Those of you who have read Deathly Hallows Lectures (and, if you haven’t, please do), know that I think that Ron and Hermione Weasley name their first son ‘Hugo’ as a hat tip to the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. I discussed this briefly on the PotterCast LiveStream show the Potter Pundits did last Thursday, but I wanted to fill out those comments here.
In brief, Ms. Rowling in bringing up Victor Hugo in the Epilogue to Deathly Hallows, via the name of a child, is completing the circle of her seven book series which begins with a pointed reference to the orphan child of Les Miserables, Cosette, in Harry Potter, the boy who lives in a spider infested space beneath the stairs.
Before I get to that, though, let’s review the Rowling-Hugo connection. Yes, she was a French major at Exeter. But what connections or similarities are there between the Harry Potter novels and Victor Hugo’s work?
Quite a few.
For the briefest of over views, comparing Hugo and Rowling, here are some Hugo facts:
(1) Hugo’s novels are also very long, engaging, and “character driven;”
(2) Hugo was “spiritual but not religious,” in fact, something of an anti-clerical bore, but his books challenge serious readers to reflect on their prejudices, their willingness to confront injustice, and on their capacity to love sacrificially; and
(3) Hugo was no friend of the political or media establishment. He spent the last years of his life in forced and then voluntary exile from France because of his disdain for the government of his native country.
Sound familiar? Ms. Rowling may not be in exile but she has told her fans not to trust the government or the press to tell them the truth. Ms. Rowling has not waved any anti-church banners to date, it is true, but I suspect “Pius Thicknesse” as the agent of Lord Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic, Confundus Charmed or not, was a reflection of her thoughts about the “religious right.” And Les Miserables, when it was first published, came out in much anticipated volumes, two and the finale, over a period of time.
And, as we’ve discussed here before, Hugo was an alchemical writer. Nicolas Flamel, for example, is mentioned 12 times in Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hugo even goes so far in 1853 as to try to contact Flamel via a seance to find out what the inhabitants of the planet Mercury look like! I assume his fascination with Mercury’s intelligent life is hermetic (sic) rather than just a reflection of the consonants in his last name (Hg). This alchemical connection is especially apt in the Epilogue revelation of Ron and Hermione’s children’s names because ‘Hugo’ in these consonants points to Hermione’s maiden name initials as well as to the meaning of her name and her role as ‘Mercury’ in her ‘Quarreling Couple’ relationship with Bilius Ron.
Not to mention that the other child’s name is Rose, another glyph for the Philosopher’s Stone, the end product of the alchemical work catalyzed by the resolution of the contrary Mercury and Sulphur. And, Rose, when paired with ‘Albus’ Potter becomes the ‘White Rose,’ the symbol Dante uses for the Beatific Vision he experiences in Paradise.
But I digress.
We get Hugo only at the very end of the seven book series. Why did Ms. Rowling wait this long to tip her hat to a serial novelist she loved who also wrote alchemical novels of personal transformation and redemption?
She didn’t. She started the books with that hat-tip and in mentioning Victor’s last name at the end she is only completing the circle (much as Teddy Lupin, in echoing Harry as “philosophical orphan”, does at the end of the Battle of Hogwarts).
A letter from Greg Bassham, one of the editors of The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy which is coming out this fall, shared this with me:
Hi John, I hope the summer is going well.
You probably point this out in your Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, which I haven’t yet read, but I was struck recently by parallels between Hugo’s Les Miserables and Sorcerer’s Stone. The miserable little girl Collette (sic) literally sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs, fending off spiders, as her wicked custodial guardians, the Thenardiers, shamelessly coddle their own two pampered children. Given Rowling’s expertise in French literature, I assume this must be a deliberate borrowing.
All best wishes,
Prof. Bassham really is a nice guy and smart, too, if his mentioning he hasn’t read my book on Harry’s place in world literature (or Deathly Hallows Lectures in which I discuss the Hugo connection…) and calling ‘Cosette’ “Collette” might make you scratch your head and wonder. I didn’t recall the passage he mentions, so I pulled down the 1500 page, tiny type, paperback monster to check it out.
Sure enough, it’s there: Les Miserables, Volume 2, Book 3, Chapter 8
As for the traveller, he had deposited his cudgel and his bundle in a corner. The landlord once gone, he threw himself into an arm-chair and remained for some time buried in thought. Then he removed his shoes, took one of the two candles, blew out the other, opened the door, and quitted the room, gazing about him like a person who is in search of something. He traversed a corridor and came upon a staircase. There he heard a very faint and gentle sound like the breathing of a child. He followed this sound, and came to a sort of triangular recess built under the staircase, or rather formed by the staircase itself. This recess was nothing else than the space under the steps. There, in the midst of all sorts of old papers and potsherds, among dust and spiders’ webs, was a bed–if one can call by the name of bed a straw pallet so full of holes as to display the straw, and a coverlet so tattered as to show the pallet. No sheets. This was placed on the floor.
In this bed Cosette was sleeping.
This isn’t a throw away scene, either, if it is the first and last time we see Cosette under the stairs. Jean Valjean, the traveller, has come to rescue Cosette from the horrible Thernadiers, compared to whom the Dursleys are model parents. He does this in fulfillment of a death-bed vow he made to her mother Fantine, whose passing’s light symbolism is an important alchemical marker:
Jean Valjean rested his elbow on the knob at the head of the bed, and his brow on his hand, and began to contemplate the motionless body of Fantine, which lay extended there. He remained thus, mute, absorbed, evidently with no further thought of anything connected with this life. Upon his face and in his attitude there was nothing but inexpressible pity. After a few moments of this meditation he bent towards Fantine, and spoke to her in a low voice.
What did he say to her? What could this man, who was reproved, say to that woman, who was dead? What words were those? No one on earth heard them. Did the dead woman hear them? There are some touching illusions which are, perhaps, sublime realities. The point as to which there exists no doubt is, that Sister Simplice, the sole witness of the incident, often said that at the moment that Jean Valjean whispered in Fantine’s ear, she distinctly beheld an ineffable smile dawn on those pale lips, and in those dim eyes, filled with the amazement of the tomb.
Jean Valjean took Fantine’s head in both his hands, and arranged it on the pillow as a mother might have done for her child; then he tied the string of her chemise, and smoothed her hair back under her cap. That done, he closed her eyes.
Fantine’s face seemed strangely illuminated at that moment.
Death, that signifies entrance into the great light.
Fantine’s hand was hanging over the side of the bed. Jean Valjean knelt down before that hand, lifted it gently, and kissed it.
Then he rose, and turned to Javert.
“Now,” said he, “I am at your disposal.”
Forgive me that over long citation; really, reading Hugo is such an edifying, melodramatic delight. Cosette, also called the Lark (Hunger Games readers should note that Peeta’s last name, like Cosette’s nickname, has heavy Christian meaning), is rescued by her savior and protector Jean Valjean, who sacrifices everything for her.
If you want to know more about the spiritual depths of Victor Hugo and Les Miserables, I urge you to pick up a copy of John Morrison’s To Love Another Person: A Spiritual Journey Through Les Miserables. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss why Jean Valjean’s and Cosette’s names may have been reasons that Ms. Rowling names her characters the way she does.
Until then, I look forward to reading your comments and corrections here about this connection between the beginning and end of Harry Potter, in which the boy under the stairs meets Hugo, a pointer to Cosette’s creator, at his story’s finale.