Beatrice Groves: Rowling Family Mottos

This is the fourth in a series of four ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

In my final post about Rowling’s choice to display of the badge of the Murray clan –following the themes of Scottishness and heraldry, naming, blood and belonging it evokes – we turn to the motto with which it is inscribed: ‘Tout prêt’ (Old French for ‘quite ready’). Although no heraldic mottos appear in the actual text of Harry Potter there are three mottos closely associated with the Wizarding World: the Black family motto, Hogwarts’s motto and, most recently, the Lestrange family motto. This blogpost will explore these three, very different, mottos and, satisfyingly, all three have some piquant parallels with the mottos of Scottish Clans.

‘Toujours pur’ and pithy mottos

Rowling become a Murray when she married Neil Murray on 26 Dec 2001. Phoenix was published in 2003, while her hand-drawn family tree of ‘The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’ did not appear until 2006 – so the Black motto (‘Toujours pur’) could easily be coloured by the motto of the clan which she had recently joined. ‘Tout prêt/prest’ (quite ready) and ‘Toujours pur’ (always pure) are both of the – admittedly very common -punchy, two-word form. More unusually they are both in the traditional heraldic language of French (while most British mottos favour Latin or English).

It is clear, at least, that Rowling closely modelled the Black family motto on real heraldic mottos. Scanning Debrett’s I found a number of close parallels, such as ‘Toujours propice’ (always propitious), and even ‘Toujours prest’ (always ready) – which forms a ‘link’ motto between the Black motto ‘Toujours pur’ and the Murray motto ‘Tout prest’. (Debrett’s also records the deeply Snape-like motto of simply ‘Toujours’ [always].)

The idea that Rowling might include a nod to the Murray motto in the Black motto seems odd but it is of a piece with her well-known penchant for including ‘personal passwords’ within her work: ‘when I need a date or number, I use something that relates to my personal life. I do not know why I do that, it’s a tic. Harry’s birthday is mine, for example. The numbers and dates that appear in the books relate to me’ [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, p 141]. The idea is also strengthened by her recent – somewhat startling – inclusion of a family member in an even more Death Eaterish family tree. The Lestrange family tree forms an important plot focus in Crimes of Grindelwald – it is the bait that takes Leta, Newt and Tina to the Lestrange Mausoleum (and hence Grindelwald’s rally). The Rowling Library has recently noted that one member visible on this family tree – Salomé Volant – shares her name with Rowling’s great-great-grandmother [cf., The Rowling Library Magazine, issue 31 2019, pp.6-7]

‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus’ and practical mottos

The most important motto of the Wizarding World is, of course, the Hogwarts School motto. This paratext, appearing on the title page of every Harry Potter novel on an escroll beneath the Hogwarts coat of arms (and in the foreword to the Fantastic Beasts (2001) spin-off book), famously reads: ‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus’ (‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’).

It is a phrase that appears to contain more than a passing nod to Tolkien: ‘Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo, you fool! he said to himself, and it became a favourite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb’ (Hobbit, Chap 12). (This seems particularly close as proverbial phrases are very much the same linguistic register as mottos). Rowling has never mentioned this parallel, but she has spoken about the motto twice at length in interview:

You know the way that most school slogans are things like ‘Persevere’ and ‘Nobility, Charity and Fidelity’ or something – it just amused me to give an entirely practical piece of advice for the Hogwarts school motto.

Then a friend of mine who is a professor of Classics – my Latin was not up to the job (I did not think it should be cod Latin – it is good enough for cod Latin spells, that is, they used to be a mixture of Latin and other things). When it came to a proper Latin slogan for the school I wanted it to be right. I went to him and asked him to translate. I think he really enjoyed it, he rang me up and said, ‘I think I found the exactly right word, “Titillandus”’ – that was how that was dreamt up. 

Five years earlier, she gave a similar description:

Stephen Fry: And names like that. Even the school crest is something which is rather fun for those of us who have done a bit of Latin. For instance: “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” – it’s sort of like “Let sleeping dogs lie”, but it is “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”.

JKR: “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”, exactly.

SF: Which is fine advice.

