Mail Bag: GB Shaw Hat Tip in ‘Deathly Hallows’?

It’s ‘answer the mail’ time here at Hogwarts Professor! Today, there is a letter with a question about a possible tip-of-the-hat in story to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the theory that Harry is a ‘mythic hero’ a la Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and some reviews of my books now online.

‘NikeNipter’ wrote that he caught the following while surfing at The Leaky Cauldron (posted by Remus Lonno):

“Speaking of Deathly Hallows (and by ‘speak,’ I mean ramble on a bit.), I happened to switch to the TCM channel just now and ‘My Fair Lady’ is on. I haven’t seen it in years!

At Higgins’s, Liza mentions that she’s from Tottenham Court Road. and I thought, “wait a minute.” I had to check to make sure, but that’s where Hermione brings Ron and Harry from the wedding. Hmm.

And with her early catchphrase “I’m a good girl, I am!”, Liza reminds me strongly of Winky.”

Let’s look at the evidence for and against the Tottenham Court Road reference being a hat tip to Shaw’s Pygmalion or the musical My Fair Lady.

In the “pro” column, I think you’d have to count that Tottenham Court Road is a real place in London and that it is mentioned in Shaw’s Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, and Deathly Hallows (page 161, ‘A Place to Hide’). Just following the Wikipedia links:

Pygmalion Act Four

Higgins’ laboratory – The time is midnight, and Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza have returned from the ball. Pickering congratulates Higgins on winning the bet. As they retire to bed, Higgins asks where his slippers are, and on returning to his room Eliza throws them at him. The remainder of the scene is about Eliza not knowing what she is going to do with her life, and Higgins not understanding her difficulty. Higgins says she could get married, but Eliza interprets this as selling herself like a prostitute. “We were above that at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.” Finally she returns her jewelery to Higgins, including the ring he had given her, as though she is cutting her ties with him, but retrieves it from the hearth.

And the real Tottenham Court Road has a Wikipedia entry, too.

Tottenham Court Road is a road in Central London, England, running from St Giles’ Circus (the junction of Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road) north to Euston Road, near the border of the City of Westminster and the London Borough of Camden. The road is one-way; all three lanes are northbound only.

The south end of the road is very close to the British Museum and Centre Point, the West End’s tallest building. The road is served by three stations on the London Underground – from south to north these are: Tottenham Court Road, Goodge Street and Warren Street.

The road is featured briefly in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling as well as Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Saturday by Ian McEwan, and in several Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Which brings us to the reasons to disregard this as a hat tip to Shaw. It might just as well be a reference to Wolfe, McEwan, Conan Doyle, or the other literary, movie, and cultural referents to this very busy spot in London. And I cannot think of a good connection between Deathly Hallows or this scene precisely and Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle, her origins, or the scene in Act Four where she mentions Tottenham Court Road. Even the Pygmalion myth leaves me scratching my head looking for a connection. Sure, Harry’s story is one of personal transformation and, at a reach, the alchemical power of speech, but isn’t Tottenham Square Road a great pick by Hermione as a place to get lost in a crowd?

My only hesitation in dismissing this as a “sounds-like-therefore-must-be” bit of fallacious literary detective work is the link Travis Prinzi has made undeniable (after Colbert’s find) between members of the Order of the Phoenix and the Fabian Society of Edwardian England and later. Yes, Shaw was a Fabian. If you’ve heard Mr. Prinzi talk on this subject or read his posts on this subject, you don’t dismiss connections like this out of hand.

But, yes, I think it’s a reach, stretch, and non-starter, even with the Fabian Society booster. I welcome your correction. The ‘Winky is Eliza’ possibility is for y’all to consider on your own; I don’t see it.

Next item.

Forgive me but I’m not a Joseph Campbell fan. It might have been something Prof. Jonathan Zittel Smith said to me at the University of Chicago when I was an undergraduate, if I don’t remember anything specific. I met with him several times while wrestling with Pico’s Heptaplus (I knew him because he was Dean of the College and I was a Student Gov’t wonk). In a recent interview, Prof. Smith was asked about his disagreements with Campbell:

SS: I know one of the people you’ve criticized is [religion scholar] Joseph Campbell. What’s it like to take on big fish like that?

JS: He was a good friend, so that makes it easier in a way. He could drink like a fish. He could recite Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake in a fake droll for hours. Of course, who knew if he was right or wrong half the time, but nonetheless he could do it. And since he wrote the skeleton key to Finnegan’s Wake, I presume he probably does in fact know it…. Joe makes it all easy! All myths are one! Well, see, I think that’s terrible. I really do. If that’s all it is, if all myths tell the story of a hero who at a certain stage in his life blah blah blah blah, why read more than one?

As Smith has written most of the Encyclopedia Brittanica articles on Ancient Religion and almost single-handedly brought Frazer’s Golden Bough off the shelf of to-be-venerated works of scholarship, this isn’t criticism to be disregarded as off handedly as Smith offers it. Anyone researching the intellectual background to Campbell’s Hero, though, finds the comparative mythology behind the hero’s journey to be have been covered and perhaps done better by Vladimir Propp, Lord Ragland, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Heinrich Zimmer. The Cult of Campbell is a little much, however insightful his work no doubt is. Though my discussion of Harry’s annual journey centers on how it differs from Campbell’s formula and is consonant with Eliade’s ideas and Rowling’s artistry, I doubt the subject would be open for public comment except for Campbell’s popular work on the subject.

Which is about all I have to say in response to the question: “What do you think of this website’s proposal of a New World Mythology centered on Harry Potter and the ideas of Joseph Campbell?” I look forward to reading what more objective and sanguine readers of Campbell think of the site.

