“Caesar and Cleopatra unite Rome and Egypt”: Toys, History and the Playmobil Series

Karolina Kulpa is a linchpin of the Our Mythical Childhood project: it is she who keeps track of the Survey (currently standing at over 1100 entries), a formidable task. Karolina wrote her PhD on the reception of Cleopatra in popular culture, and is incredibly knowledgeable about how toys transmit ideas of the ancient world. I’m therefore delighted to present an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019. The full paper will be published in a collection of the same name. –Elizabeth Hale

I was born under communism in Poland, but my childhood was in the 1990s, when my country was transformed and opened to the so-called “West.” Suddenly, we had greater availability of products, among them toys, almost impossible to achieve previously.  In just a few years, almost unattainable items such as a Barbie doll or Lego sets, became ordinary products found in many children’s rooms. Polish youngsters joined millions of their peers in the world who became consumers of pop-culture products of children’s and youth culture, including the merchandise of the biggest franchises in the world.

It seems now that we live in times where pop culture is one of the most important sources of information about our past (but not necessarily the most reliable), as we can see from thousands of novels, films and animations. One element can be seen clearly: after the Digital Revolution, pop culture has reduced features of historic and mythological figures to easily identifiable, stereotyped characters. For decades, companies producing toys have outdone each other in their bid to attract children and young adults, an important segment of the market. History and historical figures have become products for sale. Manufacturers often refer in their products to Antiquity, especially the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes also of Egypt. We can buy figurines, dolls, costumes and games, and thanks to them children have an opportunity to get into their favourite character and play recreating history or creating their own stories against an “ancient background”.

Curse of the Pharaohs

Take for example, the German toy manufacturer Playmobil’s line of History products titled “Romans and Egyptians.” These figures were presented in the animated short Curse of the Pharaohs, released in March 2017 by this company on You Tube[2], which associated with the story of Cleopatra VII and her relationship with Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.

The image of this Egyptian ruler is a perfect example of the process of transforming a historical figure into a pop culture icon. Popular culture has warped the image of the historic queen and reduced her to a symbol of beautiful, ambitious woman who seduced men and brought about their downfall. Playmobil History’s sets shows a combination of children’s and youth culture with history, not only by portraying Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in the form of plastic figures, but also by drawing the producer’s attention to the educational value for young audiences by adding additional information in the booklet Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, which is available on their website [3][4]. The nine sets from Playmobil History include: Caesar and Cleopatra (9169), Egyptian Troop with Ballista (5388), Egyptian Warrior with Camel (9167), Legionnaire with Ballista (5392), Roman Troop (9168), Roman Chariot (5391), Roman Warriors’ Ship (5390), Tomb Raiders’ Camp (9166) and Pharaoh’s Pyramid (5386).

The most interesting aspect of this series is the film’s plot, which is an alternative history of the meeting between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar with the purpose to unite Egypt with Rome, which unification will “come in peace”. Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), is jealous, because she increased her popularity. That’s why he wants to unleash the Curse of the Pharaoh, hidden in one of the pyramids, and force his sister to start a war with Rome. The plot is very interesting, because it recreates the story of the meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and the relationships between Rome and Egypt during that time.

Curse of the Pharaoh resembles many other animations for children, with a simple plot about adventures and mystery to solve, and with a happy ending. It has didactic elements concerning the history of the 1st century BC, but most of all, the goal of this animation is to entertain. For that reason, the type of narration is adapted to children, the characters are divided into positive protagonists (the wise Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and two Roman soldiers) and villains (Ptolemy and the thieves employed by this pharaoh). Of course, we remember from ancient sources, that during this time, there were two civil wars: first, between Julius Caesar and the other Roman leader, Pompey the Great, second, between Cleopatra and her brother, co-ruler and husband, Ptolemy XIV. In the animation realised by Playmobil, we don’t find the scene of Pompey’s death ordered by Ptolemy’s Council; or the scene when Cleopatra meets Caesar having been secretly brought to the palace in Alexandria by her servants, or any moments from the Alexandrine War, for example the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Furthermore, buildings, like the pyramid full of traps, secret chambers, and magical objects, ships and outfits of all characters are a mixture of some historical facts and pop culture.  People can watch this film and then buy the nine sets of figurines and accessories to reconstruct the story from animation or to create new stories.