JKR: I wanted good practical advice. All the schools I’ve ever been to or taught in have mottos: “Persevere”, “Onwards and Upwards”. I wanted good, solid, practical advice for Hogwarts.1

(It is interesting that Rowling gives ‘Persevere’ as an example in both interviews, despite their being five years apart: I suspect it means that if we were able to track down the school motto of either St Michael’s Primary School or Wydean Comprensive it would indeed turn out to be ‘Persevere.’)

Latin imparts both grandeur and pithiness which is why it remains a popular choice for mottos – and given how germane Latin is to both Rowling’s magical world, and to mottos in general, it makes sense that she should have taken care over a Latin motto for Hogwarts. (It also fits with the fictional foundation of Hogwarts: educational institutions founded a thousand years ago all have Latin mottos and more modern ones tend to follow suit – Rowling’s own University of Exeter has ‘Lucem sequimur’ (we follow the light))

Probably the second most famous school motto in Britain, is also in Latin. Eton was founded a little after Hogwarts (in 1440) and is, of course, the only real school that appears in Harry Potter. Justin Finch-Fletchley tells the trio: ‘my name was down for Eton, you know. I can’t tell you how glad I am I came here instead’ (Chamber, Chap 6). Eton’s motto is Floreat Etona – already famous in children’s literature as the dying words of Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s original play of Peter Pan. As David Mitchell writes:

Eton College’s most admirable attribute, I’ve long thought, is its motto. A Latin phrase, but not one that would have been familiar to the Romans, Floreat Etona translates as “May Eton flourish”. Contractually speaking, that’s watertight. No bombast and no virtue-signalling. Good luck anyone saying that particular institution has hypocritically betrayed its aims or principles.2

The solipsism of this motto is perfectly encapsulated by Barrie’s use of it as Hook’s dying words and Hogwarts’s motto (intentionally or un) is a kind of inversion of it. Hogwarts’s motto humourously addresses children to their own benefit – instead of asking them to lay down their allegiance on the altar of the school, it suggests that the school is there to serve its pupils. It is there not to be served by the children but to teach them to be wise, to teach them (at least) not to be the kind of idiot that tickles sleeping dragons.

It has been argued – in most depth by Nancy Solon Villaluz in her Does Harry Potter Tickle Sleeping Dragons? (2008) – that Rowling has used the obvious humour of this motto to hide in plain sight a hint about the Christian symbolism of her series. C.S. Lewis spoke of using story to ‘steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood’ – and the name he gives to these inhibitions is ‘watchful dragons:’ ‘could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could’ (Of Other Worlds, 1966). Given Rowling’s debt to Lewis – and the fact that she, like Lewis, is using story to renew the potency of religious archetypes for her readers – this is an appealing reading. (Even if the difference between ‘sleeping’ and ‘watchful’ dragons means that I don’t think it is a parallel that will convince anyone who is not already taken by the argument.)

What I don’t think has been noted before, however, is that Hogwarts’s motto may show some influence of Rowling’s move to Scotland as she was writing Philosopher’s Stone. For a number of Clan mottos are striking close to the basic – ‘don’t provoke dangerous animals’ – school of ‘good, solid, practical advice’ that Rowling claims to be at the heart of her motto. The Clan Mackintosh motto, for example, is: ‘Touch not the cat bot a glove’ (‘Don’t touch this cat unless you you’re wearing gloves’). Clan MacGillivray’s motto is an even more pared down version of the same motto: ‘Touch not this cat.’

In both cases the mottos are, in fact, boasting about the Clan’s strength – proclaiming them to be a wildcat only a fool would mess with. But taken out of context the general vibe of ‘don’t tease wild animals with sharp claws you idiot’ has some clear links with Rowling’s choice of humourous motto. As mentioned above there are clear parallels between the Murray Clan motto ‘Tout prêt’ and the Black motto ‘Toujours pur,’ which she probably thought up a year or two after joining that Clan. But it seems possible that many years before, when she had first moved to Scotland, she may have been influenced by Clan mottos about leaving dangerous animals well alone. ‘Touch not this cat’ may well lie behind ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon.’

