Ask any author where they get their ideas. The most common response by far is “from the world around me.” Even if the finished product is about a magical faraway land, a distant planet, or a bleak and horrible future, aspects of the author’s life will find their way in. The Harry Potter series is uncommonly rich in lore. Just ask any fans of the lexicon. Between the vast cast of characters, magical spells and ingredients, the names of people and places, and even things that seem thoroughly unique and magical—a lot of them came from the world we live in every day.
This list promises a look at the people, places, texts, and existing lore that provided inspiration, if not the entire basis, of some small portion of the Harry Potter series. A few of these are things Ms. Rowling has mentioned herself. Others are things we couldn’t help but notice, and some are coincidences too remarkable to ignore.
Here are 20 people, places, and things that inspired J.K. Rowling.
20 Nicholas Flamel
Most fans were introduced to Mr. Flamel when he was mentioned on a chocolate frog card for Albus Dumbledore. He was described simply as a “noted alchemist.” In real-life, Nicholas Flamel was a writer who lived in Paris with his wife, Perenelle. Both Nicholas and his wife have streets named after them in the city, near the Louvre museum. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, mention is made of Flamel as the creator of the Philosopher’s Stone, used to create the Elixir of Life—a magical liquid that renders the drinker immortal. That’s also the legend surrounding the non-fictional Flamels.
Oddly enough, Flamel’s real-life reputation as an alchemist didn’t begin until after his death, which contemporaries described as Flamel developing the power of alchemy and receiving ever-lasting life. In the book, the Flamels come to terms with giving up the stone, and thus, their longevity. In real-life, the legend of supposed alchemist Nicholas Flamel lives on.
19 Natalie McDonald
Imagine that you’re a writer of a children’s book series, beloved by kids (and adults) all over the world. Now let’s say that you get literally millions of letters from fans, and there’s no possible way to read them all. Every so often, though, something very special arrives on your desk. That happened to J.K. Rowling when she received a letter from a friend of a young Canadian girl named Natalie McDonald. She was a huge Potter fan, but she knew that because of her terminal leukemia, she wouldn’t live to read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Rowling, recognizing how terribly tragic that was, phoned Natalie’s home, prepared to tell the girl what eventually becomes of her favorite characters. Unfortunately, she was too late, as Natalie had already passed on. That’s why in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a young witch named Natalie McDonald is sorted into Gryffindor, to the applause of Nearly Headless Nick. We have to think that the real Ms. McDonald would be delighted to know it.
18 Greyfriars Kirkyard
The places where writers hang out are bound to have an impact on their work. Cemeteries often possess a certain calming effect that creative types crave, whether they’re taking a break, looking for inspiration, or even just needing to brood for a bit. With that in mind, it makes sense that Jo would enjoy the cemetery at Greyfriars Kirkyard (AKA Churchyard, in this case, Church of Scotland). Located in the most happening part of Edinburgh’s “Old Town", the location has housed a church -- though not the one that currently stands there -- since the early 1600s.
This cemetery is of particular interest to Potter fans because of a pair of headstones. One, for writer William McGonagall (believed to be the namesake of our favorite animagus and transfiguration professor), and the other for one Thomas Riddell. Though Rowling changed the spelling, it’s clear that the name stuck with her. As of this writing, no one has spotted a Marvolo. These days, Greyfriars Kirkyard, or “The Kirk”, hosts events and celebrates the arts with programs both religious and secular. As such, it’s a popular destination for tourists.
17 J.R.R. Tolkien
Most Harry Potter fans don’t remember a time before J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit was published in 1937, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy came less than 20 years later. So not only have Tolkien’s books been around longer than most of us have been alive, but it’s not hyperbole to say that they changed the face of fantasy literature. Rowling has acknowledged many of her literary influences, and Tolkien is one of her favorites (and ours).
Toadies with similar names like “Wormtail” and “Wormtongue” may merely be coincidences. Items like similar vessels that show the future, terrifying scenes of dead bodies in water, horrific giant spiders, and cursed rings that are difficult to destroy are all clearly found in both lexicons. They say if you’re going to steal from those who came before, steal from the best. We won’t go so far as to call it “stealing,” but the homage is strong.
16 Her Two Grandfathers
It’s fun to learn that even minor character names sometimes have a highly specific entomology. Such is the case with the fellas who run the Knight Bus: Ernie Prang and Stan Shunpike. Ernie (AKA Ern) didn’t have much story beyond driving the bus that gets stranded witches and wizards where they need to be. Stan, on the other hand, got around a bit more. He was unjustly arrested as a Death Eater, then captured and cursed by the real Death Eaters. If he lived, we hope his days of being hassled by law enforcement were over.
