Why Call the Encyclopedia “The Scottish Book”?

We are going through my Deathly Hallows Lectures again for the official version that will be available next month. My partner and editor at Zossima Press asked me why I referred to the Harry Potter Silmarillion that Ms. Rowling is writing as “the Scottish book.” The shorter answer is “because that’s what Ms. Rowling called it” and “it’s a joke about MacBeth being called ‘The Scottish Play’.” The longer answer gets into Ms. Rowling’s life as a Scot, the agonized history of her back-story Encyclopedia, and her references to Shakespeare in interviews and the books.

Ms. Rowling already explained this on her website, as much as she explains anything:

Section: F.A.Q.
Why ‘The Scottish Book’?

After my recent appearance on Leaky’s podcast, several people have asked me why I called the as-yet-unpublished Encyclopaedia of Potterworld ‘the Scottish Book’. Answer: it was a joke, though evidently not a very good one…

There is a superstition that it is unlucky to speak the name ‘Macbeth’ in the theatre, so actors always refer to it as ‘the Scottish Play’. Given the contentiousness that has sprung up around the Encyclopaedia lately, I simply thought we might start showing it similar respect!

Wikipedia has the backstory
on this joke listed under “The Scottish Play:”

“The Scottish play” and “The Bard’s play” are euphemisms often used for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Sometimes “Macker’s”, is used to avoid saying the proper name, although mostly in North America. Saying “Macbeth” inside a theatre is often considered taboo, as it is thought to bring on the curse associated with the play. The lead actors themselves are referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. M.” or a variety of different names. The euphemism is so named because Macbeth is set in Scotland. Another variation of the superstition forbids direct quotation of the play while within a theatre….

Productions of Macbeth are said to have been plagued with accidents, many ending in death; the play does include more fight scenes and other such opportunities for accidents than does the average play, and the atmosphere in the backstage area of old-fashioned theaters was a prime setting for disasters, especially when dealing with potentially dangerous equipment. According to legend, this dates back to the original performance of the play, in which prop daggers were mistakenly swapped for real ones, resulting in a death.

Those who believe in the curse of Macbeth claim its origin to be in the three Witches, who in the play are said to be casting real spells. It has also been suggested that the inclusion of the character Hecate, frequently cut from productions of the play due to questions about her part’s authorship, will intensify the effects of the curse.

The popularity of the superstition might also be related to its mild hazing aspect. Veteran actors might relate some tale of woe that they witnessed personally due to someone invoking the curse, lending credibility and immediacy to the tale.

One hypothesis for the origin of this superstition is that Macbeth, being a popular play, was commonly put on by theatres in danger of going out of business, or that the high production costs of Macbeth put the theatre in financial trouble. An association was made between the production of Macbeth and theatres going out of business.

According to the superstition, Shakespeare got a few of the lines from an actual coven of witches and when they saw the play they were greatly offended and cursed the play. Another tradition tells that the original propmaster could not find a suitable pot for a cauldron and stole one from a coven, who then cursed the play in revenge for the theft. It is believed that the taboo calls the ghosts of the three witches to the show and it is they who cause all the mishaps.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Ms. Rowling has talked about The Scottish Play more than any other. Again, from Wikipedia, this time on Harry and Macbeth:

Rowling has cited Shakespeare’s Macbeth as an influence. In an interview with The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet, when asked, “What if [Voldemort] never heard the prophecy?”, she said, “It’s the “Macbeth” idea. I absolutely adore “Macbeth.” It is possibly my favourite Shakespeare play. And that’s the question isn’t it? If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? Would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen? I believe he made it happen.”[10] On her website, she referred to Macbeth again in discussing the prophecy: “the prophecy (like the one the witches make to Macbeth, if anyone has read the play of the same name) becomes the catalyst for a situation that would never have occurred if it had not been made.”[11]

So what? Three top-of-the-head thoughts for your consideration, comment, and correction:

(1) Ms. Rowling isn’t a Scot. Not really.

Anne Volant Rowling, Ms. Rowling’s mother, was half-French, half Scottish. Her dad, Peter Rowling, was born in London and always lived in England, where Ms. Rowling and her sister grew up as well. If you think of her as a “native” as I have, it’s probably because Ms. Rowling moved to Edinburgh to live with sister when her marriage failed and she returned to the UK from Portugal. Or because Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in Scotland. Ms. Rowling, though, is an adopted Scot, at best, and, as much as she attends church, it is as an Anglican, in the wee jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church of Scotland. If she was returning home to reclaim her roots as a Volant, she hasn’t done it whole-hog.

(2) Calling the Potter-Silmarillion ‘The Scottish Book’ indicates mixed feelings about the project.

The decision to sue RDR about their Harry Potter Lexicon Ms. Rowling has claimed was not a lawyer driven decision (as the judge in the case suspected the case has become) but completely her own. She testified that her feelings of violation — of copyright, of the work she has done — have so upset her that she was unable to work as a writer. Wanting the book referred to as something cursed, though, suggests it has become something of a burden, even a personal tragedy. Am I making too much of this possibility in Elvindorkish fashion? Very likely. Was this deliberate joke a pointer to her state of mind? Almost certainly. The joke itself, as the Leaky crowd and their audience didn’t get it, was a failure by her own admission on the level it was offered, so we’re left with it as something of a “Freudian pointer” if not a “slip.”

(3) Harry Potter is Ms. Rowling’s “Scottish Book.”

