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Four Missed Opportunities and Problems with Pottermore’s Ilvermorny

Emily Solomon ’17 / Emertainment Monthly President

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J.K. Rowling recently released new content on Pottermore“Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry”—that’s had the Harry Potter fandom abuzz.

There are solid elements, bits and pieces of the atmosphere and tone I grew to love from the Harry Potter series, but the further I went the more my sense of discomfort and disappointment grew.

There are so many things that left me wanting, but ultimately I think most of the disappointment stems from the fact that this is very much the “North American equivalent of Hogwarts,” when it could have been so much more than that. On top of that, much of the content manages to reek of colonialism both in the story itself and with certain creative decision—this is quite the feat considering there’s nary a word about colonialism’s unavoidable impact. 

So here’s just a sampling of what went wrong.

The discussion of religion—or the lack thereof

Early in the history of Ilvermorny is a description of Isolt’s experiences with the Puritan settlers she encounters on the Mayflower:

Isolt left the new colony partly because she remained afraid that Gormlaith would track her, even to a new continent, but also because her journey aboard the Mayflower had led her to deduce that a witch was unlikely to find many friends among the Puritans.

It’s a sort of foreshadowing to the real-world event that was the Salem Witch Trials, a subject that has received some attention in previously-released Pottermore content titled “History of Magic in North America.” With this new story focusing on Ilvermorny, it means that there’s now several different, detailed pieces focusing on North America, all with little-to-no discussion surrounding the dynamic between religion and magic.

Instead, we get only sparing mentions of the Puritans with little follow-up or exploration. No other religion is even mentioned (though there is mention of Native American culture, which we’ll get to in the next section).

Considering the drive for many European colonists to cross the Atlantic was to escape religious persecution, to not cover any of the intersection (or conflict, or overlap, or whatever word you wish to use to refer to the juxtaposition of magic and religion) of these two entities seems to lack any kind of vision of a bigger picture.

In “History of Magic in North America,” Rowling mentions that the number of witches and wizards born from No-Maj parents was noticeably higher in North America than in other continents—so what were the lives of those children like? How did Isolt and James, as cofounders of the first organized wizarding school in North America, approach them without jeopardizing their safety by outing them in such a religiously devout atmosphere?

Discussion of religion is missing from much of the history of the world Harry Potter, but that absence is more keenly felt here. There’s just enough mention of religion to pique interest, but ultimately there’s no follow-through, and that’s what’s most disappointing.

The treatment of Native American culture

After bringing up discussion of Christian religions, I would be remiss if I didn’t also talk about how the subject of Native American culture, folklore, and history was treated in Ilvermorny’s history.

And by “treated,” I mean “co-opted,” or “appropriated,” or otherwise dismissed, minimized, or pushed aside for the sake of a Eurocentric carbon copy of Hogwarts.

There’s the briefest of mentions of Native American magic sprinkled throughout, like the one detailed at the beginning of Ilvermorny’s inception:

Two more magical boys from the Wampanoag tribe had been joined by a mother and two daughters from the Narragansett, all interested in learning the techniques of wandwork in exchange for sharing their own magical learning.

So, yes, there’s a mention of an exchanging of tradition here, but that’s it—a mention. Beyond that, we get a description of Isolt’s family cherrypicking their favorite magical creature from Native American “myth” to use as the house names and mascots for Ilvermorny.

ilvermorny-crest

It’s commodifying the “interesting” bits and pieces of a culture that stretches back to before the colonizing North America was even an idea for the sake of giving Ilvermorny a “richer” history.

The idea, and the intent behind it, is not wholly bad. It’s the execution that goes wrong. It’s hard to be sure whether or not Rowling made this choice with genuine inclusion and cultural diversity in mind, or if she made the choice for the same reasons Isolt and her family did: because a Wampus, Thunderbird, Pukwudgie, and Horned Serpent hold an “exotic” fascination.

Either way, it’s a distasteful rendering on top of the representation from “History of Magic in North America,” where much of Native American folklore, religion, and culture was reduced to stereotypes and caricatures to produce their version of magic.

You can put a magical filter on it and call it part of the world of Harry Potter in hopes people will get swept upbut ultimately the representation of Native Americans thus far on Pottermore has elements of colonialism in both the execution and in the text itself.

The biggest missed opportunity here? Not letting a Native American writer give their own take (or multiple, given the significant differences between different tribes and nations—yet another aspect not present in Rowling’s write-up).

If you want more information about this, I highly recommend perusing the #MagicInNorthAmerica tag on Twitter, where people far more knowledgeable than I have been talking about this precise issue.

Diversity & Race in North America

To put this section in perspective: Hogwarts is supposed to have an attendance of roughly 1,000 students from across the UK—Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

I’m not sure what Ilvermorny’s attendance is, but my assumption is that it would have to be massive, considering that it’s The Wizarding School of North America, which includes: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, every island nation in the Caribbean, and I’m assuming at least some of the unincorporated territories. (Do those who live in British territories end up going all the way to Hogwarts? Still unclear on that.)

