On etymology and mythology
in the Harry Potter series of books



Upon its release in 1997, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone became an immediate International success story. Translated into almost every language on the face of the Earth, the novel about a young boy's fist year at wizarding school was enjoyed by readers of all ages. Since then, The Philosopher’s Stone (PS) and the four following volumes (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (CS), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PA), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (GF), and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (OP)) have sold over 200 million copies between them.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that Joanne Kathleen Rowling is a woman. As Peter Hunt observes, “children’s literature is…very much the province of women” . Indeed, it was the publishers themselves who insisted Rowling use her initials as they thought that a book written by a woman would be less desirable to young boys. Aside from issues of gender, fiction aimed primarily at children has traditionally been the poor black sheep of the literary world. However, the cultural phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series is evidence that there is a growing acceptance of children’s literature; with the acclaim extended towards Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman, as well as Rowling, the genre no longer seems to be the “culturally marginalized”  form it once was. Hunt also points out than once upon a time, an author’s more child orientated work would be regarded as less important: “Once can search in vain through criticism of an impressive list of major authors…without finding any mention of their work for children” . Rowling’s yarn of a wizard schoolboy picked up several awards, though they would tend to be mainly prizes for writing aimed at children.

However, just as the accolades began to flood in, so to did accusations of plagiarism, the most infamous of which was that levelled by American novelist Nancy Stuffour, who “contacted Scholastic (Rowling's US publishers) in late summer 1999 about resemblances between...Rowling's work and her own...involving characters named Larry Potter, his friend Lily, and creatures called “muggles”.”  Despite the case being dismissed in Autumn 2002, due to "problems with Stuffour's evidence" , this does not mean that Rowling has not borrowed heavily from other sources.  On the contrary, a cursory browse through the (to date) five Harry Potter novels reveals a vast cultural legacy within Rowling's fictional framework. In attempting to tell a story, one she conceived on a train from Manchester to London, Rowling was faced with the problem of creating a fictional world for her characters to exist and function in.

Chronicling the contemporary adventures of an adolescent wizard facing secondary education at Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, novels have the unusual feature of having the main characters age and mature over the course of the series, of which the Rowling has stated there will be seven instalments, one for each school year. Harry is eleven at the start of the first novel (clues given to us by the author suggest the tale is set in the 90s) (CS:99,102), and nearly sixteen by the end of The Order of the Phoenix. He has begun to show signs of puberty, and an interest in the opposite sex. This has been sometimes proved controversial, as some parents feel uneasy with the idea of Harry ageing, and desire the novels to stay true to the traditional children’s novel, with ageless characters and timeless adventures.

As the book developed from a short daydream into a fully-fledged novel, the locations and characters would have to change and become more concrete. Many novelists choose many ways to do this, but Rowling's was to incorporate traditional elements, and give them a slight tweak. "It's reality with a twist."  For her main audience, a lot of the subtle references are not easily recognisable. Rowling, like Tolkein before her, has incorporated existing elements. And, for a novel set in the near 21st century, it is perhaps fitting that Rowling recycles. In this investigation, I will look at the use of existing source material in the Harry Potter canon and I will attempt to discern if Rowling’s attempt to blend this material with her own seven-part Bildungsroman of a young wizard’s coming-of-age has been successful.




Legends from all corners of the world, from the dawn on civilisation pervade her alternate universe. All of the popular myths pop up, and apart from the obvious wizards and witches, we also come across ghosts, shaggy dogs & werewolves, vampires and giants. Sundry other small fantastical creatures raise their heads, usually in the care of magical creatures section. However we also find creatures that wizards are afraid of, such as dragons or Aragog, a giant spider.

