What is Harry Potter “canon”?

The Pottermore conundrum for fanfic writers.

PottermoreNow that details are being revealed from the new Pottermore site and the new info that JKR is making available there, all kinds of previously held canon facts are being thrown into question. For example, Minerva McGonagall was always estimated as having been born in 1924 or 1925, and that she began teaching at Hogwarts in her early thirties. (This was based on a statement Rowling made in an early Scholastic.com interview, in which she said that McGonagall was a “sprightly 70,” presumably in the then-current book, Goblet of Fire, which took place in 1994-95. Subtract 70 from 1994 and you get 1924, and since her birthday is in October, Minerva would have been 70 for most of the 1994-95 school year if she were born in October 1924.)

Now Pottermore is saying that Minerva McGonagall was born in 1935. That changes a lot, particularly the assumption that she was at Hogwarts at the same time as Tom Riddle and was of the same generation (although the HP Wiki article does still say that Riddle was a year behind her at Hogwarts; unless JKR has changed Riddle’s birth year, too, that information will have to be revised by the Wiki people — of course, that would outright contradict what we learn in Chamber of Secrets and The Half-Blood Prince about when Riddle was in school, but JKR seems to be perfectly happy to create inconsistencies).

I would venture to say that hundreds of fanfics, perhaps thousands, have been written, trying to be canon compliant, assuming a birthdate for Minerva McGonagall a decade earlier than the new one. This revised date would also make Minerva only 55 at the start of the Harry Potter series in September 1991 — and only 46 when Harry was dropped off at the Dursleys’ after his parents’ murders.

I said elsewhere recently that I was going to treat any new information that came out of Pottermore as being fanfiction by the ultimate HP fan, JKR, but was going to stick with the series books for my source of canon information. I am very glad that I had already decided that.

I wish that JKR had seen fit to include these details in the books in some fashion, particularly as she must have been aware that fan sites everywhere had information that contradicted her “real” birth dates for her characters. On the other hand, it could be that she never really worked it out very well in advance, and only after the books were out and she needed to come up with a comprehensive, detailed history for her characters, including crucial dates, did she actually sit down and figure out their birth dates. She has said before that she’s “bad at maths.” Well, it seems more like she wasn’t as interested in the details of some of the characters as much as she was others (those of Harry’s generation), and so just left it all ambiguous and approximate in her head for her own purposes when writing the books.

Even some of the younger characters have had controversy surrounding their ages and birth years — Charlie Weasley, for example, had contradictory information about his age and his time attending Hogwarts until later printings sorted that out.

So anyway, my version of Minerva McGonagall will always have been born in either 1924 or 1925. (In the Resolving a Misunderstanding universe stories, she was born in 1924, since at the time I wrote it, given the information I had available, that seemed the most likely year — now I wish I’d kept track of all the information and sources I’d used to establish that date. *ETA: I found and added that information above, in the first paragraph.*) And RaM!Albus was born in 1840 because that’s what all biographical information about him suggested until several months after Deathly Hallows was published. (That was based on the fact that in an interview given partway through the series, JKR said that Dumbledore was about 150 years old.) I may or may not stick with that 1840 date for future non-RaMverse stories.

Basically, if it ain’t in the pages of the seven books of the series, I am not going to feel obliged to consider it canon. If something comes out of Pottermore that intrigues me and that I think would fit in well with a story I’m writing, that’s great, but I can’t keep revising my framework for my fanfic based on information that comes from outside those seven books (and maybe from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch through the Ages). It would be crazy-making!

I will continue to try to be internally consistent within the Resolving a Misunderstanding / Death’s Dominion universe, and that will entail ignoring any details external to the books. (Death’s Dominion, is, however, not DH-compliant, and it is only partially HBP-compliant. It is not fully HBP-compliant because an event occurs that changes the outcome of Year Six; it is not DH-compliant in any way because I chose to ignore all of book seven, in part because the RaM-verse was already not DH-compliant since it was begun before DH was published.)

Despite it only being fanfiction, I was still rather strict with myself when writing Resolving a Misunderstanding; I kept track of all the characters, both canon and original, and all their relevant dates, whether I thought they were immediately necessary for the story or not, so that I could be consistent as I wrote the story. I even created a spreadsheet very early on to keep track of all those details. It wouldn’t do for me to describe one of my characters as being a vibrant youth in a chapter taking place in 1945, then a few chapters later, describe him as an old grey-haired man in 1957. I even sorted out wands for all my characters, whether those details were needed at that point or not. Often, I would find these details handy when I wrote later fics. This was particularly important because there are so many characters in the RaMverse, whether counting the canon characters or the original ones.

