Symbol: an object, person, idea, etc, used to stand for or suggest something else with which it is associated either explicitly or in some more subtle way.
Earlier this week I mentioned literary names with staying power the likes of Darcy and Heathcliff. Today I’m focusing on more distinctive monikers.
My daughter and I share a love of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter and her unique wizarding world. If you haven’t read them, the first two books in the series have a younger feel, but that soon changes and you discover they’re not for children alone. It’s the classic hero’s quest done in brilliant storytelling. We’ve read the books to the point where the paperbacks have loose pages.
I mention J.K.Rowling’s creation because she had some pretty interesting names for her characters and they weren’t just plucked from a hat. Mention a name and potterphiles draw a ready image of a character via the books and companion movies. People who know and understand words or those who have a moderate knowledge of historical facts and mythology will find it easy to recognize the mechanics behind the names for people and things in that fantasy world.
For example: There’s a school custodian in the story who is always watching the students in anticipation of being the one who’ll catch them in the act of doing something they shouldn’t be doing, something like stealing. His name is Argus Filch. Filch is slang for stealing. Argus, servant to the goddess Hera, was the giant in Greek mythology whose body was covered in watchful eyes. (side note: After Argus’ demise, Hera put his eyes into the tail of a peacock.)
So there you have the watchful Argus Filch, his character built upon a metaphor for watchful and a slang word for stealing. His name hints at his personality and occupation. Many of J.K.Rowling’s character names hint at occupations but also personalities.
Take Albus Dumbledoor for example. He’s the headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Rowling once said in an interview that she pictured the school headmaster always humming to himself. It just so happens that the Old English name for bumble bee is dumbledoor. Cute metaphor, huh?
This long-established fan site has a list of all the names. See if you can break them down.
J.K.Rowling wasn’t the only author to make up character names with hidden meanings. William Shakespeare intentionally chose names for his characters based upon their purpose in the story. They seem rather subtle now, but steeped in their old language and reference of their day, I’ll bet his name play was the inside joke.
For example: In the play As You Like It, the character Rosalind wears a disguise as Ganymede to trick Orlando into falling in love with her. The name Ganymede is in reference to Ganymede the cup bearer of Zeus who was said to be a beautiful effeminate boy. Of course Rosalind is effeminate for a reason. She’s female.
In Romeo and Juliet, the Romeo’s friend and cousin Benvolio is as full of good will as his name implies. Conversely, friend Mercutio is very temperamental, as his name implies. (He’s the one who cursed the houses of Capulet and Montague and set in motion a tragic outcome for the young lovers.). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are laced with double-meanings and hidden references of this sort.
I’ve mentioned before that I do this sort of thing in my stories. I find double-meanings and hidden references fun. What about those wild character names in literature?
I’ll save that for Monday.
“Nobody trips over mountains. It is the small pebble that causes you to stumble. Pass all the pebbles in your path and you will find you have crossed the mountain. ”
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