Beatrice Groves: Easter Eggs on J.K. Rowling’s New Website – Part 1

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post looking at the Easter Eggs on the new J. K. Rowling Stories website and what they tell us about the author and her influences. Join me after the break for the first of two posts, and enjoy…

After more than a decade away from writing for children, J.K. Rowling has returned to it, and on the 9 th September she launched a new ‘J.K. Rowling’s Stories’ website to celebrate her new children’s writing – The Ickabog and the imminent Christmas Pig – alongside Harry Potter.

Rowling has always had favourite books – or books reflecting what she is reading – on display on her webpages, and although the new website is officially a children’s portal there remain one or two more grown-up books on display among the children’s classics: Colette’s La Chatte, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the complete works of Shakespeare. I suspect one or two of the objects on display, likewise, reflect Rowling’s own writing for grown-ups. We know, for example, that Rowling (as she notes on the website) spent a year of her degree in Paris, but the Eiffel Tower postcard and key-ring are not simply tributes to her time in the City of Light, but also remind us of her nostalgic tribute to Paris in Crimes of Grindelwald. (And the Eiffel Tower was likewise an important part of the design for the cover of that screenplay.) Rowling’s 2019 account of her time in Paris, incidentally, provides another suggestive biographical link in her adult writing:

 

I spent a year in Paris as part of my French degree. My mother, a quiet Francophile with a half-French father, was delighted to visit me there; my father, possibly less so, given my perennially unsuccessful pleas to waiters to understand that bien cuit in his case meant there must be no pink at all in the middle of the steak.

I was 25 when my mother died, at which point I stopped pretending I wanted any kind of office job. Now I did what came most naturally: grabbed the dog-eared manuscript of the children’s book I’d been writing for a few months and took off across the Channel again. 1

When I read that I was sure that Robin would be 25 at the beginning of Cuckoo’s Calling (the time when she too begins to acknowledge that she does not want any kind of office job) – and was delighted to find that this is correct. Rowling has acknowledged leaving what she calls ‘personal passwords’ in Harry Potter – and this continues in Strike, as well as on her webpage.

There is also, for example, another possible Strike link in Rowling’s choice to represent her childhood near the Forest of Dean with a postcard of Speech House. This building is a slightly unusual choice (would it not have been more natural to have a view of the forest itself? – it is the place where Harry and Hermione end up in Deathly Hallows, after all) so it seems worth wondering why she might have chosen this building:

The Speech House was originally built as a hunting lodge for King Charles II in 1669. It was here that Verderers court, for the protection of vert and venison was held… In the days preceding the passing of offences to the magistrates’ courts, the Verderers had powers to deal with misdemeanours in the Forest. They could even sentence people to hanging on the gibbet located outside the building…. From 1914 the local Magistrates Court began to deal with any offences concerning venison. However, if caught attempting to escape with the Forest’s Royal Deer, the Verderers were still able to sentence the offender to hanging. https://thespeechhouse.co.uk/about/

Rowling’s choice of Speech House gives a gruesome hint as to why hanging may have played such a central role in Lethal White. Her interest in the central premise of that novel may mark a memory of the gibbet once hung outside Speech House which stayed with her.

Hanging turns up (in more playful guises) in Harry Potter too – especially in games of Hangman, and the tarot-card-turned-pub-sign at The Hanged Man in Goblet of Fire. Tarot and astrology, of course, also play an outsized role in Troubled Blood. Presumably the paperweight visible on the new website (a dodecahedron zodiac) points both generally to Rowling’s interest in this ancient form of psychology and, specifically, to Strike’s latest astrology-themed outing. I think we can guess that the Chinese ‘good luck coins’ hanging from the noticeboard, likewise, link in with these arcane interests, but also point forward to the future Chinese setting of the Fantastic Beasts franchise:

In the modern era, these coins are considered to be Chinese “good luck coins”; they are hung on strings and round the necks of children, or over the beds of sick people. They hold a place in various traditional Chinese techniques, such as Yijing divination, as well as Traditional Chinese medicine, and Feng shui. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cash_(Chinese_coin)

