Friday, 18 December 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

This Santa figure has found his place in front of my Harry Potter books, because he reminds me of Albus Dumbledore...

Wishing all Harry Potter fans a Happy Holiday!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Christmas in the Wizarding World (2)

Christmas Quotations and Events

The Philosopher's Stone

The Hall looked spectacular. Festoons of holly and mistletoe hung all around the walls and no fewer than twelve towering Christmas trees stood around the room, some sparkling with tiny icicles, some glittering with hundred of candles.

In the first book, Harry gets a mysterious Christmas present from an unknown giver: An invisibility cloak, that according to an attached note had belonged to his father. Covered by the cloak, he goes in the middle of the night to explore the restricted section of the library for information about Nicholas Flamel - but does not (on that occasion) find what he is looking for. Instead, in another room, he finds the Mirror of Erised, which shows him "his heart's desire".

The Chamber of Secrets

... enchanted snow was falling, warm and dry, from the ceiling. Dumbledore led them in a few of his favourite carols, Hagrid booming more and more loudly with every goblet of eggnog he consumed. Percy, who hadn't noticed that Fred had bewitched his prefect's badge so that it now read 'Pinhead', kept asking them all what they were sniggering at.

Disguised by the help of polyjuice potion, Harry and Ron manage to sneak into the Slytherin common room to spy on Draco Malfoy. They do not find the information they were hoping for, but they do find out that the Malfoy family have some secrets...

The Prisoner of Azkaban

Thick streamers of holly and mistletoe were strung along the corridors, mysterious lights shone from inside every suit of armour and the Great Hall was filled with its usual twelve Christmas trees, glittering with golden stars. A powerful and delicious smell of cooking pervaded the corridors, and by Christmas Eve, it had grown so strong that even Scabbers poked his nose out of the shelter of Ron's pocket to sniff hopefully at the air.

Harry receives another anonymous Christmas gift: A Firebolt broomstick. Harry is delighted, but Hermione gets suspicious, and so does Professor McGonagall, and the broomstick is confiscated. Professor Lupin is mysteriously absent from Christmas dinner; and Professor Trelawney is mysteriously present, against her usual habits, and in spite of being superstitious about there being thirteen guests at the table.

The Goblet of Fire

Snow was falling thickly upon the castle and its grounds now. The pale blue Beauxbatons carriage looked like a large, chilly, frosted pumpkin next to the iced gingerbread house that was Hagrid's cabin, while the Durmstrang ship's portholes were glazed with ice, the rigging white with frost. The house-elves down in the kitchen were outdoing themselves with a series of rich, warming strews and savoury puddings...

In the fourth year, Hogwarts is the host of the Triwizard Tournament, with guests from two foreign wizarding schools; and the big Christmas event is the Yule Ball. Harry and Ron have some problems finding courage to ask a girl to the ball (but end up going with the twins Parvati and Padma); while Hermione shows up with world famous Durmstrang Quidditch player Viktor Krum. Of course there are also secrets involved: Harry and Ron overhear a mysterious conversation between Snape and Professor Karkaroff from Durmstrang; they also overhear a revealing conversation between Hagrid and Mme Maxime from Beauxbatons; and on top of that the other Hogwarts Triwizard champion Cedric gives Harry a mysterious tip regarding the next challenge in the Tournament.

The Order of the Phoenix

The fifth year, just before Christmas, Harry has a sort of vision that saves someone's life, but at the same time gives him very unpleasant insights or suspicions about himself. He and his friends and the whole Weasley family end up spending Christmas with Sirius at Grimmauld Place in London instead of at Hogwarts.

Everybody else spent the following morning putting up Christmas decorations. Harry could not remember Sirius ever being in such a good mood; he was actually singing carols, apparently delighted that he was to have company over Christmas. --- by the time they all went to bed on Christmas Eve the house was barely recognisable. The tarnished chandeliers were no longer hung with cobwebs but with garlands of holly and gold and silver streamers; magical snow glittered in heaps over the threadbare carpets; a green Christmas tree, obtained by Mundungus and decorated with live fairies, blocked Sirius's family tree from view, and even the stuffed elf-heads on the hall wall wore Father Christmas hats and beards. Harry awoke on Christmas morning to find a stack of presents at the foot of his bed and Ron already halfway through opening his own, rather larger, pile.

They also pay a visit to the Wizarding Hospital St Mungos, and find out a couple of secrets while they're there...

