There are few pieces of criticism written on the books of JK. Rowling which neglect to mention the supposed influences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the Harry Potter novels. Nothing could be neater than tying popular, literary, twentieth century writers of fantasy fiction into one bundle. This pretty packaging, however, must seem forced to those who, like myself, are fans of all three writers. How can one seriously claim that the vibrant primary colors of Harry Potter are substantially derived from the golds, grays, muted blues, and greens of Narnia and Middle Earth?
Furthermore, the works of the two Oxbridge professors are permeated with ineffable nostalgia, a feeling that is rarely encountered in Rowling’s work. The magical world that Harry enters is not older or essentially better than ours; it is just more fascinating. If J.K. Rowling is ever really guilty of nostalgia, it is the nostalgia for the future commonly known as progressivism. Hogwarts, which, as Mr. Filch is fond of reminding the students, used to use interesting methods of corporal punishment, was not always as nice a place as it now is. Dumbledore is kinder and wiser than previous headmasters, — one of whom unjustly expelled Hagrid. In the larger wizarding world, the abuse of house elves used to go unquestioned, but Hermione Granger is determined to end this practice and liberate the downtrodden house elves from their bonds. We are always made to feel that Middle Earth and Narnia, on the other hand, were once much better places than they now are. The spiritual decline of those lands has come to such a point, in fact, that The Lord of the Rings must conclude with the departure of the Elves — with all their magic and wisdom — from Middle Earth, while the Chronicles of Narnia end with total moral decay and an apocalypse.
With the exception of Lewis’ lamp post, inanimate objects belonging to the post-industrial world are, in the eyes of Lewis and Tolkien, symbolic of evil and ugliness. Rowling, on the other hand, embraces such objects and gives them a magical twist: while the victorious hobbits get rid of Saruman’s utilitarian, modern buildings, and the children entering Narnia are thankful to shed their ugly clothes for beautiful ones, in Rowling’s world, train stations are enchanted, modern canvas tents are larger on the inside than on the outside, and old newspapers and rubber tires are given the ability to magically transport groups of people from one place to another.
There are two schools of romance. One, which can be traced back in a straight line to the Romans (hence, we suppose, the word romance), is the refined, discontented school: its members are always impatient with their actual surroundings and yearning for goodness that can only be found somewhere “far, far away,” whether in a pastoral idyll or a mythical past. A representative work from this group is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet tells his child that
The other school sees lovely things everywhere, and hears the eternal language of God even in a cloistered city. Its doctrine is encapsulated in Chesterton’s poem about a mailbox:
“There stands a little man in red
Who in the steep street standeth still
And morn and even eats his fill
Of tales untold, wild truths and lies
Small wars and secret chivalries
You may walk round him as may be
He guards his secrets soldierly—
A quaint red tower not three feet wide
And thousands of mens’ souls inside.”
Lewis and Tolkien mainly belong to the first school (although they both incorporate some elements of the second school into their stories); Rowling belongs solidly to the second school. While the history and origins of the everyday sort of romantic poetry are not as obvious as those of the classical kind, one earlier author who stands out for seeing magic in the mundane is Charles Dickens.
While Dickens is most regarded for his deeply humorous characters and biting social commentary (both of which qualities can be found in Rowling’s books as well), it is less often remarked that he is a pioneering writer of fantasy fiction as well. Several of Dickens’ works contain magical elements, and it is to these, and not to any twentieth century book, that Rowling owes her greatest debt. The device of Dumbledore’s “Pensieve,” which carries its user back into memories in which he can observe without being observed, is a pretty obvious homage to A Christmas Carol. The general kind of magic that can be found in Harry Potter — the all-embracing, humorous kind — is similar to the magic in some of the random anecdotes found scattered throughout The Pickwick Papers. We hear in the cheeky banter of Hogwarts students with the school’s resident ghosts echoes of the young lawyer in Pickwick cleverly advising the tortured ghost-of-a-lawyer he encounters to leave his stuffy rooms in London and seek out fresher climes. Rowling’s image of an overstuffed couch that is revealed to be, in fact, a cowardly, obese man, is reminiscent of a chair in Pickwick with an old man’s features which coarsely boasts about all of the women who have “sat on its lap for hours together.”
Although we are certainly very lucky that Rowling picked up where Dickens left off, we suspect that even if Dickens hadn’t left any explicitly magical thread at all, it is possible that Rowling could still have been inspired by him (and similar authors) to create the wizarding universe. When Harry Potter first rides the Hogwarts Express, he discovers that wizard candy is more interesting than Muggle candy: Bertie Bott really does include all flavors in his jelly beans, including pepper, ear wax, and grass. There is nothing specifically “magical” about this; it is just amusing and different. Chesterton defines humor as “a rather deep and delicate appreciation of the absurdities of others.” It is in Pickwick, which is the work of Dickens at his funniest and most incorrigible, that Dickens’ enthusiasm boils over: he cannot confine himself to appreciating the absurdities of other people, but must also explore the eccentricities and exaggerations of inanimate objects and imaginary beings. Given the long and rich tradition of English comedy — and the benefit of hindsight — we may even feel that the creation of a world in which everything is perceived through humor’s exuberant lens and in which many objects undergo a supernatural transformation (or transfiguration), was inevitable.
Rowling shares a few other stylistic similarities with Dickens, the most notable of which is a penchant for gloriously improbable plots (although hers are much more tightly constructed than his). Something else the two authors have in common is that the books of both have been received with wild popularity. Of course, it would not have been possible for them to be so popular if they weren’t good. We all know, however, that there are many excellent, literary books that will never be so widely read. What makes our two authors popular is the fact that, morally outraged and satirical as they may occasionally be, they are, essentially, unabashedly joyful. And it is this very joy which enables them to see everything transformed by a magical light. If the somber moods of Lewis and Tolkien can be traced back to Virgil (as well as, in Tolkien’s case, Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets), who was a typically pensive pagan, the joyous moods of Dickens and Rowling may be traced to Isaiah, who proclaimed that “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”