The Sorcerer’s Companion
The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter. Allan Zola Kronzek and Elizabeth Kronzek. 3rd ed. Broadway Books, 2010. xv + 366 pp., $16.99 (sc). ISBN 978-0307885135.
Reviewed by Jason Fisher
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:1 (#342) in January 2011.]
This is a good start, but one expects something a little more thorough and more complete than a “good start” by the third edition. I have not seen the two previous editions of this title, but this latest still feels like a first edition to me. Judged in that way, it’s not bad, but it could definitely be better. The entire Harry Potter series, plus The Tales of Beedle the Bard, are now well established, but this new edition misses many opportunities. Also, there are more errors than one would like, indicating mediocre research and too little attention to detail. The cover claims it is “updated and complete”, but it is certainly not the latter, as the authors themselves admit in their introduction. Perhaps a disconnect between the authors and their publisher’s marketing department.
The scope also seems a little unclear: nearly all of the entries are ones with a background in the real world; but what about items that are purely Rowling’s invention—e.g., The Room of Requirement, The Ministry of Magic, Aurors, Petronus, Quidditch? Why are these omitted? Moreover, some entries (e.g., “Circe”) have only the slightest connection to Harry Potter. And why, under “Dragons”, if the book is indeed meant to be a “Guide to the Magical World of Harry Potter”, do the authors not give a catalog of the various species described by Rowling? The book ends up being much less about Harry Potter than about a generalized history of magic. This is not automatically a bad thing (many entries are fascinating), but it does make the book’s subtitle a little misleading.
On the other hand, many entries are handled quite well (e.g., “Cauldron”, “Divination”, “Giant”, “Hand of Glory”, and “Magic” itself), offering a broad mythological and literary background, but still solidly tethered to the world of Harry Potter. All readers are sure to learn interesting new things, and many of these will delight Harry Potter fans especially. For instance, the entry for “Nicholas Flamel” is wonderful (though it is a little strange to find it alphabetized under N). The book also has a generous visual component, relying mainly on public domain illustrations from 19th-century histories of magic, divination, alchemy, and the like. On the one hand, these are chosen for practical reasons (no difficulties with copyright); but on the other, they bring a dimension of antique charm to the book. They achieve the effect of making The Sorcerer’s Companion resemble something from the restricted section of the Hogwarts Library, like the notorious Moste Potente Potions. The authors also give the source of each illustration in the back of the book, so that interested readers can track down for themselves gems such as Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal (1863).
I mentioned errors, and indeed there are far too many for a third edition of any book. These fall into two broad categories: mistakes of the Harry Potter variety, and everything else. The former is perhaps worse than the latter. A handful of examples of each kind will have to suffice. Among non-Harry Potter errors, etymologies are often incorrect—e.g., banshee (20) and augur (64). On the other hand, the authors’ discussion of the likely etymology of horcrux is very good (133). Another odd error: the caption to the illustration on p. 60 refers to the “the triple-headed demon Asmodeus”, but the illustration has four heads! And the Edgar Allan Poe short story is not “Conversations with a Mummy” (207), but “Some Words with a Mummy.”
I called the Harry Potter errors the more serious kind. I say this because, while they might seem like trival slips, they undermine the credibility of something pretending to be an encyclopedic guide to the Harry Potter world. For example, it’s just Godric Gryffindor, not Sir Godric Gryffindor (4). Dobby is not wearing a tea towel when Harry first meets him (80), but rather “an old pillowcase”; it is Winky, in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, who wears a tea towel. Speaking of that novel, Harry is never in pursuit of the Goblet of Fire (115); the prize is the Twizard Cup. And Gilderoy Lockhart’s autobiography is called Magical Me, not Marvelous Me (336).
There are also, as I mentioned, significant omissions of important Harry Potter material. In the entry for “Basilisk”, no mention is made of the fact that basilisk venom is one of the few substances capable of destroying a horcrux. For a Harry Potter encyclopedia, this is rather a critical point. Likewise, under “Horcrux” itself, there is no discussion of how to destroy them at all. Is it possible the edition was not really updated to include the complete seven-volume series? Here is another example. One of the perennial questions among Potterphiles is, what is the difference between a charm, jinx, hex, and curse? Though there are entries for all four in The Sorcerer’s Companion, the authors do not attempt an answer.
The page number references are helpful, but could be much more comprehensive. I don’t expect a concordance, but the authors might easily have added one or two more to most of the entries. Entries almost always point to only one, sometimes two, examples in the text. Example: “Elf”—which really ought to be “House-elf,” but never mind—gives only one citation (to the first appearance of Dobby in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets). That is grossly insufficient.
The section, “The Meaning Behind the Names,” is a wonderful addition, right up my street, but I wish the authors had included many more names than they did. In addition, they could have said more about certain of the names they did choose to include. For instance, they often discuss a surname but ignore the given name that goes along with it—e.g., Hagrid, but not Rubeus; Gryffindor, but not Godric. Sometimes, it’s the opposite problem, as in Merope Gaunt, where they ignore the surname—not to mention ignoring the other Gaunts, Marvolo and Morfin. About the names Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort, there is much more that might be said, as I myself have done on my blog (http://lingwe.blogspot.com). All in all, it’s a nice try; maybe the fourth edition will be better still.