Rowling has also long had the peacock paperweight visible on her homepage, and it is present again here, alongside a more pronounced peacock theme. When the peacock paperweight appeared on the adult homepage it had no obvious relevance to her writing (Malfoy’s peacocks, after all, are white) but now it chimes with the emphasis given to the peacocks which strut in the palace gardens in The Ickabog. These peacocks are alluded to on the webpage both by the paperweight and the peacock feather, but also by the almost hidden (but beautiful) illustration of the peacocks in The Ickabog – by competition-winner Charlotte. This made me wonder if Rowling buys a paperweight for each of her novels given the tie-in of the peacock one with The Ickabog and the zodiac one with Troubled Blood. It strikes me as a suitably writerly present, and the kind of thing she might enjoy – and I’ll be keeping my eye out for easter-egg paperweights in the future…

Many of the objects on the website link not only with Rowling’s biography, but also with her novels. There are, however, no obvious hints about future projects on the site, but given this link with her writing it makes sense that some of them might be giving hints that we cannot yet read. Might it be possible, for example, that the blue unicorn nestling up to the pig is a sign that this most iconic of magical creatures will be making an appearance in The Christmas Pig? And what about the blue plush rabbit – just an echo of Rowling’s first story (about a rabbit called rabbit) or another Christmas Pig hint?

But what interests me most, of course, are the books.

On Rowling’s old website the ‘links’ section (recreated in 2020 by our friends at The Rowling Library) was designed like a bookcase – so that, most satisfyingly, the discovery of information (gained by clicking on a link) was imagined as opening a book. This original bookcase contained generic pointers to Rowling’s magical interests (‘Ancient Runes made Easy,’ ‘World Mythology,’ ‘My favourite Spells,’) alongside a number of Rowling’s favourite books. Some of these were familiar favourites from interviews: classic children’s books (Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse and Paul Gallico’s Manxmouse), Austen novels (Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility) and a number of others by favourite authors – two Roddy Doyle’s, two Dorothy Sayers’s and one Katherine Mansfield.

The only other named author on Rowling’s first interactive website was E. Nesbit,who was present twice.

Rowling’s new website bookshelf still contains The Little White Horse and I Capture the Castle (now joined by Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty – another childhood favourite mentioned in interviews, but not present on the original website). When you click the latter two novels, you are presented with the quote:  ‘When I was a child, I read absolutely anything. These books are the ones I particularly loved then and read time and time again.’ It is a phrase Rowling has used before – at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004 – about the same books as are on display here:

‘When I was a child, I would read absolutely anything. My favourite books for younger people would be I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I really love, The Little White Horse, all the classic children’s books… I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.’

And it is Nesbit who is celebrated above all on this new bookshelf. She was the only children’s author who had two books visible on the old website, and she remains the only author with two books on the new. On the original bookcase these works were generic titles – ‘E. Nesbit’s Fairy Tales’ and ‘Tales’ by E. Nesbit – whereas this time Rowling has chosen two of Nesbit’s best-loved tales: The Story of the Treasure Seekers and The Railway Children.

This emphasising of Nesbit (in Rowling’s personal canon) above all other children’s authors is not surprising given Rowling’s interviews over the years. In 2000 she named Nesbit first in a list of authors she most admired and has repeatedly named her as one of her childhood’s favourite authors, in interviews spanning
over a decade.

Edith Nesbit was a writer of children’s stories who – like Rowling – chose to publish under an initial, and, as John Granger noted back in 2009, ‘Nesbit influences and hat tips are everywhere in Rowling’s work. When Harry is facing a year at St. Brutus’ Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys, Nesbit readers think of Maurice being sent away to Dr. Strongitharm’s School for Backward and Difficult Boys in ‘The Cathood of Maurice’ (The Magic Story, 1912). Fawkes the Phoenix has the name he does almost certainly because the phoenix in Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is discovered in that story on Guy Fawkes day.’

Nesbit’s first children’s novel The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1897) which Rowling has chosen for display on her new webpage, was (pleasingly) published precisely a century before Prisoner of Azkaban and in 2014 Rowling named it as a ‘breakthrough’ children’s book as well as one of her favourite books as a child: ‘She’s the children’s writer with whom I most identify. She said, “By some lucky chance, I remember exactly how I felt and thought at 11.” That struck a chord with me. The Story of the Treasure Seekers was a breakthrough children’s book. Oswald is such a very real narrator, at a time when most people were writing morality plays for children.’ 

