How Much Was Rowling Inspired by Tolkien? - Caroline Monroe
"If youve read both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, you cant fail to notice how much Rowling draws upon Tolkien," writes Chris Mooney in a December 2001 issue of The American Prospect. Mooney does not elaborate a great deal on this statement, but having read both fantasies, I believe he's right that J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was one of the sources of inspiration for J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.
Although Tolkien's Middle-earth and Rowling's world of wizards are vastly different, a closer look reveals certain noteworthy parallels in plot between the Harry Potter books and Tolkiens The Lord of the Rings. In Harry Potter, there are also literary references to Tolkiens epic fantasy, but whether Rowling made these references consciously or not is debatable. It is possible that, as Tom Shippey suggests in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, "Tolkienian words, and images, are learned so early and so thoroughly, possibly by compulsive re-reading, that they become internalized, personal property rather than literary debt." Rowling has said that she read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager, and perhaps she retained some of its images in her mind, unconsciously producing similar ones in her books. An alternative view is that Rowling consciously built upon some of Tolkien's ideas and characters in her own unique way. If so, it is a sign of her good taste. It is likely that some of her borrowing from Tolkien is conscious and some is not, but there is definitely a Tolkien influence in her books.
The plots of Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, the first book in the series, and The Lord of the Rings are broadly parallel.
Wise wizards (Dumbledore in Harry Potter/Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) mentor and guide the "little" people (children/hobbits) who are short on wisdom but tall on courage. The evil sorcerers (Voldemort/Sauron) are weak in the beginning of the stories and must be prevented from regaining the power they had lost. Voldemort and Sauron attempt to acquire magical objects (the Sorcerers Stone/the One Ring) that can make them strong again. Possession of the Sorcerers Stone has given Dumbledores 666-year-old friend, Nicolas Flamel, the key to immortality; similarly, the One Ring has enabled Gollum, a hobbit, to live for more than 600 years; and Bilbo, the hobbit who acquires the Ring after Gollum loses it, has also lived a longer-than-normal lifespan.
The heroes, the boy wizard Harry and the hobbit Frodo, are both orphans who find themselves in situations in which greatness is thrust upon them. They feel obligated to do the right but difficult thing, rather than what is easy, for the common good. Harry and Frodo play major parts in defeating the villains, although they are not the ones who ultimately destroy the magical objects. Mooney notes in his article that Harry and Frodo suffer from scars as a result of wounds inflicted on them by the enemy. While The Lord of the Rings ends after the Ring is destroyed, Sauron defeated and order reestablished in Middle-earth, the destruction of the Sorcerer's Stone in Harry Potter only temporarily prevents Voldemort from becoming powerful. Voldemort finds other means of surviving and growing stronger in the other three Harry Potter books that have been published to date.
In his essay, On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien says that folklorists "are inclined to say that any two stories that are built around the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are the same stories." However, Tolkien adds, "It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count." Thus, although there are parallels in plot between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, the "general purport" of Harry Potter is the education of Harry Potter and his friends, with a focus on Harrys search for identity and purpose, while the "general purport" of The Lord of the Rings is the quest of a grown-up hobbit to save his world from destruction.
Let us now look at some of the "individual details" of the stories and how Rowling has apparently modified some of Tolkien's characters and ideas with great effect.
The Characters and Names
Butterbur and butterbeer. In The Lord of the Rings, Barliman Butterbur is the bustling, kindly, but forgetful innkeeper of The Prancing Pony, and he serves excellent ale. Rowling may be cleverly playing on Butterburs name when she calls the frothy, buttery, non-alcoholic hot drink that the Hogwarts students love "butterbeer."
Longbottom Leaf and Neville Longbottom. The hobbits of the Rings trilogy are fond of inhaling "through pipes of clay or wood, the smoke of the burning leaves of a herb, which they called pipe-weed or leaf" (see Prologue to The Lord of the Rings). The best variety of pipe-weed is known as Longbottom Leaf. Interestingly, Longbottom is the last name of the boy in Harry Potter whose favorite subject is herbology, and so the association of Neville Longbottom with Longbottom Leaf is especially appropriate.
Villains Anonymous. The villains of both fantasies are often referred to indirectly, as if they are too terrifying to name. Boromir and his brother Faramir, valiant men from Gondor, call Sauron "him that we do not name." Other men of Gondor sometimes call Sauron The Nameless One. Most wizards in Harry Potter refer to Voldemort as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or You-Know-Who.
Wormtongue and Wormtail. Wormtongue, the deceitful advisor to King Theoden, is really serving Saruman, the good-wizard-gone-bad in The Lord of the Rings. Wormtongues counterpart in Harry Potter is Wormtail, or Peter Pettigrew, the wizard who betrayed Harrys parents to Voldemort. Peter is nicknamed Wormtail because he can transform himself into a rat. Until his true identity is discovered in the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he has been in hiding as Harrys friend Rons pet rat, Scabbers.
