Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Don’t Be Afraid: It’s Just An Allusion

I love literary allusions. When I encounter a particularly yummy example while I’m reading, I do a little mental fist punch in the air (this is an allusion; if you watch Doctor Who, you’ll understand). If it’s done well, the quality of the work in question gets bumped up a few notches in my esteem.

I don’t know why people don’t incorporate allusions more often into their work. If you can use a simile or the more sophisticated metaphor, there’s no reason to avoid the occasional appropriate historical or mythological allusion…

Which is not the same thing as an illusion, but way more entertaining. An illusion is just misdirection, prestidigitation…

An allusion, you could argue, is just the opposite. A literary allusion gives you two presents. First of all, there’s the clever use of a reference to another work of fiction. Skillfully done, a writer will wow you with a seamless comparison to something else, a character or event that’s so familiar and well-understood, it’s as much a painting with words as an homage. That mental cross-referencing is the second gift. The dendrites in your brain will appreciate the exercise.

Take Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” — a wonderful example of Classic Pickup Lines so classically delivered that they’re, well, refreshing:

I would /Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse /Till the conversion of the Jews.

Most pickup lines these days do not reference the Old Testament, I’m guessing. Marvell thought it was lovely, and we should hope his lady friend did, too. At any rate, it’s so much better than the 17th century equivalent of, “I’ll love you for a very long time. Honest. I’m quite serious now.”

It’s less common to see allusions these days in most fiction, even less so in prose, and, I’m sad to say, they are close to extinct in popular music. Of course, some songs, like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” are made up entirely of historical allusions. The best part of learning the lyrics was the necessary research it took to understand the references.

One of my favorite Doctor Who episodes is the oft-maligned “The Shakespeare Code”, which I adored. First of all, you get to see David Tennant being himself (read: adorable and very talented) in the middle of the buzz about appearing on-stage in a real-life Hamlet production. Total win. Then you get the added bonus of multiple references to about a dozen famous lines in the bard’s plays, plus a fantastic play on the academic discussion about the “real” subject of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”, at which point allusions left and right. And then, to top it off, multiple allusions to Harry Potter! I nearly fainted in bibliophile/fangirl delight.

My husband didn’t understand my shouts of “yes!” during the episode. Sad, but he simply didn’t extract as much from the episode as he would have if he’d been able to appreciate all of the allusions.

Oops! My English Teacher is showing again… it keeps slipping.



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