Tolkien and Rowling: A Case for “Text Only”

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 asksYour 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:

Do you have any sort of target audience when you write these books?

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!


  1. John wrote: “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.”

    No corrections here, John. You’ve nailed it. I can’t really say much in comment because this has essentially been my position, too, throughout all these questions over the nature of canon or authorial intent.

    I hate to think this might be true, but I get impression that there are some people who read more of Jo’s commentary on her works & place more value in them than they do in the actual books themselves!

    Again, if Jo’s word about the series is law & she can never be wrong when she speaks on the series, then the only proper way to read the books is to do so with her commentary in hand & constantly adjusting our views on the books based on what she has said. Even on the contradictory stuff! 🙂

    Great post, John. I look forward to listening to the podcast on this subject.

  2. Ms. Rowling’s comments are helpful if one takes them as a “look along” indicator, as you indicated in the Scriptorium podcast. (The podcast was worth listening to and lasted 35 minutes for those considering investing the time. See the link in the article below this one.) Outside of that, I agree that they are not especially valuable and for the Faulknerian reasons (remember her mis-attribution of fear to Ron, instead of Hermione?) as well as the dictum: “The author writes more than he/she knows.”

    The author’s conscious intent is certainly to be detected from the text. In a readership not accustomed to symbolic modes of writing, it is helpful to have the author delineate the levels of reading INTENDED in the work. Dante’s Letter to Can Grande della Scala is the preeminent example of the author outlining their intention(s). Indeed, when one reads Dorothy L. Sayers INTRODUCTION to the DIVINE COMEDY found in *HELL* and comes across the information there provided, one cannot but be immediately drawn to application to the HARRY POTTER series. This is because both are symbolic literature. There can be no way in which Ms Sayers intended her work to apply to HP or Rowling specifically as Sayers died in 1957. Nonetheless, as an author of a text, Sayers can shed a great deal of light on the proper interpretation(s) of symbolist literature. This is to give us a critical apparatus to look at the work under discussion (either Dante or Rowling) and to give us a mode of interpreting the work in light of the authorial intention. This allows us to rate the success of the author in achieving those intentions in either case: total success, failure, some modicum of success, or some degree of failure of realization of the intention(s).

    In the same mode, Rowling’s comments may give us some information of significance of her intention, some line-of-sight that we may have overlooked in our assessment, or bring us to the realization that she succeeded or failed in these areas. She is then acting as a guide to the potential meanings, just as Dante in his guide to his patron and dedicatee.
    Yet, there is more in the text, the sub-creation, than the author intends or knows!

    The reader must struggle with the text for it is here only that they encounter the incarnate reality of the work. The text is the author’s word spoken in creation of a sub-creation. In entering that sub-creation and being constrained by its determined existence, we suspend disbelief and give over our personal understanding of primary creation experience to encounter the intentional creative word. The effect of that word and creation is mediated by the energy of the sub-creation on the reader. (Here those who have read THE MIND OF THE MAKER by Sayers will recognize echoes of her use of the description of the artist/work/response as illustrative of the doctrine of the Trinity. Errors in application are strictly my own.)

    But in all creators save God, the word is not fully known, and thus the sub-creation carries more that realized, adumbrates other areas of life and experience and intent than the conscious, connects to the reader in modes not fully consciously or completely unconsciously intended. This is where the reality of the sub-creation reveals its fractal dimensions in serious readers. I am not here talking about mis-reading of the text – which can be deliberately done – but of discovering in the sub-creation more than the author was aware of putting there. The discerning reader may discover island, peninsulas, even entire continents of worthwhile terrain that the author was not aware of being revealed intentionally. Not merely in psychological terms, of course, but in spiritual terms, the sub-creator employs the matrix of their intentions, subconscious intentions, and unconscious intentions and the interplay of their vast being interacting with the being of the universe. (See the DEATHLY HALLOWS LECTURES discussion of logoi and logos and Logos.)

    In these matters the author has no greater insight than the reader and on re-reading their work may subsequently discover such realities exist. They are on the same par as any other reader in this discovery process for they did not intend consciously what they have found. Thus even an author can read profitably for instruction and delight (or dismay?!) what they have written unintentionally.

    IT is the TEXT with which we and the author have to do, whatsoever therein is found may useful for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness as regards the sub-creation and the intentions of the creator in the work. But the soap-bubble film of the ego overlies the contained subconscious and unconscious logoi of the author and the reader and interacts with the whole of the sub-creation. Thus deep may call out to deep and the sounds of many waters may astound author and reader.

    To give a minor example. When crafting a sermon for deliver as Lay Reader in my parish on the odd occasion when a priest was not available and I was in the Theological Formation Studies program in my diocesan School for Ministry, I labored long and hard to make the points I intended from the texts for the day. The 15 – 18 minutes sermon being delivered, I was gratified by the comments after on the INTENDED insights. But I was completely blown away when a parishioner remarked that the sermon was “Great! I came the nearest I ever have in understanding the Trinity during the sermon.” I went back and re-read what I had delivered from that line-of-sight and was gratified to find that the observation was justifiable though I HAD NO INTENTION of doing that whatsoever in the weeks of preparation leading to the sermon’s being written and delivered.
    Authors can learn from their readers that they have done other than what they imagined or intended to do. This is grace, a realized participation of differing logoi in the logos of the Universe and Logos of Ultimate Reality. And just as the chain runs from author to reader, it’s links are connected to and through that Reason by Whom and in Whom they live and move and have their being, revealing more than dared in the highest human dream.

  3. I tend to lean towards the ‘text only’ approach, but I think we are dealing with a bit of a special case here.

    We know that Ms. Rowling is planning the HP Encyclopedia, so it is easy to assume that many of her ideas expressed in interviews will eventually end up as text in that volume. Granted, she may change her mind between now and when she sits down to start writing, but the mere possibility of her ideas ending up as ‘text’ canon is very enticing.

    I think her ideas expressed in interviews and elsewhere outside of text should be taken with a grain of salt and treated with cautious optimism in regards to canon status. And of course, text always trumps speech, IMO.

    As an aside: this talk of canon has whet my appetite even further for the Beedle the Bard book later this year. Since we’re dealing with text, we’re looking at a brand new chunk of canon (I’m thinking of the Dumbledore commentary especially). Secondary canon, after the novels, but canon nonetheless.


  4. Red Rocker says

    A few random thoughts here.

    Although it does sound strange for an author not to know her genre, I can see where JKR is coming from when she says she didn’t know she was writing fantasy fiction until she threw the unicorns into the mix. I don’t think there is a single, agreed upon definition of fantasy. Korg2000 put up a post on the top 100 fantasy books at the Hog’s Head not too long ago, and some (many?) of the books which were on the list overlapped with gothic, horror, supernatural, magical realism and science fiction. Some examples: Dracula and A Clockwork Orange!

    Now my own idea of fantasy fiction is much closer to what someone has referred to as high fantasy, which I think means a completely realized alternate reality, a la Tolkien, or McKillip. The worlds created by JKR, Pullman and Lewis are more hybrids, set recognizably in our world but with varying degrees of magic. They are not prototypical fantasy.

    As for your main point, John, that JKR’s lack of reliability about if and when and how much she read Tolkien, I’m not sure that proves that we can’t put too much weight on her own interpretation of her works. I think that would be an overgeneralization. Of course human memory is flawed – except for those with photographic memories, we are more likely to remember what we thought about an event, than the event itself. So she’s going to remember what’s consistent with what she now thinks and believes. And given the amount of time over which she wrote the books, how she thought about her characters is bound to have changed. So what she thinks now isn’t necessarily what she thought 10 years ago. Maybe Dumbledore was a wise and benign mentor when she first wrote PS (possible, but not very likely!) And maybe she is retroactively pruning and grafting her memories to fit her current conceptualization. But if we could sift through all those thoughts and memories, we’d find a story which for me would be as fascinating as the story of the Boy who Lived: how the story changed over time in the mind of the author, how the characters evolved, how certain themes were emphasized at the expense of others, and even how some characters had to be put on the backburner after they had vastly outgrown the niche the author originally put them in.

