Harry potter and the Literary Allusions: J. K. Rowling’s influences
For those of us who treasure vivid childhood recollections of queuing up at midnight on an almost-yearly basis to receive the next instalment of the Harry Potter series into our eager hands, the fact that The Philosopher’s Stone turns twenty this year is an astonishing (and slightly alarming) fact.
One of the joys of being a Potter fan – of being a reader in general, in fact – is the sensation of being admitted into a shared world of allusion, symbols and stories, in which you recognise in the everyday both the impetus and the influence of the books that you cherish. Most people who have grown up with Rowling’s books must be familiar with the pleasant flash of recognition the first time you come across a character’s name or a magic word in an entirely different context; the sense of connection and discovery when you first learn that mandrakes are real plants with roots shaped like little people and their own rich folkloric history, or that Remus (the name of Harry’s werewolf teacher) was one of the twin brothers adopted by a she-wolf in Roman mythology.
As with most good literature, the Potter books are a patchwork of borrowed, repurposed and, most importantly, interconnected ideas, drawn from the deep well of storytelling that so vitally taps into human experience across the centuries. While some have chosen to see Rowling’s craft as an infringement (several legal cases have been brought against her for alleged plagiarism) others have recognised that a writer’s own personal reading will often have a substantial influence over their work (the author, Eva Ibbotson, whose book The Secret of Platform 13 has been suggested as a possible source for Rowling’s idea of a magical portal in Kings Cross Station, has said she would ‘like to shake [Rowling] by the hand.’ ‘I think we all borrow from each other as writers’)
To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Philosopher’s Stone, we have put together a selection of books which Rowling has referred to as those which had an impact on the genesis of Harry and his adventures. We like to think some of these volumes wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves in Dumbledore’s office or the Hogwarts library.
(NONESUCH PRESS.) HOMER. The Iliad, 1931 – BOOK SOLD
Rowling has said that she was extremely moved by her reading of the Iliad at the age of nineteen, particularly the scene in which Hector returns to battle to rescue Patroclus’ body. In The Goblet of Fire, Harry returns Cedric’s body to Hogwarts after the two are lured away to a remote graveyard by Voldemort during the Triwizard Tournament, an incident she has said was directly influenced by Homer. “The idea of the desecration of a body, a very ancient idea… I was thinking of that when Harry saved Cedric’s body.”
(FRASER, William Alexander.) [Presentation Bible to Capt. W. A. Fraser from the Missionaries on the Loyalty Islands and New Hebrides:], 1867 – BOOK SOLD
The biblical allusions in Harry Potter, particularly the last book, have been noted by many. The inscription on Dumbledore’s family tomb, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also”, is from Matthew 6:21, while the tombstone of Harry’s parents bears the quotation “And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” from 1 Corinthians, which also informs one of the major themes of the book. Harry’s death and later resurrection have obvious resonances with the life of Jesus. “They’re very British books”, Rowling has said, “So on a very practical note Harry was going to find biblical quotations on tombstones, [but] I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they (…) almost epitomize the whole series.”
AESCHYLUS. The Tragedies. 1779 – BOOK SOLD
Rowling puzzled many readers by choosing a long quotation from ‘The Libation Bearers’ as an epigraph to The Deathly Hallows.
Rowling has said that this, along with the second epigraph from Quaker leader William Penn, “cued up the ending perfectly”. In the passage from the Iliad, Electra and her brother Orestes plans to exact revenge for the murder of their father and ask the ‘dark gods’ of the underworld for strength in achieving their task. Electra and Orestes are caught in a dilemma as their father’s murderer was their mother, Clytemnestra. To murder her in turn would be to duplicate her sin of shedding kindred blood. As Harry shares blood with Lord Voldemort – blood, moreover, that carries the protection given when his mother died to save him – his knowledge that he must defeat Voldemort is complicated by a kinship tie with him. It is this connection which also tethers Harry to life and allows him to return after Voldemort has performed the killing curse on him in the climax of the final book. This passage therefore speaks to the complexities of blood relationships in Rowling’s universe, a theme that is prevalent throughout the seven books.
‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is recognisably the source for the ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’, the story which reveals the legend of the Deathly Hallows to Harry, Ron and Hermione. In Chaucer’s story, three brothers set out to kill Death in vengeance for the death of a friend. They encounter an old man who tells them that they will find Death under an oak tree. When they get there, however, they discover not Death but a large cache of gold coins. Forgetting their quest, each falls to plotting to kill the others, so that he may take the gold for himself. By the end of the tale, their greed has caused the death of all three brothers, illustrating the biblical theme of the Pardoner’s tale, “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (“Greed is the root of [all] evils” 1 Timothy 6.10). ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ appears in what might be said to be wizarding world’s equivalent of the Canterbury Tales, The Tales of Beedle the Bard and is retold in Deathly Hallows by Xenophilius Lovegood. Three brothers defy death by conjuring a bridge to cross a dangerous river in safety. Death appears to the brothers and gives each of them a gift, apparently in recognition of their skill at evading him. The first two brothers die as a result of the misuse of Death’s gifts but the third (the recipient of the invisibility cloak eventually inherited by Harry) uses it wisely and dies peacefully as an old man.
J. K. Rowling has talked in interviews about the influence of Macbeth on the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort which states that “neither can live while the other survives”. “I absolutely adore Macbeth. It is possibly my favourite Shakespeare play” she has said. “And that’s the question isn’t it? If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? Would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen? I believe he made it happen.” This idea of free will despite the apparent determinations of fate is emphasised to Harry by Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince:
You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal. . . . In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy!
LEWIS, C. S. [The Chronicles of Narnia:] The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Horse and His Boy; The Magician’s Nephew; The Last Battle. 1950-1956.
Rowling has said that Lewis’ books were childhood favourites and an inspiration when writing fantasy novels for children. “I found myself thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at a barrier in King’s Cross Station – it dissolves and he’s on platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and there’s the train for Hogwarts.” A connection can also be made between Harry’s obnoxious, bullying cousin Dudley Dursely and Eustace Scrub, who is the cousin of the Pevensie children who appear in several Narnia novels. Both Dudley and Eustace eventually find some form of redemption in the course of each narrative.
AUSTEN, Jane. [The Novels:] Pride & Prejudice; Sense & Sensibility; Mansfield Park; Emma; Northanger Abbey; Persuasion. 1907–09 – BOOK SOLD
While the parallels between Austen’s portraits of nineteenth century manners and society and a story about a school for young witches and wizards might not immediately jump off the page, Rowling has spoken of Austen as one of her chief influences in the craft of storytelling. The Potter series is known for its surprising turns and twist endings, and Rowling has stated that “I have never set up a surprise ending in a Harry Potter book without knowing I can never, and will never, do it anywhere near as well as Austen did in Emma.”
Dorothy L. Sayers
Despite the overarching theme of good versus evil, each individual Potter story often feels like its own self-contained mystery novel, with suspects, evidence and an eventual payoff forming integral parts of the structure. Acknowledging this fact, Rowling has referred to Sayers as “the queen of the genre”. She has talked about the influence of Sayers on Harry Potter with regards to romance in the novels:
There’s a theory – this applies to detective novels, and then Harry, which is not really a detective novel, but it feels like one sometimes – that you should not have romantic intrigue in a detective book. Dorothy L. Sayers, who is queen of the genre said — and then broke her own rule, but said — that there is no place for romance in a detective story except that it can be useful to camouflage other people’s motives. That’s true; it is a very useful trick. I’ve used that on Percy and I’ve used that to a degree on Tonks in this book, as a red herring. But having said that, I disagree inasmuch as mine are very character-driven books, and it’s so important, therefore, that we see these characters fall in love, which is a necessary part of life.
We’re also celebrating the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter with a curated selection of signed first and special editions of Harry Potter, which you can see here.
You can read our blog on how to identify whether your Philosopher’s Stone is a first edition here, or watch this video.