Skeleton Mummy… Klickypedia (the definitive Playmobil-pedia)

The first set, Caesar and Cleopatra, includes three figurines of Julius Caesar, the queen Cleopatra and a servant with a long fan from blue feathers, and also a few accessories: a little golden table, a fruit bowl with an apple and a grape, and two glasses of wine. The collection includes also four sets, which present the Roman army and two sets of Egyptian warriors. The Roman legionnaires wear red tunics with silver breastplates, classical Roman helmets called galea, shields similar to scutum and, of course, sandals. We can also see their weapons: long or short swords, wood spears and knives. The officers wear caps and their helmets are decorated with plumes. The set with six legionnaires includes also elements allowing to create a shield wall formation cold tortoise, typical for the Roman army. In the set with chariot, the car has weaponized wheels; the set with a wheeled catapult includes a firing mechanism, which allows to shoot three bullets using rubber balls. A very similar mechanism is included in the next set, Roman Warriors’ Ship, but this time we have five arrows, two regular and three fire arrows. The galley with oars is the biggest Roman, it can float in a pool and be upgraded with motors produced by Playmobil. Below the deck, we have a small storage place to keep all stores, for example two baskets and one box with fruit, bread and carrots, glasses, cups, and two amphorae. A military character of this ship is marked by protecting shields, a small ballista on the deck and a ram on the bow. Please notice a characteristic inscription: SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus [The Roman Senate and People], there is a seal and a Roman military standard in this set and on the cart in the chariot’s set.

Klickypedia–Soldiers of the Pharaohs….

The two sets of the Egyptian army include three soldiers with a ballista on movable wheels and an archer riding a camel. His dromedary could be saddled up, among the accessories, we find reins, a military saddle, and a halter. The ballista works the same way as in the Roman set, but this time we have three arrows with a rubber ending shaped as flames. The soldiers have an olive skin, black hair and wear colorful clothes with collars styled as Egyptian and all of them have gold bracelets on their arms.

The last two sets from Roman and Egyptian series include a Tomb Raiders’ Camp and, a Pharaoh’s Pyramid, which is the biggest set connected to Egypt. The camp consists of a small oasis with one palm three and a well, two thieves, a scorpion, a few bushes, a horse, and a camel. The set presents a moment, when Egyptian thieves have just robbed ancient tombs and pyramids and are getting away with the treasures. The moment of robbery is presented in the last set, the Pharaoh’s Pyramid. This set includes a two-floor pyramid with a few traps, a gold sarcophagus in Anubis’ shape with a mummy, which is composed from bandages and a skeleton, the gold weapons and treasures, a few spiders and a scarab, a second skeleton and the most important, four canopic jars, which could release the curse. We also have three figurines of men, the third thief, an Egyptian soldier with a shield and a spire and a pharaoh. The figurine of the pharaoh is Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, who is presented in an outfit styled as Egyptian (long white dress with colourful collar and belt), with elements typical for Egyptian man-rulers: nemes, a type of crown, with a Ureaus, a fake black beard and the symbols of power: a crook (heka) and a flail (nekhakha). Another pair of symbols could be used for the mummy.

As we can see, the series History: Romans and Egyptians by Playmobil is inspired by historical figures like Caesar, Cleopatra and Ptolemy and representations of historical Roman and Egyptian army, the Roman ship and the Egyptian pyramid. A scholarly analysis of these sets could be made from different points of view. In my opinion, that type of combination of historical facts from ancient sources and popular culture works is very important for reception studies, also in teaching ancient history and its reception. We can use the sets to recreate the scenes from the film, or to create new adventures of Romans in Ptolemaic Egypt under Cleopatra’s rule and, of course, transform the story and characters how we wish: the only limit is our imagination. The toys allow us to participate in missions, in which Roman soldiers rescue the jars with the curse to keep the peace between Egypt and Rome, or, in the jealous Ptolemy’s conspiracy with the thieves aimed at discrediting his wise sister. We can also recreate the moment of the feast in animation, which provides a happy ending of the adventure. Furthermore, a child can recreate his/her own alternative versions of history of Caesar and Cleopatra. With a bit of work, the sets give us also a possibility to show children some known facts about Cleopatra and Caesar, for example that they travelled on the Nile or how they first met. But there is nothing to stop us from using the figurines to enact the wedding of Cleopatra and Caesar (the servant could serve as a priest) or use the thieves as merchants who sail on a ship with their goods. Maybe it would help to answer the question why the story of the Roman leader and the Egyptian queen ended so tragically. We have so many options how to use the sets, play with Ancient history in the background and learn at least the basics about those times. Again, the only limit is our imagination.