In spite of their treachery, both Wormtongue and Wormtails lives are spared by the good characters. Calling Wormtongue "a snake," Gandalf says, "To slay it would be just," but he advises King Theoden to let Wormtongue go free. Wormtongue sets off to join Saruman. Toward the end of The Return of the King, Frodo again shows mercy to Wormtongue, telling him he need not follow Saruman. However, when Saruman kicks Wormtongue in the face, Wormtongue finally snaps and retaliates by killing Saruman. In Harry Potter, Wormtail would have been killed by two adult wizards, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, if Harry had not intervened. Harry believes his father would not have wanted them to kill Wormtail. Harry thinks it would be best to have Wormtail sent to the wizard prison, Azkaban. Just as Harry and the other wizards are taking Wormtail to Dumbledore, Wormtail escapes. Wormtail finds Voldemort and becomes his servant again. Will Wormtail have something to do with Voldemort's downfall in the end?
Old Man Willow and the Whomping Willow. There are willow trees that are very much alive in both fantasies. Old Man Willow in Tolkiens trilogy actually swallows the hobbit, Pippin, has another hobbit, Merry, in a tight grip, and tips Frodo into the water after lulling him to sleep. The equivalent in Harry Potter is the Whomping Willow in the Forbidden Forest that swings its branches wildly and tosses anything in its path. Once, Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts in a flying car, and it is caught in the Whomping Willow, with disastrous results. Rowling gives her willow tree a greater significance: The tree was planted to hide the secret entrance to a tunnel leading to a house used by the wizard Lupin when he has his monthly transformations into a werewolf.
Black Riders and Dementors. Mooney likens Voldemort to a Black Rider, but I see the Dementors in Harry Potter as closer in likeness to the Black Riders because they are hooded, cloaked figures who inspire fear. The Black Riders or Ringwraiths were once kings who became corrupted when Sauron gave them rings of power. They appear to be both material and immaterial, capable of physically as well as psychologically attacking their enemies.
It is uncertain as of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, what the Dementors actually look like, although Harry once caught sight of a hideous, decaying hand under the cloak of a Dementor. The Dementors are the guards of Azkaban; they have the power to suck the souls out of the prisoners by giving them the kiss of death.
Shelob and Aragog. In Tolkiens The Hobbit, Bilbo saved his dwarven companions from giant spiders in the forest of Mirkwood. The Lord of the Rings features a giant, ancient spider named Shelob that feeds on any living thing that comes her way. Frodo is stung by Shelob, and Sam valiantly battles Shelob alone. In Harry Potter, Harry and Ron meet spiders in the Forbidden Forest whose king, Aragog, resembles Shelob in size and appetite for flesh. Ron's fear of spiders had been established, and this incident tests his bravery. Aragog would have fed Harry and Ron to his spider kindred, but the boys narrowly escape.
The Use of Mirrors
Mirrors are used as means of revelation in both fantasies. The Mirror of Galadriel is "a basin of silver, wide and shallow," which the Lady Galadriel fills with water. After breathing upon the basin, she invites Frodo and Sam to look into it so that events in the past, somewhere else in the present, or future may be revealed to them. They take turns looking and are disturbed by what they see. They do not fully comprehend the events revealed until they experience these events later.
In Harry Potter, Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised and is drawn to it because it shows him his parents smiling and waving at him. The mirror looks like a regular mirror, but it reveals Harrys deepest longing--to be with his parents. In a poignant moment, Dumbledore draws Harry away from the mirror, telling him gently, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live . . ."
Rowling introduces another device in the fourth book, called a "Pensieve," that reveals events in the past. The Pensieve is a "shallow stone basin," and Harry sees a "bright, whitish silver" substance in it. The shape and color of the Pensieve and its contents are reminiscent of the Mirror of Galadriel. Harry is drawn to the Pensieve while he is alone in Dumbledores office, and he finds himself "falling" into it when he peers closely at it. He is transported in time to a different place and witnesses some significant events. Later, Dumbledore explains to Harry that when his head is too crammed with thoughts and memories, he uses the Pensieve to collect his excess thoughts in order to examine them at leisure some other time. Dumbledore then demonstrates how he siphons his thoughts into the Pensieve.
"The Mark of Tolkien"
The similarities of images, characters and names between Rowling and Tolkiens fantasies in the examples mentioned seem to be more than just coincidence, but most authors draw upon other authors ideas. However, an inferior writer simply copies, whereas a good writer puts a fresh slant on a familiar subject. Rowling is definitely a superior writer. Her Pensieve, for instance, can be seen as an ingenious way of building upon the Mirror of Galadriel. We can appreciate how effectively--or even amusingly in the case of Butterbur and butterbeer--Rowling appears to have borrowed some of Tolkiens ideas and names but altered them to suit her tale.
"I do not think any modern writer of epic fantasy has managed to escape the mark of Tolkien, no matter how hard many of them have tried," says Shippey. That seems true of Rowling, although given the combined lengths of the Harry Potter books so far, the references to Tolkien form a relatively small number, and much of what Rowling has written is unparalleled. Copyright 2002 by Caroline Monroe
Mooney, Chris. "Tolkien on Homeland Defense and Why He's More Like J. K. Rowling than Christians Admit." The American Prospect Online. December 4, 2001.
Shippey, Tom. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Great Britain: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.