Author Craig Russell offered to send me a copy of his book, Black Bottle Man, in March. I agreed to read and review it if he did.
Why? I’m not sure. I get more than my share of such pitches, I have too much on my plate as it is with respect to reading and writing, and I wasn’t hungry for new projects this Spring. I think it was probably the book description on its Amazon page and back cover:
Forced to move every twelve days, what would happen to your life? 1927. Rembrandt is the only child in the tiny community of Three Farms. Soon his two aunts grow desperate for babies of their own. A man wearing a black top—coat and a ’glad—ta—meet—ya’ smile arrives with a magic bottle and a deadly deal is made. Determined to undo the wager, Rembrandt, Pa, and Uncle Thompson embark on the journey of their lives, for if they stay in one place for more than twelve days terrible things happen. But where and when will they find a champion capable of defeating the Black Bottle Man? Time ticks. Lives change. Every twelve days. . .
The book arrived, I read it in one long-into-the-night sitting, and put it aside. It’s good, very good, and I’ve thought about it almost every day at least once or twice since. Not just because the story is that good, though it is. Whenever I opened my email, the author’s original note to me was there. I’m fairly religious about clearing my inbox at least once a week but I never got to file this one. Russell has even sent me Black Bottle Man reviews others have done (see here and here for their thoughts) as gentle reminders of my pledge.
I guess I have neglected the task so long because I’ve wondered why he sent this book to me for my take on it. I read it again today, enjoyed it as much as I had months ago, and think I finally see why the author thought I of all readers in the blogosphere could write an appreciative note about his book. Gilderoy gets it at last.
Literature of the Hidden and Fantastic: Michael Ward and John Granger Keynotes at University of Arkansas (FS)
Next weekend I travel across the eastern border of Oklahoma for an academic conference, ‘Literature of the Hidden and Fantastic,’ at the University of Arkansas, Ft. Smith (UAFS). The woman in charge, Carly Darling, Conference Chair, has put together a remarkable gathering of scholars to discuss “all aspects of fantasy, magic realism, fairy tales and folk tales, and in particular, their more arcane or enigmatic qualities and/or structures.” To that end, she invited both the Rev Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and expert on the esoteric artistry of C. S. Lewis, and me to give the conference’s two Keynote lectures. My talk is called ‘Writing in Rings: The Literary Alchemy and Inkling Artistry of Harry Potter.’
I have heard Michael Ward’s talk on the astrological symbolism of Lewis’ Narniad twice and traveled significant distances to do so. My copy of Planet Narnia is almost unreadable because of the highlighting, underlining, and marginalia; very few books of literary criticism have been as helpful to me as has Ward’s. If you haven’t heard him speak or if you want to ask him questions about his magisterial work on Lewis’ oeuvre, I hope I will see you there. It’s an experience worth the trip for all serious readers, believe me, not just Narniacs.
In addition to his talk and mine, there will be more than 20 other talks about authors covering the spectrum from Lewis and Rowling to Sartre, Stiefvater, Tolkien, and O’Connor. Really into the Hogwarts Saga? Seven of these talks explore the artistry and meaning of Harry’s adventures, one by the Rev Dr Danielle Tumminio, author of God and Harry Potter at Yale. Check out the schedule and slate of speakers here — then sign up at the conference’s registration page!
The Features Editor at The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sent me five questions this morning about what I’ll talking about at the conference and about imaginative literature in general. My answers are after the jump. Please introduce yourself at the conference or just say hello if an old friend — and let me know where I went wrong with my answers, there or in the comment boxes!
In yesterday’s relatively lengthy post about the intertextual connection between Harry Potter and the Molesworth books of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, I chose Searle’s illustrations for decoration without mentioning what a part they play in the four schoolboy satires. Molesworth is almost a comic book or graphic novel; Searles pictures of the faculty, headmaster, Grabber the Headboy, and our anti-hero Nigel fill up as many pages as Willans’ text. As important, the spidery, grotesque figures, all of whom look like refugees from a Gothic feature film back lot, color the acidic commentary of boy Molesworth on life at St Custard’s and give it its third dimension.
Late last month, a frenetic period at Pottermore, Jo Rowling dumped eight pictures she drew while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for our amusement and consideration. You can see the whole set of illustrations at TIME magazine’s online post about the event. It seems clear from Rowling’s work that at one time she thought of making the book either a relatively conventional children’s book with a host of pictures to guide the imagination or another Molesworth, i.e., a book for adults about childhood which children might also enjoy.