  5. Red Rocker wrote: “But if we could sift through all those thoughts and memories, we’d find a story which for me would be as fascinating as the story of the Boy who Lived: how the story changed over time in the mind of the author, how the characters evolved, how certain themes were emphasized at the expense of others, and even how some characters had to be put on the backburner after they had vastly outgrown the niche the author originally put them in.”

    Now that would be a great book. It may or may not be helpful in interpreting the series but it would certainly be of value in itself, to see how the series developed in regard to all the points you mentioned. But again, could it truly ever happen? I’m not sure Jo could write such a book herself but someone else would have to do all the sifting through her works, her interviews et al & try to put together a coherent story of how the story came to be.

  6. Red Rocker says

    Continuing along the same line of thought:

    The thing that many people aren’t taking into consideration is that the story did change over time. From book to book, and from first draft to last draft of each book. I don’t know how many drafts JKR wrote of each book, but it would be truly fascinating to see how the story grew. In particular, I would really be interested in how her conceptualization of Dumbledore and Snape changed over time. Was Dumbledore always the Machiavellian schemer we ended up with? Was Snape always Dumbledore’s reluctant but staunch lieutenant? Was Sirius Black meant to die from the first time we heard about him? We know that Hagrid was always going to walk out of the Forest carrying Harry, and DUmbledore was always going to tell Harry that just because something was happening in his own mind didn’t mean it wasn’t real. But what else? Did Snape always love Lily? Did Dumbledore always love Grindelwald?

    Anyways, my point is that the things JKR tells us are all true – but were not necessarily always true.

  7. What JKR tells us is all true? I suppose you can say that in a post modern sort of way. Ergo, even the contradictory things she says are true. Even the things she says in regard to her own work where she doesn’t seem to remember what she actually wrote is also true. But is that sort of truth helpful?

    I think truth isn’t the most the helpful word to use in regard to studying how the story developed.

    Also, without starting an old argument, I’d say the word ‘love’ in regard to Dumbledore & Grindelwald isn’t the most helpful either. Love is so ambiguous & all encompassing in the English language. Should I describe the crush I had on a girl in 8th grade as love? Should someone who lusts after another person describe that as love? Technically they could all fall under the category of love. But there are some really important nuances. I’m perfectly happy to say that Dumbledore was infatuated with Grindelwald but love?

  8. Rocker, don’t get me wrong either. I agree in principle with what you’re saying. That is, it would be fascinating to see how the books developed, how things changed, how characters were handled.

    I’m just not sure the author, with a fallible memory, is the best person to ask. And by not the best person to ask, I mean, not the most objective person to ask. The author is too subsumed with their work. I’m not sure they can truly step outside of it to give us clear, unbiased answers of how they developed things.

    So, all I’m saying is we shouldn’t take everything an author says at face value.

    Here’s a little analogy. It’s not perfect but no analogy is.

    Say a lamp gets broken in your house while your son is playing in the room by himself. As you question him about what happened, his story keeps developing & changing. Now, are you going to accept everything he says, every time you question him as true? I’d say probably not because there are too many things that could be going on. Your son could be telling the truth the whole time & his story develops because he remembers new details about the incident that he had forgotten. Or he could develop his story because he can’t remember what actually happened & so his story develops because he’s offering what he thinks happened. He could be telling part of the truth, i.e. the cat broke the lamp, which might be true, but he omits that he was chasing the cat at the time. Or he could be flat out lying.

    So, not a perfect analogy but I think the point comes across. That is, whenever we hear a story, we ask questions of it, whether consciously or subconsciously. And those questions help process the story & make sense of it.

  9. Red Rocker says


    I agree that JKR isn’t the person to write that book. She’s too close to the process to see it objectively. She also has an understandable need to present the process as having only one predetermined end: the final product, or the canon, as we are so fond of saying. I have read about the concept of narratives: these are the internally consistent stories we make and tell about our lives to explain major themes, and how we came to be how we are. It seems there’s a natural human need to make the past make sense, to make it have meaning, even if it didn’t and it hasn’t. JKR’s own narrative about the HP stories would be to make it all consistent. If she were to try to write about the actual process, she’d have to fight against that tendency every step of the way.

    I suppose that story could be written by someone else without her co-operation, based on the books and the interviews. But that would still be based mainly on conjecture. It would be much more valuable if the writer had access to any notes and drafts, maybe e-mails and other correspondence, and to the memories of the author herself. It would have to be someone whom she trusted and respected absolutely.

    I’m not sure that JKR herself would be interested in someone doing this. I’m pretty sure that if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen. It’s too much like a magician showing how he performs his tricks, or an athlete showing clips of his failed attempts before getting to the highlight reel performance. As well, I suspect there are a lot of people out there for whom the canon is near-Biblical in its authenticity. The idea of first, second or even fifth drafts which looked very different might provoke too much of an existential crisis: What do you mean, there were originally only eight commandments?

  10. Red Rocker says

    revgeorge, you ask “Is that sort of truth (including contradictions and incorrect memories) helpful?”

    I am tempted to ask: what other kind of truth is there? Or rather, is there another road to the truth, except through those contradictions and incorrect memories? Can we get at the truth by looking at the canon? The canon is only the point at which JKR stopped revising and editing, driven (I’m guessing) more by a sense of impending deadline than actual satisfaction that she had done the best she could and pulled out the story she meant to tell. And as for John’s suggestion that some knowledge of English Literature can help us here, I’d have to say: that might give us some help understanding the general principles of how JKR developed her story, the structure and themes and archetypes and so on, but if only came down to that, then we’d be dealing with a pretty formulaic piece of fiction, wouldn’t we? I know that Bloom et al would be quick to agree, but we here don’t hold with that – do we?

    But I think I’ve strayed a bit from John’s original 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.

    In a previous life, I would have been the first to agree with what John is saying, arguing that the work speaks for itself. And I think we can certainly look at it like that, excluding any secondary sources, including the author herself. What I’m suggesting is that there is another way of looking at – and understanding – the work, as the product of a process that never stops – although it obviously slows down after publication – a process of conceptualization and crystallization and development and re-conceptualization. Of course it’s not just HP that this process describes. But HP is particularly open for this kind of analysis because it took place over many years, and had many chapters. To make things even more intriguing, the author was involved in a dialogue with her fans and this may have influenced the later books.

    Make no mistake, I am not a post-modernist to the extent that I see the final product as existing somewhere between the author and her readers. The process belongs to the author, the information age be damned. But I definitely see the canon as one of many possible end products, and would find the versions which were put aside very illuminating.

  11. Red Rocker, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you on this point. I just think we’re stating it in different ways. There is only one true way something happened. In my analogy above, there is only one way the lamp was broken.

    The problem we face is, can we reconstruct what happened, how the lamp got broken, with the evidence we have at hand. And part of that evidence would be the testimony of the child in the room at the time the lamp was broken. And that process of figuring out what happened involves sifting through the child’s story & comparing it with other evidence.

    So, I’m not saying don’t listen to anything the author says at all. All I’ve ever been saying is don’t take the author’s word at face value. But instead sift through her testimony as we would any other testimony.

