Ms. Rowling in the United States! Troll attack! What Does Harry’s Name Mean? Whence ‘Harry’?

by John on April 13, 2008

My friend in Hollywood tells me it’s not a trip to Disney World she’s after…

Yes, I know I have a no-comment no-posting policy on the copyright case pending. No, I haven’t changed my mind regarding the indisputable fact that we won’t know what is going to happen until the trial is over and the case decided (even then, I doubt that we’ll know what happened and what it means; that will take several years). Speculation and fuming about whose right and wrong in the matter and “what is certainly going to happen” is at least as silly as our guesses last year pre-Deathly Hallows, nowhere near as much fun, and not at all edifying. Plus, I know one of the principals. HogPro is not going to be a place to vent and fume about anything other than reading Ms. Rowling’s books seriously.

So why do I bring this subject up here, besides it being the Headline you’ll be reading in newspapers and hearing about everywhere on Monday? Because it seems Warner Brothers has got another lawsuit brewing against a man who can prove he made the first Harry Potter movie, a movie, that is, with a lead character named Harry Potter, albeit not from a book by Ms. Rowling, way back in 1986!

The story from London (PTI):

Legal battle over who first thought of Harry Potter

London (PTI): Movie giant Warner Bros has initiated a legal battle with a director who claims he devised an earlier version of the Harry Potter character.

John Buechler was behind a little known film called Troll, released in 1986, which featured a young boy called Harry Potter Jnr.

Now, 49-year-old Buechler says he intends to create a 20 million pound remake but lawyers for Warner Bros have warned him they will defend their rights to J K Rowling’s character.

According to a report in the Daily Mail, Buechler is beginning a search for a boy to star in his remake.

His partner, Hollywood producer Peter Davy, said “In John’s opinion, he created the first Harry Potter. J K Rowling says the idea just came to her, John doesn’t think so. There are a lot of similarities between the theme of her books and the original Troll. John was shocked when she came out with Harry Potter.”

But Rowling has always vigorously defended any suggestion that her Harry Potter was not an original creation and she maintains that she has never seen Troll.

Warner Bros spokesman Scott Rowe said “If these producers intend to remake Troll they’d better tread carefully not to infringe on our rights.” End of article.

I discussed this in a footnote to the chapter on Names, believe it or not, in Looking for God in Harry Potter. I wrote:

When Book magazine , a publication of Barnes & Noble, featured a mug shot of Rowling on their June 2003 cover to herald the arrival of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, they had no trouble finding five American men named Harry Potter, all of whom told the same tale of crank calls and new friends delighted to “meet the man himself.” Rowling was sued in New Jersey by a children’s book author whose story featured a hero named Harry Potter. Better than these examples, Netflix released two mock-horror, B-movie gems, Troll (1986) and Troll 2 (1992), in which the family resisting Torok the troll’s attempt to take over the world is led by a dad and son both named Harry Potter. Harry Potter, Sr., and Harry Potter, Jr., were all over the movie and HBO screens for two or three years: how meaningful was that? (Not very.) Thanks to Dan Rees of Joplin, Missouri, for Harry’s first encounter with Trolls.

My favorite instance of Harry sightings pre-Rowling comes from Monty Python. In a send-up strangely echoing the beginning of Philosopher’s Stone, we hear Harry is about to be attacked:

“It was a day like any other and Mr. and Mrs. Brainsample were a perfectly ordinary couple, leading perfectly ordinary lives — the sort of people to whom nothing extraordinary ever happened, and not the kind of people to be the centre of one of the most astounding incidents in the history of mankind…. So let’s forget about them and follow instead the destiny of this man…. (Camera pans off them; they both look disappointed; camera picks up instead a smart little business man, in bowler, briefcase and pinstripes)…. Harold Potter, gardener, and tax official, first victim of Creatures from another Planet.” (http://www.ibras.dk/montypython/episode07.htm#4. I learned of this early Python sketch from Kia, a friend of Linda McCabes’s.) (LGHP, pages 231-232)

It turns out neither Troll 2 or Troll 3 feature the Harry Potters, but calling them “little known films” isn’t fair, either. These are cult films not unlike Rocky Horror Picture Show, so bad (and intentionally bad in large part) that they are considered essential viewing among Horror movie lovers.

