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1990, Manchester. A young woman weaves her way through the crowd to board a packed train en route to London. As she sits down, a black-haired, bespectacled, and scarred boy strolls into her head. He arrives “very fully formed.” By the time she arrives home, she has developed the outline into what will become the smash hit Harry Potter series, which will sell more copies than any other series ever. Throughout her subsequent plethora of interviews, J.K. Rowling has been asked again and again for her favorite books and their influence upon her own writing. Some of her answers: “The Iliad”—the desecration of Cedric’s body. “Macbeth”—Voldemort’s hearing of the prophecy. “The Chronicles of Narnia”—the Hogwarts Express, equivalent to that wonderful wardrobe.
Early 1900s, Switzerland. A foreigner buys a postcard entitled “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”) and decorated with a painting of a bearded figure in a forest, extending his hands to a white fawn. On the postcard’s paper cover, the man scrawls “The origin of Gandalf.” The postcard may have contributed to the image of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous wizard, but Tolkien drew inspiration from several sources for Gandalf’s creation. The name itself originates from the Old Norse words for “magic” and “elf.” (Later, Tolkien regretted borrowing his character names from Norse, as he had to account for how their meanings make sense in the context of “The Lord of the Rings”). The first character bearing the name Gandalf appeared in Norse mythology as a legendary king; in 1896, we spy him again as a character in William Morris’s fantasy novel “The Well at the World’s End,”a book known to have deeply influenced Tolkien.
January 28, 1865, Cincinnati. Margaret Garner and her family are recently escaped slaves on the route to freedom. They have only been at their first stop for a couple of hours when their slave master and an army of marshals arrive at the house. To Margaret, slavery is a heavier chain than death, and only one option remains. By the time the marshals reach her, she has slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter, wounded the others, and is attempting to kill herself. A hundred years later, Toni Morrison tells the woman’s story in her novel “Beloved.” “It was not a story to pass on,” as Morrison describes it. But she chooses to tell the story anyway—on her own terms. She admits to purposely not investigating the facts of the case, in order to assure “an alliance with my imagination.”
Above are snapshots of inspiration. There’s no theft here, because no one can lay claim to the long history of storytelling. But we see the copying and borrowing that goes on with every additional grizzled old wizard or fallen hero. The pieces aren’t new: sets of archetypes, motifs, themes, symbols, a handful of plots. What we’re trying to express, largely, is not new. For instance, “The Lion King” is “Hamlet” with lions; the plot of coming-of-age ’90s flick “Clueless” is loosely based on that of Jane Austen’s “Emma”; Taylor Swift’s albums were co-written by the dozens of boys who broke her heart. Disney takes inspiration from itself, recently committing to 16 remakes of its classics, many of which are adapted from fairytales. Dumbledore himself treads on the coattails of Gandalf, who set the modern-day archetype of a grizzled old wizard in charge of helping the protagonist do his thing.
Yet each new piece, by merit of its addition, changes the story that our art is telling. As Telegraph book reviewer Kasia Boddy notes: “There may be only seven basic plots, but there are thousands of stories. What we call the greatest of these are works that stand out from the crowd, and their greatest readers are those who give due weight to each one's own peculiarity.” By virtue of these individual peculiarities, authors have the ability to reshape the current standard; archetypes and themes evolve with use and time like a cliff constantly exposed to the sea. We see this evolution in the 11th century invention of Merlin, which reshaped the archetypal “wise old man” into the form of a magician or wizard and paved the way for such big names as Gandalf and Dumbledore. As our mediums change, we are able to bring dusty stories back to life, just as the family-friendly animation of Disney classic “The Lion King” acquaints young children with a tale that was written down four centuries ago, and just as Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” shares the story of a woman that would have otherwise been lost in the archives along with its horrible lesson. We return to the same old stories, even as they are endlessly rewritten, and endlessly new.
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