A thing perfectly named brings to life a universe around it. It feels as if it has always existed, and this existence bleeds into the imaginary world that surrounds it, which lends it its credibility in turn. Since we are speaking of exchange, consider Gringotts. Gring has the “ching” of a register, gotts the gruffness of goblins, the hard consonants of each syllable are Gringotts pillars, durable and stable, sounds you can trust. Like all the names in Philosopher’s Stone, Gringotts seems to enjoy itself. How great it is to be called Gringotts, Hufflepuff, Hogwarts, Harry Potter. The sounding of names gives pleasure. Was that not their original purpose? To name something is an act of love (not to name is an act of fear). I have listened to enough people talk about Harry Potter to know this.
What is the best instance of naming in the book? For me, it’s the end of the second chapter: wizards across the country (in my mind, the world) clink glasses to celebrate “the boy who lived.” The boy who lived is the boy who survived, who lived through it. But there’s more, since the boy who lived is past tense. He lived, and so, he died; he is, at least, a ghost evoked in times of celebration. And, in a way, we find Harry a ghost in his life, trapped under stairs, haunted by other ghosts. Yet the key to freedom is his name, Potter, and the inheritance which, by claiming his name, he claims for himself (Voldemort, one of his ghosts, runs from his true name; “he who must not be named,” having nothing to claim, leeches, and leeches die with their hosts. He remains a Riddle to the end, despite himself). Some legends say that speaking a spectre’s name abolishes it, sends it to hell. Harry is in hell, and his ticket out comes in the form of a letter bearing his name, Mr. H. Potter, his proof of himself, addressed so for the first time. Against daily acts of hate, this name is his connection to the act of love that saved him. The story of Harry Potter is about learning to live with one’s ghosts, even with the ghost of expectations one inherits. Standing with his parents in the mirror, who are really projections of his mind, their past becomes part of his present. The boy who lived is becoming the boy who lives. Eventually he will not need to see them.
Harry claims his name by turning it into a verb. He and his friends potter around the castle grounds motivated less by ambition than plain curiosity and bigness of heart. Since we discover Hogwarts alongside Harry, Hermoine, and Ron, every detail that is new to them is new to us, becomes our memory, and around these first impressions, as around a name, a world assembles itself. There is nothing for Rowling to do but send them down corridors, into dark rooms, under trap doors, having enlisted us as accomplices in imagining her world, which becomes ours. In the end each character has a test – of fortitude, agility, reason – so why not a test of imagination for us? This test, in truth, begins and ends with two spiralling moments which launch the book into and out of the wizarding world. First, Harry in bed, his “small hand” gripping his Hogwarts letter, his name inscribed atop it, and the sudden litany of everything he will come to know: he is special, he is famous, that as he lies in darkness in a terrible house, wizards raise glasses to his legend and nothing, come morning, will ever be the same (who hasn’t needed to believe something similar, late at night, as firmly as Harry grips that letter?). And the last long paragraph of the book, when, as by magic, the wardrobes are empty, the suitcases are packed, and Neville’s toad is found; everything, as before, happening on its own, this time too soon. Suddenly Hogwarts is gone.
You always leave a place you love in a hurry, being unready to leave. I suppose that’s why it affects me: I only ever loved my family that much (“‘You must be Harry’s family!’ said Mrs. Weasley. ‘In a manner of speaking,’ said Uncle Vernon.”). What Hogwarts was for Harry, in that moment of misnaming, Harry Potter was for me.
And that’s just book one.