Literary Allusion in the Works of J.K. Rowling

Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club by Mooréa Gray on 29/03/2022.

The magical world of Harry Potter has infiltrated the lives of readers and their families for over twenty years. Young readers aspire and pretend to be like those who inhabit the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and writers are inspired by the personal story and writing success of British-born J.K. (Joanne) Rowling.  

While Rowling belongs in the category of “New Writers of the 21st Century,” the genesis of her Harry Potter series began in 1990, and her first three of seven books were published in 1997, 98, and 99. In 1995, a draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was sent to twelve different publishers, which all rejected her manuscript. Finally, Bloomsbury UK purchased the rights.  In 1999, Warner Bros began producing film adaptations of Rowling’s books; by 2017, more than 500 million copies of her books had been sold; currently, Harry Potter has been translated into eighty-eight different languages; and Rowling has become one of the wealthiest authors of all time and the bestselling British author. Most importantly, these statistics and reports from Scholastic Publishing indicate that the Harry Potter books have encouraged children (particularly boys), young adults, and adults to spend more time reading.

After her seventh and last Harry Potter book, Rowling continued to write Potter companion books and other unrelated books, one being the adult novel The Casual Vacancy. Under the name Robert Galbraith, Rowling has written the Cormoran Strike series, which include five adult crime novels.

Over the past several years, Rowling has received extensive criticism for issues regarding transphobia, misplaced cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping, and other sensitive topics. This presentation does not go into details; however, Mooréa offers options to interested club members to learn more.

Harry Potter can be described as a fantastical bildungsroman, which follows the lives of three main protagonists, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. Although steeped in magic and mythical creatures, and takes place primarily in a tenth century school for wizards and witches, this coming of age story deals with common themes such as acceptance, friendship, family, love, courage, and, of course, good and evil.

Rowling’s education at Exeter University and deep interest in Classical literature and Greek mythology heavily influences her writingarrywriti. Drawing upon her education and interests, Rowling cleverly incorporates literary allusion into her Potter series. According to Professor Beatrice Groves, literary allusion is simply defined as “the process by which books incorporate recognizable bits from other books.”1

Rowling acknowledges that Shakespeare and Jane Austen have greatly influenced her work. Naming of her characters is something Rowling does with intent and amusement. The naming of Mrs. Norris, a character who appears in all of the Potter books, is a strong allusion to Mrs. Norris in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: both characters are unpleasant and are the self-appointed guardians of other people’s behavior.

Rowling first discovered the name Hermione when she saw Shakespeare’s, The Winter’s Tale.  Both Shakespeare’s Hermione and Rowling’s Hermione are turned into statues (petrified) and later come back to life.

In Roman and Greek mythology there exists Cerberus: a three-headed dog that guards the gates of the underworld. The first mention of this beast appears in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, then again in Plato, Virgil, Homer, and Ovid. In Harry Potter, Fluffy, is a giant three-headed dog that guards a trap door in the floor and, like Cerberus, falls asleep at the sound of music.

The list of literary allusions and references goes on, whether they are intended by the author or imagined by eager academics and general readers. Literary allusions are fun and the connections become more apparent as we continue to broaden our literary horizons. As they literally do in the magical library at Hogwarts, books begin to talk with one another when placed in close proximity. 

1 University of Oxford. “Literary Allusion in Harry Potter.” 2019.