owner-bmcr-l | 7 Aug 19:35 2005

BMCR 2005.08.07, J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Translated
into Ancient Greek by Andrew Wilson.  London:  Bloomsbury Publishing,
2004.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 0-7475-6897-9.  $21.95.

Reviewed by Tad Brennan, Northwestern University
(tadbrennan <at> northwestern.edu)
Word count:  1593 words
To read a print-formatted version of this review, see

The book under review is surely one of the most important pieces of
Ancient Greek prose written in many centuries. It will be a delight to
all Classicists, a boon to all teachers of Greek, and a possession for
all time.

It is, of course, Andrew Wilson's translation, into Ancient Greek, of
J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book. It is also, in this reader's
opinion, a complete success. On nearly every page there is some
felicity of composition to be admired, some construction that shows off
the Greek language's power and versatility, some turn of phrase that
arouses admiration for the translator. In its entirety, it is an
extraordinary work -- a prose comp. exercise on an unprecedented scale.
But unlike most prose comp exercises, it is also a wonderfully good

It will also be of great value to teachers of mid-level Greek who are
casting about for texts with which to encourage and entertain their
students. After the Xenophontic parasangs have lost their charm and the
Euripidean trimeters are limping, students can refresh themselves with
a bout of "ikarosphairikê" (Wilson's spot-on neologism for quidditch),
or enjoy the bantering of Fred and George. I don't suppose courses will
be designed around it, but this book will certainly be a valuable

As for the worth of Rowling's opus, considered on its own merits, I
have little to add to the reception it has met thus far. Her
characters, themes, and incidents are all borrowed from a
well-established tradition; she has created a successful pastiche which
has caught the public mood, and has herself been turned into a cultural
phenomenon and media event out of all proportion to her genius -- in
other words, there is no slander that can be leveled at her, which does
not equally apply to Virgil. You who would defend the Mantuan, beware
of denigrating the skills of a successful popularizer.

Those who prefer Homer can find Rowling's antecedents in Lewis, LeGuin,
and Nesbitt (who first taught the world how to use children's easy
acceptance of the abnormal as a device for making magic
matter-of-fact).[[1]] They will note that the theme of the disguised
prince -- the child of apparently humble origins who is finally
recognized as a true and leading member of a higher race -- traces a
long ancestry through Luke Skywalker, Kipling's Kim and the young Wat
of Arthurian legend. Folklore specialists will be able to cite the
Aarne-Thompson number for it, but as an ancient philosopher I find its
pattern in that romantic figure in Plato's Republic (415c), the child
of bronze parents who turns out to have a golden soul. The golden child
is rescued from a household of brutish producers and enrolled in a
special curriculum that will develop his rare and precious powers and
abilities so that he will know vastly more than the common herd,
confront the true natures of good and evil that are beyond the vulgar
comprehension, and in time come to be a savior of the city and its
happiness. Socrates sketches the story briefly and in the third person,
but a dramatic first-person narrative would contain many of the same
emotional elements that animate the story of Harry's rescue from the
house where he does not belong and his elevation to his true home at
Hogwarts. From such distant antecedents Rowling has drawn the elements
of her story -- derivative, if you dislike it, tried and true, if you
do, Virgilian in either case.

But Rowling is more like Homer than Virgil in one important aspect. All
of her books, setting aside the inadequately-edited fifth book, have
the quality that Arnold noted in his essay on translating Homer: they
are rapid, plain, and direct in expression. Unlike the Latin verse of
the "wielder of the moldiest measure ever stated by the lips of man",
Rowling's prose is never stilted, never cluttered up with purple
patches; it never gets in the way of the story she sets out to tell.
When she is writing at her best -- as in the first book, and now again
in the slimmed-down sixth -- she is a monster of celerity.

Does Wilson preserve this feature of Rowling's English? I think he
does, in the main. His Greek is generally clear, not highly flavored,
and not excessively periodic. He has said that he adopted Lucian as his
model for Greek prose, but what this seems to mean in practice is an
intelligent and high-minded fourth-century syntactical armature,
combined with a libertine and unfussy embrace of vocabulary from every
era and idiom. The lexical promiscuity was largely forced on him by the
vast number of things he needs to talk about -- parking meters, golf,
trains, and Golden Snitches among others. He sometimes uses
circumlocutions, but more often uses post-Classical Greek, or
transliterates, or simply invents (e.g. "not even dressed in Muggle
clothes" becomes "<greek>A)LLA\ KAI\ FOROU=NTES I(MA/TIA PA/NU

I will not provide further details of Wilson's ingenious translations
of the characters' names, and his inventive coinages of ancient terms
for modern appurtenances, because the reader can more easily learn
about them by consulting Wilson's own discussions, posted on the web
(http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/harry_potter.htm) . There
Wilson has also begun to provide some commentary on his translation, as
well as some Greek-to-English vocabulary aids. (It is to be hoped that
these aids to teaching will be completed in the fullness of time).