I find the whole “whence the name Harry Potter?” question worth discussing because my critics and my supporters all roll their eyeballs at my interpretation of Harry’s name (Heir-y Potter or Heir of the Potter), also discussed in Looking for God. Richard Bane-of-Critical-Thinking has made this point his fulcrum-reason for rejecting everything I have ever written about Ms. Rowling and her books; he argues that because Ms. Rowling says there was a family in the neighborhood where she grew up named Potter we know the name has no meaning. Prof. Terry Mattingly inevitably brings up Harry’s name when discussing how much he admires my books, if only to say even smart guys can go off the rails. I confess that after the last book in the series I thought more people would find my interpretation of the name more compelling. I was wrong. Not about the meaning of the name. I was wrong in thinking that Harry’s doing the Heir of the Potter dance in Deathly Hallows would make folks complete the circuit between name and meaning.

Didn’t happen.

I think the problem is folks think that for a name to have a meaning it has to have been “invented” deliberately and logically, the way you might write computer software or invent a better paper-clip. When I argue that Harry Potter has the meaning that it does, that is not how I believe she came up with it. Let’s consider three possibilities for how Ms. Rowling could have thought of Harry’s name:

(1) a concerted, conscious effort to find the name that worked for the hero of her epic story, a name with a meaning that tells you who this character is supposed to be;

(2) a borrowing from another book, movie, or teevee program; and

(3) a subconscious combination of possibilities 1 & 2.

We’ve discussed here before the power of subliminal suggestion both in advertising and literature. I put it to you that Ms. Rowling, in search of a name for the boy wizard destined to save her magical sub-creation, found the name in her sub-conscious memories of neighborhood children, Monty Python skits, and scripture readings, and, this is her genius or daimon, both constructed and recognized the match when it occurred to her as inspiration. Insane? Watch this Darren Brown demonstration of how the creative mind can be shaped deliberately by planting images in the subconscious mind.

I still hold that Harry’s name, as with most of the major characters, is meaningful, and that my interpretation of it as a pointer to “Christian Everyman” has been largely confirmed by the events of Deathly Hallows. I understand that most people disagree (to say the least!). As the big players with the bankroll large enough to have lawyers standing by to squish any use of the Name — which, of course, has significance in almost every revealed tradition, especially Christianity and Islam) — are making name-use an issue, I thought this was as good a time as any to raise the subject of what Harry’s name means and how Ms. Rowling could have come up with it.

I’d love to read anything you have to say about the Troll movies, Warner Brothers’ litigation reflex, the name Harry Potter, and what you think the mechanics of literary inspiration are. Anything about the RDR/Scholastic court case will be deleted (fair warning!).

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

revgeorge April 13, 2008 at 4:22 pm

John, I think you’re on the right track in your thinking that the best option for how JKR came up with the name is a combination of coincidences. Essentially, we live in a mish mash of all sorts of ideas, philosophies, trivia, what not, that coming up with a truly, original idea, that is one that has absolutely no connection to anything else in the world, is impossible. All stories are simply stories that are being retold. The originality comes in the retelling part.

Lewis did this in Till We Have Faces, retelling the myth of Cupid & Psyche & filling it with Christian meaning while still couching it in pagan mythology.

To take it down a notch to South Park, which although considered gauche by some people, is still an astute commentator on culture. The episode “Simpson’s Did It,” in which they show that every tv plot has already been done by The Simpsons & every idea The Simpsons did comes from previous tv shows or literature.

So, to make a point, if JKR had simply taken the characters of Troll & the plot & copied it verbatim & with only superficial changes, then people might be able to claim infringement by her. But she didn’t. She made a substantial work of her own, albeit one that is based on everything that has come before her.

Otherwise, anybody that makes a story involving a doomed love story between teenagers owes Shakespeare & his descendants a lot of money. :)

Perelandra April 13, 2008 at 4:23 pm

I agree that HP is supposed to be Everyman/Everychristian. “Harry” is about as bluff and plain and English name as could be chosen. It means “ruler of an enclosure” or “ruler of a home.” (Shades of Eden?) I’m not sure that it’s also a pun. “Potter,” of course, suggests God as Divine Creator and Man’s destiny as sub-creator.

Given Rowling’s use of English royal names for important characters, it’s mildly interesting to note that both James I and James the Old Pretender fathered princes named Henry who did not reign.

korg20000bc April 14, 2008 at 12:46 am

I disagree with Perelandra that Harry is “about as bluff and plain and English name as could be chosen.” Its a royal name meaning Ruler in both instances and used by English/British Royalty.

