(Yes, this story contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.)
A group of Ministry of Magic officials that includes Newt Scamander’s brother Theseus and Theseus’ fiancée Leta Lestrange is questioning Albus Dumbledore, the defense against the dark arts professor, about Newt’s whereabouts. Dumbledore’s students are ordered out of the classroom as a young woman who answers to “Professor McGonagall” is seen in the hallway. A short time later, while Leta reminisces about her not-so-pleasant time at Hogwarts, the young Professor McGonagall appears again in a flashback: She reverses a jinx that Leta placed on a bully that made her mouth disappear; McGonagall recasts it after the girl starts to complain about Leta. (The latter moment is played for laughs.)
If there was any doubt that the character referred to was the same Professor McGonagall who would teach Harry Potter nearly seven decades later, just stick around for the credits: Minerva McGonagall is explicitly named and portrayed by actress Fiona Glascott.
For those who read spoilers or who attended an early screening of The Crimes of Grindelwald, this isn’t a surprise. Headlines about the cameo have played fast and loose with the reveal in part because of what it does: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which was written by J.K. Rowling, retcons Harry Potter canon, which was also written by J.K. Rowling. (Retconning occurs when an author or creator adds new information to a published work and cancels out previously established information.)
According to the widely agreed-upon canon of Harry Potter (that is, what happened in the text of the books and original films), McGonagall was born in 1935—eight years after she was apparently a professor at Hogwarts in The Crimes of Grindelwald. That conclusion relies on the Harry Potter timeline that Rowling officially adopted in Deathly Hallows paired with McGonagall’s own statement about her tenure at Hogwarts in Order of the Phoenix. It also used supplementary (and Rowling-penned) information from McGonagall’s official biography that appeared on Pottermore and in the published ebook Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship, and Dangerous Hobbies.
The film also revealed that Dumbledore switched subjects several times between transfiguration and defense against the dark arts, only to return to teaching transfiguration by the time Tom Riddle would attend Hogwarts more than a decade later. By the time Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes place between 2017 and 2020 (the former year also previously established by Rowling), McGonagall—now the headmistress—would easily be over 100 years old.
The McGonagall conundrum in The Crimes of Grindelwald might just be a matter of semantics and, if anything, a minor quibble. Who cares if Minerva McGonagall showed up in The Crimes of Grindelwald? It’s a cool callback, and besides, she’s barely in it; her role has no effect on the film’s plot. Casual fans want to watch a movie for entertainment, and that’s a perfectly legitimate way to watch a movie.
But for other fans who engage with the Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter series online, create theories, or participate in transformative fandom (which encompasses aspects of engaging and creating your own works adjacent or in response to canon like fanfiction), it does matter.
Consistency in their stories is a baseline expectation that can keep it all together. But thanks to J.K. Rowling’s oft-criticized woke revisions on Twitter (and now with other works like the Fantastic Beasts films and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), it’s less clear what the beloved story has become.
Fantastic Beasts is just the latest instance of an author tinkering with their own canon. As with the ever-expanding literary and cinematic universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and other major franchises, the debate over what’s real and what matters is at a boiling point.
Rewriting the Wizarding World’s textbooks
If there’s one thing to know about Rowling’s writing of the Harry Potter series, it’s that she’s incredibly meticulous.
In a 1999 interview with the Boston Globe, Rowling said that she plotted all seven books in the series before she finished writing Sorcerer’s Stone. Nearly a decade later, she could draw the Weasley family tree, which included all of the Weasley siblings’ children—most of whom we never see in the Deathly Hallows epilogue—from memory. As far as her approach to writing is concerned, she’s probably more of an architect (someone who plans ahead) than a gardener (someone who sees where the story takes them), to use George R.R. Martin’s observation on types of authors.
