Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Q for Quills


As far as the use of Quills is concerned, I think I could have been accepted as a Hogwarts student. … Back in my childhood or teens (long before Harry Potter first popped up in J.K. Rowling’s mind), I used to practice writing with quills made out of crow-feathers. (Just for fun. I’m not quite so old that I did not have access to pens and pencils.)

In The Order of the Phoenix there is a nasty Quill in use which does not need dipping in ink because it uses your own blood instead. Harry is forced by Professor Umbridge to use it to write the text “I must not tell lies” and the words appear on his hand instead of on the paper.


Another famous quill from the Harry Potter books and films is the Quick Quotes Quill used by reporter Rita Skeeter in The Goblet of Fire. This is a magical quill that automatically twists whatever you say into sensational newspaper stuff. I’m not so sure those aren’t secretly used by Muggle reporters as well!


ABC Wednesday

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

S for Severus Snape (ABC Wednesday)


Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films


The name Snape is an old one with roots probably dating back to before the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. There is also more than one place in England called Snape.

Severus is Latin meaning stern, strict, serious.

Severus Snape is Harry’s most hated teacher at Hogwarts. Already in the first book he and Harry take an instant dislike to each other. With Harry it is an instinct kind of thing; with Severus it is based on old grudges to do with Harry’s parents. He despised Harry’s father, and in later books, we learn more about why.

(spoiler warning)

As discussed in a previous post, I believe Rowling has been very conscious of coats of arms and family crests connected with the surnames of her main characters. The stag is a common symbol in heraldry, and it occurs both in the Evans coat of arms (the maiden name of Harry’s mother) and in the Snape coat of arms.

N.b. no direct references to these particular coats of arms and family crests are given in the books; this is all “under the surface” stuff. Importance (or not!) of heritage and ancestry are part of the story though. For example the Black family tree is presented in the fifth book, and the Peverell coat of arms is introduced as a mystery factor in the sixth one.

Harry’s “patronus” shape is a stag. (A patronus is a kind of personal magic guardian that among other things can protect from Dementor attacks. It is closely connected to happy memories and what/whom you love.) The stag was also his father’s Animagus shape (James could transform himself into a stag). In the last book we learn that Snape’s patronus is a doe, and so was that of Lily Evans.

Even from the fifth book it was possible to deduct that there might have been some kind of friendship between Severus and Lily in the past, before she started going out with James. Not until the end of the last book do we get the full picture though: Severus and Lily having a bond that goes back even before Hogwarts.

With Severus Snape, Rowling managed to create an intriguing and mysterious character who got much debated among the readers who followed the series as it was being written. While Harry was clearly the main hero, and Voldemort clearly the main representative of evil; one strength of this series of books is that it also has a number of characters less easy to classify; Snape being the most tricky of them all. And or course there is only one letter that dissociates Snape from Snake…

Not only is Snape Head of the Slytherin’ House at Hogwarts – “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin” (PS5; said by Hagrid). It also turns out in later books that he even used to be a Deatheater, i.e. one of Voldemort’s followers. And yet Dumbledore seems to trust him. But he never reveals his reasons…

As the seventh book opens, with Dumbledore gone from the scene, it may seem there is not much room for doubt any more, where Snape’s true loyalty lay. However, this is a book that has doubt as one of it main themes, and things keep getting twisted and turned a few times more before the story finally comes to an end.



Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Q for Quidditch (ABC Wednesday)


The favourite sports game in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding world is Quidditch. When Harry is first introduced to it (in the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) he tries to sum up his first impression: ‘So – that’s sort of like basketball on broomsticks with six hoops, isn’t it?’

Well, not quite. There are four balls involved – one Quaffle, two Bludgers and the Snitch. And the seven players on each team are divided into one Keeper, three Chasers, two Beaters and one Seeker.

‘Three Chasers try and score with the Quaffle; the Keeper guards the goalposts; the Beaters keep the Bludgers away from their team,’ ...


Harry’s position, however, is to be that of Seeker.

‘This,’ said Wood, ‘is the Golden Snitch, and it’s the most important ball of the lot. It’s very hard to catch because it’s so fast and difficult to see. It’s the Seeker’s job to catch it. You’ve got to weave in and out of the Chasers, Beaters, Bludger’s and Quaffle, to get it before the other team’s Seeker, because whichever Seeker catches the Snitch wins his team an extra hundred and fifty points, so they nearly always win. That’s why Seekers get fouled so much. A game of Quiddich only ends when the Snitch is caught, so it can go on for ages – I think the record is three months, they had to keep bringing on substitutes so the players could get some sleep. Well that’s it – any questions?’