As the series goes on, Rowling seems more and more to draw from events that take place in the real world, and give them a magical twist. This is especially noticeable in the magical forms of transport that the characters use from time to time, the most prominent (and interesting) being Apparition, Floo Powder and Portkeys. It becomes apparent that Apparition is the magical equivalent of driving, with wizards and witches having to sit an Apparition test after their seventeenth birthday before they are allowed to utilise the technique on their own. Floo Powder seems to owe a debt to the tale of Santa Claus descending the chimney on Christmas Eve, with the traveller stepping into the hearth, throwing down a pinch of the dust, and stating clearly where they want to go. Rowling’s wordplay emerges here again, the word Floo being similar in sound to Flue, referring to part of a chimney, and also Flew, meaning travelling through the air, very quickly. The Portkeys mentioned from The Goblet of Fire onwards is a very interesting concept, and is one of Rowling's own. Similar to Apparition, an enchanted object will allow those who touch it at a precise time to travel great distances. From the description in the novel, it appears Rowling had train travel in mind when she came up with the concept, judging by the announcement made by one of the waiting Wizards when Harry and his friends arrive at the Quidditch World Cup. "Seven past five from Stoatshead Hill." (GF:69)

Oddly enough, one of the most minor, if notable characters in The Philosopher’s Stone is Nicholas Flamel, based on a real person from the 16th century or thereabouts. Flamel was a Frenchman, born in 1330, and would go on to marry Pernelle. Legend tells us he would go on to discover the secret of alchemy, using the Philosopher’s Stone, and came into great wealth and enjoyed a long life. Allegedly, when his tomb was opened there was no body inside giving power to the rumour he had discovered the secret of Eternal life. This is almost exactly how we are introduced to the characters in The Philosopher’s Stone. “Nicholas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera lover…Mr Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife Pernelle (six hundred and fifty eight.)” (PS:161)

Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, who is introduced to us in earnest at the start of the third book, turns out to be an animagus, with the power to transform himself into a ferocious looking shaggy black dog. Originally a Greek word, Seirios, meaning ‘Burning’, Sirius has become intrinsically linked with the canine species due to the prominent star in the constellation Canis Major (Great Dog) bearing its name. Hence, we can take Black’s name to mean ‘Black Dog.’ From here, Rowling begins to explore the particularly English myth of the shaggy dog story, known also as the myth of Black Shuck. The poet Martin Newell references the legend thus;

As big as a calf, with eyes like burning coals, he pads silently beside the traveller on lonely country roads. Always keeping pace, he never drops back but simply seems to melt away. In some parts of the region, they believe that if you see old Shuck, then you or someone in your family will die. But best not to see him.  

The tale of this phantom dog, an omen of forthcoming doom, or indeed the harbinger itself has long been told in North Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, was used by Arthur Conan Doyle in his classic Sherlock Holmes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, and strikes fear into the heart of Harry when he sees his father’s best friend in animal form for the first time. He becomes even more frightened when he discovers that seeing a huge black dog is a death omen. Later of course, we find out that Sirius is one of Harry’s closest allies.

Of course, there are far more fantastical creatures than just a shaggy black dog. After all, what would Hagrid do in his care of magical creatures lessons without his collection of Blast-ended Skrewts and Flobberworms? I want to look more closely at the character of Remus Lupin, Harry’s Defence Against the Dark Arts professor for his third year at Hogwarts. We eventually discover that not only was Remus a good friend of Harry’s father, he also suffers from Lycanthropy, an incurable condition wherein he is doomed to transform into a wolf every time a full moon shines upon him. The term ‘Lycanthropy’ is derived from the Greek legend of Lycaon. The author Colin Clair avers the story of Lycaon, “(W)ho sought to test the divinity of Zeus by offering him human flesh to eat, and for this sacrilege was turned into a wolf.”

The werewolf myth does not have as many variations as other popular myths in Europe, such as the vampire, and instead sticks to the traditional qualities of the mythical creature. For instance, Remus is bitten by another werewolf at an early age, and transforms into his beastly alter-ego every full moon. There is a minor variation on the myth at this juncture; the werewolf either transforms while the moon is full, or only while moonlight shines on him. In certain tales, the transformation occurs but once a year. The more cultured reader would be alerted to Lupin’s condition by his name; like Sirius Black, Rowling has given the reader insight into a character through his moniker. Lupin, is a variation on Lupine, the adjective relating to the wolf’s species name, Lupus, as bovine is to the cow. Remus is taken from one of the two founders of Rome, brothers raised by a wolf, named Romulus and Remus, the former eventually killing the latter. A minor point to note is that the mythical Remus’ father was the god Mars; in Greek mythology, Mars was the god of war and the centaurs in Harry Potter are fixated on the movement of Mars in the novels. (PS:185) A portent perhaps?

