Quick Read: History of Magic In North America

AKA JK Rowling presents JK Rowling’s History of Magic in North America (by JK Rowling).

So after doing that big Harry Potter post last year I’ve found myself starting to pay attention to the upcoming eighth book/play and the Fantastic Beasts movie. Both of those things are still a ways away, but luckily Rowling dropped some material for us to examine in the form of marketing tie-in fiction!

The History of Magic in North America is basically an exercise in world-building (you know how much I love those) meant to lay the groundwork for a story set in 1920s America instead of 1990s Britain. This already fascinates me, because the thing about the Potter universe is that it makes less sense the larger it becomes.

The original books were fairly smart about this, never doing more than dropping hints about the extent to which wizards and witches inhabit other countries and continents. You’re told they’re there, but not given enough information to start asking awkward questions like why the wizarding societies seem to exactly mirror the political divisions of the muggle world, or why none of the other countries came to help when Voldemort took over Wizard Britain in the last book and started murdering people left and right. Yes, the books acknowledge that there’s a whole Wizarding World out there that seemingly encompasses the entirety of human society, but as far as the actual mechanics of the plot, the “wizarding world” is just Britain, with some other bits and pieces of Europe bolted on.

Except now it turns out that Wizard America was off doing its own thing the whole time! Let’s find out what that’s all about.

Part 1: Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century

First, the trailer (marketing materials for movies have trailers now):

It’s basically a gravelly-voiced dude spouting a lot of portentous nonsense while name-dropping things that I guess are going to come up in the stories. Another magic school! Witch trials! Skin Walkers!

Yes Skin Walkers, aka that element of Native American culture that white people hijack when they get bored of using Coyete. There’s also a Native American dude who turns into an eagle, so we’re off to a good start.

 (Note: while every nationality has its own term for ‘Muggle,’ the American community uses the slang term No-Maj, short for ‘No Magic’).

No-Maj.

I… okay then.

Various modes of magical travel – brooms and Apparition among them – not to mention visions and premonitions, meant that even far-flung wizarding communities were in contact with each other from the Middle Ages onwards.

Makes sense, I guess. Although how fast are brooms supposed to be? Would it actually be any safer or quicker to fly across the Atlantic on one than to sail? A history of early attempts to do so in planes would seem to suggest not, given how many aviators vanished with a trace en route.

The Native American magical community and those of Europe and Africa had known about each other long before the immigration of European No-Majs in the seventeenth century.

Fucking christ almighty, “No-Maj” is worse than the Edema Ruh from the Kvothe books. I’m going to have trouble getting through this.

So, big information here: rather than magic being a European phenomenon that got imported into America and other places, it was independently discovered all over the world. That’s probably the best way this could have been framed, given the available options.

They were already aware of the many similarities between their communities. Certain families were clearly ‘magical’, and magic also appeared unexpectedly in families where hitherto there had been no known witch or wizard.

I’m really struck by how boring this all is. It’s drier than your average fan-wiki entry.

In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.

Sailing right over the edge already, I see.

Right, before we go on further: I understand completely that I may be about to say a bunch of stuff that’s actually incorrect here, so if I do, please correct me. I recognize that actual Native Americans have already begun dissecting this with far more knowledge and standing to do so than me, and you should absolutely go to them for the definitive word the subject.

That said: what immediately jumped out at me is the phrase “the Native American community”, which seems meaningless at best given that we’re talking about a diverse range of cultures, nations, religions and language groups who inhabited a gigantic landmass and who retain distinct cultural identities today.

Remember, “Native American” is a distinction that only came about after European invaders arrived, as a way to distinguish them from the new dominant class. People living on the continent at the time probably wouldn’t have thought of themselves as part of some sort of unified community; they would have identified with their own smaller cultural group, of which there were many– pre-contact North America had a greater diversity of languages than Europe and was host to a huge range of political and cultural groups, just like anywhere else in the world.

This is an issue because way too many people still lump both existing Native Americans and the people who lived in North America for thousands of years prior to European colonization into a single mono-culture that never actually existed. Rowling is doing exactly that, furthering the stereotype for a whole slew of young readers and older fans alike.

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.

An Animagus is a wizard who can turn into an animal, in case you’re not up on your Harry Potter lore.

Yeah, I… think it would have been better to just not touch this stuff. I know Rowling drew in werewolves and vampires and all sorts of stuff for the original books, but those are all elements coming from various branches of European folkore and mythology, which long ago passed into the general public-domain consciousness. The dynamics shift very abruptly when you’re dealing with the culture of people whose ancestors were oppressed and murdered by your ancestors, and who still feel the ramifications of that hundreds of years later.

