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Canon: The Common Law Approach

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Taure, Aug 20, 2020.

  1. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    What is the Harry Potter Canon?

    It was simple in the old days. The books were canon. JKR would occasionally make a comment in interview and those were considered canon too. When the movies came out, there were not considered canon, because they contradicted the books.

    Now it’s become rather more complicated. You have stories told by JKR but set in the same universe as the movies. We have a proliferation of extra-textual statements on Pottermore/Twitter. We even have a play of uncertain authorship, but which JKR had some role in producing. And it is not unusual for there to be tensions between these materials.

    So, how to structure this mess?

    First of all, let’s understand what the point of canon is. The purpose of canon is to act as a standard of correctness, a source of authority. It is saying: the Harry Potter world constitutes a universe, so what are the facts of that universe?

    Therefore whether a given individual likes some element of canon is completely irrelevant. That would run completely counter to the concept of there being an authority.

    With this approach in mind, I would propose a system inspired by Common Law legal systems. In particular I would borrow the following concepts:

    1. Binding Authority. Simplifying, this consists of decisions made by courts higher than the court you’re in. These are the decisions which a judge must follow whether they think they are good or not.

    2. Persuasive Authority. These are decisions of courts at the same level as you, lower than you, or in other common law jurisdictions. They are decisions which a judge should follow unless there’s a very good reason not to.

    3. Secondary Authority. These are materials which collate and analyse legal authorities, such as legal textbooks and academic commentary. They are not authority in themselves, but they are considered valuable materials for the purpose of understanding authority. Not all secondary authorities are equal and a well-established practitioner’s text (e.g. Chitty on Contract) will carry a lot more weight than some random textbook for undergraduates.

    4. Non-Authoritative sources. These are materials which are not in any way binding on the court, but nonetheless may be of interest and use, in particular in cases where English authority is completely silent. Most commonly this takes the form of judgments made by legal systems outside the common law system e.g. France.

    So let’s apply this to HP canon.

    Binding Authority

    These are the sources which are, without a shadow of a doubt, canon. They establish the core and immutable facts of the HP universe. I believe they must have the following features:

    1. A written work.

    2. Authored by JKR.

    3. Published (in the sense that it is distributed to the world in a "official" form which is unalterable once released).

    4. Intended to exist within the same universe as the Harry Potter books.

    The only items that fit these criteria are:

    1. The original 7 books.

    2. The side-books Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Tales of Beedle the Bard.

    3. The "Short Stories from Hogwarts" e-books.

    There can be different levels of binding primary authority. Just like a judgment of the Court of Appeal overrules a judgment of the High Court, so too do the original 7 books overrule the side-books. In this regard, I would say that (i) stories override commentary, and (ii) later materials override earlier ones.

    Persuasive Authority

    These are sources which are definitely produced by JK Rowling, so reveal what JK Rowling considers to be the facts of the Harry Potter universe, and which have been distributed in a somewhat "official" manner, but fall short of the characteristics of primary authority.

    I believe this category contains two items:

    1. Pottermore’s “Written by JK Rowling” articles

    2. The scripts of the Fantastic Beasts movies.

    Pottermore is in this category because, while it is a written material produced by JKR and is intended to exist within the book universe, it is not “published” in the same sense as the materials in category 1. Articles can be posted quite informally, edited, or removed. Pottermore therefore exists in a state of flux which prevents it from achieving binding canon status.

    As for the scripts of the Fantastic Beasts movies, we know that these are written by JKR and published in an official, irreversible manner. However, it’s not clear that they are intended to occur within the same universe as the HP books.

    Rather, the Fantastic Beasts movies appear to take place in the same universe as the Harry Potter movies. We can see this because certain elements contradict the books, such as McGonagall teaching at Hogwarts in the 1920s when in OotP she said she had been teaching for 39 years. We can also see this in the general aesthetic of the wizarding world in the FB movies, which follows the aesthetic established in the HP movies. I think it’s clear that the FB movies occur in the same universe as the HP movies (and are therefore non-canonical), but that still leaves the question open regarding the FB scripts.

