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J.K. Rowling Biography And Visits


Westminster Abbey - where Poets' Corner confirms the long link between religion and literature.

Spoiler alert : this article contains information revealed in the Harry Potter books.

English literature has a history of exploring religious themes, not because literature was deep and meaningful, more because literature was actually deemed frivolous and unimportant enough not to be taken too seriously. Into modern times Christians like J.R.R. Tolkien, did not discuss issues of religion directly, but were happy to do so obliquely in their books, which of course were only a bit of fun, and were not going to upset any apple carts. This is a familiar pattern. For hundreds of years the Roman Catholic Church actively discouraged reading of the Bible. Religious issues were instead discussed in the relaxed world of secular literature, where much lower expectations of importance gave unusual freedom. Even today English students don't read the Bible on their courses, which is ironic when the "Authorised" or "King James" Bible of 1611 is in the words of Andrew Sanders "the single most influential work of English prose" (Short Oxford History of English Literature P191). As has been the case for centuries, we seem to fear poking around too much in the special box in which the Bible is placed. We seem much more comfortable poking about in the toy box of literature. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the idea of literature as a toy box became even more apt with the invention of children's literature. Before the 1700s children were not particularly valued. They did not represent the investment of much time, or the value of much experience. This began to change in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when people had to come to terms with the unprecedented change of industrial and scientific revolution. Part of the reaction to these changes included coming to value the world of childhood as, seemingly, a place of imagination and unchanging innocence. At a time when change seemed unnervingly rapid, and when religious certainties were falling away, Peter Pan, fittingly, never wanted to grow up. Into the twentieth century the idea of children's literature as an antidote to a changing and increasingly complex world reached a peak of sophistication in the work of Tolkien. Tolkien was a religious man who hated the modern world, and wrote books in which the idea of change was presented with great subtlety. And then right at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, we have the writing of J.K. Rowling. Like Tolkien, J.K. Rowling set her fictional world in a place that seemed to offer escape from the modern world, and like Tolkien she had a religious outlook. So where does J.K. Rowling fit into the toy box of literature?



Tintern Abbey - close to J.K. Rowling's childhood home in Tutshill, and a possible inspiration for Hogwarts School

Joanne Rowling's parents, Peter Rowling and Anne Volant, met on a train from King's Cross to Arbroath, where they were both travelling to jobs with the Royal Navy. After marrying, Peter and Anne left the navy, Peter taking a job on the production line at the Bristol Siddely factory in Bristol, which produced engines for Harrier fighter aircraft. Joanne was born 31st July 1965 at The Cottage Hospital in Station Road, Yate, a new town near Bristol. Another daughter, Diane was born in 1967. Working his way rapidly up to management level, Peter was able to move his young family from 109 Sundridge Park, Yate, to a new house at 35 Nicholls Lane in nearby Winterbourne. In J.K. Rowling's fictional world yet to be created, intricate plotting allows a bewildering array of seemingly throw away details to become significant as the story develops. The biography of J.K. Rowling has become a similar kind of story. There was a boy named Ian Potter who lived at Number 29 Nicholls Lane, who joined in games of witches and wizards, in which young Jo was always the leader. There is also frequent mention of an early desire to write, beginning with a story called Rabbit, written at age six. In 1974, the Rowling family moved to Church Cottage in the village of Tutshill, close to the Forest of Dean, with great views of the Severn Estuary. It was here, when Jo was aged twelve, that her mother Ann began to show signs of multiple sclerosis, which would be firmly diagnosed three years later. Jo was working hard at Wydean School, which like any other school had its harsh teachers and its kind teachers, some of whom would become models for characters in the Harry Potter series. She met a local boy named Sean, whose blue Anglia car widened her horizons to local cities, Bristol, Bath, Newport or Cardiff. Then after studying French, German and English at A Level, Jo went on to Exeter University to study French and Classics. The hard working Jo of school years was replaced by someone who seemed rather more aimless. Scraping through second year exams, her course continued with a year in Paris teaching English, before a return to Exeter for the final year. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was a favourite book at this time. Leaving university in 1987 Joanne Rowling seemed to have no clear idea of which direction to take. There was a period of office temping, some time spent working at Amnesty International, and a move to Manchester to join a university boyfriend. Periods of work at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Manchester University coincided with the death of Anne Rowling in December 1990. This was not an easy time but it was on a train journey between Manchester and London in June 1990, that the idea for the Harry Potter books first came into being. Perhaps all the seemingly unconnected details of Jo's life could come together in her ambition to be a writer; just as all the unconnected details of Harry Potter's life could come together in his struggle to defeat the evil wizard Voldemort.


Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Joanne broke up with her boyfriend, left Manchester, and went to teach English in Porto, Portugal. After five months she met a journalism student named Jorge Arantes, and a relationship developed. Jorge proposed in August 1992, and marriage followed in October 1992, with a daughter named Jessica born in July 1993. But the marriage was always turbulent, and on 17th November 1993, after a furious row, Jorge dragged his wife out into the street and locked the doors against her. Joanne fled back to Britain with Jessica, and since her sister lived in Edinburgh she decided to try and settle there. From this point until her success as an author, J.K. Rowling's life is obscured by the later desire to make a familiar rags to riches narrative out of it. In the same way that Rowling herself uses the archetypal tale of a trial, suffering and redemption in her books, newspapers favour the same sort of stories. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire journalist Rita Skeeter asks Harry if he can remember his parents. Harry answers "no". Rita's Quick Quotes Quill interprets this answers as: "Tears fill those startlingly green eyes as our conversation turns to the parents he can barely remember" (P269). Life in Edinburgh was undoutedly difficult, though it seems many of the supposed tears came from Quick Quotes Quills. The initial flat taken in Edinburgh seems to have been unsuitable, but then there was a move to a modern ground floor flat in Leith, and life doesn't seem to have been too uncomfortable. Diane Rowling's husband owned a coffee shop called Nicholson's at the junction of South Bridge and the Royal Mile. Joanne would spend many hours there writing the manuscript that would become Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. Outside Nicholson's the Royal Mile probably inspired Diagon Alley, the Wizard shopping street. When the time came to tell the story of this period, it was presented as "struggling author writes in coffee shops because there's no heating at home." Biographer Sean Smith quotes Rowling giving a more realistic account to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs: "I wasn't in search of warmth. I was just in search of good coffee frankly, and not having to interrupt the flow by getting up and making myself more coffee" (J.K. Rowling by Sean Smith P127). It seems that the owner of Nicholson's, Roger Moore, tended to keep quiet that he was brother in law of the struggling author drinking his good coffee, "preferring to create the illusion that his wife's sister was just another customer" (Sean Smith P126 - 127).


In 1995 Joanne started a teaching qualification, with a friend helping out with childcare, and was teaching at Leith Academy by the summer of 1996. Meanwhile the Christopher Little Agency, only the second agency approached, picked up Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. The idea that many manuscripts were sent out and rejected is another part of the trial and redemption myth. It is true that Christopher Little approached twelve publishers, before Bloomsbury finally decided to publish, but that is not the same as a desperate author sending out endless hopeful packages and seeing them come back with rejection letters a week or two later. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone was published on 26th June 1996. A few days later Arthur Levine bought the U.S. rights for $100,000. All that remained to do was to create a good pen name, and this was achieved by adding a middle initial, which was inspired by Katherine, Joanne's grandmother. Once this was done, J.K. Rowling the author had arrived. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone and the six books that followed it, told the story of an apparently ordinary boy, who at the age of eleven is told he's a wizard, and taken off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he learns to be a wizard, and fights an ongoing battle with the evil wizard Voldemort, who killed his parents just after Harry was born. These stories, and the films made of them, went on to become a cultural phenomenon. Sean Smith tells us that by the time the fourth book in the series was published in 2000, eight million copies of the first three books had been sold in the UK, and more than twenty million in the United States (see Sean Smith P184).

So let's go back to the original questions. Firstly how do these books fit into a tradition of children's literature as a toy box in which to escape the modern world? In some respects there is a clear sense that the wizard world is a place which seems to hark back far more than looking forward. There is a great sense of tradition and history about Hogwarts School. This is a place based on an idealised image of nineteenth century public school, before the age of health and safety, with the hazardous Eton Wall Game represented by the broomstick game of Quidditch. There are no mobile phones, no computers, and no science as it would be understood in the non magical or "muggle" world: potions lessons might seem reminiscent of chemistry , but they are actually much more like cookery lessons. Ghosts from past ages walk the corridors of the school, and former headmasters continue to keep an eye on things from their portraits in the headmaster's study. On the other hand we feel immediately that the wizard world is by no means frozen in time. From the beginning of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone there is a sense ironically that Harry's muggle home in Privet Drive is the place where nothing ever changes. The big change for Harry comes when a half giant called Hagrid turns up on a flying motorbike to take him away to Hogwarts. Once there he becomes part of a life which inspite of its traditional ambiance, clearly has aspects of rapid change. Harry, for example, shows an immediate interest in the business of flying on broomsticks, where the pace of development seems to be reminiscent of Formula One. Harry starts out with a broomstick called Nimbus 2000, surpassed by the Nimbus 2001 in Harry's second year, described in The Chamber of Secrets, and then by the Firebolt in his third year, described in The Prisoner of Azkaban. Books read by the young wizards also indicate a world of change. Harry's friend Hermione, a bookish girl, includes the following in her reading list - Important Modern Magical Discoveries and A Study of Recent Developments in Wizardry.


