I was talking to a good friend last month about how seriously we should take Ms. Rowling’s comments about her work. He chuckled. As a University professor of several decades and a Faulkner scholar, he found it amusing that Potter Fandom hangs on Ms. Rowling’s every word as “canon.” Faulkner, it turns out, had plenty to say about his novels, especially in answer to questions and as he got older. The sad thing was it seems the 1949 Nobel Prize winner for Literature often had no idea of what he was talking about, confused his novels, stories, and screen plays, and made little sense when describing his themes. Transcripts made from the recordings of his talks, consequently, are consulted by serious interpreters of Faulkner’s work but not given anything like the weight given Ms. Rowling’s every comment.
Joanne Rowling is hardly the senescent Nobel laureate type, of course. I’d suggest, though, that, when tracking influences and discussing meaning, serious readers of her work are best set if they work almost exclusively from text. Almost. If you’ve listened to the podcast I did with Profs. Paul Spears and John Mark Reynolds at Biola/Torrey last month, you know I sympathize with Dr. Reynolds’ “text only” definition of canon. Today I want to look at a case in point — what we can learn about Tolkien’s influence on Harry’s adventures from the still invaluable if much diminished Accio Quote catalogue of interviews — to see if attention to Ms. Rowling’s extra-textual information clarifies this influence or muddies the waters.
There aren’t many older readers who didn’t think of Shelob when first reading the part of Chamber of Secrets in which Harry and Ron wind up in the grove of Acromantulas. But Ms. Rowling has suggested she is not much of a Tolkien fan or even a fantasy reader. What we have from her responses to interview questions gives a remarkably different impression than one of her biographers’ understanding. I am not a Tolkienite, as most of you know, and, from my lack of sure footing with this mammoth amount of material, have never made much of the influence of The Lord of the Rings in my arguments about the meaning of the Potter saga (Tolkien scholars whom I admire very much have done this work). I don’t have a dog in this fight, consequently. The point I’ll try to make here is only that if we use the author’s testimony as our cue for “influence,” Tolkien is all but off the board. And is that better than working from the text?
Interview quotations about Tolkien and fantasy:
UKMCLive: Kissa371 asks…Your Harry Potter books remind me of JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. (My niece is borrowing my Tolkien books to keep her busy until your next book.) Are you a Tolkien fan? Did his work influence the Harry Potter series?
JKR Live: Well, I love the Hobbit, but I think, if you set aside the fact that the books overlap in terms of dragons & wands & wizards, the Harry Potter books are very different, especially in tone. Tolkien created a whole mythology, I don’t think anyone could claim that I have done that. On the other hand…he didn’t have Dudley ;o) (JK Rowling Chat, AOL Live, May 4, 2000 )
Ms. Rowling says here only that she loves The Hobbit, as opposed to The Lord of the Rings “trilogy” she was asked about, while largely dismissing the influence as only meaningless “overlap,” i.e., a setting with magical elements and fantasy creatures.
From a Newsweek interview published two months after the AOL chat:
Me. I truly never sat down and thought, What do I think kids will like? I really, really was so inflamed by the idea when it came to me because I thought it would be so much fun to write. In fact, I don’t really like fantasy. It’s not so much that I don’t like it, I really haven’t read a lot of it. I have read “Lord of the Rings,” though. I read that when I was about 14. I didn’t read “The Hobbit” until I was in my 20s-much later. I’d started “Harry Potter” by then, and someone gave it to me, and I thought, Yeah, I really should read this, because people kept saying, “You’ve read ‘The Hobbit,’ obviously?” And I was saying, “Um, no.” So I thought, Well, I will, and I did, and it was wonderful. (Sheepish smile)
It didn’t occur to me for quite a while that I was writing fantasy when I’d started “Harry Potter,” because I’m a bit slow on the uptake about those things. I was so caught up in it. And I was about two thirds of the way through, and I suddenly thought, This has got unicorns in it. I’m writing fantasy! (Jones, Malcolm. “The Return of Harry Potter,” Newsweek, 10 July, 2000)
Again, she admits to reading The Lord of the Rings, albeit when she was a child as if to dismiss this influence, and she says that she has read The Hobbit as well, but not until she was already writing Harry’s story. Reading fantasy literature, again, is not her thing and the Tolkien connection is acknowledged as a possibility but not an important one.
