Another Dorothy Sayers Hat Tip and More

Life is too short, frankly, even to try to keep up with the conversations on hundreds of Harry Potter fan web sites, though no doubt there is great value for serious readers that is hiding on the bigger electronic bulletin boards. I am happy and have to be content, given my priorities and projects, with staying current with the goings on here and at The Hogs Head.

Fortunately, friends of this blog often share with me the jewels they have found on other sites. This morning Bob Trexler sent me a posting by Chris at the always interesting and challenging Harry Potter for Seekers yahoo discussion group. The mavens there — and these are very serious readers and students of literary alchemy — are working their way through Deathly Hallows chapter by chapter and have made it to ‘The Muggle-Born Registration Commission’ and Harry’s adventure in the Ministry of Magic.

Chris’ post is worth reading in full (you may have to join the yahoo group to follow that link) but I share the conclusion here to get at three points made there: the reference to Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night (I look forward to Inked’s reaction to this hat tip), the idea of Harry as noetic or spiritual discerning eye, and the thought that ‘Mary Elizabeth’ Cattermole is rescued because of her testifying truthfully in the heart of darkness.

An excerpt from the conclusion to Chris’ post at Harry Potter for Seekers:

Harry instinctively does the right thing. Choosing to look for the locket at the Ministry of Magic, rather than at Umbridge’s home, responding to Mr Weasley in the lift, in the courtroom when he realises what is about to happen to Mary Cattermole and, as Alice points out, as they make their escape in the lifts. He is always awake to the full range of possibilities offered by each moment. He has great presence of mind, which enables him to make the right decision instinctively. This is because he isn’t always indulging in thought: he simply pays attention, and so the whole of his perception chooses the right action each time, not just the little part of it that can be spared from the chatter that goes on continually inside most people’s heads. We rarely see him indulging in that kind of thinking at all, and it shows in the results he achieves.

Incidentally, Cattermole is the name of a character in Dorothy Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, and in that novel Cattermole is also someone who lacks the courage to free herself from the situation she finds herself in, similarly driven there through pressure from others who are seeking self-gratification. The heroine of the story (in that case, rather than the hero) points out to her what she should do to change her situation, in order to escape. A similar parallel, another ‘god in the machine’ showing the path to freedom.

Harry is moved to help Mary Cattermole because she is quite clearly innocent and truthful in her story at the trial, whereas Umbridge the Inquisitor, Harry recognises, is not, lying about the origin of the locket. This contrast moves him to action where the plight of the would-be son of Arkie Alderton does not. It isn’t the underdog that is being saved here, but truth that is being rewarded. ‘Arkie Alderton Junior’ is meeting corruption with corruption, whereas Mary Elizabeth (the two Biblical New Testament cousins, by the way) is meeting corruption with innocence and purity.

The plight of the Ministry of Magic has been brought about because minor corruption leads to greater corruption. If the magical civil servants of the Ministry had been ‘good and faithful’ servants instead of taking advantage of their positions in the Ministry to feather their own nests in one way or another, then Voldemort’s supporters would never have been able to gain a foothold, let alone the reins of government. A tiny amount of corruption grows, and is enough to bring down the whole edifice eventually. And this is why the trio have to abandon Grimmauld Place when Yaxley gains a foothold in it. An equivalent to the Biblical ‘Come out of her, oh My people’ is going on here, and the trio find themselves, like the Israelites, leaving Grimmauld Place, the equivalent of ‘Egypt,’ for the camping trip, the equivalent of the desert.

Again, let me say that if this is any representation of the quality of posts at other sites, what a wealth of good discussion and insights I am missing! Thank you to Bob Trexler for sharing this with me and to Hans at Harry Potter for Seekers for hosting this excellent conversation. Please share your thoughts on Chris’ ideas and feel free to let us know about other sites and conversations where you find online insights.


  1. Cattermole! I’m having one of those “smack myself (gently) in the head” moments. I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in the Wimsey-Vane novels by Sayers, and reading some good secondary literature on Sayers. My recent re-read of Gaudy Night left me in awe of Sayers’ craftsmanship. I hadn’t read the book in years, and this time just seemed like the “right time” for me — I was incredibly moved by it on all sorts of levels.

    But I completely missed the Cattermole connection to HP & The Deathly Hallows, probably because it’s now been well over a year since I’ve done a full read-through of DH. I don’t think I’ve read the ministry scenes in full since my second read-through of the book, not long after it first came out. I do think there are some parallels between the characters (though I’ll be interested to hear what Inked says too) and certainly, if nothing else, it seems to be yet one more ‘homage’ Rowling is paying to her favorite writers, this time Sayers, a la Mrs. Norris, her naming “hat tip” to Austen. (I wonder how many writers love to slip in these little homages via character names…Madeleine L’Engle, in her Austin books, uses the name “Mr. Rochester” for the family’s Great Dane…)

    I can’t recall if we learn anything definitive about Cattermole’s ultimate fate in DH. If it’s any consolation, we’re given some definitive hints in Gaudy Night that Sayers’ Cattermole eventually finds some measure of happiness.

  2. There is another Sayers reference in the name of Romilda Vane (Harriet Vane). In Strong Poison, Harriet is falsely accused of arsenical poisoning as part of a love affair gone wrong. Romilda gives Harry cauldron cakes that she’s “poisoned” with a love potion, which indirectly leads to Ron’s actual poisoning!

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