Harry Potter and the Mystery of the Author’s Name

(Written by Team Cotsen)

But what’s in a name really? We could say that names are important. Think of how much effort parents put into giving their new baby the perfect name. Or we could argue that names do not really matter. After all “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Confucius cautioned that “if names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things”. But names just do so often fail to tell us anything useful about their possessors. Names can even be disadvantageous to their owners when they are interpreted through sweeping generalizations and preconceived bias.

Writer J.K. Rowling knows all about the contradictory nature of names—their undeniable influence and false promises.  When naming characters in the wizarding world of the Harry Potter series, she masterfully plays with the meaning, form, and sound of names. Think of Professor Trelawney, who teaches at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As a Divination teacher and the great-great-granddaughter of a celebrated seer, she is appropriately named “Sibyll” after Sibyl, prophetess in Greek legend. Her telling first name and impressive pedigree notwithstanding, Sibyll Trelawney appears to be an untalented fake with no real foretelling skills to pass along to young witches and wizards. However, after we have all dismissed her as a fraud, like Hermione has early on, we gradually learn that Sibyll is the progenitor of major prophecies that have had a profound impact. An irony turns on its head.

Or think of Tom Riddle. In bygone days when he answered to his birth name, Tom is known as school prefect, Head Boy, and winner of the Award for Special Services to the School. Handsome and well-liked by most Hogwarts teachers, Tom is expected to head for a spectacular future. In the story Tom himself tinkers with the power of naming by making a riddle out of it (see what I did there?). He anagrams his own full name Tom Marvolo Riddle in order to create his darker moniker out of the same letters–I am Lord Voldemort. When Tom reappears under that new title, he fashions a new identity imbued with so much terror that its mere mention sends fearsome vibes around, a bit like the naming of the Devil in superstition or black magic legends.

Other Harry Potter characters have suggestive names: for instance, Lupin, Black, Malfoy, as well as Harry.  Lupin’s name suggests his werewolf aspect and seems to add a sinister touch to his character in a world where neither Harry nor the reader knows whom to trust. Similarly, Sirius Black is first presented as a villain, a supposed “mass murderer” and a practitioner of dark magic.  Both names belie the true nature of these wizards’ benevolence (and their canine associations), as the reader discovers only after events unfold in the books.  Malfoy?  Bad faith, bad intentions, malefactor…  What about Harry?  Harry is a common nickname for Henry in England. Henry V, one of the great heroes of English history, is generally called “Harry” in Shakespeare’s play Henry V. What better, and more typically English, first name could there be for a heroic young wizard?

Some characters’ names seem to evoke the old-time and eccentric world of Harry Potter.  Filch, Snape, Slughorn, for instance.  All could be characters’ names out of a Charles Dickens’s novel, along with the likes of Pecksniff, Chuzzlewit, Magwitch, Miss Haversham, and Uriah Heep.

Meanwhile in the muggle world, Rowling and her publishers know all about the promises and misgivings of naming firsthand. Most people have noticed that the title of the first volume differs between British and American editions (Philosopher’s Stone versus Sorcerer’s Stone). The book’s American publisher, A.A. Levine Books, felt that the medieval alchemical connotations of the “Philosopher’s Stone” would be lost on an American audience, and that the alliteration of sorcerer and stone was more pleasing anyway. It is likewise common knowledge that her editor at Bloomsbury Publishing suggested using initials on the book cover of the first edition so as not to give away Rowling’s gender. A female author named “Joanne” was considered a potential turn-off for boy readers (and might still be perceived so, despite the phenomenal contributions that writers like Rowling and Suzanne Collins have made to the genre). Not to mention that the use of initials conjures up an association with older male English scholars and authors in the genre, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Common knowledge—at least we thought it was, until a passage found in Marja Mills’s new book, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (Penguin, 2014), made the children’s literature community do a double take at the issue:

“Harper Lee” had other benefits that became clear early on. Especially in the early years, not everyone knew the author was a woman. The name could be either. Would S.E. Hinton’s novel about troubled Tulsa teens have taken hold the way it did, especially with boys, if the name on the cover was Susan Eloise Hinton? Joanne Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone under that name, but her publishers were looking at the marketplace and so her future books came out under J.K. Rowling. (Mills, 224)

Did Rowling really publish the first installment of her fantasy series under “Joanne,” and change to “J. K.” in the second volume? On the Child_Lit mailing list where the question was posed, even die-hard Harry Potter fans and senior children’s literature scholars were confused by that statement for a moment, unsure if what they had remembered was accurate (Levin et al.).

