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Remus Lupin and Sirius Black stand next to each other in front of a purple backdrop, with the Maurader’s map print. Graphic: William Joel/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros.

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Can the Harry Potter fandom carry on while ignoring J.K. Rowling?

Fans are focusing on eras outside core canon, particularly the Marauders

Harry Potter is truly the fandom that lived. Hogwarts Legacy, the latest big-budget entry in the 26-year-old franchise, grossed over $1 billion as of May, selling 15 million copies — despite a number of outlets declining to cover it, citing Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling’s history of making transphobic statements. It’s highly rated by players and supports a thriving ecosystem of streamers and fans. Likewise, the award-winning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stage play has broken records for weekly grosses around the world. The franchise is even getting a TV reboot.

Despite numerous newer additions to the franchise, including the latest underperforming installment of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff series, the core canon of the original books and movies is still the center of the lives of hundreds of thousands of fans. In various corners of the internet, sequestered from uncaring or judgmental eyes by bespoke algorithms and obscure codenames, Harry Potter fans are thriving — producing as many fan works as ever, with that same familiar fever pitch I remember from my days waiting in line for the next book release.

Dipping a toe back into HP fandom for the first time in years can, for a fan of the old school, prove a little disorienting. The depth of contemporary fans’ obsession is entirely familiar, and yet also bewildering. These fans are shipping characters I don’t remember being canon (who’s Daphne Greengrass?!) or writing fic in the form of TikTok video snippets, voiced by a realistic ElevenLabs AI of Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy.

Yet this persistence is proof of just how hard it is to kill a fandom. Even as some fans have pointed out the weak points of the series’ world-building — such as the incomprehensibility of the locations of the world’s wizarding schools — the fictional universe has persisted. A fandom is its own entire world, after all, populated by ideas and inhabited by people who are seeking those precious things: comfort and community. Decades’ worth of emotional and creative inertia cannot be halted easily.

It would be simpler, of course, if Rowling wasn’t around to play a part in actively souring her reputation, even among her most loyal fans. Then the fan discussion could be about how to reclaim the original series from a post-hoc perspective, how to rebuild from the ground up, as it were. Instead, there’s an incredibly active ongoing tug-of-war between Rowling and her fans. As Rowling has voiced support on social media for anti-trans activists, and personally funded causes including a trans-excluding women’s shelter, fans have responded by boycotting the magical franchise and calling out those who still participate in the fandom. At the end of the day, this means a lot of people who otherwise would love to spend time in the Wizarding World are reluctant to do so.

It’s easy to assume that today’s Harry Potter fans — the ones who have remained active or recently joined up — know about the connotations their public fandom practices have in 2023, after three years of Rowling making highly public comments against trans rights. But that’s not necessarily true. Everyone, it seems, has “that one offline friend” who’s still seemingly happily naive about the larger political context of their Potter passion. Many of the fans I came across in my reporting didn’t seem at all troubled by the conflict.

Even if these fans did know and had an opinion on it, how it affected their level of participation varied. Some said that they don’t have control of what they obsess over, and that they should be allowed to like what they like; others have successfully compartmentalized their fandom-centric activities from the franchise through various means; still others have said they don’t really care.

I’m sympathetic — while I personally don’t think I’d be able to fully immerse myself in Harry Potter fandom again, I nevertheless still feel a strong connection to it thanks to my longtime childhood obsession, strong enough that I always end up keeping an eye on it, fascinated by its ever-sprawling mass, and unable to conclusively condemn those who continue to take part.

The Marauders

Sirius Black holds Remus Lupin as he begins to transform into a werewolf in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

So much of today’s Harry Potter fandom isn’t based on the story that appears in the books, movies, and stage plays. The biggest segment of enthusiastic growth, as demonstrated on social media, revolves around the Marauders era — the time period at Hogwarts a generation before Harry got there, featuring the titular group of his father James, James’ bestie Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew. (These four created the Marauder’s Map during their time at Hogwarts — Harry obtains this same map in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)

Fans only briefly glimpsed this “prequel” era in flashbacks in the books and movies. But it has long held appeal as a fertile playground for fans to imagine the lives of witches and wizards of a sepia-toned Before, in the halcyon days before the First Wizarding War kicked off the main events of the series.

