Nabokov’s Pale Fire: Summary, Analysis, and Harry Potter Borrowings

Many previous posts have traced some of the influence of Vladimir Nabokov on the works of J.K. Rowling. In an attempt to supplement those posts, I will provide a summary of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, along with a brief interpretation. By tracing the plot elements of the book, I hope to demonstrate some of the common techniques of writing common to Nabokov and Rowling. I will conclude with a brief list of elements, whether of direct plot, symbol, or structure, that I see as borrowed by J.K. Rowling from Pale Fire.

A Summary of Pale Fire

Pale Fire is a work that actively discourages summary; in large part because how one presents the plot is very much a consequence of how one has interpreted the text as a whole. In its large scale structure it is a preface, a 999 line poem, and a few hundred pages of commentary “interpreting” said poem. Here a central text (the poem “Pale Fire”) acts as the narrative center of the book, in which the focus of the narrative is the interpretation of the poem. The poem is said to have been written by a man named John Shade who died shortly after composing the poem, leaving its interpretation, editing, and publication in the hands of his friend Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is the first-person narrator of the preface and commentary sections. The poem itself, as literally interpreted, appears to be a fairly poorly constructed autobiographical work. Kinbote, in his commentary, explains that the text is, counter to all appearances, really about the escape and exile of the king of a fantastic European country named Zembla after it underwent a democratic revolution, a set of events that Kinbote had imparted to Shade at the time of the writing of the poem. An agent of this revolution, Jacob Gradus, was sent to assassinate the exiled king. Gradus finally finds the exiled king of Zembla, who has taken on the name Charles Kinbote, and attempts to kill him. John Shade intervenes, dying by a bullet by which Gradus had attempted to kill Kinbote.


An Attempt at Interpretation

The key to the interpretation of the plot is in the meaningful naming of the characters. Gradus is Latin for degree, gradation, or shade. Gradus is Shade. Kinbote, a Zemblan (a species described as somehow not human), is a character of Shade’s invention, but a character of such power that he forms the muse of his creativity. “O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,” begins the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V. We are told that the title of the work, Pale Fire, is derived from Shakespeare. A reference to Timon of Athens is generally taken as the intended reference, but I think the Henry V opening is the key. The vision of Zembla provided by Kinbote is not within Shade’s ability as an artist to create, he has a Muse of Fire that cannot burn brightly in his work: a Pale Fire. He thus turns from the kingly art given to him by his muse to the democratic art provided in autobiography, turning from Kinbote to Gradus. (He can no longer produce art about something else, and so it must be about himself, c.f. the Formalist objection to biographical criticism and Lewis’s The Personal Heresy). Failing at his art, he (Gradus) kills himself (Shade) in defense of the muse (Kinbote) he might have developed. Kinbote, somehow living on beyond the death of his author, sanctifies the failed poem by supra-literal interpretation, giving it the grace it never could have had on its own.

Other posts have discussed the influence of many of these techniques—significant naming, textual interpretation as plot-core, intertextuality, ring-structure (beginning and ending with the death of Shade), the affirmation that autobiographical interpretation of a text only goes so far, etc.—within Rowling’s work and as influenced by Nabokov. The above summary, I hope, gives a taste of comparable elements in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, in an attempt to highlight the text as it reveals itself when interpreted using these techniques.

To this I will add the following list of small scale elements from the work that I believe may have had an influence on even minor details

1. The escape from Privet Drive in Deathly Hallows is prefigured in Pale Fire.

An account is given of the Kinbote’s escape after the overthrow of Zembla by Gradus and others:

“…Thus that northern king,

Whose desperate escape from prison was

brought off successfully only because

Some forty of his followers that night

Impersonated him and aped his flight.” (99)

Harry seemed to have been a strong muse/character in Rowling’s writing, a single burst of inspiration that produced an entire world. That Harry should manage an escape by means of a large portion of the main characters in that world transforming into him, in recognition that his creation was the source of their own, seems a fitting tribute to the analysis of the writer/muse relationship in Pale Fire.

  1. Alchemical Unity of Protagonist and Antagonist

Pale Fire builds to a confrontation in which Gradus faces Shade, killing him(self) so that the pale muse might be saved. A unity of opposites is brought into conflict so that they might be reconciled in the self-destruction by an evil that believes that it is different from the victim that it is killing. In Pale Fire, this expresses itself in a tragic mode, leaving Kinbote an alchemical orphan of the process (who is more an orphan than a character in search of an author), but one who can bring life to the Great Work of the poem. In a more positive aspect, the paleness of the Shade-ows of Plato’s Cave have mutually destroyed themselves, allowing the light of the sun to shine in.
           In the Harry Potter books, we see this in the mode of fairy-tale, in which evil is brought into contact with itself (Voldemort with Harry-Horcrux), and seeks to destroy itself: Death takes a mortal man and is vexed when it finds divinity. The core of the Alchemical process, unity of opposites, is brought into play as the force that destroys whatever would divide what should remain unified and whole by bringing it back into contact with itself.

