Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Book Club: 'the name issue.'

Jenna’s given us a lovely bit of direction in her post on the early chapters (2-4) of book one. A few options, and a recipe for Knickerbocker Glory for those of you with a craving for sugar! In the comments there, we’re breaking open thoughts on snake symbolism, on ice cream, and on fear. But here I want to talk a bit more about the use of names.

As Jenna mentioned in her post on Harry’s first meeting with the magical world - there is early introduction to the name taboo when Harry first meets Hagrid. It’s an interesting, if overdone recognition of the power of names themselves. Names are fascinating and the superstitions around them vary, but all respect the power of the name itself. Rowling walks an interesting line between the fear-filled superstition rampant in the wizarding world regarding the Voldemort’s name, and the careless power displayed by Harry and Dumbledore later in the book as Harry continually forgets to fear and Dumbledore (it seems) never considered the possibility. I’m disappointed that she makes Hagrid so affected in his refusal to speak the name. It’s embarrassing,  at odds with his character, and awkward. I can see the attempt to make him sort of a ‘salt-of-the-earth, peasant-type’ but the trembly uncertainty in him when he speaks of ‘he who must not be named’ makes me wish Rowling had spent more time with actual people who kept name taboos instead of misdirecting her imagination. 

The refusal to say a name, out of holy or out of superstitious fear, is generally less of a ‘terror’ and more of a matter-of-fact. A man who refers to the devil as ‘himself’, ‘the old man’, or ‘old scratch’ is not speaking so much out of terror and in self-defense. He does it without a second thought and definitely without a little tremor of fear. He does it the way a mother puts knives in the upper drawer - absentmindedly, because it is the way to keep safe. Rowling makes a production out of it here, too much so, and it frustrates the whole moment of explanation.

A holy fear of naming - such as God requires - is respectful, a refusal to claim the authority naming gives. Something, I think we’ll see in a negative sense among Voldemort’s followers (who also have a tendency to avoid naming him). A superstitious fear worries it might accidentally call up a being it can’t control. Which is why we avoid calling for dead relatives in graveyards, why fairies have so many careful nicknames, why we gossip about what “she did with that man” instead of naming names. It’s a realistic fear, especially in Harry’s world; but Rowling does a lovely thing with Harry in allowing him to forget that fear. Because while it’s true that “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself” it’s also true that speaking the name of another gives, in a vague and magical sense, a hint of power over him. We do not speak the name of God, but when we cast out demons, we do so by name. I like the subtle reminder here, that Harry is unafraid of Voldemort’s name because he has no need to fear. He rests in the power he has only begun to discover. 


  1. Since you're the one out of three of us, I think, that has the most experience and knowledge of superstition, your point-of-view is invaluable. It never occurred to me that the naming taboo was portrayed inaccurately. It makes sense. But when I try to imagine its portrayal in HP, it doesn't "fit." Maybe because Rowling is about extremes and not subtlety. Especially in these early chapters, when she's trying to build up an expectation about the breadth of Voldemort's wickedness.

    As for Hagrid, I like the juxtaposition between his big hulking size and his gentle personality. His reaction to naming V. _is_ a bit over-the-top. Again, that may be Rowling's style. Am I stretching my suspension of disbelief too much here?

    What stuck out like a sore thumb to me in these chapters was something different entirely, and I'll be posting that soon, I hope.

    1. I think it's frustrating to me especially in contrast to the delightful (and mostly not-yet-seen) carelessness of Harry and Dumbledore in regard to the name. She is sort of lacking in subtlety in Hagrid's response to the name..which, I feel (in a defensive of Hagrid as an - I think - fantastic creation) is not giving him the credit he deserves..I'm excited to see your thoughts!!!

