Time-travelling back to 2005: New J.K. Rowling interview material (Part 2)!

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Jul 16, 2018

Posted by: Emma Pocock

BigNews, Books, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling, JKR Interviews, News

On this day in 2005, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was published, and we’re celebrating by bringing you exclusive new material from Lev Grossman’s interview with J.K. Rowling following the release of the sixth book! This analysis is written up by Potter expert and Research Fellow in Renaissance English at the University of Oxford,  Dr Beatrice Groves, who takes readers on a journey through J.K. Rowling’s chat with Lev, and weaves through earlier interviews with the author, as well as thoughts on the rest of the series.

Yesterday we brought you the first part of this analysis (click here), containing new material from J.K. Rowling on responding to readers and theorising. Today’s piece deals with her thoughts and inspiratiions in myth, fairytales and magic as a metaphor. Enjoy this insight into the J.K. Rowling’s mind from 2005!


Part 1   | Part 2  | Part 3

Part 2: Myths, fairytales and magic as metaphor

During this 2005 interview with Lev Grossman Rowling made a slight slip which provides insight into the way she thinks about her creation. She described Vernon Dursley as a ‘shocking stepfather, or whatever he is – adopted father – to Harry’ (italics mine). It is highly unlikely that Rowling would forget the precise relationship between Vernon and Harry (she is never going to think that he married Lily when she wasn’t looking.) What is happening here, of course, is an allusion to the fairy tale structures which underlie her story.

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Fairytales – from the House Elves who leave when they are given clothes to the eternally locked room in the Department of Mysteries – are an important undercurrent in Harry Potter. Many critics have picked up on this: from Alison Lurie’s excellent early assessment of Harry as a ‘classic Cinderlad’ to more recent analysis of the structure of the series which argues that it ‘casts its spell over readers by closely adhering to the formal organization of folktale structure.’ (p111). Harry Potter flags up its indebtedness to fairy tale structures in various ways. One nice (previously unnoticed) link is that Rowling has named the Wizarding fairy tale that appears within Harry Potter after the oldest surviving Muggle fairy tale. This fairy tale, which exists only in Egyptian hieroglyphs, is called ‘The Tale of the Two Brothers;’ a title which bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ told in Deathly Hallows.

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Rowling’s apparent Freudian slip of calling Vernon Harry’s ‘stepfather’ is a sign of how deeply engrained Harry Potter’s fairy tale structure is in her thinking: ‘you have the changeling, you have the wicked stepparents… you even have an ugly brother, in a way.’ I suspect her love of the fairy tale form was the reason why (unusually) she chose to pick up the 2010 Hans Christian Anderson award in person. In her acceptance speech she spoke of how:

“[Anderson is] a writer I revere, because his work was of that rare order that seems to transcend authorship. He created indestructible, eternal characters. The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, and The Naked Emperor have become so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we are in danger of forgetting that we were not born knowing about them, that Andersen gave them to us.” (Quoted p53)

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Myth and Religion

In a well-known interview with Stephen Fry (which took place later in 2005) Rowling spoke of how:

“I’ve taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I’m quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we’ve been invaded by people, we’ve appropriated their gods, we’ve taken their mythical creatures, and we’ve soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it’s so varied.”

Rowling had, in fact, said something very similar to Grossman earlier in the year but with a crucially different emphasis:

“I had always been quite interested in folklore… and the way that the pagan and the religious bleed together. Britain has a particularly rich tradition of folklore because we were invaded by just enough people to get this weird, you know, combination of religious and pagan beliefs, melded together, and our tradition of storytelling is riddled with these mythical creatures and so on.”

The pagan ‘gods’ which Rowling used in the Stephen Fry interview had originally been the rather wider and more resonant ‘religious… beliefs.’ This is a major shift in terms of its relevance both to the modern world and depth of symbolism within Harry Potter: ‘the way that the pagan and the religious bleed together.’ I think it is clear that Rowling accepts and responds to the popular belief that pre-Christian British religious customs were co-opted and assimilated within Christianity.

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This comment – in the version which we have not seen until now – gives powerful support to those (most notably John Granger) who have read the ‘mythical creatures’ or (as we might now think of them, ‘Fantastic Beasts’) of Harry Potter from a religious perspective. Many of Rowling’s beasts – such as unicorns, hippogriffs and the Phoenix – have a traditional Christian symbolism. In the unpublished version of this statement, Rowling acknowledges her interest in the religious aspects of such mythical creatures. This gives weight to the idea that she intends her versions of these animals – unicorns, with their life-giving blood; Fawkes, whose song brings strength and comfort; the stag Patronus which fights off the forces of evil; Buckbeak, who flies Sirius to freedom – to retain their traditional undercurrent of Christian symbolism.