Where would the ancient world be without an archaeologist? Klickypedia…

In the humanities and social sciences, we have so many different ways of understanding our past and so many methods of research, especially when studying Antiquity. Each generation transforms the images of historical figures into their own versions, which sometimes leads to simplified and stereotypical representations in culture. The contemporary image of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar emerged from an amalgam (layers) of its historical vision and the image propagated by creators of culture in each period. The Playmobil series could be seen as presenting a next step in the process which made the images of Cleopatra and Caesar evolve from historical figures to icons of pop culture.

–Karolina Kulpa


[1] Quotation after: 9169 Caesar and Cleopatra, Playmobil, online: https://www.playmobil.us/caesar-and-cleopatra/9169.html (accessed: July 19, 2019; website not currently available).

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN3WSGA9DoM&list=FL3R7nRc1pp2XKjglix3AlLA&index=27 (accessed: May 12, 2020).

[3] Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, Playmobil,

http://playmobil.a.bigcontent.io/v1/static/PLAYMOBIL_INFO_HISTORY_ROMANS_2016_03_en (accessed: May 16, 2020).

Children’s Book Week, Australia

Since 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has been promoting quality children’s literature in this country. It does so through activities, outreach, and through a venerable program of literary awards. These awards are celebrated every year in Children’s Book Week, and they’re an important event in the children’s literature calendar. Children, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and publishers eagerly await the announcements. The endorsement of the Children’s Book Council means a lot–it’s a stamp of approval for children’s literature that the judges regard as beautifully produced, well written and illustrated, and relevant to children’s lives. There are several categories, by age group and genre, and then there is the announcement of the overall winner, the Book of the Year.

Normally Children’s Book Week is held in August (towards the end of the Australian winter–a reliable sign that spring is coming…), but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held in October. This week, in fact.

In a year which demonstrated how difficult the world can be, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards have recognised thought-provoking and uplifting stories that allow young people to take on all challenges

https://cbca.org.au/

I must say, that although it has been a difficult year, it has also been a year in which the value of storytelling–of writing and reading, of producing and receiving stories–has been well and truly recognised. Even though in Australia the artistic community has been hit very hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdowns (and our governments could be doing rather more to support creative industries in general), it’s very clear how much we rely on storytelling–to lift our spirits, free our minds, open up the world to our imaginations, and help us think through all sorts of issues. There’s something about immersing oneself in a book that is better for the brain that the jittery rush of doom-scrolling and constant panic about the state of the world.

I’ve been watching in admiration as writers and illustrators adjust their usual whirlwind of book tours and classroom visits to promote their works, and encourage the joy of stories–through zoom events, online conferences, twitterfests and more.

And so it’s wonderful to see the Children’s Book Council of Australia also adjust–one of Australia’s older literary establishments finding a way to celebrate storytelling in these strange times. The theme for Book Week this year is Curious Creatures, Wild Minds, and you can click on the link to see the program for the week.

And in terms of the Book of the Year, here are the announcements, made by well-known Australians: enjoy!

