22 October 2007

The Wizarding World Beyond the Books

Back in August I discussed J. K. Rowling's pattern of revealing additional information about her characters during interviews and author appearances. Her statement last week about Dumbledore's love life, as well as similar remarks about Neville Longbottom marrying and lesser details, obviously extends that behavior.

Rowling has made most of these statements in response to questions from her readers, not spontaneously. And she's often prefaced them by saying some variation on "I think...," perhaps hinting that the words that follow aren't as authoritative as those she's authored on paper.

Nevertheless, I think that it will be very hard for fans or interpreters of the books to ignore Rowling's statements, to insist that if a particular "fact" about characters isn't in the novels themselves then we can ignore it.

That's because Rowling has produced two overlapping accomplishments.

  • The first consists of her seven novels, plus two ancillary books. In the terminology of current literary criticism, these are the "texts," and they stand above all.
  • Rowling has also created a "world," mostly through those books but also through her collaboration with filmmakers and artists in other media, and through her public remarks about the characters and places in her books.
Indeed, I think Rowling has been more successful in imagining her "world" than in getting it down on paper--hence the need for these interviews to address unanswered questions.

Rowling is obviously aware that her "world" stretches beyond her books, and in some ways beyond her control. Right after her Dumbledore revelation, she said, "You needed something to keep you going for the next 10 years! ... Oh, my god, the fan fiction now, eh?" (I don't know when she became Canadian.) There are already thousands of unauthorized, unofficial stories about Harry Potter characters, including probably every variation on romances and sexual relationships that one would want (or not want) to imagine. There are Harry Potter movies and video games enjoyed by people who have never read or plan to read the books.

I see three qualities of Rowling's work making her "world" more important to fans than the texts which convey that "world":
  • She wrote in the fantasy genre. As in science fiction, her "world" doesn't have to match the objective world, making it an independent universe to explore.
  • Her storytelling style relies on a large cast of characters, myriad details, and complex storylines. At the same time, her prose is straightforward and often undistinguished, not drawing attention to itself.
  • When the first Harry Potter book arrived, the internet was waiting. It allowed fans to create a worldwide community that no previous new fantasy series had enjoyed.
Other authors before Rowling have clearly felt the wish to say more about their characters than got into their books. That is, after all, the motivation for sequels. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a great deal of tedious background material, and his family continues to squeeze books out of those manuscripts. More recently, Philip Pullman has, like Rowling, published a small guide to part of his Dark Materials world, and clarified his intentions and thoughts in interviews.

Other authors before Rowling have also seen their fantasy worlds become widely known through avenues other than their books. My favorite fantasy universe, Oz, is an obvious example. A century ago, more Americans probably knew of it through a wildly successful stage extravaganza than through L. Frank Baum's books. For the last few decades, it's best known through the 1939 MGM movie. Both of those adaptations made significant changes from Baum's original, but the books' core mythology remains intact.

But the clearest analogues to what Rowling has created, I think, are George Lucas's Star Wars universe and the two "universes" created over several decades by DC and Marvel Comics. (The Star Trek universe might fit the bill as well, but I'm not as familiar with it.) All of these "worlds" exist in many media: movies, comics, prose stories, TV shows, video games, and more. All contain many stories, indeed many somewhat contradictory or alternative versions of stories. But each has a core of characters, settings, and "rules" defined by the creators/copyright-holders.

Under this approach, Rowling's books are merely one manifestation of the "world" she's created. On the one hand, we can admire that "world" and how she produced single-handed what's previously taken a large corporation or two. On the other hand, a good measure of Rowling's books might be how well they reveal that "world": imperfectly at best.

In any event, I suspect that understanding the difference between "world" and texts will only become more important in our multimedia world. We critics and interpreters of fantasy literature will have to get used to the idea that universes aren't contained within two covers, or even (in this case) fourteen covers.

1 comment:

Indeterminacy said...

I found this post quite insightful in my private musings about what makes a text popular/successful.

In a sense, every author creates a world of his/her own. My favorite worlds, though perhaps not fantasy worlds in the mold of Tolkein's or Rowling's have been Alfred Kubin's "utopia" in "The Other Side"(Die andere Seite), Rudolf Arnheim's reverse society in "Eine verkehrte Welt" (an Upside Down World - not translated into English, as far as I know), and Gustav Meyrink's poetic description of the old (lost) city of Prague in "Der Golem".