The Origin and Meaning of ‘Voldemort:’ Allingham’s ‘The Tiger in the Smoke’?

Can it really have taken us twenty years to track down the origin of the name and the essential meaning of J. K. Rowling’s pathological villain, Lord Voldemort?

I read a mystery novel yesterday, Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke, that seems to have a passage that satisfies the several tests I’ve been able to come up with for verifying a true Voldemort source. Let me share those tests or metrics, the passages in question, as well as the several competitors for the title of ‘Original Dark Lord’ all of whom I think Tiger in the Smoke trumps.

First test: The Presence Herself has to like the book being cited as a possible source for Voldemort’s name.

The most frequently cited source for the name on the Internet is “Voldemortis,” a supposed wizard who battled Merlin. Sadly, this idea seems to have appeared out of thin air in 2004, the earliest source I found for it, and you can tell it has been cut and pasted in every names meaning list since because they all begin with “In another language, Voldermortist means “Lord of Evil” or “Dark Lord”. Legend has it that Voldermortist once tried to destroy Merlin…” I kid you not. MuggleNet, Korean Potter fan sites, the whole spectrum.

Rowling never mentions ‘Voldemortis’ or the Arthurian legends as a Dark Lord point of origin. I was a little disappointed that she hasn’t discussed The Master and Margarita, either, because the plot of that book — not to mention ‘Woland De Mort‘ (?) –is a great match for Lord Thingy, too.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “M. Valdemar“? This is the best name reference match-up, hands down, and the gruesome finish of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar corresponds with the Dark Lord’s (sort of). But we have no comments by the author about loving Poe…

Second Test: Lord Voldemort is a psychopath, full stop. The Original Can’t Be Mister Rogers.

He is “a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering” (EW). “If you are writing about evil, which I am, and if you are writing about someone who’s, essentially, a psychopath – you have a duty to show the real evil of taking human life” (BBC Christmas). “If a psychologist were ever able to get Voldemort in a room, pin him down and take his wand away, I think he would be classified as a psychopath” (Radio City).

Third Test: The Name Itself — French, Fictional, ‘Invented’

Rowling has said publicly that the name ‘Voldemort’ is French (not Latin, Lexicon!); that she made it up, and that she pronounces it sans final ‘t:’  “Vol-de-mor.” And, no, “I didn’t base Voldemort on any real person!” (Though what about all the men named ‘Tom Riddle’?)

She is sometimes cited as the source of the translation from the French, “flight from death.” I could not find verification of this ‘internet-fact,’ i.e., a seeming-truth that is believed because it is repeated in thousands of places. It is not in the index of Rowling quotations about Voldemort.

How does The Tiger in the Smoke stand up to these tests? Answers after the jump! [Read more…]

John Dawlish and – Margery Allingham?

Hogwarts Professor Louise Freeman said in the ‘Reading Writing, Rowling’ premiere podcast in Roanoke, a discussion of the ‘Top Twenty Harry Potter Moments’ that “‘Dawlish is still in St. Mungo’s and Gran’s on the run’ is one of my top ten lines from the series.” It certainly reflects the nadir in the never especially bright life of Auror John Dawlish. Being toyed with by an escaping Dumbledore and then, one hopes under the Imperius Curse, being made the heavy for the Dark Side Ministry of Magic in Deathly Hallows, Dawlish never seems to catch a break. Professor Freeman told me that she thinks of him as “the Harry Potter equivalent to the red-shirted Star Trek security guard.

I bring this up today because I think I have found the origin for Auror John Dawlish’s last name.

If you’re a Cryptonym Specialist, Harry Potter division, you may be scratching your head about this “discovery.” We already have two decent explanations for Dawlish’s last name and the author herself has explained Dawlish being named ‘John’ (the Leaky Cauldron’s John Noe is the most celebrated Dawlish fan and The Presence anointed her character ‘John’ in Noe’s honor). The two explanations for ‘Dawlish’ are that it is a city in Devon near Exeter where Rowling went to college (see The Harry Potter Lexicon on Dawlish for more on that) and, more importantly, it’s referenced in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

I wasn’t looking for an alternative to this rather mechanical explanation when I stumbled over it. Now that I have seen it, though, I much prefer it to the Sea Coast town with thin literary echoes having no connection to an Auror, even a can’t-win nebbish like Dawlish, the Wizarding World’s equivalent of an FBI Special Agent.

Here’s how I stumbled over the name Dawlish in an important novel by one of Rowling’s favorite mystery writers —

[Read more…]

The Hymn of the Resurrection: Orthodox Hymnography and Ring Composition?

Resurrection Service, Jerusalem

Resurrection Service, Jerusalem

Christos Anesti! I am just home from a weekend of Paschal services and celebrations at the St Matthew the Evangelist Orthodox Mission in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a trip my family has made the last three years, and I pray the recovery from the joy and glad tidings experienced there takes, well, forever. I hope that your holiday weekend was equally edifying and enriching.

I was offline for the duration and had eight hours of driving to think each way. One of the things I thought to post here is an update to something I wrote in 2012 about a part of Orthodox Christian celebration of Pascha (‘Easter’ in the West) and ring composition or chiasmus. I thought of it, not only because of my current research but because of a conversation I had with a monk after Agape Vespers yesterday about how stories ‘work’ and how story-tellers remember epic poetry.

