MuggleNet Academia: John Mark Reynolds Argues that the Flood of New Rowling Potter Material is Not Canon (and Just Might Ruin the Saga)


  1. Interesting episode. Good job by John Mark and Alison in taking on the topic. Although Alison pretty much lost any credibility for me when she said The Lord of the Rings was a boring story.

    My position on canon is familiar similar to John Mark’s. I think the more material and information Rowling puts out the greater chance the original seven books will be washed out as it were. To be sure, there is a ton of subsidiary material on Tolkien’s Middle Earth but that always seemed to be secondary to the works themselves and one) put out not by the author but his estate and two) intended more to show the creative thought process that went into and surrounded the primary texts. Whereas the Potter stories seem to have taken on a secondary importance to whatever Rowling says at the moment. One can’t really find a solidity to the stories anymore because tomorrow Rowling might change some aspect of it via a Tweet she puts out.

    I also strongly agreed with John Mark’s point about the books losing their cachet the more Rowling injects her socio-political views into and onto the Potter world. I was worried when some fans started labeling everyone who wasn’t a liberal social democrat as tantamount to being death eaters. But I got beyond worried when I saw Rowling engaging in some of the same behavior herself. She seems rather quick to allude to anyone who disagrees with her on social or political points as being followers of Voldemort.

    I can’t remember how you phrased your last question of the show, John. Something about how has your interaction with the books or with the Potterverse changed. Well, I certainly don’t have much to do with the fandom anymore. Once it became less about enjoying and analyzing the books and their meaning and more of using Potter as the launching pad of a social justice crusade, the joy of the books was pretty much gone for me.

    I haven’t read any of the books in several years. News that in the past would’ve filled me with excitement like the Fantastic Beasts movie or the Cursed Child play do nothing for me. I generally ignore anything Rowling says nowadays. Strangely enough, though, I still enjoy fan fiction especially next generation works. Perhaps because that’s one area Rowling hasn’t made too many pronouncements on. Yet.

    Anyway, I know that if I can just start reading the books again and ignoring all the extraneous stuff, I’ll love them again. I’m glad there wasn’t a fandom when I grew up reading Tolkien and Lewis because I can and do still read those books with undiminished joy even forty years later.

  2. Well, I’ll admit the entire episode was engrossing. However I’m not quite sure that anything definitive was arrived at concerning the question of canon.

    On that question, my thoughts are as follows. I remain hopeful yet cautious when it comes to “Fantastic Beasts”, and utterly skeptical of “The Cursed Child”. I regard the former as having at least the possibility of some good potential in it. The latter I find easy to dismiss because it seems like the author herself is being shanghaied into something that’s not of her making, therefore I see no logical or creative reason to pay any much attention to it.

    One element of the whole that got my attention more than any of these questions, however, was Prof. Reynolds remarks regarding not just Rowling’s work, but also that of Lewis and Tolkien. If I had to summarize at the risk of over-simplification, or misunderstanding, then I’d have to point to the moment in the debate where Prof. Reynolds takes all the authors just mentioned, and is willing to admit that such fictional concepts are, in essence, stupid by their very nature.

    That’s a statement I disagree with, yet at the same time I find such a thought fascinating for its underlying assumptions. Embedded within the professor’s words seems to be the open question of whether or not fiction, as a concept, as a part of life, has any kind of intrinsic value if the majority of imaginary situation are, as he contends, stupid.

    What makes such questions and the beliefs attached to them important is because Prof. Reynolds is not the first person to question the value, even the necessity or validity of fiction. The simple fact is that the appreciation of telling has been pretty much a coterie affair ever since the Industrial Revolution. With the automation of modern life, most ordinary people were taken away from a much older, folklore oriented culture that had been the de facto style of living for many years previous. It does seem that modern life is so concrete-oriented that whenever someone displays a knack for imaginative enjoyment or a genuine creative talent they must be almost like freaks. Because of this modern circumstance, imaginative creativity and enjoyment must outlying exceptions, rather than norms. Whether or not these circumstances will change any time soon is anyone’s guess. If it did, then it would have to be as part of much larger social shifts.