Potter need not refer to God as devine creator but of a humble tradesman.

So, Harry Potter could mean something like “Humble Royalty” or “a prince from lowly stock” or some such.

janet April 14, 2008 at 8:55 pm

I like your phrase that JKR “both constructed and recognized the match when it came to her as inspiration.” I’ve named a lot of characters — not as many as JKR, and not as well — but enough to know that finding the name for a character is both a matter of deliberate searching and, equally, a matter of *recognizing* the name when it finally arrives. And “recognize” is exactly the right word. It’s such a great feeling when you finally discover the name of this person you’ve been living with for a while.

So much is subconscious, so much is something that feels as if it’s coming from outside you, from the reality of the character who doesn’t even really exist yet, that I doubt JKR could really pinpoint her sources fully and completely. But yes, she recognized the names when they came to her. Absolutely.

Arabella Figg April 15, 2008 at 10:11 am

Some great thoughts here.

I’ll just add that I’m going to copyright my Muggle name and that of my cat tomrrow in case someone in the near future should think of them as character names for their books or films. Then I’ll sue the pants off them and be rich in drawers, if not sense.

Diamond collars and tons of treats for all the kitties, too!…

Perelandra April 15, 2008 at 10:53 am

“Harry” is the casual form of the name, now applied to Prince Harry, but the proper name is of course “Henry”. No indication that our HP is anything but Harry.

HallowsFan April 15, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Did I miss something somewhere?
This John Buechler fellow used characters named Harry Potter Jr. and Sr. back in 1986.

Now he wants to make another Troll movie and Warner Brothers is telling him he can’t have a character named Harry Potter… (?)

Does Warner Bros. have a case? Since there is a no comment/ no post policy on the Lexicon case, I’ll refrain from opining about that…

But, all this heavy-handed legal bully-ing is not exactly endearing.

In any case… whether she really intended it or not, Rowling did name her main character in such a way that Christian allusions are built in to it. I must admit I’d not seen Mr. Granger’s ruminations about “Heir-to-the-Potter” etc. But they actually make a lot of sense. Particularly in light of Deathly Hallows! (Heir-to-the-Potter…Son of God… Christ…Harry as Christ-figure, etc).

Eeyore April 15, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Arabella Figg said:
“I’ll just add that I’m going to copyright my Muggle name and that of my cat tomrrow in case someone in the near future should think of them as character names for their books or films. Then I’ll sue the pants off them and be rich in drawers, if not sense.”

I always knew that we missed our chance of suing when the movie with our daughter’s name as one of the main characters came out in 1987 (she was nine). She, of course, was not amused, as it resulted in massive teasing at school.

And now that I think of it, our younger daughter’s name was also a movie character. Hmmm, well, most of that is the result of having a fairly common last name, and first names that aren’t that unusual either. (Well, actually, I guess they could have made us chose another name, as that particular movie came out before she was born–about 11 years before. Just goes to show that I had completely forgotten that character’s name–I was quite surprised when I watched it later and realized that the movie character shared a name with our youngest daughter.)

That really is the problem when a name is common. It’s the invented ones where it’s clear that someone has stolen a name from someone else.

To be honest, though, I’d never heard of the Troll movie–and it doesn’t sound like something I would have watched anyway.

Pat

Chosen66 April 17, 2008 at 4:33 pm

I saw the Troll film a number of years ago. It was so bad I couldn’t even finish it.

At any rate, as to the name of Harry Potter, I still think this is the weakest of John’s interpretations. Is it not more likely that Harry Potter was one of the first names she arrived at in her story-creation, long before she really began to invest it with any profound name meanings and it simply never got changed?

I think, too, that Harry, as a representative of the Christian everyman, is a name which intentionally has no hidden meaning. He represents all of us, and so his name cannot mean anything terribly profound. All the other characters are essentially settled and know who they are, even Ron and Hermione. But Harry is constantly in flux – he’s being broken down, purified, and reformed. He is only settled at the very end. Or perhaps his name does have a hidden meaning – it means he is ordinary, not exceptional, like us all. This certainly plays in contrast to how the wizarding world treats him, as though he is extraordinary.

revgeorge April 18, 2008 at 8:42 pm

In a strange bout of synchronicity, the movie Troll was on TMCW tonight. I didn’t have the fortitude to watch it, though, so I watched “They Live” with Rowdy Roddy Piper instead.

