The Charms of Rosmerta: Harry Potter, a pagan goddess and the English school story


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This term I am in the enviable position of teaching Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as part of the first-year literature module.  Aside from giving me an excuse to reread Beatrice Groves’ terrific Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, and encouraging me to draw diachronic connections between the texts on the module (Silas Marner…Goblin Market…Philosopher’s Stone…it’s essentially “Goblin Issues In Modern Prose”), this means I generally have Hogwarts on the brain more than usual this term.

So when I came across the passage below in Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain, it rang a bell.

Precisely the same qualities were manifested by another divinity apparently imported from Gaul, the goddess Rosmerta, the “Good Giver”, who was represented with an axe, apparently to sum up her role as a guardian, and a barrel of food or drink or a butter churn, representing her provision of plenty.  Images that strongly resemble her have been found in and around the Cotswold Hills…


Relief image of goddess of abundance, provisionally identified with Rosmerta

As readers of J.K. Rowling’s novels will know, Madam Rosmerta is the name of the proprietor of the Three Broomsticks, the local pub of the village of Hogsmeade.  This village stands just outside Hogwarts, and the students are permitted to visit it once they reach a certain seniority in the school. On making a cursory search of the shallower reaches of the online Hogwarts rabbit-holes, I found that I was by no means the first to notice this connection.  It is a recognised part of Potter allusion-hunting, traced to a document written by Rowling herself, “more idle jottings”, in which she mentions Rosemerta as a Celtic goddess known as the “Good Giver”.

Going beyond the recognition of the reference, I was interested by what it brought to the text.  Rosmerta is, from one point of view, a symbolic focus of this part of the Hogwarts landscape.  Hogsmeade’s name seems to be made from a combination of “hogshead”, a large barrel/ measurement, often for beer, and “mead”, the fermented drink popular in medieval Europe (and elsewhere.)  The name conjures up a Merrie England of ale and jollity, an image of England’s past popular in the early twentieth century, and this aligns with the location’s function in the novels.

After all, it is initially framed as a place to which students can go for entertainment and relaxation, outside the wall of their school. A trip to Hogsmeade is a jolly day out, and at the centre of this image is a woman who bears the name of a goddess of plenty.  A goddess, indeed, often depicted surrounded by barrels (also known as hogsheads) or butter churns.  The drink most frequently served at the Three Broomsticks is called “butterbeer”, a beverage which apparently conflates the two kinds of cask which accompany Rosmerta.  This does not prove that Rowling looked at images of the goddess Rosemerta, and deliberately chose to invent a drink which combined the names of butter and beer, but there is enough of a coincidence here to suggest that it may have connected the two things in her imagination.

Rosmerta and her pub can equally be interpreted in terms of Rowling’s literary forerunners.  The village outside the school is a staple location for the school fiction upon which the Harry Potter novels draw so deeply for their basic settings, plots and structures.  Trips to the village (or town) are part of the plots of Enid Blyton’s school stories (such as The Naughtiest Girl in the School), where they may involve buying sweets or gramophone records, or furthering the plot by seeing someone who was supposed to be confined to the school grounds.

In Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings Goes To School “foxing” down into town without permission is a mark of the nerve and daring of one of the older boys (because “there’s a lethal punishment for foxing”)  When the new boys Jennings and his friend Derbyshire try to run away from the school, and are caught by an understanding master, Jennings takes the opportunity to buy some rock from a sweetshop.  He assures the master that this will allow him to solve his problems without “telling tales”, and uses it to establish his credibility with the other boys, claiming it is the spoils of an impromptu foxing expedition.

The location is significant even in mildly parodic versions of the genre: A Question of Upbringing, the first novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, is cast as both a school story and a slightly satirical take on the genre itself.  In the “Braddock alias Thorne” episode which come near the end of the boys’ school careers, a visit to the local village enables them to play a prank on a master whom they meet on their walk.  Stringham insists that they stop at a small shack selling lemonade, despite its unappealing appearance and the girl in a “grubby apron and untidy bobbed hair” serving there, in order that he can make a telephone call telling the police that the master is in a criminal they have seen on a wanted poster, and directing them to his location.

Going further back into the genre, villages near school are less likely to be focused around sweet shops, and pubs play a more significant role.  In the Billy Bunter novels of Frank Richards, the ne’er-do-well boys Snoop and Skinner, whose idea of the good life runs more to skulking and smoking than cricket and bathing, slink into the village and put on bets with a bookie at the pub.

In one of the Ur-texts of the genre, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days, the bully and cad Flashman is eventually expelled when he goes for a few pints in the local with some friends who have been bathing, and who do not realize Flashman has already spent the afternoon drinking gin punch, with the result that he is so drunk they cannot get him quietly back to the school.

All of which demonstrates the central place of the village near the school as a location which forms a significant and lasting part of the structure of the school story.  It is a place of treats and self-indulgence, which bring them the risks of illicit indulgence.  It is also (and this is intertwined with that fact) a liminal space where the ordered insular society of the school comes into contact with the outside world.  This can cause or solve problems, and can highlight the inadequacy or skill of those from the school, but it seems to be a continuing function of this location.