Centaurs themselves are taking on an increasingly large role in the novels.  They take on the traditional form of centaurs, being “human beings in front, merging with the body and hind legs of a horse.”  Clair also notes that “in mythology, the centaur has a dignity absent from most other monstrous forms, and the conjunction of man and horse had an element of nobility.”  Rowling’s Centaurs do have an air of nobility around them, though they also take a keen interest in astrology. This is not explicitly mentioned as an interest in the classics, but it is not entirely out of character.

There are several other mythical creatures closely linked with the Hogwarts school, being namely, the dragon, the griffin, and the basilisk. The dragon crops up throughout history in many shapes and forms, but the traditionally accepted form is that of a large malevolent lizard type beast with wings and the ability to breathe fire. This is the form Rowling’s dragons take; the very mention of them makes the younger characters uneasy; this is especially noted in the scene in The Philosopher's Stone when the three protagonists discover Hagrid has acquired a dragon egg. “’Dragons!...you can't tame dragons, it's dangerous’”(PS:168-169) The idea of a dragon as an intimidating destructive force is very much a western idea; in the east the dragon is celebrated.

One notion of Rowling’s which is very interesting, as she places her now trademark twist on proceedings, is the slightly comedic way she has named her dragons, being heavily reminiscent of the way domestic pets are delineated by breed. She mentions many differing types over the five novels; "Common Welsh Green", "Hebridean Black", "Norwegian Ridgeback", "Chinese Fireball", "Swedish Short-snout", "Hungarian Horntail". The idea of different breeds of dragons had been previously noted by Charles Gould in his book, The Dragon

It must be noted here, that if we postulate the existence of the dragon, we are not bound to limit ourselves to a single species, or even two, as the same causes which effected the gradual destruction of one would be exceedingly likely to effect that of another; we must not, therefore, be too critical in comparing descriptions of different authors in different countries and epochs since they may refer only to allied, but not identical animals.

Which brings us to the emblem of the house of Gryffindor, being a lion, and not as the name alludes to, a griffin. Although the characteristics many people ascribe to the lion, such as bravery and pride, fit in with those attributed to Gryffindor house, it may be possible that Rowling selected the name (a griffin is part lion after all) to give the house a name that sounds a little more romantic. Other fantastic beasts mentioned are the basilisk, which possesses in Harry’s world the power to turn kill by direct line of sight, and the three headed dog ‘Fluffy’, whose role guarding the gates of hell in Greek myth, is transcribed as guarding the Philosopher’s Stone in the first novel.

The last fantastic beast I wish to look at is probably the most alluring, Fawkes the phoenix, “a bird the size of an eagle with red and gold feathers, it sang beautifully” . Keeping up Rowling’s standard of borrowing names from elsewhere, the bird is named for Guy Fawkes, the gunpowder plot conspirator, effigies of whom are immolated every year on top of huge bonfires. The legend of the phoenix states that there is only one such bird in existence at any one time, and this seems to be the case in Potter. Fawkes is considered magical enough to donate tail feathers to Mr. Ollivander, the master wand maker, to use as the cores of wands. Unlike the mythical bird, Rowling’s phoenix eviscerates himself every few weeks we are led to believe, and not the greater cycles mentioned of 500, 1000 or 1460 years.




J.K. Rowling would say of her birthplace Chipping Sodbury that it was a place “appropriate for someone who collects funny names.”  As an author, she doesn’t just limit her “borrowing” to popular mythology. With a novel, one of the most important aspects is the words used, and any terms that make up the narrative. Her ongoing yarn deals with a world that shares certain aspects with ours. It exists in the same place and time as ours, and shares many physical laws, yet is almost entirely independent. Subsequently, the author has to create a raft of new terms for the characters to convincingly describe their environment, an Herculean effort to label characters, places and the associated paraphernalia.

It took J.R.R.Tolkein many years to craft his Lord of the Rings novel, and infamously a huge amount of that time was taken up by the linguistic aspects of the tale. He developed several different languages for his mythical land of Middle-Earth, almost to the point where the languages were as important as the story they told. Rowling’s technique is not entirely dissimilar, but where Tolkein's character's names are derived from the language and history of that character's family or species, which the author himself created, she uses the extant languages of French (which she studied at university) and English. The surname of the characters Lucius and Draco Malfoy itself is drawn from the French ‘mal foi’ meaning bad faith.