CBCA Book of the Year Awards 2020

–Elizabeth Hale

Mazes, Threads, and COVID-19

It was Anna Mik, PhD student at the University of Warsaw, who introduced me to the work of Polish artist Jan Bajtlik, whose magnificent book of mazes presents the myths of ancient Greece as a set of intriguing mazes. Everyone in the myths is in a maze of a different kind–Odysseus, Heracles, Atalanta, Zeus–they’re all there. Maze as story, story as maze, life as maze. Here, Anna discusses the role of the maze, the thread, and life in the time of COVID as a labyrinth that we are all finding our ways through–Elizabeth Hale

A journey through a labyrinth can be a dreadful experience. It might have been a true horror for Theseus walking through Dedalus’s maze with the anticipation of meeting the Minotaur just around the corner. For the Minotaur, on the other side,  the labyrinth was a prison, where he waited for the human offerings and ultimately was killed by the mythical hero. For Ariadne who gave Theseus a thread leading him towards the safe exit after killing her brother, the labyrinth was a mysterious and confusing space, where love and fear were accumulated and made her feel conflicted.

The mythical maze was never only an architectural wonder. It was also a metaphor of danger, coming of age, uncertainty, a struggle between death and life. It survived the centuries in stories, visual depictions and artistic visions. And even though it is so familiar to us, this motif does not cease to surprise us to this day.  Even if we live in an era of postmodernism, often perceived as a maze itself.

There are multiple examples of famous labyrinths in popular culture. Thousands of years after the Minotaur (allegedly) was slain, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, 16-year-old Sarah travels through the labyrinth. Trapped inside the world of her fantasies, she walks thorough paths representing her troubling adolescence. (she meets a lot of weird creatures on her way, paths change their courses, sometimes they are even upside-down) In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the titled protagonist has to face the horror of a maze in the Triwizard Tournament.

“The towering hedges cast black shadows across the path, and, whether because they were so tall and thick, or because they had been enchanted, they sound of the surrounding crowd was silenced the moment they entered the maze. Harry felt almost as though he was underwater again.” p. 539

In both of these works, mazes are not ‘stable’ and easy to pass through – they constantly change and surprise heroes and heroines with new turns and creatures living in it. They play with characters’ imagination, push their boundries, and distort cognitive perception. Thus, it rises up the question – is there anything good about the labyrinth at all?

Bajtlik’s solution: Greek Myths and Mazes

One Polish artist gives hope that there is something more to the ancient maze than horror and anxiety. Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (English translation, Walker Studio, 2019) was published in Poland in 2018 under a slightly different title: Nić Ariadny. Mity i labirynty [Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths]. It is a large format book in which double-page spreads present different stories from Greek myth: each one a different labyrinth leading a reader through various myths, locations, and ancient Greek phenomena. In such a manner, Greek Myths and Mazes is a great example of an interactive book for children, encouraged by the author to get through the maze, which has been marked with an entrance and an exit, and follow stories along the way. The pages are also an artistic showcase, as Bajtlik has conveyed complex and multi-layer stories through equally rich illustrations.

Odysseus’s Labyrinth–Jan Batlik (by permission of the artist)

However, what seems to be the most imperative, is the implication that each element of the ancient world is a labyrinth in itself, with all the unexpected turns, monsters waiting just around the corner, and the big uncertainty – will the hero or the heroine find their way out and fulfil their journey? The story of Odysseus would be a great example of such a labyrinth, through which the hero travels for 10 years, uncertain of his fate and gods’ favours. He does not know what waits ahead of him, he meets dead ends and turns leading him to monsters, he loses his crew on the way.  Nonetheless, he thrives, bearing in his heart and mind the image of the exit – his beloved home, Ithaca.

Jan Bajtlik works with the labyrinth as a cognitive tool that allows the child to read the myth not linearly, as in a ‘classic’ text. The path leads the reader in all different ways, allowing them to immerse in the story. They might get the wrong turn, walk through the danger, or take a dangerous route from which it will no longer be possible to withdraw (as in Hephaestus’ forge). The mythical labyrinth may also surprise the traveller with a beautiful view, a funny picture or, finally, a happy ending (as on Aeaea, Circe’s island)

All things considered, a feature that would seem the most vital is book’s metaphorical aspect. Being lost in a maze, just like being lost in a myth, perfectly reflects the shape of human existence, its impermanence, complexity, horror, and beauty. The book can affect the reader, not only a child, in an unusual way, especially during the  2020 lockdown. Isolation, danger, uncertainty, fear of the unknown – all these elements connect the world of ancient labyrinth and COVID-19 reality. If the ancient mazes have been able to gives any kind of hope, just like Jan Bajtlik, they would certainly give us a way out. Then again, only if Ariadne was there to bestow upon us an invaluable thread.  This may lead us to finding in ourselves Ariadne, ready to help us find a solution to the most dreadful situation. Being an Ariadne would mean being hopeful, despite the hopeless reality.