3. Looking-Glass Land

A core aspect of Pale Fire is its descriptions of the land of Zembla and its people. They are not human (as is indicated by the anatomical descriptions of a character by the name of Fleur, a name-borrowing that has been pointed out in other posts), but they are very like human beings. Their language is very like a Slavic language without being one. In sum, they are reZemblances of the world we experience, a mirror in which is reflected our desires and creativity.

The connections in the Harry Potter books are numerous. Here is an other-world that resembles our own, yet is different, having its own language and customs. More directly, we see in the Mirror of Erised a direct use of a foreign sounding mirror-language related to a mirror that shows our desires. At the other side of the series we see the mirror that shows things that actually exist. Two sides of a Romantic epistemology show themselves here. Either what we desire and imagine, producing images and reZemblances, is merely ourselves reflected back at us, or we are in such attunement with the fundamental order of things that we see reality. Pale Fire presents this in the conflict between the readily-apparent interpretation of the poem “Pale Fire” and the utterly fantastic interpretation provided by Kinbote. Is Kinbote’s reading merely his projection of his desires onto the terrible poem of Shade, or is he drawing out the elements that are truly hidden in the text, showing the world of reZemblances to be somehow more real than the Shade-ows (Enter Puddleglum)? Shall we forever be lead astray by innumerable red herrings, or shall our knowledge be both real and inside our heads?

           I will conclude with one final suggestion. The image of mirror language is more associated with Lewis Carrol’s text than with Nabokov. Lewis Carrol’s works, however, derive much of their power from their mathematical foundation (e.g. the satire of Quaternion multiplication in the Mad Tea party, the endless references to Chess as inspired by the potency of logic problems derived from Chess, the geometric meaning of reflection, etc.), rather than from the use of mirror imagery and chess imagery within an Alchemical framework. Rowling seems, to me in any event, far more concerned with the symbolic/philosophical meaning of an image than with its mathematical satire. Nabokov’s use of the imagery of mirrors and of chess (Kinbote would have called his story Solus Rex, after a variety of Chess endgame, had it not otherwise been titled) was inspired in part by Carroll’s use, but was put to more symbolic purpose. It may be that we can infer that the influence of Carroll on Rowling is indirect rather than direct, translated through Nabokov.

One minor aspect that has led me to this suggestion is the displayed distance from Chess playing shown by Rowling in the series while clearly showing a desire to use Chess in a symbolic mode (as the alchemical Ludus Puerorum, or children’s game that reflects  the Alchemical Work, cf. Quidditch). Throughout the first book, the Rook is constantly referred to as a “castle”. To any reader who has played chess at any competitive level, this demonstrates a certain ignorance of the nomenclature of the game. Rowling subtly corrected this mistake in Deathly Hallows, in the scene in which Ron says that Xenophilius’s house looks like a Rook, to Hermione’s confusion. The symbolic, rather than mathematical, seems to be Rowling’s focus.


  1. Brian Basore says

    In reference to Nabokov’s use of Zembla as a place name, in his time Nova Zembla was a large uninhabited island on the Kara Sea in Russia’s Arctic Circle region. This according to the 1890 edition of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. (All Google comes up with now for Nova Zembla is an arctic island in Canada.) Under “Arctic Ocean” the 1890 EB says, “The most important of the numerous islands are Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla, with the multitudinous adjacent islets, to the north of Europe.”

    The island was well enough known that a N. Z. [Nova Zembla] Hurd is listed in an 1890 directory for Oklahoma Territory, in the U. S. A.

    I hope this pertains to the discussion.

  2. Steve Morrison says

    The island (technically an archipelago) is more commonly spelled Novaya Zemlya in our alphabet; you can get many more hits by searching for it under that name.

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this John – lots of food for thought. And I love the reZemble pun…!
    Given Rowling’s stated love of Nabokov I find these parallels (esp. the first) convincing – though I do think that Carroll is the direct ‘chess’ source for both Rowling and Nabokov (but that’s not to say there can’t be some cross-pollination too….).

Speak Your Mind