My fourth installment on the meaning behind Harry Potter names is now available! Click here or on the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named tab at the top of the page to learn about the clues behind Cornelius Fudge’s ineptitude, Crookshanks’ insight, and Dobby’s bravery.
One of the most interesting parts of the Harry Potter series is the great complexity present in all of the characters. What makes this complexity so rewarding, however, is the way that it is revealed to us slowly throughout the series. In the first few books we are presented with Voldemort, Snape, and the Dursleys as the ultimate bad characters, and Dumbledore and Harry’s parents as the ultimate good characters. This simplistic outlook reflects Harry’s age; he’s eleven years old, and as such he views adults as two dimensional people, quite separate from himself. It is too complicated for him to believe that people might have more than one characteristic, that they are capable of both good and bad. This tendency for adult characters to be oversimplified in children’s books is very common, and is explored by Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bettelheim specifically focuses on how children perceive their parents. In many fairy tales there are evil parents, generally step-parents, and good parents, who are often dead. Children find it easier to think of each parent made up of two separate people, one good and one evil, than to admit that they could each be both at once. Therefore, when they are angry at their parents they can believe that these are not actually their real parents, but imposters or step-parents. JK Rowling uses this same strategy by setting up Lily and James as heroic protectors, and the Dursley’s as their abusive substitutes. This status changes throughout the series, however, as Harry ages. Harry learns about his father being a bully, and about Aunt Petunia being bullied. By the seventh book the other adults in his life, such as Snape and Dumbledore, also reveal more complex sides to themselves.
Lily Potter, Harry’s mother, is one of the only people of whom our perception does not change throughout the series. We are given more information about her and learn about her childhood, but our essential belief in her kindness never wavers from the first book to the last. This is because Lily Potter, although a three dimensional character, is still primarily a symbol, a symbolic representation of love. There is one other character who is similarly symbolic: Voldemort. We learn about Voldemort’s childhood, what experiences formed and shaped him, yet ultimately he is a symbolic representation of hatred and fear.
Throughout the series it always appears that the two people representing the fight between the camps of good and evil are Harry and Voldemort. This, however, is fundamentally incorrect. The fight is between Lily and Voldemort, which is evidenced from the very first by Lily’s sacrifice which causes Voldemort’s defeat. Harry does not represent the camp of good, but rather the merging between the two camps. In symbolic terms, Harry is the child of Voldemort and Lily. He has a piece of Voldemort’s soul, and even Tom Riddle’s looks, yet he also has his mother’s eyes, and the protection present in her blood. A whole other post could, and probably will, be made about the significance of Lily’s blood, but suffice it to say that even from the grave Lily is able to thwart Voldemort with her love and sacrifice. It is Harry’s struggle, however, that we focus on, because Harry is not a symbol. He is, as he himself realizes throughout the series, flawed and human, like everyone around him. Harry’s fight is, ultimately, an internal one, a battle to choose between the two parts of himself represented by Lily and Voldemort.
This post was in part informed by a section of Alice Mill’s essay Archetypes and the Unconscious in Harry Potter and Diana Wynne Jone’s Fire and Hemlock and Dogsbody, which I found in the book Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. I did not agree with many of her ideas enough to include them in my post, but if you are interested in the potential Oedipal significance of the father-son dynamic between Harry and Voldemort, this would be some good follow-up reading. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales is another interesting book that illuminates more about the way children’s books represent different stages in childhood psychology.
My third installment on the meaning behind Harry Potter names is now available! Click here or on the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named tab at the top of the page to learn more about Cadmus Peverell’s connection to the Resurrection Stone, why Cedric Diggory was a Triwizard Champion, and the evidence that Colin Creevey belongs in Gryffindor house.
Severus Snape is a fascinating character, who can be analyzed in many different ways. Today I am going to be looking, not at the much discussed relationship between Snape and Lily, but at the connection between Snape and James, particularly in regards to life debts.
From the very first book, Severus Snape is set up as a villain, someone who Harry, Ron, and Hermione immediately suspect in anything that goes wrong in the castle. In this book, however, we also see the first sign that he is not who we expect him to be: he saves Harry’s life. Dumbledore tells Harry that the reason Snape does this is to repay a life debt that was created when James saved Snape during their school years.
