For a second time, I centered the Spirituality & the Arts course on Harry Potter’s Wizarding World. In exploring how the arts can play a role in spiritual formation, it made sense to center a narrative world so many people have already been making meaning with and being formed by for a long time. Students journeyed through the books, wrote original fanfiction stories, gathered portkeys of magical connection within their homes, and created group presentations that immersed us into the significance of being enchanted by narratives that connect us deeply to (rather than escaping from) hope, grief, memory, and love. Below, first-year MACP student Shaquille Sinclair offers a version of his paper reflecting on fanfiction as a spiritually and communally empowering practice.
-Dr. Kj Swanson
As I sat down to write a Harry Potter fanfiction for class this past term, I drew both on my experiences reading the seven canonical novels as well as my engagement with the best fanfiction that I’ve read. I was reminded of how developed my own imagination was at 12 when I started reading fanfiction and writing some of my own; this began right after the book series ended, when I feared a loss of mystery and discovery in the secondary world that helped me make sense of my own experiences more than any other fiction work had before. In the hundreds of new stories that I devoured then, these writers suggested that the discovery journey was just beginning.
The onset of my fanfiction engagement coincided with great turmoil in key relationships. For a number of reasons, I became disenchanted with my own life and felt more like a stranger in many of the circles I occupied. Here, fanfiction in the Wizarding World was a healing balm for me. In a beautiful reversal, the stage became my life, and I could act out my adolescent frustrations and fears. Before I had the language to detail the grief and disorientation of personal trauma, I could lead the wizards and witches in my story to engage pain on my behalf.
Seeing their ability to persist in the face of mortal peril and acknowledging that their success was at my demand as their creator, I learned to consider my own power to do the same in my own life. Harry Potter offers a unique sense of agency here. The richness of its world makes the story as accessible for a young child as it is for any adult. The characters of Harry Potter are people to meet and know well, and fanfiction in the world of Harry Potter allows a writer to be themselves alongside original inhabitants, just transported to a new magical country. I didn’t naively assume that my influence stretched very far past the page; I was still 12 and still unsure of my place in the world. Rather, I noticed that my ability to hope and imagine could endure in the face of a world that seemed to indicate that the exact opposite was true. Not only that, but I could also create hope in another, even if that other was a fiction from my own head. I credit the nameless authors whose work inspired me to become a co-creator in my own life story. I consider them collaborators in my personal world as much as that of the Wizarding World.
Fanfiction can even synthesize micro-zeitgeists that those close to a secondary world share deeply. For those who want to imagine redemption for evil, there are stories detailing Voldemort’s ownership of his wrongdoing and subsequent penance, while others allow Draco Malfoy to overcome his cowardice to become the man that we all hoped he could be. For those who are used to being relegated to the background of their own lives, Colin Creevey tales represent a centering of any unexpected and unnoticed voice. Indeed, fanfiction can enable representation in areas where it is currently missing.
As beloved as J.K. Rowling’s created world is, it is often lambasted for its lack of effective diversity of characters. Everyone, primary to tertiary, is a straight, cisgender, White person, with the occasional, heavy-handedly written BIPOC. Even in these few instances of representation, we see nothing meaningful in Cho Chang’s Asian heritage or Dean Thomas’ Blackness. Our only known queer characters were identified after the series’ publication and still remain defined only by the tragedy in their stories. They all read as stand-ins to satisfy a white gaze, or to comfort heteronormativity without disrupting the typical world order. Fanfiction reimagines stories like these through subversion, where Hermione isn’t white, Ron isn’t straight, and our Wizarding community migrates from the mountains of Scotland. Imagination here becomes a recursive phenomenon; as new ideas are generated, they encourage and produce other novel stories, which invite more readers to create their own as well, all in the same shared secondary world. This is the “first fruits” of any liberative work, where people need to see themselves living rich and full lives before creating them; they can rehearse fostering hope in the safety of a fictional secondary world before returning to our primary world to put it to practice.
Far from being the immature musings of uninspired fans, fanfiction invites readers to consider themselves as co-creators in their spiritual stories rather than consumers or spectators. For children and adults alike, it offers a chance to create a world within a world, to break and make rules of engagement, and to prepare the courage they need to confront despair and anguish in their own lives. A rich tool for capturing goodness and injecting often anemic hope with vitality, fanfiction asks us to hope that our primary world, the personal and the communal, might one day be just as magical.