‘Corvus oculum corvi non eruit’ and equivocal mottos

A raven tops the Lestrange achievement of arms (technically in heraldry this is known as the ‘crest,’ though this term is used by most people – Harry Potter among them – to mean the coat of arms as a whole). In Crimes of Grindelwald Leta notes that ‘the raven’s my family’s emblem’ – but ravens are not only the dominant symbol of her family, but of the whole of the film. Corvus – whose identity is the riddle at the centre of the film’s plot – is Latin for ‘raven’ (the common raven is Corvus corax) and both Leta’s father and her lost brother share the name. Satisfyingly – given all the star and constellation names in the pure blood families of Harry Potter – Corvus is also a constellation (located in the southern sky, it was first catalogued by Ptolemy in the second century and was probably so-named because it does not contain many bright stars.)

The Lestrange Mausoleum is marked by ‘a stone raven on the lintel’ and this is why Grindelwald’s shrouds are marked with a raven – in order to call his followers to the rally beneath the Mausoleum. Grindelwald’s use of the raven, however, – given Harry Potter’s insistent linking of him with Nazi imagery – also recalls the black heraldic eagle (the Reichsadler) most famously used by the German coat of arms under the Third Reich.3 The Lestrange raven is also read, by Yusuf Kama at least, as present in The Predictions of Tycho Dodonus (the book that functions as a parallel for Trelawney’s Prophecy in Crimes of Grindelwald):

“A son cruelly banished

Despair of the daughter

Return, great avenger

With wings from the water.”

Kama reads this as referring to Corvus: ‘You are the winged raven returned from the sea’ (though we can note in passing that this reading is entirely muddled – Kama believes himself to be the avenger, and therefore it is Kama who should be ‘winged’ not Corvus [might that black feather in Kama’s fedora turn out to be relevant here?]).

The Lestrange motto also circles the symbol of the raven. ‘Corvus oculum corvi non eruit’ is an old Latin saying meaning ‘a raven will not pull out the eye of another raven:’ the Latin equivalent of the English saying ‘honour amongst thieves.’ It is a great motto, simultaneously incorporating the Lestrange raven emblem into a real Latin phrase and recalling the unswerving loyalty of the most famous Lestrange to another black-hearted character (Bellatrix and Voldemort). It also accurately expresses a certain aloof disdain which is something of a hallmark for heraldic mottos which often proudly display a trait which might otherwise not seem a matter for pride.

Many famous mottos have this surprisingly equivocal vibe. The highest honour that the English crown can bestow, for example, is the Order of the Garter. It is an honour that sounds slightly risqué and the story told about its inception makes it clear that this is not just a modern misapprehension. The motto of the Order of the Garter is ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘Shame be on him who thinks it’). In the legend of the founding of this order, Edward III was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury when her garter fell to the floor; and when courtiers laughed suggestively as he stooped to pick it up, he gave this retort. Shakespeare’s motto ‘Non sanz droict’ (‘Not without right’) is another of these equivocal mottos, underlining, with almost embarrassing obviousness, that he has very little right to his arms above the fact that he has paid for them.

The Lestrange’s motto’s proud consciousness of what others might consider faults, however, perhaps most clearly recalls the motto of the Clan that, in 2005, Rowling discovered was part of her own blood line. In August 2005 it was reported that Rowling had recently been informed that her biological great-grandfather was:

Dugald Campbell, an adventurous doctor, born at Lamlash, on the isle of Arran, in 1858, who later travelled to Hawaii, where he helped to establish a free health service for all. The discovery has prompted Rowling to visit the Campbell family burial plot on the island and to e-mail historians in Hawaii seeking information about her great-grandfather. 

The Campbells have, shall we say, a chequered history in relation to some other Clans and their motto is a proud reference to this history: ‘Ne Obliviscaris’ (‘Do not forget’). This motto appears to be an intentional riposte to those who might consider that the Campbells would be glad to forget aspects of their history, though it is explained by the current Duke of Argyll with admirable diplomacy as: ‘we have taken great pride in our achievements, yet are conscious of our mistakes, something reflected in our family motto ‘Ne Obliviscaris’.’ The equivocal pride of the Lestrange motto is very much in the tradition of the Campbell motto – a motto we can assume that would have caught Rowling’s eye when she learnt of her own connection with the Clan.

