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I have been looking forward to the publication of Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter for some time, and when Routledge brought the book out in paperback, she was kind enough to answer some questions about it for this blog.  Having finally read it myself, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with the vaguest interest in the topic.  It is insightful, erudite, thoroughly readable and opens up whole new vistas in my appreciation of J.K. Rowling’s work.

potter literary allusion

Literary Allusion in Harry Potter works through Rowling’s engagement with the western literary canon in broadly chronological order, but also arranges it discussion via theme.  The chapter titles are enough to intrigue anyone:

  1. Harry Potter, Greek myth and epic storytelling
  2. Naming in Harry Potter: Plato, Shakespeare and Ovid
  3. Harry Potter’s Medieval Hallows: Chaucer and the Gawain­-poet
  4. The Temptation in the Desert and the Harrowing of Hell: Harry Potter, Mystery Plays and Milton
  5. Comedy, tragicomedy, and Shakespearean influence in Harry Potter
  6. Jane Austen: Rowling’s favourite author
  7. Brewing the language of love: Victorian novels, sonnets, Shakespeare and Snape
  8. In Memoriam.

Amidst this discussion of intertextual relationships, when Rowling borrows a name or makes a literary joke, come sophisticated but accessible readings of elements in the novels.  The engagement in Harry Potter with Christian ideas of salvation and sacrifice, for example, the books’ concern with the relationship between love and death, the mutation of folk tales, or the comic and grotesque.

Particular highlights for me included the discussion of Hogwarts and Northanger Abbey, and the way Rowling followed Austen in producing texts which engage playfully and even mockingly with the tropes of Gothic fiction, whilst still reproducing the emotional states and the narrative arcs of Gothic themselves.  There is a thought-provoking reading of Voldemort’s failure and defeat as a working through of Augustine’s notion that evil is a radical absence rather than an opposing force to good.  And placing Gawain and the Green Knight next to The Deathly Hallows prompts an enlightening exploration of both works’ imagery of feasting, wildernesses, Christmas time, and men whose heads are removed in comic ways.

As that brief account of some especially enjoyable moments might suggest, Groves does much more than trace verbal echoes or run etymologies to ground.  She argues that Rowling’s engagement with previous literary works is much more frequent in the area of narrative and character, and so drawing out these connections requires some consideration of what they mean beyond the fingerprints of another writer, and how they might change our understanding of the novels.

The scholarship informs the book without intruding on the main focus on Rowling.  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter uses the parallels for a series of excursions into productive and illuminating literary criticism, which often feels like the best kind of conversation with a brilliant and learned friend about a favourite book.  There are some moments where I wondered whether “allusion” had strayed beyond questions of influence into pure intertextuality, or even the connections which a more erudite reader might find appearing in their minds whilst reading the novels, but even in these passages the result is engrossing and informative.

Groves not only traces and expounds Harry Potter’s literary ancestry and connections, she makes a strong case that this is an essential way to read the novels.  In the introduction she argues that Rowling’s work is intended to draw the young reader into a literary game which will allow them to educate themselves by reading and rereading both within and without the boundaries of the Harry Potter world.  The internal connections of the novels, which show items, ideas and characters being “reread” and given deeper meaning later on in the series, prompt a vision of Rowling’s allusions as the starting point for an exploration of the literary canon over years, during which readers will recognise and reinterpret things and people they first encountered in Harry Potter.

So I think this book is quite a triumph.  It’s meticulous, great fun, clever and made me want to read both Harry Potter novels and everything from Homer to Austen.  I would recommend it to casual Harry Potter readers as well as serious fans, to people who’ve read Ovid and Tennyson as well as those who haven’t.  In the future, I can see it being very useful as a text to recommend to sixth-formers or first-year undergraduates, to invite them into the broader literary landscape and critical reading which it depicts.  I’ve already recommended my university library buy it, and I suspect my office copy will end up being lent out with great frequency.