Friday, October 8, 2010

J.K. Rowling among the Inklings

The title of this post invokes a rather well-known work of Inklings scholarship, Women among the Inklings (Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride; Greenwood, 2001). The book discusses, among other things, women on the fringe of the Inklings’ coterie: the members’ wives, friends, and fellow authors. A notable example is Dorothy L. Sayers, often mistaken for an Inklings or nominated by fans as an “honorary member”. J.K. Rowling is not discussed in this book — after all, her Harry Potter novels were still very new at the time Fredrick and McBride were writing it. And of course, Rowling was not a contemporary of the Inklings, so any (hypothetical) mention of her would have been off the main subject of their book.

But Rowling, like Sayers, is frequently described as an “honorary Inkling”, or said to be following in the tradition of the Inklings. The latter is certainly true. The Internet is awash in such conversation (a simple Google search will do the trick), and essays and even books have been published which argue the case. A couple examples: (1) “A Tale as Old as Time, Freshly Told Anew: Love and Sacrifice in Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling”, by Margarita Carretero-González (in Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings, eds. Eduardo Segura and Thomas Honegger; Walking Tree, 2007), and (2) The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels, by John Granger. For a taste of Granger’s thesis, check out his online essay, “Harry Potter and the Inklings: The Christian Meaning of The Chamber of Secrets”.

It is not surprising, I suppose, that Rowling is compared most to C.S. Lewis, and after that, to Tolkien. I have done likewise myself, here. But I’m writing today with another inkling: has J.K. Rowling read Charles Williams?

A highly specific motif caught my eye while reading Williams’s 1930 novel, War in Heaven, one that will look very familiar to Potterphiles:
.....“I’m — I’m in rather a hole, sir. I — we — can’t find the house. […] It doesn’t seem to be there.” [After ruling out a mistaken address and the thick fog, the conversation continues.]
.....“Stop a minute,” the Commissioner interrupted. He rang his bell and sent for a Directory […]. “Now go ahead. Where do you begin?”
.....“George Giddings, grocer.”
.....“Samuel Murchison, confectioner.”
.....“Mrs. Thurogood, apartments.”
.....“Damn it, man,” the Commissioner exploded, “you’ve just gone straight over it. Dmitri Lavrodopoulos, chemist.”
.....“But it isn’t, sir,” Pewitt said unhappily. “The fog’s very thick, but we couldn’t have missed a whole shop.”
.....[The Commissioner accuses Pewitt of being drunk and drives over to Lord Mayor’s Street to see for himself. They feel along the wall in single file, peering in each window, but cannot find the chemist’s shop.]
.....“I suppose you think the devil has carried it off,” the Assistant Commissioner said […]. “Damn it, the shop must be there,” he said. But the shop was not there.
.....Suddenly, as they stood there in a close group, the grounds beneath them seemed to shift and quiver. […] Again the earth throbbed below him; then from nowhere a great blast of cool wind struck his face. […] A strange man was standing in front of him; behind him the windows of a chemist’s shop came abruptly into being. [1]
And then, a little further on, from the other perspective:
”Why then should we delay?” the Greek said. “I have hidden this house [i.e., the chemist’s shop] in a cloud and drawn it in to our hearts so that it shall not be entered from without till the work is done.” [2]
To put it into the nomenclature of Harry Potter, it certainly sounds like the house has been made “unplottable”. Recall this descriptive passage from The Sorcerer’s Stone: “It was a tiny, grubby-looking pub. If Hagrid hadn’t pointed it out, Harry wouldn’t have noticed it was there. The people hurrying by didn’t glance at it. Their eyes slid from the big book shop on one side to the record shop on the other as if they couldn’t see the Leaky Cauldron at all. In fact, Harry had the most peculiar feeling that only he and Hagrid could see it” [3].