One final motto to end with – from Rowling’s third clan connection. Rowling has married into the Murray Clan, she has discovered a blood-connection with the Campbells – but she has also chosen to make her alter-ego, Robert Galbraith, a member of a third Clan. In a previous blogpost I have described how well the meaning of the name Galbraith works for Rowling [‘Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Scotland‘]. But Clan Galbraith also has a fantastic motto for a writer. For the Galbraith motto is unique (?) among Scottish clans in being derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

This is particularly pleasing given Rowling’s fondness for this poem, which has left its fingerprints all over Harry Potter [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter] and appears, likewise to be behind some of the mythological symbolism in Strike. The Galbraith motto is:

AB OBICE SUAVIOR which translates from Latin as “gentler because of the obstruction”. The motto is derived from a phrase in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses “ab obice saevior” (“fiercer because of the obstruction”, describing a river which when dammed only flowed more violently), but inverted by changing “saevior” (“fiercer”) for “suavior” (“gentler”), according to John D. Christie, reflecting the bear’s muzzle on the heraldic crest.

The motto itself seems to be interestingly, and unusually, equivocal with some Galbraiths choosing ‘AB OBICE SUAVIOR’ (‘Gentler Because of the Obstruction’) and others ‘AB OBICE SAEVIOR’ (‘Fiercer Because of the Obstruction’.’

The phrase comes from Book 3 (ll.528-571) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Pentheus objects to Dionysius’s appearance in Thebes:

His grandfather, Cadmus, his uncle, Athamas, and the rest of his advisors reprove his words, and try in vain to restrain him. He is only made more eager by their warning, and his rage is maddened and grows with restraint, and he is provoked by their objections. So I have seen a river, where nothing obstructs its passage, flow calmly and with little noise, but rage and foam wherever trees and obstacles of stone held it back, fiercer for the obstruction.

Pentheus’s fury will not end well (see Euripides’s Bacchae if you want to know quite how badly). Given this source the Galbraith Clan seems wise to shift the belligerent ‘Fiercer because of the obstruction’ to the more peaceable ‘Gentler because of the obstruction’ – but that does make it a very unusually irenic motto. ‘Get in my way and I’ll be nice about it’ is very much not the usual tenor of heraldic mottos.

Whether or not Rowling looked up the Galbraith motto before choosing her new name, it is satisfying that the motto of her nom de plume – a new identity behind which she hoped to hide – can be read in two diametrically opposed ways. Given her clear interest in heraldic mottos – shown through all the mottos discussed above – it seems plausible that she would have either known, or at least checked out, the Galbraith Clan motto. Her pen name’s motto has unimpeachably literary credentials – drawn from one of the great classical epics, and telling the story that inspired Euripides’s greatest tragedy.

1 Fry, Stephen. “Launch Day interview aboard the Hogwarts Express,” Bloomsbury Press, July 8, 2000.

3 The raven also links the Lestrange coat of arms with MinaLima’s version of the Black coat of arms in the film of Phoenix (2007) which, oddly, does not tally with that drawn by Rowling in 2006 but does include three crows/ravens: )


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    What a subtly-seasoned feast! Thank you!

    The ‘practicality’ of the Murray motto makes me think of the ‘readiness’ themes in Hamlet and Richard II (as well as what the 1929 COD calls “conjurer’s formulae”) and is a fine contrast with the empty, as it were mechanical, carnal sense of ‘pur’ apparently embraced by generations of Blacks (though clearly not all!). The English-named Blacks with a French motto (in contrast to the French-descended Lestranges) gets me wondering about Wizarding social history – as Wizards, like ‘Muggles’, have nationalities, in how far do they (sometimes) have dual loyalties – would Scottish Blacks look to France as many Scots ‘Muggles’ have, historically, and even include Wizarding Jacobites?

