Does Harry Potter belong to J.K. Rowling or readers?
The best-selling author recently published a short story about Harry and his friends, which raises a good question: When an author says a series is finished, are the characters' stories still hers to tell?
Fri, Jul 11, 2014 at 01:41 PM
J.K. Rowling's imagination knows no limits — but when it comes to her most famous character, not everyone wants to know what was left off the page. (Photo: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final installment in J.K. Rowling's bestselling series, was released in 2007, but the fictional wizarding world continues to make headlines today.
This week, Rowling published a 1,500-word story, written in the voice of Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter, on Pottermore, Rowling's interactive fan website.
The story reveals what Harry, now 34 years old, and his friends have been up to since they defeated Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts.
Previously, Rowling had been writing original stories about the 2014 Quidditch World Cup on Pottermore, but it was the publication of the Skeeter article that temporarily crashed the site.
In February, Rowling made headlines again when she revealed that she wished Hermione had ended up with Harry instead of Ron.
"I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment," she said in an interview with Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the Potter films. "That's how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron."
These statements were met with both outrage and excitement, depending on which fictional couple the reader "shipped," and have prompted questions about what an author's role is once a book is published.
"Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling," said entertainment writer Alanna Bennet. "But books also belong to their readers. And those readers, for better or for worse, were given Ron and Hermione and Harry as written. That doesn't just go away because J.K. Rowling decides to tell us she changed her mind."
The meaning or interpretation of a fictional work of an author is known as authorial intent, and most literary theory is based on the concept that a book takes on a life of its own once it's written.
It's up to the reader to find meaning or interpret the text's events — not to guess what the author had in mind when writing it.
As Ernest Hemingway said, "Books should be judged by those who read them — not explained by the writer."
But Rowling seems to be turning this idea on its head and redefining modern ideas of authorship.
While the bestselling author has said numerous times she has no intention of penning either a sequel or a prequel to the Harry Potter series, to some degree she's done just that.
In addition to the recently published story on Pottermore, in 2008, she wrote an 800-word prequel that recounts an adventure by Harry's father, James Potter, and Harry's future godfather, Sirius Black.
The short story was part of a Waterstones' event called "What's Your Story?" and several authors were invited to write stories for a charity auction. Rowling's entry fetched more than $40,000, and she concluded the story with, "From the prequel I am not working on — but that was fun!"
Since the publication of "Deathly Hallows," Rowling has gone on to share numerous other details about her fictional world.
In October 2007, she announced during a Carnegie Hall appearance that Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was gay.
It speaks to Rowling's celebrity and the intensity of the Harry Potter fandom that revealing a fictional wizard's sexuality was worthy of CNN's news ticker.
Although Rowling has said she's flattered that people have written fan fiction about her characters' futures — and even been supportive of G. Norman Lippert's James Potter series, which tells the adventures of Harry's son — she hasn't shied away from sharing her own thoughts on what Harry and his friends are up to now that the books are over.
She's provided numerous details about her characters' future marriages and occupations, and on Pottermore, she will eventually publish 18,000 words of new content known as "ghost plots."
These plots include character backstory and storylines that never made it into the books.
While some fans have delighted in this new information, others have been wary because of how Pottermore encourages fans to read the series as they move through the site and find these ghost plots.
"What gets me here is that … stories that never made it into the canon of the seven books is being presented as canonical," wrote one blogger. "And by doing so [Rowling]'s obliterated the blank spaces where the reader's imagination can run riot."
Is there a precedent?
Rowling isn't the first author to have second thoughts about her work or to offer up additional details to readers.
After the publication of "Tender is The Night," F. Scott Fitzgerald sliced the book up and rearranged it into a different order for republication.
"This is the final version of the book as I would like it," he wrote. However, the book was never republished as he wished.
And after completing the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien corresponded with numerous fans, providing them with additional information about the fantasy world he'd created.
However, critics are quick to point out that there's a difference between Tolkien's actions and Rowling's.
This is "an age in which an author is not simply sending letters to readers as Tolkien did, but making utterances that will be disseminated and analyzed by a global network of websites," writes Rebecca Traister.
"Fandom is bigger than authorial intent, to an epic extent," said Bennet. "Harry Potter is bigger than J.K. Rowling now. It's bigger than all of us. And strangely, that overwhelming largeness is what gives us the power to decide for ourselves what to do with all those words."
For another take on authorial intent, hear what John Green, best-selling author of "The Fault In Our Stars" and "Looking For Alaska," has to say in the short video below.
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