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

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

On this day in 2016, J.K. Rowling was given an award by PEN, a charity founded to defend free expression and support persecuted writers that Rowling describes as “an organization that I have admired very deeply for many, many years.” Rowling accepted the award in person, and while she can’t quite compete with Bob Dylan in this regard, given that public speaking is her pet hate, her decision to accept PEN’s award in person proves it to be an accolade of which she is particularly proud. This article, therefore, uses its anniversary as a starting point to think about some of the influences of writing about literary censorship on Harry Potter.

Rowling is “vehemently anti-censorship. I think that it’s foolish and misguided to ban books.” In a more ironic vein, she joked about those who destroyed her books:

Actually, we’re thinking of selling them in pairs in future; a ‘read one, burn one’ deal for those who like the magic but not the morals.¹

In the early 19th century, some people believed that impressionable young women should be banned from reading novels, a stricture Rowling has noted in reference to those who wish to ban her books: “Young ladies two hundred years ago weren’t allowed to read novels because it would inflame them and excite them and make them long for things that weren’t real.” David Martin’s comprehensive and helpful post on Harry Potter’s books suggests that the description of dangerous magical books in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – books that burn your eyes out or that you can never stop reading – can be read as an anti-censorship message:

This passage may be an answer to all would-be censors: Since we don’t, in our world, have books that can carry such curses, what’s the point of censorship? Do the censors really think that a mere Muggle book is going to burn out a reader’s eyes or destroy the reader’s brain?

Milton begins perhaps the greatest work attacking literary censorship by arguing that “books are not absolutely dead things”:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men… as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.²

This passage comes near the beginning of Areopagitica (1644), a text published as part of the impassioned pamphlet wars of the period – a combative and populist arena where the issues of the day were thrashed out with a generous seasoning of irony and abuse. As with Rowling’s Twitter post (above) about burning books, Milton’s irony here (as he suggests that censorship might be worse than murder) interacts with a deeply held belief about the value of books – in particular, if we’re honest, his own books – as “the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

Milton’s famous statement that “books are not absolutely dead things” becomes, of course, literally true in the wizarding world. The books in the Restricted Section of Hogwarts’ library scream when opened illicitly, Harry and Ron’s homework planners order them around, Riddle’s diary writes back to those who write in it, and when Hermione snaps Magick Moste Evile shut in frustration, it protests with a wail. Most suggestively, when Harry enters Hogwarts’ library at night, he hears the books whispering to each other.

Milton, in the passage above, expresses the living nature of books through allusion – the writing of the past that finds new life in a present text. He writes that books are “as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” This is a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but it is far from a “straight” allusion: It is one the reader will need to think about to interpret correctly. At first, the reference appears to denigrate the life of books as mere proxies to the real battles of the English Civil War. For in the most famous example of dragon’s teeth turned into armed men (in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece), the men simply turn and kill each other in a fight explicitly linked to civil war (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7.121-42).

There is, however, another, less well-known part of the Metamorphoses when dragon’s teeth are sown in the soil and spring up armed men. This is the story of the founding of Thebes by Cadmus. (Rowling knows this story, incidentally, since her Cadmus Peverell, like the Ovidian Cadmus, is engaged in a hopeless search to regain a beloved woman who has been snatched from him.³) In Cadmus’s story, after fighting among themselves, these armed men help found the city of Thebes.⁴ Milton uses this allusion because he believes that disagreement is a fundamental part of founding a new commonwealth. Areopagitica argues that it is only through the constant testing of ideas and beliefs – “brotherly dissimilitudes” – that England will become worthy of God’s high calling to be the New Jerusalem.⁵ Underlying Milton’s Ovidian allusion, therefore, is the suggestion that, like the warriors who sprung from dragon’s teeth in the myth of Cadmus, once these books have fought each other, they can then partake in founding a new and glorious nation. Milton uses allusion at the moment when he argues for books as living things because it is a powerful example of the way in which books live: the Ovidian “master spirit” finding a new life in Areopagitica as it is reinterpreted by both Milton and his readers.

Rowling has spoken of reading as a “sort of conversation” – a meeting of minds between author and reader through the medium of the book:

My readers have to work with me to create the experience. They have to bring their imaginations to the story… together, as author and reader, we have both created the story… you bring your imagination to it. When you do that, the reader and the author are having sort of a conversation.

Allusion deepens this communication, for it forms an interpretative network – the writer alludes to their own reading, and the reader (in the moment of spotting the connection) shares with the writer in their own experience of reading the earlier work. Allusion is the reaching out of hands between authors and readers across time and space.

¹Twitter, February 1, 2017. Her most in-depth Twitter post so far – “Why Dumbledore went to the hilltop” (October 27, 2015) – is about the cultural boycott of Israel. It references and defends (among others) writers who have faced censorship.

²The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Don M. Wolfe et al., 8 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953-82), vol. 2, p. 492.

³R.A. Spencer, Harry Potter and the Classical World: Greek and Roman Allusions in
J.K. Rowling’s Modern Epic.
(Jefferson: McFarland, 2015), p. 135.

⁴Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.101-130. With many thanks to Chloe Courtney for the Cadmus reference!

Complete Prose Works of John Milton, vol. 2, p. 555.

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!