Friday, January 16, 2015

A quick observation about The Chamber of the Secrets

Hello, friends! I’m onto The Chamber of Secrets in my latest reading of the Harry Potter series, and I’ve noticed something interesting in the first couple of chapters. Can’t remember whether this has occurred to me on previous readings, but I’d like to share it with you now.

When Dobby visits Harry in his room (Chapter Two “Dobby’s Warning”), it comes out that he’s been stopping Harry’s letters from his friends from Hogwarts over the summer. This occurs right around the time of Harry’s birthday. “Give me my friends’ letters!” he shouts at Dobby. This reminded me at once that in The Sorcerer’s Stone, letters to Harry are also being stopped, also right around his birthday, but in that case, by Uncle Vernon (Chapter Three “The Letters from No One”). “I WANT MY LETTER!” he shouts at him. I thought this was a nice parallel in the early episodes of the first two novels in the series.

And there’s another one. In the same chapter of The Chamber of Secrets, after Uncle Vernon has locked Harry up in his room with bars on the window, “[Harry] dreamed that he was on show in a zoo, with a card reading UNDERAGE WIZARD attached to his cage. People goggled through the bars as he lay, starving and weak, on a bed of straw” (p. 23). This reminded me of the episode with the boa constrictor in the zoo in The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter Two “The Vanishing Glass”, another nice parallel in the opening chapters of the two books. Even better, if we consider the parallel more carefully, Harry imagines himself more or less in the same place as a snake in his dream — something that will happen again, much more obviously and to much greater dramatic effect, later on in the series in The Order of the Phoenix. I think the parallel may be read as a very early and subtle reinforcement of the close connection between Harry and Voldemort, a connection that will be made clearer by the end of the second book and come into sharper and sharper relief as the series progresses.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

First mainstream appearance of tengwar outside Tolkien?

A few months ago, I wrote about the history of the hobbit/habit pun (read the post). During the course of that discussion, I referred to an early piece on Tolkien appearing in Life magazine, “Can America Kick the Hobbit? The Tolkien Caper”, which was published in the 24 February 1967 issue. Because these earlier weeklies often printed letters to the editor, I thought it would interesting to see whether this particular opinion piece had generated any mail. It had, and I discovered something very interesting: what may well be the first appearance of tengwar in a mainstream publication other than Tolkien’s own work. If anyone knows of an earlier example, I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, I think we can take this as the earliest so far known.

A selection of the letters Charles Elliott’s piece elicited were printed three weeks later, in the issued of 17 March 1967, under the heading, “Tolkien Caper” on p. 26. There are four short letters. In the interests of research value, I will copy these letters below.

The first, from Diana L. Yost or Orefield, PA, reads:
Sirs: Mr. Elliott’s review, “Can America Kick the Hobbit?” (Feb. 24), was disappointing. If the reader goes no deeper than the level of Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, The Lord of the Rings is of course an innocent child-sized story — but only because the reader himself has set that level. Fortunately, the campus Tolkien followers have probed deeper to find a work rich in symbolism. This is why the trilogy is popular, not because it is the undemanding and comfortable tale your reviewer has settled for.
The second, from Sherry Lee Snider of New York, NY:
Sirs: Bravo! Those are my sentiments exactly. I was raised on C.S. Lewis as a child and drifted naturally into Middle Earth from Narnia where my love of heroic deeds and that “other world apart” had been carefully nurtured. In those days (actually up to about four years ago) if a veiled reference to Middle Earth crept into the conversation you knew you had encountered someone like yourself. Nothing was said but a bond was formed. Alas — that thrill of silent understanding is gone now — a true Tolkien lover would never discuss it — and all of us who are secret romantics are forced to wander without hope of a chance encounter. Why couldn’t these faddists have remained with Henry Miller and left us Tolkien? You can’t trust anybody these days.
The third has the great distinction of having been written in tengwar from the point of view of Frodo Baggins himself. You can see the letter in reproduction above right, and the editors of Life added the following note:
The above is a communication in Tengwar, one of the scripts Tolkien invented for his mythical creatures. It translates, “Dear Sirs, I am writing on behalf of all Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Men and Hobbits and all other things dwelling upon Middle Earth. The article in your Feb. 24 issue is very disrupting to our Hobbit children. Frodo Baggins.” — ED.
And finally, the fourth and tersest, from G. Sachs of New York, NY:
Sirs: Mr. Elliott is an Orc.
I haven’t studied these tengwar closely yet or transliterated the letter myself to check the editors’ own transcription for accuracy, but of course, they surely got the intent. Any errors would be those of the letter’s author. We know that Tolkien received letters from his admirers written in runes and asking him to respond with them too (which he sometimes did), but this is the one of the only mainstream appearances of Tolkien’s runes that I can recall seeing, and certainly the earliest — by many years. By mainstream, I mean outside a Tolkien or fantasy related publication. I have no doubt that other magazines have received such letters, but Life took the additional step of actually printing one in facsimile — which is still immense fun for us, almost fifty years later!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Return to Hogwarts … again

