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On “Harry Potter” and Wizard’s Hall

So recently I read someplace about a book called Wizard’s Hall, by Jane Yolen. Yolen seems to think her book was an unacknowledged influence on J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, of which you may have heard. I figured, well, I like Jane Yolen* and I like Harry Potter, so I should totally check this book out.

And I’m glad I did. It’s not a big read; it’s pitched young and fairly slim. Didn’t remind me of Harry Potter at all. There are some superficial similarities, it’s true: wizard school, and a few smaller details. Mostly Wizard’s Hall reminds me of, oh, The Last Unicorn and The Riddle-Master of Hed, and other fantasies of that vintage. A Wizard of Earthsea. Same kind of atmosphere.

Basically here’s what I think is happening. I think that the main premise of what Rowling was doing with Harry Potter has not been widely enough recognized. I mean, it’s no secret or anything, nor do I lay claim to any kind of special understanding. But in North America, we just aren’t as familiar with one of Rowling’s major ingredients, and in some cases may not even know that it is an ingredient. See, the “Harry Potter” series isn’t just a fantasy series. It certainly is a fantasy series, but that’s not the only thing it is. It is two things, in roughly equal parts:

1. A fantasy epic
2. A British school story

If you’ve read “Harry Potter”, but aren’t otherwise familiar with the school-story genre, it may sound like I’ve just said something stupidly trivial. Like if I said that The Lord of the Rings was both a fantasy epic and a Middle-Earth Ring story. But that’s not it. The British school story is an actual thing, a genre on its own. Wikipedia can tell you all about it that you have to know, but my point here is that it is an established genre that Rowling and her British readers would be largely familiar with, and that it has a lot of conventions.** Rowling’s particular stroke of genius was to realize that if you take a convention-heavy genre like the school story, and marry it to an imaginative, content-rich, convention-poor genre like fantasy, you could come up with something really exciting. Which she did.

So a lot of the stuff Rowling was doing in “Harry Potter”, she wasn’t just freestyling. The Quidditch, the chocolate frogs, the Hogwarts setting… she wasn’t inventing all that out of whole cloth, on the one hand, but she wasn’t ripping anybody off on the other. She was working within her genre and adapting its conventions to fantasy. And what she came up with wasn’t like anything else in fantasy and was at the same time unprecedentedly popular. And you couldn’t explain the popularity by the strength of the writing, which certainly got the job done but was sometimes clunky.*** So how to explain it?

Well, it’s hard to explain, if you’re trying to figure out how Rowling filled up this rich and vivid world, and you don’t know that she had this preexisting school-story paradigm to keep her on track. If you’re being very generous, or you’re well-disposed to Rowling, you might just say that she has a tremendous imagination.**** Or you may very well be tempted to say that she got this from this writer and that from that writer. But it’s really much simpler than that.

Conclusion: Yolen doesn’t have a beef: you can’t start at Wizard’s Hall and get to “Harry Potter” without going through school-story-ville, and if you’re going through school-story-ville, you don’t need to start at Wizard’s Hall.

(Note: I have no idea whether Yolen is familiar with British school stories or not. She’s a writer, so my basic expectation would be that she’s read widely, and has run into Wodehouse’s Mike and Psmith or Blyton’s “Malory Towers” series or something. On the other hand: all my reasoning above. So I make no claims to have any idea what’s in Yolen’s mind with regard to all this.)

* try Yolen’s Briar Rose in particular, it’s very good
** not that kind of convention
*** certainly there are fantasy writers out there who are much better prose stylists, and much less popular, than Rowling. Yolen arguably among them
**** not that she doesn’t. A genre will only take you so far. She had to come up with all the details; the genre only gave her guidance for what kinds of details to come up with

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