The Marauders — the characters and the era in general — have enjoyed popularity since the days of The Shoebox Project. This LiveJournal-hosted fic became immensely popular around 2005-2007, and was many a millennial’s first exposure to the Remus/Sirius ship, called Wolfstar. Ben Barnes was even forced to comment this year during promotion for Shadow and Bone on the ubiquity of his “fancasting” as young Sirius.

A new generation of fans have flocked to the Marauders at unprecedented levels. The new Marauders era is exemplified by All the Young Dudes, a 526,000-word fanfic that, for a while, reigned supreme at the top of all fics on Archive of Our Own sorted by hits. It has since been dethroned, most notably by viral Minecraft YouTuber fic Heat Waves, but remains the top Harry Potter fic of all time, and a huge influence on this latest wave of fandom.

The fic was written by user MsKingBean89 sometime between 2017 and 2018. But it did not reach a peak of popularity until the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when fans were returning to past fandoms seeking familiar comforts, and reading novel-length fics while in lockdown. The story follows the Marauders through their time at Hogwarts from Lupin’s point of view; it’s mainly canon-compliant, except for a change in Lupin’s backstory that had him growing up in an orphanage and with a far more traumatic youth than in canon.

Writer and journalist Ashley Reese has been consistently active in Harry Potter fan communities for nearly two decades, and has observed firsthand the shifts in the Marauders subcommunity as young new fans enter the fandom.

“[All the Young Dudes] has pretty much been elevated to a kind of canon, fanon, whatever you want to call it, level — to this extent to which even though I haven’t read the entire fic, I know enough about it now,” she says. Characterizations from ATYD, such as a slightly edgier Remus Lupin, have seeded themselves throughout today’s Marauders works like a fast-growing mycelium.

When Ryan Broderick and I interviewed ATYD’s author, the pseudonymous MsKingBean89, in 2021 for the internet culture newsletter Garbage Day, she commented on the phenomenon of ATYD readers seeing the massive, sprawling story as a “replacement” for the actual canon of Harry Potter, absolving them of their uncomfortable closeness to Rowling.

“I didn’t come in to say, ‘no, I’m a better writer than anyone.’ Or, ‘I want to replace J.K. Rowling, I want to present to you an unproblematic Harry Potter universe,’” she told us at the time. “Because I’m not capable of doing that. I’m just a person who was really intensively writing for a year and a half and maybe should have been doing other things.”

She has since retreated from the fandom, and other authors and creators have taken her place in the spotlight, both expanding the Marauders sub-fandom and popularizing other ships. The Draco/Hermione ship has experienced a swell of popularity in the AO3-centric side of the fandom, forefronted by the book-length, Handmaid’s Tale-inspired Manacled fanfiction. It also features heavily in the fanbinding side of TikTok, where fans print out and bind stories in order to have their own physical copies of beloved fic.

Fan refugees

Hermione Granger holding her wand up to Draco Malfoy’s neck in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Transformative fan works — that is, fiction and art made by fans that make creative use of an existing canon’s world and characters — can feel like a refuge and a reclamation, and a way for fans to continue to participate in a beloved universe without giving a dime to its dastardly creator. Amid snappy edits full of fancasts and fan-made Harry Potter short films on TikTok, a large community of dedicated readers make videos discussing their favorite fan-written stories as if they were self-contained canons themselves.

These stories can be found in many places, and are made up of many different popular genres. Harry Potter is one of the most popular categories on adolescent-dominated fiction platform Wattpad, where Mary Sues and self-inserts flirt with Draco and mingle with Marvel characters (who are suddenly also at Hogwarts?) in stories with millions of views. On more mature fic platform AO3, HP fic has long reigned in a stable second place, after Marvel, for total number of fics.

