harry potter world building

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: the current state of J.K. Rowling’s beloved universe is…unsteady.)

Earlier this year, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world went to shit. Literally. The Pottermore Twitter account resurfaced an innocuous piece of trivia that described the wizarding world before it had discovered indoor plumbing, in which witches and wizards would use a vanishing spell after they had, ahem, done their business. The Harry Potter fandom went wild at the prospect of wizards shitting their pants for hundreds of years. It was exactly the kind of world-building misstep for which Rowling had become infamous in recent years: constantly revising the enchanting world she had created until it felt like the entire series was just built out of trivia.

Worse yet, it’s trivia that revises her previously white, previously heterosexual world into one that feels performatively “woke” — as was the case with her most recent egregious piece of trivia: that Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an “intense” sexual relationship, which of course we’ll never get to see onscreen. It’s like if Michaelangelo had kept returning to the Sistine Chapel to layer on more inches of oil paint until his masterpiece became an unrecognizable mess.

But the thing is, that first scatalogical fact wasn’t a new piece of lore that Rowling had written for the account. In fact, it was a line from the books. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling had included an offhand mention at the wizarding world’s primitive way of expelling their bodily substances, and people mostly forgot about it. Why would they forget such an insane piece of world-building? Because it wasn’t world-building as much as it was a tongue-in-cheek gag that was typical of the whimsical tone that characterized the early Harry Potter books. Something that has been lost.

Trading Whimsy for World-Building

It’s been so long since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 that it’s easy to forget the first books were more fanciful than fantastical. The early pages of The Philosopher’s Stone were utterly, hilariously mundane, with Rowling gradually introducing the more eccentric elements of her greater magical world into the dull suburban lives of the Dursleys. Shades of Roald Dahl can be found in Rowling’s descriptions of the outrageously terrible Dursley family, who were almost cartoonishly terrible: the doltish brown-noser husband, the skinny gossiping wife, the spoiled and piggish son. The Dursleys heightened characteristics would be totally out of place in today’s grim franchise, but in the children’s novel that was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, they were the perfect villains.

That heightened tone would continue as we got to know the wizarding world. It was a tone distinguished by visual gags and storytelling quirks that still never dampened the awe of a lonely orphan boy discovering himself to be the most important person in a magical world. Rowling had a knack for turning a funny image like a flock of owls descending upon an unassuming cul-de-sac into a pivotal emotional moment. Or she would undercut a dramatic narrative arc with a joke about wizard poop. The blend of heart and hilarity would embody Harry Potter’s signature style for years, and could be credited as the reason children around the globe became drawn to the series.

That’s not to say the early Harry Potter books were written exclusively for children. Rowling’s very dry, very British witticisms managed to pull double duty of keeping the story light while giving adults something to enjoy as well. Those linguistic inside jokes — naming the werewolf professor “Remus Lupin” (Remus being the name of a brother in Roman mythology raised by a wolf and “Lupin” literally meaning…”wolf”) or making the killing curse a homophone for the gibberish magic spell “abracadabra” — added to Harry Potter’s universal appeal and helped it transcend its children’s genre label. Ironically, it would be that wry writing style would be lost as Harry Potter tried to grow up.

The world-building, if it could be called that, was effortless in those early books because it was never the central focus. Rather, the wizarding world seemed to emerge fully formed, with Rowling laying some groundwork every now and then to serve her story purpose. Her focus was always on Harry and the beloved ensemble of characters. But as the series matured and grew, Rowling lost sight of what made Harry Potter so beloved in the first place.

harry potter fan festivals

The Curse of Growing Up

One of the unique things about the Harry Potter series was that it grew up with its audience. Whereas series like Artemis Fowl seemed permanently stuck writing for preteens in 2002, Harry Potter got darker, deeper, and more tangible.

Many fans can — and should — point to Cedric Diggory’s death in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the turning point in the series. Death had been a constant companion to Harry in earlier books, but primarily in the background or in the past. But this was the first death of a major character that readers had come to know and even love, and the consequences reverberated throughout the rest of the series. But Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was a turning point in more ways than one. The book straddled the line between earlier books’ whimsical stylings and Rowling’s darker ambitions. The introduction of the Triwizard Tournament, a dangerous competition whose history of violence and death is barely acknowledged in the book, is fairly in line with early Harry Potter books — even at their most dire, they rarely wrangled with issues of death or trauma.

This was the Harry Potter series growing in tandem with its audience. Like a young child who is unaffected by watching a planet blow up in Star Wars: A New Hope but who cries when a character gets yelled at by their parent, the Harry Potter series was becoming tonally, emotionally, stylistically mature. Harry dealt with the PTSD in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Father figures dropped like flies in following books. And the real world started to seep into this once fantastical utopia — with Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters standing in as a not-so-subtle Nazi allegory.

But now Harry Potter had to reckon with the more adult elements that it had breezed past before. The novels had the benefit of ending just as the going got tough, wrapping up Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s arc in long, arduous physical and emotional journey that more recalled J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series than the cheery Dahlian elements that the series began with. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the most emotionally draining, ambitious story that Rowling had yet written, and it was a high note for the series to end on: equal turns tragic and triumphant. But the problem is what happened after. The end of the final Harry Potter novel turned out to not be the end for the franchise but just the first building block for Rowling’s messy, scattershot world building. And in that regard, she could have taken a leaf out of Tolkien’s book.

Continue Reading Harry Potter’s Growing Pains >>

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