Potter Encyclopedias and Guidebooks: Let the Avalanche begin!

I was surfing a wonderful Political Science/International Relations weBlog that a new friend of mine makes contributions to and was startled to find quite a bit of Harry Potter commentary. I recommend you check out the pieces by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson on “What Harry Potter Inherits From Star Wars” and “Why Harry Potter Beats Football for Conversation” if discussion of the books as monomyth/legend/mythology or as cultural artifact is your sort of thing. Me? I was trying to get to Daniel Nexon’s “How Harry Potter Explains the World” at the New Republic Online but I couldn’t get past the subscriber-only blocker, doggone it. (You can read it here.)

What I was able to read that Prof. Nexon linked to, though, was an article by Scott McLemee from July in the Inside Higher Education blog called “Pottering Around.” Not much of what Mr. McLemee is of interest to serious readers of Harry Potter because he discloses with a hint of pleasure that he has not been up to reading any of the books or seeing any of the movies. He does share at least one thing you should know; the avalanche of academic papers and Big Publishing House Guidebooks to the series has begun.

He writes:

At least 17 doctoral dissertations and seven master’s theses had been devoted to the Harry Potter books, at least in part, as of last year. Chances are good that all these figures are on the low side….

So it was interesting, though no means a surprise, to learn that there is an intensive course on Harry Potter at North Georgia College and State University this summer, taught by Brian Jay Corrigan, a professor of English whose more routine area of specialization is Renaissance literature. Students in the course are contributing to an encyclopedia that will cover — as Corrigan puts it during an email interview — “the geographic, historic, folkloric, mythic, and all other backgrounds informing the Harry Potter world.” He says an agent is shopping the project around to publishers in New York now.

One encyclopedia of Potteriana is already available. But with the appearance of the final novel, it will soon be out of date, and Corrigan’s effort will presumably have the advantages of closure and retrospective insight. It will also be enormous — perhaps 250,000 words long, with hundreds of illustrations being prepared to go with the entries.

“After a year and a half in planning and five weeks of class,” Corrigan told me, “the ‘rough’ part of the project, collecting together all the grist, is about three quarters finished. We have already generated nearly 1,500 typed pages (650,000 words). There will be a polishing period that will whittle all of this into a usable format.” He expects that phase to last until the end of the fall semester.

Will the Scholastic/Bloomsbury/Warner Brothers parliament of lawyers let post Deathly Hallows guidebooks or companion pieces through the gates for publication without a court case or two?

Believe it or not, I think they will let it pass, even though Ms. Rowling has an Encyclopedia of her own in the works. Ancillary titles, however larcenous, do not hurt book sales and they do not prevent people from going to movies. And that is, shall we say, the “bottom line.” Law suits are expensive and inevitably make the book sellers and movie makers (and, because they act on her behalf, the author) the ugly, greedy heavies. If they can demonstrate a copyright violation, maybe they’d go to court. But anything that could be presented as “fair-use criticism” I think will be on the street without review by judge or jury.

Certainly this Harry Potter Professor in the UK agrees. He already has a publisher:

Keswick writer Colin Duriez – a self-confessed Harry Potter addict – will soon be teaching a course dedicated to the young wizard.

Starting at Lancaster University in January, the four-week course for adults will look at the literary merits of the JK Rowling series.

Colin is also compiling an unofficial guide to the books, to be published in November.

Although most of it is already written, he has just a few months to digest the new book – the last in the series – and complete his work.

Colin – who also writes guides to CS Lewis and Tolkien books, among others – told how his love for the world-famous children’s novels first developed.

“A few years ago I noticed that children were so keen to read them and couldn’t stop talking about them. I decided to read them myself and I was hooked,” he said.

“One of JK Rowling’s main strengths is her storytelling. It’s something that appeals universally, to children and to adults.

“She has brought together a number of genres – the school story, fantasy etc. And she hasn’t just written seven books about Harry Potter – each one takes it that step further.”

Colin says her stories draw parallels with the likes of CS Lewis, except that the magical and “muggle” worlds are intertwined.

His course runs over four Saturdays at Lancaster University. Full details will be available from libraries and the university nearer the time.

But Colin’s top priority right now is to finish his book, The Unauthorised Harry Potter Companion, which will be available through Sutton publishing in November.

I guess I’d better jump to it if I want to beat the flood tide of these newcomers with the updated versions of Looking for God in Harry Potter or Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. I hope the Lexicon can find a publisher quickly if they haven’t got one already.

Remember the explanations to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code that came out before the movie? Almost twenty are still in print, believe it or not. And the books explaining The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the movie was made? Bob Trexler at the New York C. S. Lewis Society tells me more than thirty guides to Lewis’ fiction have been published with this recent wave added in.

