Beatrice Groves: Potter Meets Python!

Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written two posts over at and her Bathilda’s Notebook there. They are both in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Monty Python television programs being aired on the BBC. Each points to hat-tips in the Potter novels that are almost certainly Rowling’s tribute to the masters of comic defamiliarization (and, yes, as my thesis in progress is a Formalist reading of the Presence’s work, it was a delight to see ostranenie in Groves’ post).

The first is about pointers in the Hogwarts Saga to Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ and the second is to ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ Cockroach Clusters! Who knew?

My only criticisms of these delightful pieces are that (1) Professor Groves doesn’t include links to either the Bookshop Sketch or to the Pornographic Bookshop Sketch with Sir Philip Sidney (and its hilarious ‘literary allusion’ follow-up) and (2) she suggests that Rowling is “responding to” allegorical readings of Dumbledore as Jesus by naming him Brian (she would have to be responding in anticipation if she was; the name appears in Prince and the meme appeared only after DDore’s death Half-Blood Prince).

Which are complaints only to demonstrate how closely I read Groves’ latest in my great delight of stumbling upon them while searching yesterday for the Alohomora podcast link. Here is the Bookshop Sketch for your enjoyment before or after reading Professor Groves’ fun posts on the shadow of Monty Python discernible in the halls of Hogwarts!

Beatrice Groves Pillar Post

Beatrice Groves: Rowling Family Mottos

This is the fourth in a series of four ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

In my final post about Rowling’s choice to display of the badge of the Murray clan –following the themes of Scottishness and heraldry, naming, blood and belonging it evokes – we turn to the motto with which it is inscribed: ‘Tout prêt’ (Old French for ‘quite ready’). Although no heraldic mottos appear in the actual text of Harry Potter there are three mottos closely associated with the Wizarding World: the Black family motto, Hogwarts’s motto and, most recently, the Lestrange family motto. This blogpost will explore these three, very different, mottos and, satisfyingly, all three have some piquant parallels with the mottos of Scottish Clans.

‘Toujours pur’ and pithy mottos

Rowling become a Murray when she married Neil Murray on 26 Dec 2001. Phoenix was published in 2003, while her hand-drawn family tree of ‘The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’ did not appear until 2006 – so the Black motto (‘Toujours pur’) could easily be coloured by the motto of the clan which she had recently joined. ‘Tout prêt/prest’ (quite ready) and ‘Toujours pur’ (always pure) are both of the – admittedly very common -punchy, two-word form. More unusually they are both in the traditional heraldic language of French (while most British mottos favour Latin or English).

It is clear, at least, that Rowling closely modelled the Black family motto on real heraldic mottos. Scanning Debrett’s I found a number of close parallels, such as ‘Toujours propice’ (always propitious), and even ‘Toujours prest’ (always ready) – which forms a ‘link’ motto between the Black motto ‘Toujours pur’ and the Murray motto ‘Tout prest’. (Debrett’s also records the deeply Snape-like motto of simply ‘Toujours’ [always].)

The idea that Rowling might include a nod to the Murray motto in the Black motto seems odd but it is of a piece with her well-known penchant for including ‘personal passwords’ within her work: ‘when I need a date or number, I use something that relates to my personal life. I do not know why I do that, it’s a tic. Harry’s birthday is mine, for example. The numbers and dates that appear in the books relate to me’ [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, p 141]. The idea is also strengthened by her recent – somewhat startling – inclusion of a family member in an even more Death Eaterish family tree. The Lestrange family tree forms an important plot focus in Crimes of Grindelwald – it is the bait that takes Leta, Newt and Tina to the Lestrange Mausoleum (and hence Grindelwald’s rally). The Rowling Library has recently noted that one member visible on this family tree – Salomé Volant – shares her name with Rowling’s great-great-grandmother [cf., The Rowling Library Magazine, issue 31 2019, pp.6-7]

‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus’ and practical mottos

The most important motto of the Wizarding World is, of course, the Hogwarts School motto. This paratext, appearing on the title page of every Harry Potter novel on an escroll beneath the Hogwarts coat of arms (and in the foreword to the Fantastic Beasts (2001) spin-off book), famously reads: ‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus’ (‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’).