What’s in a title? From Ariadne’s Thread to Greek Myths and Mazes

As I have mentioned earlier, the English version of Bajtlik’s book was published in 2019 under a slightly different title from its Polish original. It made me wonder – does this change make any difference in book’s reception? After all, it seems that “Ariadne’s Thread”puts a certain kind of emphasis on the role of the heroine in Theseus’ success. Without the thread provided by Minos’ daughter, the young hero would probably not get out of the maze. What is more, the thread marks the path through a labyrinth thanks to which a hero does not make a mistake of taking the same wrong turn twice. Within the narrative structure of Bajtlik’s story, the thread plays a vital role as well. Thus, it is a shame that neither Ariadne nor her thread appear in the English title.

Nonetheless, Bajtlik’s Greek and Myths were translated also to Spanish, Catalan, French, German – in all of these editions “Ariadne’s thread” has been maintained in the title on the cover. Let’s read it as a good sign. There is a great hope for the Ariadne’s Thread to get us through these uncertain times.  After all, nowadays, it is accurate to consider reality being just another maze.  

–Anna Mik

Sweepus Underum Carpetum–little bits of Latin in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000) is a classic of Australian picture book art. It’s the story of a boy who is out and about looking for additions to his bottle-top collection, who sees a ‘thing’ on the beach–a great big, red sore-thumb of a creature, half coffee-pot, half-lobster, totally different from everyone and everything around it. The boy, being a boy, and thus perhaps open to moments of spontaneous creatiity, plays with the Lost Thing until dusk, then takes it home with him. His indifferent parents barely notice, but the boy realises the Thing needs to find a home of its own, and the pair set out on a quest that takes them through the city. It’s A dystopia: an anonymous industrialised city, where no one looks at each other, and communication takes place in formulae and rubber stamps.

It looks like the city of The Lost Thing is a very dull place indeed, and dullness is all-pervading and inescapable. The boy, for instance, is involved in collecting bottle-tops when he sees the Thing, and immediately returns to his collection once he has solved its problem: the tragedy of the story is that the Thing is never accepted, integrated, or even recognised by the society it stumbles into–its happy ending is to be sent back to where it comes from, taken care of by The Department of Odds and Ends, which the boy consults to find out where the Thing belongs.

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

The Federal Department of Odds and Ends helps the boy sweep the Thing under the carpet (or into the closet), in accordance with its motto, ‘sweepus underum carpetae.’) The boy narrates how he and the Thing make their way through the city until they find a mysterious doorway to a magical world, full of bright, colourful, curvy beings–the antithesis to the dull, angular city.

That’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is. I mean, I can’t say that the thing actually belonged in the place where it ended up. In fact, none of the the things there really belonged. They all seemed happy enough though, so maybe that didn’t matter. I don’t know. . .

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

It’s a slippery little story–the boy sliding out from any sense of knowledge or understanding of his actions, or of the Thing. Is he helping it? Is he shoving it out of the way? Is he solving a problem, or complicit in a continued set of injustices? Don’t ask the narrator. The subtitle of The Lost Thing is ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to,’ ironically suggesting that those who don’t read it, or notice the story, are those who are in most need of a dose of creative thinking.

A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to…

But for those of use who ignore more important things, there is a great deal in The Lost Thing to enjoy observing. And for me, on my quest to chase up the Classical elements in Australian literature, there are the mottoes: each one from a different ‘government’ department. There’s The Federal Department of Information (ignorare regulatum); the Federal Department of Tubes and Pipes (plumbiferus ductus). The Federal Department of Economics (consumere ergo sum), The Federal Department of Censorship (illuminare prohibitus), and of course, The Federal Department of Odds and Ends (sweepus underum carpetae).