In one further interview – this part of which has never been published – Rowling stressed this aspect of her connection with Nesbit. Lev Grossman has very kindly shared a transcript of this interview with me and it contained a discussion of children’s writers, such as C.S. Lewis, whom Rowling believes viewed childhood through a nostalgic lens:

It is my belief that that is more a male trait than a female trait. I know far more men than women who would go back to childhood if given the chance. And I think that male writers for children often evince that kind of nostalgia. And I don’t think E. Nesbit showed it, and I don’t think I show it. I don’t look back on childhood as this golden time that I’d love to go back to, at all. There were certainly moments of pure joy in childhood of a type that you can’t experience as an adult. Because you’re literally care-free. But possibly not for as long as people like to think. Because I remember being care-ridden at times, as a child. And as an adolescent. Primarily I remember difficulties, and insecurities. Moments maybe of real physical joy. A sunny day, physical sensations, just moments of utter bliss, that are difficult to recapture as an adult. But given the choice I’d definitely be an adult every time. 2

Nesbit has been praised for bringing a new realism to children’s writing – and both the novels Rowling has picked for her new website (The Story of the Treasure Seekers and The Railway Children) are about families who have gone through some kind of trauma and function as (relatively impecunious) lone parent families. Rowling has praised Nesbit’s realism – ‘her children are very real children’ – but Nesbit is also known for a strongly magical and fantastical element in her writing, especially in her stories for The Strand magazine, which becoming known for this kind of writing around the turn of the century. 3

It is this magical turn in Nesbit’s writing that we might expect Rowling to be most drawn to – and indeed, this may be where she first met not just a version of Fawkes, but also read about her first Hippogriffs (which appear in Nesbit’s The Magic City). And a Basilisk turns up, likewise, one of Nesbit’s lesser-known works: The Wonderful Garden (1911).

Tomorrow I will look more closely at The Wonderful Garden and consider the possible influences on Harry Potter of this book – a work by an author whom Rowling has once again chosen to champion.

Links to all of Beatrice Groves’ posts and podcasts about Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike mysteries can be found at her Pillar Post page at HogwartsProfessor.

1 Guardian 26 Oct 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/26/dear-europe-letters-from-jk-rowling-neil-gaiman-may-beard-and-more

2 Interview with Lev Grossman in 2005, unpublished transcript. My deep gratitude to him for so generously sharing this interview!

3 Julia Briggs, Edith Nesbit: A Woman of Passion (Stroud: Tempus, 2007), 229.

Comments

  1. Prof. Groves,

    Thanks for sharing and piecing together the insights Rowling has tucked away in her writing desk. The one thing that stands out the most in your article is Rowling’s thoughts on the nature of childhood, and what might be called the Romance that is often attached to it. She claims this is a symptom which she is immune to. I also recall Mr. Granger writing elsewhere that her home life was “next to non-existent”, and much of it was due to growing up with a very difficult father figure. This is sort of what makes her acknowledgement of Nesbit as an inspiration a bit more fascinating than it might otherwise have been.

    What happens is that the author appears to have created a dichotomous setup between herself and one of her favorite writers. It’s an idea that begins to make a bit more sense once you turn from “The Wonderful Garden” to one of the few, book-length, nonfiction works that Nesbit penned as a professional writer. “Wings and the Child” is perhaps the closest Nesbit ever wrote to a manifesto for her own outlook on life, art, and the practice of creativity. As Edith herself states in the preface to that tome, her goals for it are something that grew in the telling, and yet I see no reason to doubt its sincerity. She writes: “When this book first came to my mind it came as a history and theory of the building of Magic Cities on tables, with bricks and toys and little things such as a child may find and use. But as I kept the thought by me it grew and changed, as thoughts will do, until at last it took shape as an attempt to contribute something, however small and unworthy, to the science of building a magic city in the soul of a child, a city built of all things pure and fine and beautiful (web)”.