Quidditch plays a big role throughout the books, except for the last book, which mostly takes place away from school. But the last book still involves a lot of the same elements as a Quidditch game – only more serious. Harry’s role as Seeker is also symbolic throughout the series.

In the first book, a book called Quidditch Through the Ages is referred to. Rowling later published a small book by that name in a separate volume, donating the proceeds to a charity organization called Comic Relief.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

P for Pensieve (ABC Wednesday)


Memories play an important part in the Harry Potter story. In last week’s post, I mentioned occlumency – “the magical defence of the mind against external penetration” – and legilimency – “the ability  to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind”. As I said then: In Rowling’s Wizarding World, this can get a little more ‘physical’ than we are used to in the Muggle world…

In his Headmaster’s office at Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore keeps a magical device called the Pensieve. It is introduced to us in Chapter 30 of the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire. Harry discovers it while he is waiting for Dumbledore in his office:

A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge; runes and symbols that Harry did not recognize. The silvery light was coming from the basin’s contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind, and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made liquid – or like wind made solid – Harry couldn’t make up his mind.

When Harry bends down over it, he find himself drawn into the substance, and transported to another place and time, where all he can do is watch (he cannot interfere).

When he gets pulled back into the present time, he asks Dumbledore what the thing is.

‘This? It is called a Pensieve,’ said Dumbledore. ‘I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.’
’Er,’ said Harry, who couldn’t truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.
’At these times,’ said Dumbledore, indicating the stone basin, I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.’
’You mean … that stuff’s your thoughts?’ Harry said, staring at the swirling white substance in the basin.
’Certainly,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Let me show you.’


Whereupon he demonstrates by drawing out his wand, placing the tip of it near his temple, drawing out a glistening strand of the same kind of substance from his head, adding it to the Pensieve and swirling the stone basin “rather as a gold prospector would swirl for fragments of gold”.

The word Pensieve is of course derived from “pensive” (=deeply thoughtful) and “sieve” (utensil for straining or sifting etc).

The Pensieve continues to be an important object throughout the rest of the series; as is the whole idea of being able to dive into another person’s memories.

The most important difference between using the Pensieve and just listening to someone telling you about their memories, is that with the Pensieve, you get an objective view of what happened; and you are free to draw your own conclusions about it.

But to be able to use the Pensieve, you must first obtain the memory you want to examine, in the form of that physical substance.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

O for Occlumency (ABC Wednesday)


Occlumency: “The magical defence of the mind against external penetration. An obscure branch of magic, but a highly useful one.”

Severus Snape to Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix, Ch 24

While Harry is spending the Christmas holidays at the house of his godfather Sirius, his most hated teacher, Snape, turns up and delivers the very unwelcome message that during the next term, the Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, wants Harry to take private Occlumency lessons from no other than Professor Snape.

‘Dumbledore wants to stop you having those dreams about Voldemort,’ said Hermione at once. ‘Well, you won’t be sorry not to have them any more, will you?’

‘Extra lessons with Snape?’ said Ron, sounding aghast. ‘I’d rather have the nightmares!’

When the lessons start, Snape explains things a bit further. The reason why Dumbledore wants Harry to learn Occlumency is that the Dark Lord (Voldemort) is “highly skilled at Legilimency”, which is “the ability  to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind”. (A Muggle would call it mind-reading, but in the wizarding world it gets a little more physical.) Occlumency, on the other hand, “seals the mind against magical intrusion and influence”.

Since Harry has a rather emotional personality, he never gets very good at occlumency; but, to quote Dumbledore further on in the story: “in the end, it mattered not”, because he has other qualities that serve him better.

Snape, however, is sort of the embodiment of Occlumency; his character remains a mystery throughout the series, and where his true loyalty lay was one of the favourite subjects of debate while readers were waiting for the last book in the series.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

N for Nagini (ABC Wednesday)

Nagini is the name of a big snake closely associated with Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s main enemy.

Naga is the sanskrit word of a deity taking the shape of a snake. It is sometimes also used for ordinary snakes, like the cobra. A female naga is a nagi or a nagini. (Wikipedia)

Nagas are sometimes characterized as having human traits at one time, and serpent-like traits at another.

The Cobra was also used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority in ancient Egypt. The Ureaus, the rearing cobra, on the pharaoh’s crown is a symbol of an Egyptian goddess (Wadjet) who was often depticted as a cobra.