Tan’s sly sense of humour is in full view in details like these. These little dog-Latin tags are the only Classical elements that I’ve found in The Lost Thing. And they’re beautifully appropriate for the society of Tan’s novel–a long way from the vivid extravagance of Classical myth–the Classicism of branding and advertising, of signs and labels, of bureaucracy and pencil-pushers–Latin, the language of Virgil and Ovid, put into the service of administrative meaninglessness, perfect for a society of grey men, women, and boys, who look up only briefly from their bottle-top collections to notice the glorious Lost Things of the world, too busy to realise that they themselves are lost…

–Elizabeth Hale

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis . . .

Scouring the UNE library shelves for inspiration last week, I came upon a copy of Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the Latin translation of . . . you know what. It belonged to an old friend, and so I checked it out, along with several other translations of children’s books, to think about what inspires us to translate our favourite books into our favourite languages.

As the great Wilfried Stroh explains (in Latin) there’s a long tradition of children’s books in Latin from Winnie ille Pu to Fabula de Jemima Anate-Aquatica. . . It’s no easy task to achieve, either. Anyway, here’s Peter Needham’s opening lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin,

Puer Qui Vixit

Dominus et Domina Dursley, qui vivebant in aedibus Gestationius Ligustrorum numero quattuor signatis, no sine superbia dicebant se ratione ordinaria vivendi uti neque se paenitere illius rationis. in toto orbe terrarum vix credas quemquam esse minus deditum rebus novis et arcanis, quod ineptias tales omnino spernebant.

Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, trans. Peter Needham (1)

Magic, eh! You can look up the English for yourselves.

In the meantime, some thoughts about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I am teaching this summer as part of a unit introducing techniques of literary study through children’s books. The idea is that in seemingly simple texts such as Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, and other well-known kids’ books, we can explore different elements of literary technique and thought. Some of these books (such as Matilda and Once There Was a Boy) are highly intertextual and draw on myths, legends, and fairy tales, and so I’m exploring that aspect as well.

Harry Potter and the many allusions to Latin

Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is full of allusions and intertexts. It’s a pastiche of styles and influences, and much of its success must surely come from the way in which Rowling tells a story that is familiar in concept and structure, but also original, imaginative, and new. Roald Dahl’s influence is clear in the horrible Dursleys–grotesque in shape and behaviour–contrasted with Harry’s innocence but also his ability to take vengeance when necessary. The battles of Star Wars, between Luke, a novice good-guy and Darth Vader, an overwhelmingly powerful bad-guy, complete with colour-coded technological swords, are another clear influence–if we swap Harry for Luke, and wands for light-sabres, the parallels are clearer still. The influence of the British school story, with competitions between student Houses, good, bad, and unfair teachers, is also clear: the Quidditch matches of Harry Potter are not unlike the obsession with rugby in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (and a host of imitators). And so on. There are books, articles, talks galore that dig out and enjoy the parallels.

You don’t have to recognise the allusions to enjoy Harry Potter, of course, but it makes for a rich reading experience if you do. And for the classically-inclined (Rowling herself was a classics student), the novels are peppered with references to the ancient world, through names, mythical creatures, snatches of Latin, and classical precedents and parallels.

Names

There are the names of important witches and wizards, for instance: Minerva McGonagall, the wise and wily deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, named after the Roman version of the goddess Athena (and, incidentally, Scotland’s weirdest poet, William McGonagall). Albus Dumbledore, headmaster and personification of goodness: where Albus means ‘white,’ or ‘shining’, and Dumbledore is a dialectal word for bumblebee. Rubeus Hagrid, his loyal sidekick, takes his first name from the Latin for red, a popular name in mediaeval times. Dedalus Diggle is one of the first wizards to celebrate the initial defeat of Voldemort: his name recalls the great inventor, father of Icarus, designer of the labyrinth. Severus Snape recalls the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), but more than that, his name means ‘severe, or serious’; Draco Malfoy is named after the Latin for dragon (as befits a proud member of Slytherin), and also the first lawmaker of the city-state of Athens, known for his harshness (such as giving the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a cabbage). Hermione Granger is named after the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, a spirited woman who fights to marry the man she wants, Orestes. Argus Filch, the grouchy janitor/groundskeeper, seems to be everywhere at once, like his namesake, the hundred-eyed guardian, Argus Panoptes, whose eyes ended up decorating the tail of Hera’s bird, the peacock.