The Half-Blood Prince

Snow was swirling against the icy windows once more; Christmas was approaching... everlasting candles glowed from inside the helmets of suits of armour and great bunches of  mistletoe had been hung at intervals along the corridors. Large groups of girls tended to converge underneath the mistletoe bunches every time Harry went past, which caused blockages in the corridors; fortunately, however, Harry 's frequent night-time wanderings had given him an unusually good knowledge of the castle's secret passageways, so that he was able, without too much difficulty, to navigate misteltoe-free routes between classes.

The sixth year, besides romance being in the air, Professor Slughorn gives a Christmas party for select students, Harry included. Of course there are also secrets involved: Among other things, in connection with the party, Harry (once more under cover of his invisibility cloak) gets to overhear an interesting conversation between Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy.

The actual Christmas this year is spent at the home of the Weasley family, who apart from their invited guests also receive an unexpected visit.

The Deathly Hallows

In the last book, Harry and Hermione find themselves a long way away from Hogwarts at Christmas; but as in all the previous books, there are very important secrets to find out about...

Then the little lane along which they were walking curved to the left and the heart of the village, a small square, was revealed to them. Strung all around with coloured lights, there was what looked like a war memorial in the middle, partly obscured by a windblown Christmas tree. There were several shops, a post office, a pub and a little church whose stained-glassed windows were glowing jewel bright across the square.
   The snow had become impacted; it was hard and slippery where people had trodden on it all day. Villagers were criss-crossing in front of them, their figures briefly illuminated by street lamps. They heard a snatch of laughter and pop music as the pub door opened and closed; and they heard a carol start up inside the little church.
   'Harry, I think it's Christmas Eve!' said Hermione.
   'Is it?' He had lost track of the date; they had not seen a newspaper for weeks.
   'I am sure it is,' said Hermione, her eyes upon the church. 'They... they'll be in there, won't they? Your mum and dad? I can see the graveyard behind it.'
   Harry felt a thrill of something that was beyond excitement, more like fear. Now that he was so near, he wondered whether he wanted to see, after all.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas in the Wizarding World (1)

One thing I found through taking part in 2½ years of discussions at the Leaky Lounge Harry Potter forums was that readers' opinions on the presence or lack of religion in the Harry Potter books vary a lot.

One of the main holidays celebrated in Rowling's Wizarding World (as in the Muggle World) is Christmas. Like at any other school, the Hogwarts students have Christmas holidays. Most of them go home to celebrate with their families; for those who remain at the school over the holidays, there are also Christmas celebrations held there. Christmas is included in each and every one of the seven books in the series; and the word Christmas is always used - there is no attempt made to replace it with some kind of alternative winter solstice feast. There are Christmas trees, and Christmas gifts, and Christmas dinner, and carols are sung - a bit spookily, even by empty armours!

Except for the mentioning of carols, though, there is really no suggestion of Christmas being a religious celebration. Some readers take this to mean that it is only used to mark the time of year, and that this means that the Wizarding world is a wholly secular world that does not involve any ideas of religion at all. Others, like me, see it a bit differently: I think one reason Rowling does not introduce a separate mythology in her books is that she uses the idea of the wizarding world as an image of spiritual power, and really borrows a lot from Christian and Biblical context. The Wizarding World is not separate from the Muggle world; Muggles just can't see and don't believe in Magic, just as atheists do not believe in the existence or power of a spiritual world.

There is no mentioning of a Father Christmas either in the celebrations of the Wizarding World; but then all Hogwarts students are over 11 years old, so can be supposed to have outgrown that. However... In the first book, Rowling manages to sneak in a nod at the Father Christmas/Santa Claus/St Nicholas tradition anyway: It is at Christmas time that Harry, Hermione and Ron are trying to find out the secret of who Nicolas Flamel is.

"They had indeed been searching books for Flamel's name ever since Hagrid had let it slip, because how else were they going to find out what Snape was trying to steal?" (Philosopher's Stone, Ch 12)

Of course in history, St Nicholas and Nicolas Flamel were different persons, living in different centuries. However, according to traditions, they had at least two qualities in common: They both performed "miracles", and they both gave a lot to charity.

