“Hitchhiker” and “Harry Potter:” Part 2 – “Mostly Harmless”
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
SPOILERS FOR CURSED CHILD AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Yesterday’s post on Douglas Adams’s influence on Harry Potter looked at the overlap between the shared comic idea that monsters might be interested in learning English as well as the more serious business of their mise en abyme literary plotting. Rowling has spoken of her novel The Silkworm as a “novel about novels with another novel inside it,” and Adams achieves something similar with both Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in Dirk Gently and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself within its eponymous series. Today’s post will look at both Rowling’s acknowledgement of her admiration for Adams’s work and what I think is the most influential Adams novel for Harry Potter: Mostly Harmless.
The essential importance of “the person from Porlock” (whom Coleridge claimed stopped him finishing “Kubla Khan”) to the plot of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is one of the tiny overlaps that suggested to me that Rowling has read and enjoyed Adams, for Harry Potter, of course, has Porlocks too: magical creatures which turn up in both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the 2001 spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (though not the films yet). The poet Stevie Smith has suggested that in all likelihood, Coleridge’s excuse of being interrupted by “a person from Porlock” was an invention to explain away his writer’s block, and “Porlock” has become short-hand for this phenomenon. Adams suffered titanic struggles with writer’s block, which is why I think he transformed the person from Porlock into a life-on-earth saving hero and Rowling’s fantastic beast, likewise, robs “Porlock” of its menace. The charm that both Adams and Rowling bring to Porlock suggests that perhaps she might be remembering Adams’s use of Coleridge’s phrase as well as referring to the original.
Rowling and Adams seem to find many of the same things inherently funny, such as whelks. Uncle Vernon notes that, on reading a postcard from the Isle of Wight, “Marge’s ill… Ate a funny whelk…” (SS 35), while whelks play an outsized role in this exchange in Life, The Universe and Everything:
‘… then we don’t stand a whelk’s chance in a supernova.’
‘A what?’ said Arthur sharply again. He had been following the conversation doggedly up to this point, and was keen not to lose the thread now.
‘A whelk’s chance in a supernova,’ repeated Ford without losing momentum, ‘the…’
‘What’s a whelk got to do with a supernova?’ said Arthur.
‘It doesn’t,’ said Ford levelly, ‘stand a chance in one.’
He paused to see if the matter was now cleared up. The freshly puzzled looks clambering across Arthur’s face told him it wasn’t.
‘A supernova,’ said Ford as quickly and clearly as he could, ‘is a star that explodes at almost half the speed of light and burns with the brightness of a billion suns and then collapses as a superheavy neutron star. It’s a star that burns up other stars, got it? Nothing stands a chance in a supernova.’
‘I see,’ said Arthur.
‘So why a whelk particularly?’
‘Why not a whelk? Doesn’t matter.'” (Chap. 16)
I wondered too whether the very ordinary voice – a parody of train tannoy announcements – that greets Harry’s arrival by discombobulating magical travel when he first takes a Portkey (“‘Seven past five from Stoatshead Hill,’ said a voice” [GoF 74]) remembers the calmly disembodied voice that greets Arthur and Ford when they first travel by Improbability Drive: “‘Welcome,’ the voice said, ‘to the Starship Heart of Gold’” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chap. 9).
Since wondering about these connections, I have found what is (I think) Rowling’s only explicit reference to Adams’s work in a 2013 interview. She is asked “How distinct is literary fiction from genre fiction, in your view?”
There has always been an overlap. The late J. G. Ballard being the modern example that springs to mind; an outstanding writer who ‘transcended’ the science fiction genre. I am pretty indifferent to the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction myself, and I hop pretty freely between the two as a reader without feeling remotely as though I am ‘slumming it.’ So-called ‘genre’ fiction has given us deathless characters like Sherlock Holmes, Ford Prefect and James Bond, who have forever influenced our culture and language; what is there to be snobbish about?”
The fact that Rowling reaches for Ford Prefect as a “deathless character” alongside two of Britain’s most famous exports – Sherlock Holmes and James Bond – suggests that she is, indeed, a major Adams fan.