Maintaining a document with all of these details helped me to create, develop, and maintain a consistent fictional universe that felt “alive” and real to my readers.When one of my characters is ten years old in RaM in 1957, you can count on her being fifty in 1997 in a later fic, with a back-story to fill in those years, even if little of it makes it into the actual fic.

I hope that people continue to read and write fanfic, even with the ever-shifting landscape that JKR is giving us. I know I will, but I will remain “stuck in time” before all these other details came out, retain my sanity, and retain the internal coherence of my own AU fics, as derivative as they may be from the original HP universe.

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6 responses to “What is Harry Potter “canon”?

  1. I have just finished reading the Pottermore information on Minerva and am absolutely disgusted by what I read. I can understand and even accept a few of the facts, but I can’t help but feel that JKR is merely pulling rabbits out of tattered and worn hats merely to create a sense of relevance in the HP universe. Sure, she gave us seven wonderful books (despite my personal feelings on the last two books), but she did not do us any favors by keeping this information to herself or to lack the foresight to keep track of her dates, times, places, and all that other jazz.

    I did, however, think that it said somewhere in the article that she was a year ahead of Tom Riddle. Maybe I need to go back and read that since you referred to them being of a different generation.

    I won’t go into the more specific information which I found grated on my nerves since I don’t wish to leak any spoilers for those who might wish to remain in the dark or who wish to get their information at another time. I will simply follow your example:

    JKR just wrote the most unusual FANFICTION with Minerva McGonagall as the main character. Appearances by almost every canon character can be found in this, though please note that JKR’s version doesn’t even match JKR’s canon version. haha.

    • “I did, however, think that it said somewhere in the article that she was a year ahead of Tom Riddle. Maybe I need to go back and read that since you referred to them being of a different generation.”

      I say that because Tom Riddle was always supposed to have been a student in the 30s and 40s (remember that in CoS & HBP, I think it was, that was pretty explicitly mentioned), and so if Minerva was born ten years later than we’d always been told (and with good reason, given other info in the fics), then unless she changes TR’s info and goes against what is explicitly stated in the books about when he and Hagrid were in school during the first Chamber of Secrets opening, then she couldn’t have been a year ahead of him. But at this point, if she says that Tom Riddle was born in 1940, I won’t be surprised, simply because it seems like this new information isn’t consistent with what we were able to gather from the books. We also know approximately which year Dumbledore visited Tom at the orphanage, and that was about the same year that he began teaching at Hogwarts, which would have been about 1938-ish.

      Anyway, it doesn’t seem to me that the details about the years, ages, and family backgrounds were really worked out in advance of or at the same time as the books, but were kind of tacked on later, for much of it, anyway. And it didn’t seem that she cared to look at her own books and see whether these back-stories made sense in context with the books themselves — even if she had written them before or simultaneously with the books. Heaven knows that things about a character can change in the writing of a book, but then you go back and revise your character’s back-story accordingly. You don’t try to tack it on later, unrevised, if the early version doesn’t make sense in context with the actual finished/published book.

      I am glad I stopped reading where I did. From what people have emailed me about other details, I’m sure my blood pressure would go up.

      I would soooooo love to love Pottermore. And I don’t care that what I write is AU to Pottermore, but really, I do wish that the Pottermore version was something I could like and get excited about and that felt like a natural extension of the characters and events that I came to know in the books. *sigh*

      “JKR just wrote the most unusual FANFICTION with Minerva McGonagall as the main character. Appearances by almost every canon character can be found in this, though please note that JKR’s version doesn’t even match JKR’s canon version. haha.”

      I agree completely!

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

  2. I’m curious to see how other HP fans deal with the Pottermore information – it might split fans like DH did, with some incorporating some details and ignoring others. Personally, I like your background for Minerva in the RaM-verse much better, judging from what I know about the Pottermore information about her. 🙂

    With luck, though, the Pottermore information will help get more people interested in HP and fanfic.

    • I have to say, the further I read, the more flabbergasted I was. Some of the info seemed fine, but some of it . . . I finally just had to stop reading.

      I really had wanted to love all this new information about the characters, even that which didn’t mesh with “my” back-stories for them (and honestly, it was highly unlikely that RaM!Minerva’s back-story and canon!Minerva’s back-story would be similar in detail, but I thought they might be similar in “feel,” at least), but I just can’t.

      I am not looking forward to hyper-punctilious fanfic readers who say, “but that’s not how old Minerva is,” or “but Minerva did such-and-such,” etc. *sigh*

      I hope Pottermore doesn’t kill fanfiction. I don’t think it will — at least not for adults. (I hope!)

      Thanks for the comment!

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