Three quick notes:
(1) The existence of these pictures is not news. There are more to be revealed, a lot more. Rowling sold an annotated and illustrated copy of Philosopher’s Stone at auction for charity in 2013, a copy with 43 pages of notes and pictures. If I had paid what the winning bidder did — just over $200,000 — I’m not sure how I’d feel about her sharing what I paid that much to own as my precious. Probably hopeful that she’d just raised the re-sale value.
(2) Rowling has said that she does not see Daniel Radcliffe’s face when she thinks of Harry Potter, one more thing to put in the file ‘Things Only True of The Presence.’ Her early pictures bear up this statement, if those of us whose imaginative idea of Harry was forever obliterated by Warner Brothers Harry can see boy Radcliffe if we squint. Du Pre’s pictures seem to derive at least in part from these sketches.
(3) You gotta love the pointy hats and monastic rasson everyone wears, right? Imagine if that look had survived in the book illustrations and the movies. Would Fandom cosplay require the stiff, conical black hat of Rowling’s original conception? Would you see them in the streets of larger cities on the heads of devotees? Ah, if only…
Please share your comments, questions, and corrections below!
Jo Rowling has been quite explicit about the origin of the name of the School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in her Harry Potter novels. In a 2001 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she told us ‘Hogwarts’ comes from a plant she encountered at a public garden:
Ideas come from all sorts of places and sometimes I don’t realise where I got them from. A friend from London recently asked me if I remembered when we first saw Hogwarts. I had no idea what she was talking about until she recalled the day we went to Kew Gardens and saw those lilies that were called Hogwarts. I’d seen them seven years before and they’d bubbled around in my memory. When Hogwarts occurred to me as a name for the school, I had no idea where it came from.
But it is almost certainly rubbish, perhaps even, if your mind works in a pathetic, conspiratorial way, an attempt to deceive.
As early as 2000, critics in the UK were noting that the name ‘Hogwarts’ appeared first in a series of illustrated satires of English Public School life, what we in the States refer to as ‘Prep’ or ‘Boarding Schools,’ collectively called Molesworth.
Unlike his 1990s successor, Harry Potter – the name of Potter’s school, ‘Hogwarts’, is surely derived from ‘The Hogwarts’, a Latin play by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus – Molesworth does not have adventures; instead he daydreams, ruminates and observes. (Thomas Jones, February 2000)
It might be a straight lift, or perhaps it is a remarkable coincidence. But it is certainly the case that Hogwarts, the name of the world famous school for magicians in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, has been used before.The connection between Harry Potter and Molesworth has been discovered by Oxford classics professor Richard Jenkyns – whose literary scoop appears in this month’s issue of the intellectual magazine Prospect.
In the Molesworth book How to be Topp, says Jenkyns, “there is a cod Latin play, ‘The Hogwarts’, by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus, and Hoggwart is also the name give to the headmaster of Porridge Court, a rival academy. As far as I know, no one has yet noticed this.” There are other parallels. “Even Harry Potter’s appearance, with his round glasses and perpetually untidy hair, seems to be modelled on Molesworth as drawn by Searle,” says Jenkyns. (Jane Robbins, September 2000)
In the context of Harry Potter, the above might call to mind anything from Quidditch matches to a certain Gryffindor with a terrier Patronus. There are many similarities between the Harry Potter novels and Tom Brown, but that novel isn’t the only identifiable influence on Rowling’s series. There is another schoolboy whose educational experience very obviously inspired Rowling—a schoolboy who calls his favorite jokes “wizard wheezes,” who fears brainy and athletic girls with names like Hermione and Millicent, and who was once forced to perform in a Latin play entitled “The Hogwarts.”
That boy… is Nigel Molesworth. (Molly Tanzer, June 2015)
As we see, not only Hogwarts comes from Molesworth. The reader of the satirical blunderbuss meets Scrimgouer, Wizard Wheezes, “and brainy girls named Hermione” as well. Are we well beyond the possibility of coincidence?
I think so and I’m not alone. All those quoted above drawing the Molesworth/Potter connection assume, despite Rowling’s assertion to the contrary about where she first encountered the hogswart flower, that Molesworth was something The Presence was very familiar with.
The good news is that there is bullet-proof evidence that Jo Rowling has read, enjoyed, and is not afraid of citing Molesworth as a text she and thoughtful UK readers have in common.