The Great Harry Potter Controversy

29 Nov

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!

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15 Responses to “The Great Harry Potter Controversy”

  1. mqallen November 29, 2012 at 2:45 am #

    Interesting post! I enjoyed the survey. In the end, it doesn’t seem very compelling to me that there was any significant borrowing beyond what any well-read author would be hard to avoid. As I side note, if the net is cast wider than fantasy (i.e. to other genres), even more alleged purloining would be apparent.

    As to the other comment on the quality of the writing, it isn’t perfect but obviously something really appeals to a huge number of readers. Writers would be wise to try to figure out what worked rather than try to knock this or that construct.

  2. Risa November 29, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    “there is nothing new under the sun”

  3. armchairauthor November 29, 2012 at 4:36 am #

    Wow. I’m reading The Once and Future King right now, and I just finished Ender’s Game. I don’t feel like Ender’s Game and Harry Potter were similar at all, really, except that both heroes were forged by difficult circumstances. Harry wasn’t born and raised for what he did. They’re quite different really, in that Dumbledore wanted to protect him rather than use him as much as possible.

    Great, well-thought-out post. Rowling knows her classics and I’ve always considered any similarities to be part of hewing to traditional myth.fantasy lore.

  4. theblogofmatthew November 29, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    I enjoyed it. I especially liked the Scott Card comment at the end with all it’s cheek and didacticism. Good article.

  5. simon7banks December 4, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    One of the issues here is that fantasy draws on certain archetypes, the kind of images and myths you analyse so cleverly on this blog. You can’t, thank God, copyright an archetype. Other similarities are scarcely surprising: many people have blue eyes and if you want to create a character who is strong, wise and perceptive, you may well emphasise the eyes. Choose a bird for a magician: PARROT/CANARY/EAGLE/SPARROW/DUCK/THRUSH/OWL. Many writers have used the fact that a story of a child in an unhappy environment discovering magic or special powers or that (s)he is a prince etc has a lot of appeal to children.

    Rowling probably isn’t a hugely original writer – inventive, yes, but in small things. Original is someone like Mervyn Peake. I wish we accepted that writers take ideas from others. It strikes me as weird that when Bob Dylan, for example, took Dominic Behan’s song “The Patriot Game”, moved it from Ireland to the U.S.A., introduced his own historical references and completely reversed the message, he was, I understand, successfully sued.

  6. hannahrose42 December 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    Interesting — I had never even considered the Ender/Potter thing–one reason why I enjoy authors who have a sense of humor. I suppose I am one who really just enjoys finding similarities between books I enjoy, rather than claiming, “Theft!” every time I see it happen. Great post, very thoughtful!

  7. noorajahangir December 7, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Reblogged this on Official Website and Blog of Noor A Jahangir and commented:
    This another excellent article by the wizards at Fabulous Realms. I’m not saying I agree with the theories, but I’m not saying I disagree either. All I know is that I enjoyed the Potter books and the films, but am not a fan of JKR’s attitude towards fantasy and fairy tale. Read it and enjoy.

  8. The World Is My Cuttlefish December 19, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    I really enjoy your deep knowledge of this genre. Every time I come I am inspired to read more fantasy.

  9. Yasmin February 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    I’ve kind of wondered if there was a ‘1984’ influence on Harry Potter too, especially in the 7th book, regarding the totalitarian regime Voldemort sets up in the Ministry of Magic. One similarity – but I’m stretching it – is the ‘Ministry of Magic’ and how it is similar to the bureaucratic ‘Ministry of ____s’ present in ‘1984’. Also, the slogan ‘Magic is Might’, reminds me of the slogans like ‘War is Peace’ or ‘Freedom is Slavery’. There are a few other fascinating similarities but I don’t want to make this post too long!
    Rowling may not have been influenced by ‘1984’ and I’m probably making links that aren’t supposed to exist, but I think it’s an interesting idea to consider!
    However, ‘1984’ was based partly off Hitler’s dictatorship and there have been comparisons to Voldemort’s character and Hitler’s so there might be some sort of obscure link there anyway 😛

  10. littleonionwrites March 12, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Wow. This is one of the greatest posts I have ever read. I’ve never heard of a lot of these books, but they definitely sound interesting. Naturally, there are so many magical fantasy books out there that you will always find similarities between characters. I’ve just never seen similarities so…well, similar!
    Though I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series (I even write HP fanfiction), I have to admit, the books listed here show that Harry Potter is similar to books written prior to the series.
    I think that the “blue-eyed, white-haired” old wizard is a very stereotypical trait to wizards in most magical fantasy books. Think of the old wizard from that Disney show, “Wizards of Waverly Place.” I suppose every magical type of entertainment will have that old white-haired, blue-eyed wizard.

    • simon7banks March 12, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      About time there was a white-eyed, blue-haired one.

  11. thrush in men June 26, 2013 at 12:15 am #

    Your style is really unique compared to other people I have read stuff from.

    I appreciate you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just book mark this site.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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