Not until the third book, however, do we learn more about this act, and even then our accounts are muddled. According to Snape’s point of view, James was not saving Snape’s life, but merely his own neck, since James would have been expelled if Snape had been killed. If Snape is telling the truth, then he most likely saved Harry not to repay a debt to James, but because he had promised to protect Lily’s son. Dumbledore may have lied to Harry in order to protect Snape and not reveal his secret. Or, however, Dumbledore might have understood this type of life debt more than Snape himself, and wanted Harry to recognize the special type of magic that comes from saving someone’s life.
What exactly is this type of magic? How does it work? Dumbledore tells us nothing except that it is “magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable,” which is a fairly vague description (Owl Post Again, POA). If James saved Snape’s life, no matter the motive, is Snape obligated to repay the favor? Is it possible that he saved Harry against his will, without even fully realizing why? Through my own interpretations, and through those of MuggleNet’s book What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 (WWHIHP7), however, I think not. Throughout the books we are given a few cases where life debt’s are evidenced. We have the life debt between James and Snape, Harry and Wormtail, and, although not mentioned specifically, Barty Crouch Sr and Barty Crouch Jr, since the former rescued the latter from death in Azkaban. In none of these cases are the life debts straightforward one to one transactions. If there was some sort of magic that forced people to save others lives, then Snape would not have waited until James was dead to repay the debt. As soon as he knew that James was in danger from Voldemort (on his information no less), he would have been obligated to do everything in his power to prevent his death. Similarly, Wormtail has every opportunity to protect Harry from Voldemort in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, but he does nothing. In the connection between Barty Crouch Jr and Barty Crouch Sr, not only does Barty Crouch Jr not save his father’s life, he actually kills him (WWHIHP7). It appears that the life debt, whether a magical force or not, does not command the person to repay it. Repaying the debt involves some type of choice, some type of remorse or mercy, no matter how small. Wormtail chooses not to choke Harry, and as a result is strangled by his own silver hand. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the magic of the life debt is taking effect, punishing Wormtail for attempting to kill the person who saved him, and allowing Harry to go free. Another interpretation is that Voldemort suspected this mercy in Pettigrew, and in giving him the silver hand created within it a magic that would destroy Pettigrew if he tried to repay this debt. I am more inclined to believe the latter; I see no evidence that the magic of a life debt would kill the person repaying it. Either way, whatever magic happens afterwards, it is clear that Pettigrew himself made the decision to save Harry, and was in no way forced. Pettigrew is described as being punished for his “hesitation, his moment of pity” (Malfoy Manor, DH). It is my belief that Snape also saved Harry because of a small moment of guilt or regret at never attempting to save James. He probably hid this guilt from himself and from Harry, telling himself that he was only saving Harry for Lily’s sake. He was not obliged to save Harry’s life simply because a life debt existed between him and James, but because he felt indebted to James. In short, it was a choice, the type of choice that people like Voldemort or Barty Crouch Jr would never understand.
In honor of Tom Riddle’s birthday, this post is dedicated to analyzing Tom Riddle and the decisions that led him to become Lord Voldemort.
JK Rowling has said that the reason Voldemort is unable to love is because he was born from a love potion. She also said that he was the only character in the books who represents true evil. Obviously, JK Rowling gets the ultimate decision in these situations, but I take contest with both of these claims. To claim that Voldemort cannot love, and that he is pure “evil,” absolves him of any choices in these matters. And the Harry Potter series is all about choices. In many ways, Harry Potter and Tom Riddle are very similar. They are both orphans who have been raised in situations where they have experienced very little love. At the age of eleven, they both arrive at Hogwarts, yet Harry chooses love and friendship, while Tom chooses power and domination. These choices are very significant; it undermines them to say that Tom Riddle was not capable of choosing Harry’s path. Admittedly, it would have been a lot more difficult for him. By the time Tom Riddle starts at Hogwarts, he has already given up on the idea of friends, mainly because, unlike Harry, Tom Riddle was the bully in his childhood, not the bullied. One reason for this is, quite simply, magic. Tom Riddle developed his magical abilities much more quickly than Harry. Most likely Riddle was born with incredible magical powers, but he was also an experimenter. Harry uses his magic to defend. Tom, however, quickly realizes that his powers can be used in the offensive as well. Imagine if Harry had made that realization. Dudley Dursley is terrified of magic, he would never have bullied Harry again. But would Harry have scared away any potential playmates, just like Tom Riddle? Would he have abused his power? It’s possible. But luckily Harry was saved, as he often is, by his own feelings of mediocrity. Always humble, he develops none of Riddle’s delusions of grandeur, and therefore never abuses his magical abilities. Dumbledore’s decision to send Harry to the Dursley’s saved Harry from the sense of his own importance that would have arisen from living in a family that treated him as the Boy Who Lived. Riddle believes that he is better than everyone, that he doesn’t need them, and therefore never searches for love. It is his choice, all along.
