Wizard’s Council: On the History of Magic in North America


Our Wizard’s Council convenes this week to consider the question of the hour: What stood out to you about Rowling’s four new stories on the History of Magic in North America?

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Welcome to the Wizard’s Council. Back in olden days, before the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy in 1692, the Wizarding world was governed by the Wizard’s Council. This was the longest serving ruling body over the Wizarding World in history, and though it was disbanded in 1707 with the founding of the Ministry of Magic, it was still considering one of the wisest and august bodies to ever rule the UK and Irish Wizarding Worlds. (Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Ministry, which seems to only be as good as it’s current Minister.) Here at Wizards and Whatnot, we come together once again as this august body to think deeply on the issues of our time.

Philosophical Question of the Hour: What stood out to you about Rowling’s four new stories on the History of Magic in North America on Pottermore? What intrigued you the most, and what hints for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them excited you most?

ANI: I already gave my reactions in real time last week: 14th-17th Century, 17th Century and Beyond, Rappaport’s Law, and 1920s Wizarding America. Also see: History of Magic in North America Doesn’t Go Over Well. I only have one thing to add: I was expecting the Ilvermorny history to be released along with this set, and though I was interested to see a few clues here and there, the fact that the link on Pottermore still stands as “Coming Soon” is a great disappointment. Until this is rectified I will continue to assume it really exists in Detroit.

Over to everyone else, who had lots to say this week….

DAN: Some interesting stuff in these stories. Let’s subdivide.

Fourteenth Century-Seventeenth Century

  • Okay, right off the bat: wizards flew across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on brooms? They must have had to stay awake for days or even weeks! Unless brooms can move with the power of jet engines…maybe I’m overthinking this.
  • Yeah, the prospect of Rowling exploring the magical nature of Native American “medicine men” has the potential to be uncomfortable. Let’s hope she treads lightly, if at all.
  • I continue to be intrigued by the idea of wandless magic. We didn’t even see Dumbledore pull that off.

Seventeenth Century and Beyond

  • At one point Ilvermorny had only two teachers and two students, huh? Seems like a waste of funding.
  • It makes sense that Rowling would work the Salem witch-hunts into her imagined history. I also like this bit: “the pure-blood ideology that has dogged much of Europe’s magical history has gained far less traction in America,” since it tracks with how American transplants abandoned the aristocratic mores of Europe.
  • After thinking about it, I’ve concluded that the Scourers are a stupid idea. It’s obvious that Rowling is setting them up as a villainous presence in the Fantastic Beasts movies, but their history doesn’t make sense to me. Why do rogue wizards have to secretly preside over the Salem witch trials? I think it’d be a lot scarier if it was just No-Maj bigotry. I understood the prejudicial spirit that enervated Voldemort’s followers, but don’t get the philosophy that animates the Scourers, or how it morphed generations later into a simultaneous belief in and hatred of magic. How’s that add up?
  • Also, “Scourer” is an annoyingly difficult word to pronounce. I just said it out loud and I sounded like a fool. A FOOL.

Rappaport’s Law

  • Well, the Scourers seem like a better idea when put in a specific context. I’m still not looking forward to three movies of people stumbling over that word, though. Or maybe I’m really looking forward to it.
  • Oh, so is Rappaport’s Law supposed to be a metaphor for American segregation? Are we headed for a civil rights story? Somehow I doubt it, but let’s read on…

1920s Wizarding America

  • It’s good to see that Rowling will continue the tradition of making up fake books the fans will later make real-life versions of. Watch Ortiz O’Flaherty’s Big Foot’s Last Stand become the Hogwarts, A History of the new series.
  • “Many critics of this policy pointed out that it made witches and wizards rather conspicuous in cities full of sober No-Majs.” Oh, come on. America was never more drunk than when alcohol was illegal.
  • Interesting stuff about the four different American wand-makers. After highlighting it in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it seems like Rowling is setting up a deeper investigation into wandlore.

TARA: I’m with Dan on the Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century passage. I’m not quite sure I feel right about Rowling using Native American Medicine Men as part of her story, and the part about the ‘great hunters’ probably being wizards threw me off as well. That said, the wandless magic thing interests me above all else, if only because it goes against everything we’ve “seen” thus far.

As for the “Seventeenth Century and Beyond”, something about the Scourers didn’t sit right with me, though I was interested to see that Rowling at least attempted to balance it out with a bit about how “the pureblood ideology” that was rampant in Europe was not a big issue here. But then I find myself wondering if she’s actually trying to balance it out, or if she’s poking a bit of fun at us, because we were behind the times (and probably still are), especially compared to many European nations, in terms of just being generally accepting.

