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The Art of Unfinishing: HP Fanfiction and the Power of Storytelling


Many avid Potter fans readers want to be more than just that—readers. By inventing their own stories about Harry Potter and other characters from Rowling’s books and by adding new elements and structures to the Potter cosmos, they are assuming even the author’s role. They take on both Harry’s and J. K. Rowling’s point of view. Thus the universe of the Potter books appears to become deeper and richer every day. This growing complexity mirrors thousands of individual reading experiences and unique encounters with Rowling’s books. As soon as these experiences are put down in written narratives, fixed to the computer screen, published on the internet and read, they tend to blur the borders of Rowling’s world, splitting it into many possible Potter worlds which are only vaguely controlled by their reference to the original stories.

This is not the place to discuss legal matters of copyright infringement and plagiarism or originality or imitation, since it is generally accepted today that any text is manifestly or secretly related to other texts. A text can be derived from prior texts by means of imitation and transformation, by continuing or renarrating it. The echoes of past texts and stories can be heard in any work of literary fiction. This is not about intellectual property. This is about reading, writing and the power of storytelling.

The phenomenon of derivative stories is not something unique to the Harry Potter books. This is exactly what great stories always have done and always will do: they tend to multiply, while usually still preserving their original identity. They stimulate, incite and spur their readers to delve into the vast wealth of their details and to explore their abundance of narrative cores and seeds. By letting them grow into stories of their own. By experimenting and playing with them. The stories born out of these creative games even may serve as a commentary on Rowling’s original texts which makes us rethink various meanings and aspects of her work.

No one, not even the best storytellers in the world, can tell everything. Not even the “happily ever after” phrase guarantees that the end has actually been reached and that all threads and filaments of a story have found their due place in its texture. How, where and when does a story begin and end? Do we expect it to end, anyway? Must and can it actually end? It is relatively simple to define the beginning and the end of a book. Even though we might quarrel about the status of prefaces and epilogues, glossaries, titles and footnotes, it seems safe to say that a book ends where its pages and covers end. But what about a story? Does it end where its book ends, within its paper garment? The moment we click on the close button of the document in which it lies embedded on the computer screen? Does it end when we let it slide out of our consciousness and memory or when the last evidence testifying its existence has been destroyed?

A story does not end where it appears to end. Exactly those parts where we believe to have spotted loose ends and void, chasms and abysses, holes and gaps often turn out to be the densest passages of a text because they invite us readers to take part in the making of the story. While the author is gently guiding us in a certain direction, we may fill the gaps from the reservoir of our own experiences and expectations.

Every story is saturated with such emptiness and indeterminacy and thus forms an inexhaustible source of narrative potential; no story can be totally complete and include the whole world in its cosmos, explore all its characters down to the deepest depths of their minds, describe every minor movement and detail. So much remains to be narrated: the untold events before, after and parallel to a story’s main plot; all the alternative courses and twists it might have taken instead; the invisible letters concealed in the fibres of its pages; the sounds and melodies vibrating in each of the words from a storyteller’s mouth; and the unspoken words hidden in the blank spaces between lines and in the gaps of the plot. These stories do not necessarily have to lie slumbering forever. They are Sleeping Beauties—just waiting for someone to kiss them awake, someone who gives them an opportunity to unfold their wings.

Even in the Middle Ages or in the ancient world, people felt the urge and desire to tell more. Sometimes simply in order not to let their favorite stories fade into oblivion. More often probably in order to weave their own interests, questions and point of views into them. They began telling sequels and prequels, ‘before’ and ‘after’ stories, as well as stories within the pretexts or spin-offs that focused on originally marginal events and characters.

Take the apocryphal Infancy Gospels of St. James and St. Thomas, which not only tell about some really weird miracles Jesus performs as a little boy but even about his mother’s birth and childhood. Take Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, both, despite their grandeur and length, just comparatively small extracts from a more comprehensive pool of stories. Consequently, other poets expanded episodes from Homer’s epics into works of their own, like Euripides did in some of his great dramas, or built epic cycles of prequels and sequels around his works. The most famous example is Virgil, of course, whose Aeneid basically is an attempt to tell the story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ subsequent voyages from another point of view than Homer.