Saint Nicholas is the common name for Nicholas of Myra (270 - 346), a saint and Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus. (From Wikipedia article about St Nicholas)

Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418) was a successful French scrivener and manuscript-seller who developed a posthumous reputation as an alchemist due to his reputed work on the philosopher's stone. The essence of his reputation is that he succeeded at the two magical goals of alchemy: that he made the Philosopher's Stone which turns lead into gold, and that he and his wife Perenelle achieved immortality. Flamel's death was recorded in 1418, but his tomb is empty. Rumors spread that Nicolas Flamel never actually died, since witnesses claimed to have seen him in 1761 at an opera in Paris. It is also said that the Flamels used their enormous wealth to support churches and schools and to care for the sick and poor. (From Wikipedia articles about Nicolas Flamel and Perenelle Flamel.)

Portrait of Nicolas Flamel
from a nineteenth century engraving

Harry finally finds the name Nicolas Flamel on a Famous Wizard card that comes with a certain kind of Chocolate Frogs that can be bought in the Wizarding World:

"Professor Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon's blood and his work on alchemy with his partner Nicolas Flamel."

 According to a Hogwarts library book that Hermione finds, Nicolas Flamel is "the only known maker of the philosopher's stone". Apart from transforming any metal into gold, the philospher's stone also "produces The Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal".

And this is of course why the evil wizard Voldemort wants it, and must be stopped from getting it; because he certainly would not be using its powers for charity...

Also notice the word association - Flamel - flame - fire - fireplaces... In the Christmas tradition of the English-speaking world, Santa comes through the chimney. In the Harry Potter series, Fire is the element which represents Gryffindor, the house to which Harry and friends belong, and which has a reputation of bravery, and fighting for the good side. In the HP books, fireplaces are used for transportation and communication - of the good kind, while water (and toilets!) represent Slytherin, and everything sneaky and slimy. (See post from April 2009: Going to the Bathroom.)

In my opinion, Rowling does an excellent job of setting the discoveries of the secrets of Nicolas Flamel in the context of Christmas in the first book.

Neither Flamel nor the philosopher's stone survive to pass on into the following books in the series; but the alchemy theme does, although mostly in much more subtle references. Well hidden references is Rowling's speciality - in fact, a lot of them are so NOT obvious, that if you are not used to looking for them, you can read the whole series without getting any of them. Or you can spend years amusing yourself by trying to find them...!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Order of the Phoenix and Guy Fawkes

Today at the blog of a British friend, I was reminded that 5th November in Britain is Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night.

This in turn stirred up some memories from Harry Potter discussions at the Leaky Lounge between the 6th and 7th book. I had a theory based on some things in the 5th book, The Order of the Phoenix… As it turned out, however, my idea did not quite hit the target. I was not convinced (until the last book) that either Dumbledore or Sirius were actually dead; and that led me a bit astray, hoping that maybe the Order of the Phoenix (these two included) had just sort of gone even more into hiding and would make a reappearance at the last minute. As it turned out in The Deathly Hallows, though... the final fight against Voldemort was mainly to be carried on by the younger generation instead. Although... depending on how one looks at it... Both the Order and the slain heroes did make their sort of reappearance, too... Just not quite the way I had (for a while) imagined it in my head...!

However: Some of the things I picked up while pondering over The Order of the Phoenix are still worth thinking about, in the context of that book alone.

First of all there is the name of Dumbledore's Phoenix, Fawkes, and possible name connection to the Guy Fawkes of British history, who was behind the famous Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

Quote from Wikipedia:
"The Gunpowder Plot" was a plan to assassinate the Protestant King James I (James VI of Scotland) and the members of both houses of the Parliament of England, by blowing up Westminster Palace --- His activities were detected before the plan's completion, and --- he and his co-conspirators were executed for treason and attempted murder. Fawkes's failure (or the attempt) is remembered by Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night) on 5 November.

Not being British, I must say I have never been able to quite grasp if Fawkes is regarded as hero or villain...! From the Wikipedia quote above, it seems that perhaps I'm not the only one wondering…

A bit more from Wikipedia:
The plotters realized that no outside help would be forthcoming unless they took action. Fawkes and the other conspirators were able to rent a cellar beneath the House of Lords. They were much relieved to find a cellar for rent, as they had first tried to dig a mine under the building. This would have been difficult, because they had to store the dirt and debris and carry it away in barrels. March 1605, they had hidden 1800 pounds of gunpowder in the cellar.