    I think the best position for the FB scripts is that of persuasive authority. They still reveal what JKR considers to be the facts of the HP universe, but when citing this authority one must be careful to account for the fact that JKR was writing a story to take place within the movieverse. Therefore one must attempt to separate out those elements which are part of the book universe and those parts which exist within the movie universe.

    Secondary Authority

    I believe that interviews, Tweets, and other informal, off-the-cuff comments made by JK Rowling best fit into this category. Those comments are useful, because they help us understand canon.

    For example, in OotP Mrs Figg describes Dementors. Her description is bad - so bad that everyone, including Harry, doubts that she actually saw them and that the most she has ever seen is a picture in a book. Only when she describes the effects of a Dementor does everyone believe her.

    It’s implicit in this scene that squibs cannot see Dementors, but they can feel their presence. JKR then confirmed this in an FAQ which has since been deleted. Her comment serves as useful and illuminating commentary upon canon.

    However, these comments are not canon in and of themselves. If JKR said tomorrow that actually, Harry Potter is blonde, this would not serve as an “update” to canon which revised previous canon. Rather, she would simply be wrong.

    Non-Authoritative Sources

    Where the HP canon is completely silent as to a matter, it can be useful and instructive to look to certain sources. These sources can be useful to fill in gaps in canon, but only so long as the material being used fits well with canon.

    I would identify the characteristic features of these non-authoritative sources as:

    1. It is an officially endorsed HP material.

    2. JKR must have had some involvement in the creative process for it to fall within this category.

    3. However, it's not clear what level of involvement JKR had.

    4. The work may or may not be intended to take place within the same universe as the books.

    5. The work may contradict some part of canon.

    In this category I would place: the original 7 HP movies, the Fantastic Beasts movies (as distinct from their scripts), Cursed Child, Chocolate Frog cards, and video games in which JKR had some involvement like Wonderbook: Book of Spells.

    As regards the HP movies and FB movies, we can say that they create a separate, alternative “movieverse canon”.
     
  2. Mordecai

    Mordecai Drunken Scotsman ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    Its an interesting approach, but with regards to the movies (HP and FB), I think I'd have to disagree with your positioning of them.

    She wrote the FB movies as part of the HP canon. The fact that there are disagreements between what is in them and what is in the original books doesn't change that both are canon, it just means there's a plot hole or inconsistency within canon. I see it as no different than if something in DH contradicted something in PoA, it doesn't stop either book from being canon.

    Regarding the HP movies, if I was rating them by your outlined criteria I'd put them as Persuasive Authorities. My reasoning is that we know JK had substantial creative control over them, as I recall she assisted with the script writing on all the films. My reasoning for accepting them not being binding authorities is that they are derived from the original books, with the changes made being necessary for the medium they are portrayed in - they sacrifice authority for entertainment. This argument doesn't apply to the FB movies because they are not derived from any authoritative source.

    With Cursed Child - as much as I disliked it I think we need to acknowledge that JK was the creative driving force behind it. Again, just because it doesn't entirely fit with canon as defined by the books doesn't mean it isn't canon.
     
  3. Jeram

    Jeram Elder of Zion ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    Well, what about the "Harry Potter and Me" documentary which has some preliminary notes on things like students? It can't be canon exactly because some details have changed (Queenie to Daphne is a known case), but what about the others?
     
  4. Steelbadger

    Steelbadger Unspeakable

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    I'm not sure how well this approach really works.

    The problem with it is that 'canon' isn't really a single, unified, non-contradictory unit of knowledge. It is not curated by any authority into a form that allows it to be used as a meaningful measure. It is a collection of semi-random snippets and statements, from a variety of different sources such that even within the books themselves, you might have different levels of reliability thanks to the unreliability of the characters within the story. And that's not even getting into areas where seemingly reliable statements may not match up to reliable observations (McGonagall, I'm looking at you).

