7 Reasons Rowling Deserves Nobel Prize (2) CSL’s Poeima: Genre and Influence

Vladimir Nabokov, the writer Rowling says “I really love,” was a native-born Russian and a formalist obviously influenced by Russian formalists. In yesterday’s first point of formalist criticism in explanation of why Rowling merits a Nobel Prize, I shared the formalist distinction of syuzhet and fabula, artistic narrative versus basic story or plot, and its relevance in appreciating Rowling’s ouevre. Nabokov made the same formalist distinction in English about the subject of literary study, syuzhet, with an emphasis on “structure and style” as the beginning and end of a serious reader’s work.

M. H. Abrams wrote that the “focus on the formal patterns and technical devices of literature to the exclusion of its subject matter and social values”  is why the Formalists were labelled as such by their critical opponents (Glossary of Literary Terms, p 107). Nabokov lectured on literature at Cornell University and his talks there as well as the interviews he gave and the books he wrote all speak to his having shared this Formalist view.

He described his course, Literature 311-312, Masters of European Fiction, for example as “among other things, a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures” (Lectures on Literature, p xxx). He notes as he begins his discussion of Dickens’ Bleak House that form equates to subject matter in the best writing.

What do we mean when we speak of the form of a story? One thing is its structure, which means the development of a given story, why this or that line is followed; the choice of characters, the use that the author makes of his characters; their interplay, their various themes, the thematic lines and their intersection; the various moves of the story introduced by the author to produce this or that direct or indirect effect; the preparation of effects and impressions. In a word, we mean the planned pattern of a work of art. This is structure.

Another aspect of form is style, which means how does the structure work; it means the manner of the author, his mannerisms, various special tricks; and if his style is vivid what kind of imagery, of description, does he use, how does he proceed; and if he uses comparisons, how does he employ and vary the rhetorical devices of metaphor and simile and their combinations. The effect of style is the key to literature, a magic key to Dickens, Gogol, Flaubert, Tolstoy, to all great masters.

Form (structure and style) = Subject Matter: the why and the how = the what. (Lectures, p 113; emphasis added)

A student in Nabokov’s last class at Cornell, John Updike’s wife, remembers his “central dogma” was “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash” (Lectures, p xxiii). Our principal pleasure in reading the best fiction, Nabokov declared, is the fruit of our ability in re-reading to “keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece” (Lectures, p 4). In our seven point apologia for taking Rowling seriously as a writer we wil be returning again and again to just this focus on the syuzhet “inner weave” of structure and style in its various forms.

Today I want to discuss a point that C. S. Lewis makes in his critical work as formalist about poeima, his Greek equivalent I think for the Russian syuzhet

A work of literary art… both means and is. It is both Logos (something said) and Poeima (something made). As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or rebukes or excites laughter. As Poeima, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d’art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction. (Experiment in Criticism, p 132; cited by Schakel, The Longing for a Form, p xv).

This “shaping” is largely a consequence of Forma or Form, usually capitalized by Lewis, which Schakel defines as “literary ‘kind,’ almost ‘genre’.” Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost wrote:

Every poem has two parents — its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. By studying only the mother, criticism becomes one-sided. It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman, but also to be enamored of the Sonnet (Preface, p 3; cited by Schakel, p xi).

Literary artistry, in other words, is largely an author’s appreciation for and command of the the particular forms of literature, the genre rules, standards, and commonplaces. Rather than restricting the expression of a poet, novelist, or playwright, the form focuses and reveals the inspiration, the materia of any work; the form is the essential complement to the matter of the story.

It would, in my opinion, be the greatest error to suppose that this fertilization of the poet’s internal matter by the pre-existing Form impairs his originality…. Materia appetit forman ut virum femina. The matter insides the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form  it becomes really original, really the origin of great work. The attempt to be oneself often brings out not only the more conscious and superficial parts of a man’s mind; working to produce a given kind of poem which will present a given theme as justly, delightedly, and lucidly as possible, he is more likely to bring out all that was really in him, and much of which he himself had no suspicion (Lewis, Preface, p 3; Schakel, p xii).

