Dickensian Names and Victorian Sensibilities

On Thursday night last week, James Thomas, Travis Prinzi, and I, the Potter Pundits collectively, did our first live PotterCast program with video feed. It was a lot of fun, as always, with the usual laughs, insights, interruptions, and graciousness of three friends talking about books they love.

The format of the show, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you feel about listening to some one else talk at length), does not allow any of us to explore any particular topic at much depth. We’re volleying like a three-way tennis match rather than running marathons solo. I hope this week, consequently, to write out two or three things about names here that I could only touch on in the show last Thursday before we veered off what I was trying to get at (to talk about goblin names and flower references and other fascinating stuff we had to squeeze in).

Before I do that, though, I wanted to share a wonderful letter I received this week on the subject of names from Miriam Greenwald (great name!). She’s reading Harry Potter’s Bookshelf and wrote to share what I think is a key insight about the humor and satirical quality of Mrs. Rowling’s names most Americans almost certainly don’t ‘get.’

Without further ado and with her permission, here is Ms. Greenwald’s edifying epistle:

Hello! I’m currently reading your book, “Harry Potter’s Bookshelf” and thoroughly enjoying it. I had some thoughts that I’d like to share with you about satire and English and American sensibilities.

I’ve just finished your chapter on satire, and I was thinking about some comments a friend of mine had made about the Harry Potter series. She said that she didn’t like the series because she found it “too cute”.

I think, on reflection, that she was referring to things like the Blithering Humdinger, or whatever that creature that Luna believed in was called. There are many other creatures with these slightly ridiculous names, and many references in the history of magic to ridiculous names – Barney the Barmy, Mafalda Hopkirk, etc. etc. etc.

As I was thinking about this, I realized that a lot of the ridiculous names in the series that my friend found too cute, and that I thought were funny, came from a very English sense of humor that is a slap in the face to the stiff-upper-lip, Victorian sensibility. In a society that values correctness, appearances, and surface over substance, ridiculous names, and undignified situations are, of course, hilarious.

And the furthest extension of this slap in the face is comedy like Monty Python, which I think is unintelligible to someone not familiar with Victorian sensibility and its extension all the way into the 1950’s and 60’s. There is a long history of this kind of humor, from Gulliver’s Travels to Jeeves the butler in English literature.

American society has never had such an attachment to formality and to correct form, and so to someone not familiar with it, those things in Harry Potter are just bizarre, and jarring, and “cutesy”. Americans had similar ‘correctness’ issues in the nineteenth century, but they weren’t deeply rooted in our culture, and faded away much more quickly. Our much shorter history and lack of feudal roots contrasts sharply with English history and society. America bypassed that whole thing and started with the Enlightenment!

Thanks for letting me ramble on about this. I’ve really appreciated your insight into the Harry Potter series and will continue to read and follow your blog on the Internet!


Miriam Greenwald

John, again: Really, the best part of being a Potter Pundit is the conversations you have with serious readers on fascinating subjects! Thank you, Ms. Greenwald, for writing this.

My questions for the HogPro All-Pros are:

(1) Is the humor of the names in Harry Potter largely their being a Punch and Judy poke at stuffed shirts?

(2) Is it harder for Americans to get this (and impossible for us to reproduce) because we don’t have feudalism at the root of our anti-culture/culture?

(3) Have you met readers like Ms. Greenwald’s friends who found the burlesque and overblown names “too cutesy”?

Comments and corrections, please!


  1. Arabella Figg says

    Yes on #1, having read many British novels (including period novels). Rowling has been a whiz at farce, especially applying razor wit in her names. Although some are silly for silliness’ sake, and others droll, this is not the same as cutesy.

    I’d agree on #2. I think our farcical names tend to be in the political, rather than social, arena.

    No on #3, because (sadly) I only know four people who have read HP; they love the books and are sophisticated enough to appreciate the farce.

  2. I’ve heard people online complain about the names, but never anyone that I actually know. It always takes me by surprise, because the I get such a kick out of what looks to me like naming genius. But I think I’ve enjoyed it as wordplay, not as a mockery of formality.

    I’d agree that America has less context for that resistance against all things proper. Which makes me suddenly curious why so much of American popular culture seems to be a similar resistance (e.g.: rebellion is cool, rules are bad, tradition is evil.) Maybe, as Arabella said, it’s primarily political rather than social. The two things aren’t entirely divorced, but it has at least been a long time since the middle and lower classes had much of a construct for manners.

    Arabella, you only know four people who have read HP? Wow. I was floored a couple of weeks ago because two people in my writers’ group hadn’t read the books.

  3. Elizabeth says

    I do have one friend who seemed to think HP rather “precious,” but it seems to me that those with that perspective are often afraid of looking cute themselves, and think, “well, I can’t seem to like this stuff; I have to like edgy, meaningless modern stuff” or stuff that seems cooler because it isn’t so cute.

    Certainly the name business can be too much, but it’s not always the Brits doing it (although good old Ian Fleming certainly has some groaners, including all those Bond women whose names I can’t even type for wincing, or even the heroine of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang–Truly Scrumptious, eek!) Case in point, Lemony Snicket’s names, which are, to a degree charming, but after a while, a little more “wink wink nudge nudge” than I care for– to bring in Monty Python, again.

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