J. K. Rowling, History, and Revisionism

time-turner

Source: allnightavenue on Flickr

I feel like I’m writing more than a few pieces lately that start with “I love [X], BUT . . .” and apparently today is no different. I’ll just come out and say it: I love Harry Potter, but I have trouble with J. K. Rowling’s treatment of history. Harry Potter was immensely important to my young adulthood. I read the books as a teenager, went to more than one midnight movie release, bought and consumed Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Bean, and dressed as a character from the books for Halloween.[1] I tend to re-read the novels once a year, when I’m looking for ways to improve my ability to tell a story. I wasn’t a historian when I first started reading the books, so I didn’t look too critically at Rowling’s characterizations of history and historians. Now that I am a historian, I’ve come to the conclusion that although Rowling’s portrayal of our discipline is wrong, her depiction of the wizarding world’s past—and how people interpret and at times attempt to change and revise it—is much more in keeping with the task that muggle historians daily confront.

Our job is to consider previous versions of history, and ask how they need to be revised to better reflect changing interpretations of primary source evidence. Wizarding historians, by contrast, do not seem to care that there are multiple versions of history, and it takes time for wizards to try to challenge contemporary narratives of the present. These thoughts cohered when, pretty belatedly, I sat down to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. What follows is a relatively spoiler-free discussion of these themes in Cursed Child and the rest of the Potter universe (translation: I’m not going to reveal major plot or character twists in CC, but I am going to refer to the first two scenes of Act I, and reference basic narrative points).

History itself gets short shrift in Books 1 thru 7 of the Potter universe. History at Hogwarts is taught by Professor Binns, a ghost whose very name implies that wizarding history belongs in the dustbin. He lectures to his students non-stop each class, ignoring the children who fall asleep, and acting surprised when they interrupt him to ask questions, as Hermione does in The Chamber of Secrets. Binns, like other ghosts, has not gone through the veil because he has unfinished business, but it’s unclear how droning on at students addresses this problem. Students are aware of the one book about their school, Hogwarts: A History, but none of them seem to read it. Their assigned text is A History of Magic, by Bathilda Bagshot. Some students appear interested in it; Harry, for example, skims through his schoolbooks in year 1 before boarding the Hogwarts Express. Many students, however, lose their enthusiasm for history after entering Binns’s classes. Hermione, excellent student that she is, has read other histories even before arriving at Hogwarts (she mentions them in Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone). It takes her until book four, however, until she begins to question Hogwarts: A History because it omits house elves; she is one of the few to recognize that the text is an imperfect one because it is biased in favor of coverage of wizards and (to a much smaller extent) the muggles who attempted to persecute them. Goblins “rebel” against wizards and giants engage in meaningless wars (and yes, I’d love to read Bill Weasley’s revisionist history of the goblin rebellions, thank you very much). History, in sum, is characterized as something to be neatly packaged and delivered to students without the need for interacting with them; as a boring subject; and as authored by a limited number of people. In very rare cases, people acknowledge that the subject of wizarding history is problematic.

The wizarding world’s past, on the other hand, is a beautiful, nuanced creature, with a complicated relationship with the wizarding present. People go out of their way to preserve their memories in pensieves, and no one is fooled when Horace Slughorn tries to tamper with his own recollections to present a false version of his history with Tom Riddle. Voldemort is so powerful that very few people will share their oral histories of Tom Riddle with Dumbledore. This lack of sources sometimes encourages the creation of fake news. The Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows movies do an excellent job depicting The Daily Prophet newspaper’s relationship with 1) conflicting stories about Voldemort’s return, 2) negative propaganda about Albus Dumbledore, 3) positive, boosteristic propaganda about Dolores Umbridge and the ministry of Cornelius Fudge, 4) advice to wizards about how to protect themselves in the wake of Voldemort’s return, and 5) unflattering propaganda about Harry Potter and Dumbledore while Voldemort and the Death Eaters have control of the Ministry of Magic. In addition to newspaper coverage, people use time turners to travel through time and alter the past—both for the good (as in Prisoner of Azkaban) and in Cursed Child (pseudo spoiler: All was NOT well). And beyond the canon of Books 1 thru 7, Cursed Child itself is an exercise that allows Rowling to rewrite parts of the books she has already written, particularly Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows.

Rowling’s interpretation of the past and how people (including her) handle it, in other words, is much closer to how historians interpret history. Newspaper writers are biased, and it behooves us to work out what their biases are; people try to revise and delete past actions, and it’s our job to figure out what happened and why they tried to cover their tracks; sometimes it takes digging—a lot of digging—to uncover the relevant sources a historian needs to write her chapter; people disagree about interpretations of past events, and that’s OKAY.

So here’s a task—a Fourth Task, if you will—for historians: teach the historian’s job of revisionism by teaching it as a version of the way the wizarding world approaches the past. Teach your freshmen and first years that history isn’t some neatly packaged narrative; it’s a contentious debate that asks them to absorb, consider, and then challenge extant interpretations, using the critical skills that we teach them to hone. Acknowledge Rita Skeeter’s keen research abilities before critiquing her unethical habit of misreading—and sometimes physically stealing—her sources. Consider Dolores Umbridge’s insistence that students read her texts, and only the ones she assigns, and that they refrain from asking questions about them. Remember her tendency to re-frame truth as lies and lies as truth. But mostly, remember that just as it’s difficult to come close to “truth” in history, it’s tough to create one version of history that everyone accepts. And then be the muggle reminding your students why history matters.


[1] Let me tell you, giant hair and crazed graduate student make Bellatrix Lestrange really easy to pull off.

5 comments on “J. K. Rowling, History, and Revisionism

  1. J. Steve Lee says:

    Great post. Really enjoyed the comparison of doing contemporary history with how history is done in the Potter series. Also of interest might be “Harry Potter and History” (https://www.amazon.com/Harry-Potter-History-Wiley-Culture/dp/0470574720/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1480711128&sr=8-3&keywords=harry+history) Amazon describes it “Harry Potter lives in a world that is both magical and historical. This book is the first to explore the real history in which Harry’s world is rooted.

    Learn how the European prosecution of witches led to the Statute of Secrecy, meet the real Nicholas Flamel, see how the Malfoys stack up against Muggle English aristocrats, and compare the history of the wizarding world to real-life history.

    Gives you the historical backdrop to Harry Potter’s world
    Covers topics ranging from
    -how real British boarding schools compare to Hogwarts to
    -how parchment, quills, and scrolls used in the wizarding world were made
    Includes a timeline comparing the history of the wizarding world to Muggle “”real”” history
    Filled with fascinating facts and background, Harry Potter and History is an essential companion for every Harry Potter fan.”

  2. August says:

    This is excellent, something I will refer to if I ever teach–and perhaps moreso in everyday conversations.

    Minor correction that doesn’t detract from your point at all: “A History of Magic” by Bathilda Bagshot is their textbook; “Hogwarts, a History” is just Hermione’s recreational reading. (And incidentally, Harry finds “A History of Magic” so fascinating when he first gets it, he stays up late to read it. It’s almost like he was taught that history was boring by a terrible teacher. But that’s a different post.)

  3. Just want to say this is a really great article. I love the cultural studies approach!

  4. […] J. K. Rowling, History, and Revisionism […]

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