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Essay: Finding the Founders. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Essay: Finding the Founders.

Where are the Founders from?  This vexed question has exercised the wits of half fandom (not to mention the half-wits of fandom) for some time.  In the absence of an explicit answer in canon, I cannot profess to answer, but I can make what I think are some useful suggestions.


These suggestions are based upon the following:


       Canonical hints such as, primarily, the Sorting Hat’s remarks, the bye-names (it was a bit early in period for actual surnames) of the founders, and the like;

       Prosopography and the long years of very useful work done by such groups as those working with the English Place Names Survey and the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England projects;

       Some working knowledge of the 10th Century;

       Some familiarity with the map; and

       An evaluation of JKR’s own personal history.


Notoriously, we know this much at least, that Godric came ‘from wild moor’, Helga from ‘valley broad’ or ‘vale’, Rowena ‘from glen’, and ‘shrewd Slytherin’ from ‘fen’.


There can be little doubt that ‘shrewd Slytherin’ necessarily came from East Anglia, the fen country, and a place with a certain popular reputation for a rather dubious and monkey-like cleverness in certain strata, at least: as Rupert Brooke memorably put it, in a phrase that is fairly common currency in the educated classes in England (and one that has been very much embraced at Oxford, for obvious reasons), ‘Cambridge people rarely smile, Being urban, squat, and packed with guile’: which does rather chime with the CoS description of the rather simian Salazar.  Moreover, whilst it is very difficult to imagine a coherent reason why – within the Potterverse’s feigned history, and without considering JKR’s personal history – someone from East Anglia or indeed anyone else in the British Isles would bear the name ‘Salazar’ in the 10th Century, it would be easy enough to back-form a cod Anglo-Saxon root for ‘Slytherin’: sliþrian, perhaps.


The search for Helga’s origins is a bit dodgier.  One’s immediate reaction to the phrase, ‘the valleys’, is to look to Wales.  A derivation for ‘Hufflepuff’ is extremely difficult, unless my suggestion that it is an abraded form of the Norse Hvalpuf, ‘Whale-spout’, holds merit.  Why Norse?  Because ‘Helga’ is a classic sample of a Norse – in this context, Viking – forename.  Vikings are generally associated with the Danelaw, which would place, as JKR presumably did not mean to place, Helga’s origins in the East of England, which is already occupied by Slytherin, and, what’s more, which isn’t an area noted for vales and broad valleys (which, where they exist, as in the Northeast, would tend to be called, rather, ‘dales’).  But if we look to Wales, we find that at the time of and preceding Hogwarts’s foundation, Vikings held much of the coast and some parts inland, as at Swansea (Sweyn’s isle) and in the Vale of Glamorgan.  I would put Helga’s origins, then, in Wales, or possibly in the Welsh-influenced and Viking-raided Northwest, in Cumbria.


‘Rowena’ is a Saxon or Jutish name, associated with Kent, and historically borne by the daughter of Hengist whom Vortigern (the enemy of Arthur’s forebears and the man who let the Saxons into Britannia) married as his second wife, in the generation before Merlin’s days.  ‘Ravenclaw’, in turn, sounds to most ears like a bye-name translated directly from the Gaelic (or possibly Welsh).  But there is no reasonable means of associating ‘glens’ with Kent or the Southeast.  ‘Glen’ is very typically Scottish.  How, even five centuries after Rowena Hengist-daughter wed Vortigern Vorteneu, could the name Rowena make it to Scotland?  There are two possibilities.  The first is that the name came with such displaced Saxons as the founder of Hogsmeade, Hengist of Woodcroft.  The second is that it made its way into Scotland through the royal families of Gwent and of Powys, who were connected with Vortigern and who were connected also with the North Welsh kingdoms that became linked with Scotland through the Romano-British patrician, Cunedda (Kenneth) Wledig (the Imperator), King of Manau Gododdin (in Scotland) & Gwynedd (in Wales).  In either event, although her Christian name is clearly Saxon, there is little getting around a Scots origin for the Lady of the Glen.


We turn, then to Godric, a man who bears a Saxon baptismal name and a bye-name that suggests that he came from far enough south in England to be a part of the cultural web that linked the late Wessex kings to the Normans (Ethelred the Unready, in 1002, took as his third wife Emma of Normandy, whose grand-nephew would become William the Conqueror).  It is generally presumed that ‘Godric’s Hollow’ is named for Godric Gryffindor, and of course, Godric’s Hollow is associated not only with the Potters, but with Bowman Wright, with the invention of the mechanical snitch, and with Quidditch as a whole.  Finally, of course, we know that Godric Gryffindor came ‘from wild moor’.


