“Books Are Not Absolutely Dead Things”: “Harry Potter”, Evelyn Waugh, and Censorship

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

In the quote from Areopagitica in my previous post, Milton uses an imagery of growth – living things springing from the dead, dragon’s teeth sown into the ground and springing up as warriors – for books. (He is also punning on the fact that a book’s spine is “sewn” when he writes of books “as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”) Rowling, too, has used organic imagery for both books and the process of influence, suggesting that for her, likewise, “books are not absolutely dead things.” Rowling understands her books as growing from a “compost” of reading and experience: the relationship of a book to its predecessors as the relationship of a plant to the soil. She has spoken of how when she was a child she thought that books might literally grow:

As soon as I knew that people wrote books – they didn’t just arrive – I don’t know… out of nowhere, like plants – I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

When asked in 1999 about which books had influenced her, Rowling likewise used this organic imagery:

It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head, and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.

This image of “compost” is a nurturing image of influence (against the more traditional idea of the “anxiety” of influence). It is even more strikingly nurturing when compared to the passage that I think is its source. Rowling appears to be remembering here a passage in Evelyn Waugh’s “People Who Want to Sue Me,” in which he writes about the sources of his inspiration (although in his case, he was defending himself from those who attempted to censor his writing through the threat of legal action).

Rowling has not referenced Waugh in any of her published interviews. There is, however, a hint of her affection for his writing when Professor Binns misnames Parvati Patil “Pennyfeather” (CoS 9). Pennyfeather is not a common name, but the protagonist of Waugh’s brilliant comic novel, Decline and Fall, is called Paul Pennyfeather (a name in which, like Parvati’s, first and last both begin with P – perhaps the reason why “Pennyfeather” sprang to mind for Rowling despite sounding so little like “Patil”?). Rowling has, in fact, confirmed in an interview that she is a fan of Decline and Fall (as well as Brideshead Revisited). However, as far as I know, she has only spoken about this in portions of an interview with Lev Grossman (in 2005 for Time), which did not appear in the published article¹. In this unpublished part of the interview, she discusses how Waugh considered the level of care and attention a writer pays to his work as what distinguishes a real (rather than a hack) writer. This appears to allude to the passage below from “People Who Want to Sue Me,” a piece Waugh wrote after the success of Vile Bodies, attacking those who had read his novel as a roman à clef:

If only the amateurs would get it into their heads that novel writing is a highly skilled and laborious trade. One does not just sit behind a screen jotting down other people’s conversation. One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish-heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving, until one finds a few discarded valuables.

Then one has to assemble these tarnished and dented fragments, polish them, set them in order, and try to make a coherent and significant arrangement of them. It is not merely a matter of filling up a dust-bin haphazard and emptying it out again in another place.²

Given Rowling’s 2005 reference to this passage, it seems likely that Waugh’s description of “one’s raw material [as] every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt” also influenced her when she spoke in 1999 of how “everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head, and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.” Waugh’s combative, sterile imagery of fumes, dented things, and dust has been replaced by organic imagery that (while still, like Waugh, attempting to combat allegations of being over-reliant on sources) has entirely reimagined the relation between an author and her inspiration. Waugh’s image of the “smoldering rubbish-heap of experience” has become a “compost” heap of both experience and reading. She transforms Waugh’s sterile discards into a pile of living things that rot down to nourish future growth. While Waugh is trying to insist on the difficulty of what he does, Rowling invokes a kind of organic ease: the plant growing naturally from the soil. Books are not absolutely dead things, and fittingly, as she discusses, books have influenced her own writing, Rowling alludes to – but also fundamentally reworks – the words of an author she admires.

Rowling believes in the bewitching power of reading: “There is a kind of magic that happens when you pick up a wonderful book, and it lives with you for the rest of your life.” From her earliest interviews, she spoke of the “magic” of reading (“That’s what makes reading magical“), and later, she hints that magic in her books might be a metaphor for reading. She has said, for example, that she sees magic not as reality but as metaphor, “a beautiful metaphor for other things in life.” And – in another unpublished part of that 2005 interview – that magic “can be a metaphor for so many things. It can be a metaphor for knowledge and imagination and all these things we develop within ourselves.” Most explicitly (and it is an idea she repeats in the 2017 BBC documentary released to accompany the British Library’s Harry Potter and the History of Magic exhibition) she has spoken of the magical pools in the Wood between Worlds in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew as a place where “you can jump into the different pools to access the different worlds. And that, for me, was always a metaphor for a library… that, for me, is what literature should be.

Libraries embody an opposition to censorship since they open up books to all. Hogwarts, of course, has a superbly well-stocked library: “The sheer size of the library; tens of thousands of books; thousands of shelves” (SS 12). Fittingly, while the Dursleys do not even allow Harry to join a library when Harry gets home from his first excursion into the wizarding world, he settles down immediately to read a book. We do not see him reading, but we know that is what he’s been doing, for when he names Hedwig, it is after a name he has found in a book (SS 6). Hedwig is Harry’s first real birthday present, and it’s a birthday he shares with his creator. By naming his owl after someone he has found in a book, Harry also echoes his creator. For Rowling, like Harry, has named Hedwig after someone she found in a book. It is a little “meta” moment – the hero echoing the action of his author – and it underlines from the very start that not only are books going to be important within the world of Harry Potter, but they were also crucial to the creation of that world.


¹I am deeply grateful to Lev Grossman for sharing this unpublished material with me. For his enjoyable and revealing account of why much of the interview was left out of the published text, see his blog. We discuss this interview with John Granger and Katy McDaniel on Reading, Writing, and Rowling.

²Evelyn Waugh, A Little Order: Selected Journalism, ed. Donat Gallagher (Penguin, 2000), p. 15.


Dr. Beatrice Groves is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!