Rowling’s characters have a simplistic, almost careless air about their monikers. They are reminiscent of the alliterative and symbolic names of comic book characters. We could look at Superman and Spider-man, whose codenames denote their special skills, but there is a subtler more mundane symbolism in their day-to-day names; Clark Kent (Clark = clerk, he works as a journalist) and Peter Parker (Parker = Nosey Parker, he works as a photographer). Another prime example would be the characters featured in 1980s cartoons. Never considered high art, instead dismissed as a series of commercials aimed at young children for the corresponding toys, the protagonists were generally named after skills or personality traits they possessed, or the objects they resembled or possessed similar powers to. However, there were a few noticeable exceptions, namely the leader of the good robots in The Transformers, Optimus Prime. Derived from the words Optimum and Prime, we are led to believe he is the best of all the robots he commands. And, of course, he is. Interestingly, in one of the episodes, we find out that Prime was not always known by that name, and that he was once an idealistic young robot who didn't believe in the civil war that was brewing on his home planet. His name then was Orion Pax, and if we assume that the writers had the mythical ancient Greek hunter and the Latin word for peace in mind, then we can deduce his name denotes 'Peace Hunter'.

In his book The Art of Fiction (1992), David lodge looks at the character names of the two protagonists in his own novel, Nice Work.

I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose)   

Philip Nel points out that “Rowling, like (Jane) Austen, does give characters names that connote their character traits…(h)owever,…even the least important characters have a full history…when a minor character turns out to be a major character, Rowling clearly has known it all along.”  This is especially true in the case of Harry’s neighbour Mrs Figg. Mentioned in passing as a harmless, batty old lady in the first four novels, The Order of the Phoenix sees her emerge as a Squib (a child with no magical powers born to magical parents, the word coming from the phrase ‘damp squib’ meaning a firework or explosive that fails to go off.) who had been surreptitiously keeping a watchful eye on Harry for years. Suddenly we see her name Figg symbolising the Fig leaf, that which keeps certain things secret and covered up.

Continuing the theme of names, I want to look at some of Rowling’s main characters, namely Sirius black and Remus Lupin. Mentioned in the first chapter of the first novel, we don’t meet Sirius until book three, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Escaping from the fore-mentioned prison, Black goes on the run, and his fugitive status has the magical world of Hogwarts on edge. However, this is all part of Rowling’s cunning plan; Sirius is a good guy. Jann Lacoss mentions the reversals in the novels:

Sirius Black represents a reversal employed to demonstrate further to the readers that things are not always as they appear. Rowling…transposes characteristics usually associated with evil characters onto good ones, whereas evil characters are often depicted as rather scruffy-looking, Sirius is painted as a criminal and looks fairly haggard but is actually an avatar.

It turns out Black is an animagus (animal + mage, meaning magician), capable of transforming into a huge black dog at will. The continuing appearance of the Black Shuck grimm, mentioned in the mythology chapter, is resolved as we discover it has been Black in animal form all along. Of course, the symbolism in his name would give this away to the more cultured reader. Sirius is inexorably linked with the star system Canus, and black is fairly obviously the colour of said animal. This initially gives the reader the continued impression that Sirius is an evil character, due to the connotations of the tone black. But again, there is a twist; the star Sirius is also one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Yet another piece of symbolism from the author.

The parents of a newborn baby take time selecting a name they hope will suit their child, many times they choose a name that is a characteristic they hope the child will grow up to have (Faith and Hope being good examples). Novelists are in the unique position of choosing their characters name with hindsight, knowing that they can choose a nomenclature that may reveal hidden depths. This is the case with Remus Lupin. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, Professor Lupin happens to have a particularly wolf-related name. There are several other examples of character names being drawn from their characteristics. The minister of magic’s incompetence and hesitation earns him the name of Cornelius Fudge. Rubeus Hagrid is so named for his alarmingly scruffy appearance, Hagrid being a variation of haggard. Albus Dumbledore is decoded as White Bumblebee by Rowling herself: “Dumbledore is an old English dialect word for bumblebee, because he is a musical person. And I imagine him humming to himself all the time.”  Other characters are named after towns in England, such as Severus Snape, and Dudley Dursley.

