26 October 2007

Manly and Expressive

Yesterday I wrote about how the Harry Potter books depict the Continental Powers, especially in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Tonight I’ll backtrack to a pattern I've noticed even since the first or second book in the series, about deeply-rooted stereotypes within Britain's wizarding society.

But haven't I already written about how J. K. Rowling has taken pains to include young wizards from many ethnicities within modern Britain? That's true, but in one area Rowling still reflects old--very old--cultural fault lines in British culture.

Almost all the English Hogwarts students in Harry's generation have first names that today's young readers would easily recognize. In the recent past, some wizarding families used such names, too: James and Lily Potter, Arthur and Molly Weasley. But many other families favored old-fashioned Latinate given names: Albus, Sirius, Remus, Severus, Minerva, etc.

The nice characters with Latinate given names have Anglo-Saxon family names, like Black. Many of the good guys' surnames connect to rural life, as in Lupin (a plant, though also wolfish), Dumbledore (bumblebee), and Granger (farmer or farm steward). This pattern fits well with the books' preference for life in Britain outside metropolitan London.

In contrast, the nastiest characters have Latinate or French surnames to go with their Latinate given names: Bellatrix Lestrange, Lucius Malfoy (shown above, as impersonated by Jason Isaacs). Harry's class rival is Draco Malfoy, which translates as "dragon bad-time." The series' chief villain was born Tom Riddle, a solid Anglo-Saxon name, but--showing his villainy--demanded that people call him something that sounds deadly French and aristocratic: Lord Voldemort.

That pattern reflects an old Whig preference for the Anglo-Saxon yeomanry over the Norman aristocracy. I quote from Scott's Ivanhoe:

At court, and in the castles of the great nobles, where the pomp and state of a court was emulated, Norman-French was the only language employed; in courts of law, the pleadings and judgments were delivered in the same tongue. In short, French was the language of honour, of chivalry, and even of justice, while the far more manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon was abandoned to the use of rustics and hinds, who knew no other.
It would be hard to find a more "manly and expressive Anglo-Saxon," working-the-good-English-earth name than Harry Potter.

2 comments:

Samantha said...

Hi John! Your ideas about names (Norman vs. Anglo-Saxon) are interesting, although I would argue that Rowling's choices are not the either/or proposition you make them out to be. The Black family has good members, morally ambiguous members, and hideously bad ones; salt-of-the-earth Ted Tonks names his daughter Nymphadora, poor thing. I think Rowling mixes name origins on purpose, as a kind of comment on modern English and how it got that way. Greek, Latin, Arthurian legend . . . and a dash of Beowulf! Turning to a different issue, I think you've made several mistakes in your recent posts. Malfoy is better translated as "bad faith"; you're thinking of "fois" (time), but "foi" (faith) seems a more likely reference, as the Malfoys are indeed untrustworthy. Next, Durmstrang is not in Bulgaria, although Viktor is Bulgarian. No one actually knows where Durmstrang is (it's unplottable), although Viktor says it's always cold there, and the students wear fur. That sure doesn't sound like Bulgaria to me. (Draco says his father almost sent him to Durmstrang, so apparently they take foreign students.) Anyway, that just shows that your original premise was correct: Rowling wants to make the scary school sort of Germany and sort of Russia . . . which she does, vaguely, through hints and names. Just not longitudinally. (Is that a word?)

J. L. Bell said...

I'm delighted to hear about Durmstrang's shifty location. It's been so long since I read HP4 that I relied on fan sites for that detail. It looks like some folks assumed that since Krum is from Bulgaria, so's his school. But a polar, Slavic institution with a German name—that's so invasion literature!

I can accept "foi" (faith) as more likely the root of Malfoy than "fois" (time) as long as I can throw "foie" (liver) into the mix. Dragon Spoiled-Liver!

On the Tonks family, weren't Ted Tonks's parents muggles? That would explain why they didn't choose a Latinate wizarding name for their boy. But then he and Andromeda went with a Latinate name for their daughter, in what seems like the standard choice for that generation. Nymphadora's choice to eschew her first name in favor of her plebeian surname helps to show where her sympathies lie.

I agree that Rowling mixes up names of all sorts, and it's only on the edges that there seems to be a clear pattern. On the really bad side (Lucius, Bellatrix, He Who Renamed Himself), it's all Latin and Norman French. On the really good side we have Harry and Ron. Both boys have some old wizarding ancestry, and yet they both have names and parents' names that wouldn't seem out of place in Britain today.