Today I was sent a link to this weblog with a review of How Harry Cast His Spell:

Finally, a book about Harry Potter, written from a Christian perspective, that doesn’t just get into hysterical anti-witchcraft paranoia! This is a revision of Granger’s earlier book, Looking for God in Harry Potter, which was published before the final Potter book was released last year. So this new edition reviews all seven of Rowling’s books, and situates the Harry Potter story in the context of the Christian (yes, Christian) English literary tradition. Granger makes the case that Christians need to regard all the oogie-boogie elements of Potter-world (the witchcraft, magic, etc.) as simply a literary device — that the real point behind these books is the struggle of good versus evil, the meaning of sacrifice, and the postmodern condition of trying to find faith in a world that does not support it. Granger deftly points out how Rowling uses not only Christian allegorical symbolism, but alchemical symbolism throughout the series, and makes the case that the “alchemy” of Harry Potter is a grand metaphor for the Christian spiritual life. It’s engaging and easy to read, and shows once and for all that Rowling deserves to be classified alongside Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as Britain’s leading authors of Christian-friendly fantasy literature.

Thank you, Carl McColman!

And Dr. Amy Sturgis, friend of this blog and Inklings scholar, wrote a review of The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor explains Harry Potter’s Last Adventure on the book’s page:

5.0 out of 5 stars Taking the Deathly Hallows Seriously!, October 19, 2008
By Dr. Amy H. Sturgis (Granite Falls, NC, USA) – See all my reviews

John Granger has provided a gift for those of us who take the Harry Potter series as a whole, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in particular, seriously. The Deathly Hallows Lectures includes the following chapters: INTRODUCTION: Learning the Passwords for the Magical Paintings on Display, CH. 1 UNLOCKING DEATHLY HALLOWS: Five Keys to Open the Last and Best Harry Potter Novel, CH. 2 THE ALCHEMICAL END GAME: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as Rubedo, CH. 3 CHOOSING TO BELIEVE: The Christian Content of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, CH. 4 SNAPE’S GREEN-EYED GIRL: Dante, Renaissance Florence, and the Death of the Potions Master, Ch. 5 THE SEEING EYE: Deathly Hallows’ Eye and Mirror Symbolism, CH. 6 TAKING HARRY SERIOUSLY: Learning to Read with Triangular Vision, CH. 7 THE TRIANGULAR EYE: Reading Deathly Hallows on Three Levels of Meaning, and FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: 31 Questions About the Artistry and Meaning of Deathly Hallows. Not only do these chapters shed new analytical light on the meaning and value of the Harry Potter series as fiction in the tradition of the world’s great literature, but they also teach the reader skills for interpreting stories on the surface, moral, and alchemical levels that he or she can employ when encountering other works, as well. Granger has a gift for making the abstract accessible, which makes this work ideal for the classroom as well as the home. Those who love literature, intellectual history, and/or Harry Potter owe it to themselves to read The Deathly Hallows Lectures.

Reviews like this, of course, are the proverbial wind in the sails of an author punching out pages… and, yes, they really help sales at Amazon and in bookstores, as well (book buyers refer to the Amazon pages to see what people really think, believe it or not). Thank you, Dr. Sturgis!

That would be all for today’s mail bag, except for a note I received yesterday that deserves its own thread. More next week.


  1. Arabella Figg says

    Re the Tottenham Court Road reference. I agree with you, John. Why you might have to then also consider Goodge Street staion. Folksinger Donovan wrote a song called “Sunny Goodge Street,” an “acidic” flight of gibberish in the vein of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Why, is “firefly platform of Sunny Goodge street” a parallel to Platform 9 3/4?

    If you seek to find some kind of meaning in the most common place names, you’ll be so into “pointless” needles, you’ll never see the trees. Rowling is clever enough with her own place names, such as the Dursleys’ Little Whinging (petty whining/complaint).

    Speaking of complaint, some kitties need fed…

  2. To be a theme or trope, shouldn’t the concept alluded to have a pattern or trail of presentation in the main story? I find that when I read a short story or novel at depth and let my conscious mind free associate during that process, I often get transient flashes or connections which fail to hold up under careful consideration. It’s not that they could not have significance, but let’s face it, as big as London is, it still has a finite series of points in this universe. It is not unlikely therefore that many authors will utilize places in dissimilar works which have only the location in common but not a thematic identity. What I should like to see to gather that one is to make such identifications is a multiple usage or strongly anchored use and series of references that make it more than itself.

    The road mentioned is unknown to me sufficiently that I made no connection even to the other authors’ uses. What I did gather from reading was that it was a most clogged and busy place, a wonderful location to become lost in the crowd. Should JKR have said Picadilly Circus would it have worked as well? Yes, for me at least.

    In contradistinction, the persistent usage of Kings Cross as a location does bear up to deeper meaning because of its pattern and trail through the books. So I would have to say this suggested relationship focused solely on the one time usage is NOT indicative of a hat tip to Shaw. It is a coincidence of locational usage crowded with authors who needed to convey the settings’ useful stage properties only but not indicating a deeper meme.

  3. Remus Lonno says

    I might have implied that Jo Rowling was making a homage to My Fair Lady in Deathly Hallows, but this is precious! Someone actually went to the trouble of doing researching to debunk an idle fancy. Idle fancies are the primary content of my posts on Leaky.

    That’s one dangerous theory put to rest, at least. I wonder what you would have thought of my much more carefully thought out and precisely worded theses on the improbability of Snape being a vampire, and of the equal unlikelihood of Harry dying — also posted on Leaky.

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