Fans got a glimpse of what that looked like first-hand in the 2001 BBC TV special Harry Potter and Me. About eight minutes into the special, Rowling invited a camera crew into her office and unceremoniously removed several old notebooks and crumpled pieces of paper from an otherwise inconspicuous cardboard box. In that box laid the answers to many fan questions, but it also contained questions that Rowling herself had about her own world. Rowling created much of that content during the five years it took her to write Sorcerer’s Stone as she plotted out Harry’s world and the series itself, even though most of it would never be read by anyone other than herself. According to Rowling, she made it “partly for my own pleasure and partly because I like reading a book where I have the sense that the author knows everything.”
“It felt as though I was carving a book out of this [sic] massive notes, and that’s, in effect, what I did,” Rowling said of parsing through the extra content she created. “It was a question of condensing and editing and sculpting a book out of this massive stuff that I had on Harry and I thought that if it got published, I really thought, it’s a book for obsessives. It’s a book for the kind of people who enjoy every little tiny detail about a world because I have every little tiny detail about the world.”
A decade removed from the final Harry Potter book’s publication, it’s clear Rowling got her wish. Fans still debate, analyze, and interact with Harry Potter on a granular level. It’s inspired a generation of writers, uniting fans around the world as they celebrated and mourned anniversaries of fictional events, and, for better or worse, the series became a political lightning rod for much of Rowling’s core readership. But once Rowling started to wade back into the world she created on a semi-regular basis on Twitter (starting around 2014), it was met with pushback.
Sometimes the changes cast a light on the uglier side of fandom, which is absolutely in no way unique to Harry Potter. A racist backlash emerged after Cursed Child cast Noma Dumezweni to portray Hermione Granger-Weasley in 2015. At the time, Rowling wrote that “Rowling loves black Hermione” on Twitter to show her support for the casting of Dumezweni, who would win an Olivier Award for the role. (It wasn’t the first time, either: After Half-Blood Prince’s release, some fans rejected Rowling’s description of Blaise Zabini, a Slytherin in Harry’s year, as a Black student because it didn’t gel with their own mental image of the character.)
But other times, Rowling has altered Harry Potter canon in ways that changed key aspects of the universe. Rowling retconned her own philosophy and self-imposed rules about time travel to make the framing of Cursed Child, a play that Rowling had input on but didn’t write, work. The play inserted Delphini, the secret daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange (whose existence wasn’t even hinted in the Harry Potter series), into the narrative, and in an alternate timeline, revealed Hermione wouldn’t have been driven or ambitious enough to become the minister of magic if she hadn’t married Ron. Pottermore, an official online encyclopedia of Rowling’s Wizarding World, includes biographies and new details about that world. And then there was that one time Rowling suggested that maybe Ron and Hermione shouldn’t have ended up together at all.
Even what is explicitly canon causes divide among fans. The epilogue that takes place “19 Years Later” is so polarizing (the names of Harry’s kids, perceived wish fulfillment, the idea that the main trio would just become their parents after saving the Wizarding World, and its jarring tone compared to the scene that preceded it) that some fans don’t acknowledge its existence when engaging with the series in their own transformative works. Some fans have ignored Rowling’s own statements about Harry’s world and about works she considers canon (like Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts franchise) from their own interpretation of canon.
This happens with every major pop-culture phenomenon from Star Wars to Star Trek. But fans’ access to Rowling on Twitter has made the canon conversation a centralized, ongoing battle.
“At the same time as people are really excited to pass judgment on things, everything is in this sort of constant state of change and flow, which is sort how it’s actually always been,” Flourish Klink, chief research officer of Chaotic Good Studios and co-host of the fandom podcast Fansplaining, told the Daily Dot. “But when you know that this franchise is never going to die because it’s never going to end and it’s going to get continued forever, it sort of underlines the fact that right now, this may be a bad moment for Harry Potter. But I bet that in 50 years, Warner Bros. is still gonna own that IP [intellectual property] and maybe they’ll come out with something really great.”
Harry Potter’s never-ending canon conundrum
The fact that Rowling keeps playing in her own fictional sandbox to reveal new information about the Harry Potter series has turned into a recurring source of mockery among both Harry Potter fans and detractors of the series.