These are only the names from the first book in the series. Throughout, Rowling is very clever with her use of names, balancing Latin and English, Old French, and dialects, and applying them meaningfully to major and minor characters alike. (I was delighted to see that Professor Sprout, the herbology teacher, rejoices in the first name, Pomona–the Roman goddess of apples and ‘fruitful abundance’) These names create a tapestry of additional meaning, supporting the sense that the Harry Potter books are set in a world like, but not quite like, our own, full of echoes and allusions.

Mythological Creatures

Magical names are part of a magical world, and much of the appeal of the novels comes from the interweaving of magical creatures with everyday life. Rowling draws again on mythology: Harry Potter’s wand has the feather of a phoenix in it; so too, Dumbledore has a companion phoenix (Fawkes, named after Guido Fawkes, one of the gunpowder plot conspirators). Dragons feature, in names, in passwords (caput Draconis), and in an egg that Hagrid won off a guy down the pub. ‘Galloping Gorgons’ cries Hagrid when he remembers something he ought to have done, perhaps feed ‘Fluffy,’ the three-headed dog who guards a trapdoor to a secret underworld, much like his mythological counterpart Cerberus. And of course there are the centaurs, learned stargazers who live in the forest near the school and worry about the messages in the planets.

‘Who’s there?’ Hagrid called. ‘Show yerself–I’m armed!’

And into the clearing came–was it a man, or a horse? to the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tale. Harry and Hermione’s jaws dropped.

‘Oh it’s you, Ronan,’ said Hagrid in relief. ‘How are yeh?’

He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.

‘Good evening to you, Hagrid,’ said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. ‘Were you going to shoot me?’

‘Can’t be too careful, Ronan,’ said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. ‘There’s summat bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter, an’ Hermione Granger, by the way. Students up at the school. An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’

‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 184)

The mythological creatures add depth and mystery to the novels–suggesting a pagan otherworldliness, or old magic, that is qualitatively different from the witches and wizards of modern faerie. They don’t participate much in the action, but come by occasionally, giving a sense that they’ve seen many a battle between good and evil. . .

Spells and Magical Latin

I’ve written before about how nineteenth-century school stories pit students against teachers in the Latin classroom. In Harry Potter, the children don’t have to learn Latin for its own sake, but in order to do their spells properly. Accio means ‘I summon,’ and is useful for calling one’s wand to one; Petrificus Totalus freezes a victim so they are unable to move until released. And so on. The appeal is obvious. Latin in these books becomes cool, a gateway to a magical world, a clue to a secret power, but also part of the wizard’s everyday toolkit. In previous generations Latin was a password to the ruling classes, and also a lingua franca that enabled communications among all sorts of different communities. Here, it’s just as magical, and teachers report that students cite the Harry Potter novels as inspiration to study Latin.

Classical Parallels and Storytelling

Going deeper into storytelling and interextuality: as a hero story, the Harry Potter novels participate in all sorts of classical traditions. One can view them as a quest, in which Harry finds the resources (external and internal) to battle ultimate evil in the form of Voldemort. One can view them, as Vassiliki Panoussi does, as a foundation epic, in which Harry and his friends build an army to establish a brave new world. There are echoes of Greek tragedy, as Brett Rogers notes, in Rowling’s world view, especially where the tyranny of educators over students is concerned. Harry Potter, like much great fantasy literature, has richness, depth, and a profound morality, which drawing on classical parallels helps point to.

Harrius Potter and Our Mythical Childhood

The Our Mythical Childhood survey, of course, has entries on the world of Harry Potter. There’s entry 641 on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and entry 65 on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And while I didn’t grow up reading these books, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army, I am entranced by the mixture of Latin and magic, imagination and power that make the Harry Potter novels a mythical experience–in English, in Latin, or even in Ancient Greek .

–Elizabeth Hale