Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Secret Influences of Harry Potter

Over the last ten years it has been very much in vogue to trace the many literary influences that are “borrowed” by J. K. Rowling in her popular “Harry Potter” series. Usually these analyses focus on Tolkien fantasy and Greek mythology. This essay will delve into a less frequently cited but equally influential subgenre that has shaped the Harry Potter novels: the myth of England.

England is a fictional island nation replete with kings and queens, carriages, castles and crumpets. As a genre, readers usually refer to its elaborate mythology as “English literature” or “English history,” terms that I will use fairly interchangeably even though hardcore fans insist upon a subtle distinction. Like many successful franchises, an entire convoluted “universe” developed with central classic works and innumerable spin-offs, each with ardent fans and skeptical critics.

Like Tolkien fantasy and its self-evident lineage from the J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, scholars also tend to look for a foundational English literature work although they disagree with rather it should be found within the subgenres of Arthurian legend (popularized by T. H. White in his “Once and Future King”) or in Shakespearian literature. Clearly English literature borrows heavily from both and even evolved a smattering of Steampunk elements when later fabulist authors such as Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters introduced the “Industrial Revolution” or “Victorian” cycle.

Speculation as to where Rowling would have been able to come into contact with English literature ranges wildly. The period between 1980 and the present was certainly an era where English literature had fallen out of a favor with the public and was rarely seen except in specialty stores. Nevertheless elements of Rowling’s novels show undeniable traces of the English mythology.

Consider the bizarrely structured Hogwarts School with its subdivision into competing, strangely named “houses” complete with a highly stratified division by year, housemasters and exotic impractical rituals. Often thought by poorly-read critics to be a product of Rowling’s imagination, an observant reader can spot suspicious similarities to earlier institutes ingrained in the mythology of England such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Once the idea takes hold, the scholar can find a myriad of references, nods and outright plagiarisms. The train which travels to the school is right out of the Industrial Revolution cycle, with a little of Steampunk’s back-cast eye towards how a primitive society might develop technology parallel to our own. Hagrid’s cottage and the nearby town of Hogsmeade are both clearly modeled on English cities, architecture and society. Other critics have pointed out the similarities between the Quidditch, with its nearly incomprehensible set of arbitrary rules, and the reoccurring English fairy tales about cricket and polo.

It is perhaps timely that an author should revive an interest in such an antiquated and romanticized subgenre as the myth of England. After all, Rowling’s broad adventure-chocked simplifications and chummy schoolmate camaraderie are a welcome break after the fractionalization and variety of late English literature creations. One had literally to rely upon the supplements of intricate maps, character charts and timelines just to follow the main plots, not to mention the billboard hierarchies, intricate politics and endless rise-and-fall-of-an-empire wars. Die-hard, socially inept fans had even retreated into private languages like British English, Cockney and Scottish which will remind social scientists of similar phenomenon with Tolkien’s Elvish and Star Trek’s Klingon. The diversity of authors each writing offshoots and spin-offs aimed at obsessive specialty audiences had introduced a plague of contradictions and created an exclusionary subculture nearly as vast as Star Wars.

Traditional English literature has meanwhile lost its shine, wallowing in an endless repetition of chipper street urchins, gnarled misers and sexist depictions of powerless women. Its canon of worn clichés perpetuated by its “classic” authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf have been replaced by more exciting and culturally relevant authors.


Kathryn said...

Well, you've pwnd that ENGLISH thing.

Don't show Barr.

Patrick said...

I'll stand by some of those classic authors but not others, and I'm not too sure about most of the current ones. Were you being bitter about the takeover of the contemporary authors? I tend to take the postmodern approach of having mixed feelings in general and picking out my favorites from all over the place.

Walrus said...

I also don't like every classic literary figure I mentioned in this paper, but it never hurts to remind the general public of something called the "literary tradition."

This paper was inspired by an article in WashU's student newspaper about some 2-year dorms switching to full 4-year residences. A student was quoted as saying "It's like in Harry Potter: Once your a Gryffindor you stay a Gryffindor." My reaction was, "Um... no, its more like the English school system upon which Harry Potter is based."

Patrick said...

I get those sorts of feelings sometimes too.