When Deathly Hallows was first published in 2007, Rowling was much more open about some of the secrets she had been guarding for more than a decade, some of which may have once been scraps of paper in that cardboard box. She famously revealed that Dumbledore was gay a few months after Deathly Hallows’ publication, something that made headlines around the world.
Thanks in part to Twitter, which Rowling joined in 2009 but didn’t actively start using until much later, fans could reach out to Rowling for answers to the lingering questions they had about the series. Sometimes she answered those inquiries, and some fans tended to pay attention to whatever she had to say. Those tidbits almost always conjured up headlines.
Other fans never took stock in what Rowling had to say about certain parts of Harry’s world because it had never appeared in the books. But by December 2014, when Rowling started to give more insight into the student population at Hogwarts by noting that Harry had Jewish and LGBTQ classmates (usually in the forms of characters who barely left a mark, if they were named at all), more fans started to push back.
Rowling’s attempts to diversify the Wizarding World would backfire—not because Rowling was trying to be more inclusive, but rather because her attempts were poorly executed and barely researched, or the inclusion was tone-deaf and offensive. The first Fantastic Beasts film had a mostly white cast despite taking place in 1920s New York; the film later announced it had cast Carmen Ejogo as MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery. Her 2016 Pottermore series on North American wizarding history was widely criticized for appropriating Native American culture while demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of American history.
A recent trailer for The Crimes of Grindelwald revealed that Voldemort’s snake Nagini was once a young Asian woman with a blood curse, a decision that had racist undertones; Rowling claimed that she’d been keeping Nagini’s identity secret for 20 years. (According to Entertainment Weekly, the role went to actress Claudia Kim because she “gave the best audition for a standout role.”) Rowling has a long, insensitive history of writing Asian characters, including a character in Cursed Child who had an Indian name that didn’t exist.
Critics interpreted Rowling’s move over the years as her wanting credit for creating a diverse world—when in reality, most of her characters were white, straight, and cisgender. Fans weren’t happy with Rowling shoehorning mere morsels of representation into her series with background characters. And part of that might have to do with the praise Rowling has received over the years for including an expansive and detailed political allegory in the Harry Potter books.
“It’s one big metaphor [for bigotry and oppression], but in terms of literally every other representation of marginalization, she did a genuinely bad job,” Elizabeth Minkel, a fandom culture journalist and Fansplaining co-host who runs a fanfiction newsletter the Rec Center, explained. (Disclosure: I subscribe to the Rec Center, and Daily Dot colleague Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is one of its authors.) “Either it’s complete erasure or some offensive things, honestly. And so if you spend your whole time as a fan growing up, or her being told over and over again that this is a great metaphor for systemic bias and for hate crimes and et cetera et cetera, I think she really internalized that. So whenever anyone questions her on anything progressive, she’ll be like, of course, I’m incredibly progressive.”
The canon we hate
Rowling has been compared to George Lucas on multiple occasions due to how she meddles with her own canon. Although there are some exceptions, most of those comparisons were not meant to be compliments.
Some also point to the prequel trilogy’s existence, which showcased how Anakin Skywalker fell to the dark side of the Force and became Darth Vader but also offers answers to questions that didn’t really need answers. Nearly two decades later, some viewers would have similar complaints in their critiques of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Lucas defended his edits to the Hollywood Reporter in 2012, noting that some of the changes were either to clear something up or to use a visual he wanted to put in there but couldn’t make work at the time.
“If you look at Blade Runner, it’s been cut 16 ways from Sunday and there are all kinds of different versions of it. Star Wars, there’s basically one version—it just keeps getting improved a little bit as we move forward,” Lucas explained. “All art is technology and it improves every year. Whether it’s on the stage or in music or in painting, there are technological answers that happen, and because movies are so technological, the advances become more obvious.”
“I think people have always seen canon as a potentially contested thing,” Fansplaining‘s Klink noted.