    And here’s where this applies to the text of the work. Let’s say in formulating a theory about something that happened in the book, I come up with a certain position. But the author says she intended for that passage in the book to mean something completely different. Now, the question becomes, well, am I reading the passage correctly in accordance to how it was written? Am I misunderstanding what the author plainly said in the text? Or did the author fail in making her meaning clear? Did she originally mean for the text to say what I have postulated what it means but then she changed her intention but it somehow didn’t come off in the text? Is she misremembering what she intended or even what she wrote in that certain passage?

    Now, that a much more nuanced & harder way of reading the text & interacting with the author’s commentary than simply saying, “Ignore the author” or saying “Accept anything the author says.” But it gets us working on the process of trying to get as close to the truth of something as we possible can with the evidence at hand.

  12. Explaining stuff never written is laziness. Each time Jo Rowling explains something about the series she diminishes the books. I had a prof at Georgetown who banned the word “Shakespeare” from his classes on Shakespeare. We would be dismissed from the class if we made a statement – any statement – that used his name his name. We were forbidden from saying that name at any time while in his class.

    So we couldn’t say something like, “Shakespeare seems to be attempting to deal with the Oedipus Complex in this scene between Hamlet and his mother.” Shakespeare didn’t matter – what mattered was the text, that is what actually exists. Something living in someone’s head is unwritten and certainly not canon. It doesn’t “exist.” We were forced in the Shakespeare courses to talk about the characters, to make our case from the canon, not the author or what the author might and might not have thought. Who cares? What matters is the text. It’s interesting from a trivia point of view – but again it diminishes the work because it elevates the author to be the gatekeeper to the work. That means the work cannot stand on its own and that’s failure. So my prof couldn’t stand that – the work stands on its own. In a certain reality it exists, it’s alive. Each time the author or playright or composer has to interject himself or herself into the narrative to explain things basically becomes at best a sign of the weakness of the work and at worse an ego trip.

    I hope someone, somewhere who has influence in J.K. Rowling’s life will tell her to stop talking and start writing. It’s obvious that she has a whole lot more investment in Harry Potter and is not able or willing to let it go. Then she shouldn’t – she should sit down and keep writing.

    We’re waiting for the Scottish Book.


  13. Red Rocker says


    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you either. I think it’s very possible for JKR to misremember what she intended at the time, human memory being as reshapable as it is. I agree too that it’s possible she changed her intention but not the text. Or maybe she thought the text reflected her intention, but it didn’t clearly, at least not to the average reader. Remember, we too bring our biases into the reading. Or maybe she was deliberately left some ambiguity in the text, knowing what she meant by it, but not wanting to commit herself fully, for fear of the backlash. I think that Dumbledore’s sexual orientation and the subjective/objective reality of King’s Cross would fall under that category.

    So I agree. We can’t go 100% by what the author says. And we can’t 100% ignore it either.

    But I’d still love to sneak a peek at those original drafts and e-mails and notebooks which are filed away.

  14. Zoerose,

    Well, that’s certainly one way of dealing with the whole text/author debate. I’m fairly close to that position but not quite on board with it as fervently as your professor. But I can certainly understand his & your position. It is somewhat analogous to a painter who doesn’t just let you look at their painting but instead gives you a detailed description of what they were trying to get across. Why bother to paint the picture then; just tell us about what you mean.

    That being said, I don’t think the work is by necessity diminished by Jo’s statements. I also don’t think she’s doing it as an ego trip, although sometimes I wonder. Or at least I wonder about the people who hang on her every word. Leaky Cauldron I am looking in your direction. 🙂

    But you bring up another good point, one we’ve discussed as well. Can Jo go beyond Harry Potter? Is she able to let it go, as you say, & move on to other works? Right now, I’d say it doesn’t seem like it. Maybe once all the movies are done & the hype has truly started to die down. But not now.

    Anyway, I’m still hoping, along with Red Rocker I think, that one of her children in future will pull a Christopher Tolkien & release all her materials on HP.

  15. Red Rocker says


    I’m not sure how dismissing students from the classroom for using a word (well, a name) which is neither obscene nor hate-inciting helps promote learning nor greater understanding of anything. I can see how it would help the professor make his little corner of the world more sympathetic to his needs. But I’m kind of surprised that the administration allowed paying students to be treated like this. But perhaps they were only auditing the course?

    On the other hand, I’m pretty certain that using words such as and laziness to describe an author and his/her works would not promote greater understanding of those works. Quite the opposite, those words seem to push the work – and the author – away. Try it: JKR is a failure as an author because she could not – or would not – convey Dumbledore’s sexual orientation adequately in the books. She is now taking the lazy way out and telling us about it after the fact. The work is weak, but that doesn’t prevent her from going on an extended ego trip talking on and on about it when she should be writing.

    But the professor’s point, that the work exists out there and there is no need to know anything about the author’s intent in order to understand it, begs the question: did the work then write itself? I don’t disagree that a competently written story will stand on its own, but doesn’t knowing the author’s intent add something important? Right off the top of my head I think of Shakespeare’s sonnets and who they were addressed to: the fair youth and the dark lady. Does it not add to your understanding and appreciation to know that “”Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day” was written to the youth while the words “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    Is lust in action” were written to the dark lady?

    Beyond that, I don’t think that JKR’s post-publication comments are the same as the author “injecting” herself into the the narrative to explain things. Her comments are extra-textual – one need not listen unless one chooses. Quite different from books where the author grabs you by the metaphorical lapels and lectures at you for a couple of pages – or more. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. When I think of authors interjecting themselves into narratives, the first thing that comes to mind is the Grand Inquisitor aside from Brothers Karamozov One of the greatest pieces of writing in modern literature. And it literally has no actual place in the story. The story of Ivan and Dimitri and Alexie stops for God knows how many pages while we listen to a “supposal” about Christ visiting Seville during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. And yet it’s not an ego trip. And it’s certainly not weak.

  16. Good points, Rocker. You hit on some of the reasons why I’m not yet ready to dismiss anything having to do with the author in relation to understanding their work.

    Plus, I don’t think as a whole that comparing Shakespeare to JKR is really the best one to make. Plays & Sonnets are a different work than narrative fiction. I think one needs a little more help than just the work itself to sometimes understand what’s going on. Your example, Rocker, is spot on. One’s perception of the sonnets is different if one doesn’t know for whom Shakespeare was writing them.

    That being said, Zoerose’s professor did have somewhat of a point, even if the way he enforced it was rather arbitrary. There’s a fine line between someone saying, “This is what Shakespeare means to me” & “This is what Shakespeare means or seems to mean in this story.”

    I get the former in Bible classes all the time. “This is what this passage means to me.” Which might be nice for that person & even interesting for others to hear but it does absolutely nothing to help us understand what the passage actually means.

    BTW, has anyone actually gotten a chance to listen to John’s interview yet with John Mark Reynolds? I admit I’ve been quite behind on things this week & so haven’t gotten a chance.

  17. globalgirlk says

    So of course I realize that this conversation is technical but I’d just like to say that the books are more fun when the author does not insert his/her opinions/extra knowledge after the fact. It saves controversy and a lot of headaches.

  18. More good points, Red Rocker. I do hope you realize I’m mostly in agreement with you? 🙂

  19. Red Rocker says

    revgeorge, you just took away my best material. I was just going to go on a roll, and say how it would be helpful to know about the self-identification of the Tudors with the House of Lancaster to explain the hatchet job Shakespeare does on Richard III (he was sucking up to the Tudor on the throne). Well, if I can’t use Shakespeare, how about how it would be helpful to know of Oscar Wilde’s private life in order to better understand The Portrait of Dorian Grey or even more so The Ballad of Reading Goal? Or to know of Charles Dickens’ early life story to better understand Oliver Twist And speaking of Dickens, how about the little lectures he inserts all over the place about society, the law, governments, charitable instutions and so on, bringing his work as a social activist into his fiction? The very first line of A Tale of Two Cities – a marvellously constructed line – is nothing more than social commentary disguised as an introduction. And how about Victor Hugo, raging about the mutilation of babies in The Man who Laughs? And how about the end of Jane Eyre? Reader, I married him. ? The fourth wall is broken with a vengeance. Mind you, Puck did it first, about two-hundred and fifty years ago.