There are certain names that do not follow the convention of an existing word being used in a different context, and these are that of Harry himself, and Ron’s father Arthur. It has been suggested that Arthur Weasley is named after the mythical English king of the same name. “Arthur is a possible reference to King Arthur. The World Book says, ‘There are two versions of the events that led to Arthur's death. Both say he fought a war against Roman emperor Lucius.’”

Harry’s surname is taken from a couple of childhood friends the young author used to play witches and wizards with. His forename is apparently so, because it was a name Rowling always liked, and it has a certain ‘common’, down to earth air about it. Is it a muggle name?

Strangely enough, the opening paragraph of The Philosopher's Stone bears a passing resemblance to a sketch from the BBC Television programme, Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974). Compare these two passages; the first from Episode Seven of the first series of the television programme, with the opening passage of The Philosopher's Stone. If Rowling hasn't taken some inspiration from the sketch, it would seem to be a huge coincidence.

It was a day like any other and Mr and Mrs Samuel Brainsample were a perfectly ordinary couple, leading perfectly ordinary lives - the sort of people to whom nothing extraordinary ever happened, and not the kind of people to be the centre of one of the most astounding incidents in the history of mankind ... So let's forget about them and follow instead the destiny of this man... Harold Potter, gardener, and tax official, first victim of Creatures from another Planet.  

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much, They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense. (PS:)

The convention of subverting existing words for use as names is not limited to character names. All the magical objects in the Hogwarts world need to be named as well. As Jann Lacoss points out,

Specialized lexicon constitutes another main indicator of a folk group. When folklorists work to define a people as belonging to a specific group, they collect any distinctive terminology used primarily by group members in order to distinguish a specialized informal biography.

So, to describe a world inhabited by magicians, and several other sentient species, Rowling HAS to come up with convincing nouns. This is evident in an early scene in The Philosopher's Stone (PS:). Incorporating the difficult task of exposition into a world that has moved on a decade since the events of Halloween 10 years beforehand, we are introduced to the magical by world at the same time as Harry, and it is through his naivety and questions that we learn about the wizarding world. Our biggest binge of magical terms comes during Harry’s first visit to Diagon Alley. With the guidance of Hagrid, Harry goes about learning the everyday magic words he has never been exposed to, and passes this knowledge on to the reader, acting as a conduit for the reader’s induction to his new surroundings. We share Harry’s bemusement and awe at the products on sale in Diagon Alley, the books by strangely named authors, and the wizarding bank Gringott’s, which may or may not be an anagram of ‘G Storing’. (The G possibly denoting Gold.)

Rowling doesn’t just name objects and characters in a functional manner. She also has an eye for a pun, and often names Harry’s classmate’s possessions in a humourous way, with words borrowed from muggle English. Neville Longbottom is sent a Rememberall, an aid to memory, being a ball that fills with smoke if you’ve forgotten something. The young wizard children shun computer games, leaving them to the likes of muggles like Dudley, instead preferring the outdoor sport of Quidditch and lust after the Cleansweep 2000 broom. Here Rowling combines a synonym for achievement in sport, with a term that defines what a broom does.

Hogwarts’ pupils also learn charms and spells, and the incantations needed to activate the spells. While most of Rowling’s spells have their origins in Latin, the unforgiveable Killing Curse seems to have originated from the Arabic Abra Kadabra, “meaning 'let the things be destroyed' or from the Aramaic abhadda kedhabhra, meaning 'disappear like this word'.”

Although Rowling generally takes from the English language, she creates her own terms as well, several of which have entered the English language. The most notable of these would be 'Muggle' and 'Quidditch', but the novels are littered with further neologisms. Indeed with ‘Quidditch’, Rowling has not only invented the game and the rules, but also the etymology of the word. In the spin-off book, Quidditch Through The Ages written by Rowling under a pseudonym (that of the author who writes the corresponding novel in the Potter series), she delineates the origin of the game, and how it began in the village of Queerditch Marsh. We are later introduced to the Golden Snitch, a small winged ball that replaces the 'Golden Snidget', the bird that had been previously used as the game's quarry when it became an endangered species. In reality, the word Quidditch is an invention of Rowling’s, most likely coming from an amalgam of a few letters from each ball used in the game; Quaffle, Bludger, and Snitch = qu, d, itch.