In the Middle Ages, Wolfram von Eschenbach put in train one of the most voluminous spin-offs in the history of world literature when he added two provocatively short and open poems to his Parzival (which, by the way, adapts and expands a French model, the Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes). In one of the most well-known scenes of this epic, the title hero encounters his cousin Sigune, sitting in a linden tree with a dead knight in her lap. The two Titurel fragments sketch parts of the preceding story that leads to this puzzling and mysterious moment—a story about love, language, reading and a dog leash. Clearly this was not enough to solve the riddle of that scene. As the tender narrative branch shooting up from the Parzival story was lacking a neat conclusion, it was later expanded to the size of a respectable sequoia—the Younger Titurel, astoundingly not only the most extensive German secular narrative of the 13th century but even the most transmitted epic of its time.

Nowhere, indeed, can the urge to completion and continuation be observed as conspicuously as in Arthurian romance. The stories about Arthur’s knights are assembled into chains and formed into clusters where one story sparks off the next one. Even after the whole Arthurian universe seems to have been gathered and brought to an end in the giant project of the Prose Lancelot, the narration continues. Arthur’s death is not the death of Arthurian storytelling, the tradition of which is alive and productive into the present time: from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to The Mists of Avalon.

Think of the innumerable adaptations, sequels, prequels or parodies which have blossomed from Shakespeare’s dramas—books like Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines for example. Think of the sheer overwhelming flood of Jane Austen sequels. Think of all the modernist rewritings of the classics. Think of the Star Wars movies. And don’t forget Harry Potter fanfiction.

An important difference must be noted, however, between fanfiction and other narratives woven into and around preceding texts. The term of “fanfiction” implies a devoted admiration of the prior text and its creator that preserves a clear hierarchy between this core text (or text corpus) and the fanfiction. Writers of Harry Potter fanfiction usually do not intend their texts to compete with Rowling’s books, to surpass them in quality or even to replace them. In this aspect their texts differ considerably from attempts to exploit the Potter phenomenon commercially—projects like the fake fifth Potter installment Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-To-Dragon which was published in China in 2002, pretending to be penned by Rowling herself.

The borderline between such copyright-violating imposture and devoted fanfiction usually can be drawn quite clearly, while it is more difficult to distinguish between fanfiction parodies or travesties and commercial examples of that genre like Michael Gerber’s Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody or the Potter-related editions of Mad Magazine. As long as their attitude towards Rowling’s books keeps a balance between caustic criticism and loving enthusiasm they probably might be classified as samples of fanfiction as well, albeit commercial ones.

So these are some of the techniques and instruments that writers of HP fanfiction often use: they rearrange the given elements of Rowling’s stories and add new ones. Sometimes they transfer Rowling’s characters to different contexts and enjoy the tensions arising from those constellations. Often they are moving along the margins of Rowling’s stories rather than in their centre. Most frequently they tell Harry’s story from new points of view—or they might choose not to tell Harry’s story, after all, but that of Draco, Hermione, Sirius, Snape, Nevilleor Filch. This gives them the opportunity to either enrich the plots of Rowling’s books with new material, to add further subplots or to extend the original plots forward or backward in time. How did the Dursleys leave the Hut-on-the-Rock after Hagrid and Harry had taken the boat back to the mainland? Will Neville ever discover his true magic powers? What did Lupin do for a living before he started teaching DADA at Hogwarts? How exactly was Snape converted from a Death Eater into a supporter of the Order of the Phoenix? Will the same happen to Draco Malfoy one day? Which of Harry’s friends will have to die yet? And—most important: Who will end up in love with whom?

The fact that romantic or even sexual relationships between characters are a major topic in fanfiction—both Potter-related and in general—leads us to some innate aesthetic problems of this kind of literature. For even though fanfiction can reach a quite astonishing quality, it often tends to gratify a comparatively plain desire for trivial plot patterns and happy endings (although even an event like a marriage between McGonagall and Dumbledore seems quite harmless compared to the changes that Nahum Tate inflicted on King Lear in 1681, by having Lear return as ruler of his kingdom and Cordelia marry Edgar …). This flatness can be both amusing and dangerous as flat fanfiction stories sometimes tend to transform their pretexts and force us to see only what their writers want to see in Harry Potter—and nothing else …

Fortunately certain limits are set to the interpreting and transforming power of fanfiction—both in general and in the case of Rowling’s books. In a lecture on Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Umberto Eco once offered a gripping example for these limits: “But if Jack the Ripper told us that he did what he did on the grounds of his interpretation of the Gospel according to Saint Luke, I suspect that many reader-oriented critics would be inclined to think that he read Saint Luke in a pretty preposterous way. Non-reader-oriented critics would say that Jack the Ripper was deadly mad […]”