These first names are the same as two of Rowling’s grandfathers, which we think is a lovely way to express admiration. As for the surnames, both have funny connotations. Shunpike is a take on “shunning the pike,” an expression that refers to driving the long way around to avoid a toll booth. Prang is slang for trashing an automobile in a crash. Hilarious, right?
15 Candlemaker Row & Victoria Street
It’s well-known among Potter fans that part of the inspiration for the wizarding market street known as Diagon Alley comes in the form of a real-life street called Candlemaker Row. It’s also worth noting that wizard shopping streets are plays on actual words: diagonally and nocturnally (which led to Knockturn Alley). This seems obvious, but every so often, you meet a Potter fan who never noticed. Near Candlemaker Row is Victoria Street. It’s one of those old-timey looking cobblestone streets where the buildings are tall and skinny and have two stories.
Like many of the most well-known Rowling landmarks, Candlemaker Row and Victoria Street are located in Old Town, in Edinburgh, Scotland. We can probably presume that we won’t find a two-thousand-year-old wand shop or a magical pet emporium there, but an ice cream shop wouldn’t be out of the question. Pictured here is the actual joke shop located on Candlemaker Row. We’ve never been, but we’re presuming it’s muggle-owned.
14 Clinical Depression
If you’ve ever seen the Australian horror film The Babadook, you already know that clinical depression (as opposed to simply feeling a little sad sometimes) can feel like a monster straight out of a movie. J.K. Rowling has occasionally spoken about her own bouts with depression, as exemplified by some of her most terrifying creations, the soul-sucking Dementors. Depression is a serious illness. When left untreated, it leads to a mortality rate of about 15%. That may be why Rowling felt it was an important thing to talk about -- or at least, allude to.
Dementors impact everyone around them just by being nearby. They make the room cold, dark, and “as if all the happiness had gone from the world.” When they really get a hold of you, Dementors leave you totally vacant inside. Like depression, fighting Dementors is hard work, and it requires remembering that joy exists, and that you’ve experienced it before. In that context, the inclusion (and ultimate defeat) of Dementors is a powerful part of the story.
13 Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)
Most fans of the Potterverse probably haven’t seen Bell, Book, and Candle. If they did, they’d no doubt see the things that have since found their way into Rowling’s work. For the uninitiated, it’s a movie about a sly witch who uses her magical powers to win the affections of her neighbor. The film stars Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, and Kim Novak, who were all ginormous stars at the time. The great Elsa Lanchester, who is best known for playing the title role in The Bride of Frankenstein, also appears.
Probably the biggest Harry Potter connection to this film is that the actress who plays Bianca is a lady named Hermione Gingold. Those of us on the American side of the pond don’t hear the name Hermione much outside of the wizarding world. Bell, Book, and Candle also bears a similarity to the back story of Merope Gaunt. The film’s antagonist, Gillian, casts a spell on a man to make him love her—even though that man is already attached to another. Gillian’s story is far less tragic than Merope’s, and ends in fewer megalomaniacs.
Many Potter readers have made it a point to learn as much as they can about the author who created the world they love so deeply. Makes sense. Fans know that Jo had been a cash-poor single mom when she started writing the series, and that she went from welfare to millionaire status within a five-year period. Despite making absurd amounts of money from what could most aptly be described as an empire, Rowling’s wealth isn’t even ranked in the top 1000 richest people on Earth these days, though this may be due to her impressively selfless commitment to charity and philanthropy.
Another thing we know about Jo is that she was a self-described know-it-all as a kid, a trait she passed on to Hermione Granger. Maybe her name should have been Mary Sue. Rowling was careful, we think, to show the up and downsides of being clever, studious, and committed to knowing as much about everything as possible. It’s a positive trait, but it can be annoying depending on one’s temperament.
11 Carrier Pigeons
Using owls to deliver letters and grades may seem like it would take a long time, right? Carrier or “Homing” pigeons have been used since the times of Julius Caesar. In fact, the practice of using English homing pigeons during WWII was called simply Pigeon Post. Sounds familiar, right? There are several breeds of pigeons that did carrier work, though they all look fairly similar. The owls that witches and wizards use varies greatly — from tiny little owls like Pigwidgeon to impressive specimens like Hedwig or Malfoy’s eagle owl.
