Let’s Talk About J.K. Rowling’s “Ilvermorny”

A few weeks ago, the story behind Ilvermorny, the North American Wizarding school within the Harry Potter universe, was released on Pottermore. If you can’t recall any mention of Ilvermorny throughout J.K. Rowling’s 7-book series, don’t worry. You didn’t miss anything. The existence of Ilvermorny is only being announced now to coincide with the next “Harry Potter” film being released in November, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. “Fantastic Beasts” will take place in 1920s New York and center around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a “Magizoologist”. It stands to reason that if there are wizards in North America, there may need to be a Wizarding school to accommodate them as well. That’s why Ilvermorny has now been introduced. 

If you have read the “Ilvermorny” story on Pottermore, then you should already be familiar with the basics of it: an Irish girl, named Isolt Sayre, escapes her demonic aunt (who also killed Isolt’s parents) and travels to the New World, onboard the Mayflower. Isolt goes off on her own once arriving in Plymouth, makes some new friends/meets some new magical creatures, learns about magic in North America, etc. Eventually, Isolt builds her own Wizarding school on the summit of Mount Greylock in northwestern Massachusetts.

Isolt calls this school “Ilvermorny” and along with her no-Maj/Muggle husband and two adoptive sons, names and creates four Houses for the school. These Houses are Horned Serpent, Wampus, Thunderbird,  and Pukwudgie. The unfortunate thing is that despite the school being founded by white colonists, all four House names are taken from Native American culture.

There is mention of magical Native American people in the story and Isolt and her family associate with them, hence the use of these creatures from Native American lore to represent the school’s Houses. But, they exist as unnamed background characters. Despite being stated to be magical themselves, these Native American characters also have their magic “improved” by Ilvermorny’s teachings.

Now, I realize the Ilvermorny story is simply a quick backstory posted on Pottermore. It’s not part of a published novel. But, the story itself is unimaginative. Of all the ways a Wizarding school could have begun in North America, it had to be founded by European settlers in the 1600s. The story is also appropriative, as previously mentioned. And I have been left stunned at the limited research that seems to have gone into it.

As a whole, the “Ilvermorny” story is a romanticized rewrite of history. It ignores the real tensions between the colonists and Native Americans in North America. On a less-important note, the story also treats Mount Greylock as though it is simply a stone’s throw from Plymouth Rock. As a Massachusetts native, I can assure you the distance between the two places is considerable.

Sure, Ilvermorny is a work of fiction. You can argue that what Rowling writes is only fantasy and that she shouldn’t be expected to give her readers a proper history lesson. But, we also have to question the line being crossed when a writer places real-world history within a fictitious universe. At that point, pure fantasy neglects to be “pure” fantasy any longer. When an author uses the real world’s history to accentuate their work, they must now take on the responsibility that comes with retelling that history, especially when it’s a history that is not theirs to tell in the first place.

Overall, JK Rowling’s “Ilvermorny” tale left much to be desired. Rowling missed many opportunities with this additional school and neglected to make it something unique to American culture, rather than simply a carbon-copy of Hogwarts. Hopefully, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” will be more impressive and pay greater respect to the historical period the filmmakers have chosen as its backdrop.

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