Literary Allusion in “Harry Potter”: “Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Order of the Phoenix”, and Sherlock Holmes

Our guest blogger and literary expert Dr. Beatrice Groves is back, and today she’ll be talking about the links between Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes! Be sure to check out her book, Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, as well as her first post on MuggleNet here.


J.K. Rowling loves detective fiction. Among many more modern references, she has spoken of how much she enjoyed reading Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone – often described as the first detective novel. After becoming a detective novelist herself, she spoke of her life-long enthusiasm for the genre and Harry Potter‘s links to it: “I’ve always loved it… I think that the Harry Potter books are in many ways who-dunnits in disguise… I enjoy the golden-age book… to take that finite number of suspects, the genuine who-dunnit style.” As this post argues, I think there are echoes within Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles [that] suggest that Rowling has been influenced by the most famous sleuth of all: Sherlock Holmes.

Hound of the Baskervilles and Prisoner of Azkaban are both influenced by traditional British folktales [sic] of a giant, spectral black dog.1 This black dog, generally seen at night with glowing eyes, and sometimes thought of as a portent of death, goes by many names – among them “Padfoot ” or the “Grim.” The latter name, as well as being the one Rowling takes for the wizarding black dog legend, may well have influenced Conan Doyle. He invents the name of Grimpen for the village “haunted” by the black dog – and the Grimpen mire (a central location of Hound of the Baskervilles) is where the dog is “penned” up. The tradition is that the Grim, as Trelawney notes, haunted churchyards (PoA, Chapter 6), and this association is the reason that the first sighting of the giant black dog in Hound of the Baskervilles is in a yew alley – a tree strongly tied to English churchyards.2

When the hound appears in the yew alley, it frightens Uncle Charles to death; just as the supposed sighting of the Grim had killed off Ron’s Uncle Bilius. In fact, Hermione’s sceptical unpacking of the Grim legend – “they see the Grim and die of fright. The Grim’s not an omen, it’s the cause of death!” (PoA, Chapter, 6) – is precisely the plot of Conan Doyle’s story in which the villain uses Uncle Charles’s belief that his family is haunted by a phantom hound to frighten him to death.

There is another direct link between Prisoner of Azkaban and Hound of the Baskervilles when the apparently supernatural black dog finally breaks cover. At the climax of both, “an enormous coal-black hound” (Hound of the Baskervilles) or “an enormous… jet-black dog” (Prisoner of Azkaban) leaps out from the shadows, proving once and for all, there has been a flesh-and-blood dog prowling through the novel, not just the spectral hound of legend. Holmes and Watson hear the “thin, crisp, continuous patter of the dog’s paws before suddenly seeing the “dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows” whose “eyes glowed with a smoldering glare” and who pursues their friend “with long bounds” (Chapter 14). In Prisoner of Azkaban, likewise, the friends hear “the soft pounding of gigantic paws” before they see it. “Something was bounding towards them out of the dark – an enormous, pale-eyed, jet-black dog” (PoA, Chapter 17). In both novels the giant dog “bounds” out of the darkness and attacks the hero’s friend. Harry and Hermione are too slow to raise their wands to defend Ron, just as Sherlock Holmes and Watson are paralyzed by shock from raising their guns to defend their friend.

A final link with Hound of the Baskervilles occurs in Order of the Phoenix when Draco drops a sly hint that Sirius has been spotted in London: “just watch yourself, Potter, because I’ll be dogging your footsteps” (OotP, Chapter 10). Harry and Hermione worry – correctly – that this pun means the Malfoys have seen through Sirius’s disguise; and it is noticeable that it is a pun of which Conan Doyle is inordinately fond. He uses it to describe the pursuit of Sir Henry, Sherlock Holmes and Watson in London by the man who will later release the hound on them: “I have ample evidence that you are being dogged in London[;] “the first to dog the new heir when he returned to England[;] “A stranger then is still dogging us, just as a stranger dogged us in London” (Chapters 5, 7 and 10, italics mine).

Rowling’s own research on the legend of the black dog has taken her on a different path than Conan Doyle. She chooses, for example, to make Sirius a friend in disguise (which is in keeping with the way that many English counties have traditions of a friendly rather than a terrifying black dog). But it is also clear that she has been inspired by Conan Doyle’s Hermione-like demystification of the legend. Hermione, like Sherlock Holmes, has no truck with the idea of a phantom hound, and like him, she is prove[n] quite right.

Dr. Groves’ series continues tomorrow with an analysis of Harry Potter and Shakespeare – be sure to check back!


For full background on the black dog legend, see Janet and Colin Bord, Alien Animals: A Worldwide investigation (Granada Publishing: London, 1980).
Rowling explores the yew’s associations on Pottermore where she notes the wood’s “dark and fearsome reputation.” Within Harry Potter, Voldemort’s wand is made of yew, and he notes how fitting it is that opening a tomb should be its last act (DH, Chapter 24).


Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.
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