John May 4, 2008 at 8:02 am

From the JKR/RDR trial transcripts (Ms. Rowling, redirect):

Q. And you mentioned errors. You were asked about the Alohomora entry. Are there other errors in the lexicon that you noticed?

A. There are many, actually. And some of them are mistranslations. For example, patronus the Latin word patronus is mistranslated. I think Mr. Vander Ark says it means patron saint; it means guardian, protector. And it also has an association, which one of these books has picked up on, with the word pater, father, which is relevant to Harry, as he has the same guardian as his father.

Ummm, not to mention that the word ‘pater’ is pronounced “Potter”?

Harry’s name comes up much more directly in the testimony of expert literature witnesses. Dr. Sorensen makes a great point, I thought, about the interpretation of names and terms, namely, that the author’s definition or intention is not the “right” or complete understanding of the name or term. From the third day of the trial, we return to Harry’s name (Dr. Sorensen, UC Berkeley, redirect):

Q. And just further on that, why might — does the name Harry Potter seem to require an etymological explanation?

A. It might.

Q. That seemed to disturb — how about Bertie Bott’s candy wizard licorice factory, whatever it was. Is there a reason why in your mind that did not require an etymological explanation?

A. They’re monosyllables. I don’t think that that would have been a good instance of where — where there, you know, a space that where there is a rich sort of linguistic background to the term. There might be. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all sorts of information about Harry Potter’s name. That’s to be expected. That’s the beauty of having multiple guidebooks, that people will supplement and add.

MR. HAMMER: I have no questions.
MS. CENDALI: Just one more, your Honor.
THE COURT: All right.
RECROSS EXAMINATION BY MS. CENDALI:

Q. Dr. Sorensen, when you wrote your declaration, did you realize that some of the etymologies you referred to in your declaration were wrong?

A. I would not agree that they are wrong.

Q. Do you think that etymologies are helpful if they’re wrong?

A. I think etymologies are helpful and interesting because they point to the very complex history of language which is not usually something that can be established with absolute accuracy.

Q. So, even if they’re wrong you think they’re helpful?

A. I’m going to take alohomora. I think it is great that the author meant one thing and that there are other ways to understand that. That gives information about this being a Hawaiian term. That’s what draws me to literary studies. I love moments when a printed text goes out into the world and people find meaning there whether the author intended it or not. That’s exciting for me. Certainly I want to hear what an author says. I want to hear what other people think about how that language is working. That’s how books like these get written. He is speculating. He’s speculating. That’s part of the excitement of it — for me anyway.

Q. Alohomora is not one of the etymologies referred to in your declaration that Dr. Johnson said was wrong, correct?

A. That’s right.

No one wanted to get into what Harry’s name meant, alas, but we did get the two views of interpretation into the legal record; the author believes her interpretation is the “right” one and all others are “wrong” (Ms. Rowling said the Lexicon definition of alohamora was wrong because it wasn’t the West African magical word she used) and the literature professor says that is silly. Courtrooms are good for something.

athena1 May 20, 2008 at 7:41 am

- mechanics of literary inspiration – What an perfectly descriptive phrase.

There are many remarkable coincidences in the movie TROLL and JK Rowlings work even though she denies seeing the movie prior to her writing her first book – her actual accounts of how she was inspired is rather supernatural – JK Rowling, in her own words, via the biography postings on her website states that”; 1990, my then boyfriend and I decided to move up to Manchester together. It was after a weekend’s flat-hunting, when I was traveling back to London on my own on a crowded train, that the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head”; Fell into her head, really?” Ok, so maybe she didn’t see it. Something still bugs me about the whole thing though – enough to take time out of my busy day for posts like this – if she didn’t see it, how much exposure did she have with the movie before the Harry Potter universe magically “fell into her head”? How much advertising was she exposed to? Was she exposed to the story line/concept in general prior to her supernatural revelation of a multi-billion dollar idea? Coincidences like the ones in these two supposedly different characters rarely happen naturally, if at all.

And for the naysayers that take the view that the Troll remake would not be happening at all if Rowling’s timely version hit big, I’ve read that due to family matters Mr. Buechler has only recently been free to take on such a monumental task. With his ideas smoldering for all these years waiting to come to life – I’m excited about the remake – let’s see where Buechler’s imagination takes us into the Harry Potter universe.

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