  2. Possibly I was distracted from any out-of-character-ness of Hagrid's response by the supreme humility and cuteness of his reply to Harry's "Could you write it down?": "Nah. Can't spell it." AWWW. ;)

    It never occurred to me that the naming taboo would be inaccurate, either, perhaps because I've almost no experience with common superstition, but am personally very creeped out and shuddery around the name Satan. Not to that exaggerated point, but enough that the portrayal seemed like believable caricature. On account of all that, I was fascinated to read your post. I find myself wondering: am I naturally superstitious, but atypically so? or is it just that the American Christian manifestation of superstitious tendencies is sometimes kind of over-the-top and ridiculous? Or or or...

    I love that you brought the holy fear of the name of God into it. Am currently reading a historical fiction set among Jews in Biblical times, and God is always casually referred to by the Tetragrammaton (transliterated and spelled out with vowels, of course), and I'm like, NO!! The Jews wouldn't even quite write it, let alone speak it! I think Pope Benedict was right to put the kibosh on Christians throwing it around (that was Pope Benedict, right?...) It's driving me crazy in that book, anyway. ;)

    As for treatment of names--I love your whole last paragraph, by the way--Ursula LeGuin did it much better in A Wizard of Earthsea. It's just that that book was so much less emotionally intimate, not to mention less funny, and, therefore, unfortunately much less interesting to me. :P

    1. You know..I actually don't know much about American superstitions. Sad, isn't it? I can imagine them being both more exaggerated and more um..silly(?) - I mean, look at old Puritan names (my favorite is "If-God-had-not-saved-thee-thou-wouldst-have-been-damned"..and apparently, the poor guys last name was "Bones", so he went by 'Damned Bones' ;)!!) So honestly, now that you point it out, I can almost see it. :) There's got to be something of that strain in the English right?? (Christie, any thoughts on the silliness of English superstitions???

      Your book..the Name of God..NO, no, no!! Is it 'the red tent?" I've heard that one's awful, but I've never really been interested. I think it was Benedict who put a stop to Christians throwing it around..and I bless him for it, now if we can just convince all the friendly older women at mass to stop naming their guardian angels, right! :)

      I've heard Ursula LeGuin is technically good, but dull (Seth's read her) so I can see that..though honestly, I think Rowling's treatment in the first 3-4 books of the name thing (speaking it) is pretty strong..I can't comment on the other books, it's been longer since I've read them ;) I'm really glad we're doing this whole read through, it's been a long time, and sometimes I think the flaws stand out more in my memory than the fun, so it's nice to rediscover all the good parts! :)

    2. Btw..I think you're naturally superstitious.. Most people are..especially people with imagination. And probably more Americana superstitious than I am, which might be why you have a different relationship to naming taboos. Rowling's is still over-exaggerated, but I'm feeling friendlier because of that.

    3. 'Damned Bones' HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Sounds like the guy had a sense of humor, at least. Bless him.

      And the Americana superstition totally comes from old Puritanism, probably by way of various forms of charismatic Southern Protestantism. It definitely does for me, anyway. It's not stuff I was taught exactly, just sort of the spirit of the thing. I used to be afraid to inhale while looking at Halloween decorations, and other things like that... still have to talk myself through some of that, sometimes. :P

      The Red Tent IS awful, as far as I'm concerned. I only got halfway through it, but the half I read took all forms of artistic license with the Genesis account, was fixated on sex (of course), treated women and goddesses like glorious things and men and Jacob's God as horrifyingly violent, and and and... I put it down after reading protagonist Dinah's pagan menarche celebration, which would've scarred me for life, for sure (and which no Hebrew father would ever have allowed, since it involved removing proof of virginity), but which she thought was all wonderful. Yeah. I hated that book. Admittedly, some of my book club girls loved it, primarily because of the bond between the women.

      But actually, the book I'm supposed to be reading now isn't The Red Tent... it's Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George, and in fairness to the authoress, after reading a little further I discovered that she does recognize the taboo on the name of God. It's just that God is referred to that way in the third-person narrative, which annoys me. It's also desperately Protestant, and there are few genres I loathe more than historical fiction set in the time of Christ (the characters and world-building are nearly always much too flat, and flat portrayals of Jesus just destroy me). I make an exception for Ben-Hur, but that's about it. :)

      "now if we can just convince all the friendly older women at mass to stop naming their guardian angels, right!

