story is canon, she didn’t write the play herself; therefore, it can be disregarded.
This isn’t a new concept. One of the more popular examples of the phenomenon that I’ve heard involves the general derision of the Star Wars prequel films. After Disney’s purchase of the franchise, some fans would insist that the prequels are canon only because Disney is forced to acknowledge them, as they were created pre-Disneyfication of the galaxy far, far away. Other than that token acknowledgement, however, those films would, according to this fan thinking, disappear into obscurity. This isn’t the case, of course, as we can see by Asohka’s and Maul’s prominence in Star Wars Rebels, as well as other notable inclusions of The Clone Wars and prequel-era characters in Disney’s new content (most recently, the reveal that Forest Whitaker’s Rogue One character is actually Saw Geurrera, a minor character in a later arc of the Clone Wars series, and that Jimmy Smitts’ Bail Organa will be in there as well).
Going back further, I think we can find some of the roots of modern dissection of pop culture canon in philosophy. In 1967, Roland Barthes wrote his famous essay “The Death of the Author,” in which he basically expresses (and I paraphrase here) that if readers remove the author’s intent from the work under scrutiny, they come to the text with fresh eyes, and have more of a responsibility to the text than the author does, because they have to interpret it with nothing to go on. Readers, in the absence of the author, have to imbew the text with purpose anew. Taking this into consideration, some of the editorial content appearing recently on sites like Mugglenet, with titles like “Why I Was Able to Enjoy Cursed Child,” make sense, and seems like an extrapolation of Barthes’ statement. If readers can’t reconcile their nostalgic love of the initial Harry Potter books with the new elements in Cursed Child, they can divorce the play from any intent Rowling et al have for the story to be official canon—the background information surrounding the play itself—look at it as an isolated piece, and enjoy it better.
But is this really the rationale in the current state of Harry Potter fandom, and popular culture at large? On television, we have Shonda Rhimes, one of the first show runners to be marketed to audiences as if she was a leading lady. In film, we have George Lucas, whose fingerprints, pre-Disney, were on most (if not all) cinematic or televised Star Wars products ever produced. Now, in literature, we have Rowling, the latest creator of an iconic fictional world who is just as much of a legend as her creation. Rowling’s icon status is, ironically, why some distinctions of canon regarding Cursed Child are happening in the first place; remember, she didn’t pen the script herself. Therefore, while I think the “Death of the Author” concept is in that mix somewhere, I don’t think it’s an actual cause, and definitely not a main ingredient, of this particular flavor of fan behavior surrounding Cursed Child.
Or Star Wars, for that matter. In the case of something like the prequels, using that thinking is hypocritical because there isn’t reciprocity, at least not yet. There has been general, overarching praise for the Star Wars franchise post-Lucas, but what happens if Rogue One doesn’t deliver on fans’ expectations? Disney has said all of its Star Wars content—including its films—is canon now, just like George Lucas said all of his Star Wars stories were when he was in charge of his own creation. If Rogue One doesn’t deliver, will fans rationalize those out of the canon? To return to Harry Potter: If Rowling’s forte isn’t screenwriting, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a dud, will displeased Potterheads delicately Obliviate that from their retinas as well?
For the record, I disagree with disgruntled Harry Potter fans’ concerns over Cursed Child. Are there tinges of ‘shipping? Sure. Ron is with Padma at one point, in a pairing I never would have imagined, but he finds his way back to Hermione, an Interstellar-like riff on the power of love transcending time, truly manifesting itself as the most powerful magic. Are there elements similar to Starkid’s A Very Potter Musical parodies? Installments from that series of plays and Cursed Child do center heavily on events in Goblet of Fire. Sure, but the recreation of the tasks literally offers new angles on the proceedings and lets the new characters run amok both with magic that must look spectacular on stage, and with relatable human emotion. By the last page of the script, I felt that this was the true resolution to Harry Potter’s story, more substantial and satisfying than the epilogue in Deathly Hallows.
And I think this was Rowling and her collaborators’ intent. To me, Deathly Hallows has issues, from pacing to emotionally vacuous deaths to—and this is my least favorite part—the introduction of all the wand lore upon which the whole book hinges, and on which it stalls repeatedly, even as Harry and Voldemort approach their final showdown. To me, the third act of a story should be about living in the house already built, not knocking out the living room wall and putting in a sunroom. By contrast, everything in Cursed Child stems from what came before, both thematically and narratively, and gives what a truly fulfilling epilogue should—a glimpse at the world beyond the struggle, which is, in true, daring Rowling fashion, more an emotional bed of Teething Tentaculas than roses.
And so here I come to another ingredient behind the “It’s not canon” stance: personal preference. I have to acknowledge that, and I have to respect it. I have my opinions which help me enjoy Cursed Child, and others have views that oppose mine. However, there is a point at which opinions go too far, are given too much credence, and at which members of any fandom use those emotions to throw up walls that allow them not to engage with a work beyond that initial knee jerk response. It’s naïve, it’s lazy, and it robs the fandoms we belong to of rich intellectual debate that can only deepen our communities’ appreciation of the stories that bring us together. I think there is always merit to be found in a story, especially in the stories that show audacity and originality, even if they fall short of what fans expect. It’s not enough to throw what we don’t like in a corner and give ourselves a free pass from seriously considering it, or learning from it. Without those interactions, our collective minds lack conflict, and conflict is what gives stories life, and gives life meaning.
I don’t have an answer to fan foibles. I don’t want to. But in the spirit of good conflicts, I will uphold Cursed Child as a pretty excellent close to the Harry Potter saga. I hope some of you disagree.