    I’d like to make suggest in what I say next that the ability to enjoy art in the modern age, while partly natural, is also something of an historic survival from earlier eras and epochs. Specifically, I’d like to suggest that when and if a person is able to enjoy a fictional artwork to its fullest, then they have managed to preserve a function of the mind that dates all the way back to the pre-modern eras. The further you go back through the historical records, the higher the regard in which the imagination is held. In fact, by the time you reach antiquity, the fictional products of myth are accorded an almost religious nature and function. This is at a 180 degree odds with how the imagination is perceived to today. Most people can’t make heads or tails of the peculiar mental activity, and just come away puzzled that a part of the mind seems destined to spew out images or ideas that can never exist. Some have theorized that it’s a pre-historic survival trait that’s still hanging around long after the situations that generated it in the first place are gone. This sort of thinking about the imagination is of a type that C.S. Lewis referred to as Naturalistic, or Naturalism. It is basically any type of thought of system of philosophy which is compatible with modern materialist thinking.

    In comparison with this, the older forms can shed a light on how even modern fiction can be enjoyed. My thought on this subject isn’t my own. It is based on “Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, by S.L. Bethell. In that book, the author outlines the perceptual differences between our era, and those of the Elizabethan Age. The key thing to note about Renaissance writers and their audiences were that they were able to imaginatively balance the relation between art and real life in such a way that an awareness of real life never once spoiled the art of imaginative enjoyment. Bethell’s word for his ideas is what he calls the “Theory of Multi-consciousness” as a possession of the Elizabethan audience.

    “This double consciousness” Bethell writes “of play-world and real world has the solid advantage of ‘distancing’ a play, so that the words and deeds of which it consists may be critically weighed in the course of its performance…Naturalism must engage in a constant effort to delude the audience into taking for actuality what they are bound to know in their moments of critical alertness to be only a…performance. To gain a hearing, naturalism destroys the critical awareness necessary for appreciation: it is hardly surprising that a method thus divided against itself has produced little of permanent value (Bethell, 33, original hardcover ed.).”

    If this sounds exactly like the point Prof. Reynolds makes, then I would ask that anyone pay attention to Bethell’s use of the word “Naturalism” and to remember the professor’s own words. He says he doesn’t want to be reminded of real life because it spoils the illusion of fiction. On the other hand, Bethell’s whole point is that older audiences demanded this critical awareness that Prof. Reynolds finds distracting. The Elizabethans, on the contrary, felt that a careful awareness between a fictional Secondary World and reality could actually help strengthen the ability to enjoy fiction for what it is, namely make-believe. Demanding total illusion was seen as a sign of delusional thinking. Bethell’s entire book amounts to nothing more than a kind of artistic credo against Naturalism in both storytelling and its criticism. I’d like to risk it and say that I can’t help wondering if the aesthetic naturalism Bethell warns against isn’t influencing Prof. Reynolds thought regarding the artists in the podcast discussion.

    This idea of a sub-conscious naturalism may help to explain the professor’s misgivings about the shattering of illusion. However the question of whether or not fiction has any value still remains. Can anything be found that would give the art of make-believe a valid reason for being continued as an mental exercise in real life? I think one reason was supplied by one of the friends of Lewis and Tolkien. Like Bethell, this author’s statement is also in the context of Renaissance literature, however it’s clear from his words that he means what he says of one individual writer to be taken as a general maxim applicable to all literature (apologies in advance for the “gnomic” quality of his sentences):

    “The ostentation…of speech, concerns the movement of Bacon’s mind. Words themselves are ostentation, a showing forth, and he (Bacon, sic) was a master of words. But, as all masters must be, he was to an extent the instrument of that which he controlled. Men capable of great phrases are, by their inevitable nature, sometimes subordinated to those phrases. We have thought so much of realism, of writing with “the eye on the object”, that we have forgotten that, though the eye may be on the object, the mind is elsewhere. It is, in fact, a truth which is only half the truth. To mean to put a thing in words is to mean, at most, to create an image of the thing, with the life of the image and not the thing itself. It – whatever “it” is – is discovered only by its creation in words, and the exterior thing is but a nourishment or a medicine for the more obscure life. One words thrusts another into being. But the care which a man will take over his creation if he means it to come before the world he may neglect in a familiar letter. He will not therefore be insincere. What is true of poets and Majesty is true of any writer in passion. He creates, in writing, the thing in which he believes; it is desire manifested and fulfilled. That the outer world destroys it does not prove it untrue. In his great moments it is the last intelligence of man to be able to believe that a thing, so defined and created, is true eternally and yet may seem to change. (Charles Williams, Bacon, 25, hardcover ed., 1973 reprint).”