Lucas and Rowling are far from the only creators who’ve shuffled through their own works to pick and choose what they consider “canon.” While writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien edited part of The Hobbit—which had already been published—to change Bilbo Baggins and Gollum’s final interaction in the cave where they traded riddles; instead of a pleasant farewell, Gollum now cursed Bilbo for taking the One Ring. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reversed his decision to kill off his famous detective after backlash from attentive fans; the use of the word “canon” as a literary tool can be traced back to Sherlock Holmes to differentiate the stories written by Doyle and Sherlock Holmes stories written by other authors. If you go back a couple thousand years, canon had a much more religious context: Canon referred to scripture that made it into an official religious text like the Christian Bible. Or if you look back even earlier, you can find the concept of canon in Greek oral storytelling.
With some fandoms, canon is relatively straightforward: For Harry Potter, canon might include the books, the films, Pottermore, and what Rowling says in interviews and places like Twitter. But as we’re seeing, eventually the sheer amount of licensed material is so expansive that each property has to have its own definition of canon, and those definitions might shift over the years, often with contentious results.
In a 2003 post, the official Star Trek website stated on a FAQ page that Star Trek canon consisted of what happened in the TV shows or films but not supplementary material like comics, novels, animated series, and video games. But StarTrek.com also acknowledged some wiggle room in that determination, adding that “canon is not something set in stone.”
Technically speaking, the Expanded Universe—the Star Wars tie-in books, games, and comics published prior to Lucasfilm redefining its definition of canon in April 2014—was never part of official Star Wars canon, even if an EU book helped revitalize Star Wars fandom in the early ’90s. The Holocron, an extensive Lucasfilm internal database that chronicled every single element of the Star Wars canon, ranked it below the films and TV shows.
But when Lucasfilm—in an effort to connect the entire Star Wars universe under one cohesive canon with the arrival of a new film trilogy—decanonized the entire EU in 2014, the decision was met with backlash. According to Minkel, affirmational fans (a usually male-centric part of fandom that prioritizes knowledge acquisition) had a particularly strong reaction.
“It’s very rare in transformative fandom for people to say, well, [the powers that be] said it’s not canon anymore so I’m not gonna draw fanart of my favorite character who’s no longer canon,” she said. “I think it’s something that’s very hard for people outside of transformative fandom who are in other parts of fandom to understand the relationship with canon.”
“On the one hand, of course, people accept that it’s been decanonized and understand that it’s going in a different direction,” Klink explained. “But what does it mean to accept that? It’s not like people have decided that those books are bad and they’re not emotionally attached to them. There’s a lot of people who want to see things from those books be brought back.”
Klink pointed out that in fandoms where “there is a glut of canon,” fans have the ability to pick and choose what they want to interact with. In some cases, fans won’t acknowledge another person’s contributions, such as Christopher Tolkien publishing his father’s notes, as canon.
And then there are fandoms where new material can be scarce. Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire fans have been waiting seven years (and counting) for The Winds of Winter. They can parse for new material that might appear in Martin’s series through Game of Thrones, but the HBO series is a good ways ahead, and Martin has long said that Game of Thrones and ASOIAF are “two different tellings of the same story.”
On Reddit, some fans refuse to include Game of Thrones when they discuss ASOIAF, preferring to confer in subreddits like r/pureasoiaf. Some fans carefully consider Martin’s responses to questions at conventions and readings; others take little stock value in them. Ultimately, it all depends on how the information lands with the person reading it.
“With some book fans, whether or not they believe George or what the show depicts comes down to whether or not that information aligns with their theory beliefs and identities in the fandom,” JoeMagician, a moderator of r/asoiaf, told the Daily Dot via direct message.
With Professor McGonagall’s introduction in the Fantastic Beasts series among some of its larger twists, like Nagini’s origins, it’s clear that Potter is headed toward the same culture of divided, à la carte fans.
