Cover art from Ibbotson's "Platform 13"

Harry Potter and the Anxiety of Influence

By DoctorPlatypus | Doctor Platypus | 11 Aug 2020

In the wake of Rowling saying the various objectionable things she said about physical sex and gender at the expense of trans people, I started seeing lots of criticism of Harry Potter. Weirdly, for the most part, the criticism that I've come across has not been about the subjects, themes, and motifs of the series, but instead on the ground of being derivative. 

Of course, Rowling owes a huge debt to LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels for the general structure of a previously-unsuspecting wizard going to wizard school and getting in various kinds of trouble there, and having world-scale adventures. 

Less obvious is the debt she owes to Eva Ibbotson, whose Secret of Platform 13 postulates:

  • a secret passage to a magic realm, located at King's Cross Station
  • a fostered boy suffering neglect under the hands of a well-off family who turns out to have magic-related ancestry
  • an obese and disastrously spoiled foster brother 

I'm sure I'm missing some more details, but that's really what these similarities are: details. The storyline and the personalities of the characters share little in common with Rowling's books. The Secret of Platform 13 is the story of a team of misfit magic-world denizens rescuing the kidnapped prince, complete with mistaken identity. The neglected foster child is a minor character. It takes place almost entirely in real-world London. The only school mentioned is a mundane-world military academy or reform school of some sort with which the neglectful foster family threaten the unsuspecting prince. I recall no wands. Ibbotson seems more interested in exploring the motivations of hags (for example, "I shall grow SEVEN extra toes!") than the large social questions Rowling explores (for example, "What should good children do when adults abdicate their responsibility to stave off a disaster?"). 

I understand there are several Ibbotson sequels, so it is possible that the series comes to something more directly similar to Harry Potter, and that Rowling is a straight-up plagiarist after all. But based on The Secret of Platform 13, it seems very unlikely to me.

I guess what I mean, in the end, is this: There are good reasons to criticize JK Rowling, but as far as I can tell based on my admittedly very limited reading, stealing from Eva Ibbotson isn't one of them. If the goal is to identify alternatives for kids to read instead of sending money to an anti-trans author, I guess Ibbotson is as good a choice as anyone else. For now, I'm steering clear of accusing Rowling of plagiarism, though.

I'd love to hear from someone who has read the Ibbotson sequels - am I absolving Rowling prematurely? Does a reading of book 2 or 3 or 4 prove Rowling a thief?

Cover Art: Eva Ibbotson, Secret of Platform 13



How do you rate this article?



Current projects: writing a literary history book about Victorian and Edwardian fiction as successor to the medieval dream vision genre. Learning to draw. Slooooowly learning the fancier ins and outs of the roll20 VTT.

Doctor Platypus
Doctor Platypus

Musings on and examples from various creative and constructive projects.

Send a $0.01 microtip in crypto to the author, and earn yourself as you read!

20% to author / 80% to me.
We pay the tips from our rewards pool.