Skip to 2005 and the Lev Grossman interview in Time magazine. He was given the impression (or heard what he wanted to hear) that Ms. Rowling is no Tolkien fan at all, really, that she hasn’t even finished The Lord of the Rings.
The most popular living fantasy writer in the world doesn’t even especially like fantasy novels. It wasn’t until after Sorcerer’s Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one. “That’s the honest truth,” she says. “You know, the unicorns were in there. There was the castle, God knows. But I really had not thought that that’s what I was doing. And I think maybe the reason that it didn’t occur to me is that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy.” Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn’t even read all of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There’s something about Lewis’ sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex,” Rowling says. “I have a big problem with that.” (Lev Grossman, “J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All,” Time Magazine, 17 July, 2005)
Of course, we all have a problem with that. Mr. Grossman asserts Ms. Rowling hasn’t read all the Narnia novels but an event in the last pages of the series finale really gets under her skin? Oi. And the report after an interview in 1998 that she “still re-reads The Chronicles of Narnia, famous for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (she likes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader best)”?
But leaving aside Mr. Grossman’s anti-Inkling agenda for a moment, this article and its report of Ms. Rowling’s thoughts on Tolkien give us the very clear idea this author is not a Tolkien reader and it would be safe to shelve the Shire as a place of great influence on Ms. Rowling’s creative imagination. Dumbledore is no Gandalf shadow etc.
Without even going to the texts for a comparative exercise, however, other secondary material suggests Ms. Rowling has read The Lord of the Rings and that she read it attentively, repeatedly, and during the time period she was framing the Potter novels.
Here are two short excerpts from Sean Smith’s unauthorized J. K. Rowling: A Biography (2003) about Ms. Rowling’s reading during University and, five years later, while living in Portugal, a year and a half during which she is supposed to have worked on framing the seven book series and started writing Philosopher’s Stone:
One of the books she did read during her university days was The Lord of the Rings, the famous fantasy novel by the Oxford Professor, J. R. R. Tolkien. Joanne became a great admirer of the saga and her 1000 page volume containing the entire story became battered and worn over the years. (p. 90)
Joanne invariably had The Lord of the Rings with her [in Portugal], which she had first read when she was nineteen, but was one of the books she wanted to take to Portugal. Maria Ines confirms that she always had her copy with her and Jorge recalls that she could not put the book down. (p. 108)
The value of the Sean Smith biography is certainly open to question. We aren’t told who told him that Ms. Rowling read Tolkien at Exeter and the testimony of an ex-husband and her former mother-in-law is not without its problems. Even given these problems, however, the Smith assertions of a strong Tolkien-Rowling link only highlight confusion we already had from Ms. Rowling’s interview statements. She admits in them that she has read Tolkien but always with careful comment to diminish that influence: her novels are not intentionally fantasy books and she is not a fantasy reader, she read The Hobbit only after Harry Potter was a work in progress, she read The Lord of the Rings as a very young woman and never finished it, etc.
Again, this post is not about questioning the veracity of Ms. Rowling or even the quality and honesty of the work done by reporters having interviewed her or by biographers interviewing her school mates and ex-husband. And I am not asserting there is a strong Tolkien-to-Rowling influence. I raise the Tolkien-Rowling relationship as a subject for conversation to ask the question: “what value are we to give Ms. Rowling’s interviews in understanding her work or its place in English literature?” My answer for your comment and correction is “Not very much.” The texts of the seven Harry Potter novels with some knowledge of English literature are much more dependable guides and resources for understanding the books than any secondary sources, to include Ms. Rowling.
Self-promoting plug of book: If you’re looking for a thoughtful exploration of Harry Potter that explains their meaning from within the texts themselves and from the context of English literature in which they are written, of course, I recommend you purchase a copy of The Deathly Hallows Lectures and continue to visit this web site and the Hog’s Head. Close plug.
Your comments and correction, please!