Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Three Gudgeons

I’ve just finished The Prisoner of Azkaban, and in addition to a few small points that have caught my eye on this latest reading, I’ve got a somewhat larger and (I hope) more interesting one for today. The subject line is your tip-off. Strike a chord of memory?

When Harry visits Professor Lupin after the disastrous Quidditch match against Hufflepuff, Lupin tells him
“They planted the Whomping Willow the same year that I arrived at Hogwarts. People used to play a game, trying to get near enough to touch the trunk. In the end, a boy called Davey Gudgeon nearly lost an eye, and we were forbidden to go near it. No broomstick would have a chance.” [Azkaban, p. 186]
So, that’s one Gudgeon. But the name should sound familiar, because there’s another in just the previous book. In The Chamber of Secrets, Gilderoy Lockhart — like Lupin, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — assigns Harry the detention punishment of helping him with his fan mail:
“You can address the envelopes!” Lockhart told Harry, as though was a huge treat. “This first one’s to Gladys Gudgeon, bless her — huge fan of mine.” [Chamber, p. 120]
So that’s two Gudgeons. And Gladys — bless her — comes up again in The Order of the Phoenix. Our intrepid band of juvenile witches and wizards runs into Lockhart at St. Mungo’s hospital, recovering (sort of) from the injury he sustained to his memory some three years earlier. Madame Gudgeon is still writing him fan mail.
“You can put them in envelopes,” he said to Ginny, throwing the signed pictures into her lap one by one as he finished them. “I am not forgotten, you know, no, I still receive a very great deal of fan mail … Gladys Gudgeon writes weekly … I just wish I knew why …” He paused, looking faintly puzzled, then beamed again and returned to his signing with renewed vigour. “I suspect it is simply my good looks …” [Phoenix, p. 511]
These two are known well enough, and I’m sure I must have put them together before now, but they really jumped off the page this time, because I learned recently there’s a third Gudgeon in the world of Harry Potter!

In 1998–99, J.K. Rowling wrote four short issues of The Daily Prophet exclusively for the U.K. Harry Potter fan club. I haven’t seen these issues in full, though they are discussed in Philip W. Errington’s J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997–2013, coming from Bloomsbury Academic later this month. They’ve also been summarized on the Harry Potter Lexicon website. In the first issue, dated 31 July 1998 — incidentally Harry Potter’s 18th birthday — we learn about Galvin Gudgeon, seeker for Ron Weasley’s favorite Quidditch team, the Chudley Cannons. Quite a dreadful seeker he was too, being known to fall off his broom and to mistake passing bumblebees for the Golden Snitch. Pathetic!

Gudgeon is a genuine surname, especially concentrated in the North of England, where Rowling may actually have encountered it. There are still some Gudgeons in the United States as well, though it’s hardly common. For more information on the name, you might consult Henry Harrison’s Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary (London: The Morland Press, 1918), or William Anderson’s Genealogy and Surnames: With Some Heraldic and Biographical Notices (Edinburgh: William Ritchie, 1865). There’s also Thomas Moule’s Heraldry of Fish: Notices of the Principal Families Bearing Fish in Their Arms (London: John Van Voorst, 1842), from which I’ve taken the coat of arms shown above right, with its distinctive three fish.

But hang on, how did we get to fish? And why name these characters Gudgeon in the first place? Though we know little of them, all three have something very specific in common, enough to justify the bestowing of such a name. But to know why it’s apt, we have to talk about its origins. And the first thing you want to know about gudgeons is that a gudgeon is a fish, hence the heraldic device shown above, which in fact represents three gudgeons, the same as in the title of this post! Also, having a fishy name myself, I can’t help but feel a certain remote kinship to these three. :)

A gudgeon is a small European fresh-water bait fish. The words comes through Middle English gojon (and variant spellings) from French goujon, in turn from Latin gōbio, a by-form of gōbius, which coincidentally gave us the name of another fish, the goby. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the word acquired a figurative meaning starting in the late sixteenth-century, “one that will bite at any bait or swallow anything: a credulous, gullible person”. The English Dialect Dictionary says much the same: “A fool, simpleton; one who is easily gulled”. Samuel Johnson, closer in time to the word’s original figurative currency, has it thus: “a small fish found in brooks and rivers, easily caught, and therefore made a proverbial name for a man easily cheated”. From here, it’s easy to see how Rowling, a self-confessed dictionary diver, might have come across the name and found it apt. Davey Gudgeon is foolish enough to tilt at the Whomping Willow; Gladys Gudgeon is taken in by Gilderoy Lockhart’s vacuous good looks; and Galvin Gudgeon is, well, just a clumsy dolt.

And so we have another great name rescued from history and put to excellent use! What do you think the chances are that these three Gudgeons might be related too? In Rowling’s intricately interwoven wizarding world, just about anything is possible.


  1. I must confess this puts me in mind of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short story "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs."

    1. Thanks, ATMachine. I don't think I've read that one myself, but I may have to look it up now.