Especially when “Rappaport’s Law” came into effect, essentially prohibiting anything more than basic interaction with “No-Majs” (sorry not sorry, I still hate that term). Something that was maybe just frowned upon/discouraged in Europe was now against the law in America, and apparently still hasn’t loosened as we reach the 1920s, which of course is when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place. The alcohol bit was the most interesting, though – at least to me (I was a History major and my senior thesis was called “Why Prohibition Didn’t Work”). As Dan said, America was never more drunk than when alcohol was illegal. (I mean, they may not be proven by a specific statistic, but listen, it’s close enough.) I love that the wizard community didn’t abide by Prohibition because it was already hard enough being a wizard in America (that’s paraphrased), but I don’t think it would make sense that drunk wizards were conspicuous when, well, they probably really wouldn’t have been. At least in most places.

RYAN: The four stories for Magic in North America are absolutely brilliant, but can we take a step back and mull this information over? Here we have a continent that houses not only one of the greatest magical education establishments in the world and four great wand makers, but also probably the most secretive wizarding community we have read about yet. Rowling’s stories fit rather nicely into the well known and studied growth of the United States. One can appreciate the lore to she added the Native American medicine men, maybe not so much on this topic, and Salem witch trials. The two things that undeniable stuck with me are the wizarding mercenary band of scourers and laws that followed the MACUSA breach.

Remember the lovely bunch who rounded up muggle-born and blood traitors in exchange for gold in The Deathly Hallows? Scourers operated in a similar fashion, but blood lineage has nothing to do with it. The band of wizards were just simply cruel and corrupt. Without guilt, their fellow wizards were trafficked and No-Majs were passed off as wizards for mere gold. It was apparent they didn’t care about the wizards and No-Majs that were framed and killed at the Salem Witch Trials either. Only the feuds that were going to die out as result of the trials. All and all, I find Scourers to be worst than Death Eaters and Snatchers. And that’s truly saying something, after all the two have done.

Let’s admit it, The MACUSA breach of the International Statute of Secrecy was pretty bad. Even with most of Scourers now in hiding or starting non-magical families, eluding justice of course, the North American wizarding community had even more to deal with now. The No-Majs community were highly suspicious, thanks to the Scourers, Salem Witch Trials and Dorcus Twelvetrees’ dim-witted actions. While their Europe counterpart worked side by side with the Muggle government, North America wizards were forced into extreme secrecy under Rappaport’s Law. Anyone caught in communication with a No-Maj other then to perform daily tasks met with harsh penalties. Deeper legislation even forced the wizarding community to have permits on their own wands.

I find it so sad that a community with such a great education establishment and wand makers has to live shrouded in such a deep secrecy. They should be able to be proud of what the community has become, but instead they must act like they don’t even exist. Locked away under the stairs or in a room, like a young Harry Potter.

KELLY: I must admit I was disappointed with these stories. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but not this. I think I was hoping for the injection of characters, but instead it was more like a bland history lesson (and I never thought I would refer to anything dealing with magic and wizards as bland). It was all interesting, don’t get me wrong, but I found myself skimming the information once I got halfway down the page.

In regards to the Native American tidbits that angered quite a few people, I get it. I get it, but I think JKR was trying to be inclusive and it backfired hugely. I feel like if she left it out, people also would have been angry. In the Potterverse, there are countless nods to mythology, so I think she of course used it as a source of inspiration. But, bottom line is you need to do your research as a writer.

Moving on… I like the bits about No-Maj Europeans coming to America and why, tying in real-life history of the Puritans and Pilgrims. Also, I like the integration of the Salem witch trials. The whole “Scourers” concept is a bit weird, but I kind of understand. Kind of like evil-wizards trying to make profit off others, like human trafficking…

Rappaport’s Law was interesting because it finally injected characters and emotion into the story. It made me really upset thinking of how horrible it must have been for it to have been illegal to be with someone you love (once again, not a unique concept). Also, and most importantly, what would happen to children like Hermione? Would they just not be invited to Ilvermorny at all?

My favorite piece was definitely the 1920s. I loved learning about the wandmakers – any of them would make a great starting point for a novel or spin-off film – and the laws of the wizarding community. I have a great respect for President Picquery who made sure her wizards were not denied the right to some wine!

After reading all of these articles, I have a feeling that Fantastic Beasts will find Newt Scamander in America, with strict laws that he is unaware of, and his “fantastic beasts” will most certainly alert No-Majs to his presence, which in turn will anger MACUSA. Especially if he’s been drinking… A drunk wizard is like a goldmine for Scourers and No-Majs I’m guessing? Will Newt be running from both No-Maj and the MACUSA? Will Queenie or her sister have a tragic story of falling for a No-Maj in the past? I guess we will just have to wait and see…

KATIE: I think I’ve made it clear that I’m not on board with Rowling’s writing on Native American wizardry, so here are a few of my immediate reactions otherwise:

I’m a sucker for the Salem witch trials so I was interested in learning more about the impact they had on the Potterverse, but it seems to me that this period of mass hysteria is somewhat misrepresented here. Without any mention of how these accusations started—with a group of seemingly magically afflicted young girls—we lose the actual historical impact of the thing. While the trials as a whole can’t go ignored in Rowling’s wizarding history, I feel as though there could have been more inclusion of the actual events—namely, the roles of Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Ann Putnam, Jr., in the initial accusations.