The work I’m doing on my PhD thesis is in large part about ‘Ring Composition’ which is the fictional shadow of Biblical and Patristic chiasmus. Mary Douglas, the noted anthropologist, wrote a book on this, Thinking in Circles, which, with Fr John Breck’s The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and BeyondLund’s book on chiasmus in the New Testament and Welch’s books on chiasmus in antiquity, has been my introduction and guide on the subject. As we’ve been exploring here for some time, it seems the science fiction fantasy novels of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams may be ‘rings’ of parallel analogies as are the most recent blockbusters Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games.

Once a reader puts on these glasses and learns to recognize chiasmus, of course, it’s hard not to imagine it everywhere. The seven days after Pascha are known as Bright Week and traditional Christians celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection by chanting the Paschal Hours through that time. One of the prayers sung again and again is ‘The Hymn of the Resurrection’ that is first chanted during the services for Pascha and then throughout Paschaltide. I believe it to be a Ring or chiasmus composition, and, below, I chart it for your review with some notes on the ring nature of Christian soteriology and some brief thoughts, guesses really, about why this is so.

I think it has a great deal to do with why this story scaffolding has the power it does, why, as Douglas argues, it is the universal story form. It is, of course, an explicitly Christian argument and not directly related to discussion of popular fiction, so I urge those not interested in that sort of discussion to not enter into it. We’ll return to our regular programming tomorrow with some thoughts on the Cursed Child Olivier Awards sweep in London and the question of the evident ability of Potter Mania to leap cross-media, page to screen to stage!  [Read more…]

Why Moaning Myrtle, Not Wailing Wanda

ChamberLet’s take a break from Lethal White speculations today to talk about something we can be reasonably sure of, namely (ouch), the meaning of ‘Moaning Myrtle’s name. I’m pretty sure that you missed that meaning and that you’ll laugh when you see it.

First, let’s note that Myrtle’s full name is ‘Myrtle Elizabeth Warren.’ Rowling clued us in to that in 2015 in answer to a question from a reader on Twitter.

Forgive me for wondering if this was intentional. There are, after all, other Elizabeth Warrens than the one now representing Massachusetts in the U. S. Senate.  None of the other E. W.s are that famous, of course. Moaning Myrtle being who she is, it’s not exactly the connection you would think a woman with Rowling’s professed politics would make with Senator Warren.

Next, did you know that Moaning Myrtle was ‘Wailing Wanda’ in the first drafts of Chamber of Secrets? Equally alliterative with a bonus resonance with two ‘n’s and three ‘a’s, the question has to be “Why change ‘Wanda’ to ‘Myrtle’? [Read more…]

Harry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s ‘Relationship’ with Vladimir Nabokov (Names, Politics, Alchemy, and Parody)

f38696614It’s been fifteen years since I started thinking seriously and speaking publicly about the literary merits of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I am still surprised at how much work there is to be done, how many mysteries and markers that have been neglected.

Take, as an obvious example, the matter of the author’s favorite books and writers. She says the three she enjoys reading most are Jane Austen, Colette, and Vladimir Nabokov. Go ahead and do a web search for ‘Rowling and Colette’ or ‘Rowling and Nabokov.’ You’ll find links to the various lists of Rowling’s ‘10 Most Loved Novels‘ and the like in which the same comments are re-rehearsed with different covers as click bait. But no discussion of Colette, Nabokov (or Roddy Doyle or Auberon Waugh, and, well, you get the idea) and their place in understanding what Rowling, the serious reader become writer, was after in the Hogwarts Saga.

BookshelfI wrote a book, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, on ‘the Great Books Inside the Adventures of the Boy Who Lived’ and it’s a grand tour of Western Canon through the lens of Rowling’s septology. It wasn’t, however, despite frequent quotations from The Presence to justify my choices of texts to discuss, J. K. Rowling’s Library, a book by Karin Westman, chair of the Kansas State English Department. Prof Westman announced the imminent publication of this guide at Nimbus 2003 in Orlando, Florida, and her CV says it is “forthcoming, 2017” today (the University of Mississippi Press, her publisher, alas, does not list it among their titles soon to be in print).

This is a shame, if understandable given Prof Westman’s responsibilities, because, judging from what she has shared through the years about Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, and other Rowling favorites at conferences, no one is more qualified than she to write on this subject. While we wait for J. K. Rowling’s Library, though, let’s take a look at that “favorites” list again and see what we can figure out in anticipation of Prof Westman’s guidance.

Lolita 20The writer I’ve been reading, both his novels as well as books about his fascinating life, is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and I have a small confession to make. The experience of reading his Pale Fire and Lolita, considered among the best if not just the best American novels of the 20th Century (Lolita even makes the #15 slot on this Greatest Books Ever list) has turned my thinking about Rowling as novelist on its head, maybe even inside-out. If nothing else, I have a new “hidden key” to share.

First, though, let’s establish the Rowling-Nabokov link through her comments about the Man from St. Petersburg and the clear correspondences and probable hat-tips to his best known works in Harry Potter. [Read more…]