Book review: Literary Allusion in Harry Potter

For Christmas I was given Literary Allusion in Harry Potter by Beatrice Groves, which a) is the perfect present for me, and b) is one of the best books I’ve read recently. Here’s a brief review that tells you what I liked about it without giving away all the fun parts.

If you have any interest in Harry Potter or literary traditions ranging from Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Jane Austin, Tennyson, Homer, Plato, Ovid, and of course, the great literary work known as the Bible, then you will find something in this book to interest you. It takes the approach of analyzing both the works JK Rowling has explicitly referenced, the works she would have studied in her English Literature and Classics degree, and other works whose influence can be seen lurking beneath the surface of the Harry Potter text. It deconstructs major themes and plot devices, as well as character arcs, motivations and development and then builds up a picture of the rich literary text that is Harry Potter.

Reading this book has given me a deeper understanding of the story, themes and characters of Harry Potter, but it has also given me a greater appreciation for many of the literary works that inspired it. Links and connections that hadn’t been clear to me before now seem obvious (for example, Hermione’s parallels to Jane Austin’s Emma) (or her and Ron’s bickering relationship and it’s echo in Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing). Not surprisingly, I especially enjoyed the section on Harry Potter’s allusions to the biblical story, and how Milton’s work in Paradise Lost gives a clear blueprint of Voldemort’s character.

Despite the vast arrays of literature covered and referenced in this short volume, it is incredibly readable even if you’ve never encountered any of these works previously. It helpfully summarizes, translates and explains where needed to ensure the reader (you) gets the most out of what is being conveyed, without having to wade through dense text to get to it. Before reading, I was familiar with maybe 60% of the texts references, but found it easy to follow even those I’d never read or understood before. Reading this book has even inspired me to go back and read or re-read a number of texts.

The main thing that it has reinforced is that to be a lover of English literature is to be a lover of Harry Potter (and vice versa). For part of what appeals to me, and to so many others about these stories is the way it reflects back our shared consciousness and our shared stories. The stories Harry Potter tells are the stories we have always been telling – of good conquering evil, of friendship, loyalty, monsters and magic. Only Harry Potter manages to tell the familiar old stories in new and exciting ways, so different and fresh that it might take us a moment to realize that they are there at all.

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