Set in Scotland for the most part and now something of an albatross about her neck, the spectacularly successful Potter books now define Ms. Rowling in large part — and definition, however liberating the money aspect of the “fame and fortune” she has experienced might be, has an aspect of restriction and delimitation that could certainly be experienced as a curse that cannot be named. Macbeth is an Englishman’s play about Scotland, which, alone among Shakespeare’s work for stage, has been cursed, perhaps because of its witchcraft content. Harry Potter is an English series of novels principally set in Scotland that were criticized because of their “occult” content and whose author may be struggling with identity issues a la whether she is a “Harry Potter author” as universally perceived or a “writer” per se.

Travis Prinzi concluded his Featured talk at Convention Alley 2008 about the Fabians and Ms. Rowling’s political and economic thinking evident just beneath her story line in a fascinating way. He said that Ms. Rowling has told us that she is working on writing a “political fairy-tale” — and that “political fairy tale” was an excellent description of the seven books she had just finished. Echoing Mr. Prinzi’s example, I would say that linking her Encyclopedia with Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” is a way of pointing to the Potter series of books as (a) Shakespearean (not as much as a reach as most would think given their alchemical structures and intentions) and (b) a curse that the players experience and acknowledge as something mysterious but undeniably real. The difference? She is the only player in this drama.

Or maybe Ms. Rowling is just “blue” about the whole post-Potter-partum experience. “Scotus” is the Latin word for “blue” and the Scots got their tag supposedly because they liked to frighten the Picts, Jutes, and Romans by painting themselves blue before combat. Traditional people believed that there were five colors for human beings — black, white, red, yellow, and blue — but the blue people, the Atlantean demi-gods, were lost in a natural disaster. Painting yourself blue, I’ve heard, was the Scots way of putting on Superman duds.

Enough rambling and reaching for ideas. Your comments and corrections are coveted, as always.

[A correction I have received indirectly from a thread on another web site: ‘Scotus’ is not Latin for ‘blue,’ at least not in any of my Golden Age Latin dictionaries. Scratch that — and my apologies for the mistake. ‘Scott’ or ‘Scot,’ however, is the Old English word for “painted person” as any baby name web site will tell you. I suspect that I’m half-right in my fading powers of recall but half-right is all wrong for most readers so I yield. Please note, though, that neglecting the rest of this post to focus on a mistake in the closing aside reveals and reflects a reader’s ‘gotcha’ priorities. Thank you, all the same, for pointing out my mistake.]


  1. Red Rocker says

    Masterful analysis, John. Agree with you on all counts.

    I had no idea why the possible encyclopedia was being called by that name, assuming vaguely that because she now lives in Edinborough, JKR was going to call the book “Scottish”. Now I know the link to Macbeth.

    I agree that JKR might be seeing this as a cursed book. No doubt about its marketability – it would reach the top of the best-sellers list even before there is a publication date. But that it is already an albatross around her neck, there is little doubt. First, there is the matter of SvA/RDR which shows her – to some people at least – in an uncharitable, bully-like light. Given her championship of underdogs, that must feel awful. Then, there is the fact that this book will be eating up time and thought which could more profitably be put to her proper task as a writer, writing new stories, rather than re-hashing an already-told tale. Finally, I think it might symbolize the larger curse of Harry Potter. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, Mark Hamill, Leonard Nimoy, Henry Winkler, Carl Orff, Leoncavallo, Los del Rio, Nena, her name might forever be associated with one book/character/piece of music. To think that the only important task left to her might be the writing of an encyclopedia must be hard to bear.

  2. What is especially curious about the joke she has made here is that her own stories include a “name taboo,” the danger and fear of saying “Voldemort,” He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Suggesting that this book she is obliged to write has become something akin to a book/play-that-must-not-be-named is to create an inevitable linkage with death, idolatry, and the most odious and poisonous kind of self-importance.

    Bizarre, no?

  3. Red Rocker says

    I don’t know if I’d make the linkage to death, idolatry and self-importance just yet. I think we’d be on safer ground to say that there is a reluctance to name it, and a feeling of associated ill luck. Maybe a sense of disaste. Something not right about writing this one.

    On another speculative note, think of it this way. Ever since 1990 she’s been writing almost non-stop. Writing a story. Being supremely creative. What she – for God knows what reason – has set out to do now is a very different kind of task. Collating, cross-referencing, checking. Not really her kind of task at all. I can well see how it could be a curse to her. And now that she’s launched the lawsuit, how would it look if she changed her mind?

  4. Gladius Terrae Novae says

    Or maybe she’s just joking? It’s a phrase I might use with little thought.

  5. I’m sure she was joking, but, outside of dreams, there is no surer path to the state of the unconscious mind than the jokes people choose to tell, especially about themselves. This is well-explored territory.

  6. “Sometimes, a joke is just a joke” – like a cigar! Somebody had to say it.

  7. A correction I have received indirectly from a thread on another web site: ‘Scotus’ is not Latin for ‘blue,’ at least not in any of my Golden Age Latin dictionaries. Scratch that — and my apologies for the mistake.

    ‘Scott’ or ‘Scot,’ however, is the Old English word for “painted person” as any baby name web site will tell you. I suspect that I’m half-right in my fading powers of recall — but half-right is all wrong for most readers, so I yield with only this reservation. Neglecting the rest of this post to focus on a mistake in the closing aside reveals and reflects a reader’s ‘gotcha’ priorities.

    Thank you, all the same, for pointing out my mistake.

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