To understand why Rowling deserves a Nobel Prize, especially from a Formalist’s perspective, necessitates discussion of her relationship with genre and the specific forms of story with which she engages and within which her stories are told. Here are three quick points that demonstrate Rowling’s creative genius and syuzhet with respect to story-types she loves and adapts to her purposes.

(1) Rowling Simultaneously Conforms To and Adapts Genre Conventions

When I wrote Unlocking Harry Potter in 2007, I used five keys to unlock the series in anticipation of Deathly Hallows. I now think there are seven, a magical number, and my online Wizard reading Formula class spends a week on each. The two I’ve added in the more than a decade of researching and thinking about Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga and consequent works are ring composition and genre.

We’ll get to ring composition, of course, in this formalist analysis and apologia when we get to story structure per se. About genre, as quoted yesterday, here is what Rowling told Val Mcdermid about her relationship with the detective mystery or ‘crime’ genre at the 2014 Harrowgate Festival:

Val Mcdermid:  Why did you choose crime?

Jo Rowling:  Because I love crime fiction, I’ve always loved it, I read a lot of it. and I think that the Harry Potter books are really whodunnits in disguise. I think you’ve got six whodunnits and one why-was-it. So I enjoy that kind of …. I enjoy I suppose the Golden Age books. I suppose that’s what I was trying to do with these books. To take that finite number of suspects, the genuine whodunnit style, and make it contemporary, really bring it up to date and make sure this is a credible person with a credible back story for nowadays. It was a no-brainer.

Or Rowling to the BBC before her adaptation of Strike was aired:

Were you ever inspired by some of the classic detectives that we know, or did you think you’d actively avoid that?

J.K. Rowling: Part of the appeal and part of the fascination of the genre is that it has clear rules. I’m intrigued by those rules and I like playing with them. Your detective should always lay out the information fairly for the reader, but he will always be ahead of the game. There are certain immutable laws of detective fiction that I follow.

But in terms of creating a character, I think he conforms to certain universal rules but he is very much of this time. He is a veteran of wars that many people still re-run politically and talk about. He’s a complex character because he’s rooted partly in the military and partly in the very louche world that a lot of people would like to enter without really understanding how damaging that world can be. He is unique as I think every detective should be, but he’s rightly conforming to the rules of detective fiction that make detective fiction fair for the reader.

In these twin remarks, you have in essence Rowling’s relationship with genre conventions.

She loves crime fiction; she’s “always loved it.” As Lewis says, the writer of a love poem not only has to love a woman, he also has to love the Sonnet. Rowling is a close reader, a re-reader almost certainly, and after a lifetime of familiarity with the story type, she decides to tell a story within that type, her Cormoran Strike mysteries. She knows the “clear rules.”

But these weren’t her first “whodunnits.” She thinks that “the Harry Potter books are really whodunnits in disguise.” Here we see Rowling’s signature adaptative use of genre, namely, that of combining genres within a single story to create a unique blend, a startling melange. Harry’s adventures are most obviously School boy novels and Gothic romance, but include detective fiction “in disguise,” a Hero’s Journey, alchemical drama, and socio-political satire as well.

And, as she told Mcdermid, she isn’t simply conforming to the received conventions, but creatively adapting them, “to make it contemporary, really bring it up to date.” Rowling said in the same 2005 interview with Lev Grossman that she “didn’t think about what I was doing in those terms” [of literary genres, specifically fantasy] and later that she was “intentionally subverting the genre.” Whether she was thinking about it as such or not, she definitely was conforming to and radically changing the genres she knew well and was putting to her own use.

Take the School Boy Story as Rowling uses it for her Hogwarts Saga story scaffolding. You have the Tom Brown hero, his athletic best mate, and swotty effeminate friend as core trio. There’s a saintly headmaster, a sadistic science teacher, a nutty French instructor, the comic twins, the vicious student nemesis and foil, not to mention school houses, sports competition, and a class conflict of rising bourgeoise versus decadent aristocrats. She doesn’t leave out any of the stick figures from the genre but re-animates them in a magical setting.

The big difference, though, isn’t that it’s a school of wizardry, as relatively novel as that seems. It’s that Rowling, a she says, subverts the genre and its imperial imperatives to make it a vehicle for postmodern values of diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness. Dr Amy H. Sturgis discusses this at length in her ‘Hogwarts in America‘ article; Rowling is not just using the genre she knows well but turning it and its conventions upside-down to her diffeent ends.