I’m opening 2015 by reading the Harry Potter series again. For about the tenth time (I can’t be certain, as I didn’t start scrupulously tracking my reading until 2004). And as I sometimes do when I read a book or series again, I’m going to share a few questions and observations that come up. On re-reading, I often notice things I haven’t noticed before, or that I may have noticed several readings before but have since forgotten. Or that I’ve noticed before but have never shared. I welcome any thoughts you might have on any of this.

So, without further ado, a few scattered comments on the first five chapters of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, by the way, I do use the American title, because that’s the edition I’m reading. Note that page numbers are from the US first edition hardcover.

For some reason, Dudley Dursley’s best friend, Piers Polkiss, jumped out at me this time. Talk about minor characters! But there’s something interesting here. Have any of you ever noticed this? He’s introduced in Chapter Two “The Vanishing Glass”: “Dudley’s best friend, […] Piers Polkiss was a scrawny boy with a face like a rat” (p. 23).

Now I haven’t gotten to the later books again yet, and I’m not going to look ahead for more ammunition here. But the alliterative name Piers Polkiss reminded me of Peter Pettigrew. Even better, Piers is a variant form of Peter. Both are compared to rats, and both are the sidekicks to friends with more forceful personalities. Intentional? Hard to say, but as purposeful as Rowling has shown herself to be, it strikes me as possible. Of course, many of Rowling’s names are alliterative, but two characters whose first and last names both start with P, and who share these other common characteristics? Interesting, eh?

As a side note, I looked at the surnames without turning up much to connect them. Polkiss — I’m not sure that’s actually a genuinely attested name — is probably connected to Polk, and the earlier form Pollock, Bollack, etc. This name is believed to derive from the parish of Pollock in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and that in turn is from Gaelic pollag “a little pool or pond”, diminutive of pol “pool”. That doesn’t seem to have much to do with Piers Polkiss as a character, though who can say? We know so little about him.

Pettigrew on the other hand, derives from French petit cru, typically meaning “a little person” or “little grown” — which seems perfectly appropriate for him. Alternatively, you could read petit cru as “little believed”, with cru as the past participle of croire. That also has potential. Peter Pettigrew was actually much believed at first, to the detriment of Sirius Black, but he was a pathological liar and never taken seriously. Perhaps a better reading would be “little (to be) believed”. This could have been intentional by Rowling as well. We know the name Voldemort was informed by a French meaning. Pettigrew was a French Huguenot name that later migrated to Scotland (among other parts of the British Isles) — so, swimming in the same onomastic waters as Pollock (therefore, perhaps Polkiss), and where Rowling herself wrote the books. But this geographical connection doesn’t tell us much about the characters.

So that’s that. Everything else I’ve got today — just a few orts — comes from Chapter Five “Diagon Alley”.