    To translate all that into common English, what Williams suggests is a sentiment shared by Wordsworth, among others. Namely that the elements that go to make up a work of fiction, narrative, characters, and situations can only have value inasmuch as they are symbolic (not realistic) expressions of what Wordsworth called “a glory not their own (Prelude V, lines 603-5).” In other words, Williams and Wordsworth assume that the ultimate value of literature lies in its occasional ability to express various “Eternal Truths”. If fiction didn’t contain the possibility of expressing Truth through symbolism, then it all really would be a stupid waste of everyone’s time. However, because of this possibility for symbolic expressions, make-believe is granted a dignity it wouldn’t otherwise have. It is allowed to be an Art. What Williams and Wordsworth are saying in all this is the same thing as Tolkien in his poem Mythopoeia. What’s interesting food for thought is that Wordsworth pre-empted Tolkien and Williams’ arguments by almost a century and cultural/technological shift. Pretty impressive for a simple theory of art.

    This also bears on the idea that “The Hobbit” and “LOTR” aren’t part of the same story set in the same universe. That Prof. Reynolds believes they’re different is obvious, yet it’s a viewpoint at 180 degree odds to Tolkien’s (and Williams’) belief about the nature of fiction writing. For Tolkien it was about discovering a symbol (or archetype) and seeing how it developed one slow bit at a time. It is always possible the archetype may have more to tell than the artist knows. However, even if that’s the case there’s still the matter of knowing when to write “The End” and stick to it. I think any real story carries the seeds of its own resolution. The problem seems to be that in an age that doesn’t value stories as art then most people won’t have any reason to treat them as “finished products”, and therefore ideas such as plotting and character/conflict resolution can just be treated less as symbols expressing religious truth, and more just like tinker toys to be fiddled around with until even that becomes boring as a pastime.

    A good article on just this subject can be found here:

    To sum up, I think canon can be objectively established, but I also think the ability to perceive what is and isn’t canon counts on how high a level of imagination one has, whether as a writer, or just a member of the audience.

  3. I’ve run across an interesting Salon article by Scott Timberg, that might help throw some perspective on the Canon argument.

    Basically, Timberg’s article boils down to a question: is Post-Modernism ruining the concept of an official literary canon, along with the possibility of any Authoritative Texts?

    Timberg raises the possibility that our current Po-Mo mindset is what has knocked the ability to enjoy a series like Harry Potter as self-contained secondary world for a loop.

    The idea here seems to be (if I’m reading the article right) that the very deconstructive nature of Post-Modernism has finally started to cause the subconscious dismantling of any possible work of art, so that Po-Mo audiences are no longer able to take in a work of fiction because their very mindsets won’t allow it. Instead, they see an imaginative work as something ephemeral, like a child’s toy to be fiddled around with until boredom sets in, after which the toy is set aside, never to be picked up again.

    The biggest charge Timberg makes is in wondering whether or not Ms.
    Rowling is afflicted with the same mind-set. In other words, is she making the problem worse?

    Based on what I’ve read, I’ll admit she has certain Post-Modern tendencies as an author. However, I’m also convinced that these tendencies are offset by her Christian convictions. These convictions allow her a much more mature vantage point that allows her to arrive at definite convictions, rather than wallowing in an aimless skepticism.

    What’s interesting is that Rowling’s Post-Modern aspect may create a kind of schism in her work where one set of values may conflict with the more traditional beliefs. If that is the case, then it may reach a crisis point where a necessary change would have to be made, requiring her to jettison those Post-Modern ideas that don’t work for various reasons.

    On the side of the audience, well, if such a skepticism of the value of stories really is present in the minds of a lot of fans, then it shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise if they treat a story more like a trinket than as a possible container of Truth. After all a person has no reason to pick up a book if he or she thinks it’s ultimately worthless. The problem is that such people will inevitably come into clash with that sector of the audience that actually do believe that fiction has an objective value. It’s here where the possibility for bitter arguments and backlash come into play.

    For my part, I tend to think that it is the very possibility for stories to express Truth that makes a text authoritative or not. The open question, I guess, is whether or not it’s possible or desirable to get Post-Modern audiences convinced of this value as well.

    Timberg’s article can be found here:

    See what you think

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