Opinion | J.K. Rowling’s snake that ate its own tail
Unfortunately for recently grown-up 'Harry Potter' fans, there has been trouble in paradise, which has taken a serpentine form
In a 2012 New Yorker profile of J.K. Rowling, it seemed she had moved into an alternate universe reserved for the grumpy super rich and famous who feel somewhat victimized. À la Elon Musk. The same essay implied that Rowling might have thickly embroidered her famous rags-to-riches story when she went from Joanne to J.K. but for her deepest fans, this detail is irrelevant. The Harry Potter series led them to the reading habit. It was their ür-book, their literary mothership, their first and most important book.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books when I first read them but, at 22, I was too old for it to have been my ür-book. A boyfriend sneered, saying, “You know you love it and you just don’t want to admit it." That’s a double shot of a dark insult: you have the bad taste to like this book and you are too chicken to admit it. He suspected the same thing about the TV show Ally McBeal, which I didn’t understand or like so I ignored him. As you can see right away, Harry Potter taught me something useful. But for millennials, the Potter series is what taught them everything. It got them through childhood, difficult teens, death and depression, friendship and love. Today, these are the 20-somethings whose Instagram and Twitter bios include the word Hogwarts or who refer to evil bureaucrats as Dolores Umbridges, where another generation would have gone for the handy paper bag “Kafkaesque".
Unfortunately for recently grown-up Potter fans, there has been trouble in paradise, which has taken a serpentine form. A trailer to the next Fantastic Beasts movie (an extension of the Harry Potter universe) indicated that Nagini, a snake who serves Lord Voldemort, is played by Claudia Kim, a South Korean actor. Cultural commentators and folks on Twitter raised issues such as how strange it is that one of a tiny handful of non-white people in the Harry Potter movie universe should be potentially servile and definitely evil. Others said “hey, it’s great to see Claudia Kim".
But then Rowling got on Twitter and implied that she had always imagined Nagini as Asian because, according to her, the Naga myth is from Indonesia. This started a whole new cycle of rage which drew in Amish Tripathi, author of the Shiva trilogy, and everyone who is invested in mythology and everyone who is invested in geography and every one else. Macaulay Culkin sent this tweet: “Hey @jk_rowling I’m with you! Nagini can be whatever she wants to be! She’s a strong woman/snake. Also, can you write me into the next movie? I’m Macaulay Culkin (From Home Alone: The Movie) and I was also a Pagemaster (experienced with magic)...." But everyone else was mightily exasperated.
The debate has been particularly heated because it isn’t the first time Rowling has done some retrospective colour correction of a famously white-white-white series (never mind that back when I read it, I was buying every book by Indian authors writing in English that I could find since there were so few of them and finding the Patil twins in the Harry Potter books was then a happy event). Over the years, Rowling has announced that Dumbledore is gay and that Hermione was black and Anthony Goldstein was Jewish where there is no indication of any of this in the books. This week some young people took the opportunity to recant any love or loyalty to the Potter books or to say that they have known that Harry Potter is toxic all along. Others were deeply wounded by this and renewed their pledge of fealty and gratitude. Importantly they made it to Potter, not Rowling. And if you think it doesn’t matter what people read when they are young, remember that we are still suffering from the excesses of a global generation whose primal fantasies came from Ayn Rand.
As Maria Tatar, a scholar of children’s literature points out in that New Yorker profile, in response to criticisms of Rowling’s infamously clunky prose, great children’s literature is largely about the surface with some ventures into the deep. Young Harry Potter learnt to live in an imperfect world where people died and people cheated and people were weak. Potter fans already knew that and loved it anyway because even very young humans knew that the world is fragile, flawed and wonderful. Reading the first book aloud to a nephew reminded me recently of how superbly Rowling understands what is meaningful and what is funny to children.
This bearded man from this other nourishing ür-book said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not." For an astonishing 20 years, children have come unto Rowling’s marvellous creation. Only now perhaps some of them are finding that their kingdom of heaven, their happy place, is not quite the good place. But they could have borne it if Rowling stayed out of Eden.
The trouble is Rowling can’t bear it. She doesn’t just want to keep up with the wokes. Instead she wants to have been woke all along and known it all along. What is It? All of It. As if her head is the Room of Requirement for Potter fans. Rowling wants to be on the side of the angels constantly and is, hence, busily revising the canon. Fan fiction is how fans make fictional universes more to their liking. But what if the author starts behaving as if she is writing fan fiction? Rowling has been doing these revisions to an established reality one tweet at time (like Elon Musk) with disastrous results (also like Elon Musk).
Potter fans have their books for coping, but Rowling needs to look elsewhere. For instance, she could look at the actor Molly Ringwald, star of all the iconic John Hughes iconic teen movies from the 1980s—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink. Post #MeToo, Ringwald has written with great empathy and sharpness about the flaws and sexism of those movies in a New Yorker article in April: “John wanted people to take teens seriously, and people did.... The conversations about them will change, and they should. It’s up to the following generations to figure out how to continue those conversations and make them their own—to keep talking, in schools, in activism and art—and trust that we care." And that important work of keeping the conversation alive is what Potter fans are doing magnificently.
On Twitter, we are all inadequate and we all want to be on the side of the angels but that is not something Joanne has realized yet.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
She tweets at @chasingiamb