A “Numbers Question” for your speculation: “How many Guides to the Magical World of Harry Potter do you think we’ll get post Deathly Hallows? How many from Christian Publishing Houses?”

Get the sandbags filled. Clear the slopes. The avalanche of academic arcania and a tsunami of titles are coming. Look for my revised books in the first wave!


  1. John, thanks for the nice comments and plug. The essay got syndicated to a bunch of different outlets. You can read it on CBSNews.com. I’m glad you liked Patrick’s posts. He’s got a great piece coming out in an edited volume on Iain M. Banks (which probably isn’t your cup of tea) and teaches a Science Fiction/Politics class.

    And, yeah, be ready for the flood :-).

  2. PS: Have you seen this? Apparently the English-language editions of Hallows are best sellers in a few non-English speaking countries. Pretty amazing, if true.

  3. Alas, my experience of Brian is *also* that he is a huge optimist. So the good news is that it probably won’t be hack work, and assuredly won’t be plagiarized. The bad news is that it probably won’t be ready in anything close to the time frame he envisions. And I am afraid you are right that most of the material that will be produced will be, not to put too fine a point on it, junk.

    The better material is likely to have a very specific focus-like alchemy. Those, at least, are the books and articles I am most interested in reading. On the “yes, I would like to read more of that” list would be nearly anything by Edmund Kern. You have to be a very close reader to produce a 50 minutes, carefully considered lecture on Snape’s eyes.

  4. I was as impressed by the comment-box speculation that this success was caused as much by the lack of readers in these countries. More than 10% of Italian homes don’t have a single book? Ouch.

    Is anyone tracking how many countries and which countries have bootleg translations going up on the Internet? The gap for translation is not insignificant in European not to mention Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Given the number of accomplished English speakers globally and the probability of team-translations, I have to think the likelihood of web availability of Deathly Hallows in most countries beating licensed work by months is close to certain.

  5. Sorry to post here, but I don’t see any private email links. I’m just now finding your blog, having read, “Looking for God in HP.” You mentioned writing “An English Major’s Guide to HP.” Is that still in the works, or is “Unlocking HP” that treatise?

  6. colorless.blue.ideas says

    Thanks for the link, John.
    Daniel, I would have liked to have seen a longer essay: I sensed that you had to cut back some great thoughts in order to meet size constraints, so it came across like shotgun — here a pellet, there a pellet, scattered all about. If you ever rewrite and lengthen it, please let us know!
    But please drop the Guantanamo/Azkhaban comparison: it only plays to those who are ignorant of the place. Small example: many people are released from Guantanamo when the evidence is lacking (some of whom return to battle and are recaptured or killed), while no one is released from Azkhaban for lack of evidence.

    Interesting, John, that you cite The New Republic. During the months prior to the 2004 elections, I tried to read every issue of The New Republic (on the left), National Review (on the conservative side), as well as several others.
    Thomas Hibbs had a recent Harry Potter essay in National Review, “Harry Potter & the Art of Dying Well”. You might wish to pass it along ttp://tinyurl.com/2l8vsw.
    Given J.K. Rowling’s interview statements about death as the theme of the series, I thought his article was pretty good.

  7. According to Bloomsbury about 400.000 copies of Deathly Hallows have been sold in Germany within the first 24 hours after release. I don’t know about Italy, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be more than a few thousand copies, as the commenter speculated.

    I’ve read about unauthorized online translations in China and France, but they have been taken offline very soon and those responsible might face legal consequences. Here’s a link about the French translator, a 16-year-old high-school student French teen not to be sued for pirate Potter translation Amazing how he managed to post a “near-professional” translation within a few days?!

    There’s a project going on called “Harry-in-German”, which is an online team translation, but it’s only available for the team members who contribute something. So I guess we’ll have to wait for the official work.

  8. colorless.blue.ideas. Fair points all around. The piece actually wound up being longer than what The New Republic contracted for, so you can imagine what got cut along the way. I should note, however, that I basically lifted liberally from the edited volume I did on Harry Potter and International Relations, so there are more details about, for example, the Sweden-Turkey comparison, the status of the volumes in Islamic countries, and so forth in there.

    I also think that’s a fair point about the Guantanamo/Azkhaban comparison. Of course, any such analogies will be imperfect. That really came out of reading commentary–I’m less interested in the truth of the analogies than how people read politics into Harry Potter. But, certainly, if we take the Wizarding World as carrying such a political message, wouldn’t the point be that Rowling provides an extreme account to illustrate underlying values about rights and responsibilities when struggling with Evil?

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