After Hagrid collects Harry from the Hut-on-the-Rock, Harry, seeing only one boat, asks Hagrid how he got there. Hagrid says he flew (pp. 63–4). What I’m wondering is how. He needed something — a broom, a thestral, a hippogriff, Sirius’s flying motorbike — because it’s only Voldemort who can fly unaided, a point that is made quite clear in The Deathly Hallows (note that the Death Eaters and The Order of the Phoenix can all apparently fly in the film adaptations). Obviously, Hagrid didn’t have a thestral or a hippogriff. Harry would have seen either, and Hagrid wouldn’t have left either behind. The same for Sirius’s motorbike. So, are we to assume he had a broomstick? What broomstick would hold him? And where did he put it? We’re told his coat is full of all kinds of odds and ends, even a fire poker, but a broom that could hold him would have to be hard to conceal in a coat. And why didn’t he use Sirius’s motorbike? In The Deathly Hallows, they use it precisely because it’s one of the means of flight that can escape magical detection (having been previously, and presumably permanently enchanted), so Hagrid could have used it to fly them to London without using magic (as he was forbade to do on the return trip). Of course, they would have been visible, and that would been a problem. Anyoo, how did Hagrid fly to meet Harry? Anyone?

Later, in Diagon Alley, a plump shopper laments that dragon liver is going for seventeen Sickles an ounce (pp. 71–2). Since seventeen Sickles equals one Galleon (p. 75), why wouldn’t she say dragon liver is going for a Galleon an ounce? This would be a bit like saying something cost a hundred cents an ounce, instead of a dollar an ounce. It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?

In Madam Malkin’s robe shop, Draco tells Harry his mother is “up the street looking at wands”, but why? The wand chooses the wizard, but Narcissa is shopping for one without Draco? Now, I’m just assuming she’s shopping for Draco’s wand, and not for a new (replacement) one for herself. I think it’s safe to assume she is shopping at Ollivander’s, because Ollivander recognizes Draco’s wand seven years later when Harry shows it to him at Shell Cottage. He remembers every wand he’s ever sold, and so he has no problem identifying Draco’s. Would he sell a wand for Draco without Draco being present to try it out? It seems out of his character. Maybe the Malfoys bullied him into doing it that way, but it seems unlikely. Maybe Narcissa is just looking at wands while she waits for Draco to join her, but then why? What would be the point of that? So what’s going on here? Just a slip on Rowling’s part?

In the Apothecary, “Harry examined silver unicorn horns at twenty-one Galleons each” (p. 81). Are we to assume these unicorns died of natural causes? But in most mythologies, unicorns are meant to be immortal, aren’t they? I can’t remember what (if anything) Rowling ever says about their lifespans in her world. We learn later in The Sorcerer’s Stone that it’s a terrible crime to kill a unicorn, so the horns for sale in Diagon Alley can’t be like rhino horns on the black market today. And surely they aren’t horns taken from still living unicorns! We also know they’re the horns of adult unicorns (the youngsters are gold, not silver). We know that unicorn tail hairs are one of the few powerful magical cores used in wands, but giving a hair is a lot different from giving the horn. This seemed a bit unusual to me too, just a little bit inconsistent, maybe, with the rest of what we know about the place of unicorns in Rowling’s wizarding world. An awfully rare and special thing to find in Diagon Alley! And for only the cost of three wands? Seems like something you might find in Knockturn Alley, rather.

And finally, when Hagrid leaves Harry after their shopping trip, “Harry wanted to watch Hagrid until he was out of sight; he rose in his seat and pressed his nose against the window, but he blinked and Hagrid had gone” (p. 87). That sounds an awful lot like apparition, doesn’t it? Do we think Hagrid can apparate? There’s never been any hint that he could, and there’s a lot of him to make disappear! I guess it’s possible Hagrid simply hustled out of sight very quickly, but that also seems out of his character. If Hagrid could apparate, wouldn’t he have done so to come collect Harry in the first place (solving the flying problem at the same time)? I just thought this was interesting too.

What do you think? Please don’t think I’m not enjoying these books because I’m picking a few nits. My enjoyment of them is as immense as Hagrid himself! Just a few small things I’ve noticed. Any thoughts?