J.K. Rowling's novels so far are not particularly original. They borrow frequently and unashamedly from almost every myth and legend we've ever heard of. The characters have names that reveal their purposes and almost everything about them. There is a definite formula about the writing, as if she simply transfers the muggle world that we know into the one she has created, with certain elements such as gas and electricity substituted for magic. The Quidditch World Cup scene in The Goblet of Fire could have been a scene from any 'real' International sporting tournament, with the pomp and circumstance surrounding a final.

Strangely, for novels that assimilate folklore, and concern the battles between good and evil wizards, there is not a lot of imagination inherent in the writing. The main plot of a young boy going off to boarding school to learn magic has been compared to The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy. The character of Harry himself, a put down upon orphan who joins the fight against evil has been echoed in literature throughout, notably in Lord of the Rings, as the orphaned Frodo goes off to fight the forces of Mordor.

The French (Originally Bulgarian) structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov has proposed that tales of the supernatural divide into three categories: the marvellous, in which no rational explanation of the supernatural phenomena is possible; the uncanny, in which it is; and the fantastic in which the narrative hesitates undecidably between a natural and a supernatural explanation.

The summer of 1997 saw the release of the long awaited Star Wars prequel, Episode One: The Phantom Menace. The reviews were not good; many people thought the film, and the subsequent Episode Two: Attack of the Clones, lacked something the first three possessed. Perhaps the main problem lies in the scenes where Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn Jinn are discussing the young Anakin's nascent Jedi skills, and the word Midi-Chlorians is introduced to us. In the seventies and eighties, audiences of the original trilogy were bewitched by the enigmatic, spiritual power known as the Force Jedis were trained to harness. When writer/director George Lucas introduced a physical element, such as midi-chlorians, many fans felt the magic had been killed. It seemed like Lucas felt the need to rationalise his concept. Rowling may find herself in the same boat, as she continues to ease Harry through puberty.

As Harry grows older, and enters puberty, we realise he needs to develop. As the author has chosen to portray the character over a number of years, between the ages of eleven and eighteen, we realise that Harry will grow, changing both physically and mentally. The first book introduced us to a magical world, and had little character development to deal with. Rowling’s borrowing from other sources manifested itself in the descriptions of the strange new world we enter with Harry. With every new instalment however, the developing protagonist comes into his own more and more. In the fifth book, magic has taken a back seat almost entirely; the main plot developments come from Harry’s reactions to events at the end of The Goblet of Fire and at the start of the new novel. Harry adopts an almost solipsist approach to life. Only he matters, and he continually questions his friends’ and mentor’s motives. His feelings for Cho Chang are at odds with the fact Cedric Diggory, who died at the climax of the previous novel was Cho’s boyfriend. Deborah J. Taub and Heather L. Servaty praise Rowling for her approach to death, saying that “(having Dumbledore honestly state in a direct manner to his students that “Cedric Diggory was murdered by Lord Voldemort” is an example of respecting adolescents with regard to a death loss by providing them with an honest explanation of the death.” , and pointing out that in children’s literature there remains “(t)he mistaken notion that death is some kind of abnormality of our existence: an evil force. In reality, death is the inevitable end for all living beings.  It is a natural stage in development.”

Rowling is insistent that this is the way the remaining books will progress; with Harry growing older and wiser, much to the chagrin of some parents, who want a safe world their children can retreat to. The author on the other hand, obviously doesn’t feel this way. In the second novel, we are introduced to prejudice in the wizard world, as tension and discrimination is revealed between pure-bloods and mud-bloods (wizards born from part or whole muggle stock), mud-blood obviously being an offensive term in this reality, much like nigger is in ours. Intolerance is also shown to Professor Remus Lupin, and Hagrid in later books because of their were-wolf affliction and part-giant breeding respectively, despite their competence as teachers. Lupin in fact has arguably the best teaching methods we’ve seen so far, and it could be also be contemplated that with Lupin’s situation, Rowling may be drawing inspiration from those persons infected with Aids, unable to hold down a job despite their skills because of the reactions of others. Lupin is introduced to us as “wearing an extremely shabby set of Wizard’s robes which had been darned in several places. He looked ill and exhausted. Though he seemed quite young, his light-brown hair was flecked with grey.” (PA:59) This is the description of a man unable to find work due to a physical problem beyond his control. We later see Hermione form SPEW (The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) (GF:198), and constantly try to free house-elves from captivity.