Rowling has noted that she did much of her research on these animals from bestiaries. There are often beautifully illustrated medieval texts, which describe animals (both mythical and real), often concentrating on their perceived religious symbolism. In May 2018 Rowling placed one such text – the stunning early thirteenth-century Aberdeen Bestiary – as her Twitter header. Strikingly, she choose the most traditionally Christological animal for her image: the Pelican.

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The picture on Rowling’s header shows the baby pelicans attacking their parent on the left; the parent killing the fledglings in the middle and then (in the final image) the mother Pelican piercing her side and bringing her babies back to life with her blood. The text below this image describes its symbolism thus:

“[She] lets her blood pour over the bodies of the dead, and so raises them from the dead. In a mystic sense, the pelican signifies Christ… It kills its young with its beak as preaching the word of God converts the unbelievers. It weeps ceaselessly for its young, as Christ wept with pity when he raised Lazarus. Thus after three days, it revives its young with its blood, as Christ saves us, whom he has redeemed with his own blood.”

Rowling has said that her Twitter headers reflect what she is working on. The striking Christian symbolism of the Pelican in this header interacts with her 2005 comments about the way in which ‘mythical creatures’ (such as Pelicans which can ‘resurrect’ their young) come from ‘religious and pagan beliefs, melded together.’ Both give strong support for an underlying religious symbolism of the many mythical creations in Harry Potter. They also point forward to her current beasts-focussed work. It will be interesting to see, for example, in the forthcoming Fantastic Beasts movies what symbolic reasons there might be for pointing up the Thunderbird’s relationship with the Phoenix….

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Magic as Metaphor

In this interview Rowling told Grossman that ‘magic is… very useful metaphorically.’ Rowling has had trouble from those who read Harry Potter’s magic literally but as she has always noted, she sees magic not as reality but as metaphor: ‘a beautiful metaphor for other things in life.’ In this 2005 interview she expanded a little on what some of those things might be:

“It can be a metaphor for so many things. It can be a metaphor for knowledge and imagination and all these things we develop within ourselves, that can backfire and inspire and occasionally produce spectacular results.”

Rowling’s describes magic here as a metaphor for both ‘knowledge’ and ‘imagination.’ In combining these two, she gets pretty close here to describing magic as a metaphor for reading. C.S. Lewis expressed the transformative discovery of reading in a magical way:

“I did not in the least feel that I was getting in more quantity or better quality a pleasure I had already known. It was more as if a cupboard which one had hitherto valued as a place for hanging coats proved one day, when you opened the door, to lead to the garden of the Hesperides.”

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The wardrobe into Narnia is Lewis’s explicit connection of his enchanted world with the way that literature opens up new horizons in the imagination. Rowling, too, has left a clue to the link between the joy of reading and the entrance to her magical world. The Leaky Cauldron – the first portal that Harry takes between the mundane and the Wizarding World – stands next to a ‘big book shop’ (Philosopher’s Stone, Chap 5). This was a signal that was picked up on by the makers of the first movie, which emphasises it by placing the Leaky Cauldron between two bookshops. As Rowling has noted, she intentionally placed the pub on London’s Charing Cross Road. This road is ‘famous for its bookshops, both modern and antiquarian… this is why I wanted it to be the place where those in the know go to enter a different world.’

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There is another link between magic and books in the sense of writing as a hidden world for Rowling. She has spoken of how she had always been a writer at heart: but while she was always writing, she was also keeping it a secret: ‘at 25, I was writing constantly but I was hiding it.’ The sense of writing as a true self that she had to keep secret links clearly with the secrecy of the magic world, which has had to hide itself away from the Muggle world. Magic in Rowling is a metaphor for creativity: both for what can be achieved through writing and for what we can create through reading.


Check back tomorrow for the final instalment of new material, and find part one here.

Thanks to Lev Grossman for giving permission for the honor of having this new J.K. Rowling content added to Leaky’s extensive archives, and to Dr Beatrice Groves (who you can find on Twitter, here) for three excellent write-ups of the new material! Beatrice previously guest-published an analysis of the History of Magic exhibition at The British Library, which you can find here, and be sure to check out more of her Harry Potter insights in her book, Literary Allusion In Harry Potter.





Finding Hogwarts

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.