Nothing New Under the Sun

A great deal of literature comprises of adaptations of myths, folk tales and Classical literature

Nihil novi sub sole,” claimed The Book of Ecclesiastes over two millennia ago. A rather bleak outlook if applicable to modern authorship; a Doomsday-style death sentence for literature. And yet, each year more and more volumes are rapidly added to library catalogues. The Bodleian has expanded to such an extent that it’s stretching out to Swindon. UESCO states that the UK alone produced 206,000 new publications in 2005, which is more than one for each square kilometre in Great Britain. It is hardly surprising then that from time to time a cross-over in content is noticed between books. We accept similarities in form – it would be ludicrous to cry plagiarism with each new poem written, because someone else has written a sonnet somewhere else about something else before now. So why then are we so outraged when an author fails to produce a work containing wholly new material?

The Seven Basic Plots are a familiar theory whose part in storytelling over the centuries has been keenly attested by Christopher Booker. The observation that each piece of fiction contains a variation on comedy, tragedy, rags to riches, the quest, rebirth, overcoming the monster and voyage and return is an interesting one to work with. Within this framework, the sharing of ideas in literature is easily apparent. The Lord of the Rings is often heralded as the forerunner to Harry Potter, but what of Plato’s Republic 359d-360c, which tells the story of Gyges the shepherd? Perhaps it might not head W. H. Smith’s “Most Popular” chart, but I guarantee that you will recognize the narrative in places. It tells the story of Gyges, whom we might as well call Gollum: a rural pastor who stumbles across a chasm in the ground one day which contains many marvels and amongst them a corpse and on the finger of the corpse was a ring. Gyges takes the ring and when he wears it, he discovers that he becomes invisible. This eventually leads to his seduction of a queen, slaying of a king, and then continues to “conduct himself amongst mankind as the equal of a god”. Sound familiar? Well, why shouldn’t it? The change in language, form, purpose and period of publication calls for shared material to be more a matter of sampling than stealing. Something new is brought to old text and breathes life into a good tale growing so out of place that to a reader in the modern day it feels senile as opposed to ancient.

There are many examples where a parallel in content must be more than two minds arriving at the same place independently. As it has already been mentioned, let us return to Harry Potter. Transfiguration is a concept which hardly turns up for the first time in Professor McGonagall’s classroom. The Metamorphoses by Ovid tells mythological stories about physical changes. Some of the most famous are familiar because they have since been reworked in art, such as Apollo and Daphne by Antonio Pollaiuollo which hangs in the National Gallery. In this particular mutation, Daphne turns into a tree to avoid unsought-for affections from Apollo. Other examples include Diana and Actaeon, whereby Actaeon is transformed into a white stag. As a classics student herself, J. K. Rowling would certainly be familiar with this text, and the way in which the animagus characters in Harry Potter films are portrayed turning neatly but not suddenly into their new forms is precisely the way that Ovid’s shape-shifters are described in his poetry.

J. K. Rowling need not lose any sleep over this borrowing of ancient works. Ovid himself would have been far from angered if he saw his themes cropping up elsewhere: the neoterics at least (a small sect of Latin poets from the 1st century AD who adored the obscure and shunned mainstream metres and poetical styles) considered it a highly sophisticated art form to take a predecessor’s poem and rework it, as Catullus seems to have done with various works of the Greek poet Callimachus. Unfortunately, modern writers do not share this friendly attitude, and you may well recall some of the attempts by artists still alive and kicking to sue J. K. Rowling for plagiarism.

In 2009 a suit was brought against her on behalf of Adrien Jacobs, the author of The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. Efforts were made to prove that similar content in the two children’s stories, such as a train ride and a set task, existed. Well yes, it is true that some generic ground is covered in both, but as The Adventures of Willy the Wizard is aimed at a far younger audience and lasts for a mere 36 pages, the seven books of Harry Potter can hardly consist of material copyrighted from this one source. This was not the only legal dispute raised against Rowling. In 1999 Nancy Stouffer, author of The Legend of Rah and the Muggles and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly alleged that Rowling had lifted her invented term “muggles”. J. K. Rowling herself protested that she had never heard of the books before, and came up with the term by herself, playing on the English idiom for a fool and adding a softer, diminutive ending. Whatever the truth of the matter, we readily accept that is fine for an author to be inspired by other mediums of art, landscapes and living people, so why not other books? I can hardly imagine the architect responsible for Gandy Street in Exeter claiming compensation from Rowling, although the twisty alleyway of Rowling’s university city clearly gave rise to the idea behind Diagon Alley.

Harold Bloom saw previous books written as an obstacle for writers looking for their own “creative space” as opposed to a field of inspiration. He argues that “only strong poets can overcome the anxiety of influence” and that each generation of writers brings to life the next, who suffer from stumbling across “poetic misreadings” of one of the original giants. This idea of one writer giving birth to another sways closer to the truth: each text begets another with a similar genetic make-up, but in the way that a child can be a throwback but not a clone of its father, each book is still unique. Besides, everyone knows that J.K. Rowling cannot possibly have taken the term “muggle” from Stouffer: the word has been in use in New Orleans since the 1920s, and is in fact slang for a joint of marijuana.

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