Pigeon Post involved armies or travelers taking birds with them to battles, business trips, etc, and then using their homing instincts to carry messages back to their place of origin. Obviously, magical post owls can understand human language and seem to be able to locate anyone, anywhere on Earth. According to available information, pigeons and owls have about the same record of getting letters to their intended recipients, and it's surprisingly good.
10 A “Former Flatmate”
With the exception of the aforementioned Natalie McDonald, there is but one other Potterverse character that is known to be based on a real person. No, it’s not her ex-husband, as was rumored for many years. The character is Gilderoy Lockhart, and the person is a former flatmate of Jo’s. She has, as far as we know, never mentioned him by name. We daresay that that’s a kindness.
As we know, Lockhart is so inept as to be downright laughable. He’s incredibly vain, and about as smug and self-indulgent as real-life actor Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare movies. Lockhart is self-aggrandizing, flamboyant, and believes he’s every bit the hero he pretends to be. But wait—because we eventually learn that the Ravenclaw alum is a villain hiding in plain sight. This “great hero” and “adventurer” was not only stealing stories from braver wizards and witches—he was stealing their memories of these events. That makes Lockhart a terrible person who deserved what he got. Here’s hoping Jo’s flatmate was merely a narcissist, and not downright evil.
9 German Expressionism
Theatre and music fans, cineastes, and art lovers will already have some familiarity with German Expressionism. Expressionism is an artistic movement in which conveying emotion takes focus over the accuracy of proper representation. It became popular in Germany after Romanticism but before the Post-Romantic era began in earnest. Films like The Man Who Laughs and The Golem are great examples of this concept (despite the fact that both came about in a more modern era). The German interpretation of expressionism tends to be darker, more focused on the depressing, violent, impoverished, hopeless, and angry.
This eventually led to a style of theatre and art that translates to “Storm and Stress.” Famed writer Goethe (pronounced GER-ta) exemplified this in literature, while Rousseau, Haydn, and Mozart brought the theory to music with minor keys and a high level of emotion. In the original German, this style is called “Sturm and Drang,” which is, obviously, where the name of Romania’s dark-wizard-run school, Durmstrang, comes from.
8 David Llewellyn
We’ve already covered specific characters who are based on real people, and the fact that there are very few of them. David Llewellyn was a non-fictional Welsh socialite, and the sort of person who proudly wore the label of “playboy.” He was known to be a hedonistic sort, one who reveled in fine things, hard play, and basically having a good time. He died of bone cancer in 2009.
Inspired by his colorful lifestyle, Rowling created a character called Dangerous Dai (A Welsh shortening of the name David) Llewellyn, a famous Quidditch player who was eaten by a Chimera while taking a foolhardy risk. St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries has a ward for serious bites named after him. It’s also worth noting that in real-life, Llewellyn’s Practical Magick Series is a series of books for real-life practitioners of practical magick (using candles, colors, or earth elements to perform spells). And yes, they really do spell it with a K at the end.
7 The Legend of King Arthur
If you ask around, history buffs tend to disagree on what the true facts are surrounding the King Arthur legend. After absorbing countless books, movies, lectures, and plays about the famed ruler of Britain and Camelot, scholars still aren’t sure if the Arthur of legend was a real person. After all, it’s not as if the first writer of the legend, Geoffrey of Monmouth, is still alive to question. What we can agree on is that Arthurian legend was definitely an influence on J.K. Rowling.
We’ve already covered the similarities between Dumbledore and Gandalf. But it could be said that both of these wizards were inspired by Merlin, another guy scholars think might have existed in one form or another. The King Arthur legend also contains a magical sword that chooses people for specific tasks, dragons getting up to mischief, and the guy for whom the Order of Merlin was named for.
6 Mandrake Roots
Like much of Rowling’s lore, mandrake roots (genus: mandragora) are very real plants that exist in our world today. They’re used for medicinal, culinary, and magickal purposes by a variety of cultures. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, mandrake roots are presented as plant versions of people. They have a highly accelerated lifespan, but begin as baby-like creatures that must grow into adulthood before they can be used to full effect. In real-life, mandrakes sometimes look like tiny, kinda creepy people just by happenstance.
In times past, savvy farmers would pull up mandrake roots, carve faces into them, and then replant them. Weeks later, the cut marks would have grown over, leaving mandrake roots with clearly defined faces—considered the most valuable by many users. The fabled cry of the mandrake is also part of the legend. Growers began rumors of fatal cries to keep thieves from stealing their plants. Mandrakes have hallucinogenic properties when consumed, so it’s probably best to leave any wild ones you find alone if you're not into that sort of thing.