That is a school stuffed to the brim with different cultures, races, ethnicities, each of which likely have a unique relationship with magic. Ilvermorny, for this reason, has the makings of something ideal—a melting pot of different ideas and backgrounds, different magical traditions blending into each other to create a wide variety of options and various magical practices that each magical individual is free to choose from based on what best suits them.

Sound familiar? It should, considering it’s similar language often used to describe the United States. But given current events and the state of politics in the United States, it’s more than safe to say that the ideal doesn’t always play out in execution.

Granted: Rowling doesn’t ever talk about Ilvermorny as a melting pot. It would have been a lot to juggle, but it could have been a fascinating exploration of the interplay between the identity of being a magical individual and one’s cultural identity, and how that affects your relationship with other people, non-magical or not.

Instead, back in March, around the time of the publication of “History of Magic in North America,” she said this:

I call baloney. Even if this response wasn’t horribly tone-deaf—given it’s from just a few months ago, in the midst of election-fueled bigotry—it would be terribly naive given the history of North America, particularly that of the United States and its’ impact on the world as a whole.

If you’re going to have a higher rate of muggleborn students in North America, which I discussed above, those students are going to bring all of their privilege and prejudice with them when they get to Ilvermorny. It’s unavoidable. And it means it’s going to impact even pureblood students who have been in the supposedly “raceblind” magical community all their lives (which, again, strains credulity given the entire driving conflict of the Harry Potter series).

Rowling spent seven books tackling a fictional rendering of racism, and yet she seems to think those same wizards wouldn’t see real race. American wizards, no less.

Which brings me to my last point.

If this is North America, where’s the history?

First of all: North American history doesn’t start with colonization. In fact, it doesn’t even start with British colonization, though Isolt’s journey via the Mayflower (which, yikes) seems to imply as much. That aside: where on earth was early United States history in the telling of Ilvermorny? The Salem Witch Trials? The Trail of Tears? The Civil War? The endless colonization that was Manifest Destiny? No? Nothing?

I know it’s unfair to ask Rowling to account for the impact every single significant event had on the Wizarding World in North America (or vice-versa, given that the Wizarding World likely impacted historical events themselves). I get that. But with the telling of Ilvermorny there were many opportunities to give a few examples—things that could have served as case studies, from which fans could have extrapolated how the North American wizarding community handled other events, how their magic affected and was affected by the tumultuous history of North America.

But to go on for several pages without any mention of events like the Civil War, and how that must have impacted the students of Ilvermorny? To not delve into the question of whether or not Southern magical families had slaves?

It’s not necessarily fun stuff to delve into, but it would have been fascinating, and could have opened up opportunities to tell stories about how magical tradition differed from tribe to tribe, how magical cultures bled into each other at Ilvermorny, at how Ilvermorny students did become more accepting of different cultures and ideas because of their time bumping elbows with students of other perspectives.

There are dozens of Tumblr posts from impassioned fans that accomplish these things, all without engaging in cultural appropriation or otherwise erasing hundreds of years of pre-colonial history, and it’s this more than anything else that makes Ilvermorny so disappointing. 

Images courtesy Pottermore.

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One Comment

  1. To tell the truth I wasn’t too surprised when I read about the Ilvermorny controversy. It is the sort of thing that I have come to expect from J.K. Rowling, despite her admirable imagination and storytelling. Even reading the original seven Harry Potter books I was left questioning some things. Obviously, the North American wizarding community isn’t really relevant to the plot, as it’s all about Hogwarts, which caters to the British Isles. As an Irishman I am not particularly fond of the term ‘British Isles’, but I use it deliberately here. A sizeable portion of Hogwarts’ students must be Irish, yet this gets far less acknowledgement than it should. We have Seamus Finnegan with his accent and his fear of banshees. We have leprechauns. We have representation in the world of Quidditch. But there is precious little else, which is absurd considering what could have been, what with Ireland’s rich and magical mythology, the cultural background that this sizeable portion of Hogwarts students would have had. The students at Hogwarts nearly all appear to be English, or thoroughly anglicized, with just the odd Scot here and there. And the British Ministry of Magic appears to govern Ireland as well! I don’t know what justification JKR has given for that, if any – because it is more convenient that way? Because witches and wizards don’t really have the same political cares as Muggles do, having that “sense of kinship” instead? That is surely absurd.
    Now obviously, one can argue that there is a lot more to it that didn’t make the books, because the narrative is from Harry’s point of view, and Harry is bad at noticing things, even things like the names of at least two Gryffindor girls in his year. But that is very convenient, is it not? Very convenient, very colonialist, and a great pity.

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