But hiding a building from Muggles is one thing. Hiding it from other wizards is quite another. The best parallel in Rowling is number twelve, Grimmauld Place. Like Williams’s chemist’s shop, this was the abode of Dark Wizards. But the Order of the Phoenix took it as their headquarters after Voldemort returned to his body at the end of The Goblet of Fire. Consider this passage, which to my ear recalls the motif in Williams very clearly:
.....“Think about what you’ve just memorized,” said Lupin quietly.
.....Harry thought, and no sooner had he reached the part about number twelve, Grimmauld Place, than a battered door emerged out of nowhere between numbers eleven and thirteen, followed swiftly by dirty walls and grimy windows. It was as though an extra house had inflated, pushing those on either side out of its way. Harry gaped at it. [4]
Of course, independent invention is entirely possible. I have never heard that Rowling was a fan of Williams (though she has admitted a liking for Tolkien and especially Lewis). But the resemblance is striking, isn’t it? It could just be possible that Rowling has read Williams and picked up this clever little motif from him. It is remarkably specific, and I can’t recall anything like it anywhere else in my reading history — which is admittedly finite; does anyone else know of a similar motif in literature?

(By the way — and this almost escaped my notice — this is my 300th post for Lingwë – Musings of a Fish. My, how time flutters by.)

[1] Williams, Charles. War in Heaven. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1930, pp. 229–33.

[2] Ibid., p. 239.

[3] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: A.A. Levine Books, 1998, p. 68.

[4] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: A.A. Levine Books, 2003, p. 59.


  1. I don't suppose "the Greek" is speaking to someone named Phillis?

    In general, I think the charge of originality so often bandied about when Rowling is discussed can safely be dismissed, though it's easy to think that mere cognates are actual ancestors.

  2. I think the charge of originality […] can safely be dismissed

    Indeed, and not just in Rowling’s case. In the words of Dalí, “those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

    [I]t’s easy to think that mere cognates are actual ancestors

    It is easy, and yes, they certainly may not be. In this case, I have no idea. I would like to ask Ms. Rowling, but she is understandably rather difficult to reach.

  3. Janet Brennan Croft10/08/2010 1:52 PM

    As an aside, Sam McBride has another follow-up article to _Women Among the Inklings_ in the soon-to-be-out Fall Mythlore, called "The Company They Didn't Keep" -- a study of Lewis's letters looking at the women who influenced him.

  4. Yes, I’m looking forward to reading that one!

  5. Are there by any chance any clues of the Entwives in that book?

  6. In David Eddings's "Belgariad" books, there are some instances of spells that render things unnoticeable. I remember a sword and a paragraph in a manuscript (the latter might amuse a medievalist like Tolkien), but not a whole building. Thanks for pointing out this connection. I knew the creepy Williams passage, and have something to look forward to when I eventually get to Rowling.

  7. Jason: Women Among the Inklings.

  8. Thanks, N.E.B. I haven’t read Eddings. Of course, you’ll remember that one of the key elements in War in Heaven is the removal of a passage from a book during the proof stage (rather like Eddings’s unnoticeable paragraph). It wasn’t made invisible, but removed by the author (but not before another of the characters had seen it). Leave it to a publisher like Williams to set his story among publishers!

  9. I've never thought of the Harry Potter books as being particularly like Williams. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and American gods seem closer.

  10. As a matter of macroscopic comparison, I would probably agree with you, Steve. (And remember, Gaiman was much influenced by the Inklings himself.) I was really just drawing a comparison on this specific motif. However, there are some other general similarities between Williams and Rowling, e.g., the location of a supernatural world alongside (and usually invisible to) the humdrum reality of the hoi polloi, the humorous and often parodic treatment of class differences, vocations, etc. But I wasn’t trying to say Williams for a major influence — or even any influence at all — on Rowling. It just struck me as possible this motif in her novels came from Williams. There’s no evidence of it, of course.

  11. Greetings Jason :-) Congratulations to your insightful comments and openmindedness while analysing the relationship between JKR's work and The Inklings's legacy. I think that your reasonable stance towards such matters is very refreshing indeed in comparison with some extremist positions that ocasionaly are found in the Internet. In regards to that question made by you in this post:"(...) It is remarkably specific, and I can’t recall anything like it anywhere else in my reading history — which is admittedly finite; does anyone else know of a similar motif in literature?" In my recent readings I've stumbled upon one particular tale that I think should be read by you as a possible asnwer to the question quoted right above: Number 13 writen by M.R. James, one author that is known as one included in the "recreational readings" of JRRT. Best regards :-)