It is a phrase that appears to contain more than a passing nod to Tolkien: ‘Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo, you fool! he said to himself, and it became a favourite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb’ (Hobbit, Chap 12). (This seems particularly close as proverbial phrases are very much the same linguistic register as mottos). Rowling has never mentioned this parallel, but she has spoken about the motto twice at length in interview:

You know the way that most school slogans are things like ‘Persevere’ and ‘Nobility, Charity and Fidelity’ or something – it just amused me to give an entirely practical piece of advice for the Hogwarts school motto.

Then a friend of mine who is a professor of Classics – my Latin was not up to the job (I did not think it should be cod Latin – it is good enough for cod Latin spells, that is, they used to be a mixture of Latin and other things). When it came to a proper Latin slogan for the school I wanted it to be right. I went to him and asked him to translate. I think he really enjoyed it, he rang me up and said, ‘I think I found the exactly right word, “Titillandus”’ – that was how that was dreamt up. 

Five years earlier, she gave a similar description:

Stephen Fry: And names like that. Even the school crest is something which is rather fun for those of us who have done a bit of Latin. For instance: “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” – it’s sort of like “Let sleeping dogs lie”, but it is “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”.

JKR: “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”, exactly.

SF: Which is fine advice.

JKR: I wanted good practical advice. All the schools I’ve ever been to or taught in have mottos: “Persevere”, “Onwards and Upwards”. I wanted good, solid, practical advice for Hogwarts.1

(It is interesting that Rowling gives ‘Persevere’ as an example in both interviews, despite their being five years apart: I suspect it means that if we were able to track down the school motto of either St Michael’s Primary School or Wydean Comprensive it would indeed turn out to be ‘Persevere.’)

Latin imparts both grandeur and pithiness which is why it remains a popular choice for mottos – and given how germane Latin is to both Rowling’s magical world, and to mottos in general, it makes sense that she should have taken care over a Latin motto for Hogwarts. (It also fits with the fictional foundation of Hogwarts: educational institutions founded a thousand years ago all have Latin mottos and more modern ones tend to follow suit – Rowling’s own University of Exeter has ‘Lucem sequimur’ (we follow the light))

Probably the second most famous school motto in Britain, is also in Latin. Eton was founded a little after Hogwarts (in 1440) and is, of course, the only real school that appears in Harry Potter. Justin Finch-Fletchley tells the trio: ‘my name was down for Eton, you know. I can’t tell you how glad I am I came here instead’ (Chamber, Chap 6). Eton’s motto is Floreat Etona – already famous in children’s literature as the dying words of Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s original play of Peter Pan. As David Mitchell writes:

Eton College’s most admirable attribute, I’ve long thought, is its motto. A Latin phrase, but not one that would have been familiar to the Romans, Floreat Etona translates as “May Eton flourish”. Contractually speaking, that’s watertight. No bombast and no virtue-signalling. Good luck anyone saying that particular institution has hypocritically betrayed its aims or principles.2

The solipsism of this motto is perfectly encapsulated by Barrie’s use of it as Hook’s dying words and Hogwarts’s motto (intentionally or un) is a kind of inversion of it. Hogwarts’s motto humourously addresses children to their own benefit – instead of asking them to lay down their allegiance on the altar of the school, it suggests that the school is there to serve its pupils. It is there not to be served by the children but to teach them to be wise, to teach them (at least) not to be the kind of idiot that tickles sleeping dragons.

It has been argued – in most depth by Nancy Solon Villaluz in her Does Harry Potter Tickle Sleeping Dragons? (2008) – that Rowling has used the obvious humour of this motto to hide in plain sight a hint about the Christian symbolism of her series. C.S. Lewis spoke of using story to ‘steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood’ – and the name he gives to these inhibitions is ‘watchful dragons:’ ‘could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could’ (Of Other Worlds, 1966). Given Rowling’s debt to Lewis – and the fact that she, like Lewis, is using story to renew the potency of religious archetypes for her readers – this is an appealing reading. (Even if the difference between ‘sleeping’ and ‘watchful’ dragons means that I don’t think it is a parallel that will convince anyone who is not already taken by the argument.)

What I don’t think has been noted before, however, is that Hogwarts’s motto may show some influence of Rowling’s move to Scotland as she was writing Philosopher’s Stone. For a number of Clan mottos are striking close to the basic – ‘don’t provoke dangerous animals’ – school of ‘good, solid, practical advice’ that Rowling claims to be at the heart of her motto. The Clan Mackintosh motto, for example, is: ‘Touch not the cat bot a glove’ (‘Don’t touch this cat unless you you’re wearing gloves’). Clan MacGillivray’s motto is an even more pared down version of the same motto: ‘Touch not this cat.’