I suppose that for many people, and not only readers abroad, ‘moor’ tends to suggest the Pennine slopes, primarily to the eastwards of that chain, in Yorkshire, County Durham, and parts of Northumberland. 


I cannot agree with placing Godric here, even bearing in mind that Saint Godric of Finchale (which is Norfolk) is strongly associated with County Durham.  (Besides, one could as well argue for a different origin on a precisely similar basis by praying in aid the history of Godric the Sheriff, who died at Hastings and who was the sheriff in Berks and Bucks.)


In the first instance, in period, the northern moors are rather too far from the matrix of links between England and Normandy to explain his cognomen of Gryffindor.  In the second, it leaves the South and especially the Southwest without a representative Founder.  Primarily, however, the issues here are toponomastic and derived from JKR’s personal history.


JKR, as we know, was born in Yate (adjoining Sodding Chipbury), lived in Tutshill, Glos, on the Welsh Marches, and in Winterbourne, Glos, and was up at the University of Exeter, where she read Classics and French.  She may be considered more or less a West Countrywoman in most regards.


As I have noted before (http://wemyss.livejournal.com/28063.html), ‘hollow’ is not a particularly common element in English place names, and is perhaps most commonly connected with Ramsey Hollow in Cambs.  However, a deeper look reveals that many or most of the places that include this toponymic element are located in or near the West Country, in Devon, and in Cornwall; and a deeper look still reveals that abraded forms of the element are present mostly in this same region.  I would draw your attention to Holcombe (hollow coombe), National Grid Reference ST 67 49, and Holford (hollow ford), ST 15 41, in Somerset; the two Holwells (ridge in a hollow) in Dorset, respectively at ST 699 119 and ST 70 10; and, in Devon, Holbeton (hollow-bend farm), SX 61 50, Holcombe Burnell (hollow coombe), SX 85 91, Holcombe Rogus (same), ST 05 18, Hollacombe (same), SS 37 02, and Holsworthy (probably slope / hollow enclosure), SS 34 04.  There is no question that JKR would be aware of these places: she has tended to set most of the families whose family life we know much about in the Vale of the River Otter (Weasley, Diggory, Lovegood, Fawcett), or in Wilts on the eastern marches of the West Country; Chudley (Chudleigh) and Falmouth are both in the region; there are Quidditch pitches on Exmoor and Bodmin Moor; and the village of Quoditch is in Devon quite near to Holsworthy and Hollacombe.  Both Hollow Moor and Hollow Tor are in Devon.


Finally, of course, for truly wild moor, one cannot well improve upon Exmoor, Dartmoor, and Bodmin Moor, which are located in Devon and Somerset, in Devon, and in Cornwall, respectively, and are not likely not to have made a lasting mental impression upon an undergraduate at the University of Exeter.


In fact, using Devon, Cornwall, and the West Country as sites (e.g. Budleigh) or as bases for surnames (e.g. Dawlish) is something of a default position for JKR.  The association of moors, Quidditch, Godric’s Hollow, the Golden Snitch, and the links with Normandy suggested by Godric’s surname, all persuade me that he is from the West Country, Devon, or Cornwall.  This also ‘balances’ the founders: Scotland, Wales, East Anglia, and the Southwest.


But you may, of course, very well have a better idea.  If so, please do offer it.

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27 comments or Leave a comment
wednesdayschild From: wednesdayschild Date: October 9th, 2006 08:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Slytherin--from Ely, perhaps? The association of the Isle with eels could be linked to his association with snakes.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 9th, 2006 08:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Oh, I quite like that.

Yes. Brill.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 9th, 2006 08:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well, not precisely.

Yes, using the patronymic system, she'd be Rowena verch (daughter of, the female equivalent to ap, son of) Rhys or whatever her father's forename was. But Ravenclaw wouldn't be a surname or a patronymic, and certainly not in the 9th or 10th Cs: there wouldn't really BE surnames. It would be a by-name, like, oh, Little John or Evans the Smith or William Rufus or Ethelred the Unready. And still less would we be dealing with surnames for the Rowena who married Vortigern and for whom, presumably, Rowena the Founder was named.
i_the_eo From: i_the_eo Date: October 9th, 2006 09:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Lovely essay! I'm half-considering forwarding this to my Old English teacher because it ties in so well with our history lessons. But I don't think she's a Potter fan, so perhaps not.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

I'm glad it was of use to you.
beyond_pale From: beyond_pale Date: October 9th, 2006 10:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oddly, I've wanted terribly to source out one founder per 'kingdom': Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.

