Saturday, September 15, 2012

Guest Post: Harry Potter and the Writer of Fairy Tales

by Jenna St. Hilaire

[Dear readers (all five of you!), I am shamefully unlearned in the ways of Hogwarts, but Harry Potter is such a paragon in our realm of Faerie that I have asked a friend and fellow fairy tale lover to write a guest post on the topic.  Jenna's reflection on J.K. Rowling's books and their significance to and for fairy stories demonstrates both her literary knowledge and imaginative capabilities; two things, I believe, are essential traits of those who wish to restore and honor fairy tales.  Jenna blogs regularly at A Light Inside and is a contributing member of The Hog's Head.  -- Christie]

For those of us who tell stories of faërie and fantasy, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series might not be the first place we look for inspiration.  After all, the Potter books are written with the common prose of middle-grade literature: humorous but simplistic, not comparable to the poetic language of Tolkien or the lyrical vividness of Robin McKinley or the toe-curling terror of Neil Gaiman or H.P. Lovecraft.  Or even the artistic simplicity of C.S. Lewis. 

But Harry Potter keeps, on some levels, the fairy tale tradition.  Its wizards and witches are dramatic spoofs on the fairy-tale image of the warty, pointy-hatted crone stirring her cauldronful of nasty things in the back of a cave.  Harry’s journeys typically follow three-act structure and often involve magical tasks: fetch the golden egg from under the dragon!  Choose, from an array including poisons and nettle wine, the potion which will help you walk through fire!  Find the cup in which the evil wizard has stored part of his soul! 
Hogwarts coat of arms
The people and creatures of faërie walk the Potter stories.  Ghosts drift through the castle walls.  A basilisk whispers to Harry when no one else can hear.  Monster-loving Hagrid and French headmistress Olympe Maxime are both half-giant.  The Hogwarts founders are witches and wizards who have attained mythic status.  And the Deathly Hallows legend comes from a beautiful fairy tale titled The Tale of the Three Brothers, written by Rowling, based on Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale

From its Gothic themes to its playful use of myth, from its cycles through Campbell’s hero’s journey to its baptismal and sacrificial imagery, Harry Potter’s story is a stunning success in fairy tale terms.  Moreover, its worldbuilding is almost unrivalled, not for its detail—Tolkien has Rowling bested by far there—but for its ability to create an expansive, splendid, glorious realm in the mind of the reader.  Every time someone asks publicly which of all fictional worlds would readers most like to visit, Hogwarts is one of the first and most frequently named. 

Harry Potter isn’t necessarily the first place fantasy writers look for inspiration.  It was, however, quite literally that for me.  Though I’d written stories since I could hold a pen and had read Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, only when Harry came around did I return as a writer to the world of fairies and magic that I’d mostly left in my childhood with the Disney films.  Since then, every story I’ve written, and many of those I’ve read, have come from that world.  I’ve loved the magical journey so much that last year, I even re-told a classic fairy tale myself. 

My path into the dark forest and the fairy realm began in earnest at number four, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey.  Naturally, it was only a place to begin.



  1. Jenna, you know my addiction to reading about Harry Potter! This is great! I really liked that you were able to contrast Rowling's 'simplistic' writing with other fantastical authors and still defend the effect her writing has on her readers..and especially on you. And I love your ending!

    1. Thanks. You know it always makes my day to see you enjoy reading about Harry. :) I'm thrilled that you liked this piece.

  2. Brilliant essay! A wonderful combination of getting the point across simply while yet capturing the depth of the subject discussed.

    My fantasy world consists of a great deal of Middle-Earth, quite a lot of Narnia, & large doses of Hogwarts. Different authors, different styles of writing, but all of a piece. All embracing eucatastrophe and sehnsucht. All with the proverbial but by no means cliched happy ending.

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      There is a way to filter it, but I would have to individually approve all comments or else have people type in a CAPTCHA, which I consider to be a bane of blog commenting!

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