In both cases the mottos are, in fact, boasting about the Clan’s strength – proclaiming them to be a wildcat only a fool would mess with. But taken out of context the general vibe of ‘don’t tease wild animals with sharp claws you idiot’ has some clear links with Rowling’s choice of humourous motto. As mentioned above there are clear parallels between the Murray Clan motto ‘Tout prêt’ and the Black motto ‘Toujours pur,’ which she probably thought up a year or two after joining that Clan. But it seems possible that many years before, when she had first moved to Scotland, she may have been influenced by Clan mottos about leaving dangerous animals well alone. ‘Touch not this cat’ may well lie behind ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon.’

‘Corvus oculum corvi non eruit’ and equivocal mottos

A raven tops the Lestrange achievement of arms (technically in heraldry this is known as the ‘crest,’ though this term is used by most people – Harry Potter among them – to mean the coat of arms as a whole). In Crimes of Grindelwald Leta notes that ‘the raven’s my family’s emblem’ – but ravens are not only the dominant symbol of her family, but of the whole of the film. Corvus – whose identity is the riddle at the centre of the film’s plot – is Latin for ‘raven’ (the common raven is Corvus corax) and both Leta’s father and her lost brother share the name. Satisfyingly – given all the star and constellation names in the pure blood families of Harry Potter – Corvus is also a constellation (located in the southern sky, it was first catalogued by Ptolemy in the second century and was probably so-named because it does not contain many bright stars.)

The Lestrange Mausoleum is marked by ‘a stone raven on the lintel’ and this is why Grindelwald’s shrouds are marked with a raven – in order to call his followers to the rally beneath the Mausoleum. Grindelwald’s use of the raven, however, – given Harry Potter’s insistent linking of him with Nazi imagery – also recalls the black heraldic eagle (the Reichsadler) most famously used by the German coat of arms under the Third Reich.3 The Lestrange raven is also read, by Yusuf Kama at least, as present in The Predictions of Tycho Dodonus (the book that functions as a parallel for Trelawney’s Prophecy in Crimes of Grindelwald):

“A son cruelly banished

Despair of the daughter

Return, great avenger

With wings from the water.”

Kama reads this as referring to Corvus: ‘You are the winged raven returned from the sea’ (though we can note in passing that this reading is entirely muddled – Kama believes himself to be the avenger, and therefore it is Kama who should be ‘winged’ not Corvus [might that black feather in Kama’s fedora turn out to be relevant here?]).

The Lestrange motto also circles the symbol of the raven. ‘Corvus oculum corvi non eruit’ is an old Latin saying meaning ‘a raven will not pull out the eye of another raven:’ the Latin equivalent of the English saying ‘honour amongst thieves.’ It is a great motto, simultaneously incorporating the Lestrange raven emblem into a real Latin phrase and recalling the unswerving loyalty of the most famous Lestrange to another black-hearted character (Bellatrix and Voldemort). It also accurately expresses a certain aloof disdain which is something of a hallmark for heraldic mottos which often proudly display a trait which might otherwise not seem a matter for pride.

Many famous mottos have this surprisingly equivocal vibe. The highest honour that the English crown can bestow, for example, is the Order of the Garter. It is an honour that sounds slightly risqué and the story told about its inception makes it clear that this is not just a modern misapprehension. The motto of the Order of the Garter is ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘Shame be on him who thinks it’). In the legend of the founding of this order, Edward III was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury when her garter fell to the floor; and when courtiers laughed suggestively as he stooped to pick it up, he gave this retort. Shakespeare’s motto ‘Non sanz droict’ (‘Not without right’) is another of these equivocal mottos, underlining, with almost embarrassing obviousness, that he has very little right to his arms above the fact that he has paid for them.

The Lestrange’s motto’s proud consciousness of what others might consider faults, however, perhaps most clearly recalls the motto of the Clan that, in 2005, Rowling discovered was part of her own blood line. In August 2005 it was reported that Rowling had recently been informed that her biological great-grandfather was:

Dugald Campbell, an adventurous doctor, born at Lamlash, on the isle of Arran, in 1858, who later travelled to Hawaii, where he helped to establish a free health service for all. The discovery has prompted Rowling to visit the Campbell family burial plot on the island and to e-mail historians in Hawaii seeking information about her great-grandfather. 