Any guesswork in assigning these would be quite arbitrary, but I think Godric is British (a lot lot of Siant Georgie) and Helga Scottish (her cup is SO SO OBVIOUSLY a quaich*!!!). 'Fen' probably defaults Salazar to Ireland in this reading (perhaps problematic post-Patrick), which makes Rowena Welsh (I want to flip these two! I also do indeed have a bunch of Horcrux theories hanging on Hengist rendered moot in this case, but which aren't precluded as all four eventually ended up North).

* After HBP was released, the founder/editors of Mugglenet and The Leaky Cauldron interviewed Jo jointly; she gave them each small gifts: Melissa of TLC got a ring in the shape of a snake, and Emerson of Mugglenet got a two-handled metal Scottish hospitality cup called a quaich; clearly both refer to Horcruxed Hogwarts founders' objects.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:27 pm (UTC) (Link)


I think the least arbitrary part of the consideration has to do with the Sorting Hat's canonical remarks. 'Moor' is ambiguous. 'Valleys' suggest but do not mandate Wales. But 'glen' simply has to be Scottish, and 'fen' is absolutely East Anglia: it's as if, oh, an American Founder of whatever magical school there is in America were 'of New England', there's no way that could be made to mean 'from Carolina'. And of course, a thousand years ago, there wasn't, really, a Wales, an Ireland, an England as we know it, or a SCotland per se.
the_gentleman From: the_gentleman Date: October 9th, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm sure you know my thoughts on the Founders, but I still believe that the simplest way around the bye-names is to assume that they're later cognomens developed by fanciful twelfth-century creators of chanson de gestes. But then, I also believe that Salazar is more properly Eleizar, comes from Rouen, and is Jewish vassal of William the Bastard, so my theories are a little outside the fandom mainstream.
tiferet From: tiferet Date: October 10th, 2006 01:54 am (UTC) (Link)
My Salazar's half Moor, half Basque. And prone to dalliances with fairies. It's a Spanish name of Basque origin. Rowena's the really problematic one; according to the SCA College of Arms they've not been able to find any primary source evidence for its use in this period.
unlikely2 From: unlikely2 Date: October 10th, 2006 07:45 am (UTC) (Link)
I seem to remember reading that 'Rowena' was invented by Sir Walter Scott for his story 'Ivanhoe'.
Historically, scholars have tended to get about a bit; the founders could have originated anywhere. Helga sounds to be of Nordic origin and I do like your Salazar theory. The fens could also mean the what is now Summerset Levels and was then floodland surrounding the Isle of Avalon.
Godric and Rowena are probably Brits but their ancestry could be diverse.
tiferet From: tiferet Date: October 10th, 2006 08:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Also, most of my meta and RPG/fic worldbuilding dates to before OOTP. It was in OOTP that purebloods were first said to be all about the pure human magickal blood rather than just the pure magickal blood. Ergo, the fairy with which Salazar dallied (but who was not the mother of his actual lineage, that being the Marvolos) was given the Basque name "Aranxta" but her part-human, Romano-Celtic descendants were referred to by annoyed Norman invaders as "les mal fées", a form of which appellation eventually became the family name of a family consisting of slight, aristocratic, malicious people with pale skin, silver hair and pointy faces who had a habit of laughing and crying at the wrong things and frequently satirised their enemies in verse...
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Er, well.

The Levels may be fenland in the technical sense, but I just don't see them being called that by anyone, any more than one would casually call Romney March or the Wash, 'the fens': fenlands simply have too established a meaning, restricted to East Anglia and indeed the area within a certain distance of Wisbech, Peterborough, and Ely. It's a possible usage, but, if you'll pardon the pun, unlikely, at least in an author with West Country connexions and an acute sense for what is and isn't common local usage.
unlikely2 From: unlikely2 Date: October 10th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Er, well.

Neither 'fens' nor 'fenland' but 'fen' both to accord with the theme of geographical features and to rhyme with 'glen'; I suppose it could be agued either way.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Aye, hen, aye.

It could well be argued either way, and doubtless in other ways yet we've not thought of. I wonder will the Sphinx of Morningside ever enlighten us with actual canon?

