I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 yesterday, and it was pretty good. I liked how they freed the dragon and I like Neville’s speech to the bad guys, But, as one of your commentators said in a previous post — this story sure REMINDS me of a lot of other ones. So, what sources –besides Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings – do you think JK Rowling borrowed from? And like that other guy who posted asked – isn’t that plagiarism? Finally – how did you like the movie?
(Slightly less) Committed to the Real
The New Yorker’s David Denby refers to a couple of important sources when he notes that the latest Harry Potter movie is a kind of “Götterdämmerung for 8 year olds” and that Harry is a mash up of Jesus and Siegfried. The Jesus reference is obvious, but the other one bears some explanation. Denby is referring to Richard Wagner’s operas, called the “Ring Cycle” — which are themselves based on very old pre-Christian Scandinavian and Germanic legends. Those legends – which you can read about in Edith Hamilton’s or Bullfinch’s books (or get a quick feel for by glancing at the appropriate Wikipedia entry) — repeatedly return to a struggle between forces which will result in a sort of Armageddon, which they call Ragnarök. When Christianity arrives in Northern Europe, those stories become the under-layer for new Christian tales – of which the King Arthur series is the best known example. If you are interested in old European literature – take a look at any newish translation of Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, and Wolfram von Eschenbach romance Parzival or the de Troyes version. This last story is the basis for many of the heroic quest tales that we see all over the place. Parzival or Perceval (the French spelling), is a knightly hero who is hidden away on a farm (you can see the Luke Skywalker material here as well as Harry’s and for that matter, Neo of The Matrix), and does not know his true identity. Yet, he is determined to be a knight and sets forth to claim his destiny and makes a bunch of mistakes – some comical, some very serious. The Holy Grail is involved (Goblet of Fire, Anyone?). And a wounded king is involved (Dumbledore). Take a read, or see the very strange movie made about the story in the 90’s by Eric Rohmer if you can get hold of it.
But some of these ideas go back much further in time, and are not, originally at least, Western. The Indo-Iranian prophet Zoroaster talks about the Noble Ones who must defeat the others – an idea, which religious history scholars like Mark Muesse argue is the basis for the many crucial world religions that grow out of this ancient culture, including: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism (with its branch off religions, Christianity and Islam), and so on. See the map on the Axial Age website for an idea of how central this place and these ideas are.
So those are the some of the bases for the Harry Potter series, and I do think they are worth taking a look at, if you are interested.
As to your question – is this kind of borrowing plagiarism? Taking from stories and images that already exist, riffing on them, and even outright imitating them have been legitimate creative activities for millennia. The concept of “originality” is a very new one, historically (beginning in Europe in the late 18th Century with the advent of the paperback and writing for commercial purposes) and, as any copyright /intellectual property lawyer can tell you, the idea of artistic originality is a highly problematic one. Art making and story telling are very social acts, and as such are collaborative in nature.
So, uh – no.
That is not to say that there aren’t real limits to the Harry Potter series; I say nothing new by observing that the characters inhabit a Eurocentric, white, Christian, and straight universe. Rowling’s comment in an interview that Dumbledore is of course gay does nothing to rectify the pretty straight-laced (ahem) heteronormative pairings of both the adults and the students.
That said — yes, I did like the last movie, and I have read and enjoyed all the books. I too liked the dragon, and I have been a longtime Neville Longbottom fan and was thrilled by the visual depiction of that character on screen (Thank you Matthew Lewis!). The New York Times mockingly compared Neville’s speech to Voldemort to a corny version of Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day speech”. But I and at least one other magical realist in the audience this past Friday found it the most moving moment in the movie.
On the twitter feed this weekend, someone posted that HP taught them the power of the imagination and the value of idealism. I think that’s a great take-away.
Thinking about Neville limping over to Voldemort and quietly affirming his commitment to rightness and fairness and opposing himself against the fascism of Voldemort and Co. feels very important to us over here at Magically Real.
May we all find the courage and the community to do that in our real lives.
All the best —