Thursday, June 14, 2012

Harry Potter vs. A Wizard of Earthsea

We all know that writers borrow (or steal) from one another. That’s OK. It’s part of the game. And fantasy writers are perhaps more guilty than most of recycling not just plots and imagery but specific details and situations from other works, both contemporary and ancient. This is most likely because fantasy is a genre that deals with archetypal situations: The pure-hearted hero (usually an orphan!) matched against the dark, corrupted villain; a small party of good guys hopelessly outnumbered by the armies of evil; the wise mentor who guides the hero on his quest and then conveniently dies; the faithful animal companion; all that good stuff. It’s all part of what makes fantasy thrilling for fans.

So it’s by no means an assault on the awesome J.K. Rowling to point out that many of the details of her Harry Potter series are clearly lifted from other works. I’m not the first to make this observation, and I won’t be the last. I’ve seen the HP series likened to everything from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings to Batman. What I haven’t seen, however, is a comparison of Rowling’s stories to one of my own particular favorite fantasy series: Ursula K. LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea books (WoE).

If you're not familiar with them, these books were published in several batches. First came the original trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972). Eighteen years then passed before LeGuin added another novel to the series, Tehanu (1990). Then, after another decade, she added what are the final (so far) books in the cycle, both published in 2001: a book of short stories, Tales from Earthsea, and another full-length novel, The Other Wind.

The failure of the fan community to note the parallels between the books is somewhat surprising, since the comparison seems fairly obvious: The Earthsea books, like the Potter series, concern not just magic in general but a school of wizardry in particular, one with rules and traditions not too dissimilar from the more widely known school at Hogwarts.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more obvious similarities between the two story lines. The parallels are extensive, and interesting.

First, as I just mentioned, both series are set at least partly at a school for young wizards: Hogwarts in the Potter books, and Roke Academy in LeGuin’s fictional world of Earthsea.

Both schools are located on islands: Rowling’s magical alternate Britain vs. the heavily enchanted Roke Island. Also, both schools are protected from the outside world by strong layers of magic, making them virtually impregnable to attack and impossible for non-magical folk to enter.

The heroes of the two series, Harry Potter and Ged, a.k.a. Sparrowhawk, are both poor boys with unloving father figures who are openly hostile to magic. Both grow up in small villages. Both have lost their mothers and are raised at least in part by their dead mother’s sister.

Both boys show signs of magical abilities at an early age that they are initially unable to control (as when Ged enchants the village goats but then cannot break the enchantment, and when Harry releases the snake at the zoo).

Harry and Ged are both saved from their dreary lives by being granted entrance to a school of wizardry, where upon arrival they are issued a powerful magical implement (Harry’s wand, Ged’s staff) that is the mark of their new status.

Both schools are run by a kindly, bearded old wizard (Dumbledore in HP; the Archmage Nemmerle in WoE) who has a bird companion (Dumbledore has Fawkes the phoenix, the Archmage has his raven). Both these wizards (as well as Ged's first teacher, the mage Ogion the Silent) will die before the hero can complete his quest.

The grounds of both schools include a mysterious forested section that is off-limits to younger students (Hogwarts has the Forbidden Forest; Roke has the Immanent Grove).

Both heroes acquire an animal companion (Hedwig the owl, Ged’s unnamed pet “otak”) that is eventually killed in a pivotal run-in with their enemy.

At school, both the heroes gain a loyal friend from an even poorer background than their own (Ron Weasley in HP; Vetch in WoE) who will accompany them on their final confrontation with their nemesis, and both of whom have a younger sister who has a crush on the hero (Ginny Weasley in HP; Yarrow in WoE).

Also while at school, the heroes have a bitter rivalry with a snide boy from an aristocratic background (Draco Malfoy; Jasper in WoE), with whom they will end up fighting a magic duel.

At one point in their adventures, both heroes will rescue a young girl from a subterranean chamber (Ginny Weasley in Chamber of Secrets; Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan), whom they will later marry.

Both boys will visit the land of the dead, and although both are able to rejoin the living, they will be forever changed by the experience (Harry at the very end of Deathly Hallows; Ged in The Farthest Shore).

Perhaps most crucially, both Harry and Ged acquire an enemy (Voldemort in HP; the unnamed Shadow Creature in WoE) to whom they are intimately connected, in a way that neither understands at first, and both will receive a disfiguring scar to his face in their very first encounter with this nemesis. Both villains have the ability to control the minds of innocent bystanders, forcing them to do their bidding (Voldemort via the Imperio curse, the Shadow Creature by making them into gibbeths). Eventually, both heroes will have to face and defeat their enemy alone, without the aid of their friends.

As I said, some of these themes are bigger than either Rowling or LeGuin; for example, the notion of the hero visiting the land of the dead and returning forever altered is as old as literature, appearing in ancient epics such as the Babylonian Gilgamesh and the Roman Aeneid, as well as Dante’s Inferno.

Some of the differences between the two series are interesting as well. In general, Ged is a lonelier figure than Harry and has a much harder time making human connections. While Harry has a huge cast of friends and supporters, Ged has almost no one. It's true that Ged, like Harry, will marry the girl he rescues from underground, but in Ged’s case the marriage will be childless (though the couple does eventually take on the care of Tehanu, a damaged young girl who is not their natural child).