Very early in the first book in the HP series, we learn that Harry is able to communicate with snakes (he talks to one at the zoo, while he is still living with his aunt and uncle in the Muggle world and does not even know himself yet that he is a wizard).

It is not until his second year at Hogwarts that Harry himself learns that this ability is regarded with suspicion even among wizards; and that when he does it, he is in fact using a special language called parseltongue. A language which Harry never consciously learned, which most wizards neither speak nor understand, and which is associated with the Dark Arts.

There is a big snake involved in The Chamber of Secrets: a basilisk. But the basilisk is not Nagini.

Nagini is not introduced until the fourth book: The Goblet of Fire. But from then on and until very close to the end, Nagini is closely related to Lord Voldemort.

Already in the first book, we learn that Lord Volemort tried, but failed, to kill Harry when he was a little baby, just over a year old. For unknown reason, the curse he cast on Harry seemed to rebound on himself, and he was so much weakened by this that he lost his bodily shape. When we first meet Voldemort (in the first book), he is literally only a shadow of his former self. In the fourth book, after his ‘resurrection’, he gives his old followers, the Death Eaters, a summary: 

I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost… but still, I was alive. --- Only one power remained to me. I could possess the bodies of others. (GoF 33)

In The Goblet of Fire, however, Lord Voldemort regains a body of his own. We learn that a potion containing snake venom from Nagini was one essential ingredient in the mix of magic that got him started in that process. It is also a fact that when he does come back in bodily shape, it is with a very snakelike appearance.

Even though all the details are not clearly stated, a sort of first bodily rebirth trough the snake Nagini is suggested – to give him back a “rudimentary, weak body of my own, a body I would be able to inhabit while awaiting the essential ingredients for true rebirth” (GoF33).

Beneath the surface of this story, there are many layers of deep imagery; and Rowling borrows from more than one source. One thing that to me stands out beyond doubt though, is that Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort is meant to be an ‘Antichrist’ figure. Besides the basic concept of ‘the Beast’ in the Book of Revelations, Rowling also uses ‘anti’-analogies like: While Jesus according to Christian belief was both human and divine; the ‘reborn’ Lord Voldemort is half human, half snake. And while Jesus sacrificed himself for others, Tom/Voldemort without hesitation sacrifices others for himself. 

In Revelations Ch 13, a scene is described where a beast with seven heads comes out of the sea. All its heads are different. A dragon (dragons and snakes are more or less interchangable in many old stories) “gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.” (Rev 13:3)

As the HP story goes on, it becomes clear that Lord Voldemort too has “more than one head”, and therefore is no ordinary enemy. 

There also seems to be a mysterious bond between Harry and the Dark Lord, to do with the scar that Harry still has on his forehead from when Voldemort tried to kill him back in his childhood. What protects Harry though is the fact that his mother (Lily) sacrificed her own life for him. There is magic in sacrificial love which goes beyond Voldemort’s understanding; and of course, in the end that proves to be his downfall.

In connection with Nagini there are also references implied to the Ouroborus symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. (For example, in GoF33, Nagini is described as “continually circling” while Voldemort tells his story to the Death Eaters.) In religious, mythological and alchemical symbolism it represents recreation and other things perceived as cycles. Alchemy is another of the recurring themes in the HP books.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

M for Marauder’s Map (ABC Wednesday)



Click here to watch the YouTube video clip from The Prisoner of Azkaban where the Marauder’s Map of Hogwarts Castle is first introduced.

The map is presented to Harry by the Weasley twins Fred and George, who in their first year nicked it from the office of the very impopular school caretaker, Argus Filch. He in turn had confiscated it years before, from the makers of the map, the four Marauders who called themselves Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs – all of whom we get to know more about before the end of the third book.

It was a map showing every detail of the Hogwarts castle and grounds. But the truly remarkable thing was the tiny ink dots moving around it, each labelled with a name in minuscule writing. (PoA 10)

The spell to open the map is: “I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good.” And to close it: “Mischief managed.”  Which makes it go back to just a blank piece of parchment for the eyes of those who don’t know its secret.

The map is also put to use in the rest of the series. One of its really tricky qualities is that the little moving dots always show the true name of the person. Something which can be both helpful and deceitful in a world where wizards and witches sometimes use magic to take on someone else’s appearance…

The map is one of the magical objects that come to Harry as a sort of heritage from his father, although he is not aware of it at the time.

… … …

This post is linked to ABC Wednesday.


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