Symbolism and Names in Harry Potter Books

By Julia Anne Walker

 Harry Potter’s like a nephew to me. I started out reading Harry Potter as bedtime stories – my youngest has just reached eighteen. I know and love Harry like a member of the family: My kids literally grew up with him.

In case you’ve been under a rock for the past decade, the endearing theme of the Harry Potter books is simple. Good trumps bad.

On first encountering the world of Hogwarts and the magical community, everything appears straightforward: Harry is on the side of good. His nemesis is pure evil. Harry’s companions are from central casting – the not too bright unintentionally funny guy – the studious prim one reluctantly involved – however, as the series progress they grow in stature. Adults are sidelined; all three are at the famous boarding school for wizards. The most authoritive figures are a seemingly absent minded professor, and a lovable ogre type with more heart than brain. The scene is set for the three friends to move about freely in a wonderfully populated other world, which exists unnoticed within the United Kingdom.

The message is clear. Good finds ingenious ways to triumph thanks to friendship, loyalty and bravery. And the public have taken Harry and Co to their hearts. Step forward; take a bow J K Rowling. The woman responsible for encouraging a whole generation of school kids to embrace reading. Not to mention keeping half the population of British thespians in work.

I’ll admit tho’ to a teensy weeny smidgen of envy towards J K Rowling. No – not the massive fame and fortune side of things. I envy her ability to conjure up a person’s character with a name: Hasn’t she just nailed it? Take Harry for starters:

 ‘The game’s afoot: Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge, Cry ‘God for Harry!’ (3.1.31) Shakespeare Henry V.

Potter can be viewed as an ordinary surname, meaning to shape and create from clay. Ron Weasley, loyal friend and famous ginger has a name reminiscent of Weasel, a small russet coloured mammal punching well above its weight. The perfect sidekick, except this one gets the girl. And what a girl: Hermione Granger – You just know she’s from a family of intellectuals.

It doesn’t stop there:

Remus (Romulus & Remus raised by wolves) Lupin (Lupus – meaning wolf).

 Minerva McGonagan – Greek goddess of learning, the Scottish McGonagan evokes sternness with a hint (gone again) at the professor’s ability to shape shift into an ordinary tabby cat.

 Even cameo roles have the same treatment, consider: Rita Skeeter acid penned journalist. Writer of sketches. Fawkes the phoenix – bonfire night and fireworks.

 To say nothing of the word ‘muggles’. A term used for non-magical humans. Perfectly describing our world without magic as a ‘muddle’, don’t you think?

Even the house names hint why the ‘Sorting hat’ decided a particular pupil would suit: Gryffindor (Griffin: Legendary creature guarding London) Ravenclaw (Odin’s all seeing Ravens) Hufflepuff (duffers represented by a badger) and boo hiss Slytherin shouts out the nature of its clan.

My particular favourite is Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Anyone want one of Bertie Bassett’s Liquorice allsorts?

 The masterstroke though, is Voldemort. Or rather, ‘He who must not be named.’ De Mort. Of death. And J.K. has instantly tapped into our greatest fear. In western culture, death is a taboo subject.

 These interpretations are entirely my own. Doubtless J K Rowling deliberately chose some names for their connotations, others are my own fancy, but the point is – she’s done it. Effortlessly, she’s drawn pictures in reader’s minds by the simplest of methods. Its one used by authors down the ages: Heathcliff – immediately you’re on the wild moors of Yorkshire – Darcy takes you straight into genteel society while Bilbo Baggins could only inhabit a hobbit’s world. The children drawn into Narnia are typically no-nonsense Susans Edmunds etc., they could be any school child of the mid twentieth century whilst Aslan is Greek for lion.

 All these characters now exist outside of the pages and novels they originated from; they’ve become household names.

 Did I say this was a simple method? As I’ve learned from experience, it’s anything but. When outlining ‘A Ripple in Time’, a novel revolving around a time travel portal located at Stonehenge, using the mythical sword Excalibur as a catalyst, I found some characters suggested their own names. Others wouldn’t play ball. As author, I got my own back, for example shortening Rhyllann to Annie. That’ll teach him!

 We see only the end product. Of course Draco Malfoy is a nasty piece of work. With a name like that, who wouldn’t be?

 Rowling’s talent is to conjure vivid pictures in your mind, merely by giving each character their correct name.

 Now that’s magic.

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