Cloisters at Lacock Abbey, one of many religious buildings used to portray Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films.


So the idea of change in the Harry Potter books is not a straight forward one. There is both a sense of past, and future, with the two often becoming intriguingly entangled. This is demonstrated, for example, in The Prisoner of Azkaban. At the conclusion of this book Harry, Ron and Hermione use the power of magic to go back in time to reverse the death of a hippogriff called Buckbeak. Originally it had seemed that Buckbeak had been executed. There had been the sound of a swinging axe and cries from Care of Magical Creatures teacher, Hagrid. Following the trip back in time, there was apparently exactly the same sequence of events. But this time the sound of a swinging axe, was the sound of an axe being swung into a fence post by a frustrated executioner who had been denied his victim at the last moment. And Hagrid's cries, though unchanged, were now cries of relief at realising his favourite hippogriff was safe. Two alternative courses of history seem to come out exactly the same. Things change and yet they don't. So the Harry Potter books do offer an escape from the modern world, while also managing the trick of creating a changing world that a young reader would recognise.


And this brings us around to the second question: how do the Harry Potter books fit into the tradition of English literature as a toy box in which to discuss religious ideas? The subject of religion in the Harry Potter books is presented in the same contradictory way as the subject of change. On the one hand religious stories clearly permeate the Harry Potter books. In an interview with Max Wyman in the Vancouver Sun 26th October 2000, Rowling admitted that if readers knew of her religious beliefs they would be more likely to guess what was going to happen next in her books. This is seen most dramatically in the seventh and final book The Deathly Hallows. On Christmas Eve Harry and Hermione on the run from Voldemort and his Death Eaters, go back to the place where Harry was born in Godric's Hollow. The scene is reminiscent of Joseph and Mary returning to their home in mid winter to take part in the famous census decreed by Caesar Augustus. J.K. Rowling's Joseph and Mary see the ruined house where Voldemort killed Harry's parents, and where Harry as a baby had survived. In Godric's Hollow, Harry and Hermione are attacked by a serpent, a clearly Biblical bad guy. They only just manage to escape. The religious influence is clear in all this, and as the massive series of books comes to an end, religious imagery has a major role to play in deciding how change will finally play out. The Christian view of the world sees a plan coming to its fruition. In Harry Potter terms Harry hopes against hope that Dumbledore, before he died, had put a plan in place to deal with Voldemort. And once all is revealed it does seem that this is so. Things which had once seemed hopeless were all part of a plan working itself out. Severus Snape only killed Dumbledore because Dumbledore was dying anyway, the apparent murder providing cover for Snape's role as a double agent. Bad things become good things, and everything works out. But on the other hand this traditional view of life building to a destined climax is combined with a more modern sense of things being endless. Good and evil are always interweaved, which means that one never wins out finally over the other. Harry has part of Voldemort inside him. The great criminal Sirius Black turns out to be a great hero. Severus Snape, is a double agent, and Dumbledore himself has much of the dark side about him. Things are circular in Harry Potter so that you never truly feel you reach the end. This is I would suggest a more modern sense of things. And overtly at least this modern sense also comes over in the secular nature of the Harry Potter world. While religious education is mandatory in British schools, at Hogwarts there is no RE. God is never mentioned, and the various important ceremonies marking milestones in life seem entirely secular. This is true of Dumbledore's funeral in The Half Blood Prince, and the marriage of Fleur and Bill in The Deathly Hallows. Christmases at Hogwarts are also secular affairs with trees and decorations and present giving, and no church going. So we could say that the Harry Potter books explore traditional religious themes from the stand point of a secular world. This is a new twist, taking place in the relaxed environment of secular literature, where such explorations have always been allowed.