      HAHAHA. Oh, friendly older women at Mass. God love 'em... naming their guardian angels, and calling God 'Mother', and talking about the bishops as if their only instinct is to rule with iron fists, and putting Coexist stickers on their car bumpers, and trying to get us to sing the folksy Gather songs with guitars and tambourines, and... LOL. Okay, I'll stop now. ;)

    4. Masha,

      Is the Puritan name that you were thinking of Nicholas Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebon (1640-1698)? (If so, he was the eldest son of a Puritan preacher who was himself named Praise-God Barebone (1598-1679), later the namesake of Barebone's Parliament during the Puritan revolution. Nicholas usually traded under the name "Nicholas Barbon.")

  3. Ewww..Historical fiction in the time of Christ is always a let-down..Jesus is just too amazing to fit in the world of fiction..I alway imagine Him being so much the person you CAN'T write home about because everyone will just say 'oh, you and your imagination.." When you KNOW your imagination isn't half so cool..

    I'm kind of interested in hunting down more information on Puritan superstitions-that-come-from-England..because I'm wondering how much of my rejection of Rowling's superstitious sense comes from not getting England, and how much is actually a failure on her part (you'll notice failure on my part is not an option ;) )..

    Our old ladies at Mass also seem convinced that babies live in heaven before they're born..I'm not sure what the point of baptism is if they're "slowing forgetting the language of the angels" and "SO PURE, SO HOLY!!" But apparently it works out in their minds :P One of our priests had a woman Freak out at him for referring to Jesus as "He" and "Him" .."Jesus could have been a Woman, you know!!" :P

    I almost want to read the Red Tent..just to have something to get all mad at! :)

    1. Babies live in heaven before they're born... isn't that sort of Mormon? :P

      You COULD read The Red Tent! And then shelve it next to whichever G.K. Chesterton book was misogynist, so they can duke it out. ;)

  4. That's an interesting point about the name taboo being possibly kind of inaccurate to how name taboos work. It sounds right-ish, though I don't know for sure.

    The one place I thought of (C & I were talking about this post before I saw it and went down a Harry Potter fanhood rabbit hole for the rest of the afternoon, so thanks for that) where I have seen reactions almost that intense to taboo language is actually with regard to having to use proper names for sex organs in public. There are probably some other similar examples; I don't know if they'd all tend to be related to the body or what. But reactions can get pretty intense. That kind of thing, where the fear isn't so much a first-order fear of the thing named, but a severe aversion to saying something that You Just Don't Talk About, might actually fit Hagrid's symptoms a little better than an "Old Scratch" type naming taboo, if you're right about those, which you probably are.

    Not sure what to make of that, if anything. Like you said, JKR maybe doesn't have a lot of friends who scrupulously avoid devil-names, but she probably does know some people who get squeamish about naming body parts.

    Of course, in the context of Harry Potter, Voldy isn't a supernatural being; he's a really powerful wizard with no functioning conscience, but 99% of the HP cast is re-growing bones and turning rocks into live chickens anyway as a normal part of life. There's a big gap between him and the rest of the world in terms of what he's willing and able to do, but he's basically the same kind of thing as everyone else.

    I don't actually know if that makes it make more sense or less.