The Marauders are just far enough from Harry Potter proper for fans to feel some ownership of the elements of the world that they played a part in creating. And more recently popular ships have leaned further into this radical distance from the original series canon. The Jegulus (James Potter/Regulus Black) ship, for example, has exploded in popularity over the past few years, going from 42 works posted on AO3 in 2019 to nearly 9,000 works posted in 2023 so far, as of mid-July. In fics posted in the past 12 months, it’s the fifth most popular ship, underneath juggernauts Draco/Harry and Draco/Hermione, but above canon pairings Ron/Hermione and Harry/Ginny.

Regulus Black is Sirius Black’s younger brother, a character who in canon is only known for becoming an enthusiastic Death Eater as a teenager, only to betray Voldemort after a change of heart and die as a consequence. James Potter, Harry’s father, is of course fated to be with Lily. But fans have embraced a hypothetical romance between James and Regulus, usually in concert with Sirius/Remus. A thriving Regulus fan community on TikTok has embraced the edgy goth teen as “the Loki of the Marauders,” turning an unsympathetic but intriguing background character into a sultry heartthrob, usually cast as Timothée Chalamet.

The Jegulus ship first emerged as a classic rarepair origin story, with an identifiable Patient Zero starting point, according to Reese. A friend group of All the Young Dudes TikTokers thought it would be fun to promote Jegulus as a performative in-joke, with a recurring punchline about Regulus’ canonical death by drowning (“fascists don’t float,” per screenshots of now-deleted videos). Naturally what began as ironic quickly became sincere as fans outside of the friend group took the ship and ran with it earnestly, turning James and Regulus’ unlikely and doomed romance into something thousands of readers are now familiar with and eager for more of.

“People babygirlify these characters in a way that is really strange to me,” says Reese, reflecting on past eras of fandom, “because I used to really only see fans woobify characters like Snape or Draco, who we actually see on the page.”

While fans have always made use of minor or background characters in canon to fill up their fan works, Harry Potter fandom’s use of shared fanon is more of a contemporary phenomenon. Instead of each author giving their own interpretation of Regulus Black or Marlene McKinnon based on canon, they adapt directly from other fan works — helpful, perhaps, for those who want to refrain from returning to the books and movies, but who don’t want to abandon the Potterverse wholesale.

The fandom’s future

From left to right, Hermione Granger, Harry Potter, and Ron Weasley are wearing their Hogwarts uniforms, and half-smiling towards the camera. Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

It may be that newer generations of Harry Potter fans have self-selected, which is to say that seriously social-justice-minded young people would steer clear of what has become such a controversial franchise. Perhaps the current fan communities are simply populated with people who don’t see the political and social context around a work as a barrier to enjoyment.

That’s not to say the Harry Potter fandom is filled with people who agree with Rowling’s comments about trans people, or that fans prefer the racially homogenous Wizarding World of the original books. Trends in fan works over the past few years belie that claim — such as the move toward dedicated representation in fanfic, and the almost universal embrace of queer and diverse headcanons for characters, including Harry Potter himself, who is frequently headcanoned as being of Indian descent.

“It feels like overcorrecting, or a way to feel less guilty about playing with the TERF’s characters, in a way. Like a sense of rebellion: I’m going to go as far away from the canon as I can because this woman’s awful,” Reese proposes.

The continued success of the theme parks, video games, and theater elements of the franchise prove that there is still interest in Harry Potter as it was originally written. So the announcement of the brand-new HBO series, covering the same well-trod ground as the original movies, seemed more or less inevitable.

The real question is: Will Rowling ever build out the Marauders era, or adapt it on screen? On the one hand, it seems like a slam-dunk no-brainer. But not all fans are necessarily interested in seeing it finally become a reality after so long — especially those who have purposefully ensconced themselves in a world of fanon far away from anything produced by Warner Bros. and that will profit Rowling. Parallel to their status in canon as a prewar idyll, the Marauders — and Wolfstar, Jegulus, Snily, and the rest — represent a version of Harry Potter that fans have explored more freely and without much of the fraught conditions that weigh on other parts of the fandom.