Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the Micro-History of English Literature

There is no end, it seems, to the inventiveness of J.K. Rowling when it comes to naming her characters, and sometimes you think she's doing it as a private joke, for her own amusement and for that of any adult reader who might happen to catch the reference.

Many of her characters are named for, or have names alluding to, characters from the history of literature. Argus Filch's cat Mrs Norris is named after the truly dreadful sniffy mean-spirited aunt in Austen's Mansfield Park. Professor McGonagall is named after the poet widely known as the worst poet evah, a Scot called William McGonagall who had no ear and no sense of metaphor but was extraordinarily prolific and remains loved by the Scots (including Billy Connolly) for the hilariousness of the sheer awfulness of his verse, 'so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius'.

But for sheer obscurity and light-relief game-playing in the now very dark Potter story, Rowling has raised her own bar once more with the extremely minor character called Reg Cattermole who turns up in the new book. 'Reg' and 'Cattermole' are the given name and surname respectively of a couple of unfortunate undergraduates who eventually get together romantically in one of the more minor sub-plots of Dorothy L. Sayers' masterpiece* Gaudy Night**.

* Well, I think it is.

** A book that Tolkien hated. Which is telling in itself, really.


su said...

Dear Pavlov's Cat, thank you, thank you, for providing such wonderful, instructive tid-bits without straying into spoilery. I really like the US editions of this book; they are much more sturdy and pleasing in form so I am still waiting for my amazon order. (This may be a revelation that will see me shot at dawn for treason against Oz publishing-all I can say is that it is a small price to pay as long as I can read the whole book prior to execution).

TimT said...

I love naming games - and it's worth wading through a silly novel if the characters have good names.

Surely making up the names of characters is one of the principle joys of the fiction writer? I know I certainly had fun when writing this, however silly the effects are.

Ampersand Duck said...

As much as I adore JKR, I think she has a lot in common with McGonagal -- her main flaw is that she can't rhyme for quids.

I'm itching to start reading! It's a bad itch.

TimT said...

On the subject of McGonnagal and bad poetry, McGonnagal finds a rival in James McIntyre, an execrable poet from Canada who wrote prolifically about his favoured subject - cheese:

Prophecy of a Ten Ton Cheese

In presenting this delicate, dainty morsel to the imagination of the people, I believed that it could be realized. I viewed the machine that turned and raised the mamoth cheese, and saw the powerful machine invented by James Ireland at the West Oxford companies factory to turn the great and fine cheese he was making there. This company with but little assistance could produce a ten ton cheese.

Who hath prophetic vision sees
In future times a ten ton cheese,
Several companies could join
To furnish curd for great combine
More honor far than making gun
Of mighty size and many a ton.

Machine it could be made with ease
That could turn this monster cheese,
The greatest honour to our land
Would be this orb of finest brand,
Three hundred curd they would need squeeze
For to make this mammoth cheese.

So British lands could confederate
Three hundred provinces in one state,
When all in harmony agrees
To be pressed in one like this cheese,
Then one skillful hand could acquire
Power to move British empire.

... and still more.

His wikipedia entry is amusing.

I am fond of the Australian good-bad poet Belerive , though I have a minor criticism of his poetry: it seems to me be, usually, a good deal better than that of McIntyre or McGonnagal, and therefore not really in the 'so bad its good' category.

fifi said...

ha, not to mention "hundred-eyed" Argus (Filch)...its full of it.

I am biding my time till it be my turn of the new book...
Philip Pulman's Northern Lights is a very very very good thing to read in the meantime though....

Ann O'Dyne said...

Tolkein loathed 'Gaudy Night' ?
Why-ever ?
I've read it but decades ago - isn't it women uni students ?
I loved all those 'cosy' 'Lord Peter Wimsey' novels.

I have never read any Tolkein, and not seen the films. Possibly because in 1968 absolutely everybody I knew lugged LOTR around with them in their damn hippie shoulderbags.
Ms Sayers Rules!

(and while I'm here, I must say thanks for that photo-post "A cat may look at a Lizard Queen".)

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if anyone else had noticed this -- and then I realized that all I needed was a few search terms; googling "Reg Cattermole Sayers Rowling" brought me right to your doorstep.

Ms. Sayers was a master of the obscure reference herself, though that was probably not how she saw it -- she was making references to what the educated British reader ought to know.