There is a scene in OotP, at Grimmauld Place (Sirius' house), where members of the Order of the Phoenix are clearing the kitchen table after a meeting. Trying to sort out "the important stuff" from a lot of other details, this is what Harry sees:

"Harry saw Bill --- hastily rolling up the lengths of parchment left on the table. --- Tonks, striding over to help Bill and immediately toppling a candle on to the last piece of parchment. 'Oh no - sorry -'
'Here, dear,' said Mrs Weasley, sounding exasperated, and she repaired the parchment with a wave of her wand. In the flash of light caused by Mrs Weasley's charm Harry caught a glimpse of what looked like the plan of a building.
Mrs Weasley had seen him looking. She snatched the plan off the table and stuffed it into Bill's already overladen arms.
'This sort of thing ought to be cleared away promptly at the end of meetings,' she snapped --- Bill took out his wand, muttered, 'Evanesco!' and the scrolls vanished.
OotP 5, pp 76-77

The plan that Harry caught a glimpse of was of the Ministry of Magic (the Wizarding World's equivalent to the Parliament). A lot of the action in this book takes place at the Ministry of Magic; which is situated underground in London...

The Ministry itself in this book is an image of what happens when the world is run by corrupted power-hungry people unable to distinguish between good and evil. They may not even believe that there is a real evil power (in OotP they do not believe that the evil Lord Voldemort has returned), but they are still serving his purposes, even without being aware that this is what they are doing.

The people who do see what is going on – Dumbledore and his followers - are forming an 'underground' resistance movement, called The Order of the Phoenix. Some of the students of Hogwarts are also forming a junior version of the same resistance movement, calling themselves Dumbledore's Army (with Harry as leader).

An important OotP scene at Hogwarts is when the Weasley twins leave the school, setting off a huge display of magic fireworks causing mayhem for the headmistress (Umbridge) who has taken Dumbledore's place.

At the end of the book, there is an impressive scene of magic duelling between Dumbledore (with the aid of his Phoenix) against the evil Lord Voldemort, in the entrace hall of the Ministry of Magic. This too is a "fireworks" scene, of more serious kind. (Magic curses in the HP world involve flashes of fire.)

'Look out!' Harry yelled.
But even as he shouted, another jet of green light flew at Dumbledore from Voldemort's wand and the snake struck –
Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide and swallowed the jet of green light whole: he burst into flame and fell to the floor, small, wrinkled and flightless. At the same moment, Dumbledore brandished his wand in one long, fluid movement – the snake, which had been an instant from sinking its fangs into him, and the water in the pool rose up and covered Voldemort like a cocoon of molten glass.
At the end of this book, the Ministry of Magic can no longer claim ignorance about the fact that Lord Voldemort is really back on stage. They have seen him with their own eyes. He may seem to have been defeated once again by Dumbledore - but... The last chapter of the 5th book is entitled The Second War Begins...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Some Quotes from Interviews with J.K. Rowling

Continuing the discussion from previous post, I went in search of some quotes from interviews with J.K. Rowling that have touched on her personal beliefs and her own thoughts about her books.

A very good place to search for such interviews is a webpage called Accio Quote!

First a question and answer from a Comic Relief live transcript from March 2001.

(Comic Relief is one of several charity organisations for children that J.K. Rowling supports. Another one is Children's High Level Group. You can read a bit more about her support of that one in a blogpost of mine at my blog The Island of the Voices from January 2009 about The Tales of Beedle the Bard.)

-Did you read the Narnia books when you were a child?
-Yes I did and I liked them though all the Christian symbolism utterly escaped me, it was only when I re-read them later in life that it struck me forcibly.

Here is a quote from an interview in The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), October 26, 2000

Harry, of course, is able to battle supernatural evil with supernatural forces of his own, and Rowling is quite clear that she doesn't personally believe in that kind of magic -- ''not at all.'' Is she a Christian?

''Yes, I am,'' she says. ''Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books.''


So we talk about power, which seems to be at the basis of the tales: magic power, the power of parents over kids, the struggle between the power of good and the power of evil -- ''yes,'' she says excitedly, ''abuse of power, why people would seek power.''

And here is a summary by Accio Quote of some things she said on MTV (or after the publication of the last book in the series, in 2007.

'Harry Potter' Author J.K. Rowling Opens Up About Books' Christian Imagery."

