When Harry Potter became one of the world's most famous heroes, many people complained that J.K. Rowling had lifted chunks of the Potterverse from other sources. How true is this? We sort through all the alleged prototypes for Harry Potter.
Image by NubeCybot on Deviant Art.
Before we get started, let's be clear here — we're not saying that any of these accusations are true. If anything, when people point out similarities between two fantasy books, they're often simply pointing out that they both belong to the same genre. But with Harry Potter about to rule our worlds yet again thanks to the new movie, it's a safe bet that the cries of "unoriginal" will start up yet again — so it's worth examining them ahead of time to see if they hold any water.
So here goes:
Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Similarities: It's hard to imagine a modern fantasy book that doesn't owe a great deal to this classic. But there are a few parallels that can't be ignored. Use of rhyming verse to illuminate themes? Check. Giant man eating spiders that must be faced by best friends before they have to fight the big bad? Check. Occasionally disembodied Dark Lord? Check. An evil article of jewelry that not only contains part of the Dark Lord's soul, but needs to be destroyed to finish him off? Check. Creepy sycophant intent on destroying the good guys from the inside (who has worm in his name)? Check. Kindly old wizard with a beard who has powers that are only hinted at until revealed explosively? Check. Mobile and violent trees? Check.
Of course, in the game of who would beat who in a fight, your money should be on the medieval guys with armor and swords. For instance, Rowling's black-cloaked Dementors are clearly the Oprah generation version of the Nazgul. Dementors cause depression and unconsciousness that are dispelled with chocolate. Morgul-blade wielding Nazgul cause unconsciousness and utter terror that are dispelled with athelas herb. On the other hand, Dementors can be defeated with magical happy thoughts while the Witch King of the Nazgul has to be taken out by a Hobbit with an enchanted sword and shieldmaiden of Rohan.
Is there a case? Only in the sense that all modern fantasy is deeply influenced and inspired by Tolkien.
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
Similarities: In this precursor to the Potter books, a young girl form a Mugg – uh – non-magical family attends a boarding school for witches. Which is in an ancient castle surrounded by an enchanted forest. While Mildred Hubble is enrolled at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches, where she attends Potions, Broomstick Flying, Chants and Charms classes, she must deal with conflicts with her classmates, a cursed broom, and an attempt to overthrow the school. Also, Mildred and her friends make an invisibility potion. Here's an old Geocities page listing more similarities, including the fact that there's a mean teacher who hates the main character, and a popular blond kid who gets off on the wrong foot with the hero on the very first day.
Is there a Case? The series of Worst Witch books skews younger and tends to the lighter side of magic than the Harry Potter books. Many of the similarities are of the superficial, non-copyrightable type, though Murphy got there first.
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
Similarities: Charmed Life is about two orphans taken to a castle to learn magic from the greatest magician in England.
Is there a case? Not really. Charmed Life is an excellent book that reads like a fun fantasy adventure, but it is a dark look at sibling abuse and parricide. It's also got parallel worlds.
Discworld by Terry Pratchett
Similarities: Unseen University, a school for wizards (housed in a castle, natch) is the primary similarity. It's got chained up magical books, creepy corridors and the staff takes on the occasional battle against ultimate evil. Like shopping malls. There's also Ponder Stibbons, a dark haired, bespectacled lad who's not really the best student of magic.
Is there a case? Well, Ponder Stubbins actually spends very little time as a student. And the fact that the magical school for wizards is in a castle would be a cliché at this point if it wasn't an example of Terry Pratchett making fun of clichés. Also, Discworld wizards are often the incompetent ivory tower academic types, while the social worker-esque witches keep things running in the real world. Which is very unlike Harry Potter.
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Similarities: The living chess game.
Is there a case? Oh yes. The live chess pieces in Through the Looking Glass and the magicked ones in Sorcerer's Stone are just so much alike. Of course it's been done many times before Rowling got to it, most notably in Vonnegut's short story, "All The King's Horses." And the Alice books are public domain anyway.
The Sword In The Stone by T.H. White
Similarities: An unwanted boy destined to be the man who saves England is taken in by a blue-eyed, long-bearded wizard who keeps odd birds and uses radical methods of pedagogy. Also, there are dragons.
Is there a case? Rowling has admitted as much, saying Wart from Sword In The Stone is "Harry's spiritual ancestor."
Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman et al.
Similarities: Tween British schoolboy with black hair and glasses discovers he has magical powers and gets a pet owl. Says DailySkew:
Tim Hunter is an English-boy who gets trained to become the most powerful sorcerer in the universe. His stories were about magic, mythology, icons, talking animals, dealing with authority figures who were not supportive to him, and struggling with the responsibility.
Is there a case? This one gets kicked around a lot, mostly by geeks who question anything sci-fi/fantasy that is beloved of the mainstream. Gaiman has categorically rejected this, saying they were both ripping off T.H. White.
The Legend of Rah and the Muggles, and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lily by Nancy Stouffer
Similarities: These books, published in the 1980s, feature a character named Larry Potter. And the word "Muggles," used to describe a group of mutants. And the main character, Larry Potter, is an orphan with glasses and dark hair, who's raised by a couple. When Stouffer started making claims that Rowling stole from her work, Rowling and her publishers pre-emptively sued Stouffer, and eventually won $50,000 in damages. Read a Washington Post reader chat with Stouffer, which gets pretty amusing as people take her to task, here.
