Whence ‘Hogwarts’? Rowling, Molesworth, Influence and Intertextuality

Jo Rowling has been quite explicit about the origin of the name of the School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in her Harry Potter novels. In a 2001 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she told us ‘Hogwarts’ comes from a plant she encountered at a public garden:

f39159462Do you put images from your dreams into your books?

Ideas come from all sorts of places and sometimes I don’t realise where I got them from. A friend from London recently asked me if I remembered when we first saw Hogwarts. I had no idea what she was talking about until she recalled the day we went to Kew Gardens and saw those lilies that were called Hogwarts. I’d seen them seven years before and they’d bubbled around in my memory. When Hogwarts occurred to me as a name for the school, I had no idea where it came from.

hogwartsAll well and good, even thought provoking about the interplay of the unconscious memory and the creative mind.

But it is almost certainly rubbish, perhaps even, if your mind works in a pathetic, conspiratorial way, an attempt to deceive.

As early as 2000, critics in the UK were noting that the name ‘Hogwarts’ appeared first in a series of illustrated satires of English Public School life, what we in the States refer to as ‘Prep’ or ‘Boarding Schools,’ collectively called Molesworth.

Unlike his 1990s successor, Harry Potter – the name of Potter’s school, ‘Hogwarts’, is surely derived from ‘The Hogwarts’, a Latin play by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus – Molesworth does not have adventures; instead he daydreams, ruminates and observes. (Thomas Jones, February 2000)

It might be a straight lift, or perhaps it is a remarkable coincidence. But it is certainly the case that Hogwarts, the name of the world famous school for magicians in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, has been used before.

molesworthHogwarts, it turns out, features in one of classic 1950s Molesworth books written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle.

The connection between Harry Potter and Molesworth has been discovered by Oxford classics professor Richard Jenkyns – whose literary scoop appears in this month’s issue of the intellectual magazine Prospect.

In the Molesworth book How to be Topp, says Jenkyns, “there is a cod Latin play, ‘The Hogwarts’, by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus, and Hoggwart is also the name give to the headmaster of Porridge Court, a rival academy. As far as I know, no one has yet noticed this.” There are other parallels. “Even Harry Potter’s appearance, with his round glasses and perpetually untidy hair, seems to be modelled on Molesworth as drawn by Searle,” says Jenkyns. (Jane Robbins, September 2000)

In the context of Harry Potter, the above might call to mind anything from Quidditch matches to a certain Gryffindor with a terrier Patronus. There are many similarities between the Harry Potter novels and Tom Brown, but that novel isn’t the only identifiable influence on Rowling’s series. There is another schoolboy whose educational experience very obviously inspired Rowling—a schoolboy who calls his favorite jokes “wizard wheezes,” who fears brainy and athletic girls with names like Hermione and Millicent, and who was once forced to perform in a Latin play entitled “The Hogwarts.”

 That boy… is Nigel Molesworth.  (Molly Tanzer, June 2015)

molesworth-7As we see, not only Hogwarts comes from Molesworth. The reader of the satirical blunderbuss meets Scrimgouer, Wizard Wheezes, “and brainy girls named Hermione” as well. Are we well beyond the possibility of coincidence?

I think so and I’m not alone. All those quoted above drawing the Molesworth/Potter connection assume, despite Rowling’s assertion to the contrary about where she first encountered the hogswart flower, that Molesworth was something The Presence was very familiar with.

The good news is that there is bullet-proof evidence that Jo Rowling has read, enjoyed, and is not afraid of citing Molesworth as a text she and thoughtful UK readers have in common.

molesworth-8Remember the article she wrote for the University of Exeter Classics Department after the publication of Philosopher’s Stone but before she became a megawatt celebrity? We have discussed this piece here before because it made clear that she was at best a student of ‘Classical Studies’ rather than Classics proper, Latin and Greek language work, and not much of a Hermione, either.