    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38977/38977-h/38977-h.htm

    What’s notable about this thesis statement is that, along with the rest of “Wings”, it more or less helps to situate the writer of the above words as fitting well within the wheelhouse of the Classical Romantic’s view of the Child, and of Childhood in general. Perhaps it’s a mistake to label her as any kind of disciple of Rousseau. Such an ideological approach seems a bridge too far, and Nesbit’s books are full of cautionary notes that are able to reign things in before egotism can get the better of her pre-teen protagonists. Instead, it makes better sense to see “Wings and the Child” as restating, in essence, the basic principles and ideas laid out by the combined poetry and essays of writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge. Rowling’s own connection to the literary practices of the latter poet have been noted here and there, in passing on this site.

    The interesting thing is what sort of picture you get when you combine all these elements of Rowling’s artistic mind, and then add in that final admission of ambivalence about childhood experiences. Both Coleridge and Nesbit were subscribers to the notion of childhood as a Golden Age. It’s a concept that resounds throughout some of the best Victorian children’s fantasy, a lot of which Rowling has gone on the record as saying she adores. Hence, the presence of a clashing dichotomy in the mind of the artist. She is aware of this Childhood notion of Victorian Romanticism, and yet her own experiences have left her with just a half-natural prejudice against it. At the same time, however, she has a clear and present love of such reading material. The author’s very public admission itself turns out to be the reveal of an interesting, and somewhat familiar sounding demonstration of the concept of the tension of opposites.

    To put it another way, it’s as if Ron and Hermione were holding another one of their quarrels in her own mind. This time, the subject of contention between the two aspects is the place and propriety of the Romantic notion of Childhood. Rowling thus seems aware of at least three aspects of the subject. On the one hand, her own experience has left her with a somewhat troubled take (whether necessary or otherwise) on the whole concept. At the same time, she can’t seem to stop loving writers like Nesbit. Finally, there is the input of her own literary acumen for her to contend with. The more artistic aspect of her mind (her Shed Self, if you will) can’t be blinded to the content within the artistry of her favorite art, nor does she seem willing to blind herself to all this. Instead, she appears willing to acknowledge the truth behind the web of words spun by both Nesbit and Coleridge, and hence struggling to come to terms with it. It might be interesting to know whether this inner, quarreling tension of opposites might find a way to arrive at some greater unity at some point in the future. Just two cents, for what it’s worth.

  2. Thank you Chris – as always your comments are very interesting. Lots of food for thought here!

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you for this and the post which followed!

    Do we know which – if any certain actual – editions ‘E. Nesbit’s Fairy Tales’ and ‘Tales’ by E. Nesbit were (and so, their contents)? Could they be rebound copies? (!)

    Is there any significance to JKR as it were ‘switching’ to ‘realistic’ Nesbit books from short (and at least some, if not all, ‘fairy’) tales, with nary a book such as The Wonderful Garden, The Magic City, The Enchanted Castle – or the perhaps best known ‘Psammead series’ – included?

    The Inklings-Nesbit dimension is also worth accenting – among other things, in how far is The Magician’s Nephew something like a sustained hommage? And, while the HPs were well launched by the time of its publication, do we know if JKR read Tolkien’s very Nesbit-y Roverandom on its appearance early in 1998? (It’s intriguing that Charles Williams quotes from The Story of the Amulet in his early Arthurian Commonplace Book – something he could not have read before the age of 19 or so – a nice testimony to the appeal of Nesbit to readers of all ages.)

    With respect to the nostalgic lens discussion, it’s notable that Nesbit, Lewis, and JKR have their children in exceedingly stressful situations of deadly danger, including spiritual danger. (Might we compare Frodo and Sam discussing life as lived and as appearing in a later story about it?)

  4. D.L. Dodds,

    As to the question of any known editions of “Tales” or “Fairy Tales” by E. Nesbit, it is just possible there might be at least two candidates available. Typing E. Nesbit in combination with the term “Fairy Tales” is able to bring up a Jan 1, 1977 edition of a collection by the author known simply as, well, just “Fairy Stories”. It was edited by a Naomi Lewis, with illustrations by Brian Robb. If the cover is anything to go by, then Mr. Robb looks as if he could be very good at copying the Olde Medieval wood cut style of drawing, like the kind you find in old manuscripts, maps, or even Tarot Cards.