Is there a case? As one person tells Stouffer in the Washington Post chat, "The topics you
discuss in your books, that you claim are "copyright infringement" are not only common concepts, but common concepts in literature focused on sorcery and witches, etc. The sorcerer's stone is used by Merlin, lakes and moats and such always surround castles.You claim you used the name "Neville". So what? Its a name. If you used the name "Mark" would you say no other books concerning witches could use that name henceforth?"
Similiarities: This 1980s movie, best known for leading to the iconic "best worst movie" Troll 2, features a young boy named Harry Potter who learns to use magic and wields a spear. Director John Buechler filed a suit against Rowling and Warner Brothers for $20 million, but it's not clear if anything will come of it. Claims producer Charles Band: "I've heard that JK Rowling has acknowledged that maybe she saw this low-budget movie and perhaps it inspired her."
Is there a case? Take away the name "Harry Potter" and I'm not sure what's left.
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Similarities: After Rowling sued the writer of the Harry Potter Lexicon, a guidebook to the Potterverse for copyright infringement, Card wrote that he feels like Rowling stole the plot of his famous novel:
A young kid growing up in an oppressive family situation suddenly learns that he is one of a special class of children with special abilities, who are to be educated in a remote training facility where student life is dominated by an intense game played by teams flying in midair, at which this kid turns out to be exceptionally talented and a natural leader. He trains other kids in unauthorized extra sessions, which enrages his enemies, who attack him with the intention of killing him; but he is protected by his loyal, brilliant friends and gains strength from the love of some of his family members. He is given special guidance by an older man of legendary accomplishments who previously kept the enemy at bay. He goes on to become the crucial figure in a struggle against an unseen enemy who threatens the whole world.
Is there a case? Even Card seems to be pointing out these similarities mostly to make the point that Rowling shouldn't go suing other people, and that nothing is ever completely original. He adds, "It's true that we writers borrow words from each other — but we're supposed to admit it and not pretend we're original when we're not." In any case, most of the similarities he points out seem to be typical of the fantastical "coming of age" novel in general.
The similarities: Speaking of coming-of-age stories that share certain broad elements... There was an image floating around a while back which showed the plot of Star Wars with some stuff crossed out and replaced by stuff from Harry Potter. (Although the author seemed to think Hagrid was a wizard.)
Is there a case? It only works if you boil it down to generalizations, like "Young boy discovers his vast powers under the tutelage of a bearded blue-eyed man and battles an evil lord, while the girl falls for his best friend." If you get more specific, it falls apart.
Willy The Wizard by Adrian Jacobs
Similarities: The estate of the late Adrian Jacobs has sued Rowling and her publishers for copyright infringement, and they claim that Rowling had access to Willy The Wizard while writing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. They also claim that literary agent Christopher Little represented both authors at one point. The Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law blog summarizes the similarities:
In order to illustrate the "substantial similarities" between the stories, the complaint points out that each book tells the story of a year-long wizard competition in which both protagonists solve clues and "rescue hostages imprisoned by a community of half-human, half-animal creatures" to become the victor. Among the numerous similarities listed in the complaint is the fact that in Willy the Wizard, Willy rescues the hostages from creatures with "torsos like humans and legs like kangaroos," while in Goblet of Fire, Harry rescues his friends from creatures with "torsos like humans and are otherwise like fish." In both books, Willy and Harry "rely on elves and others who obtain key pieces of information by eavesdropping," and discover vital information on how to complete this task "us[ing] a tool available in a special bathroom."
Is there a case? The idea of a wizarding competition, in itself, doesn't appear to be that unique. Nor are half-human, half-animal creatures, or the idea of taking hostages to add suspense and danger to the contest. On the other hand, at least there's a hint that Rowling could have looked at Jacobs' 36-page booklet when writing the spawling Goblet.
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
Similarities: This fantasy series about the battle between light and dark and wages across five books and includes elements of everything from Saxon folklore to Arthurian legend. You bet it's similar to HP. There are magical objects to find, including an ancient magical sword (which glows blue when near evil, in a nod to Tolkein). There's an eleven-year-old boy who discovers on his birthday that he is in fact a wielder of powerful magic. There's poetry about the plot. And also plenty of evil to defeat!
Is there a case? The Dark Is Rising borrows heavily from the same stories and mythologies as Rowling, but that's about it.
So You Want to Be a Wizard? By Diane Duane
Similarities: Bullied children turn to magic to sort out their problems, inadvertently causing more. There's a wizarding council and objects that come to life. And it's got a book called, "The Book Which Is Not Named."
Is there a case? No. Not everything with wizards is the same.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Similarities: A young boy takes on an undead evil with a magical sword.
Is there a case? Not so much. Prydain comes from the Welsh tradition, including the great Welsh epic the Mabignogi. While the Mabignogi gives us Merlin, magic cauldrons and some of the earliest mentions of King Arthur, it's really not the same tradition. Modern Arthur tales are more likely to be taken from French versions of the stories including Chrétien de Troyes' retellings. And Potter is definitely from the French branch of the Arthur stories.
Wizard's Hall by Jane Yolen
Similarities: Eleven-year-old boy off at wizarding boarding school defeats a bad guy out to destroy the school. Portraits move and ceiling full of stars twinkle, and the hero's best friends include a red-headed boy and a brilliant girl.
Is there a case? Yolen seems to think so, saying, "I always tell people that if Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large check, I would cash it." (So, by the way, would we.) But the fact of the matter is, the combination of those two staples if kid lit, the school story and the magical bildungsroman, can't be copyrighted. (Yolen also told an audience at WorldCon that lots of other books are derivative, too, but many of them are better written than the Potter novels in her view.)