And the same can be said for her use of Austen’s Manners and Morals fiction, the hero’s journey, and even Gothic Romance. Rowling’s hero’s journey formula has several add ons Joseph Campbell wouldn’t recognize, most notably a near death and resurrection in the presence of a symbol of Christ. And her Gothic heroine who succeeds by running away from her ferocious adversary through labyrinthine underground passages beneath a castle? Rowling’s heroine in distress is a guy.

But if Rowling has one core genre concern that crosses all her work, Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike and Fantastic Beasts, it is mythology, her love from childhood forward.

(2) Rowling’s Core Genre is Classical Myth

Rowling told Stephen Fry in 2005 that:

I’ve taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I’m quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we’ve been invaded by people, we’ve appropriated their gods, we’ve taken their mythical creatures, and we’ve soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it’s so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own.

Where did the French and Classics student at the University of Exeter get her love of mythology? From her “classics” classes, naturally, which weren’t the study of Classical Languages, i.e., Greek and Latin straight-up, as Rowling is happy for her readers to infer incorrectly, but Greek and Roman Studies, with special emphasis on mythology. See this post for more on the Classics vs Classical Studies distinction. As she wrote in a 1998 article for her alumni magizine (emphasis mine), what she got from her studies was an abiding love for mythology:

Perhaps, in the deepest and truest sense, I still don’t really know what Greeks and Romans are, but I’ve never entirely given up hope of lifting a little more fog. A shelf next to me as I tap out these words is dotted with books on Greek mythology, all of which were purchased post-Exeter. And I’m confident I know more than Dr. Y would have credited when I left his office for the last time: enough to inform a pair of bemused four year olds with whom I watched Disney’s latest offering that Heracles definitely didn’t own Pegasus. That was Bellerophon, as any fule kno.

Note, too, that one of Rowling’s English teachers at Wyedean Comprensive, Steve Eddy, was an expert in astrology and classical mythology.

Steve Eddy, who taught the author at Wyedean comprehensive in Chepstow, says he used to take the young Joanne Rowling to task for her short stories about mythological creatures.

“Joanne’s work always showed impressive imagination and in class she was always bright and enthusiastic, much in the way of Hermione in the Harry Potter books,” he said.

“But when it came to her stories they were always about elves or pixies or fairies. I was constantly telling her that she was at an age where she should be writing about grittier, real-life things.

“Thank goodness she never heeded my advice and kept presenting me with her fantastic stories about made-up creatures. Looking back I am a bit embarrassed about it but I had no idea what she’d go on to achieve.”

See Eddy’s book on Greek Mythology if you wonder why one of his students was fascinated by the subject. It is her use of myth, I think, that made Rowling say in 2000 that “I’m one of the very few people who has ever found a practical application for their classics degree.”

Which is a lot more biographical information than a formalist approach is supposed to include. What do her books tell us?

  • That Harry Potter is the Orestes myth retold (hence the opening Aeschylus epigraph in Deathly Hallows). There just aren’t any other stories of import in which the lead character has a lightning shaped scar on his forehead who struggles to avenge the death of his father.
  • That the Cormoran Strike series is an involved revision of the myth of Leda and the Swan, with Strike and Shanker as Castor and Pollux and Leda Strike and Jonny Rokeby as well, Leda and Zeus as swan.
  • That the first Fantastic Beasts movie is Rowling’s reinterpretation of the Theseus myth, with Newt doing the hunt for the man-beast GrindelGraves minotaur. (Interesting aside: Rowling in her alumni magazine article describes Theseus as “a mass-murderer and bigamist.”)

None of these re-tellings are done in such a way that a reader is struck by the parallels and correspondences. They are not obvious but part of the “inner weave,” as Nabokov described it, of her story and carefully re-crafted to her own ends. Each adds a mythological or otherworldly quality to her work without having to invoke gods and the fantastic and each is a creative adaptation to serve her postmodern ends rather than a mechanical retelling. 

(3) Rowling’s Creative Relationship with Genre Conventions is Parody more than Influence

Which brings us to the formalist point. Rowling was onceasked about the influence of a certain author on her work, a question heavy with the implication that this author shaped her novels, that she was some kind of copy-cat or knock-off writer. She answered that “I don’t think of influence like that.”