    The second example brought up by the search engine is a Dover Publications reprint entitled “Fairy Tales for Young Readers”. A look at the contents of this work shows it to not be a collection of original stories. Instead, it is Nesbit’s assorted retellings of both the Grimm and Perrault folklore catalogues. I.e., “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, etc. It’s not much, and yet these two are the closest correspondents to the kind of tomes found on Rowling’s digital (and real?) shelves. Both books can be found here:

    https://www.amazon.com/Fairy-Stories-Nesbit/dp/051016000X

    https://store.doverpublications.com/0486789403.html

    As to any supposed significance, or evidence of “switching from fantastic to realistic”, I confess nothing of any real importance jumps out at me. None of this comes off as anything like a major shake-up when it comes to what she likes about Nesbit. “Railway” and “Treasure Seekers” are either the ones she likes best, or else just two of the author’s works that she happens to enjoy the most at the moment. There is nothing here that suggests she has switched likings, or that she undervalues Nesbit’s own knack for the Fantastic. If that were the case, then I doubt we’d be getting the latest batch of straight-up fantasy writings from the author. Come to think of it, if she was truly in a realistic frame of mind, then why even bother choosing a book like “The Faerie Queene” as the scaffolding for one of her novels?

    As for the “Nesbit-Inklings dimension”, I’ve got to admit it’s an aspect that just isn’t looked at with perhaps as much importance as it should be. There is a regrettable poverty of first-rate critical commentary on Edith’s stories in either academia, or on the student level. The best I recall was a Ms. Anna M. Blanche promising a master’s thesis on Nesbit in relation to Lewis, Rowling, and Mythopoeia in general. The net result: I haven’t heard, or been able to uncover a thing about it since.

    When it comes to Rowling’s Tolkien familiarity, I know she’s read him, and she also hasn’t bothered to help fill in the blanks. The best I can say with her possible familiarity with “Roverandom” is that it makes sense to treat it as a door that should allowed to remain open for the time being, and then just leave it at that. The one way to know for sure will be to wait for the book to release, and then compare and contrast notes from each book to see if they wind up matching on any significant level.

    That said, it is nice to know that CW both read and seemingly enjoyed Nesbit to the point where he was willing to quote her in an early exercise of the work closest to his heart. I’d argue that it is, also, just possible to read her life and career utilizing the same paradigm that Williams explores in “The English Poetic Mind”, for what it’s worth.

    Finally, there’s the whole “nostalgic lens discussion”. The real challenge here is that it’s almost too broad a subject to take in with a mere comment. For instance, there’s the question of using caution around words like ‘nostalgic lens’, with its possible negative, critical connotations. However, as it relates to the presentation of danger in fantasy literature, I really think all that comes down to no more than the demands of whatever drama happens to be necessary in order to make the story work. This appears to be something most writers have to discover as they go along, so far as I can tell. The trouble is that it always comes down to a sort of built-in gamble. You have to show your wares, and just hope you’ve done a good enough job. Think of how nervous Da Vinci must have been when unveiling the “Mona Lisa”, for instance.

    Aside from that, all three of the authors listed seem to be drawing on what might be called the archetypal child trope. It’s the one that holds that children can often have a stronger inner resilience that disenchanted adults often lack. It’s a part or detail of the Romantic belief that Nesbit appears to have subscribed to. It might also explain why they were willing to place their pre-teen protagonists in such challenging situations. If the child character really does have the inner strength necessary to survive, then its one of those cases where the old saw about being to face adversity, real or otherwise, really does appear to have an almost shocking amount of life left in it. Beyond that, the trope itself was so familiar by the middle of the 20th century, that Marcus Crouch wrote and entire book called “The Nesbit Tradition” which outlines the kind of paradigm Nesbit was able to setup for fictional children’s adventures, and how it was utilized by other authors through the years, including Tolkien and Lewis. It would be a mistake to say Rowling’s work doesn’t at least fit into the same mold.

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