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“Reading, Writing, Rowling” Episode 28: “Tolkien and Rowling (Part 1)”

What does the wizarding world owe to Middle-earth?

 

 

This month, Katy and John talk about the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling with guests Dr. Sara Brown (Rydal Penrhos School and Signum University) and Dr. Amy Sturgis (Lenoir-Rhyne University). Though Rowling has minimized the influence of Tolkien’s saga on her own world-building, readers can spot several connections at the superficial level, from names (Wormtongue/Wormtail, Butterbur/butterbeer, Longbottom) to frightening magical beings (Ringwraiths/Dementors, Shelob/Aragog) and important magical objects (Mirror of Galadriel/Mirror of Erised/Pensieve). The influence carries over to the themes (coping with mortality, loyalty, and friendship) as well as their critiques of modern society. Both series classify as “fairy stories” according to Tolkien’s definitive essay on the subject. Amy calls Rowling’s work “a modern-day Tolkienian project.”

Such influence does not mean that Rowling’s wizarding world is derivative. John explains how the source of the two critiques of the modern operate in different ways (conservative or subversive). Sara agrees that both are responding to modernity, though they approach the modern from distinctive points of view – one longingly looking to the past and the other hopefully looking toward the future – which relate to the distinctive times in the 20th century during which they wrote their fiction. Their approaches to transformation are revealed in their uses of literary alchemy, and Sara provides an alchemical metanarrative for the Middle-earth saga. John suggests that Rowling did not learn literary alchemy from Tolkien, but that both authors derive their understanding from deep reading in the western literary tradition.

We delve into the authors’ world-building, their narrative patterns, their evocation of mythology, and even their creation of new collective myths. Comparing these two authors’ worlds allows readers to deepen their understanding of how narratives work to depict as well as create profound transformation.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation, when we look into the intersecting fandoms and compare the movie adaptations. Please join the conversation via email (ReadingWritingRowling@gmail.com), Twitter (ReadWriteRowl), or our Facebook page! We’d love to hear from you.

Laurie Beckoff

My Harry Potter journey began in 2000 when I was six and continued through a bachelor's thesis and master's dissertation on medievalism in the series. I'm a Gryffindor from New York City with a passion for theatre, fantasy, Arthurian legend, and science fiction.