In the special case of Harry Potter, however, even other difficulties and problems arise for writers of fanfiction who do not want to be declared lunatics. Some fanfiction attempts might indeed be doomed to ‘failure’ by these special conditions. Because unlike Shakespeare, Homer, Wolfram von Eschenbach or Jane Austen, Joanne K. Rowling is luckily still very alive and active—and, preposterous as it might appear to some post-modernists—she is writing the central, in a certain way definitive, story about Harry, her own mind’s child. Rowling rules! She can narrow down or widen the narrative potential of her books decisively by killing off some characters and introducing new ones.

Sometimes she even raises her voice in a deliberate attempt to contradict certain rumours about her books—and thus, against certain plotlines sketched by her imitators and writers of fanfiction. The criticism inherent in the character of Rita Skeeter might not only be aimed at the mass media’s attitude towards honesty and truthfulness, but even comment on some overzealous writers of fanfiction … Which might remind us of Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the second part of his Don Quijote partly in defence against a certain Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda who had published an unauthorised continuation of Cervantes’ famous novel.

Therefore each attempt of writing Harry Potter fanfiction has to find a balance between the indeterminacy of the texts and the determination exercised by Harry’s one and only true author—J. K. Rowling, who naturally has privileged access to Harry’s future and past, to the story of each of her character’s life, peculiarities and secrets. (We would never have found out about the scar on Albus Dumbledore’s left knee and its use for passengers of the London Underground unless Rowling had had him tell McGonagall about it.)

Here we have a crucial point: Rowling is carefully cultivating her reputation for detailed advance planning. Nobody knows the amount of material she still has up her sleeve. And therefore nobody knows where exactly the borders of the world she has imagined until now can be located—where it starts merging into the unknown and undefined. This might be the case in any drawer of Minerva McGonagall’s desk as well as just a few steps outside number four, Privet Drive. And—let’s face it—even if there are plans she has not sketched and questions she has not answered yet for herself, she will find the best answers as soon as she will be asked the matching questions. Shaping Harry’s world just in the very places it needs to be shaped—this is the privilege of the author. Rowling’s witty strategy of information handling could be observed most clearly before the publication of OP, when she played with her readers’ expectations by announcing the death of a major character. With this in mind, the suspense she kept us in was at least doubled for some chapters of OP: What, if Mr Weasley…?

So Rowling is setting the limits, even though these limits can be broken by individual writers. An important reason why it seems so attractive and exciting to write and read Harry Potter fanfiction just now is certainly the knowledge that such limits exist and that all the major plotlines have already been determined, although to us they still seem as indeterminate as they do to the characters of the books. The centaurs may be able to foresee the future, we aren’t so blessed. Thus we Potter fans are living in quite a special situation now, hovering between curiosity about Rowling’s definitive plans and the freedom to twist the plot however we want to twist it—for the time being. The Harry Potter series presents itself as a preliminary fragment that appears so tempting and stimulating just for its lack of closure. (And for some other qualities as well, of course …)

Writing and reading fanfiction can be pleasant and entertaining. But however strong the impulse we receive from the narrative potential of Rowling’s books, our self-written texts will never satisfy us as thoroughly as the original. Firstly, because we know that they are not the definitive story. And secondly, because of a deep-rooted paradox inherent in the very concept of fanfiction that urges us into an impossible compromise between novelty and repetition. On one hand, we long for reading something new and unexpected, a narrative surplus differing from the Potterian adventures we have read so far. On the other hand, we desire to reenact our past reading pleasures, to relive our first encounter with the characters and events we are so familiar with.

But this cannot be done. The precious experience of our very first reading is indeed unique and past forever even if we try to cherish it as well as possible. However gripping the stories might be that are born out of the fanfiction writers’ fantasy—in the end they, like J. K. Rowling herself, have to face one major disadvantage of their work: They cannot and will never be able to read their own stories for a very first time. For this, we pity you, Mrs Rowling.

Nevertheless we should not stop looking for more stories, questions and answers in the Harry Potter cosmos. For, as the Swedish poet Karin Boye remarks in one of her most famous poems: “Our journey might turn out to be in vain / But it’s the path itself that’s worth the pain.” Even if the outcome does not always fulfil our desires and wishes—who would want to live without stories?


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