Meta-Potter: Is ‘Cursed Child’ Harry Potter Canon or Something Else?

by Emily Strand

Wait. Harry’s afraid of pigeons? And the Trolley Witch has a scary side? And Voldemort had a what…?

As fans ingest the newly-released rehearsal script from the hit play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they’ve moved past confusion over the work’s genre (to quote a friend’s 10-year-old daughter, as she opened the play on her Kindle: “Mom. This is a play”). They’ve moved on to a more important, more fundamental and perhaps more troubling question about the work: is this canon?

The play’s publishers and authors have been clear: the answer is “yes”. Fan sites have quickly added it to their lists of what we must consider when we consider Harry Potter. All this, despite that Rowling is not the primary author of the script itself, but merely contributed to the creation of the story on which it’s based.

Cover 2I knew this when I picked up my copy of Cursed Child. And I like to respect authors’ wishes on such matters, when they’re not outlandish. Before I picked up the play, I had accepted the idea that, no matter what I thought of its contents, I would need to at least try to fit them into my imagination’s understanding of Harry’s story.

In small ways, incorporating Cursed Child into canon isn’t difficult. Readers can surely hang with the rabid Trolley Witch. Hey, she’s kind of fun, in a macabre way. I personally loved it when grown-up Harry admits to being afraid of pigeons, because, well, I am too. And I’m sure it was never the authors’ intention to cause my mind to envision Voldemort in a compromising position with Bellatrix Lestrange (no, no, no mental picture, please no mental picture, please no… dammit, too late).

None of these individual quirks of Cursed Child causes me to reject it as Potter canon, nor all of them together. Still, I’m not adding Cursed Child to my Potter headcanon. Sorry Jo. Sorry other guys whose names are on the cover. This is not Potter.

It’s meta-Potter.

John Granger has written about the many postmodern characteristics present within the Potter books. He says postmodern stories, which tend to encourage suspicion of the traditional narratives that have held societies together for millennia, are, as a result, self-conscious and self-referential. They have a sense of humor about themselves; they wink and nudge the reader, encouraging them not to take any story too seriously, the present one included.

The seven-book Potter narrative mostly does this by showing how wizarding society is, despite our attraction to it, imperfect. In giving us an alternate, magical universe, Rowling isn’t saying “over here everything is just fine.” Hardly. Through institutions like the Ministry of Magic and the Daily Prophet, and characters like Dolores Umbridge, Cornelius Fudge and even Snape, Rowling is, in a characteristically postmodern way, saying: “Hey, look! This magical story has corruption, prejudice, and adults who never finished growing up too! So don’t trust it either!”

The seven Harry Potter books demonstrate postmodern self-consciousness on a “macro” level, that is, at the highest level of story-telling. It makes her story quite enjoyable to read, at the same time it is challenging and thought-provoking to the reader.

Most importantly, the seven Potter books’ self-consciousness is never self-indulgent. Potter is self-referential not simply because it can be, but in order to draw the reader’s attention elsewhere: to more important places, like the parts of our own society which need to be questioned. Once in a while you’ll find a self-referential moment that doesn’t serve this more magnanimous end – Ron’s exclamation of “ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT!” to Hermione in Philosopher’s Stone comes to mind. But when this happens, the reference adds humor, or gives the reader a more complete sense of immersion in the world.

Cursed Child is a different story. I’m calling it “meta-Potter” because, unlike the seven Potter books, which tell a story that comments on stories themselves, Cursed Child seems primarily concerned with commenting on Potterverse itself. And this habit of the play becomes very self-indulgent, very quickly.

Ron Hermione and RoseIt starts benignly on page 23 when Harry suggests Albus Severus make more friends, and the boy tells his father, “I don’t need a Ron and Hermione”. The article “a” before “Ron and Hermione” is telling; it shows their names have become a trope for a trio-making pair of friends: the sidekicks a hero can’t do without. Of course, I found Ron and Hermione far more interesting when they were just an unlikely pair of kids whom circumstance pulled together to do something great alongside the hero, not a trope of same.

Cursed Child’s self-consciousness ramps up on page 187 when Severus Snape wonders if he’s just quoted Dumbledore. Hermione assures him that his profound (not really that profound) statement was “pure Severus Snape.” Problems with Hermione’s statement range from character consistency to questions about its application in the alternate universe in which they stand at the time. Those aside, my problem with the statement is that it is self-indulgently referential to the place of Severus Snape in Muggle Potter fandom, instead of in the wizarding world.

Then we have the worst incident of this kind of self-referential self-indulgence on page 261 when Draco Malfoy tells Harry how “exceptionally lonely” it is, “being Draco Malfoy.” Reader, I’d like you to try something, if you please. I want you to try referring to yourself in this way. Out loud. Come on, this’ll be edifying. What is it like to be you? Lonely, like poor Draco? Frustrating? Exciting? Tedious? Pick one. Now, say it out loud. “It is exceptionally _______, being [your name].”

Now, do you feel silly? Yes, so does Draco. Or he should, anyway. As Harrison Ford once reportedly said to George Lucas, “You can write this [stuff], George, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” Let’s hope, for the actor’s sake, poor Draco’s line was improved in the finalized script, the way Harrison Ford improved many of Han Solo’s lines.CC

I, for one, don’t plan to spend the money to find out. It’s not just because of these relatively minor examples of the self-absorbed nature of Cursed Child. These are mere symptoms of the play’s greater self-indulgence, which is likely what many fans are referring to when they say the play reminds them more of Potter fan fiction than authentic Potter.

