Who Decides What Is Canon? The Curious Case of the Marauders’ Map

This weekend at the Denver Comic Con, James and Oliver Phelps, who played the roles of Fred and George Weasley, respectively, in the Harry Potter franchise, shared stories of their time as the Weasley twins. While fan questions ranged from the predictable, “Is the internet rumor about filming Fred’s death true?” (It’s not.) to the amusing, “If you could have been any other character, who would you have been?” (James: “George”), there was one thread that seemed to weave through many of James and Oliver’s answers:

They really like Peeves.

If your reaction to that sentence was “Who is Peeves?” there’s a good chance you have only seen the films. In the books, Peeves the Poltergeist is a recurring character whose sole purpose is to cause mayhem and chaos at Hogwarts. He chases students down the halls, loosens bolts in chandeliers, and is a general menace. So, as you can imagine, it’s not surprising that he and the Weasley twins formed a sort of a bond, as is evidenced by their final moments as students and their payback to Umbridge:

“Give her hell from us, Peeves.”

And Peeves, whom Harry had never seen take an order from a student before, swept his belled hat from his head and sprang to a salute as Fred and George wheeled about to tumultuous applause from the students below and sped out of the open front doors into the glorious sunset.

When James and Oliver were asked what character from the book they wished had made it into the movie, they both said Peeves. When asked who their favorite book character was, Oliver said Peeves. They both mentioned the portable swamp as a scene they wished had made it into the movie and Fred and George’s departure from Hogwarts as their favorite scene from the movie, both of which feature Peeves in the book.

So it wasn’t too surprising that, when asked by a particularly astute young reader how Fred and George could have worked out how to use the Marauder’s Map, while James didn’t really have an answer – in fact he said it was the first question he’d had that stumped him – Oliver said he thought maybe Peeves showed them how.

Based on the books, this actually makes a lot of sense. Fred and George spent a lot of time in Filch’s office, they were well acquainted with Peeves, and it was apparent in their departure speech that Peeves had a lot of respect for them as fellow troublemakers. It’s not hard to imagine that Peeves, who had been at Hogwarts since its inception, could have easily seen the four creators of the map using it regularly and overheard the spells to make it work. It’s also just as likely that, in an effort to create as much mayhem as possible, he would have shared the secret with the two biggest mischief-makers to come through the school.

The problem is, apparently unbeknownst to Oliver, J.K. Rowling had already answered this question in an interview with Melissa Anelli and Emerson Spartz in 2005.

MA: How did they figure out how to work the map?

JKR: Don’t you — well. This is how I explained it to myself at the time, and this does sound glib. Don’t you think it would be quite a Fred and Georgeish thing to say in jest, and then see this thing transform?

MA: Yeah.

JKR: Can’t you just see them?

ES: But the exact word combination? Is that just a lot of luck, or Felix Felicis —

JKR: Or, the map helped.

MA: Yep, yeah. You can see them sort of answering and joking with each other —

JKR: And the map flickering into life here and there when they got closer and closer, and finally they hit upon the exact right word combination and it just erupts.

So now we have two conflicting theories. Which one is “right”? Who gets to decide what is canon?

The easy answer is, “The author, of course. It’s her work, her characters. She is the final arbiter of what is canon.”

The problem with that is, and I say this with all respect to the creator of one of my favorite book series of all time, her answers are not always the most logical. I understand that a person can get tired of people pointing out discrepancies in your work (ahem, time turners) and having to always justify yourself. It just seems to me that she’s reluctant to leave any mystery at all regarding the world she created, regardless of the absurdity of the explanation. And of course, once you’re on record creating canon, it’s really hard to go back on that without angering fans.

And so we’re left with two answers. One logical, one illogical. One from a person who played the character in question for eight movies and has thought extensively about his back story, and the other from a person who created the character but most likely spent much more time thinking about other characters and plot points. Who is right? Does an actor have the right to declare what is canon regarding their own character? What if the author hasn’t addressed the question yet? If Daniel Radcliffe were to say in an interview that Harry Potter had his appendix removed when he was two, does that now become part of the Potterverse? Do movie directors override authors when a screenplay differs from a novel?

As for me, from now on it will always be Peeves who taught Fred and George how to use the Marauders’ Map. Sorry, Ms. Rowling.

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