    My point? There are enough works of literature where the author inserts his opinions – and thus himself – directly into the story, breaking that fourth wall and telling us: this is what this means that to fault JKR for talking about what she meant in an interview which is not compulsary reading seems a little – misplaced.

  20. RR and RG,

    but Shakie and Hugo and Dickens did in their texts such that we can elucidate the commentary. No one interviewed them apart from the text to ascertain what the text means. One doesn’t divine this, one discovers it.

    JKR has done the same in matters of school and government and snogging et alia.

    Textus primus. Sola texta!

  21. LOTR:

    On July 10, 2000 in the Newsweek interview, JKR said regarding LOTR:

    “I read that when I was about 14.”

    Three months later, she said she read LOTR when she was 19.

    Q: Hello, I was wondering how much Tolkien inspired and influenced your writing?
    A: Hard to say. I didn’t read The Hobbit until after the first Harry book was written, though I read Lord of the Rings when I was nineteen. I think, setting aside the obvious fact that we both use myth and legend, that the similarities are fairly superficial. Tolkien created a whole new mythology, which I would never claim to have done. On the other hand, I think I have better jokes. Interview, October 16, 2000

    Five months after that, she said she read LOTR when she was about 20 but stressed that she only read it once:

    What do you think about Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”?
    JKR: I read it when I was about twenty I think and I liked it a lot, though I’ve never re-read it, which is revealing (usually with my favourite books I re-read them endlessly). But he created a whole mythology, an incredible achievement.
    BBC Online, March 12, 2001

    The UK hardcover edition of Sean Smith’s unauthorized biography was first published on December 31, 1999, and several paperback editions were released in the UK and US over the next two years. JKR’s Scholastic and Red Nose responses support Sean Smith’s contention that she read LOTR as a university student (age 19 or 20, which would be roughly 1985). So JKR herself confirmed in two interviews that she read LOTR while at university and apparently read the story from beginning to end. There is no way to verify the assertions of JKR’s ex-husband and ex-mother-in-law, but in the March 2001 BBC interview, JKR – without prompting from the reporter – wanted to make it clear that she never read LOTR more than once. Then, inexplicably, in the 2005 Time interview with Grossman, she seems to have claimed that she never finished LOTR.

    It’s safe to say that in 2001 she was aware of and unhappy about the claims made by her former husband and mother-in-law relative to LOTR. She explicitly denied the claims in 2001 without reference to the biography, and yet I find it strange that both Maria and Jorge were so precise in naming LOTR as a book that JKR brought with her to Portugal, always had with her, and could not put down. PS was published in July 1997 and Smith’s biography was coming off the presses seventeen months later, so Maria and Jorge must have been interviewed within the first year after the publication of PS, during a time when JKR was being compared to many fantasy authors (especially Lewis) and before there is any evidence that JKR had been asked about the influence of Tolkien on HP. Perhaps the resolution to the contradiction is that JKR did only read it from first to last page one time but consulted it often (the way I do with some books, rereading bits at a time but not the whole thing from beginning to end).

    I am no Tolken scholar, having read both The Hobbit and LOTR many years ago, reread LOTR when the Jackson movies were released, and scanned LOTR many times in the last few years while searching for specific passages. I certainly agree with JKR that wise old wizards, treasure-guarding dragons, elves, trolls, goblins, shape-shifters, magical abilities, castles and fortresses, etc., are so common to fantasy stories that any overlap relative to these broad categories is meaningless. However, I do believe JKR read LOTR very closely and that it influenced HP.

    Without even going into themes or plotlines, here is a quick pass over some correspondences between LOTR and HP that go beyond coincidence and that are not stock devices of the fantasy genre:

    LOTR: Butterbur (the owner of the Inn of the Prancing Pony)

    HP: Butterbeer (the favorite beverage of students at The Three Broomsticks)

    LOTR: Ringwraiths: The Black Riders are nine undead human kings clothed in black attire; their terrible cries cause terror, loss of bodily control and despair.

    HP: Dementors: Black-cloaked, soul-sucking fiends. The presence of a dementor causes characters to despair by making them relive their worst memories and sometimes causes loss of bodily control (as with Harry).

    LOTR: The effect of the Ring when Frodo wears it on a chain hung from his neck

    HP: The effect of wearing the locket on Harry, Hermione, and (especially) Ron

    LOTR: Wormtongue the traitor

    HP: Wormtail the traitor

    LOTR: Shelob, the giant killer spider. Frodo and Sam are tricked into Shelob’s lair and Frodo experiences a figurative death from the creature’s venom

    HP: Aragog, the giant killer spider, and CoS basilisk (Harry is tricked into the chamber and experiences a figurative death from the creature’s venom)

    LOTR: Mirror of Galadrial: a bowl that Galadrial fills with a silver pitcher from a silver stream; characters are allowed to see events in the surface of the water. Galadrial is able to command the mirror to let characters see events they desire and is able to allow the mirror to work unbidden to show characters events that have happened, are happening, or may happen.

    HP: The Mirror of Erised, showing what the characters’ desire, and Pensieve, a bowl in which characters are allowed to view events from the past after removing silvery memories from their minds.

    LOTR: Old Man Willow, the sinister willow tree that swallowed up Merry and Pippin in its cracks (they were ejected when Tom Bombadil’s sang to the tree) and used its roots to push sleeping Frodo into the river

    HP: Whomping Willow, the sinister willow that bashes any character who gets near it unless they activate the freezing knot

    Sauron: He couldn’t be killed because he had transferred too much of himself into the One Ring. Only by destroying the Ring could Sauron be destroyed. The One Ring answered to Sauron, and exhibited semi-sentience in trying to return to Sauron.

    Voldemort: He couldn’t be killed because he had transferred parts of his soul to various objects (Horcruxes). Only by destroying the Horcruxes could Voldemort be destroyed. The soul piece within each Horcrux exhibited semi-sentience in trying to “protect” Voldemort by destroying or overcoming any character attempting to destroy the Horcrux.

    And there are HP echoes of uncommon word choices of the sort that Tolkien was very fond of. The word “hallows” shows up in LOTR when Gandalf refers to the houses of the dead as the Hallows. That’s not a parallel in kind, but the word hallows is highly unusual and there is a “death” connection. In HP we have Healers, and in LOTR, we have Houses of Healing.

    These correspondences indicate a closer reading of LOTR than JKR wants to acknowledge. According to newspaper biographies written early on, JKR went to Portugal in early 1991 with a box of HP story notes. She lived alone with Maria Ines for eight months while Jorge was away for mandatory military service, and when he returned, she and Jorge lived together for over a year before she returned to the UK in late 1993 with the first three chapters of PS written. So she was creating and writing the story when living with her mother-in-law and/or husband, not just making preliminary notes.

    She was writing an ambitious fantasy story, a genre she had apparently limited exposure to as a reader and no experience with as a writer, so it wouldn’t surprise me if before leaving the UK, she grabbed a copy of one of the best-written and most ambitious examples of the genre, LOTR, to examine for setting, structure, plotting, pacing, themes, characterization, etc., and in the process of writing her own fantasy story, wove in ideas that LOTR directly inspired. There would be no shame in her paying close attention to what Tolkien did in LOTR. What I find perplexing are her repeated attempts to dismiss LOTR as an influence.

