Harry Potter and the Structural Plagiarism

July 19th, 2007

The Harry Potter books look like they’re pretty strongly in the Fantasy genre: dragons, magic, centaurs, etc.

But there’s actually an older genre that the Harry Potter series shares a lot more with, the boarding school novel.

Boarding schools are getting pretty rare these days – the idea of sending kids as young as 10-years-old to school doesn’t appeal as much to parents, it seems. The genre has also been dying out. But Harry Potter shares a lot of structure with these books. The normal outline is:

  • The “at home” chapter – always starting at the end of the summer holidays. Usually includes the ‘buying supplies’ scene.

  • Travel to school – usually with one or two other school mates.

  • The opening dinner, with introduction of the teachers.

  • The first semester of classes.

  • The introduction to “games” (normally Rugby in british books).

  • The winter holiday, spent at the boarding school far more often than actually happens.

  • The second semester, with the build up to exams.

  • The farewell and the return home.

There are hundreds of books that fit this broad outline, starting with Tom Brown’s Schooldays back in the mid 19th century.

There are also a lot of other plot devices that show up in Harry Potter as well:

  • The prefect/head boy selection towards the end of their school career.

  • The competition with some other ‘nemesis’ school.

  • The inter-house competition.

  • The stern but avuncular headmaster.

Despite my mischievous heading, none of this is really stealing. It’s a very common structure, and the Harry Potter books use it quite uniquely. But it’s interesting to see just how closely the structure of the books matches this older tradition, just at a time when it’s becoming a lot less relevant to most of the books potential readers…