We think the Cotsen Children’s Library can help clear up the confusion! After a nauseating (as usual) ride accompanied by a trusted libgon to the deepest vaults of Rare Books and Special Collections, we have emerged with several copies of Harry Potter books in their earliest published forms. (You have never heard of “libgons”? They are the special agents who guard library treasures. Yeah, we know the name is a mouthful and, occasionally, our libgons have been disgruntled that their title does not sound as fantastical as that of their colleagues who work for Gringotts.)

A few Harry Potter copies housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library. From left to right: an uncorrected proof (Cotsen 52989); first American edition (Cotsen 21739); a German translation (Cotsen 16930).

A few Harry Potter copies housed at the Cotsen Children’s Library. From left to right: an uncorrected proof (Cotsen 52989), first American edition (Cotsen 21739), and a German translation (Cotsen 16930).

You may have noticed that the name “J.K. Rowling” is not ubiquitous in all editions. The German edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire above displays the name “Joanne K. Rowling” on the cover, which encourages the speculation that the initials-and-last-name format does not carry the same connotation in Germany as it does in Anglophone countries.

Let’s take a closer look at the different editions of the first volume we have here at Cotsen.

First up, our earliest copy, the 1997 uncorrected proof of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (52989):

52989 front cover

The familiar initials “J. K.” are found here on the cover.

52989 title page

But the title page ascription has a typo! Apparently J. A. Rowling wrote this book . . . good thing it is just the uncorrected proof.

52989 copyright page

Notice how the copyright is issued to “Joanne Rowling.”

52989 signature

Cotsen’s copy is even signed by the author, as J.K. Rowling.

Next up, our copy of the 1998 first American edition, first issue (46385):

46385: The very familiar ascription to "J.K. Rowling" and Mary GrandPré cover art introduced the series to millions of American children, young adults, and grown-ups.

The very familiar ascription to “J.K. Rowling” and Mary GrandPré cover art introduced the series to millions of American children, young adults, and grown-ups.

46385: the title page with the vignette of Hogwarts

the title page with the vignette of Hogwarts

21739 copyright page

Unlike the British edition, the ascription “Joanne Rowling” does not appear on the copyright page of the American edition, or anywhere else for that matter.

46385: On the back of the dust jacket, notice how the author is referred to as the single mother "Ms. Rowling."

On the back of the dust jacket, notice how the author is referred to as the single mother “Ms. Rowling.”

Last but not least (and drum roll please), a copy of the definitive 1997 first British edition, first issue (Cotsen 36550):

36550: A much less familiar front cover, illustrated by Thomas Taylor.

A much less familiar front cover, illustrated by Thomas Taylor.

36550: Title page ascribed to J. K. Rowling!

Title page ascribed to J. K. Rowling!

36550: The copyright, however, is ascribed here to Joanna Rowling.

The copyright, however, is ascribed here to Joanne Rowling.

36550 back cover

back cover

A modest number of hardbound copies were printed for the first issue of the first British edition. Various sources on the Internet have given that total number as 350 or 500, and indicated that at least 300 of them were distributed to libraries. Cotsen has acquired one of the ex-library copies. Judging by the frayed book covers and by the crowded circulation stamps, which run to a second charge slip not shown in the photo below, this copy must have served the residents of Carlisle, UK very well.

36550 library stamp

The original owning library stamped front paste down endpaper.

36550: first charge slip

Though it is hard to make out here, the earliest stamped check-out date is “Sept. 11, 1998.”

In short, the answer to the quiz that began this post is: All of the following!


Levin, Sharon, et al. “Quick question, re: original cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.Child_lit. Rutgers.edu, 3 Sept. 2014. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.

Mills, Marja. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. Print.

If that’s not enough Harry Potter love for you, check out these miniatures and doll houses made by Sally Wallace featured on Cotsen’s outreach blog:


Pop Goes The Page: Magical Miniatures