Copyright 2014 by Gabriel Connor Salter
It was seventeen years ago now that J.K Rowling wrote the first book of the Harry Potter series, which has since grown into a massive empire. These seven books have outsold almost every other fiction series in human history, made Rowling into one of the world’s bestselling authors. The series has also given birth to a mountain of products, most notably the Harry Potter film franchise, still one of the highest-grossing film series of all time. There is no doubt that these books have been successful and are well loved by millions of people.
But what if Rowling did not invent Harry Potter? What if, instead of creating this bestselling character from her imagination, she simply stole him from another writer and changed the name and certain details? Since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone appeared, a number of comic book fans have asserted that in fact, J.K. Rowling stole Harry Potter from The Books of Magic, a comic book mini-series released in 1990 by DC Comics and written by Neil Gaiman.
DC Comics conceived The Books of Magic in the late 1980’s as a way to cash in on the popularity of their magic characters. Many people know DC Comics as the company behind the Batman and Superman comics, but DC also publishes a variety of comic books with supernatural characters; heroes such as Doctor Fate, Sargon the Sorcerer and the Spectre have become an important part of the DC Universe. While today these characters are sometimes much more popular than DC’s traditional superheroes, during the 1970’s they were mostly ignored. It wasn’t until Alan Moore began writing Saga of the Swamp Thing in 1984 that things began to change. Rolling Stone magazine praised Swamp Thing as “perhaps the brainiest and the scariest horror narrative of the 80’s”, and suddenly supernatural comics were a very profitable commodity.
DC decided to capitalize on this trend with a four-issue comic book story that would overview their supernatural characters and the realms they exist in. They hired Neil Gaiman, a friend of Alan Moore’s who would later win great praise for his graphic novel series Sandman, to write this story, titled The Book of Magic.
Briefly, the plot of Books of Magic is this: four major DC characters – John Constantine, Dr. Occult, Mr. E, and the Phantom Stranger – meet to discuss a young British boy named Timothy Hunter. Hunter appears to be a typical teenage boy, but has incredible potential power. They describe him as “a natural force… [which can be used] for good or for evil, for magic or for science.” To help to see what magic is so he will choose magic or science responsibly, each of these four men takes Timothy on a supernatural journey. Through these journeys, Timothy meets to every major DC supernatural character, the worlds these characters inhabit, and learns how he might influence the DC universe.
The Books Of Magic was well-recieved, even gaining Gaiman the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Writer in 1992.
Six years after Books of Magic was published, Bloomsbury Publishing released J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Fans of Neil Gaiman’s work immediately noticed some odd similarities between Rowling’s Harry Potter and Gaiman’s Timothy Hunter. Both characters are young British teenagers with black hair. Both characters wear glasses and have pet owls. Neither characters have typical nuclear families, and their parentages are somewhat mysterious; Timothy lives with his father and his mother is absent (we later learn she died in a car crash in which Timothy’s dad lost his right arm), Harry lives with his abusive aunt and uncle and his parents are dead (supposedly in a car crash, but we know from the beginning that isn’t true). Most importantly, neither character seems extraordinary but visits by supernatural people proves they are vitally important to their magic worlds. In fact, they are so important that certain people want them dead.
But do all these similarities mean there must be a connection between the two characters? What defines plagiarizing another writer?
Some people would define plagiarism as taking the original ideas of another writer and passing them off as your own – and it does seem to be a good working definition. But is there such a thing as true originality? Some intellectuals and writers who would say there isn’t. For example, mythologist Joseph Campbell argued in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces that all major mythologies contain the Monomyth, a basic story that has been told over again and over again in infinite variations. Similarly, C.S. Lewis argued that humans have no true creativity, simply a great ability to rearrange things:
“There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary color, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together. Nothing happens.”-C.S. Lewis
For the purposes of this article, let us use the Random House Dictionary definition of plagiarism, “the act of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.”