Some of his insanity, his psychotic nature, may have been born, not made, however. The Gaunt family has been inbreeding for centuries, and the results are clear in Merope, Marvolo, and Morfin, who are cross eyed and insane.
Please leave any comments or questions you have!
My second installment on the meaning behind Harry Potter names is now available! Click here or on the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named tab at the top of the page to learn more about all seeing Argus Filch, the evidence that the Weasley’s protect Harry, the twisted nature of Augustus Rookwood, and much more.
I recently published my first installment on the meaning behind Harry Potter names. I will publish these chapters in sections of twenty names each. So, if you’re interested in learning the etymology of Mad-Eye Moody’s unusual first name, the sinister origin of Antonin Dolohov, or clues to Mrs. Figg’s status as a guardian to Harry, click here or on the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named tag at the top of the page.
This post is in honor of both Hagrid’s birthday (December 6th) and Charlie Weasley’s birthday (December 12th), to recognize their interest and respect towards all magical creatures.
There is a large variety of magical creatures in the wizarding world, many of them with their own cultures, societies, and skills. All of them, however, are under the control of the wizarding population against their will. The Ministry of Magic has a department for this specific purpose, called the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, which includes Beast, Being, and Spirit Divisions. This department gets to decide where the creatures live, what magic they are allowed to use, whether they can be transported to different countries, and how they are punished for breaking any of these laws.
Although Harry himself is fairly oblivious to most of what goes on in the Ministry, we are given clues throughout the books of the corruption and inequality present in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. One of the first examples we receive involves Buckbeak the hippogriff in Prisoner of Azkaban. Within the Department is the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, who are all, as Hagrid says, “in Lucius Malfoy’s pocket” (The Firebolt, POA). Rowling gives us other clues to the corrupt nature of the committee, including the fact that they bring an executioner to the appeal, who later turns out to be a Death Eater. Even without corruption, however, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong about the justice system for these creatures. For animals like hippogriffs, who can not talk, their entire fate rests on having a human who is willing to vouch for them. Hagrid always takes the side of magical beasts, but it is easy to imagine a situation where all humans present would be too prejudiced or scared to want to save the creature’s life. In fact, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione do research for Hagrid, all they can find is a long history of magical creatures who have been sentenced to death for injuries inflicted on humans. The committee’s title, Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, implies that their main function is not protecting the rights of these creatures, but disposing of them. They are always on the side of wizards, and the punishment they inflict is severe and medieval: execution by beheading.
Although Hagrid speaks on the side of creatures who can not talk, there are plenty of magical creatures with their own cultures, languages, and societies whose voices are still not recognized by the Ministry. These include centaurs, goblins, giants, and house elves. Not only does the Ministry control many aspects of these creatures’ lives, most wizards treat these creatures as lesser than themselves, despite the fact that many of them have intelligence and skills that wizards do not. Indeed, it is probably for this intelligence that wizards are so intent on controlling magical creatures.
The Ministry uses many different techniques for control. One method involves land and territory, which mainly applies to giants and centaurs. In the past, there were many tribes of giants living throughout Britain, but Ministry aurors killed many of them and forced them out of the country. For this reason, they are constrained in the mountains, living together in large groups, which is quite against their nature. As a result, they are dying out faster than before. Centaurs, on the other hand, are given specific areas to live by the Ministry, but they have no control or ownership over them. When Dolores Umbridge confronts the centaurs in Order of the Phoenix they ask, “What are you doing in our forest?” and she responds, “Your forest? I would remind you that you live here only because the Ministry of Magic permits you certain areas of land” (Fight and Flight, OOTP).
The Ministry of Magic does not only physically control magical creatures, it also controls their magical abilities, particularly in the case of goblins and house elves. According to Griphook in Deathly Hallows, “The right to carry a wand has long been contested between wizards and goblins” (The Wandmaker, DH). It is easy to see why wizards would want to keep magic from these highly intelligent creatures, and the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures has even created laws to uphold this wizarding advantage. In Goblet of Fire we are informed by Amos Diggory, a member of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, that Clause 3 of Wand Use states “no non-human creature is permitted to carry or use a wand” (The Dark Mark, GOF). We are shown how strictly this rule is enforced, since Winky is threatened to be put on trial just for picking up a wand she found. Even though both house elves and goblins are able to do magic on their own, the Ministry is determined that the secrets of wandlore be kept among wizards.