The Campbells have, shall we say, a chequered history in relation to some other Clans and their motto is a proud reference to this history: ‘Ne Obliviscaris’ (‘Do not forget’). This motto appears to be an intentional riposte to those who might consider that the Campbells would be glad to forget aspects of their history, though it is explained by the current Duke of Argyll with admirable diplomacy as: ‘we have taken great pride in our achievements, yet are conscious of our mistakes, something reflected in our family motto ‘Ne Obliviscaris’.’ The equivocal pride of the Lestrange motto is very much in the tradition of the Campbell motto – a motto we can assume that would have caught Rowling’s eye when she learnt of her own connection with the Clan.

One final motto to end with – from Rowling’s third clan connection. Rowling has married into the Murray Clan, she has discovered a blood-connection with the Campbells – but she has also chosen to make her alter-ego, Robert Galbraith, a member of a third Clan. In a previous blogpost I have described how well the meaning of the name Galbraith works for Rowling [‘Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Scotland‘]. But Clan Galbraith also has a fantastic motto for a writer. For the Galbraith motto is unique (?) among Scottish clans in being derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

This is particularly pleasing given Rowling’s fondness for this poem, which has left its fingerprints all over Harry Potter [ref Literary Allusion] and appears, likewise to be behind some of the mythological symbolism in Strike. The Galbraith motto is:

AB OBICE SUAVIOR which translates from Latin as “gentler because of the obstruction”. The motto is derived from a phrase in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses “ab obice saevior” (“fiercer because of the obstruction”, describing a river which when dammed only flowed more violently), but inverted by changing “saevior” (“fiercer”) for “suavior” (“gentler”), according to John D. Christie, reflecting the bear’s muzzle on the heraldic crest.

The motto itself seems to be interestingly, and unusually, equivocal with some Galbraiths choosing ‘AB OBICE SUAVIOR’ (‘Gentler Because of the Obstruction’) and others ‘AB OBICE SAEVIOR’ (‘Fiercer Because of the Obstruction’.’

The phrase comes from Book 3 (ll.528-571) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Pentheus objects to Dionysius’s appearance in Thebes:

His grandfather, Cadmus, his uncle, Athamas, and the rest of his advisors reprove his words, and try in vain to restrain him. He is only made more eager by their warning, and his rage is maddened and grows with restraint, and he is provoked by their objections. So I have seen a river, where nothing obstructs its passage, flow calmly and with little noise, but rage and foam wherever trees and obstacles of stone held it back, fiercer for the obstruction.

Pentheus’s fury will not end well (see Euripides’s Bacchae if you want to know quite how badly). Given this source the Galbraith Clan seems wise to shift the belligerent ‘Fiercer because of the obstruction’ to the more peaceable ‘Gentler because of the obstruction’ – but that does make it a very unusually irenic motto. ‘Get in my way and I’ll be nice about it’ is very much not the usual tenor of heraldic mottos.

Whether or not Rowling looked up the Galbraith motto before choosing her new name, it is satisfying that the motto of her nom de plume – a new identity behind which she hoped to hide – can be read in two diametrically opposed ways. Given her clear interest in heraldic mottos – shown through all the mottos discussed above – it seems plausible that she would have either known, or at least checked out, the Galbraith Clan motto. Her pen name’s motto has unimpeachably literary credentials – drawn from one of the great classical epics, and telling the story that inspired Euripides’s greatest tragedy.

1 Fry, Stephen. “Launch Day interview aboard the Hogwarts Express,” Bloomsbury Press, July 8, 2000.

3 The raven also links the Lestrange coat of arms with MinaLima’s version of the Black coat of arms in the film of Phoenix (2007) which, oddly, does not tally with that drawn by Rowling in 2006 but does include three crows/ravens: )

Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Heraldry

This is the third in a series of four ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

As noted in my first blogpost of this series, ‘Rowling and Scotland,’ Rowling has put up a badge of the Murray clan – a traditional heraldic figure of a mermaid, carrying a mirror and a brooch, encircled with a cartouche inscribed with the Murray motto: ‘Tout prêt’ (Old French for ‘quite ready’) – and many thanks and a hat tip to Oxford graduate student Pratibha Rai who was the first to identify it for HogwartsProfessor.

