“Hitchhiker” and “Harry Potter:” Part 1 – Celebrating Towel Day 2021
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
A number of years ago, I went to see one of my favorite authors talk about their book and to get my copy of their latest work signed. Not Harry Potter but Last Chance to See – a relatively little known but (by me at least) much loved work by Douglas Adams. And as neither he nor the organizer had thought to bring a pen to the book signing, we were delighted to give him ours.
Today is Towel Day – a day which owes its genesis to Adams’s inability to find not just pens at book signings but towels on pool trips.
I was vacationing with friends in Greece some years back. Every morning they’d have to sit around and wait for me because I couldn’t find my blessed towel… I came to feel that someone really together, one who was well organised, would always know where his towel is.”
And so Towel Day was born, for as we know,
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has a few things to say on the subject of towels. A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have… any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), chap. 3)
In honor of Adams, Towel Day was inaugurated a few weeks after his death on May 25, 2001, and it has been celebrated in a suitably surprising way ever since – from the decision of one Norwegian public transportation company to give “chipped” towels to customers (enabling free transport) in 2013 to its fittingly enthusiastic celebration by space travelers. Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti celebrated it in space in 2015 as did Tim Peake a year later with a towel embroidered with “DON’T PANIC” (one hopes in large friendly letters).
At first sight, Adams’s stellar comedy Hitchhiker and Harry Potter do not have a great deal in common other than many people’s fondness for both, but I’ve long suspected that Rowling is an Adams fan. It also seems that one reason for the longevity of both series is the playful way in which each is in dialogue with the literature that has come before them. Both series are shot through with their writers’ own love of literature. Adams studied English literature at college (just as Rowling wanted to), something that plays out in his plots. Literary critical skills, for example, are a crucial part of the plot in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), but Adams also sends up his university education in a famous scene in Hitchhiker in which Arthur and Ford are strapped into Poetry Appreciation chairs by the Vogons (a scene which Adams’s tutor at St. Johns, Cambridge, believed – surely correctly – to be a parody of his classes1).
‘I present you with a simple choice! Either die in the vacuum of space, or…’ he paused for melodramatic effect, ‘tell me how good you thought my poem was!’
Arthur and Ford give of their best literary critical skills, but the scene ends with the Vogon deciding to throw them off the ship anyhow:
‘Counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor…’ He considered this for a moment, and then closed the book with a grim smile.
‘Death’s too good for them,’ he said.” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chap. 7)
Adams’s scene – in which terrifying monsters are prone to ask kidnapped victims to perform literary analysis – might be remembered by Rowling in a joke about the Ickabog when Fraudysham terrifies Fred with tales of how “before disemboweling and eating its victims, we believe it forces them to give it English lessons” (The Ickabog, chap. 21). (And Hermione, likewise, balks at the idea that she should be giving Grawp English lessons.)
Adams’s most famous creation is in fact a book – albeit an electronic one. We might think today of Adams’s Guide as prefiguring the World Wide Web – which launched in 1993, 14 years after Hitchhiker was published. The web is an information retrieval system that has often been lamented as signaling the end of the book, but it could, in fact, be seen as “the book’s apogee rather than its overthrow. I am taken (as any bibliophile would be!) by Peter Stallybrass’s argument that as navigability is the crucial aspect that the invention of the codex brought to reading (over the scroll’s emphasis on continuity), so – given its absolute prioritizing of access to information over continuity of reading – the Web is the apotheosis of ‘the book.’”2
Adams adored technology, but just like Rowling, he also wrote books in which more old-fashioned texts were the mainspring of the plot. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency centers on Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” and just like the diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the textbook in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the novel in The Silkworm, this poem is not a simple text but an interface between an author and a reader. The importance of “Kubla Khan” in this novel – like both Riddle’s diary and the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions textbook – lies in its concentration on and interrogation of what is otherwise the everyday interaction between text and reader. In Harry Potter, while this is done magically in the case of Riddle’s diary, it is pleasing that in the case of the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook, the transformation of the original text takes place through the kind of manuscript annotation that is open to any Muggle (though I wouldn’t recommend you try it on Madam Pince’s library books).
The relationship between text and reader is crucial, likewise, in both Dirk Gently and Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowlings’s Silkworm. Each novel places a text at the center of the narrative in a literary act of mise en abyme, but the tricky plot function these texts play also marks an intensely literary engagement with the way in which texts are shaped by and shape the world around them. The way in which readers within the novels respond to “Kubla Khan” and Bombyx Mori serves to obfuscate a murder (in the case of The Silkworm) and – in Dirk Gently – endanger life having ever existed on earth (Adams always enjoyed playing with unusually high stakes). In both cases, the text in question has been rewritten by another person, and the detective has to employ literary-critical skills – as well as more traditional sleuthing – to discover the murderer.
2 Peter Stallybrass, “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible,” in Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer, ed., Books and Readers in Early Modern England: Material Studies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 42–79.
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford, and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.