That essay, ‘What was the Name of that Nymph Again?or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled’ appeared in Pegasus: Journal of the University of Exeter Department of Classics and Ancient History (Issue 41, 1998, pp 25-27). As you’d guess, the collector’s item today in fine condition sells for £1750 (that’s $2720 or $1.70 a word for the 1600 word piece). Or you can get a file of Rowling’s brief comic memoir of her time at Exeter via Inter Library Loan as I did.

In it we find these Molesworth references:

I arrived at Exeter enrolled for joint honours French and German, but it soon became apparent to me that what German and I needed was a clean break, with no empty promises about staying friends. It was then that I turned thoughtfully towards the Classics department. Somewhere along those unknown corridors, it was whispered, lurked a subsidiary course which went by the name of “Greek and Roman Studies,” and the word on the street was that one did not need any Greek or Latin to join up. This was fortunate, as my Latin consisted of the word cave, which I had gleaned from the Molesworth books.

1997Rowling is almost certainly being self-effacing here about the rock-bottom quality of her Latin, but it is interesting to note that the Molesworth book in which the Latin play ‘The Hogwarts’ appears, namely, How to be Topp, has an introductory chapter whose title is simply, Cave! (For those without any Latin, Cave! translates as ‘Beware!’)

Here are Rowling’s closing paragraphs:

Dr. Y was wearing his familiar expression of barely suppressed amusement when he told me two years later that I had passed the course. He admitted that given my disastrous first paper he was rather surprised that I had managed it. I sat opposite him feeling that at long last, I had the advantage of him – I was much more surprised than he was.

molesworth-6There is no getting away from the fact that I did not get from the Classics department what Dr. Y and his colleagues set out to give me, but that was my fault, not theirs. On the plus side, the farmers of Devon had no reason to fear me and my bedclothes stayed where they were supposed to. Greek and Roman Studies gave me a few things I value even more highly than my fond memories of The Frogs: two of the best friends I ever made at university, for instance, and the unforgettable experience of being lectured to by a person best known simply as Z. It was Z I had in mind when I created Professor Binns, a minor character in the novel I published last year. More than that I am not prepared to say; we all know how underpaid university lecturers are and I have no wish to be sued.

Perhaps, in the deepest and truest sense, I still don’t really know what Greeks and Romans are, but I’ve never entirely given up hope of lifting a little more fog. A shelf net to me as I tap out these words is dotted with books on Greek mythology, all of which were purchased post-Exeter. And I’m confident I know more than Dr. Y would have credited when I left his office for the last time: enough to inform a pair of bemused four year olds with whom I watched Disney’s latest offering that Heracles definitely didn’t own Pegasus. That was Bellerophon, as any fule kno.

molesworth-4This passage is a ‘keeper’ not only because of Rowling’s wonderful sense of humor and the revelation that Binns was modeled on an Exeter Classical Studies prof. There’s something at the very end that tips Rowling’s hand about her familiarity with Molesworth even more than her dropping the title name earlier on.

“As any fule kno” is a Nigel Molesworth signature observation made throughout his four books and the unique spelling is his as well. No one who has read Molesworth does not chuckle at this bon mot and hat tip, and Rowling clearly assumes in this fun finish that her readers will get the reference and admire her cleverness at making it. After all, the brief memoir is a sophisticated exercise in describing her Classical Studies as Nigel might have, if her spelling is significantly better.

Three points in answer to the question, “So What?” —

molesworth-3(1) If your mind loves to look around the corner of any happening in hope of finding a conspiracy or if you are to eager to make a less than flattering interpretation of something totally innocent, the author’s claim that she came up with ‘Hogwarts’ because of a chance encounter with the name of a lily in a public garden is not just a matter of her having forgotten that it is used in Molesworth as well. “Ah, ha!” you cry, “She is trying to conceal the influence of the Molesworth books on her Hogwarts Saga!”

That’s a real stretch, of course, but all such theories must have at least the germ of credibility to gain internet traction and discussion at Fan Cons. Hogwarts-Gate’s truth-germ is that Ms Rowling was at the same time as she made this “Hogwarts is a flower!” comment doing all she could in interviews to diminish the intertextual connections readers everywhere were making between her books and both the Narniad and The Lord of the Rings.

f39167270Critics in the UK, as we’ve seen, had been connecting the dots between her ‘Hogwarts’ and Nigel Molesworth’s Latin play in 2000. Therefore, Rowling’s bizarre 2001 answer about the origin of ‘Hogwarts’ to an almost totally unrelated question about dreams must be her attempt to crush the Molesworth influence idea before it gained real currency. QED.