This badge is a more subtle – and private – version of the photos of her husband which Rowling put up on her original personalised homepage. But it also points to her status as ‘Mrs Murray’ in a far more interesting guise. For heraldry – a pictorial guide to history – is something that has long interested Rowling and it has left a number of tantalizing traces in the Wizarding World: from the Hogwarts’s coat of arms inscribed on the title-page of each Harry Potter novel, to the family trees of the Blacks in Phoenix and the Lestranges in Crimes of Grindelwald to the tiny, but crucial, detail of Marvolo Gaunt’s erroneous belief that the Deathly Hallows symbol is his ancestral coat of arms.

Cursed Child even displays a heraldic memory of Deathly Hallows when Voldemort’s threat at the end of the Battle of Hogwarts that ‘the emblem, shield and colours of my noble ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, will suffice for everyone’ becomes reality. In the Cursed Child the total power of the Death Eaters is expressed heraldically at the close of Part One as ‘giant banners with snake symbols upon the descend over the stage.’

Heraldry tells stories – such as the charming histories of St Mungo (a Scottish saint familiar to all Harry Potter readers) which are depicted on Glasgow’s coat of arms. This coat of arms carries the charges of a bird, a tree, a bell and a fish with a ring its mouth (which are likewise the supporters of the shield). The fish with a ring in its mouth points to Mungo’s most appealing miracle which, in true fairy tale style, allows a penitent queen a second chance:

A Queen had a secret lover, a soldier, whom she had presented with a ring which given to her by her husband Redderech. However, a servant informed the king of the affair. Although Redderech did not want to believe the tale, the sight of ring on the young soldier’s hand convinced him. He then laid a plot to denounce his wife publicly. He invited the soldier to go hunting with him and then, when the young man fell asleep, he slipped up the ring off his finger and threw it into the river Clyde. He then went back and demanded that his wife show him the ring. She, of course, could not get it back from her lover because it was now lost…. In prison, she sent a messenger to Mungo asking for forgiveness and aid. Mungo tells the messenger straightaway to go fishing in the Clyde and to bring back the first fish he catches. This is a salmon, which, on being cut open, is seen to contain the ring. This is then taken to the queen who presents it to the King. 

St Mungo’s actions here in healing a relationship that seemed past repair, makes him a satisfying choice for the patron saint of healing in the Wizarding World.

The Murray brooch on Rowling’s homepage underlines her interests in both Scottishness and heraldry – and, indeed, Scottish heraldry itself makes a subtle appearance in the Wizarding World. Rowling has noted that in her fictional honours system, the Order of Merlin, first class, has a green ribbon. She has therefore given the highest honour in the Wizarding world the colour of the Order of the Thistle – the Scottish equivalent to the Order of the Garter – sometimes known as the ‘Green Garter’ or the ‘Green ribbon’ [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter].

Today and tomorrow, I shall be looking at some of the ways in which Rowling makes use of heraldry’s ability to tell stories through symbols. Rowling wrote on the Black Family tree she drew in 2006 that ‘there are stories between the lines.’ Some of these stories can be read from the Black coat of arms and motto that she revealed for the first time in this drawing. [Read more…]

Beatrice Groves: Edinburgh’s Dark Side

This is the second in a series of ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

In yesterday’s blogpost ‘Rowling and Scotland’ we looked at how some of the world’s most enduring children’s classics – Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island and, now, of course Harry Potter – have been written by Edinburgh authors. And we looked briefly at the way Edinburgh’s literal, as well as literary, landscape may have influenced Rowling. Many people, for example, have suggested that Rowling was influenced by some of the ‘gothic’ looking schools in the city – a suggestion Rowling has rebutted in interview.

But it is the case that one of Britain’s most fêted ‘school’ stories (though hardly a children’s book) was influenced by an Edinburgh school. Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespie’s High School – the model for the Marcia Blaine School in her most famous novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But the titular character’s name points to a more interesting way in which Spark (and, I think, Rowling too) have been influenced by Edinburgh.

In this blogpost I will consider the literary legacy of three of the city’s most famous (and least salubrious) sons – Deacon Brodie, William Burke and William Hare – and suggest the influence their histories may have had the darker side of Rowling’s literary world. [Read more…]