    You make me aware of the possible dimensions of the Hogwarts motto, too – whether the necessity of things like getting past Fluffy, or the inhabitants of the Labyrinth, etc., or (with “Isoroku Yamamoto’s sleeping giant quote” in mind – as its interesting Wikipedia article is entitled) the good-draconian force of apparently ‘mere schoolchildren’ or the occultly faithful Snape.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Quite a tangent, but… while reading just now a book about various civilians’ experiences of the occupied Netherlands as recorded in their diaries, thinking about Queen Wilhelmina’s broadcasts and their effect got me thinking as well about both the broadcasting and ‘Harry & co.’ on the run in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and wondering about any possible play with Jacobite resonances, the toast “The King over the Water” coming to mind, and the fact of Charles Edward Stuart being the last King or Claimant on the run in Britain, and Wikipedia noting that Henry Benedict Thomas Edward Maria Clement Francis Xavier Stuart (1725-1807) was the last of those who “incorporated the arms of England and Scotland in their coats-of-arms”. (Was he ever nicknamed ‘Harry’, I wonder?)

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you David!
    I love your parallel between the Murray motto and Hamlet’s ‘the readiness is all.’ It is indeed a theme that plays on Shakespeare’s mind – with King Lear’s ‘ripeness is all’ being an unusually close echo of his earlier play.
    I think using French for mottos is part of their assertion of venerability – going back to the Anglo Norman roots of much heraldry, rather than ‘Frenchness’ as such. (But it is certainly true that Rowling’s French ancestry has interesting links with her Scottish allegiances.)

  4. MuggleMaestra says

    This was one of the most enjoyable series of articles I’ve read! Thank you for your academic take on Harry Potter! Love it!

  5. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you MuggleMaestra – I am truly delighted.

    You may like to check out my HP blog page at Mugglenet: – I will be posting there about Potter and Monty Python next month for their 50th anniversary.

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I got wondering if the Murray mermaid had any ‘Melusinian’ implications about their supposed descent… The Murray Clan Society of North America makes no mention on its “Badges and Tartans” page of any such thing, emphasizing geography, “Balquhidder was part of the ancient princedom of Strathearn and the heraldic device associated with the district is the mermaid. Sir William de Moravia, married Ada, daughter of Malise, Earl or Seneschal of Strathearn, and, thus, acquired the lands of Tullibardine in that district. The Council of Clan Chiefs designated this crest to be worn by Murray clansmen” and apparently quoting a sadly unnamed source that “The mermaid itself is one of those symbols that can be found carved on ancient Pictish stones”. (It has an interesting discussion of the two Murray “crest badges”, too.) Wikipedia’s “Melusine” article mentions no Murrays, but does note both that Sir Walter Scott “told a Melusine tale in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803)” and that some versions of her history make her daughter of a King of Scotland!

  7. Beatrice Groves says

    Interesting David – satisfyingly enough I am writing something about Melusine and HP at the moment; I’ll keep you posted if anything further turns up along these lines…

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you – I look forward to that! (I thoroughly enjoyed the Oxford University Opera Club performance of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Undine in 1991, and keep meaning to brush up my German by reading Goethe’s ‘Die Neue Melusine’, but have never yet properly embarked on the matter of Melusine and related lore.)

  9. Brian Basore says

    I think there is a parallel between Parseltongue and Scottish Gaelic, which may be why there is some general discomfort in the presence of either in the U. K.

    Note the fear that rose when Harry first spoke Parseltongue at Hogwarts. It was funny for the reader when the Python at the zoo recognized Harry and spoke to him, but not later to the people at Hogwarts when Harry slid, so to speak, into Parseltongue in the presence of that other snake during the dueling club exhibition.

    This may be a reflection of the situation of the now passing generation that spoke only Gaelic until going to schools where they had to speak English at all times, on pain of punishment. Families with two parents able to speak Gaelic, which they did not pass on to their children, having absorbed the idea that to get on in life they must speak only English. The kids in those families, I am told, generally did regard Gaelic much as Parseltongue, a scary secret language for things they didn’t understand or were not supposed to know.

    Was JKR aware of this phenomenon in Scotland (and Canada) when she was planning the Harry Potter books?

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