    So after all that, back to John’s question: “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 coment 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.”

    I agree with “not very much.” I will still read any comments she offers on the series, but I don’t believe she’s a reliable commentator on her own story and she seems overly touchy about identifying literary influences except in the broadest categories (e.g., mythology and folklore) or when the works are in the public domain because the authors are long-dead (Macbeth, The Iliad, The Pardoner’s Tale, Emma, the Bible). Maybe part of the answer to the LOTR obfuscation is that she is fearful of acknowledging the direct influence of any work that is still under copyright protection.



    JKR’s references to CS Lewis and Narnia changed abruptly from what she said between 1997-2001 to what she said in 2005. In her earliest interviews, she strongly gives the impression that she deeply loves the Narnia books, having joyously read them as a child (even many times) and then again as an adult. Then suddenly in her 2005 interviews, she backed away from them, claimed not to have read all of them, and as John pointed out, particularly criticized the content of the final book while simultaneously claiming never to have read it.

    “Rowling read and loved [Kes] as a child, but she also revelled in [Narnia] and [Ballet Shoes] and Paul Gallico. Yet she says that fantasy doesn’t greatly appeal to her.”
    Electronic Telegraph, 2 August 1997

    “[Rowling] loved C. S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, but was not such a fan of Roald Dahl. As for the Enid Blyton books, Rowling says she read them all, but was never tempted to go back to them, whereas she would read and re-read Lewis. “Even now, if I was in a room with one of the Narnia books I would pick it up like a shot and re-read it.””
    Electronic Telegraph, 25 July 1998

    “Fantasy is not my favourite genre. Although I love C. S. Lewis, I have a problem with his imitators.” At 33, Rowling 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) along with other childhood favourites, E. Nesbit, Paul Gallico and Noel Streatfield.
    The Australian, 7 November 1998

    Q. Did you read the Narnia books when you were a child?
    A. Yes I did and I liked them though all the Christian symbolism utterly escaped me it was only when I re-read them later in life that it struck me forcibly.
    Comic Relief, March 2001

    “I found myself thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia [in the CS Lewis series including The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe] when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at a barrier in Kings Cross Station – it dissolves and he’s on platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and there’s the train for Hogwarts.

    Narnia is literally a different world, whereas in the Harry books you go into a world within a world that you can see if you happen to belong. A lot of the humour comes from collisions between the magic and the everyday worlds. Generally there isn’t much humour in the Narnia books, although I adored them when I was a child. I got so caught up I didn’t think CS Lewis was especially preachy. Reading them now I find that his subliminal message isn’t very subliminal at all.”
    Sydney Morning Herald, October 28, 2001

    “I actually didn’t read a lot of fantasy, funnily enough, and although I did read the Narnia books but I never finished the series, I never read the final book and I still haven’t read it.” ITV, 16 July 2005

    “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.”
    Time Magazine, 17 July, 2005

    Is it possible that she was swept up in a wave of anti-Narnia sentiment? I can’t help but notice that her criticism of the Susan/Stable passage mimics what other writers, especially Philip Pullman, were saying in US and UK newspapers, criticism that peaked around the LWW movie release in 2005.

    In a late 2001 article in The Atlantic, Gregg Easterbrook wrote about the anti-Narnia fad and the problematic Susan/Stable passage: “Recently Pullman cited the Susan passage in denouncing the Narnia books to a reporter for The Washington Post, saying that for Lewis, a girl’s achieving sexual maturity was “so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell.””
    “In Defense of C. S. Lewis,” The Atlantic, October 2001

    The Washington Post article is no longer free, so I couldn’t pull it up. But shortly after the article in The Atlantic, Pullman agreed to be interviewed by Surefish, website run by the UK charity Christian Aid.

    A dark agenda? Interview with Philip Pullman, November 2002. Pullman said:

    “The stable obviously represents salvation. They’re going to heaven, they’re going to be saved. But Susan isn’t allowed into the stable, and the reason given is that she’s growing up. She’s become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: ‘She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’ This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here’s a child whose body is changing and who’s naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings. She’s doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.”

    Lev Grossman was onboard with this sentiment when he wrote the Time article in 2005 and apparently so was JKR. It’s absurd to hear her, after years of claiming to have read and reread the Narnia stories both as a child and adult, state that she never read the final book even while agreeing with Pullman, et al. about the content of the final book. Maybe she became self-conscious about effusively praising the Narnia books for so many years, so she felt she needed to redeem herself among politically-correct writers and critics by “realizing” that she hadn’t read that awful last book after all. And if she truly hadn’t read the last book despite all those rereads over the years, I’d have more respect for her if she had taken the time to read the last book, considered carefully what Lewis was saying, and given the public a real-life demonstration of how to read a book intelligently.

  22. Red Rocker says


    No worries. We have been mostly in agreement for a while now. It’s just that sometimes I enjoy overstating my case if I can think of some really good examples.

  23. Excellent work, Felicity. I think I speak for all the All-Pros in saying “Thank you.”

    Again, when it comes to influence, there are good reasons for disregarding the author and sticking with the text. Felicity’s parallel columns of LOTR/Harry tell us much more than Ms. Rowling’s back-and-forth about when she read LOTR and how seriously she read it (if she finished it…) or her biographers and in-laws. Thank you for this argument that is as close to a demonstration as we will get that “text first” with some knowledge of English literature and the context in which the author works is a more dependable, surer point of reference than the author’s extra-textual spin.

    And, about the “I am not a fantasy writer and don’t enjoy fantasy” talk, I can put up a similar set of parallel columns for Little White Horse/Harry. The borrowing isn’t anything to be embarrassed by or to fear copyright suits; the spin and denial, on the other hand, leaves me scratching my head. I’m afraid we have to take seriously Felicity’s suggestion that Ms. Rowling’s denial of evident influence and the details of her previous interview comments reflects her insecurities as a writer or fear of being pigeon holed with folks she’s rather not have tea with.

    She’s a brilliantly gifted and accomplished writer; I can say without blushing there are few who have argued for as long a time and with as many different arguments as I have to establish the need to take Ms. Rowling seriously as an author and artist. I have been accused of not being able to say a negative word about her, in fact. I don’t think acknowledging she is human or that she has contradicted herself is being “negative” (though my comments in 2005 about the Grossman interview, pointing out its departures from all previous interviews, meant hearing from Fandom that I thought Ms. Rowling was a liar…). For whatever reasons, authors in general and Ms. Rowling as one member of that tribe simply should not be considered the sure source for learning either what they meant in their writing (cf., the Apology of Socrates) or what influenced their work. Let their books tell those with ears to hear what the texts will.

  24. Another excellent analysis, Felicity & also good follow up comments, John.

    All that being said, I will firmly hold to textus primus but I’m still not quite willing to go with sola texta. Holy Scripture’s the only place I’ll hold that view. But with human authors, textus primus is a fine & reasonable approach.

    Maybe I’ll change my mind once I get through the podcast with John & John Mark Reynolds but I’m only halfway through now. 🙂

  25. I go back to my original point: just because JKR’s memories about if, when and how many times she read LOTR are inaccurate and contradictory does not mean that her interpretation of her own work is to be put aside. How does one follow the other? Is it that JKR – like all people – is not an objective historian of how her thinking evolved? Of course she’s not. No one ever said she was, did they?

    But my point to revgeorge, earlier, is that there are no sure sources when it comes to understanding what a book means. There is a preferred source, i.e. the text itself, but even that is not a sure source, because the text we see may have had multiple antecedents (and how about those notebooks stored in a vault in the Bank of England somewhere?) And beyond that, there are the sources critics have always relied on: letters (and e-mails) and recollections of friends and relatives.