    I am reminded of how the idea of 'canon' is regarded in Tolkien. There, there's an understanding that the 'canon' (if that's the right word for it) develops over time. One just needs to look at things like Balrogs, or the nature of Orcs to see that while there are some statements from Tolkien on those subjects, his thoughts changed over time, and the stories themselves slowly changed with them. The issue is, that there are still places were 'old' ideas were left in, which seem to be incompatible with the newer ones.

    Tolkien nerds don't tend to get hung up about that though. Usually, the issue is simply addressed as an uncertainty, with multiple possible interpretations, each of them having potential support in the form of Tolkien-sourced statements at different points in time.

    Basically, if we apply Tolkien-fan logic to Rowling, we'd treat every twitter post, Pottermore entry, spin off and novel as equal. In the cases where they contradict, there's no need to choose between them, or make up convoluted excuses. Rowling's vision for her world/characters changed subtly over time, just like Tolkien's. If you want to write 'canon-compliant' fanfiction, choose the version that works best for the story you want to write, state that you are doing so, and go to town.

    Really, the fixation on acting as if the Harry Potter world somehow has some kind of transcendental existence which must be unified and internally consistent, and which is only imperfectly expressed by the works that describe it, is baffling. It is a constructed world, built up over years. It's never going to be wholly consistent, and that's fine.
     
  5. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    That's exactly the problem that this approach is designed to tackle, by addressing the fact that there are different sources and treating them in accordance with the nature of that source.

    Your approach essentially boils down to saying that all universes are fictional and flawed so you can only ever have Doylist discussions about them, discussing them by reference to author decisions and motivations. The problem with this is that people want to have Watsonian discussions - that is, discussions about the universe as if it were real.

    Fan communities exist entirely because people want to have those discussions about the fictional world they love to inhabit in their imaginations. To constantly force the conversation onto Doylist terms - "Harry didn't come back to life because Lily's blood, he came back because JKR wrote him as Jesus" - is about as welcome as Amber Heard's shit in a bed. Frankly, people who insist on the Doylist approach remind me of people who refuse to read because it's just words on a page - it's a fundamental failure of imagination.

    Ultimately, people care about canon because they want to have those discussions, and in order for those discussions to occur there needs to be a standard of correctness. Otherwise it's just two people stating their equally baseless opinions, without ever being able to engage with the other person's opinions, because there is no common ground between them. They're just talking past each other and would have had an equally productive conversation with a wall.
     
  6. Gaius

    Gaius Third Year

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    As someone who has studied English literature as an undergrad and is now in the Classics, the idea of "canon" (and like it "classic") is something that has interested me. I don't have a legal background, Taure, but one area where I would maybe push back against your hierarchy of canon from a literary perspective at least is your dependence on authorship for literary(/legal) authority. Since the New Critics (early-mid 20 c. CE) many critics have wanted to distance themselves from the "intentional fallacy," attributing ideas to the author themselves in interpretation, which allows for richer interpretations/criticisms that may not necessarily be born from a strictly biographical or historical reading (such as psychoanalysis or deconstruction). So if we can, maybe we should do this with HP and think of how the texts stand by themselves, which also allows us to divorce the texts from subsequent comments by Rowling that don't add significantly to our knowledge or appreciation of Harry Potter. It is also difficult to divorce texts from their reception by audiences, so the way these texts are read/approached may also help us think about how texts are included/excluded from a canon.