Even the style of Rowling’s writing changes over the years. The opening chapter of the first novel is as different in tone and maturity to the fifth book as The Hobbit's is to The Lord of the Rings. The rest of the novel’s content follow suit, Harry overcomes evil in the first book with help from his loyal friends, and his mother's love, an ancient form of witchcraft that protects him from Quirrell/Voldemort's attack. However, by the fifth novel the teenage Harry has become a stroppy specimen of the type. Look at these examples of Harry’s interior monologue, the first from the eleven-year-old version in The Philosopher's Stone: “Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked like a baby angel - Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig.” (PS:21) The second comes from the near 16 year old Harry in The Order of the Phoenix; “Harry screamed, so loudly that he thought his throat might tear, and for a second he wanted to rush at Dumbledore and break him too; shatter that calm old face, shake him, hurt him, make him feel some tiny part of the horror inside himself." (OP:726) He feels anger towards his father figures, Dumbledore and Black, his friends Ron and Hermione, and the magical community for doubting his story of the return of Voldemort. He is stubborn, feels frustrated, and although his quasi-physical relationship with Cho Chang stumbles due to his insensitivity to her feelings about her late boyfriend Cedric Diggory, his first brush with sexual intercourse draws near.




And so the question must be asked; will the author continue Harry's mental maturation with his physical in Harry's sixth and seventh adventures? Will Harry begin to shave, masturbate, develop acne? Will he start to smoke, get drunk in the park on cheap cider? Maybe even swear? Or will we see a more toned down version, two novels where characters die indiscriminately, friends fall out over trivial matters and incompetent politicians put people's lives on the line, as in the real world, yet not once will we hear a single expletive uttered?

I feel Rowling is in danger of taking her series down a dangerous road. It seems she doesn't seem if she wants to write a children's book with adult themes, or a teenager's novel. Hence, she has created a strange, slightly unconvincing world, where children deal with the issues of adulthood, but with the mimesis and digesis of children. As the maturity and sophistication of the plots, stories and characters grow, the gaucheness of the character's names and their dialogue is thrown into sharp relief, becoming almost a form of metafiction as they "call attention to their fictional status" . It also seems that the more complex the issues become, the more Rowling relies on direct transposition from the muggle world. When Arthur Weasley remarks on the telephone Harry is teaching him to use, “’Fascinating!...Ingenious, really, how many ways Muggles have found of getting along without magic.’”, or when Harry discovers a correspondence magic course in Argus Filch’s desk, we are left with the impression that magic is a wizard’s equivilant of electricity or gas, a utility or equity, something that makes household tasks easier, and not the mystic power it should be.

Jonathan Raban makes the observation of John Updike’s novel The Centaur; “This novel is worth glancing at, if for no other reason than that it demonstrates how impossibly far a symbolic technique is sometimes taken…(it) is all ingenuity and subtle parallels: it demands, not so much to be read as to be decoded.”  This also applies to Rowling’s novels. How much fun is it to read stories that have borrowed extensively from the mundane of the real world and required precious little imagination to create?

Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone was unashamedly a children's book, almost fairy-tale like as a put-upon orphan was whisked off to a brave new world of witchcraft and wizardry. The reader didn't notice (or let it pass) that a good deal of the terms and phrases used are words from our world that retain their meaning in a new context. Rowling's use of mythology works successfully as she incorporates these sources into her tale with subtlety and mastery. We accept that a story about wizards will feature dragons and other such mythical creatures, yet Rowling doesn't depend on them for her stories. They are featured, but as part of the background. She is less successful however with her conversion of current words. They draw attention to the essential untruth of the novels. With two novels yet to come in the series, it remains to be seen what further events will befall Harry, but it is likely we will be familiar with them.


Back to menu