Thursday, 21 May 2009

Harry Potter: Books 1-3

I am going to break Harry Potter into manageable chunks, and cover books and films together unless there's a major difference between the two. So here are some thoughts on Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The US title for the first book drives me crazy. The Philosopher's Stone was something people actually believed might exist in the late medieval and early modern period - a stone that would turn lead to gold and produce the elixir of life.

Let's get some of the major Latin references out of the way first:

Albus = Latin for 'white'
Remus = one of the two brothers who founded Rome, who were suckled by a wolf
Lupus = Latin for 'wolf'
Vol-de-mort = French for 'Flight of death' (not Classical, but worth mentioning!)
Expecto patronum = Latin for 'I am expecting a guardian'
Oculus reparo = Latin for 'I repair the eye'

All the spells are Latin except for 'Avada Kedavra' (which is from the same root as Abracadabra). I won't list them all here, but if anyone is curious about a particular spell, ask me about it in the comments.

I love Harry Potter. Its not great literature - Rowling's writing is somewhat basic (count the number of times she has to say 'he, Harry' because she hasn't made the subject of her sentence sufficiently clear) and there isn't a single original idea in all seven books, but they're great, fun reads. As I spend all day reading thick and often impenetrable books for work, sometimes in different languages, I find it increasingly difficult to get into fiction books in the evening - it's so much easier to just put in a DVD. But there are no problems there with Harry Potter, the stories are exciting and fast-paced and time spent reading it just flies by.

Contrary to popular opinion, my favourite of the films is number four, The Goblet of Fire, but out of the first three I like Prisoner of Azkaban very much. The other two are fine, the first sets up the world of Harry Potter nicely, but they're a bit... bland.

Book One's Fluffy is presumably inspired by Cerberus, the dog that guarded the entrance to Hades, the Greek underworld (see description here). The name 'Fluffy' is great, but unfortunately what he's guarding isn't anywhere near as exciting as the underworld; just a bunch of supposedly protective charms and spells that three 11-year-olds can get through.

Book Two's basilisk is also Classically named - see Pliny the Elder's description here. The Wikipedia article is also good. The basilisk is pretty cool and pretty scary, though I always think it's cheating to have Fawkes destroy its sight. Still, it's a good scene, and I think Dan Radcliffe first showed some real acting skill in that movie, when he thinks he's dying and tries to persuade Ginny to leave without him - I feel really sorry for poor little Harry at that point!

Professor Snape, in the third film, is absolutely right about the origin of the word 'werewolf' (from the Anglo-Saxon wer, man), though werewolf stories were known in Greece and Rome too (see here and here, at LXI and LXII). The first time I read Book Three, before I started to study Ancient History and before I had done much Latin, I didn't realise Lupin was a werewolf - something I have since become somewhat embarassed about (see above)! I like Prisoner of Azkaban a lot - as a book, its one of my favourites. I was genuinely surprised by some of the plot twists and Rowling's treatment of lycanthropy ('werwolfism', from the Greek) as an illness puts an interesting twist on an old tale.

The use of Latin for the magic spells in Harry Potter is similar to its use for the same purpose in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Latin is old, and therefore mysterious. Its also a language that relatively few people can really read, but that a lot of people know little bits of. A lot of us, for example, known the meaning of a motto that we've come across in Latin (like that of the RAF, Per Ardua Ad Astra - Through hard work to the stars). Anyone who's Catholic or who has enjoyed classical Catholic music, like a Requiem Mass, will have heard some Latin. So its an old mysterious language, but one that, at the same time, sounds familiar and which has some words that are almost recognisible - like 'oculus', eye, in 'oculus reparo', the spell to repair spectacles. This makes it especially effective as a magical language. The fun thing for me is translating the Latin spells back into English!

Me at my MA graduation, wearing the Gryffindor House scarf I knit myself and looking very Hogwarts, I think!

Next up: Monty Python's Life of Brian. More Harry Potter to follow at a later date!


  1. Funny. I only made it a couple of chapters into the first Harry Potter before I, too, found myself wanting to break him into manageable chunks. Using some kind of edged tool.

    Excellent remarks about why Latin is good value for pop culture - I couldn't agree more.

  2. Hi Juliette,

    Nice review. As you said, there is nothing original in the books, however I think all the classic references are very clevely combined to sound both smart/elegant and cool at the sametime. Thus the appeal to young and older people.

  3. Hi!
    I came across your blog while doing some googling for Harry Potter photos for a series of posts I'll be doing on the movies, and was delighted to read this post!

    I too admit that while it's not great literature,and it took me a couple of months to pick up the first volume off my shelf (was a gift) Harry Potter sure is damn good fun and I've enjoyed all 7 of them! (although book 2 has always bored me and book 7 could do away with 1/3 of itself...)

    One of things I enjoyed was the use of Latin and other romance languages in the naming and spells. Having studied Latin in High School and being fluent in French and Spanish I always had fun picking apart the names and such. So it's a treat to see you doing the same here!

  4. Hi Chris - totally agree with you on Book 7! Normally I like fantasy quests involving a lot of camping, but that's because normally the characters are actually going somewhere - jumping all over the country in circles does not amke an exciting story!

  5. Yeah, I couldn't believe that halfway through the book they'd still only found one horcrux... did they drink some special potion that allowed them to speed things up and find all the rest (plus the final battle) in the second half?! It has me a bit frustrated that they've opted to make two films of this book instead of any of the others who definitely need the extra time more than this one does... but studios are more in it for the money than the story...

    I'm impatient for mid-July!!!

  6. Little did we know where these first comments would lead us... :o)
    (CrazyCris - just can't be bothered to sign into my Blogger accoutn here at work :p )


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