    As an example of what I mean by thinking about texts and canon and putting aside the author, let's think about Homer (8 c. BCE). In ancient Greece Homer was thought to have written other poems in the Epic Cycle, not just the Iliad and the Odyssey. Aristotle mentions the comic poem Margites, for example, in his Poetics (4 c. BCE). Homer's relationship to Margites wasn't accepted already in classical antiquity, and apart from this reference doesn't seem to have ever have had a canonical status similar to the Iliad and Odyssey despite being written by "Homer." Similarly the Homeric Hymns were attributed to Homer on the basis of literary style but weren't believed to be by Homer by the Hellenistic period (3 c. BCE) at the latest. This is all putting to the side the fact that "Homer" is a shorthand for the Iliad and Odyssey since we do not know if the poems were compiled by a single poet at the end of the oral tradition or not. That is to say, authorship or the belief of authorship by later authorities aren't the only things that decide what is canon.

    On the other hand, for the poet Hesiod (7 c. BCE) a later, derived poem The Shield of Heracles (~5-4? c. BCE) is often included in collections of his work and treated as "Hesiodic" in style. This isn't canonical but was and is famous enough to bear some fruit for critics working on Hesiod to think about this later source and for ancient authors to continue attributing it to Hesiod.

    I'm reminded of Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence who argues that literature has a pattern of succession where authors have to use different strategies to overcome their predecessor (which can include imitation, rejection, etc.). But this anxiety of the author also shows a kind of dependence on a prior text or material, so James Joyce does something different than Homer with Ulysses and succeeds in swerving away from Homer's influence, but there is still a chronological and thematic relationship that shows Ulysses depends on Odyssey in ways for it to work. We can see this at work in religious texts, too (e.g. New Testament's relationship to Old Testament, in which NT supplants OT for Christians but is dependent on previous text; Apocrypha and Church Fathers dependent on OT & NT as additional texts and commentary; Quran & Hadith, where the latter is a supplement for interpreting Quran). (NB: I'm not a religious scholar so I may be off on how Hadith is interpreted in Islam.)

    In regards to Harry Potter canon, I think this idea of succession of texts and their dependence on/reaction to each other can be useful for dividing different sources without relying only on Rowling's authority as author, especially when it comes to her statements in interviews or in post-HP works. To me, Fantastic Beasts, Cursed Child, and the school books occupy similar positions as dependent on HP because they reference HP in order to exist (e.g. Nagini as circus performer in FB works as a clear reference to Voldemort's snake and shows its dependence on HP). Cursed Child requires knowledge of GoF and Time Turners from original series (as well as the characters). School books often have something like property of Hogwarts school or marginalia attributed to Harry et al., so clearly derivative. Pottermore seems to me to be even further removed because it exists to complement what we have in our original canon (HP) and serves as commentary. So far we have: 1) Harry Potter books, 2) FB, CC, Quidditch through the Ages, etc., 3) Pottermore.

    Where do the films go? Much like Steelbadger, I think they should go higher than Taure has them. I think we can think of them as "translations," slightly lower than 1 (1b?) that introduce some new ideas and expressions by representing HP in a different language (cinema) than the original. The movies may serve as a helpful resource for fanfic authors or scholars to supplement their knowledge of HP and can be treated as artistic texts in themselves as translations. And as with the Latin Iliad or Aeneid in the Latin West taking precedence to the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, this translation/version may supplant the "original" as one language becomes more culturally dominant than another (film/writing).

    So ultimately I think the hierarchy remains similar to the one organized above, but doesn't rely only on how involved Rowling is as an author. It considers the relations of the texts themselves to each other. This would put Twitter, interviews, etc. as farthest removed because those texts themselves don't have much authority as texts (i.e. they aren't read in the same way) as the published works, films, and Pottermore articles. I think the films should be rated higher than in the Common Law interpretation though. Because they are so widespread and popular, they are treated as canonical by a majority of viewers who haven't read the HP books or for those who have read the originals they take them as supplements. The paradoxes that come up between these two versions (or between different books in HP itself) will produce different interpretations of course, but that's why religious and literary communities have such differences of opinion in regard to the texts they study.

    edit: i meant "intentional fallacy" but had "authoritative fallacy in original post
     
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2020
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