Wizards, however, do not go unpunished for the way they treat magical creatures. The Ministry of Magic, with its fountain of creatures looking adoringly at witches and wizards, pretends that the relationship is fine, just as they pretend that Voldemort has not returned. In Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore tells Harry, “The fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.” (The Lost Prophecy, OOTP). As Voldemort rises to power, he uses the creatures’ anger at wizards to his advantage, gaining the support of giants, werewolves, acromantula, and some goblins. The series also shows, however, that the kindness of a few individual wizards can make all the difference for the cause. Although people scoff at Hagrid’s acceptance of magical beasts, because of him Grawp, Buckbeak, and the thestrals all help out in the Battle of Hogwarts. Although the acromantulas join the side of the Death Eaters, Hagrid proves that his kindness towards Aragog was strong enough to keep him alive despite the spiders’ tendency to eat humans. Harry’s kindness towards Dobby and Kreacher also pays off in the end, and he is able to gain Griphook’s trust through his burial of the elf. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, by the end of the series we are left with some hope for the future of magical creatures in the wizarding world.
Halloween has great significance in the Harry Potter series, especially in the first four books. In Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, the troll is set loose on Halloween. In his second year, he goes to Nearly Headless Nick’s Deathday party, and Mrs. Norris is petrified. In his third year, Sirius Black slashes the Fat Lady with a knife. In his fourth year, Harry’s name is picked out of the Goblet of Fire. In the seventh book, we learn that Harry’s parents were killed on Halloween. The most simple explanation for the importance accorded to Halloween is that it is a day we all associate with witches, magic, and scary events. Although these are all relevant explanations, the history of Halloween itself may give us more information which we can use to further analyze its significance in the series.
Halloween, also known as All Hallow’s eve, was originally a pagan tradition, but soon became christianized. Halloween is the eve of the Christian feast days of All Hallow’s Day and All Soul’s Day. In early traditions, people believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day. For this reason, it is very fitting for Nearly Headless Nick to have his deathday party on Halloween. JK Rowling has made it clear that these ghosts represent souls that have decided not to move on, and are therefore stuck in a transitional space between life and death. In keeping with this tradition, some people believe All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. This explanation connects to Sirius Black’s attack on the Fat Lady in the third book. It is not a coincidence that Sirius planned his attack of Peter Pettigrew to be on the same day that Lily and James were killed. It is clear that Sirius considered this his act of vengeance, with which the souls of his friends could be put to rest.
All Soul’s Day is not all about wandering spirits and vengeance, however. The purpose of this day is to remember the dead, specifically saints, martyrs, and departed believers. Therefore, the fact that Lily and James died on Halloween connects them to a holy status, and implies that they were martyrs for their cause. For further evidence, just look at the name of the home where they were killed: Godric’s Hallow. Godric means “rules with God.” The definition of Hallow is “a saint or holy person.” Therefore, although Halloween is connected to drama, danger, and death in the Harry Potter series, it is most importantly connected to honoring the spirits of departed heroes and loved ones.
If you’re interested in more Halloween Harry Potter treats, check out Pottermore! In celebration of the holiday, JK Rowling released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which includes exclusive new information on Dolores Umbridge, Thestrals, and Ministers of Magic!
If you’re interested in McGonagall’s family, childhood, young romance, and brief marriage, check out JK Rowling’s exclusive entry on Pottermore!
Minerva McGonagall: Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts. JK Rowling took the last name McGonagall from William McGonagall, who is celebrated as the worst poet in British history. She said that she found it amusing to think that such a brilliant woman might be a distant relative of William McGonagall.
Today is the time to celebrate Professor McGonagall’s long and distinguished career as Transfiguration teacher (38 years), and her current post as Headmistress of Hogwarts.
Professor McGonagall is the last in a long line of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Hogwarts, some of which can be seen in the list below:
Dilys Derwent (Healer: 1722-1741. Headmistress: 1741-1768)
Eupraxia Mole (headmistress in 1876)
Fortesque (a possible ancestor of Florean Fortesque, owner of the ice cream shop in Diagon Alley?)
Phineas Nigellus Black
Albus Dumbledore (?-1996)
Dolores Umbridge (1995)
Severus Snape (1997)
Minerva McGonagall (1998-?)