By this definition, the important question is whether J.K. Rowling read The Books of Magic before writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It appears no one has asked Rowling that question yet, but ironically one of her loudest defendants has been Neil Gaiman. When The Daily Mirror reported in 2000 that Gaiman had accused Rowling of plagiarizing his work, Gaiman sent an email asserting he had never made such a statement, and repeated that statement in an interview with January Magazine:
“Look, all of the things that [Harry Potter and Timothy Hunter] actually have in common are such incredibly obvious, surface things that, had [Rowling] actually been stealing, they were the things that would be first to be changed. Change hair color from brown to fair, you lose the glasses, you know: that kind of thing….I said to [an English reporter] that I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White: very straightforward.” – Neil Gaiman
Rowling has also admitted that T.H. White’s book The Sword in the Stone influenced the Harry Potter series (Not Stated 1); most of the similarities make sense if you assume both Gaiman and Rowling were inspired by White. Like Timothy and Harry, the main character of The Sword in the Stone is a young, British boy who seems normal but has mysterious parentage (he lives with a feudal lord who treats him like a son, but no one knows who his real parents are). When a magician named Merlin appears, it is clear the boy, whom everyone calls Wart but his real name is Arthur, is someone extraordinary. Perhaps most interestingly, all three of these characters function as Messianic figures in their stories, individuals on whom the fate of entire societies rests.
Despite the common similarities, we really can’t accuse Gaiman or Rowling of plagiarizing T.H. White since Timothy, Harry, and Wart are definitely three distinct characters. Wart is kind and innocent and seems to accept the fact that he lives in a very medieval England where royalty often abuses power. Harry is impulsive and often rebellious, which creates problems in the highly moral magic world he lives in but also allows him to survive. Meanwhile, Timothy is a typical immature teenager who is a little freaked out when he gets catapulted into a largely amoral magical world is but is also in awe of what magic can accomplish.
The similarities between Harry Potter, Timothy Hunter, and Wart demonstrate a very interesting fact: no writer can entirely get away from his or her influences. Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling were both influenced by T.H. White, who in turn was influenced by Thomas Malory, who was influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth… the list goes on and on.
In one of T.H. White books, a character argues we cannot fight people simply because they hurt us sometime in the past: “if we go on living backward like that, we shall never come to the end of it… you simply go on and on, until you get to Cain and Abel.” In the same way, it seems clear that we cannot accuse writers of plagiarism simply because they take inspiration or borrow basic ideas from other writers. We would simply keep going backward until we reach Adam and Eve.
“1990’s Eisner Award Recipients.” Comic-Con International: San Diego. Comic-con.org, 2013. Retrieved February 3, 2014 from http://www.comic-con.org/awards/1990s-recipients
Cronin, Brian. “Comic Book Legends Revealed #271.” July 20, 2010. Retrieved January 30, 2014, from http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2010/07/29/comic-book-legends-revealed-271/
Gaiman, Neil (1990). “The Books of Magic: The Deluxe Edition.” DC Comics: New York, NY.
Gaiman, Neil. “Fair Use and Other Things.” April 19, 2008. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/04/fair-use-and-other-things.html
Not Stated. “JK (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling.” The Guardian, July 22, 2008. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jun/11/jkjoannekathleenrowling
Not Stated. “All Time Box Office.” BoxOfficeMojo.com, 2015. Retrieved September 30, 2015, from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/
Not Stated. “Fastest Selling Book of Fiction in 24 Hours.” Guinness Book of World Records, 2015. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world- records/fastest -selling-book-of-fiction-in-24-hours
Moore, Alan. Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One. DC Comics: New York, NY. 2009.
Parker, John. “Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Books of Magic’ Reintroduced Fans to the Occult Corner of the DC Universe [Review]”. January 29, 2013. Retrieved January 30, 2014, from http://comicsalliance.com/neil-gaiman-books-of-magic-review/
Richardson, Linda. “January Interview: Neil Gaiman.” January Magazine, August 2001. Retrieved January 30, 2014, from http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/gaiman.html
Roberts, Sheila. “Neil Gaiman Interview, Stardust.” 2013. Retrieved January 30, 2014, from http://www.moviesonline.ca/movienews_12696.html
White, T.H. (1939). The Once and Future King. Ace Books: New York, NY.