The most glaring difference between magic practised by Native Americans and the wizards of Europe was the absence of a wand.

The original Harry Potter books made it seem like you can barely do anything without a wand unless you’re extremely skilled– the only people who seem to do it reliably are Dumbledore and Voldemort, who are respectively the most powerful and the second most powerful wizards of their age– so it seems like the magical communities everywhere else are getting a bit of a raw deal here.

The magic wand originated in Europe. Wands channel magic so as to make its effects both more precise and more powerful, although it is generally held to be a mark of the very greatest witches and wizards that they have also been able to produce wandless magic of a very high quality. As the Native American Animagi and potion-makers demonstrated, wandless magic can attain great complexity, but Charms and Transfiguration are very difficult without one.

Charms and Transfiguration are two subjects the characters study in school. I always assumed the Hogwarts curriculum was meant to have been divided into discrete areas for convenience, but this makes it sound like they really are totally separate branches of magic. That doesn’t really fit with what we see in the books, where it seems like once you get out of school most magic with the exception of highly specialized skills blends together. Adult wizards are constantly conjuring shit out of thin air, which doesn’t really fit into a category beyond “I dunno, it’s magic or whatever.”

Part 2: Seventeenth Century and Beyond

As No-Maj Europeans began to emigrate to the New World, more witches and wizards of European origin also came to settle in America. Like their No-Maj counterparts, they had a variety of reasons for leaving their countries of origin. Some were driven by a sense of adventure, but most were running away: sometimes from persecution by No-Majs, sometimes from a fellow witch or wizard, but also from the wizarding authorities.

This is touching on an issue that the original books kind of avoided, namely the extent to which Muggles (I’m not typing “No-Maj” again unless someone pays me to do it) are aware of the existence of wizards. Apart from people like the various heads of state who are informed of the wizard world’s existence, there must be a fairly sizable community of them because we know wizards and witches get into relationships with muggles fairly regularly– they must, because pure-blood wizards are said to be extremely rare– and that the parents of Muggle-borns are let in on the secret and even seem to be allowed into areas like Hogwarts that are normally kept secret.

And then there are people like the Dursleys, who are all aware of the existence of magic because of one family member who was born with magical ability; that’s a sister, sister’s husband and nephew who are admitted into the fold, to the extent that wizards who visit Harry can openly perform magic around them without it being considered in violation of the secrecy laws. How far does that extend? If Harry’s uncle decided to tell his siblings, would he able to? If Harry got married could extended family members attend the wedding? If Dudley has kids can he tell them that they’re related to a wizard?

The reason I’m discussing all this is that wizards fleeing Europe to another continent due to persecution by Muggles implies that there must have been quite a lot of Muggles who know they exist in the first place. Like, a lot of Muggles; the modern-day wizards in the books seem to have zero trouble concealing their existence from the wider world even with a higher population and a much greater degree of Muggle technology.

It’s because of stuff like that that I’m getting the consistent feeling that none of this is actually taking place in the same universe as the original stories.

The latter sought to blend in among the increasing tide of No-Majs, or hide among the Native American wizarding population, who were generally welcoming and protective of their European brethren.

Were they really, though

Like, why? Would they actually welcome these people just because they happen to practice (fairly different forms of) magic as well? Wouldn’t they be more likely to say “hey that’s great but actually could you stop stealing our land now pls.”

The last, and probably the most dangerous problem encountered by wizards newly arrived in North America were the Scourers.

hl006

Fucking Scourers, man. Always getting all soggy and shit.

Actually no, the Scourers were wizards and witches who started out as bounty hunters tracking down magical criminals (wizarding America being quite a lawless place at the time) but who over time jettisoned their scruples and started selling innocent wizards to Muggles who wanted to do nefarious things like burn them at the stake.

The famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 were a tragedy for the wizarding community. Wizarding historians agree that among the so-called Puritan judges were at least two known Scourers, who were paying off feuds that had developed while in America. A number of the dead were indeed witches, though utterly innocent of the crimes for which they had been arrested.

I’d point out here that the Salem trials and associated witch-hunting hysteria didn’t actually result in that many deaths in the grand scheme of things, but there’s something of a running tradition of the wizarding world being cast as a very small and insular place where even the death of one person can be a shock (unless it needs to be huge and composed of thousands of people, in which case suddenly it’s that).

