Warning: what follows is THE STRANGEST BLOG POST I’VE EVER WRITTEN.
Every once in a while, usually when I’m procrastinating or I’ve just finished one thing and am getting ready to do another thing, I’ll check blog search terms. These are usually my name, or my agent’s name, or something that makes it pretty obvious a person vaguely remembers reading a specific post and is trying to find it again. Sometimes it’s none of the above, but is relevant to something I’ve blogged about, so, awesome, hopefully they find what they need. All of this is cool.
Sometimes there are strange ones, easily dismissed as being just totally out there and obviously the Google search algorithms were having a bad day, maybe they couldn’t find their keys, or the traffic was just hell on the commute…whatever. These I squint at for a second and promptly forget.
Today I found one that wasn’t the first group, but also isn’t the second, because it’s just too awesome to forget about and I find myself genuinely disappointed that my little corner of blog space didn’t give up the goods. So, just on the off chance that person should ever return, or if anyone else was curious, I hereby give my opinion-only answer to the following question:
Why isn’t Harry Potter considered plagiarism of The Master & Margarita?
Short answer, as given on twitter when I tweeted about this a little while ago: Well, um, lots of reasons. But a longer answer seems like fun, and given that I’ve read the books in question, let’s take a tiny stab at it. Like, with a paperclip. Here, and only here, I shall dip my blue-manicured toe into the churning, frothy, often bitter waters of Literary Criticism. (The Master & Margarita is a book that earns those capitals.)
This isn’t actually the strange question it might seem on the surface, because there are some very strong similarities, but only if you confuse story and theme. You can plagiarize a story, but you can’t plagiarize themes or symbolism because they’re universal. Good, evil, love, hate, guilt, innocence, the quests for truth and faith and belonging. ALL books touch on these themes, or some of them at least. Not just Great Literary Masterpieces, either. Picture books (some of which are assuredly Masterpieces) do as well. I wouldn’t want to read a book that didn’t.
For those of you who’ve never read The Master and Margarita, it is a strange, beguiling, fascinating piece of Russian satire about the Devil visiting the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, and also about Jerusalem during Jesus’s trial. It explores religion, love, politics, and the safety of the soul. That’s a simplistic summary, but we’ll go with it for now. I do recommend reading it, but if you can’t bear the thought, there are longer summaries kicking around online. For all five of you who haven’t read Harry Potter, it’s about a boy who learns he’s a wizard and must face his destiny of destroying the most evil wizard of all time. It also explores religion, love, politics, and the safety of the soul.
In M&M, the Devil, upon his arrival, predicts (but possibly causes) a death, which is witnessed by a young poet who is shortly sent to a lunatic asylum. There, he encounters The Master, a bitter, critically rejected author who chooses to stay at the asylum rather than face the real world. You never learn a lot about him, but he becomes Ivan the poet’s mentor of sorts.
And you know, on that level, I see it, too. But this isn’t story, it’s characterization and theme and symbolism, as are all the similarities that follow. The titular Margarita learns to fly, as Harry does, but this is common symbolism for freedom and escape. The Master (and Margarita too) wind up in a strange kind of purgatory at the end, which calls up images of King’s Cross station, but limbo isn’t a unique device. In between, amongst far too much to summarize here, the Devil mocks and subverts the new, social-climbing rich. Mudbloods? I don’t think so.
The thing is, both stories ask huge questions, the same questions in a lot of ways, and answer some of them to the best of the ability and perspective of their respective authors, as far as we know. But – and this is why I felt it worth blogging, apart from the amazing search term – these questions plague us all. The ones about life and purpose and whether destiny is an actual thing or just a concept to make us feel better. The fear of the unknown, the danger of losing your place in the world to a group of strangers who don’t know the way things work. If things are always what they seem. If we can really, truly, have a measurable impact on humanity. Whether or not it’s true, as they say, that there are only seven plots, there are infinite ways to use them. Any time you explore evil (the Devil or Voldemort) you also need a character or characters who are basically good. Any time you explore faith, you have to have characters who don’t believe pitted against ones that do. And you always have to put them in situations where conflicts arise from those base differences.
Stock characters aren’t the same as flat ones, and in large or small ways, every character in a book will explore the Great Questions of Life because that’s what makes us relate to them as writers or readers. This is how we Write What We Know: by using our craft as the lens through which we interpret the world. That doesn’t make it the same as – or even a reinterpretation of – a different book. It just means we’re all asking the same questions and searching for the same truths, and art is one of the only – and maybe the best – ways to do that.
Of course, as my fellow author Caroline Carlson said of Harry Potter when I tweeted this search string, “The phrase ‘There’s no giant cat” comes immediately to mind.” So there’s that difference, too. (I’m not sure Mrs. Norris counts.)
The Master and Margarita is Daniel Radcliffe’s favorite book, though. Let’s just ignore the fact that I know this.