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’?

One website authority suggests that it is in keeping with Rowling’s penchant for flowering plants. And bombs?

  • f38696358It is possible she was named “Myrtle” to continue J.K. Rowling’s tradition of naming characters after flowers.
  • The myrtle tree is a close relative of the willow tree. “Moaning Myrtle” is a similar phrase to “weeping willow.” Her name is also possibly related to the “Moaning Minnie,” the British name for a German WWII artillery shell that made a distinctive moaning whine before it hit.
  • The myrtle (Myrtus) is a flowering plant of southern Europe and north Africa. In Greek mythology, it was sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and to Demeter, goddess of grain and fertility; Pausanias relates it to the tragedy of Adonis. The Roman poet Virgil relates the myrtle to Venus and used them in wedding rituals, something that Jewish liturgy, which deemed it sacred, also used. Myrtle has also uses in Wiccan rituals, and was considered medicinal by the ancients, including Hippocrates, Pliny, Galen and Arabian writers

Interesting information, but not illuminating. ‘Wanda’ is a great name for a witch, no? Especially if born in a family of Muggles? I don’t think the plant connection is sufficient explanation for the switch to Myrtle from Wand-a.

This nugget, though, seems important — Rowling on Pottermore explains how she came up with the character:

The inspiration for Moaning Myrtle was the frequent presence of a crying girl in communal bathrooms, especially at the parties and discos of my youth. This does not seem to happen in male bathrooms, so I enjoyed placing Harry and Ron in such uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The character is about the bathroom.

Which makes me think I have a better answer for the name change, Wanda to Myrtle. It comes from two of Rowling’s favorite writers: Dickens and Nabokov. 

Lolita 4I’ve been reading a lot about Nabokov criticism lately. The funniest book I’ve read is Nabokov, Perversely by Eric Nauman. In the chapter on Lolita he reveals all the embedded French-to-English word play that Humbert Humbert, whose native language is French, indulges in, all of which reflect his obsession with sex (and, oddly enough, Shakespeare). If you don’t know the meaning of con in French, for example, that Humbert uses an English word with that prefix every other sentence, often in pairs, goes right by you (John raises hand).

Do you think Rowling, Nabokovian close-reader that she is and fluent in French, missed those jokes?

Me, neither.

Yesterday my son Timothy was telling me at dinner that Dickens wasn’t especially subtle with his cryptonyms. He’s reading Little Dorrit and has heard my talks often enough that he knows the word ‘Dickensian’ is almost always followed by ‘cryptonym’ with some fun examples. I asked him for the drop dead obvious character’s name in Dorrit. “Mr. Merdle.”

Mr Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, ‘Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?’ And, the reply being in the negative, had said, ‘Then I won’t look at you.’

This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest of crimson and gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom to repose upon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr Merdle wanted something to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for the purpose. Storr and Mortimer might have married on the same speculation.

Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The jewels showed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Society approving, Mr Merdle was satisfied. He was the most disinterested of men,–did everything for Society, and got as little for himself out of all his gain and care, as a man might. Charles Dickens, Book the First: Poverty, Chapter 21: Mr Merdle’s Complaint

Okay, I cede the point. I had to agree that naming a bad guy  like Merdel “Mr Shit-el,” merde having that meaning in French, was not an especially opaque or obscure puzzle-name.

But given Rowling’s facility in French, love of Dickens, and familiarity with Nabokovian embedding of Francophone humor, I think we have an explanation for why she decided the ghost-girl-in-the-loo would be named ‘Myrtle’ rather than ‘Wanda.’

‘Myrtle’ is assonant with ‘Merdle’ and, if she isn’t a despicable character, I think we are meant to laugh at this ghost and her choice to forever reside in the girl’s bathrooms at Hogwarts.

Case closed? Let me know what you think. 

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’d like to hear some dialectological discussion of this… when and where are those vowels how like each other, those dentals voiced or unvoiced?

    The botanical dimension may offer its own complexities… As the English “Myrtus” Wikipedia article notes, “The name ‘myrtle’ is also used in common names (vernacular names) of unrelated plants in several other genera” – which, or even how many, of these, might be involved, in what ways? ‘Crape myrtle’ (Lagerstoemia), which can be deep purple and might by name and colour evoke crape as used for mourning dress (with a secondary visual wordplay on ‘crape’/’crap’?)? ‘Creeping myrtle’ (Vinca) because she is ‘creeping’, and clingy (Vinca from vincire, ‘to bind, vetter’), and invasive, even inclining to being something like choking, perhaps with Venusian cross-reference (and with extra, curious (punning?) possibilities as ‘periwinkle’ (from pervinca) names the same plant)?

    Probably not with any reference to the ‘Star-spangled Banner’ being sung to the tune, ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’…

  2. I am reminded that the bad-guy adopted father in ‘David Copperfield’ is named Murdstone.

    Not as assonant with Myrtle as Merdel, granted, but I think the Dickens scatalogical point is made.

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