Is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series a rip off of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea? There are definitely similarities. Both books have a young boy as their central character; Harry Potter, and Ged AKA Sparrowhawk. Both are wizards. Both attend wizard training schools that can't be seen by outsiders. Both are admired and envied at school. Both are coming-of-age stories. Both have lowly beginnings but go on to be heroes. Both have elderly mentors that serve as spiritual guides and teachers. Both have a nemesis. Both have facial scars caused by this nemesis. Ged receives his facial scar when he releases a shadow creature, which then attacks him. Voldemort scars Harry when he's still a baby, in an attempt to kill him. Both involve rival magicians; Jasper and Draco Malfoy. All of these similarities may seem damning. But there are also lots of differences.
A young man, fleeing unhappy domestic circumstances, enrols at a mysterious school for magicians. There, he makes friends, cultivates enemies and gains a nemesis with whom he shares an intimate connection. This is obviously the basic premise of the Harry Potter series but also of a much-loved work that predates the JK Rowling juggernaut by decades. In Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 YA classic A Wizard Of Earthsea, a boy, naive yet ambitious, becomes a sorcerer , but at a terrible price...
— Harry Potter and the boy wizard tradition, The Irish Times
Both Harry Potter and Ged attend schools where wizards go to learn their craft. This is the biggest similarity between the two works. Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts while Ged goes to Roke. But the role the schools play in each story is radically different. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the main setting. The book mostly deals with events leading up to Harry's arrival at the school, and much of the action takes place there. Hogwarts is central to events in the early Harry Potter books, while Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea plays a fairly small role in Ged's story. An incident at Roke serves as a catalyst for the rest of the story, but the school itself isn't a major setting.
In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged trying to fix the damage he caused is central to the story. When a spell goes awry and he releases a shadow creature, he spends much of his time fleeing from it until the tables turn and he becomes the pursuer. Harry Potter doesn't unleash the creature that poses a threat to him. Lord Voldemort wants to destroy Harry because Harry has the power to destroy him.
A Wizard of Earthsea doesn't have any major characters other than Ged. There are minor characters like Vetch, Ogion, and Jasper but they don't have large roles in the book. Earthsea is an almost solitary story. Harry Potter has many major characters including Ron and Hermoine who play significant roles in the story.
Earthsea is set in a fantasy world dotted with islands and Ged spends a lot of time traveling in this world. Harry Potter is set in England. The first book doesn't involve much travel outside of Harry taking the train to Hogwarts.
In Harry Potter, wizardry is hidden from the majority muggle population. Wizards in Earthsea don't hide their magical abilities.
In the first Earthsea book, women are either marginal or deceptive characters. Le Guin acknowledged her failure to include female characters of substance in A Wizard of Earthsea. The first Harry Potter book has two major female characters, Hermoine and Professor McGonagall, who play important roles.
Magic has been an important part of human culture for most of recorded history, variously having positive, ambivalent and negative connotations
A lot of the similarities that do exist are due to both books relying on similar tropes.
- The chosen one - exists in many stories predating both Earthsea and Harry Potter
- Rivals - exists in many stories predating both Earthsea and Harry Potter. The qualities of the protagonist are often highlighted by comparing them to this rival
- Dead parents - common in many stories and fairy tales
- Schools of Magic - Earthsea was a very early series that involved a school for wizards, but similar schools have been quite common in fantasy stories between Earthsea and Harry Potter. Some examples are Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches from The Worst Witch series that debuted in 1974 and Unseen University from Terry Pratchett's Discworld first published in 1983
Learn About Ursula K. Le Guin's Predecessor to Harry Potter
Ursula Le Guin's Opinion
Ursula Le Guin, the author of A Wizard of Earthsea, didn't appreciate the comparisons to Harry Potter.
“When so many adult critics were carrying on about the ‘incredible originality’ of the first Harry Potter book, I read it to find out what the fuss was about, and remained somewhat puzzled. It seemed a lively kid’s fantasy crossed with a ‘school novel’, good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively derivative, and ethically rather mean-spirited.”
Le Guin didn't think J.K. Rowling ripped her off, but she did criticize Rowling for not giving enough credit to earlier authors who created similar fantasy works. And she criticized those who breathlessly praised the 'originality' of the Potter series.
"I didn't feel she [Rowling] ripped me off, as some people did though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn't one of them. That hurt."
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© 2020 LT Wright
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on September 06, 2020:
A very interesting read. I am a fan of both authors.