Since the release of the first Harry Potter novel in 1997, J K Rowling’s books about the boy wizard and his adventures have gained immense popularity, critical acclaim and commercial success worldwide. But it is also fair to say that the series has also attracted more than its fair share of criticism. There has been ire from Christian groups about the books’ ‘pagan’ content, legal disputes over stolen ideas and complaints that, in the end and despite the hype, the books just aren’t that good in the first place. It has always, in particular, interested me that so many people have complained that J K Rowling allegedly lifted chunks of the Potterverse from other sources. How true is this? I wondered, and hence thought that it might be useful some day to sort through all the alleged prototypes for Harry Potter in a post on the subject. I’ve always been put off doing this until now, however, because the Rowling-machine have been remarkably ready to stamp on any and all criticism of this sort, including going to court where necessary. Before I get started, therefore, let’s be clear here — I’m not saying that any of these accusations are true! As any fantasy readers out there will be all too aware, if anything, when people point out similarities between two fantasy books, they’re often simply pointing out that they both belong to the same genre. Nevertheless, I will of course proceed with my usual caution!
I’ve referred previously on this site to The Books of Magic as a good example of a Potter-precedent. Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, which pre-dates J K Rowling’s creation by several years, tells the story of a young boy, Timothy Hunter, who has the potential to become the world’s greatest sorcerer. As Tim Hunter is also a bespectacled schoolboy with a pet owl who finds out one day that he’s a wizard, the superficial similarities between him and Harry Potter at first appear striking. This was once noted by a journalist from The Scotsman newspaper, who asked Gaiman if he thought Rowling was aware of his 1990 comic, to which Gaiman replied that he ‘wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school’. Gaiman’s view, with which I tend to agree, is that whether or not Rowling had read The Books of Magic, the similarities most likely result from both it and the Harry Potter series being inspired by similar works, in particular those of T H White (author of The Once and Future King). The idea that Rowling and Gaiman were both simply ‘drinking from the same well’ is supported by the prevalence of common archetypes from myth and fantasy in both their works.
This naturally leads us to consider White’s The Once and Future King, a series of Arthurian fantasy novels beginning with The Sword in the Stone, which was written in 1938 (suffice to say long before Rowling, let alone Harry Potter, was ever conceived). The similarities are again numerous: the series features an unwanted boy destined to be the man who saves England, who is taken in by a blue-eyed, long-bearded wizard who keeps odd birds and uses radical methods of pedagogy (also, there are dragons). Even Rowling herself has admitted that the boy-hero from The Sword in the Stone is ‘Harry’s spiritual ancestor’. For me, though, The Sword in the Stone comparison only really works if you talk in terms of generalisations – if you get more specific it tends to fall apart. The same can be said of another commonly cited ‘source’: Star Wars. After all, doesn’t George Lucas’s space opera also feature a young boy who discovers his vast powers under the tutelage of a bearded blue-eyed man and battles an evil lord, while the girl falls for his best friend?
The fact is that Potter-comparisons can be drawn with virtually all of the classics of English children’s fantasy literature, including Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. All of these fantasy series are about the battle between light and dark, waged across multiple books and include elements of everything from Celtic folklore to Arthurian legend. There are magical objects to find, young children aplenty who discover (usually on their birthdays) that they are in fact the wielders of powerful magic, and the usual slew of prophecies and destinies to fulfill. There’s inevitably poetry in the story somewhere (plot-related or otherwise) and also plenty of evil to defeat, including numerous examples of dark lords (and the occasional dark lady/white witch). I could go on and on – undead villains, wraith-like creatures, unicorns, centaurs, goblins, talking animals, sentient trees, giant spiders etc. Heck, from this list you’d assume that the entire fantasy genre was built on authors plagiarising each other! Even the older entries in the genre, such as those by the likes of Tolkien and Lewis, drew on the tradition of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic myth, as well as the work of even earlier authors like Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson and Robert E Howard.
I should leave the last word to Orson Scott Card who, after Rowling sued the writer of the Harry Potter Lexicon (a guidebook to the Potterverse) for copyright infringement, once wrote that he felt like Rowling stole the plot of his famous novel Ender’s Game. Card’s book similarly features a young boy growing up in an oppressive family situation who suddenly learns that he is one of a special class of children with special abilities, who are to be educated in a remote training facility where student life is dominated by an intense game played by teams flying in midair, at which said boy turns out to be exceptionally talented. He then trains other youngsters in unauthorized extra sessions, which enrages his enemies, who attack him. He is given special guidance by an older man of legendary accomplishments who previously kept the enemy at bay. Eventually the boy-hero goes on to become the crucial figure in a struggle against an unseen enemy who threatens the whole world. It probably won’t escape you that most of the similarities Card points out seem to be typical of the fantastical ‘coming of age’ novel in general. Even Card seems to be identifying these similarities mostly to make the point that nothing is ever completely original. He adds, “It’s true that we writers borrow words from each other — but we’re supposed to admit it and not pretend we’re original when we’re not”. Wise words for any fantasy writers out there I’d say – including J K Rowling!