    Does that mean that we throw up our hands in despair and conclude that there can be no single, definitive interpretation? Does that mean that a book means whatever you think it means? I don’t think so. I think we could generate several hypothesis, backed by canon and collateral evidence, including the author’s own thought. For me what the author thought about her work would be pretty important, although I would retain the right to conclude how successful she had been in bringing out that interpretation in the text.

  26. Red Rocker,

    Go here and take a look at the 5th comment which is Felicity’s comment on the accuracy of JKR’s memory in regard to the veil.

    JKR and Faulkner have much in common in regard to memory function and she has been writing over 17 years. She may well unintentionally and inadverdently and erroneously remember what she wrote at the time of the interview(s). Felicity does a marvelous job of demonstrating in this one particular incident just such a recollection.

    The Professor and I have debated whether or not interview comments about Dorothy L Sayers are an error or mis-remembering on JKR’s part as well here

    The point to be taken is that the text is what we have to work with and what JKR has to work with now that it is published (short of revised versions being released).

    The LOTR and HOBBIT memory kerfuffle with various interviews merely highlights the problem and illustrates it very well – as noted above.

    Therefore, we and JKR are limited by the text of the HP canon as it is printed regardless of what we wished it meant or had been said or had been understood as the back story by the reader or the author. We only have the text to work with. And JKR is stuck with it as well. It limits her much more than us because she does have the roads not taken and back story to interfere with her memory. She has considered for 17 years. And in the heat of interviewing may easily slip into an intention she did not use in the text as published. That does not change the text.

    I write this as a 4 decade Tolkien fan and devourer of LETTERS and the HOME and everything Tolkien. But when I engage in conversation on various blogs about Tolkien and the HOBBIT I can discuss the original Gollum story and the edited Gollum story because the author changed it in the final publication edition to harmonize it with LOTR. Certainly that constitutes canon. The author published it. But in all the intervening years the original HOBBIT story was canon and subject to questions regarding it which led to the revision. Tolkien had to live with what he wrote until he revised it.

    And all the back story in the world does not change the LOTR as published. Not even the HOME. Now, if a heretofore unpublished final revision of LOTR was suddenly “found” and printed, it would undergo a deconstruction like that of protons hurled around the collider to impact into elementary particles! But it – should it exist – does not change the text of LOTR with which we have to do.

    Authors comments may direct our look-along line of sight but they do not change the text.

  27. Here is my summary of the four canon positions I see in this discussion. Take it as you will either as a summary for clarification and renewed discussion or as a conclusion to move on to new subjects with this as a point of reference for how we look at subjects:

    Omnia Scripta (“everything having been written”): This is the Fandom consensus position most clearly championed by the Harry Potter Lexicon fan site. In brief, everything written by Ms. Rowling herself or said in interviews and published in any fashion, from her books to the playing cards and Hogwarts newspapers, constitutes the canon. The only things excluded from this inclusive position are the WB movies and the future theme park in which Ms. Rowling had a consulting part and perhaps even veto power but was not the exclusive creative power.

    Libri scripti soli (“only the books having been written”): The exclusive position, sometimes called “text only” or “sola scripta,” restricts literary canon to those books published by Bloomsbury and Scholastic in English or those same books having been corrected (i.e., the Goblet wand-ghosts procession sequence mistake and its correction). Championed by John Mark Reynolds of Biola University/THI, the scripti soli position is the Great Books and traditional view that the finished work, be it a book or piece of art or staged drama, constitutes a closed text to be understood in itself. There are legitimate studies that can be made of “what the author thought” but this not the same thing as “what a text means.” For the latter work, the books alone are not only sufficient but definitive and any author’s addenda irrelevant.

    Textus primus (“text first”): A compromise position between the inclusive and exclusive canon spectrum positions defined above, “text first” is the Hogwarts Professor’s line, which is to say “John Granger’s” not everyone who posts at this site. It accepts the published set of seven Harry Potter books with ancillary textbooks as primary and largely definitive as fixed canon; it allows, however, for Ms. Rowling, as the first among equal serious readers, to offer her peculiar insights to the interpretation of her work. As discussed in the Granger/Reynolds podCast on the subject of canon, if the author says a passage is “the key” that unlocks the meaning of the novels, it will be given appropriate consideration, but not accepted as necessarily true or even more than “what the author thinks.”

    Historia scripta (“the searching or history of the works having been written”): This view, championed here by RedRocker and I think the one taken by Dr. Sturgis as well, is to embrace and accept the historical continuum of the written work as understood and presented by the author. This is, I think, in imitation of culture studies contextual and evolving understanding of the meaning of text, and, more specifically, of the exegesis opf Tolkien’s LOTR in light of his drafts, of that work, his letters, etc. This is not a relativist “there is no meaning” position but one that acknowledges that canon and meaning are not static categories but ones that change and expand or contract with a historical understanding of the author and his or her work from conception to completion (which I assume will only happen at the Parousia).

    Your comments and correction, please.

  28. Note as an aside: About the bitterness between Ms. Rowling and her ex-husband, this quotation cited in another HogPro post about his influence on Philosopher’s Stone

    Earlier this year [2000], for instance, Britain’s tabloids tracked down her ex-husband, a Portuguese journalist named Jorge Arantes with whom she had a brief marriage in the early 1990’s. Ms. Rowling has brought up their daughter, Jessica, single-handed. But suggestions that her ex-husband may have helped in the creation of Harry Potter rankle with her. “He had about as much input into Harry Potter as I had into ‘A Tale of Two Cities’,” she said tartly.

    No love lost there. As Smith’s unauthorized biography with the ex-husband’s and mother-in-law’s comments about the LOTR influence was published in 1999, I think we may have to assume her LOTR/Tolkien disavowals exist in the emotional context of an author wanting to deny any part of her success with specific former associates or even with those whom people she once lived with say influenced her.

    Given Leavis’ comments re Austen that we understand many authors only through the lens of those their works have influenced, she may be giving the man more more credit than she intended. She certainly had no influence on how TOTC was written; she almost as certainly, I think, will influence how Generation Hex understands Dickens and Shakespeare.

  29. Arabella Figg says

    What an interesting discussion. Thanks for the great summation, John. This reminds me of arguments over Scripture and interpretations thereof, from the church fathers to today. Of course, we don’t have the Author to consult directly (although some think they do! Christian bookstores are glutted with their books).

    Felicity, you can get free access to that Washington Post article through your library database, if your library subscribes to this publication. As our Spokane district system does, yours likely does as well. If I’d had a date for the article and a title, I could have found it for you. I did find two Pullman articles, but no Last Battle/Susan discussion.

    I encourage All-Pros to make good use of their library databases for accessing publication material now only available for a fee.

    I have my own thoughts on the Susan thing, but feel it would be off-subject here.

    Kitties care for neither lipstick or growing up…

  30. Red Rocker says

    inked, I did go back and read Felicity’s comments about what JKR remembered had happened at the veil vs. what JKR had written had happened at the veil. Fascinating stuff. My first thought was: Rashomon and the Rashomon effect, based on the movie of the same name, which Wikipedia defines as:

    the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.

    Except that in this case it’s the same observer, who happens to be the writer, commenting at two different point in time.

    What is particularly fascinating to me is that JKR remembers Ron as being frightened of the veil. But in OotP he is clearly not the frightened one: Hermione is.

    So what are we to make of this inconsistency over time?

    My first thought is that JKR wanted someone to be the solid, stolid unaffected one, and someone to be terribly frightened. She picked Ron and Hermione respectively – for reasons we can only conjecture about. But Ron and Hermione are very closely associated in the story and, I suspect, JKR’s. Over time, she forgot which had been assigned which role, and then assumed it had been Ron because it “fit” his character better to be afraid of the unknown.