Once again, Rosmerta is at the centre of this function.  The Shrieking Shack may be more obvious as a location which allows the dangers or intrigues of the outside world to come near to Hogwarts, but the Three Broomsticks performs the same role, with perhaps a wider range.  The staff and student of Hogwarts drink there, as do various wizards, witches, goblins and other visitors from the outside wizarding world – even senior civil servants apparently drop in for a pint.

This vision of the Three Broomsticks emphasizes its connection with the texts of the school story tradition.  It is, after all, in those books where the pub (rather than the sweet shop) is more likely to play a significant role.  In the Three Broomsticks however, Rosemerta presides as a goddess of wholesome plenty.  Her name is not borrowed from Bacchus or Dionysios or any similar deity of license and intoxication, and her beer brings together the dairy and the taproom in a hearty vision of Old English jollity.  Here, as in other aspects of her fiction, Rowling seems to be instinctively at home in the fictional milieu of the early twentieth century.

The Three Broomsticks certainly sits comfortably alongside the speech by Young Brooke in Tom Brown’s School Days in which he exhorts the fellow schoolboys of his house to drink good English beer and avoid the temptations of rotgut spirits which will ruin their wind and corrupt their characters.  I wonder whether there is a touch of the politics of the alcopop in the Three Broomsticks: the novels were being published in the 1990s, when British society was loudly concerned about the arrival of commercial “ready-mixed” drinks such as WKD and Smirnoff Ice.  In the public debate which took place, in which there was a strong gendered undercurrent, I recall a similar praising of traditional pubs in which generations mixed and drank real ale, and supposedly thus curbed drunkenness and disorder.

This being an English novel, being read by an English literary critic, of course the meaning of this Gaulish goddess’ appearance in a fantasy novel cannot stop there.  It must be about class somehow.  And indeed I think it is.  One of Rosmerta’s other attributes is a rather broadly-sketched sexuality: she is described as “pretty” and “curvy”, and Ron blushes when he has to address her.  Whilst she is never described as “buxom”, the romantic attractions of women from the local village are also an element of the location’s significance in older school stories.  This is even more significant given Rosmerta’s butter churns, her serving butterbeer, and an extended passage which I will quote from Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co:

They sought a little bottle-windowed half dairy, half restaurant, a dark-brewed, two-hundred-year-old house, at the head of a narrow side street. They had patronized it from the days of their fagdom, and were very much friends at home.

“We’ve come to pay our debts, mother,” said Stalky, sliding his arm round the fifty-six-inch waist of the mistress of the establishment. “To pay our debts and say good-by — and — and we’re awf’ly hungry.”

“Aie !” said Mother Yeo, “makkin ‘ love to me! I’m shaamed of ‘ ee.”

“‘Rackon us wouldn’t du no such thing if Mary was here,” said McTurk, lapsing into the broad North Devon that the boys used on their campaigns.

“Who’m takin ‘ my name in vain?”

The inner door opened, and Mary, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and apple-cheeked, entered with a bowl of cream in her hands. McTurk kissed her. Beetle followed suit, with exemplary calm. Both boys were promptly cuffed.

“Niver kiss the maid when ‘e can kiss the mistress,” said Stalky, shamelessly winking at Mother Yeo, as he investigated a shelf of jams.

“Glad to see one of ‘ee don’t want his head slapped no more?” said Mary invitingly, in that direction.

“Neu! Reckon I can get ’em give me,” said Stalky, his back turned.

“Not by me — yeou little masterpiece! ”

“Niver asked ‘ee . There’s maids to Northam. Yiss — an’ Appledore.”

An unreproducible sniff, half contempt, half reminiscence, rounded the retort.

“Aie! Yeou won’t niver come to no good end. Whutt be ‘baout, smellin’ the cream?”

“‘Tees bad,” said Stalky. “Zmell ‘un.”

Incautiously Mary did as she was bid.

“Bidevoor kiss. Niver amiss,” said Stalky, taking it without injury.

“Yeou — yeou — yeou —” Mary began, bubbling with mirth.

“They’m better to Northam — more rich, laike an ‘ us gets them give back again, ” he said, while McTurk solemnly waltzed Mother Yeo out of breath, and Beetle told Mary the sad news , as they sat down to clotted cream, jam, and hot bread.

“Yiss. Yeou’ll niver zee us no more, Mary. We’re goin ‘ to be passons an ‘ missioners.”

This may not make for comfortable reading in the twenty-first century, either in terms of gender or class, but it seems to me that the dairy restaurant in North Devon looms large in the literary family tree of the Three Broomsticks.  Rosmerta’s physical attractiveness for male students, the very slight overuse of speech tags like “do you know”, “I mean” and “If you’d told me” which signal her as a slightly different rhetorical class to Harry and friends, and her provision of dairy-based drinks, all come together in Mary Yeo.  These apparently disparate elements of her character are in fact part of her role in the genre tradition which stands behind Hogwarts.

Thus the elements of the goddess Rosmerta’s imagery which find their way into Hogsmeade are shaped and reordered by the literary tradition Rowling is drawing upon and the cultural politics of both that tradition and her own moment.  The “Good Giver” of Gaul finds her place as the sister of Mary Yeo, at a pub in an idealised Merrie England to be found just outside the school grounds.