Review of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games
Jonathan W. Thurston-Torres
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. New York UP, 2019. Hardback, 240 pg. $28.00, ISBN 9781479800650.
Even as I am writing this review, I am wearing both a Slytherin tank top and a Slytherin scarf. I grew up in a generation in which J. K. Rowling’s famed Harry Potter book series was coming out; they were published during my middle and high school years. While I have seen the movies a few times, I have never gone back to read the original books. But, when I saw the title and subtitle for Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s new book, I found myself thinking back to racial representation in the book series. I knew about the occasional person of color in the books, and I knew that representation was minimal. I remembered, too, the “scandal” in the media over the black Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016). But Thomas’s book pushes back against all of these preconceived notions of race in the Harry Potter books and other young adult literature, begging the question, “What about the space for young adult imagination?”
Thomas begins her book with the eponymous critical term for her work: “the dark fantastic.” She first defines it as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations” (7). In this introduction, she details how monstrous others in fantastic literature are “endarkened” and convey to “readers, hearers, and viewers of color” that they “are the villains […] the horde […] the enemies […]the monsters” (23). She gives numerous examples throughout the text to showcase the term more concretely, such as Rumpelstiltskin who becomes the “Dark One” in the TV series Once Upon a Time (2011-18), the Native American bestial werewolves of the Twilight series (2008-12), and the “majority of witches and warlocks” with “visible African ancestry” in the television show The Vampire Diaries (2009-17) (30-31). However, as the diversity of these examples shows, the “dark fantastic” is a murky term to define.
In his 2019 monograph The Paradox of Blackness in African American Vampire Fiction, Jerry Rafiki Jenkins summarizes and discusses race discourse around Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In this description, he shows how while many scholars have argued that a dominant response to the novel is to empathize with the victims of the vampire, some race readers like Jewelle Gomez align more with Dracula himself as a form of “shared ‘suffering’” (24). What Jenkins creates here is an awareness that both darkness and othering are spectra in and of themselves, not to mention their intersections. Is Mina Harker capable of being a Dark Other for Thomas, or is only Dracula capable of that? As Thomas points out, being othered in literature often means being darkened, so, therefore, are all folkloric antagonist archetypes qualifiers for Dark Othering? All antiheroes?
When Thomas moves into case studies, she starts with representations of Rue in The Hunger Games (2008). This section begins with a solid analysis of construction of race and ethnicity in the series, showing how Rue was raced in the first book. While these representations are complex, Thomas excels at being able to focus the camera in at the line level and then zoom back out to show the larger picture: we see how specific phrases and sentences help to create a systematic construction of race, and that affects the ways that Rue “becomes” innocence in the novel. But, as Thomas shows, that innocence is “transferred” to Katniss by the end, and Rue “fades from the narrative” (57). The chapter wraps up with a survey analysis of social media responses to the black representation in the films, investigating what Thomas calls the “dark fantastic cycle,” a narrative cycle that tracks the role of the Dark Other in fantastic literature (60, 26). This cycle makes it so that cishet white men can read the work and not even notice these characters who just “happen to not be white.”
The next chapter reads closely representations of Gwen in BBC’s Merlin (2008-12). The chapter starts by showing how the mixed-race character of Gwen might disrupt the dark fantastic cycle, but, at each step of the analysis, while there is potential for disruption, Thomas shows how even this narrative follows the conventions, even if in more roundabout ways. The second half of the chapter is devoted to Thomas countering common trends in social media response to Gwen’s racialization. However, many of these analyses are really quoting various posts, putting them in conversation with each other, and then making a brief point that could have been explained more. In one section, Thomas traces the statement that “Gwen and Arthur [as a desired coupling] are heteronormative” (96). She sets up the context for this discourse, she shows some quotes, details how important an Arthur and Merlin shipping is for the LGBTQI community, gives more quotes, one of which says that race is important for characterizing Gwen, and then paraphrases that quote some more, and then moves on to the next assertion. The social media analysis throughout Thomas’s work signifies new ways to examine young adult literature and its reception, but I would have liked to see more critical analysis of it, rather than mostly summary.
In the final two chapters, Thomas examines blackness in The Vampire Diaries and the Harry Potter series. In each, she grounds the discussions in anecdotes of conversations with her family about race and racial representation, and these anecdotes showcase one of the strongest aspects of the book: this book is an essential text for anyone teaching young adult literature, especially in middle or high schools. Thomas models reading YA lit for race and encourages ways to teach not just reading but also analysis of social media reception of race in literature and film. Thomas’s work definitely needs to be in university libraries, educators’ hands, and scholars’ shelves. And for me at least, even as a proud Slytherin, I have new understandings of the Harry Potter series and the ways the dark fantastic cycle snakes its way into the narrative.
Jonathan W. Thurston-Torres is a PhD Candidate in English at Michigan State University, and their edited collection Animals & Race is scheduled to come out through MSU Press later this year. They specialize in early modern studies, animal-race theory, and HIV activism.