    What this says to me is that JKR’s original decision about which of the two would be scared and which one unaffected was not very strongly determined. She could have gone either way. Other decisions about that episode, on the other hand, were more strongly determined: Luna was obviously at ease with the veil. And Harry, with one foot always on the other side, was obviously going to be strongly attracted.

    This is where I’m going with this: the scene could have been written many different ways, in order to make the point: this is death, from which there is no return; it draws Harry because of what – or rather who – waits on the other side. And just to sweeten the pot, let’s just add S. Black to the ones who wait on the other side.

    This goes back to a point I made a while ago: there are things in the books which are central, or core, and can not be different, and there are things which are of secondary importance. For sure it’s all canon. But to misspeak Orwell, all canon is canonical, but some canon is more canonical than other canon.

    But enough from me on this. John: I like your analysis of the four positions, and yes, you’re right: put me under Historia scripta

  31. Before someone asks me, RedRocker, could you distinguish Historia Scripta from Omnia Scripta?

  32. John,

    I’m just basing my understanding on your definitions of the four positions. To be honest, I’d never heard of the positions referred in that way before this discussion.

    This is how I understand it, which is not to say that it’s the only way.

    Omnia Scripta assumes that there is a canon, and that everything the author writes or says is canon. There is no evolving process, rather there is a growing list, which can result in contradictions (e.g. JKR wrote that Ron was indifferent to the veil and later JKR thought that Ron was scared of the veil). There is no synthesis or resolution of contradictory positions, just: on the one hand … but on the other hand …

    Historia Scripta, on the other hand, accepts everything the author writes or says as part of an evolving canon – exactly as you said – and sees the inconsistencies as different ways of looking at the same evolving construct, whether at different point in time, or from different perspectives. Thus: two characters shared the task of being scared and indifferent at the veil, and over time the responsibilities shifted It’s sort of like Hegel’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis thing. Wikipedia defines synthesis as:

    The synthesis solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths, and forming a new proposition

    which is where I’ve been going with this all along: I think that by taking JKR’s various and sometimes contradictory pronouncements and drafts, as well as the final version, we can arrive at a better idea of what it all means.

    But this is just my understanding of it. There are probably many much clearer ones.

  33. That is how I understood the two positions, though I doubt I could have put it as succinctly as you did, but I wanted (1) to be sure we were on the same page and (2) that this distinction was made because, of the four positions, I think these two were the most likely to be confused (HPL canon lawyers claiming to be Historia Scripta adepts, most likely). Your distinction was very helpful on both counts and I’m grateful.

    Now I await your feedback on my Penn ‘Fruits of Solitude’ post, an exercise in ‘textus primus’ interpretation (with a whole lot of author interviews…).

  34. RR, the problem is that JKR is stuck with the text – all millions of copies of it. Her memory is not so stuck, of course. She erred. Plain and simple. However, the text remains.

    I had a beautiful phenomenology worked out on the basis of what I understood at the time about the tryptich of Ron/Hermione/Harry as Body/Mind/Heart-Spirit which I elucidated based on JKR’s comments. Felicity blew that out of the water with THE TEXT. So, I had to go rethink the whole enchilada. That nasty old text made my thinking about the story as told erroneous.

    Now, Ron the Body would not be afraid of death because the Body as our animal component because it is entirely in the present moment and has no fear of the future. It makes consistent sense that Hermione the Mind, able to anticipate the future and death would be afraid of the consequences – caught as she is in the humanly comprehensible rational – here imaging the cultural fear of death that so characterized Western postEnlightenment mindset. That Harry the Heart-Spirit synthesises the animal and the rational in a supranatural understanding that is greater than the sum of the amphibious nature of being human. Luna leans more toward Harry and the others more toward Ron in general as they are oriented towards either body/mind/spirit.

    The text, as a fixed reference point, the historical sense if you will, is what allows and anchors the moral, psychological and spiritual understandings of the event, no matter what errors the author may subsequently make in memory or interpretation. Readers may therefore enter into the imaginative and consistent world the author has subcreated and by which ALL are constrained.

    If we loose the meaning from the text by allowing the author to postmodern it without constraint, there is effectively no common locus on which we can stand and from which we can contemplate. All becomes subjective, granting the prima subjectiva to be the author who may daily or hourly change her subcreation. This is chaos. No one, not even the author, is able to obtain an intended or planned meaning because of the effect of changing “reality” to suit the whim of the creator at any given moment. This subverts the entire project and renders meaning meaningless.

    Parallel thoughts from Tolkien would be his comments on the nature of Fairy stories in the Charles Williams Festscrift and Lewis’ comments about the necessity of rules to allow one to chess – illustrated at the end of The Great Divorce. In short, for Creation to be consistent, God must abide by His rules, and in the subcreation, so must the subcreator. Else nothing is knowable. The text is the rule worked out under its necessary consequences. For an author to have planned as long as JKR and to have worked out the consequences of her rule for 17 years over seven tomes, one must accord the finished product the status of finished. Unless she revises it in published form.

    Errors of memory there may be, but they do not change the text which is a with which we and she (in this case) have to do.

  35. Red Rocker says

    Just wanted to add a final note.

    Back when I was an idealistic student, I became acquainted with Aristotle’s proposition of either-or and it’s corollaries:

    the law of excluded middle: either A or not-A; a thing is either something or not that thing, no third option

    and the law of contradiction: not both A and not-A; a thing cannot be both true and not true in the same instant

    Hegel (whom I rather freely quoted above) disagreed with Aristotle, saying:

    Law of excluded middle is inaccurate because a thing can be both itself and many others

    Law of non-contradiction is inaccurate because everything in existence is both itself and not itself

    (All quotes from Wikipedia)

    Now I believe myself to be an Aristotelian, firmly holding to either-or, but have made a very Hegelian arguement, and thus need to justify my own inconsistency.

    I believe either-or accurately describes objective reality. Thus when we’re looking at objective reality, what JKR wrote and said and when (which Felicity has done such an admirable job of documenting) there is a clear truth: the author wrote that Ron was not afraid, but Hermione was; she later said Ron was afraid. She contradicted herself because both those things can’t be true.

    But I don’t think either-or describes fictional reality, unless one ascribes to the libri scripti soli, but not even then, because the original canon may itself contain contradictions.

    But Aristotle and Hegel are not my areas of competence, and I’m not really sure about where to go with this. I just wanted to point out that there are logical ramifications to the different approaches to interpretation that we need to be aware of.

  36. After reading the discussion here & finally listening to all of John’s appearance on John Mark Reynolds’ podcast, I think we have come to a fairly good definition of the four main ways of looking at canon & also for the studying of the books but also the phenomenon of Harry Potter.

    I think to some extent we’re trying to set different ways of viewing canon against each other. Each of them seems to have their own proper place. I think the first view, Omnia Scripta, is least helpful in a serious study of the works but has unfortunately become the standard view of canon in the mainstream of fandom.

    For scholarly study of the works themselves & their themes et al Libri Scripti Soli & Textus Primus are the most helpful & the most well grounded in the sense that they locate themselves most directly on the examination of what is actually written & publicly available to all.

    Historia Scripta though seems to be most helpful in connecting the books together with the phenomena of the HP series & its development. To best do that one needs to be able to looks along with the author as best as possible. Listening to what John & John Mark Reynolds & Red Rocker have said about this view of canon, it doesn’t seem to be a view in which one can make up whatever meaning one wants out of the books & author statements. So, I’m not sure your criticism of it, Inked, is valid. Certainly Historia Scripta could be run that way but that’s a failure of the people using it & not a failure of that canonical view.