Perhaps Bartholomew was a product of his Scourer environment, but he chose to use Dorcus to fulfill his prejudiced, murderous means, so he can bite it. He’s the one who went on the destructive rampage, but it was blamed on “Dorcus’s indiscretions” because the dumb, pretty girl with no real interests is seduced by a handsome boy and it’s all her fault. Insert side-eye emoji here. That’s not what I came to this party for, you guys.

As Ilvermorny was, by this time, “widely considered to be one of the greatest magical education establishments in the world,” I can only assume that Rowling didn’t base this school system on actual American ones (BOOM, roasted). I would also like to take bets as to how long it will take before “The Gigglewater is non-negotiable” is stamped on official Harry Potter merchandise; I’ll take a T-shirt.

So there’s a sea of new information to swim through here, but the thing that’s been on my mind since these stories dropped is the implication within that racism isn’t an issue in the Wizarding world—an implication that was confirmed when Rowling tweeted that “there was mutual respect and a sense of kinship between all wizards, no matter what their race.”

The thing is, we’ve seen throughout the HP series that the Wizarding world operates heavily on systematic oppression, so I do not buy that people of color in that world don’t face discrimination. To ignore racism on even a fictional scale is pretty much like saying, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.”

Now, I’m white so maybe I’m reading this wrong, because I don’t face racism and therefore cannot possibly grasp this the way any POC does. But the idea that racism doesn’t factor into the Wizarding world has never jived with me—it’s why I’ve always cited “Mudblood” as a classist slur rather than a racist one, because to call it the latter is to suggest that POC don’t face their own caliber of discrimination in the Wizarding world, and would consequently be subjected to racist slurs based on their actual race. Again, the idea that this isn’t the case suggests that “racism is dead,” and that wildly incorrect train of thought is one factor in preventing that misconception from becoming the truth.

I love JKR. I really do. But the thing that sticks out to me the most throughout these stories is that she’s misstepping here in a big way, and it can’t go ignored. To ignore it would be failure to learn from it, and more than that it would be to completely disregard so many of JKR’s fans who deal with racism. I mean, just look on the internet and you’ll see so many POC talking about this—and they certainly do a better job of explaining it than I do.

MARNIFER: Upon first reading these new stories I found them a bit dull. There are many interesting details and things I enjoyed, but the problem is it’s mostly broad-sweeping details attempting to paint a huge picture while failing to create a cohesive landscape. They feel like the vignettes they are. These are sketches of her world-building, and it’s entirely in service to Fantastic Beasts.

The more I thought about the four pieces, the more I felt disappointed. Katie did an incredible examination of how Rowling failed and appropriated the Native communities, to which I add how instantly I was put off by this opening colonialist sentence: “Though European explorers called it ‘the New World’ when they first reached the continent, wizards had known about America long before Muggles.” Really? What about, y’know, the folks who were already living here? On the topic of location, these stories are grouped under the title “History of Magic in North America” but this is couched firmly in America, no mentions of Canada, Mexico, nor Central America (technically part of North America).

The name “Dorcus” Twelvetrees is so dumb I just can’t get beyond it. (Not Twelvetrees. I actually kind of like that.) I don’t care that Rowling explains this girl as the origin of the pejorative term, it just feels childish. That name, and many other details here, are the first draft of something that needed a second editing pass. Moreover, the character of Dorcus is quite tragic and I feel a great amount of sympathy for her. The story, meanwhile, paints her as a bad person, tells us it’s entirely her fault, and makes her the butt of a joke. And as Katie pointed out, it smells of slut shaming.

The other thing that bothers me is the the lazy writing. Words are repeated in close succession and sometimes within the same sentence, multiple run-on sentences, and the improper use of the word “emigrate,” to name a few examples. I know she’s a busy woman, but this again points to a lack of editing.

The things I really enjoyed were the details about the new wandmakers. I especially liked the inclusion of the Tennessee wampus cat and Arkansas White River Monster legends. That’s a smart use of local legends with no cultural appropriation. (Though the wampus cat itself is an appropriation of a Cherokee myth, Rowling isn’t responsible for those origins, at least.)

Next: Obscure Potterings: Chamber Pot of Secrets

Our Wizard’s Council meets every other week, unless there is an emergency session. Check out our other entries here.