Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Friday, 20 July 2007 11:38 UK

Hallows be thy name

Harry Potter book on sale

By Neil Hallows

The title of JK Rowling's final boy wizard book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, has long been a source of excited debate among fans. What exactly are hallows?

"Hallows be thy name!" went the playground chant.

At school, I encouraged harmless nicknames as a distraction from those involving skinny legs. A pun based on the Lord's Prayer was not the cruellest thing they could have said.

It didn't last anyway. The children who understood it got bored of explaining it to the ones who didn't. And 30 years have passed almost without a pun - it's just not worth the bother when there are names like Hank Wangford in the world.

But one day last December, I was suddenly back in the playground.

Any clarification of the meaning of 'Hallows' would give away too much of the story - it would, wouldn't it? Being the title and all
JK Rowling

A stream of texts arrived that read like bad cryptic crossword clues, all involving the word "deathly". Posters in bookshops announced my name, although not in the way I would have liked. Fake book covers were lovingly mocked up and e-mailed by friends with quiet jobs and good software. Why did you do it, JK Rowling, why?

Don't expect an answer from the author before the book is published on 21 July. On her official website, she says: "Any clarification of the meaning of 'Hallows' would give away too much of the story - well, it would, wouldn't it? Being the title and all. So I'm afraid I'm not answering."

As no doubt she intended, fans have been speculating since the title was announced six months ago.

Angels of death

Contributors to one fans' site thought it was connected to Godric's Hollow, where Harry's parents James and Lily were killed. I don't think so, but I like that idea because my name may have come from the family once having lived in a hollow, or valley (rather than being especially holy).

Amazon warehouse
Security remains very tight

I am guessing like everyone else, because no Hallows, deathly or otherwise, was consulted on the book. But if you take what the word means, there seem to be two possibilities.

Rowling might just be looking for another way to say "holy" or "saint". The word is best known from All Hallows' Day, otherwise known as All Saints' Day, celebrated on 1 November although with less enthusiasm than the day before, Halloween.

"Deathly saints" are hard to imagine, but think of them as angels of death, and you might just have identified Hogwarts' latest unwelcome boarders.

But I prefer another possibility, which delves into Arthurian legend. Perceval, The Story of the Grail, was written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th Century.

Perceval, one of King Arthur's knights, visits the castle of the wounded and mysterious Fisher King. There he is shown a "Grail" decorated with jewels.

It is the earliest reference we have of the Grail but Chrétien is tantalisingly short on detail. Among later writers a tradition emerged that it was the cup from which Jesus drank at the last supper.

Perceval was shown other objects too - a sword, a platter, and a lance with a drop of blood falling from the tip. They often appear together in the medieval stories, and were described a century ago as the "Hallows" by Arthur Waite, a writer with an interest in the occult.

Celtic myth

Waite's writing makes The Da Vinci Code seem modest and cautious. "Each of the Hallows has its implied enigma... they are both declared and undeclared", he wrote in a curious book of 1909 where he describes the "Hallow-in-chief" - the Grail itself, and the "lesser Hallows".

Yeats, Eliot, Rowling. You don't often list them in the same sentence

This was at the time when it first became popular to look for hidden meanings in the Grail stories. In 1888, the folklore expert Alfred Nutt wrote a highly influential book where he argued the Grail stories were a way of telling an older, pagan, Celtic myth. He linked them to a people called the Tuatha Dé Danann, who are said to have brought four magical treasures to Ireland; a cauldron, spear, stone and sword.

Juliette Wood, a lecturer at Cardiff University and expert on the Grail, says there is insufficient evidence to make the link, as the treasures are sometimes more than four and not always the same.

But it led to something of a craze with books "decoding" Arthurian characters to reveal their supposedly pagan roots. Waite linked the treasures, the four Hallows of the Grail romances, and the suits of the Tarot. So did Jessie Weston, an Arthurian scholar who in 1920 went a stage further and linked them to an ancient fertility ritual.

Da Vinci Code at the Louvre, Paris
The Holy Grail could link the two books

Such theories owed more to the imagination of Waite and Weston and interest in the occult than to historical evidence, says Dr Wood. But their influence was undeniable.

There is still a very healthy industry in finding secret meanings to the Grail. And Waite and Weston have influenced at least two of our greatest authors, although there is still debate as to the extent.

WB Yeats belonged to the same occultist order as Waite, and used tarot imagery in his writing. TS Eliot also alluded to the Tarot, in The Waste Land, and took the title from Weston's description of the Fisher King's barren and sterile territory.

Yeats, Eliot, Rowling. You don't often list them in the same sentence. But the author may well be drawing from the same legend and the sometimes bizarre connections that have been made from it. After all, she is no stranger to ancient myth. Argus, Hermes, Nimbus, Sybill - her books read like a classicist's in-joke, replete with characters who share traits with their Greek or Roman counterparts.

Clue

And the four Hallows connection is all the more likely because the final Harry Potter book is likely to focus on the search for magical relics.

King Arthur in the BBC's Arthur, King of the Britons
Does King Arthur hold the key?

In the previous book, Harry's late headmaster Albus Dumbledore told Harry about horcruxes, objects in which Lord Voldemort had hidden a portion of his soul. Harry has to find and destroy them. Two have already surfaced but there are four mystery objects still to be located, probably related to the founders of Hogwarts.

A big clue came from Rowling's alternative title for the book, for the benefit of a Swedish translator struggling with the word "hallows" - Harry Potter and the Relics of Death.

So if that's not the answer, I'll eat my sorting hat.

If only Arthurian legend could reveal the biggest question of them all, namely whether Potter gets potted.

My nephews (different surname, lucky lads) have promised to tell me if Harry still has a pulse as soon as they reach the end of the 608 pages, which will be a few hours after the book's publication.

Good luck Harry, and don't let the Hallows get you.


Below is a selection of your comments.

As a fellow member of the Hallows Family, I am most excited to see where Rowling has taken the family name. Many of my family members will be lined up at a local bookstore in San Luis Obispo, California with T-shirst that say "Hi, I'm a deathly Hallows". Its not every day that such an obscure last name makes it to stardom. For one I will enjoy the limelight while it lasts.
Ryan Hallows, Bloomington, Indiana

In French too, the official translation of the last Harry Potter book is "Les reliques de la mort" ie the relics of death, so it seems that last idea is the right one.
Caroline, Paris, France

Your comments on a sword being a hallow also ties back to the cover which shows one in Ron's hand.
Matt Bennett, Windsor

The noun Hallow is a derived from the verb "to hallow", which means "to make Holy". There are various degrees: a priestly blessing of the inherently corruptible congregation, or of less-corruptible Holy water, for instance. Then there is the entire panoply of saints, principally in the concrete form of their relics, which are very often fraudulent. And finally there is the limited set of hallows directly associated with the divine, none of which are currently in circulation: the most recent surviving record is of the Ark of the Covenant, last recorded by one of the spiritual fathers of Thomas à Kempis as being in Catholic hands in 1305. Similarly, the Moslim faith respects certain buildings as particularly hallowed by their close association with the Prophet: equally, other religions feel the same way about their origins.
Jel, Swansea

I'd just like to point out to Neil that the Tuatha Dé are actually called the Tuatha Dé Dannan and they were never what you'd consider mortal. They occupied (and if you believe still do) the spiritual realm of the Celts. Almost like the Pagan version of the Holy Trinity. You had the De Dannan (Spiritual) the Fir Bolg (Physical) and then the Celts themselves. Just thought I'd let you know. In relation to Harry Potter.....I lost interest after the 2nd book. Give me Lord of the Rings any day!
Ken, Dublin



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