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Of Wizards and Kings

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Earlier this year, I finished listening to a total of 129 hours of the Harry Potter books, as read by the fabulous Jim Dale. A couple of weeks after that, I completed T. H. White’s enchanting rendition of the Arthurian Legend, which I’d been reading alongside the audiobooks. It was a very fortunate pairing, as the two works are more intimately related than may at first be apparent.

Did you know, for instance, that J. K. Rowling acknowledged T. H. White’s strong and direct influence on her own writing? Whilst several critics have compared Ms. Rowling’s character of Albus Dumbledore to Mr. White’s necromancer Merlyn, Ms. Rowling herself described Mr. White’s character Wart (the young King Arthur) as Harry’s spiritual ancestor. Sweet, right?

What further unites the two works is that their authors draw on a deep-rooted tradition of English storytelling. Both incorporate elements of English folk tales into their realms, and encourage virtues such as courage and chivalry. Their worlds are vast fields where the imagination runs wild: surprising in their oddity yet familiar because they deal with that which is most universal for the human condition – our own imperfections.

Immersing myself into the worlds of Harry Potter and King Arthur reminded me of the best stories written by other canons of British literature – for children and adults alike – such as C. S. Lewis, Noel Streadfeild, Roald Dahl, or Douglas Adams.

You will have noticed by now that I’ve omitted J. R. R. Tolkien from my little list. (Alongside many others, of course.) I started listening to The Lord of the Ringsaudiobook not long ago, but found that Mr. Tolkien’s writing diverges somewhat from traditional English storytelling, and certainly stands apart from Ms. Rowling’s and Mr. White’s writing.

A perfunctory dig around the internet confirmed my finding, as various sources confirm that Mr. Tolkien’s writing was primarily inspired by Nordic Legends. The difference may not seem great at first, as these legends also celebrate common virtues such as bravery and friendship, but it does make the world of the Hobbits less immediately familiar. What further distinguishes Mr. Tolkien’s writing is that he was primarily a philologist and avid lover of linguistics, not necessarily a storyteller. He constructed his first language while still in his teens, spoke several tongues proficiently, and incorporated complex artificial languages generously into his subsequent books. Perhaps his concern was more with mythology and language than with advancing a story of the fight of good against evil.

Perhaps another characteristic that distinguishes Mr. Tolkien from his fellow authors is that he was a devout catholic. Even Mr. Lewis – who converted to Christianity under the influence of Mr. Tolkien – decided to join the Anglican Church, which (as per its name alone) allows for the incorporation of local particularities into the universal realm of God.

Of course, I’m generalising somewhat. All I really want to say is how much I appreciate the story books that helped form me as a child and that continue to entertain and enlighten me as an adult. Although I grew up on books written by British authors, I never got around to fully appreciating the genius loci that bred these great minds. I’m glad that I still can, even as a grown-up.

{image credits: 1, 2, 3 unknown}
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