Names are curious things: for the first eighteen years of our lives, we have no control over who we are known as (aside from nicknames). After that time, though, we can choose to change our name if we so desire. While our naming system today are largely mundane, it was not always so.
During the late-Ancient period, naming was a complicated affair. As professor Philip Dalileader explains in an audio lecture, Romans had three names: your first represented you as an individual, your middle was your clan or tribe name, while your last name was the name of the head of the household which you were raised. Not to be outdone, during this time, Barbarians also had a very different naming affair, though they had only two names, each of which was deeply ceremonial and often came with prefixes to enable people to differentiate from clans or tribes with the same name. In all, this was greatly different than today.
In contemporary times, naming is simple: we have our first name, which usually is arbitrarily chosen, though may sometimes choose to signify cultural or religious significance. Then we have our middle name, which, again, only has relevance as a token of affection or parental value—perhaps your middle name was given because your parents were honoring a late friend or himself (i.e., “Harry James Potter”). Finally, though, there is the last name, which is the family name. Taken together, along with your social security number, your names identify you as a member of society who lives, roughly, in a certain geographic area synonymous with certain cultural heritage.
Considering the vast intermingling between Muggles and Magical Folk, it is unsurprising that witches and wizards in the Harry Potter universe, for the most part, follow our naming conventions. That is, excluding one or two exceptions whose names leave a trail of linguistic breadcrumbs all the way back to the Middle Ages.
In both the book and film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, no one can miss the great courtroom scene at the beginning; it shows us Dumbledore heroically defending Harry against the legal onslaught of the Wizarding Gizamut. What is most interesting about this scene is Dumbledore’s entrance. Why? You guessed it—he speaks his full name.
“Albus Perceval Wulfric Brian Dumbledore”.
A loaded name. Although three of the words are largely irrelevant, two of the names— “Perceval” and “Wulfric”—have a deeper meaning.
Simply stated, “Wulfric” is an Old English name; according to the website BehindtheName, it means “Wolf Power”. This means that Dumbledore’s family can, like Sirus Black, trace his lineage back over a thousand years. So, it is unsurprising when “Perceval” also shows up in Dumbledore’s catalog of names. Famously, Perceval was known as the holiest of King Arthur’s knights; in the legend, Perceval was the knight who obtained the Holy Grail and ascended to Heaven. In short, Perceval, like Dumbledore, was a golden boy (in fact, Dumbledore is not the only Harry Potter character with Arthurian allusions: the head of the Auror office in the Half-Blood Prince, is named Gawain, who was another of King Arthur’s knights and suggests that the Aurors may be likened to the Round Table). What all this signifies is that Dumbledore’s history is deeply entwined with Anglo-Saxon and Arthurian history, truly making him a unique and powerful figure in the Harry Potter world for reasons not already obvious.
But, medieval naming conventions can be found deeper in Harry Potter. Enter Dumbledore’s opposite—Lord Voldemort. Contemporary French for “Flight of Death”, Voldemort has a complicated relationship with his name since it is partially rooted in Muggle history; in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, it is revealed that Voldemort’s Muggle name is “Tom Marvolo Riddle” (314) while in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we learn that the orphanage warden believes if Tom’s surname could be derived from a circus troop.
This meditation on the circus troop is poignant since entertainment spectacles were common in Roman times. J.K. Rowling, though, seems to have known this since, during the medieval period, the circus died out. Naturally, then, she could only be referring to the Roman period. This is important since it contextualizes Voldemort’s lineage. If his ancestors were performers, clowns, dancers, and jesters who soiled themselves for the entertainment of mere Muggles, then his hatred of his Muggle name is well understood. What is also well understood, then, is his embrace of his magical name—Slytherin, a naming scheme deeply rooted in Barbarian culture (we only know “Salazar Slytherin” as possessing those two names). This Barbarian naming schematic at least aligns Voldemort with what is thought of as a violent, anti-Roman creed; more importantly, it aligns his ancestors with those of West Frankia, that Barbarian kingdom which replaced the Roman rule. In a sense, then, Voldemort’s actions could be those belonging to a historical revisionist attempting to reform what they see as a specific ethnic formation. Voldemort’s magical name, after all, is rooted in Barbarian culture while his Muggle in Roman culture; though it may not seem like it, Voldemort’s naming legacy runs deep! (Especially if we are to consider his family line as meddling in human anti-Witch and Wizard activities, as we explored in a previous Voldemort centered post.)
There you go!
Old English, Arthurian legend references, and Romanic and Barbarian naming conventions all in one post; and we didn’t even touch on the numerous references found to ancient Heroic Legends and the numerous people named after the old epics (see the students whom Horace Slughorn collects), which we will, unfortunately, not be getting into since it falls well outside the purview of this blog. Still, I bet you haven’t before given so much focus to the names of your beloved characters; but, if you have, then I at least hope you enjoyed this post and learned a neat new idea or two which helped you examine something old in a new light. Maybe even you will delve into the details that I did not and find even deeper reasons to enjoy names?
Dalileader, Philip. The Early Middle Ages. The Teaching Company, 2013.