If that was her plan, it worked. Sort of. The Wikipedia article on Hogwarts mentions Molesworth in an aside after the authoritative ‘what the author says’ flower-name-suppressed-memory. The Harry Potter Lexicon entry on Hogwarts doesn’t mention the satirical Public school books at all. I’m betting that few American readers have ever heard of boy Nigel, though Penguin books thought enough of this series to publish all four books in a single volume in 2000 as part of their ‘Penguin Classics’ line. As any fule kno.

(2) Taking off our tin-foil caps, there is a relatively serious point to be made here. When academic critics and Potter Pundits, including myself, have critiqued Rowling’s conformity to and adaptations of the British Schoolboy novel genre, the progenitors and exemplars discussed for this compare and contrast work are Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the genre point of origin, and Enid Blyton‘s schoolgirl six book series, St Clare’s and Malory Towers, which Rowling has said she read.

molesworth-5But Molesworth? Not so much. These 1950’s anti-Public School books that did everything possible to expose the hypocrisy, violence, and self-inflated pretense of such institutions, the equivalent of what MAD might have published as Alfred E. Newman’s Schooldays in their satirical bite and over reaching for laughs, aren’t used for reflection on what Rowling drew from them and how she switched out themes for others she liked better.

Which is too bad. Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts, an institution that is Rowling’s vehicle for taking down the absurdities of Public Schools (which she has said she all but despises), teachers, and compulsory education in general, has much, much more to do with Nigel’s St. Custard’s School than Brown’s Rugby or Blyton’s St Clare’s. I’d go so far as to say that the Hogwarts Saga is a continuation of Molesworth that, despite Rowling’s intention to be overtly satirical a la Willans and Searle, got away from her to become a book much less critical of Empire values, as hyper-postmodern as it is, than it might have been.

molesworth-2(3) I mention the word ‘intertextuality’ above and, without going to deeply into the subject here, I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean it as a synonym for point-to-point influence: “Jo read C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and a few books on alchemy and, voila, we have the ‘magical parameters of the Hogwarts Saga!'” Intertextuality refers much more to the play of influences in any author’s creative work, play with one another and the writer’s ideas that result in borrowings, certainly, but transformation and re-imaginings as well that are at least as important and, forgive me, much more interesting than any ‘great catch’ (“brainy girls named Hermione”).

Rowling loves Shakespeare, Dickens, and Nabokov, for instance. We see that in the many parallels in Harry’s story with the Bard’s HamletMacbeth, even Romeo and Juliet. Dicken’s stories are almost all orphan-makes-good or heroic Bildungsroman and Rowling’s admiration of Tale of Two Cities is documented. And Nabokov? Rowling’s penchant for alliterative, meaningful names, her story structure, and remarkable word play echo his work.

hogwarts-lilyThe literary exegesis worth doing here, as with Molesworth I think, lies less in spotting the correspondences and probable hat tips to admired authors, as fun as that is, than in finding the place of these works in the weave of Rowling’s wonderful magic carpet. How does she choose to understand and use them? What relationship does that have with the original’s content and take-away experience? How does it help her carpet take flight with us aboard?

More on this in the coming months. Until then, let me know what you think of Nigel Molesworth and the Mystery of the Eponym of Hogwarts School! I look forward to your comments, questions, and corrections.


  1. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Couldn’t the two things, the Molesworth play and the lily have fused together? After all, she was inventing a school where Lily (Potter) bloomed!

  2. I had a friend who loves that Hogwarts thing at Universal Studios theme park. And I don’t know much about Nigel Molesworth, but this was an interesting pespective.

  3. Gill Shepherd says

    It is not a HogWart it is ‘Hogwort’ – a kind of jumbo rhubarb-looking thing.

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