Anyway the American wizards formed a wizard government to arrest and convict the Scourers, and that’s why there’s a wizard government in America. Some of the Scourers turned against magic completely and passed down a hatred of all people magical to their Muggle offspring, which seems like kind of a convoluted reason for why there’s a dedicated band of wizard-killers in the USA but whatever.

Part 3: Rappaport’s Law

In 1790, the fifteenth President of MACUSA, Emily Rappaport, instituted a law designed to create total segregation of the wizarding and No-Maj communities.

Didn’t they already have that?

This followed one of the most serious breaches of the International Statute of Secrecy, leading to a humiliating censure of MACUSA by the International Confederation of Wizards. The matter was that much more serious because the breach came from within MACUSA itself.

Holy shit this is boring. The books got into a lot of magic politics stuff with the Department of Whatever and the Office of Magical Who’s-It, but there was an element of Terry Pratchett-esque parody to the whole thing. Since we’re reading a summary of fake history instead of an actual story, there’s none of that to lighten the mood.

Aristotle Twelvetrees was a competent man, but his daughter, Dorcus, was as dim as she was pretty.

You know, now that I think about it, “dim” girls and women who cause headaches for the wider world pop up fairly regularly in these stories. Even Voldemort’s mother could be read as having accidentally gotten the ball on his villainy rolling with her naive and extremely ill thought out plan to snag a Muggle husband with a love potion.

Similarly, Dorcus (more like DORKus am I right lolz) fell in love with a handsome Muggle and gave him all sorts of information like the location of American Hogwarts, which was bad because he turned out to secretly be the descendant of a Scourer.

I just realized this whole wizards-vs-Scourers thing is reminding me of the Assassins-vs-Templars conflict from Assassin’s Creed but whatevs, let’s move on.

The Muggle dude publicized all the information and went on a brief anti-wizard crusade, Shit Got Real and the American wizard government had to enforce strict rules to keep wizards from interacting with Muggles in future.

Part 4: 1920s Wizarding America

AKA the setting of the new movie.

The memory of Dorcus Twelvetrees’ catastrophic breach of the Statute of Secrecy had entered magical language, so that being ‘a Dorcus’ was slang for an idiot or inept person.

Man, I really hope the characters aren’t going to use this slang in the film

After the Great Sasquatch Rebellion of 1892

Wait hang on tell us more about that instead, it sounds awesome

President of MACUSA throughout the decade was Madam Seraphina Picquery, a famously gifted witch from Savannah.

I’m guessing that’s this lady in the big hat thing from the trailer:

Fantastic-Beasts-And-Where-To-Find-Them

Then the story spends the rest of its wordcount talking about wand-makers and name-dropping a bunch more mythical creatures, urban legends and elements of Americana.

That was… um.

I think “pointless” is the word I’d use? When it’s not being breath-takingly racist and ignorant the whole thing comes across like bad fanfiction, which is perhaps the worst charge you can level against a continuation of a pre-existing entertainment franchise.

That’s really all I have to say about. Like I mentioned earlier, others with more standing to do so have already spoken about it more in-depth. Whatever else it does, it certainly doesn’t make me excited about the idea of seeing the movie.

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15 thoughts on “Quick Read: History of Magic In North America

  1. Someone

    I disagree. It is breathtakingly racist. At least, to me it is. I don’t know, maybe I’m just sensitive, but turning all of Native American diversity into one community and deliberately conflating tribes speaks of arrogance, ignorance, and racism to me. I don’t agree that a community should be the only ones allowed to describe itself, because then minorities will never get any recognition, but authors should research the communities they are attempting to describe.

    I see this a lot by Jews in fiction, actually, in particular how Violet Haberdasher did ZERO research and tried to write an Orthodox Jew (hint: We actually can’t eat food made by non-Jews in most cases. Also, men aren’t allowed to wear necklaces. And we pray three times a day. And need the Sabbath off). At least J. K. Rowling never tried to write Anthony Goldstein like that… *sigh* Someone actually Orthodox did, though, and I think it’s a good example of the amount of detail Rowling would need to write a realistic character of another culture: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10847788/1/Goldstein

    Reply
  2. braak

    Rowling’s insistence that wands are a European invention is so weird. Practically every culture in the world has the equivalent of a magic wand; the idea of picking up a stick and using it to, like, point at things as a symbol of magical power is one of the first things that anyone thinks of.

    Reply
        1. Andrea Harris

          It doesn’t sound like something 1920s Americans would have come up with. “Muggle” at least sounds twee and British, but “no-maj” makes Rowling sound like her only contact with American speech patterns has been from 1980s sitcoms.

