Review of Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions

Kristin Noone

Tison Pugh. Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions. University of South Carolina Press, 2020. Paperback. 168 pg. $19.99. ISBN 9781643360874. EBook ISBN 9781643360881.

Tison Pugh’s Harry Potter and Beyond explores not only J.K. Rowling’s worldwide phenomenon of the Harry Potter series, but extends the discussion of Rowling’s influence by engaging with her non-Potter works such as the Cormoran Strike detective series and the literary fiction The Casual Vacancy (2012). Pugh argues that Rowling’s work transcends any single category such as children’s fiction, and reveals both an engagement with and reformulation of the established genres of fantasy, the school story, bildungsroman, mystery, and allegory to ultimately create “a fresh hybrid form of literature” (19). These genres provide the structure for Pugh’s chapters, which offer an expansive and accessible discussion of Rowling’s literary works, genre definitions and critical responses, the role of the author, reader and fan responses, multimedia adaptation, and the role of literature in exploring human mortality, morality, and community.

Harry Potter and Beyond opens by considering the relationship of author to text in the persona of “J.K. Rowling” and the popular if not entirely accurate rags-to-riches narrative arc of her story, providing a detailed biographical overview and noting connections and references found in her writing. Pugh notes Rowling’s literary influences, history of charity work, and support of multiculturalism as well as the ways in which “many readers have found Rowling’s treatment of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other related issues sharply limited” (7), especially in light of her recently revealed views on the rights of trans people; this context is useful for acknowledging the complicated impact of Rowling’s influence, and the complexity of audience responses to her work and to her authorial persona. Pugh’s introduction thus also examines questions of literary theory, critical approaches, and popular culture engagement, providing larger scope and scholarly breadth. Finally, Pugh examines existing critical responses to Rowling, as well as the growing genre of YA literature and the difficulties inherent in defining such, and the ways in which the lines between literary and genre fiction have always been blurry. This final discussion sets up the central chapters of Harry Potter and Beyond, each of which reads Rowling’s work in the context of an established literary genre.

Each of Pugh’s chapters provides a succinct overview of the genre in question, while examining Rowling’s work as both an example of and a reformulation of established generic tropes. Chapter One uses the work of influential theorists of fantasy, myth, and fairytale (e.g. Jackson, Jameson, Mendlesohn, Campbell) to discuss the ways in which the Harry Potter series embraces and experiments with the tropes of fantasy, including the relationship of the mundane to the fantastic, the quest, the traditionally male mythic hero and gendered assumptions, and British identity, particularly in terms of chivalry and Arthuriana. Chapter Two continues this exploration of identity, especially British identity, in the school story tradition, which centers the protagonist’s maturation throughout the challenging experiences of the boarding school; Pugh again provides a useful overview of the history and major theorists of the genre, as well as an extended commentary on Rowling’s work as relying on and playing with genre convention: if the school story genre traditionally helps readers develop an ethical code, then “Rowling’s Hogwarts encourages students to aspire to more radical forms of knowledge based on the contingencies of experience” (43), and Pugh’s discussion of ethnicity and social class distinctions in Rowling’s work opens up fertile ground for future exploration.

Building on the themes of maturation in the school story, Chapter Three explores Rowling’s novels as bildungsroman, first establishing genre definitions (e.g. those by Alden and Buckley) and expectations, emphasizing the ways young protagonists learn to confront the social norms of their world, and productively applying this concept of identity formation to examine Rowling’s Wizarding World through a postcolonial lens, highlighting ethical sensibilities and ethical lapses.

Chapter Four shifts modes to the mystery novel genre, which, as Pugh points out, is often dismissed as “genre fiction” yet has a history of extensive overlap with many other genres, such as the bildungsroman in children’s and YA detective stories. As in previous chapters, Pugh provides an easy-to-follow overview of the history and major scholarship in the mystery novel genre, as well as emphasizing Rowling’s influences in and affection for the genre, and the interconnected nature of these fuzzily separated genres, grounded in a detailed close reading of the ways in which Rowling both employs and ignores key tropes thought to define the genre, such as the role of the hero as active investigator and “fair play” with reader expectations.

Chapter Five also considers Rowling’s expectations of readers and (sometimes versus) reader expectations, as Pugh explores the role of allegory and the genre of allegorical writing in Rowling’s work. Allegorical texts, as Pugh suggests here, “demand perceptive interpretations of that which they do not clearly state” (73) and thus invite multiple and potentially contradictory readings; Pugh focuses here on two particular allegorical readings, that of Christian sacrifice and salvation, and historical commentary on World War Two. Both of these allegories deal with themes of violence, Otherness, and communities under threat; Pugh offers a compelling reading of Rowling’s work as concerned with ways that escapist literature can productively open up discussions of morality and mortality, consequently arguing for the importance of genre fiction overall.

Chapter Six turns to the ever-evolving Potter canon, given the previous context of evolution and growth and genre interconnectedness; Pugh situates this discussion in the scholarly contexts of canonicity, collaboration, fanfiction and transformative works, adaptation (films, theater, fan productions) and paratexts (Rowling’s personal website, Twitter, Pottermore), and queerness (especially in the responses of queer fans and readers to canonical representation or lack thereof), considering this version of distributed authorship through the lens of Henry Jenkins’ concept of convergence culture and an increasingly participatory world.

Finally, Chapter Seven expands these themes beyond the Wizarding World, exploring how Rowling “seeks to dismantle artificial boundaries between genre fiction and literary fiction” (107) in The Casual Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike mysteries (the latter written under her Robert Galbraith pen name). In these novels, Pugh argues, Rowling “demonstrates her fluency with a wide range of literary genres and historical traditions, thus further testifying to her ecumenical influences and her reformulations of the British literary legacy” (108), but the more mixed critical and fan reception to these works also demonstrates the difficulties and “limitations” of her approach to genre. As in the Harry Potter novels, Pugh concludes, Rowling undermines simple distinctions of genre and “high” or “low” culture in order to emphasize themes of identity, family, community, morality, mortality, and resilience; thus, Rowling’s body of work overall reflects her desire to both acknowledge and move beyond established distinct categorizations.

Harry Potter and Beyond includes a well-organized multi-section bibliography, which will be useful for scholars working in any of the genres discussed, as well as scholars of more general literary criticism, narrative structure, and canonicity; the writing is both expert and approachable, accessible for established scholars and newer students embarking on research into these fields. Pugh provides a concise, informed, and compelling reading of Rowling’s body of work as both engaged in and demonstrative of inter-generic connections and influences, and ultimately emphasizes the appeal, hopefulness, and possibilities of playing with genre.

Kristin Noone is an English instructor and Writing Center faculty at Irvine Valley College; her research explores medievalism, adaptation, heterotemporalities, fantasy, and romance. In 2018 and 2019 she received the National Popular Culture Association’s Two-Year College Faculty Award, as well as the Kathleen Gilles Seidel Award, administered by the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, for travel and research support in Australia. She is the editor of the essay collections Terry Pratchett’s Ethical Worlds (2020) and Welsh Mythology and Folklore in Popular Culture (2011),  and has published on subjects from Neil Gaiman’s many Beowulfs to depictions of witchcraft in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld to Arthurian references in World of Warcraft. She is currently working on a book-length study of Star Trek tie-in novels as sites of cross-media and cross-genre contact.

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