April 13, 2005

Why are Harry Potter's Spells in Latin?

I have noticed that spells in the Harry Potter books are cast in Latin. For me, this contradicts the fictional universe of the series.

One of the interesting things in Harry Potter is the amount of Celtic influence behind the sorcerer culture. At times, this influence makes sense simply because the setting is England, a country that accentuates its Celtic heritage. At other times, though, the pre-Roman elements are specifically associated not just to England, but to sorcery. In general, things that have been imagined with a Celtic point of view are those things that don't exist in real life: sorcerer's tools, fashion, and magic symbols. I find it strange, then, that the verbal incantations come from a culture that is in almost every way the opposite of the Celtic: Latin.

The logic, of course, is somewhat excusable. First of all, these are children's books, and whether magic words are spoken in Latin, Welsh, or Chinese probably goes beyond the level of education that the target reader has had the opportunity to attain. However, I don't think it's appropriate to treat children's literature as throwaway literature, and I'm sure Ms. Rowling and all children's authors would agree. Writing for children is just as demanding as writing for adults, and often perhaps adds a certain responsibility for not leading innocent readers into delusion. Now we should examine whether this responsibility towards children goes as far as to include a total historical exactitude with respect to ancient languages. I don't claim that it does.

The second excuse for misusing ancient languages--if, that is, I can show that they are being in fact misused--is that it cannot be proven with certainty that one ancient language is more appropriate than another in describing an element of a fictional world. And I agree, that since Harry Potter is a work of the imagination, there is no certain response to which language should be used for the spells. It should, after all, be an entirely invented language, shouldn't it? If you were going to write a book about fictional magicians, in what language would you make their spells?

In fact, Rowling's spells are invented. They only sound Latin, but they are not real Latin. Nevertheless, they are recognisable Latin, probably because they heavily use Latin morphemes. And any reader that speaks a language that has borrowed from Latin will at least subconsciously recognise the similarity between the incantations and Latin-sounding words in their own language.

So Ms. Rowling did not entirely invent her incantation, but allowed herself to be inspired by Latin. Perhaps she was following the "hocus-pocus" tradition, and she is certainly justified in doing so. But all her Latin sounds very out-of-place and Churchlike among her Celtic/Gaelic/Breton magicians. And here is where my criticism lies. I get the feeling that Rowling chose Latin because it "sounds old", but I think Gaelic would have been much more appropriate-sounding to the setting.

Will young Potter fans then confuse sorcery with the Roman Church? Will they subconsciously attribute witcherious powers when they later read of Caesar Augustus? Will they come to imagine Roman togas as dark, hooded capes?

I'm not saying they will, but I find the Latin incantations are an imperfection in an otherwise very imaginatively complete series of novels. I would have preferred to hear a more Druidic influence on the language of sorcery. This certainly would have fit in with Rowling's universe, where everything else feels Celtic.

What I'm saying is, when Rowling equates magic with pseudo-Celticism, she errs in casting Latin spells. The Romans conquered the Celts, and the imperial incantations sound much too august in a world that for me should be a maze of twisted dark trees.

Overall, it's a testament to Rowling's talent that I'm nitpicking on an element that takes up less than 0.001% of her text. It's just an oversight that could have otherwise set up a nice Celtic-Roman opposition in the engaging series.

And this makes me wonder with what else we subconsciously associate Latin?


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