“Potter” and “Python” – Part 1: “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
British comedy is an obsession of mine. I love ‘Monty Python’.¹
Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the first Monty Python broadcast on October 5, 1969. J.K. Rowling loves Monty Python, and it is a love that has left its fingerprints all over her novels. Probably my favorite Python parallel (hat tip to John Granger²) is the way that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens by introducing the reader not to its hero but to the “perfectly normal” Dursleys, who are “the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious” (SS, Ch. 1). In the Python episode, “You’re No Fun Anymore” (Season 1, Episode 7), the narrator describes the ordinary lives of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Brainsample:
It was a day like any other and Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Brainsample were a perfectly ordinary couple, leading perfectly ordinary lives – the sort of people to whom nothing extraordinary ever happened and not the kind of people to be the center of one of the most astounding incidents in the history of mankind … So let’s forget about them and follow, instead, the destiny of this man… Harold Potter.
There are many more Python-esque moments to follow, such as when Ron leaves Moody’s class having not entirely shaken off the Imperius Curse and cannot help “skipping on every alternate step.” Ron’s silly walk is reminiscent of Mr. Pudey’s rudimentary silly walk in one of Python‘s most famous sketches: “It’s not particularly silly, is it? I mean, the right leg isn’t silly at all, and the left leg merely does a forward aerial half turn every alternate step.”
The Potter films include many echoes to Python‘s infamous film Life of Brian (also celebrating a significant anniversary this year), which has been voted – in Total Film magazine in 2000 – the funniest film ever made. Ron’s bemusement over what Hermione can possibly see in famous, older, international-Quidditch-star Krum, for example, draws closely on the central gag of Life of Brian’s brilliant “What have the Romans ever done for us?” skit. Professor Binns’s straitlaced reference to a September meeting of a subcommittee of Sardinian sorcerers carries echoes to the sibilance of Sadducee Stranglers, Syrian Assassins, and several seditious scribes from Caesarea (that causes such trouble in Life of Brian). The title of Chapter 21 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – “The House-Elf Liberation Front” – pokes gentle fun at Hermione’s political ambitions. I suspect that it echoes Life of Brian’s similarly small-scale group Judean People’s Front. Brian asks to join the Judean People’s Front and is told in no uncertain terms that the group he is addressing is the People’s Front of Judea – a completely different group.
The PFJ (like SPEW), however, is not wildly successful at attracting members, although it has done better than the Popular Front (which, like SPEW, appears to have only one [voluntary] member).
Another Python-hued joke in Harry Potter lies in Filch’s comically ghoulish longing for the old ways of punishing pupils. This idea is introduced in Sorcerer’s Stone:
Oh yes… hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me… It’s just a pity they let the old punishments die out… hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I’ve got the chains still in my office, keep ‘em well oiled in case they’re ever needed…” (SS, Ch. 15)
When Harry visits Filch’s study in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he finds this is no mere rhetoric.
A highly polished collection of chains and manacles hung on the wall behind Filch’s desk. It was common knowledge that he was always begging Dumbledore to let him suspend students by their ankles from the ceiling.” (CoS, Ch. 8)
These manacles and the hanging of the miscreant by both his ankles and wrists from the ceiling strongly recall the character of Ben, whom Brian meets when he is thrown in prison in Life of Brian:
My idea of heaven is to be allowed to be put in manacles… just for a few hours… I’ve been here five years! They only hung me the right way up yesterday!
Ben also recalls Filch because he shares his outlook on a certain hankering after the baroque punishments of yesteryear:
Best thing the Romans ever did for us… If we didn’t have crucifixion, this country would be in a right bloody mess… They hung me up here five years ago. Every night, they take me down for twenty minutes, then they hang me up again… and, if nothing else, it’s taught me to respect the Romans.
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore
Harry’s initial hesitation over eating Chocolate Frogs – “They’re not really frogs, are they?” (SS, Ch. 6) – is wise given their source. Monty Python’s chocolate-covered Crunchy Frogs inspire the same question from a dubious inspector: “Am I right in thinking there’s a real frog in ‘ere?” And this question gets a less reassuring answer in Python. For all that the confection has been lovingly enrobed in a “Swiss, quintuple-smooth, treble-milk chocolate envelope,” the inspector advises that the Whizzo Chocolate company will need “to replace the words ‘Crunchy Frog’ with the legend, ‘Crunchy, Raw, Unboned Real Dead Frog’ if you wish to avoid prosecution.”
Dumbledore – in his combination of erudition and surreal comedy – is probably Rowling’s most Python-esque character. So it is deeply fitting that when Harry wants to access his study in Chapter 29 of Goblet of Fire and stands there hopelessly listing sweets – (“Lemon drop? […] Pear Drop. Er – Licorice Wand. Fizzing Whizbee. Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans […] Chocolate Frog! Sugar Quill! Cockroach Cluster!”) – he names among this list the Python-esque Chocolate Frog. More than this, however, Rowling recalls Python’s infamous “Cheese Shop Sketch” here – which pretty much consists entirely in listing cheeses: “Brie, Roquefort, Pont-l’Eveque, Port Salut, Savoyard, Saint-Paulin, Carre-de-L’Est, Boursin, Bresse Bleu, Perle de Champagne?” To underline the Python link, the confection that Dumbledore has chosen as his password – the deeply unlikely-sounding “Cockroach Cluster” – is a straight lift from Python. Cockroach Clusters, like Crunchy Frogs, are one of the chocolates in Python’s Whizzo Quality Assortment.
I think that Monty Python might also be behind Rowling’s choice of “Brian” as Dumbledore’s brilliantly incongruous middle name. Dumbledore’s full name – Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore – is only revealed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by which time a number of religious readings of the series had surfaced – readings that Rowling responded to in an interview with “Dumbledore is not Jesus.”³ Brian in Life of Brian is famously “not the messiah,” and my hunch is that this apparently humdrum middle name – which sticks out so strikingly from all Dumbledore’s other names – is a bit of trademark Rowling playfulness. It is a conscious nod to Python’s use of “Brian” as a comically inappropriate name for a messiah. All of Dumbledore’s other names are deeply symbolic – such as the medieval saint Wulfric (famed for healing and prophecy) or “Percival” (the Arthurian knight who seeks the grail) – and I think this is also the case for “Brian.” The Python link creates a – “Oh, yes, he is”/ “oh, no, he isn’t” – tease for those tempted by a messianic reading of Dumbledore’s omniscient benevolence and self-sacrificial death.
Part 2 tomorrow will look at Potter and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
¹ “About the Books: transcript of J.K. Rowling’s live interview on Scholastic.com.” Accio Quote!, 16 Oct. 2000, http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/1000-scholastic-chat.htm#cats.
² Granger, John. How Harry Cast His Spell. Carol Stream, Salt River, 2009, pp. 275–276
³ Grossman, Lev. “J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All.” Accio Quote!, 17 Jul. 2005, http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2005/0705-time-grossman.htm.
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Rowling’s Goblin Problem?” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.