  37. Guybrush_threepwood says

    IF Rowling seems a little entusiastic about Narnia in the beginning and later a little pessimistic-we have to remember that this was the same attitde that J.R.R. Tolkien took with the George Macdonald books. Once upon a time he would say….””The fairy story may be made a vehicle of Mystery. That at least is what George MacDonald attempted, achieving stories of power and beauty when he succeeded.” Then later on in life he was asked by a publisher to write an introductory to a reissue of one of Macdonalds books. After re-reading that certain story Tolkien said (and I’m quoting this from memory) that he couldn’t stand Macdonald.


  38. The Tales as extensions are not really that bad a thing, as nothing in them should affect the actual canon of the 7 books. Now, Dumbledore’s (read Jo’s) commentary on the Tales, that’s another matter. I would not put it on the level of canon in the sense of it being used to somehow interpret the 7 main books.

    As for the Scottish Book & similar things, well, I’m torn. In such things like storyline extensions of the 7 books, I think we can perhaps ascribe some canonicity. I’m thinking of things like Neville marrying Hannah Abbott or Cho marrying a Muggle. These are things that extend the storyline past the 7 books but they don’t actually affect the reading & understanding of the books themselves.

    But the things in which Jo attempts to share her intended meaning of something in the 7 books is clearly something that should be dealt with as non-canonically. Not ignored necessarily but also not given some sort of divine weight, for many of the reasons we’ve discussed before.

    Another question, & I have no idea of the answer, but how do Tolkien scholars view the material that has been released by Christopher Tolkien, the oodles of volumes detailing the back story of how Tolkien wrote LOTR? Canon, non-canon, somewhere in between?

  39. Follow-Up question to Eric G’s comments above:

    How are we to think of ‘Tales of Beedle the Bard’? The Scottish Book/Potter Silmarillion?


    Secondary Canon? (Eric G’s term, undefined)

    Interview level “sighting material”?

    I lean to the last level but I am confident Fandom will consider the Encyclopedia as superior to the seven texts and ‘Tales’ as extensions like the schoolbooks.

    Your thoughts?

  40. Lord love you, RevGeorge, they do what we are doing here! Argue about it and champion their view in the process and their final product!

    Thank you for very hearty laugh thoroughly well intended, I assure you!

    For insight into that process on the internet, check out and There are tons of published literary analyses that deal with this in Tolkien.


  41. Thanks for the info, inked. I just wasn’t sure, not having really followed any of the material that has been released by Christopher Tolkien. I think I still have Unfinished Tales but haven’t read it for quite some time.

    I think the golden day of Tolkien discussion has passed me by, though. I was big into trying to pursue that back in the ’80’s & early ’90’s. But those were the Dark Ages, before the coming of the Internet.

    Nice to know, though, that the Tolkien scholars & debaters are just as intense as we Harry Potter ones. Just goes to show that Tolkien still has some legs in this day & age. 😉

    And who would’ve thought that some of the greatest & most read fantasy/classical literature of our day would’ve been written by two stuffy English professors, Tolkien & Lewis, & one English/Scottish lady trained in the classics!

  42. I’m working under the impression that if Jo is writing in the voice of a character (e.g. Dumbledore’s commentary), then it would have to be considered canon, at least in some form; maybe not considered as highly as the novels, but still canon, hence: secondary, i.e. always will be trumped by the primary canon (the novels).

    John, you bring up an interesting point that the Scottish book could be considered superior canonically to even the novels. Since a lot of what we know from the novels is usually filtered through the perspective of character, and oftentimes a character that is very much in-the-dark about what is really going on around them (Harry), would not the version of events straight from the author, unfiltered by a character’s perspective, in fact be more accurate?

    OK, now am I contradicting myself from earlier saying that Jo writing through a character’s voice is some form of canon?

    Curiouser and curiouser….

  43. @revgeorge

    In light of the fact the Jo has said the Bard Tales are a distillation of the themes in the novels, wouldn’t it be natural to assume that the Tales are a lens though which we can view the novels, and therefore Dumbledore’s commentary is especially relevant?

  44. Eric G.,

    I’m not quite sure where to put it (Dumbledore’s commentary) yet. I guess it would depend on where one puts the Tales in terms of canon. I see things like the Tales & the schoolbooks as somewhat subsidiary to the main 7, i.e. being an extension of the HP series but not necessarily providing us any information that contradicts anything in the main books or gives us enough data to interpret what’s going on in the main books.

    Reading through John’s other post on JKR saying that Tales is a distillation of themes found in the main books, I found it interesting that everything Jo said about the main books & about the points the Tales will make can be already drawn out of the main texts & in many cases have already been drawn out. In other words, her commentary through Dumbledore won’t really be telling us anything new or anything we couldn’t have picked up from the books themselves. It will simply be a summary or condensation for us. Not something unimportant, then, but also not something that will somehow give us a new perspective on the series.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not buying it & reading it & probably will be joining in the discussion of the various tales here. 🙂

  45. Steve Morrison says

    Hello, everyone!

    Here are a couple of additional links discussing the question of “canonicity” for Tolkien’s books:

    As you can see, there is hardly any agreement in Tolkien fandom about what constitutes canon. Although revgeorge did speak of Tolkien “scholarship”, rather than “fandom”; I honestly have no idea what, e.g., Tom Shippey or Verlyn Flieger would say on the subject.

    Personally, I do draw a distinction between what I consider canon when thinking in “fandom” mode and what I accept as canon when in “literary analysis” mode. That is, if I’m taking part in one of the unending arguments about how Sauron retrieved the Ring from the downfall of Númenor or how Snape entered Hogwarts to consult Dumbledore’s portrait while he was a wanted man, I do consider the author’s extra-textual statements to be valid – as long as they don’t contradict the text or each other! But when looking for deeper meanings in any book, I consider the author to be, at best, primum inter pares.

  46. I was intrigued by this quote from ‘Harry a History” (page 327) which seems to indicate that even the author is not privy to all her own characters’ back-stories.

    When talking about Dumbledore’s sexuality (yes I know…), Jo, in response to a question from Melissa:

    “Does that mean he (Dumbledore) was a one hundred-fifty-year-old virgin? I don’t know” she said softly, peering into her coffee cup as though it held the answer.

  47. SeaJay, that is an intriguing theory. But in this case I think there are other considerations. To wit: imagine fandom’s response if JKR had acknowledged that Dumbledore had ever had sex. It would not have been pleasant. It’s one thing to lust quietly in your heart over your best friend, it’s quite another to act on your feelings. It would have put Dumbledore over the line for many people who can currently say: well, it was an adolescent infatuation and it’s not like he ever didanything about it.

  48. Red Rocker, yes I forgot to think through the implications of any other response !

  49. Though Rowling may have refused an answer for “fear of fandom’s reaction”,
    I highly doubt it. It is not as though the sale of her next HP book or HP-related book would ever suffer from alleging that Dumbie was not a virgin.

    I think she never really thought about it. It probably took all her restraint to not reply loudly “Is sex all you people ever think about? There’s a world that needs lots of help out there! HELLO! Get a life!”

    That she didn’t burst out laughing was a remarkable feat of self-control. Fixation on one’s coffee does sometimes tide one over ignorant stupidities in progress without further embarrassing the ignorant.

    I think Melissa may have missed the whole point of the snogging episodes………….

  50. Arabella Figg says

    Inked, I agree with you. I think in creating her backstory for Dumbledore, Rowling was looking at the structure of the pine tree–his influences and motivations. I doubt she combed through such needles as whether he was a vigin (high ick factor there). Although, she did consider his favorite candies–appropriate for kids and plenty of fun choices for office passwords.

    Obsessive question, smart answer.

    Re trees and needles, the kitties’ fave season approaches…

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