On Literary Influence: How Austen and Shakespeare Affect Rowling — and Vice Versa

Travis Prinzi, brother Potter blogger and fellow Zossima Press author, sent me an email two weeks ago about a Russian professor who believes that the best way to understand Voldemort is an echo of Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. He posted on the subject at Hog’s Head — a Pub for Potter and the conversation on the resulting thread was very good. The speculation that Severus was the real Raskolnikovian echo I thought was especially intriguing.

My thoughts about this went in a different direction, so, rather than hijack Travis’ post, I add my two thoughts here, namely, (1) that this kind of comparison confirms the theory that Ms. Rowling’s books will prove to be a gateway to English and World literature and (2) in a post-Deathly Hallows landscape where Harry Potter is the shared text, we will come to understand other books and the tradition as a whole through her books, like it or not. Literary influence is not a one way street, oddly enough, but sometimes works ‘present to past’ as well.

When Travis first sent me the professor’s comments about Voldemort and Raskolnikov, I responded:

Thanks for the link! Quite the stretch but an interesting connection for those who know both Harry Potter and Crime and Punishment. I expect we’ll see a bunch of this from the Ivory Tower in coming years; it’s the historical pattern of literature study that previous works come to be understood in light of current favorites, if only because the recently published are the only points of reference for audiences (and if he had compared Raskolinikov with, say, Iago, you and I would not be reading about it).

The first thing to note (and celebrate) is that Ms. Rowling’s books are being taken seriously enough to be compared with Dostoevsky, in my mind one of if not the finest novelist ever. That’s a marker, yes, that professors wanting publicity will link whatever their specialty is to Harry to get in the papers, but also of the beginning of Harry Studies on a plane higher than “pop culture studies.” James Thomas at Pepperdine said that there are three obstacles to this sea change in the academies, what he called the “three Deathly Hallows of Harry Potter:” the books are too popular, too recent, and too juvenile. We seem to be stepping beyond that, which development, if real, is years ahead of schedule.

My second thought when reading about the Raskolnikov/Voldemort theory was that this sort of comparison begins Ms. Rowling’s influence on the authors who came before her. To understand how that works we have to review how Ms. Rowling was influenced by the authors she enjoyed.

Speaking with Writers Digest in February 2000, she listed several authors she admired but added quickly, “But as for being influenced by them… I think it [may be] more accurate to say that they represent untouchable ideals to me. It is impossible for me to say what my influences are; I don’t analyze my own writing in that way.” In an interview with Amazon.com in 1999, though, she explained that “It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.”

Food and eating are a good analogy for how this process works. I eat my lunch and I become my lunch in a chemical and before-to-after, cause-and-effect kind of way. I am what I ate, undeniably. But I have also really done a number on this food. I may have become all the chemical nutrients and calories of my chicken salad sandwich but even my worst enemies wouldn’t say the chicken salad sandwich won out. It has been changed into me, not me into a chicken salad sandwich. Just so with writers and their influences. Writers read books, and the best writers, like Ms. Rowling, have read voraciously, profoundly, and widely.

These books, as Ms. Rowling says, don’t mechanically become models for the writers’ stories. They become the soil out of which the seeds of the author’s talent and ideas can grow. The richer and more fertile the soil, the more this talent and these ideas will flourish and blossom. The greater the talent and ideas, the more nutrients will be drawn from the rich soil and the more delicious and refreshing will be the fruits from this tree and vine. This organic relationship between talent and tradition is what makes Ms. Rowling’s novels the perfect gateway to great reading. As F. R. Leavis wrote about Jane Austen:

In fact, Jane Austen, in her indebtedness to others, provides an exceptionally illuminating study of the nature of originality, and she exemplifies beautifully the relations of ‘the individual talent’ to tradition. If the influences bearing on her hadn’t comprised something fairly to be called tradition she couldn’t have found herself and her true direction; but her relation to tradition is a creative one. She not only makes tradition for those coming after, but her achievement has for us a retroactive effect: as we look back beyond her we see in what goes before, and see because of her, potentialities and significances brought out in such a way that, for us, she creates the tradition we see leading down to her. Her work, like the work of all great creative writers, gives a meaning to the past.

(The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis, Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, New York University Press, 1973, p. 5)

This is at least as true of Rowling as it is of Austen, before whom, at least in Leavis’ opinion, there were no great English novelists (the “greats” in his opinion being Austen, Conrad, James, Lawrence, and Eliot). Ms. Rowling by her absorption and representation of the classic genres within her simultaneously genre-busting and genre-embracing novels, by her interpretation and misinterpretation of these standards, is shaping our understanding of the great novelists and playwrights that came before her by the light she shines on them. As true, her work and peculiar genius are only comprehensible at the superficial level of the entertainment value of the narrative if we do not understanding her genius as a talent in creative relation to the tradition of English letters.

Example? Macbeth. From the Mugglenet/Leaky Cauldron Interview, 2005:

JKR: Yes, definitely, because I think there’s a line there between the moment in Chamber of Secrets when Dumbledore says so famously, “It’s our choices that define us, not our abilities,” straight through to Dumbledore sitting in his office, saying to Harry, “The prophecy is significant only because you and Voldemort choose to make it so. If you both chose to walk away, you could both live!” That’s the bottom line. If both of them decided, “We’re not playing,” and walked away… but, it’s not going to happen, because as far as Voldemort’s concerned, Harry’s a threat. They must meet each other.