    Still, I like the "you know who" thing on the whole. It's probably a little cheap and hasty, but it gets used pretty well. Or maybe I just like it because [SPOILERS]

    1. So Voldemort is sort of a "no no zone" instead of a man who's made himself demonic ;) I think it's a fascinating thought, insofar as the whole 'fear' of naming body parts might have informed Rowling more than any actual name taboos..Actually, that wouldn't be surprising, right? I mean everyone knows someone who blushes and mumbles and never quite says enough to indicate whether we're discussion stomach troubles or something "..More Personal..YOU know.." Christian talk has been delightful for me recently in learning all the roundabout ways to refer to sex ('That SPECIAL intimacy' being my current favorite ;) )

      But all snottiness aside, I think that even if she got her type of taboo from body squeamishness, she (I think) intended it to be something more akin to a real naming taboo..because Voldemort isn't really considered to be a wizard like any other, he's closer to the fear of witches within a non-magical community..and the taboo stands there as well - the desire to Not draw the attention of the old lady with the Evil Eye is as strong as the desire to skip under the devil's vision..

      I was thinking recently too of a tendency I'm seeing to avoid naming people "THAT MAN in the white house" being the most popular..who's actions disgust us, but again, Rowling seems to be going beyond disgust and very much into fear of V. himself, gone though he is..Fear of calling him back, or worse.. Thoughts?????? I'm glad you've jumped in the discussion

    2. Oh, no, it's definitely supposed to be the demonic / evil eye one (THAT'S AWESOME about Voldy fear among witches mirroring witch fears. I will talk more about why I love this observation so much in the future because my love contains SPOILERS).

      I don't think JKR meant it to be read as either the "that woman-style disrespect / disapproval marker or the Please Don't Mention the Unmentionables EVER thing, but that she might have written what was supposed to be an evil-eye naming taboo and (intentionally or not) borrowed some of the details of the behaviour surrounding it from these more everyday (to her) language practices, only with MORE FEAR because Voldemort is WAY SCARIER THAN YOUR OWN BODY EVEN.

      Not because she's drawing a deliberate analogy, but because those language practices come readily to mind when thinking about "things you're not supposed to say," so they get mixed in with the evil-eye stuff that she is deliberately drawing on.

      So when V. comes under discussion, we don't get the careful, automatic, quiet avoidance you talk about above; instead we have conversations screeching to a halt, jittery self-conscious side-stepping, and sometimes anger directed at Harry when he forgets not to say the forbidden name.

      I don't actually know anything about JKR's writing process! just some possibilities for how the Voldy name taboo might end up sounding "off" to you.

      But yeah, Voldemort is "a man who's made himself demonic" and I think part of the point of trying to wedge a naming taboo into the story is to set up that most of the wizarding world has ceded that claim to him of special demonic status. They're not wrong to be scared; he's super scary. They're not exactly wrong to feel like he's something alien from them, either, or at least, it's understandable why they do. He's tried really hard to set himself uniquely apart, not just with mass murder and Outstanding Excellence in the Dark Arts, but also [TONS OF SPOILERS]. He's always trying to be like "I AM A GOD AMONG INSECTS, TREMBLE BEFORE ME, PUNY MORTALS." And everyone else is like, "Well, it's really kind of true, I guess we'd better tremble." And this is totally understandable, because V. is scary and mean and really powerful and he can do terrible things to you if he doesn't like your tone.

      But it's also wrong! It's factually incorrect! He really is just a guy. That's not a spoiler, is it? We have a world with wizards and Muggles and goblins and [MORE!], and "wizard" is the category of person V. is. He's not like all those immortal spirit-beings in Tolkien, for example. As C. pointed out, he's not even particularly old. And remembering this is a major, major thread of the books -- remembering his origins, and refusing to grant him the super-special death-conquering demon king Other role he's spent all this time and effort creating for himself, and putting him back in his place in the taxonomy of magical life. It's significant that by the end [SPOILERS ARE EVERYWHERE].

      So I guess I'm inclined to defend the use of the naming taboo, even though a lot of the time in practice it feels kind of pasted on, because I think that's a cool thing to do with the Dark Lord character. It's one of those things in HP that are neat overall, but don't always 100% work on like a day-to-day worldbuilding level, if that makes sense.

  5. So what I'm gathering from this great discussion is that Rowling has made her very own sort of naming taboo. . .