Perhaps most strikingly (particularly for a book written by a woman), the school that Ged attends at Roke, in very marked contrast to Hogwarts, is not co-ed: No girls allowed! The reasons why women are not permitted to be wizards in Earthsea are explored in the later additions to the original trilogy, particularly in The Other Wind.


  1. Which methons do you personally choose to browse for data for your fresh entries and which particular search engines do you commonly rely on?

  2. You know, you are right on the money. When I first read Harry Potter, I thought the plot was very familiar. You are being kind to Rowling, who is a brilliant writer, but it was so obvious to me that plot points had been borrowed that I am still surprised that not more people have pointed it out. Get comparison, this post deserves more exposure.

  3. interesting and good comparison.

    the school of magic comparisons seem particularly spot on (and not simply down to generic cliche.) notwithstanding the fact that the usage of a familiar may be ultimately linked to general folklore about witches, the class-based conflict between protagonist and school rival, the two headmasters (complete with pets), and the forested sections, are all highly similiar indeed.

    even so i still doubt that rowling lifted all of these plot cliches from WoE specifically (particularly the ones related to the villain).

    however, villain and hero being psychologically and intimately connected is as old as time and i dont think thats the most crucial aspect of the comparison. in any genre. satan and adam in paradise lost is just one example. plus, when we take the freudian (or even vaguely psychoanalytical) approach, even more novels suggest a reading of antagonist and protagonist as two sides of the same personhood. aka mephistopheles and faust, or frankenstein and his monster.

    additionally, hero leaving society and confronting villain alone/internally is a cliche/archetype that many writers utilize - an early example being homer's battle between achillies and hector in the iliad. climaxes dont always happen on a battlefield crowded with people.

    that little bit aside, v insightful review. personally i was struck by the similar class-politics in the magic school: the best schoolfriend is working-class, and the biggest rival is upper-class.

  4. well, even so, HP is way better than that Earthsea rubbish. Leguin is a bitch who threw a bitchy tantrum when JK published HP, and in the first book Ged (which is a dumb name) is an arrogant brat. The magical names and words in HP are derived from Latin or Greek or French or English words, whereas the magical names and words in Leguin's crap mean nothing.

    1. Dear Ella, I'm sure you could have put that in a more respectful way :-) Rasmus

    2. WOE is so superior I don't know where to start. I mean, come on - 'Oculus repairo?' Pu-leese.

    3. Anon: yes, and LeGuin's style of writing in AWOE is spare, beautiful and reminiscent of Tolkien. Harry Potter is a children's book (though to be fair, JKR's writing did improve over the years).

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Ella, your arguments are not valid. An author's behavior in their personal life twenty-nine years after they wrote a book has no bearing on the quality of the book, and the rest of this is a personal opinion about how you prefer the names in HP to the names in WOE. If you're going to criticize a text you need to cite specific examples from the text and explain why they don't work.

      As for me, I love HP dearly (having grown up with the series), but as an adult I find WoE to be the far superior series, due to the quality of its prose, the multiculturalism of its setting, and its adult themes.

  5. I've read both books and i must say i enjoyed Earthsea a lot more. HP's protagonists are pretty much all from similar cultural backgrounds, whereas earthsea highly multicultural. Also i generally prefer Earthsea and Roke to Hogwarts because of the genuine sense of awe i get when reading it. and finally, all the monsters are sick

  6. I couldn't agree more: when Potter first came out it immediately reminded me of Earthsea. In fact Potter reads like a tediously dumbed-down version of the Earthsea trilogy, with a few other random ideas thrown in for good measure.

    For me Earthsea is a masterpiece; Harry Potter, not so much.

  7. Thanks for your post! Being a huge fan of the HP books I must say that the Earthsea Books (that I am just discovering now) are deeper. HP's similarities to the Earthsea series border on rip-off. However, they both have their strengths: Le Guin as a master of spiritual writing and Rowling as a creator of memorable characters. Kindly, Rasmus

  8. Like anonymous on May 3 2014, upon learning of the Harry Potter stories I too thought that JKR had "borrowed" liberally from LeGuin.
    I never heard anything about a "tantrum" thrown by Ursula LeGuin (bitchy or otherwise) as Ella suggests, but I believe that if LeGuin has chosen to criticize JKR for her near-plagiarism of the Earthsea books, she stands on very firm ground in doing so.
    And yes, the Earthsea books are far better. It's a shame that the film (or TV) adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea was so dreadful. In this aspect, the Harry Potter films are far superior.

  9. Could you please contact me off-line?
    Could you possibly contact me offline? I would like to request permission to quote this article for a book exhibition concerning Harry Potter and the Le Guin books.

  10. I fully agree with the comparison and the borrowing (read plagiarism) of ideas. In the world we live in, a great writer like Le Guin whose prose is spare and elegant is outsold by whatsername's bloated potboilers.

  11. I could not agree more - loved WOE and could only read bits of HP as seemed a childish parody - an Enid Blyton version of WOE - borrowing heavily from the latter! Very few of the people I have spoken to have read WOE so not surprised few people know

  12. Im a proud potter leguins rubbish can hardly compare to the awesome world of Harry Potter

  13. I have never read harry potter and do not intend to however I have read the WOE trilogy which is fantastic especially at the age I read it which was in my teens. From what friends have told me about harry potter I immediately thought of WOE having heard this story before, Rowling was obviously a fan of Le Guin and borrowed the basic frame work from her. Nothing new here happens all the time in art and music although sort of sucks when someone is blatantly copied and then cashed in on. Rowling is pretty hot though :)