The Hollywood factor
“What is dead may never die,” is a common phrase uttered by those who worship the Drowned God on Game of Thrones, but it easily applies to every major franchise that continues to reinvent itself. As Fantastic Beasts shows, these return trips muddy the waters—and anger parts of the internet.
In larger properties with an already existing set of canon, a lot of coordination is required. Marvel Studios plans its course several movies ahead. Lucasfilm has the Story Group, which is responsible for keeping track of official Star Wars canon. Star Trek: Discovery, a series that takes place 10 years before The Original Series, is introducing a younger Spock in season 2. It’s creating new canon, but it’s a show that operates within the already established canon of Star Trek. As executive producer Alex Kurtzman told reporters at New York Comic Con last month, the writing staff has spent plenty of time trying to figure out what parts of the Star Trek canon they can experiment with or push to tell new stories.
“It’s a constant process of refining, and there are many different voices in the room with many different points of view about that,” Kurtzman explained.
HBO is in the early stages of planning for a post-Game of Thrones future. So far, it’s greenlit a pilot for a series based around the Age of Heroes, a time in Westeros history that has more than its fair share of uncertainty built into its premise. It’s too early to tell if HBO will order a full season of the show or greenlight any of other shows being worked on.
But the question of how new information is processed and whether or not it should be considered canon remains unavoidable.
“For Age of Heroes, it’s something [the r/asoiaf moderators are] debating and I know we’re gonna get fans that want us to make new spoiler tag definitions for AoH and the other spin-offs,” JoeMagician said. “For people that think it’s not ‘George’s ASOIAF, it’s HBO’s or [showrunner] Jane Goldman’s.’”
As is the case with Harry Potter, the question of canon gets dicey when it comes to representation. Multiple interviews emerged last year where directors and screenwriters revealed that their films featured LGBTQ characters. But when you actually watched those films, the moment they referenced is mere subtext.
Like Rowling, those filmmakers wanted credit for including LGBTQ representation on-screen while doing the absolute bare minimum of putting meaningful and complex LGBTQ characters and those relationships in media. And like Rowling, some of those filmmakers were criticized for trying to shoehorn in more diversity into a film that didn’t have much of it.
“There was some post going around recently that was like, queer representation isn’t subtext and it’s not something you say off-screen, and it’s not a secret code that you have to uncover in the text,” Minkel said. “It doesn’t have to be that complicated. If they want to do it, they do it. So you don’t get points for just hinting and winking and nudging, or making gay jokes on Sherlock. That’s not queer representation.”
Canon is a flat circle
With the latest surge of movie and TV prequels, sequels, spin-offs, reboots, revivals, and remakes on the air or in the works, it’s only going to get more complicated. (Or easier! Fandoms could go the route of Doctor Who, where the showrunners reject the very idea of canon even as fans debate what Doctor Who canon is.) It’s always been an issue in storytelling: Previous versions of a play about Hamlet were performed before William Shakespeare wrote his version.
Those stories can offer new insight and, in some cases, may end up being better than what made us fall in love with a story in the first place. In others, fans may view the new venture as a pale attempt to recapture the magic, or, more cynically, a blatant money grab. With many fans discussing those things online—not to mention the more direct access to creators—it’s easier get caught up in the smaller details when they’re laid out in one place like a fan-run wiki. The lifespan of a fan theory can go back decades, long before online analysis became centralized on sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit.
For more than 20 years, Harry Potter fandom has analyzed every inch of the text, and the release of The Crimes of Grindelwald won’t stop that; readers might find a way to make the McGonagall reveal work within the context of canon. More convoluted reveals in the future films may leave a similarly bitter taste. But fans can also choose to engage with whatever they want—canon doesn’t have the capacity to dictate what they enjoy. After all, if what we’re seeing with Fantastic Beasts play out is any indication, it’s something we’ll have to come to terms with again and again.
Clarification 4:42pm CT: This article has been amended to clarify staff writer Gavia Baker-Whitelaw’s involvement with the Rec Center newsletter.