ES: I remember thinking when I read Order of the Phoenix, what would happen if Harry and Voldemort just decided to –

JKR: Shake hands, and walk away? We’ll agree to disagree!

[Laughter]

ES: What if he never heard the prophecy?

JKR: And that’s it, isn’t it? As I said, that’s what I posted on my site –

ES: I’m glad you put that up.

JKR: It’s the “Macbeth” idea. I absolutely adore “Macbeth.” It is possibly my favorite Shakespeare play. 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.

MA: If everyone would just shake hands and play a round of golf, everything would be fine.

[Laughter]

Miss Anelli, sadly, didn’t follow Ms. Rowling up on the Shakespeare reference or the theme of choice and destiny. She wanted to know what Ms. Rowlingt felt about the possibility that eight year old children would read Half-Blood Prince and decide they needed to die sacrificially to be heroes (do a Dumbledore dive?). Sigh.

Back to Macbeth.

Ms. Rowling believes that Macbeth is not fated to the tragedy foretold by the Fates/Witches at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play. “He made it happen.” Harry Potter’s decisions vis a vis the Prophecy are largely the telling of Ms. Rowling’s interpretation of Macbeth. He had a potential destiny but it was his choices that “made it happen.” This is a fascinating resolution of the fate and freewill literary chestnut, especially when Harry’s being drawn quite carefully as a postmodern Christian Everyman who has to “choose to believe” is added in.

Two questions.

(1) Is Macbeth really this celebration of choice and free will? Yes — and no. Shakespeare’s play is not nearly as transparent on this subject as is Ms. Rowling’s exposition in the Headmaster’s office where Harry cracks the chestnut. A big part of Macbeth’s problem is that he embraces the message from the psychic realm on his own terms and with his limited understanding. He doesn’t “make it happen” so much as he acts as he is supposed to act if he doesn’t transcend his desires for advantage.

(2) Will Macbeth be understood someday as an early Harry Potter adventure? Or, more likely, as a pre-cursor thematically of the Potter books? I think so.

Remember what Prof. Treavis said about Austen:

She not only makes tradition for those coming after, but her achievement has for us a retroactive effect: as we look back beyond her we see in what goes before, and see because of her, potentialities and significances brought out in such a way that, for us, she creates the tradition we see leading down to her. Her work, like the work of all great creative writers, gives a meaning to the past.

Look for this view of Macbeth to become even more of a commonplace than it is now. Shakespeare, alchemical dramatist, influenced Ms. Rowling in her choice of themes and artistic elements. She, in turn, will have her influence on how we read the Bard. And even more Potter generation readers will read the Genius of Avon because of his influence on Ms. Rowling.

I ask your comments and corrections, as always.

Comments

  1. What an utterly fascinating post, John. Thanks especially for the Leavis quote on Austen. I’ve not read that, and now want to go look for it.

    I certainly hope you’re right about the HP books becoming, already, a doorway into conversation about great literature that came before. And I like the organic imagery — it makes sense, I think, when we’re talking about literary influences and how they work “both ways.”

    I tend to think of the ongoing stream of literature as a conversation. Every time I read a book, I am reading part of the ongoing conversation, but also joining it by my response. (And on a theological level, everything anyone has ever written or created artistically is a response to the initial Creative Word who began the whole conversation in the first place, whether they’re conscious of it or not.) As C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in his introduction to Athnasius’ *On the Incarnation*, our need to read “old books” comes about in part because ““If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.”

    Seems to me that people who really love HP and who are interested in the “literary compost” that helped it grow will realize that HP comes at eleven o’clock, relatively late in the conversation. Austen maybe comes at nine o’clock and the bard at seven o’clock, etc. But many people won’t hear the earlier conversation until they’ve thoroughly joined the later one, and by the time they get there, their ears will be tuned differently because of where they stepped into the stream. Does that make any sense?

    Anyway, great post!

  2. I also love the quote about Austen. Thanks for a great post, John.

    And Beth, I like what Lewis has to say about joining the conversation and the timing. I’d never thought of reading as an ongoing conversation, but that’s a great way to look at it.

    I know, for me, reading HP and then reading all the references from John to other books has been a great adventure. I either reread or read books that I’ve always heard of, but I’d never thought much about them–beyond whether I liked them or didn’t. I find that there is so much more in any one book than just the story that’s being told.

    I’d read Austen before, but I did find after reading Harry Potter that I read Austen differently and found that I enjoyed the books even more–both Austen and HP.

    Pat

  3. Arabella Figg says:

    Perhaps the day may come when, with “shared text” in hand and pre-read, high-school literature classes will use the series as introduction and contemporary lens through which to read Shakespeare, Austen, etc. Might not kids find more interest in and better understanding of the “boring” classics when Harry Potter is used as comparative literature? Just a hopeful thought.

    Miserable with this respiratory infection going around–a cat on the lap is just the ticket…

Speak Your Mind

*