I have found only a few errors, most of them inconsequential,[[2]] and
a few points at which I might venture diffident disagreement with the

Ollivander the wand-maker, on first seeing Harry's scar, says "I'm
sorry to say I sold the wand that did it". Wilson renders this as
H(/NPER AU)TO\S A)/KWN A)PEDO/MHN POTE/.</greek>" That last Greek
clause claims that, at the time of sale, Olivander found himself
reluctant to sell the wand to the young Tom Riddle
(<greek>A)/KWN</greek> has to be contemporaneous with
<greek>A)PEDO/MHN</greek>). But nothing in the English tells us about
his feelings back then; rather, he is describing his own current
reluctance to talk about the role that he inadvertently played.

At the end of their shopping trip in Diagon Alley, Hagrid tells Harry
"Got time fer a bite to eat before yer train leaves." This Wilson
TRE/NO A)NABH=NAI SE/.</greek>" This use of "kairos" is not strictly
incorrect, but the English would have been better rendered with, e.g.
skhole^. Kairos is punctual and mandatory, indicating the instant when
you must act. There will be no other time, or at least no better time,
and the kairos is passing while we speak. Skholê is durative and
permissive; it indicates a more or less broad expanse of time, anywhere
within which one may act, or not act, with equal ease. Had Hagrid said
"Now's the time when we should eat", kairos would have been just right;
for "got time", with its implication of options and possibilities,
kairos does not strike me as dead on. Not incorrect, mind you; but if a
student wanted to get the flavor of "kairos", this is not the passage
to which I would point them.

That I have only two quibbles, and quibbles of such a small order, will
tell you that Wilson is nearly always dead on. He has a wonderful ear
for idiom, both in English and in Greek, and reading through his book
will teach any student of prose composition an immense amount about the
fine points of Attic composition. That he was able to produce such
quantities of such beautiful, readable, enjoyable, ancient Greek prose
is truly astounding.

There are many passages that brought a smile to me in reading; I list a

"It was really lucky that Harry now had Hermione as a friend," from the
"Quidditch" chapter, becomes "<greek>KAI\ E(/RMAION DH\ H)=N TW=|
*(AREI/W| TO\ *(ERMIO/NHN NU=N E)/XEIN FI/LHN</greek>" (p. 147) --
lovely and idiomatic use of "hermaion", lovely pun on Hermione's name,
lovely "dê".

Here is Professor Quirrel's first entrance in the Leaky Cauldron, sham
stammer and all:
"P-P-Potter," stammered Professor Quirrel, grasping Harry's hand,
"c-can't t-tell you how p-pleased I am to see you."

And here is Wilson's rendition:


Amazing. This is perhaps Wilson's showiest piece of polyglot
pyrotechnics; he usually keeps himself more discreetly in the
background. But there are many similar delights to be discovered
throughout the book.

It is also worth keeping in mind that this volume is a double triumph
for the Classical profession: Wilson and Rowling are both products of
the English insistence on the importance of Classical teaching. Rowling
herself studied Latin and uses it liberally in formulating the wizards'
spells; it is charming to hear the heavy Latin syllables once again
invested with weight and power and pleasing to think that a generation
of children may hear something magical in them. We may take some small
amount of pride in Rowling, and we certainly owe her a debt of

I very much hope that Wilson will produce further translations into
Ancient Greek, whether of successive Potter volumes, or of other
contemporary works. There should be a market for such works, especially
when the original is capable of enticing students and when the
translation is so brilliantly achieved.


1.   C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the other
"Narnia" stories. Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the other
Earthsea stories. E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, The Enchanted
Castle, and several other fantasy tales. My daughter Alexandra tells me
that she found extensive parallels to the Potter stories in Jane
Yolen's 1991 book "Wizard's Hall", though the date makes direct
influence less likely.

2.   On page 11, he gives to Dumbledore the line "Shhh! You'll wake the
Muggles!" which my English edition gives to McGonagall. On page 67, the
length of Voldemort's wand is thirteen and a half inches in the
English, which gives "<greek>E)NNEAKAI/DEKA DAKTU/LWN</greek>" in
Greek. On p. 69, Voldemort's wand is again said to be thirteen and a
half inches, but now this becomes "<greek>O)KTWKAI/DEKA KAI\ H(MI/SOUS
DAKTU/LWN</greek>" -- a mere conversion error, I suppose. On p. 229
when the White Queen steps forward and strikes Ron, the printers have
allowed a curious double-sigma to creep into the line in place of a
definite article. In fact on the whole the proof-reading was
exceptionally good; this piece of popular fiction had, so far as I can
see, fewer mistakes in the Greek than some editions of classical texts
one sees reviewed in this journal.