          Reply
  3. Lissa

    Signatus says:

    but just… let Harry Potter rest already.

    I agree. I was 12 (a week away from 13) when I read the first Harry Potter book; I’m 29 now, and I’ve moved on. I loved the series and I’ll probably always have some fondness for it, but enough is enough. The series wrapped up nicely; there’s no need to keep beating a dead horse. The new film trilogy sounds like a terrible idea – who cares about Newt Scamander or wizards in 1920s New York? It won’t have any of the characters that people care about.

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      There’s so much money tied into Harry Potter and so many corporate entities with stakes in it, I doubt Rowling could prevent it from being further exploited even if she wanted to. I imagine someone would have given her a “we’ll do it with or without you” ultimatum.

      Reply
  4. A. Noyd

    Signatus says:

    but just… let Harry Potter rest already.

    In the comment thread for the third “dissecting” link up there, a lot of people are asking what Rowling should have done, but they can’t seem to imagine that she didn’t need to do anything at all. She could have left things alone, as you say.

    Or if she wanted to add more to the canon, she could have turned it into a shared world and invited in writers who actually have backgrounds in other cultures and already know what would be appropriate and what would resonate. I wouldn’t exactly trust her or the media corps who own HP to properly compensate those writers, though.

    Reply
  5. Signatus

    I’m not part of a minority that has been oppressed… more or less since my nation has been invaded over 10 times in the last 2000 years, our culture was destroyed, savaged and in several cases barely survived in the form of myths in isolated areas so… yeah. We became colonists after tho, so I guess my point of view can’t compared to those of oppressed minorities.

    And yet I completely understand with the people whose culture is being dilapidated here. I have spoken about this in the past but… do your fucking research, man. When you put the encierros in the middle of Cadiz at the same time of a procesión, it might look hilarious but it’s highly offending because it shows you give no shit about my people, my culture, and don’t even bother to do your research. If you’re not even going to do basic research and insist on throwing up a bunch of racist stereotypes, then just stop and don’t use my culture as inspiration… at all.

    I really hate that. I try to avoid this issue by doing three very simple things. Research (the germanic tribes are absolutely fascinating, and I never imagined the masai spirituality could be so interesting). Write only about that which you know about. Make your fucking thing up without taking elements from other cultures which you know nothing about.

    If this angers me, and I’m, again, no part of an oppressed culture, I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who were on the brink of loosing everything.

    As for the rest of the text, I always felt there was a Terry Pratchett-esque feeling to the books, in the fact everything, from the history of magic (witches who were burnt several times by the inquisition) to the way politics work, seemed more like a joke than something serious. Dorcus Tweltrees?… really, I can’t take that seriously. It reminds me of TwoFlowers from the Color of Magic, or some kender name, or a hobbit name. The story in itself… terrible.

    Really, woman, just stop. You finished your book. Be done with it already lest you ruin it. The two little books, Fantastic Beasts or whatever and the other one were a fine way to gather some charity cash. But I’m 30, I started reading Harry Potter when I was 15, and the fourth book had just come out. I grew up, moved on, and will be willing to read more fantasy from you once you stop writing mediocre mature literature, but just… let Harry Potter rest already.

    Reply
  6. Toastehh

    Especially regarding Central/South-Central America, my pretty limited understanding was that Europe arrived while their fall-of-Rome equivalent was in full swing. Accounts of vast cities being mostly deserted, and this was before European diseases finished the job.

    Reply
  7. reveen

    The thing I cannot get over when it comes to portrayals of Native Americans and First Nations is the fact that more recent archaeological studies show that the pre-Colombus population of North American was way higher than people know, and that there were agricultural urban civilizations north of Mexico for thousands of years. Cahokia was estimated at about 40,000 people at it’s peak. The hunter-gatherer tribes that we assume were just how Native Americans are were what was left after 95% of the population was wiped out by disease.

    Either Rowling knows about this, in which case she’s massively glossing over this shit, or she doesn’t, and she’s just lazily working off of the base assumptions about pre-Colombian society.

    Reply
  8. Andrea Harris

    “Native American” is a distinction that only came about after European invaders arrived

    Way after that. It wasn’t used until the late 20th century, when the US government proposed it in response to objections over being called “Indians.” (In England “Red Indians” was used, to distinguish them from actual Indians from India. In other words, colonialist naming conventions re the various peoples who already lived here was and is a bollixed-up mess, but “Native American” isn’t the first instance of this.

    Reply

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