The Adams novel, however, that appears to have made the most lasting impression on the wizarding world is, I think, Mostly Harmless (1992) – which is “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy.” I had two hair-triggers of recognition to this novel on reading Harry Potter, but noticeably, they were to precisely the same passage of the book. The first being that Ford meets a robot who is so unremittingly positive and devoted that he decides to call him Colin (after an old girlfriend’s dog). Colin bobs along beside Ford “in a lather of cheerful ecstasy” (Mostly Harmless, chap. 8), and it seems possible that this is why Rowling chose the name Colin for a character who is likewise unremittingly cheerful and constantly bobs along corridors in Harry’s wake. Colin accompanies Ford to the deep, dark depths of the Guide offices where another of Adams’s names may have subconsciously influenced Rowling:
He was moving deep into the bowels of the building now, into areas he had never encountered before, areas of higher and higher security. He was beginning to encounter puzzled looks from the operatives he passed. At this level of security, you didn’t even call them people anymore. And they were probably doing stuff that only operatives would do. When they went home to their families in the evening they became people again, and when their little children looked up to them with their sweet shining eyes and said, ‘Daddy, what did you do all day today?’ they just said, ‘I performed my duties as an operative,’ and left it at that.” (Mostly Harmless, chap. 8)
In the fifth Hitchhiker novel, Mostly Harmless, the Guide transforms into the enemy, just as the Ministry of Magic does in the fifth Harry Potter novel. In both, the hero explores the massive offices of the ally-turned-enemy in search of a kind of secret weapon, which is not quite what they think it will be. When Harry goes deeper into the underground (literal and figurative) of the Ministry, he likewise finds that descriptive job titles disappear:
‘So what’s in the Department of Mysteries?’ Harry asked Ron. ‘Has your dad ever mentioned anything about it?’
‘I know they call the people who work in there “Unspeakables,”’ said Ron, frowning. ‘Because no one really seems to know what they do in there…. Weird place to have a weapon…’
‘It’s not weird at all, it makes perfect sense,’ said Hermione. ‘It will be something top secret that the Ministry has been developing, I expect.’” (OotP 539)
Both Colin’s irrepressible cheerfulness and the connection between the Ministry’s Unspeakables and the Guide’s operatives nudged me into thinking that Rowling might have enjoyed Mostly Harmless when it came out in 1992, around the time when Rowling first started planning and writing Harry Potter (and there is a Professor Trelawney link too with Mostly Harmless’s take on astrology). But the clearest link between Mostly Harmless and the wizarding world comes in Rowling’s own unexpected coda to her series: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
The advertising for Cursed Child includes a pair of ominous black wings – wings that finally take on their full meaning as Delphi’s cloak slips and reveals her Augurey tattoo:
Albus: On your back. I hadn’t noticed it before. The wings. Is that what the Muggles call a tattoo?
Delphi: Oh. Yes. Well, it’s an Augurey.
Scorpius: An Augurey?
Delphi: Haven’t you met them in Care of Magical Creatures? They’re sinister-looking black birds that cry when rain’s coming. Wizards used to believe that the Augurey’s cry foretold death… It reminds me that the future is mine to make…
Scorpius: They called you the Augurey. In – the other world – they called you the Augurey…
Delphi: I am the new past. I am the new future. I am the answer this world has been looking for. (Cursed Child, Part 2, Act 3.16)
In the production, these portentous words are accompanied by a transformation, and Delphi becomes the huge black bird that has hovered ominously over the play. And an ominous time-traveling black bird is likewise at the center of Mostly Harmless: “It was as if the whole geometry of space was redefined in seamless bird shapes” (Mostly Harmless, chap. 17).
Delphi, just like Random in Mostly Harmless, is an estranged daughter with serious father issues who will use time travel to change the past and obliterate the world as we know it. But the striking link between Mostly Harmless and Cursed Child is that the time-traveling destruction is orchestrated by a great black bird. The mysterious Augurey of Cursed Child recalls the mysterious black bird that the Guide becomes in the final Hitchhiker novel, a bird that warps time and space in order to destroy the world: “The blackness receded and rolled itself up into a ball and then the blackness was the bird again” (Chap. 17). When Ford Prefect first catches a glimpse of the Guide, he wonders, “Was there a bird of some kind in there?… it seemed like not so much a bird, more a kind of bird-shaped hole in space” (Chap. 12), and when the Guide is fully revealed, we see that has indeed taken on the strangely ominous shape of a great black bird: “The shadowy shape of a bird spread its wings and rose into the air near him. Darkness engulfed the bridge” (Chap. 24).
Augurey is a clever name for Delphi as it based on the augurs – Roman religious officials who predicted the future, often on the interpretation of bird behavior. (It is a hint for the playgoer that the Augurey and Delphi – whose name comes, of course, from the ancient oracle – might be connected.) Rowling brings together augury as the prediction of the future through birds with Adams’s bird for whom “the flow of time is irrelevant. You decide what you want. I then merely make sure that it has already happened” (Mostly Harmless, chap. 17). In Cursed Child, these two unite in the figure of a Delphic oracle/Augurey who makes the future that she wants rather than simply predicting it.
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.