5 Haitian zombie lore
When most people think of reanimated corpses, they usually think of zombie cannibals of the sort found in George Romero movies or on The Walking Dead. But these are a fairly modern invention. The first flesh-eating zombie didn’t find its way to movie screens until 1968, upon the release of Night of the Living Dead. Before then, zombies were based on Haitian Voudon, which came about when indigenous Voodoo culture mixed with French Catholicism.
In this culture’s legend, a zombie is still a reanimated corpse. But this corpse is essentially a slave to the Houngan (a kind of witch doctor). Hougans create a zombie beverage from puffer fish venom (tetrodotoxin) which renders the drinker suggestible and dazed. In this type of lore, the fear is being made into a zombie—not being eaten by one. This is clearly where the idea of Inferi, the dead bodies charmed to do their master’s bidding, comes from. Want to know more about Haitian zombie lore? Look up a dude named Clairvius Narcisse.
We’re going to guess that most of you have never heard the word “Sowilo” before. Way to not study ancient Germanic languages, kids! Sowilo is one of many runes (ancient letters used for writing and some types of magic) in a rune type named “Futhark.” We won’t go into tons of rune lore here, since there are so many types and uses. Suffice to say that each rune represents both a letter and a concept. These concepts might be things like “strength” or “protection” or “destiny.”
Within the designation of Germany’s Futhark runes, there are two main types. The Younger Futhark is comprised of updated, simplified runes. This one tends to be used by Wiccans and others who embrace modernity in their practice. Elder Futhark runes are, as you’d guess, the older set, used mainly by Odinists and other old-school magical practitioners. It’s from these Elder Futhark runes that we get “Sowilo,” which looks suspiciously like Harry Potter’s lightning scar. Sowilo represents the letter S, the Sun, protection, and warmth. Makes sense, right?
3 The Dark Arts (1967)
We’re confident that Rowling did a lot of research before developing her magical world and its even more magical lexicon. We know that she used bits and pieces of a lot of existing lore in her work. Heck, the Potterverse has giants, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and plenty of other monsters that had been around for hundreds of years before Voldemort first decided he was terrified of dying. But we have to think that Ms. Rowling has a copy of this book, in particular, kicking around.
Aside from the obvious title (though this book was also released as The Black Arts), this single tome contains references to a great many bits of lore eventually found in the Potterverse. We already mentioned Nicholas Flamel, the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Elixir of Life. The Dark Arts also makes mention of Hermes (the name of Percy’s owl), uses of mandrake root, Agrippa (the only chocolate frog card Ron was missing when we met him), the Hand of Glory (a magical object that Malfoy coveted and eventually owned), basilisks, and the riddle of the Sphinx. It’s possible that Rowling is unfamiliar with this tome, but we doubt it.
2 Mr. Muggles
While Harry Potter is obviously a series written for older children and younger adults, it’s enjoyed by readers of all ages. We presume that children get the stuff that’s intended for them, while older readers might find other aspects to appreciate underneath the surface-level stuff. One such aspect is the use of the word “Muggle.” In the wizarding world, muggle is a polite word for someone who has no magical capabilities, as well as no known wizard blood. Someone with wizard blood and no gifts in the realm of magic is called a Squib.
Since at least the 1930s, “Mr. Muggles” has been a term referring to marijuana — usually the especially potent kind. We’re all pretty confident that Rowling did not put pro-marijuana references into her YA fiction. But could there be a message inherent to the word Muggle? Is it possible that calling non-magical types Muggles indicates that Rowling is anti-marijuana, that the way to truly find your inner magic is to be drug-free? We aren’t sure, but it's definitely a strong possibility.
1 Roald Dahl
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Roald Dahl, you really are cheating yourself. This British writer is famous for children’s books like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His work for adults is even zanier, with My Uncle Oswald being the stand-out favorite for most readers. Some of Dahl’s influence can definitely be seen in the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
The Dursleys are inspired by both Matilda’s horribly inattentive parents, and probably even the slave-driving Aunts Sponge and Spiker from James and the Giant Peach. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, mention is made of the streets being as empty and quiet as if a rhinoceros had escaped from the zoo. In Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, James is orphaned when his parents were killed by an escaped rhinoceros. The most obvious influence, though, is the name of the title character from these tomes. “James Henry Trotter” sounds an awful lot like “Harry James Potter,” doesn’t it?
We hope you learned something from our list, or at least, that you didn’t find it super boring. We're sure that there are plenty of other real-world inspirations that are visible in Rowling's work. Let us know what they are in the comments!