(I do find it amusing to imagine the Three on the blasted heath referring to Salazar: 'fillet of a fenny snake'....)
the_gentleman From: the_gentleman Date: October 10th, 2006 11:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Salazar was also the dictator of Portugal for a good long while, although that was as a surname rather than a first name. Since JKR spent a while in Portugal teaching English and married a Portugese man, I would agree that that's the more likely route to the name. Nonetheless, JKR's sheer lack of medieval history suggests that the Founders are one of those areas impervious to Watsonian approaches without becoming uncanonical...
From: kaskait Date: October 10th, 2006 02:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I also pegged Salazar Slytherin as a Spanish Moor as well as his name being a play on Eleazar/Lazarus/Osiris. According to Alchemy history, the Arabs brought their alchemy knowledge with them during their excursions into Spain.

Rowling's Hogwarts was founded not long after the invasion.

But all of it is just speculation until Rowling chooses to enlighten us in hints or canon.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

IF she ever enlightens us. Yes.

Still, Slytherin or his forefathers must have been in England for some time before the founding, to be 'from fen' in the Hat's record.
From: kaskait Date: October 10th, 2006 05:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: IF she ever enlightens us. Yes.

Yes. That is a fact from canon.

Which leads me to suspect that maybe Salazar Slytherin is also an alias. I wonder what company he kept that inspired him to this name.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 06:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

God knows.

But it's certain to have been damned dodgy company.
From: kaskait Date: October 10th, 2006 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: God knows.

Definately. Maybe Godric got to the bottom of that mystery coupled with Slytherin's crazy pureblood mania. Hence Slytherin's early "retirement".
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

She's no better at maths, is she.

Still, one does what one can.

And I rather suspect that the Irregular's method of resolving the usage, 'Salazar Slytherin', must turn upon the inability of the English to understand Hispanic naming patterns (e.g., Garcia Lorca, or Cervantes [y] Saavedra): no one knew, used, or remembered Slytherin's first name because they thought his matronymic from his 'dratted vurriner' mother WAS his forename.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Iberian, yes.

But Basque? I wonder. The town whence the name derives is in Castilla la Vieja, in the Ebro Valley. Still, you could well be right.

Now. I cannot see where Rowena's name is 'problematic'. She's right there in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Historia Regum Britanniae dates to 1136 or so. Moreover, sloppy though Geoffrey was, he did have some sources to work from. Gildas, Bede, and Nennius all tell the Vortigern story, and his marriage to Hengest's daughter is recorded, and these works predate the 9th C. The mid-9th C Pillar of Eliseg, erected by the Powys royal dynasty, records their descent from Vortigern and his first wife, Severa verch Macsen (Severa, daughter of Maximus). It is claimed that St Faustus of Riez, the Bishop of Rhegium in Southern Gaul from about 461 on, was descended (son or grandson) of Rowena Hengistdaughter and Vortigern.

All of this may be balls, but it's CONTEMPORARY balls. And once a name gets into saintly vitae and royal pedigrees, people begin giving it to their sprogs, even if the saint or monarch was purely legendary. There's no reason that 'Rowena' should not have been a Christian name in the 9th and 10th Cs, 500 years after Vortimer married the Kentish Maid.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)


... I give you the possibility that the cognomens came later. The rest, well, we're all of us merely speculating, I agree.
reignofthenight From: reignofthenight Date: October 10th, 2006 12:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amazing piece of research. I do want to say one thing though, about the invasion of the Danes (or the vikings). King Alfred the Great of Wessex defeated them and according to the peace treaty that was signed, the Danes were given a large portion of England to live in the north. Then how did you come up with Wales? I don't understand...
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 10th, 2006 03:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Ah. Well....

The Danelaw, in East Anglia and the Northeast, is an entirely separate matter, in part, of course, because a treaty between the English of Wessex, even as more-or-less overlords of much of England, including sub-kingdoms in areas outside the West Country's primary Wessex lands, in no way affected any of the Welsh sovereignties. (Wales was wholly independent at the time, and still divided into numerous small kingdoms.) The Vikings held Dublin throughout this time, and from there regularly raided and occupied parts of the various Welsh kingdoms (indeed, in 902, three years after Alfred's death, were raiding Anglesey); they were settled at Swansea, amongst other places in Wales, between the 9th and 11th Centuries.
swissmarg From: swissmarg Date: November 28th, 2006 01:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Your Essay Would Be Perfect for Posting on FictionAlley!

You should consider posting this essay in Harry Potter InkPot (HIP) on FictionAlley. HIP is the House on FictionAlley for essays on topics related to Harry Potter. You can read more about it here:

wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 2nd, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC) (Link)


I really ought to do.
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