Yes, the overarching plot of the play can also be considered meta-Potter. As Albus and Scorpius discover what happens if they change a seemingly insignificant part of history, the story becomes an extended reflection on all the tiny details that went into determining the victory of the wizarding world over Voldemort in books 1-7. Cursed Child is not Albus and Scorpius’ story (which is unfortunate, because their dialogue and rapport are the most satisfying parts of the script). It is Harry’s story, re-examined, even re-lived and re-imagined in many ways, several times over.

It’s Potter about Potter. It’s meta-Potter.

On page 122, Professor McGonagall cautions Harry, regarding Dumbledore’s portrait, not to “mistake the painting for the person.” This is good advice that, sadly, Harry does not heed. Readers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: please don’t make the same mistake. Because it’s good advice for us, too. Cursed Child is not Potter, it’s a portrait of Potter. It’s a monument to Potter. It doesn’t tell us a new story; it reflects deeply on the primary story: the story of Harry and company’s victory over Voldemort, and (less deeply than it could) of love’s victory over death. So treat it as a monument: something to help you remember, reflect and process an important moment from the past. Let it bring you comfort, pride, and a sense of fond familiarity.

But if it offends your Potter headcanon, go ahead and ignore it.


  1. Elizabeth says

    Wonderful! It was fantastic having this conversation in our Mugglenet podcast this week, and the meta-Potter analogy works perfectly! As my son pointed out, the play is sort of like an appendix, a vestigial bit that is not really necessary (that was kinder than his other evaluation of the play as being sort of a “store brand” or foreign knock-off Potter).
    The painting metaphor is perfect. Indeed, the play can allow us to “see” our friends again, but they are not “real” any more than the people in the Mirror of Erised are real (however, per this meta-textual discussion, we should accept that, in the most literal sense, none of these people are “real,” of course. )
    Instead of a canonical text, the play is more like a Chocolate Frog Card: we want it to complete our set, as a collector’s item, not as a revelation of new content or part of an already complete ring composition. The people in the picture will only behave as they should, according to their already defined natures. They will not leave the card, behave in new or un-anticipated ways, or have relationships with us. If they do behave in unexpected ways within this artifact, we are troubled. We want Ron to be funny and always eating. We expect Hermione to be clever. We’d be disappointed with a McGonagall who was a pushover.
    They may scratch their noses or wander out of frame, but they will never “live” in the way they do on the pages of the Hogwarts Saga.

  2. Emily Strand says

    Brilliant, Elizabeth! Thanks for the comment!

  3. As someone who was once deeply involved both on this website and in fanfiction, I’ve been waiting for the HogPro take. Some of the aspects of the play were so typical of fanfic as to feel like overdone tropes (I’m looking at you, lovechild of VDM and Bellatrix–but the Potter/Malfoy relationships in the next generation are a close second). And some of the plot devices felt so ridiculous that I would have written them off if they were fanfic (like the rumor that Scor is VDM’s son).

    Your analysis of the story as meta-Potter is apt, and I can see how that meta-Potter aspect connects it to fanfic. The goal of fanfic has always been to interact with the original story, to imagine its possibilities and re-explore themes that are already present. I spent much of my two and a half years (and nearly 300,000 words) of fanfiction writing exploring the next generation–how indeed everything isn’t perfect and that living up to the reputations of their predecessors didn’t do particularly amazing things for their development as adolescents.

    Seeing the tropes and questions of fanfic in something that’s supposed to be canonical sat funny with me, even as I enjoyed the relationship between Albus and Scorpius, and Scorpius’s pursuit of Rose.

  4. Rochelle,

    I’m interested in hearing a bit more about the part of your comment that goes:

    “how indeed everything isn’t perfect and that living up to the reputations of their predecessors didn’t do particularly amazing things for their development as adolescents.”

    I know you are trying to explore this in terms of fanfic. However, it also sounds like you could almost be applying that same statement to real life in some way.

    Are you trying to explore how readers in real life feel let down by the texts they read? If so, well, then that’s sure a hell of a good subject worth tackling, I have to admit.

    Or am I just reading too much into things here? Feel free to correct me on any of this.


  5. Emily Strand says

    Rochelle – great comments. I too enjoy writing (Star Wars) fanfic. So I want to be clear to say that I don’t believe all fanfic is necessarily self-indulgent. But as you say, part of the fun of writing fiction in an established universe is to play with – to explore, enhance, clarify and even refute or overturn – the themes that are essential to the ‘verse.

    And you bring up an important point: that, for the second Potter/Granger-Weasley generation, living in the shadow of their parents’ successes would have been difficult. And it may have formed the focus of attention more often than anyone wished. So maybe it should be no surprise that living in the shadow of their parents’ greatness was the focus of Cursed Child. My biggest disappointment in Cursed Child was that the story ONLY focused on how the second generation processed, endured and reacted to the fame and past exploits of their parents, instead of showing the boys having their own, independent adventures. Which is a missed opportunity.

    Thanks again for your comment!

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