Saturday, April 21, 2012

Derivative originality -- the paradox of Harry Potter

Another lemma post (but at least it's the last in the series) in support of a longer piece I'm working on. The topic of that one is going to be plagiarism which leads naturally to the topic of originality, and since the post will involve Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games, I thought I should address the question of J.K. Rowling's originality in advance.

Stephen King has said that Rowling is a terrific writer and I'm fully prepared to bow to his judgement, but it's possible for a writer to be good without being original and original without being otherwise good. Rowling built Harry Potter around an extraordinarily original idea working with parts that were almost completely derivative.

Let's start with the parts.

You could argue that there are two distinctly British traditions of coming-of-age novels: the Arthurian (think the Sword in the Stone) and the school story. The best known example of the latter is Tom Brown's School Days; the best is Mike. Both genres are uniquely tied to British character and culture but, as far as I know, no one saw how fundamentally similar they were until Rowling came along.

You can see that underlying similarity of the two genres (and Rowling's skill at combining them) by imagining the Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first with the fantasy elements removed, then with the public school elements removed. The results would be, respectively, a conventional school novel and a conventional juvenile fantasy novel, but they would both be basically the same story. Most of the characters and the majority of the plot work equally well in both genres.

To see connections between seemingly disparate elements and to find a way to bring them together in a coherent whole is pretty much the soul of originality, even those elements are old and familiar and worn smooth with use. This is in sharp contrast to most of the writers in the upcoming post.


  1. Check here for how many stories used HP themes before HP:

  2. As per the previous comment. JK was not the first author to link the two genres.