Reviews 2011

Creating Magical Worlds: Otherness and Othering in Harry Potter

Creating Magical Worlds. Otherness and Othering in Harry Potter. Marion Rana. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009. 114 pages. €24.10 / £22.00 (paperback).

Fourteen years after the publication of J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, research on the phenomenally successful children’s fantasy series has become an interdisciplinary field of its own, populated by literary scholars, cultural theorists, sociologists, philosophers, journalists and scholars of legal studies – as evidenced, for instance, by Cornelia Rémi’s (2011) extensive, up-to-date online Harry Potter Bibliography. While it might now be increasingly difficult to say anything original about Harry Potter, the discussion on the books has hardly been concluded; after all, the final novel only came out in 2007. Rowling herself has participated in the exchange of views, for instance, with her post-publication comments about Professor Dumbledore’s sexual identity (as reported by, for instance, BBC UK 2007) that raise compelling questions about who controls the meaning of her books, including characters and their identities. Marion Rana’s book, Creating Magical Worlds deals with the construction of identity and Otherness in the Harry Potter novels – a potentially rich topic since the books, as well as Rowling’s comments, have generated diverse response among critics in regard to the construction of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and nationality in the series. Unfortunately, rather than providing original insights, Rana’s book mainly summarises and restates arguments presented in earlier studies.

Creating Magical Worlds is a small book that, judging by the structure, seems to be based on an MA thesis. A concise theoretical framework section explains the concepts of Otherness and othering by relying mainly on social psychology (Tajfel) and psychoanalytical theory (Freud). Since the concepts of the Other and othering have been central tools in literary theory since the late 1970s, particularly in feminist, psychoanalytical and postcolonial approaches, a more explicit discussion addressing the similarities and differences between the uses of the terms in literary research and psychology would have been in place. In the analytical section, all seven Harry Potter novels are examined, although most of the examples are drawn from the first four books.

Methodologically Rana relies on content analysis. She proposes seven different categories of Others represented in the books – evil, subhuman, uncivilised, exotic, conventional, real-life and female Others – and examines the processes of othering in terms of the plot that, as Rana argues, focuses on Harry’s identity construction in relation to the various Others. While Rana’s discussion provides a good general view of the ways of othering in the novels – social class, ethnicity, nationality and gender are all addressed – it is often not clear how her categories of Others differ from each other (apart from the fact that different characters are examined in each category). One wonders, for instance, why some ethnic Others are labelled as “real-life” Others whereas gendered Others are not.

Rana’s main argument is that, despite the seemingly liberal, anti-racist attitudes promoted in the novels, the depictions of various groups of Others are often prejudiced and stereotypical. There is plenty of evidence in the novels to support this view. Yet, the limited length of her book does not allow Rana to discuss the examples in detail and often one would have wanted to see more textual evidence for her arguments. Furthermore, Rana’s main argument is fairly unsurprising to readers familiar with earlier studies on the novels. A more comprehensive and explicit review of earlier research might have crystallised Rana’s position in the field: while referring to a good number of previous studies, some studies that would have seemed relevant, such as Andrew Blake’s (2002) The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter where Blake addresses the controversial manner in which racial otherness is dealt with in the novels, are not discussed.

Since many of the cited studies focus on the first four books in the series, a more thorough analysis of the last three novels might have enabled Rana to provide a more complex conclusion of the series as a whole and thus make a more original contribution to Harry Potter scholarship. Moreover, a focus on certain types of Others might have enabled a more detailed discussion of specific examples of othering and Otherness; there are significant differences, for instance, between the processes of othering in relation to gender and ethnicity, and there is not enough space in Rana’s book to address these. A more focused approach is, in fact, what Rana applies in her recent article concentrating on cultural and national Otherness in Harry Potter series; there she puts forward a compelling argument that multiculturalism in the novels is mainly about “different cultures’ suspicious co-existence along well-defined and equally well guarded borders” (Rana 2011: 56).

An asset of Rana’s work is that it offers some insights into literary research on Harry Potter in French and German-speaking areas. Yet, this is challenging, since citations from German and French sources are not translated into English, which limits the potential international audience. The book would also have benefitted from a more careful editorial work: there are some stylistic and grammatical errors throughout the text. The publisher, Peter Lang, usually leaves all the editorial work to the authors – which poses severe challenges for young scholars or those less familiar with Anglophone publishing traditions who would definitely benefit from developing their work to its best potential with the help of experienced editors. In its present form, Rana’s book remains more like a thesis than a solid piece of edited academic work.

Sanna Lehtonen
Tilburg University, The Netherlands

Works Cited

BBC UK. (2007). JK Rowling outs Dumbledore as gay. BBC News, 20 October 2007. Retrieved from

Blake, Andrew. (2002). The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter. London: Verso.

Rana, Marion. (July 2011). ‘The less you lot have ter do with these foreigners, the happier yeh’ll be’: Cultural and National Otherness in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. International Research in Children’s Literature 4.1: pp. 45-58.

Rémi, Cornelia. (2011). Harry Potter Bibliography. Last updated 17 June 2011. Retrieved from