Monday, December 6, 2010

Onomastics and The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Slight as it is, J.K. Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard has not been the subject of very much study since its 2008 publication. Little surprise there. As a quick benchmark, Google Scholar returns a mere 50 hits for “Beedle the Bard” + Rowling, as compared to nearly 9,000 for “Harry Potter” + Rowling. (Why add Rowling to the search query? To filter out unrelated articles written by real Harry Potters!)

But I’ve just read this charming little book again, and I thought I would share some thoughts on a handful of its proper names. There are not many of these (about twenty), and several of them may also be found in the Harry Potter novels, but a few of them are really interesting. As with all Rowling’s proper names, they show a lot of imagination and a real dexterity with words and puns.

The most obvious place to begin is with the “author” of the collection, Beedle himself. In an intriguing little work called Exploring Beedle the Bard: Unauthorized, Pithy, Tale-by-Tale Perspectives, Graeme Davis posits that the name “may perhaps echo the name Bede, the great Northumbrian writer and historian who preserved many stories relating to the earliest history of the English people”; or, he says, perhaps it is the genuine Yorkshire surname, Beedle [1]. Rowling tells readers that Beedle the Bard was indeed from that part of England.

These are plausible, but I think there’s another possibility as well. A beadle is a minor parish official — perhaps the most famous example of which is Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Many of Rowling’s names remind readers of Dickens. Mr. Bumble is also in charge of the orphanage in that novel. Rowling has an orphanage in the Harry Potter series as well — though I’m not trying to compare Oliver Twist with Tom Riddle!

The word beadle really just means a “proclaimer”, and comes to us from the Middle English bedel, from Old French bedel “a herald”, in turn from Vulgar Latin bedellus, and still earlier, borrowed from a Germanic root (cp. Old High German biotan “to proclaim”). A bard is a kind of proclaimer as well. The word is Celtic but probably akin to Sanskrit bhásh “to speak” (cp. OE bannan “to proclaim, summon”). The word fame is also a descendent of the same root. And Beedle is a justifiably famous bard, isn’t he?

A few of the new names are very straightforward. For example, we learn about Brutus Malfoy. This is Latin brutus “stupid”, now connoting brutality + French mal foi “bad faith”. There are also Lisette de Lapin, an animagus capable of transforming into a rabbit, and the great wizarding philosopher, Bertrand de Pensées-Profondes — whose apt surnames are French for “rabbit” and “profound thoughts”, respectively. Lisette and Bertrand are not particularly apt in their etymologies, but they are apt in terms of their sound. Lisette alliterates with lapin, and Bertrand rhymes, more or less, with profondes. In addition, there is a famous Muggle philosopher with the same given name, Bertrand Russell.

In “The Fountain of Fair Fortune”, we meet three witches named Asha, Altheda, and Amata. These three are respectively sick, destitute, and lovelorn, and seek to have their wishes granted by the titular Fountain. Asha is a genuine Sanskrit name meaning “wish, desire, hope” — apt indeed. Altheda is a genuine name as well, from Greek. It’s sometimes said to be a variant on the name Althea, but giving Rowling the benefit of a definite intention, I think the etymology might be αλήτης “a wanderer, vagrant, vagabond, beggar”. The third, Amata, is the clearest of the three, from the Latin amata “beloved”. All three seem quite apt and resonate nicely with one another. Assuming it was all fully intentional, it’s also wonderful to see Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin — the three pillars of the dead languages — equally represented.

Other names appearing in The Tales of Beedle the Bard: Beatrix Bloxam, Herbert Beery, Silvanus Kettleburn, Hector Dagworth-Granger, Adalbert Waffling, Emeric the Evil, Egbert, Godelot, Barnabas Deverill, Loxias — and a few others already familiar from the seven-volume series. Some of these have pretty clear meanings. I could take a closer look at some of these if there is sufficient interest; or tackle them yourselves and post your thoughts in the comments.

[1] Davis, Graeme. Exploring Beedle the Bard: Unauthorized, Pithy, Tale-by-Tale Perspectives. Nimble Books: 2009, p. 5.

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