To get how she thinks of it, or better, because as formalists we’re not supposed to care what she thinks (and how could we ever really know anyway?), to get how we should think of her relationship with influence, take a look at Rowling’s gothic touches in Harry Potter. Remember, too, Nabokov’s maxim that “Satire is a lesson; parody is a game.”

The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction comes with a list of elements that suggest a play, poem, or story might be considered ‘Gothic.’ The list has almost thirty plot points, characters, scenery markers, and physical objects on it ranging from “castle” to “Ghosts,” from “found book” to “scar.” The Companion notes if a reader finds several of these thirty Gothic symptoms, the text in question can safely be assumed to be Gothic. 

Harry Potter has twenty-seven of twenty-nine. That’s well beyond “several” references. That’s more like “stacking.”

And are there missteps from the formula? Almost all of the elements Rowling takes from the Gothic back-lot are as absurd and intentionally comic as Brooks’ black Sheriff in Blazing Saddles. Nearly-Headless Nick, the Fat Friar, and the Gothic novella-inside-the-novel featuring the Gray Lady and the Bloody Baron, just to talk “ghosts” are Gothic camp on the lines of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, not The Mysteries of UdolphoWuthering Heights, or Dracula.

Is this mimicry a mockery? It would be, I guess, except that the end of every book delivers a powerful Gothic experience of dread and tension with Harry playing the part, as mentioned above, of Gothic heroine racing to escape and survive her tormentors, his Dementors more than once. Rowling admires Gothic writing, obviously, as much as she does detective fiction and, like one of her favorite writers, Jane Austen, did in Northanger Abbey, she loves it enough to parody it for the reader’s amusement (“Look, aren’t these Gothic conventions funny?”) but still using them to deliver the experience this genre can provide. (See Beatrice Grove’s Austen chapter in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter for much more on this subject.)

I think the same can be said about Rowling and the “influence” of C. S. Lewis. One of the great mysteries of Rowling through the years has been the pivot she made in interviews from being a great admirer of C. S. Lewis — “He is a genius,” “I cannot be in the same room with a Narnia book without picking it up and reading it,” “Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favorite” — in the early going to all but calling him a Death Eater by 2005. What happened?

I think now that Rowling was tired of her readers not getting that she was not a Lewis clone, not a channel through which Enid Blyton was writing another Schoolboy novel, not another Tolkienite trying to best the Master via slavish imitation, and certainly not a “Christian writer” carrying indoctrination freight through story for the church. This bothers her, perhaps, because she is befuddled at how she can be thought of as a good Christian soldier, marching in step with the Inkling platoon, when she is writing parody of their work, not a knock-off in slavish imitation.

Rowling’s Potter work is suffused with Christian content, as I’ve argued since 2002 and Rowling admitted in 2007, and its power and popularity largely spring from it, but not in Lewis’ relatively evangelistic openness. It is sufficiently subtle, in fact, that quite a few Christian believers mistook for the magical trees for the spiritual forest and thought Harry Potter a gateway to the occult.

Remember Nabokov? “Satire is a lesson; parody is a game.” Just as C. S. Lewis re-wrote E. Nesbit’s Psammead in loving parody as The Magician’s Nephew, so Rowling has taken Inkling writing like Lewis’ Narniad and reinvented it for a different age; less a lesson and more as a game between writer and serious re-reader, a game of discovery and delight at the secrets within the “inner weave.”

Which I think is sufficient evidence that Rowling is a very serious writer indeed, one worthy, in fact, of a Nobel Prize rather than dismissal as a Kid Lit amateur and Cinderella writer. Tomorrow let’s move back to the Russian Formalists and the idea of literaturnost or “‘literariness” and what it has to do with appreciation of fine writing in general and Rowling specifically. Stay tuned — and please do let me know what you think of today’s post in the comment boxes below.


  1. Steve Morrison says

    Nitpick: isn’t “poiema” Greek rather than Latin?

  2. It is! It comes to Latin (and Russian), though, in straight forward fashion. Wiktionary entry. I changed ‘Latin equivalent’ to ‘Greek.’

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