• Jo thought explicit references to Christianity early on in the story would make the ending too obvious.
• JKR: "Hogwarts is a multifaith school."
• The Matthew 6:21 and 1Corintians 15:26 quotations on his parents' gravestones were meant to symbolize "living beyond death. Living after death." They "sum up" the whole series.
• Harry's struggle with questions about the afterlife begins when Sirius dies.
• The two epigrams at the beginning of Book 7 ("The Libation Bearers" by Aeschylus and William Penn's "More Fruits of Solitude") had been planned since book 2 was published: "I always knew [that] if I could use them at the beginning of book seven then I'd cued up the ending perfectly.... They just say it all to me...."
• Harry's struggle with his beliefs about the afterlife mirrors her own. *

* The quote from William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
(at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

I would also recommend reading in full the transcript of an interview with J.K. Rowling by Stephen Fry in BBC Radio4 in December 2005 -  "Living with Harry Potter"

JKR: I've taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I'm quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we've been invaded by people, we've appropriated their gods, we've taken their mythical creatures, and we've soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it's so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own.

Monday, 12 October 2009

J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, Myth and Christianity

I recently had a post on my Island of the Voices blog about C.S. Lewis and a quote from his book Mere Christianity. (The first link will take you to that post on my blog; the second to the Wikipedia article on Lewis.) I got a comment from a reader, who had noticed I'm both a C.S. Lewis fan and a J.K. Rowling fan. In this reader's opinion, their respecive writings come from "very different sources". In my opinion, they do not.  It has been some time since I posted anything here, because other things in life and blogworld have been taken priority for a while. But I thought I'd repost my reply about Lewis, Rowling and "myth" here. I hope to get back to the topic another time.

Because I agree with C.S. Lewis, I have no problem with J.K. Rowling. I don't think Lewis would have had either. Rowling too is a brilliant fantasy writer. Lewis in his works used lots of other mythology than Christianity. Think about it: witches, magicians, centaurs, fauns, dragons, giants, talking animals, magic spells, magic objects, enchantments, parallell worlds... Rowling draws from the same sources - Christianity included. The biblical stuff is just not as obvious in the Harry Potter books. People disagree about it. Some don't see it at all. I do. I have read and listened to these books more times than I can count by now. I also discussed them for 2½ years on an internet forum. In fact I would be as bold as to say the Potter world for me personally helped build up my Christian faith rather than tear it down, at a time when I was very tired of what Lewis calls "Christianity-and-water". (See the quotation in The Island of the Voices post.) It gave me a new set of imagery, and challenge for thought. Magic in the Potter books can be used for good or for bad. In much the same way, "spiritual power" can be used in the right way vs misused.

Here's another quote from Mere Christianity , which shows Lewis' views on other mythology:

"Secondly, He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men." (Mere Christianity, Book 2, Chapter 3)

Lewis also somewhere, I don't remember the context, called Christianity "God's true myth". Lewis used old myth to create new myth to illustrate spiritual truth. Rowling does the same thing, in her own way, and for our time. Her myth in my opinion is not opposed to Christianity. It pretty much tells a similar story but in different pictures. She picks a lot from the whole anti-Christ idea in Revelations (Lord Voldemort). Rather brilliantly done in my opinion. And the end of the story is certainly not the victory of evil.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Surnames, Coats of Arms and Family Crests

Potter coat of arms (I found this picture through Google picture search)

In the sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince, the surname Peverell is mentioned in connection with a ring that belonged to Tom Riddle's=Lord Voldemort's mother's family (i.e. the Wizard side of his family). His mother's family name was Gaunt, but the ring (which Voldemort turns into a Horcrux) bears the Peverell family crest. (Or so they believe.)

We find out about this in a Pensieve scene, from the memory of a Ministry of Magic representative who once paid a visit to Marvolo Gaunt, Lord Voldemort's grandfather. Marvolo shows him an "ugly, blackstoned ring he was wearing on his middle finger", and says:

'See this? See this? Know what it is? Know where it came from? Centuries it's been in our family, that's how far back we go, and pure-blood all the way! Know how much I've been offered for this, with the Peverell coat of arms engraved on the stone?' (HBP10)

This got us Potter-fans (while waiting for book 7) to search the internet frantically for the name Peverell; and it turned out that there is one William Peverel mentioned in the Domesday Book, who was said to be the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror (but took the surname Peverel from his stepfather). The Domesday Book is a great land survey from 1086, commissioned by William the Conqueror to assess the extent of the land and resources being owned in England at the time, and the extent of the taxes he could raise. (William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy in 1066.)

I went a bit further and looked up a lot of other surnames as well, which led to the discovery that actually most of the surnames that J.K. Rowling uses in the Harry Potter Books are very old names, with their own family crests and coats of arms (link to Wikipedia article about coats of arms in general), and Peverell is far from the only name that goes back to the Domesday Book or even further.

An interesting webpage if you want to look further into the history of surnames, coats of arms and family crests is House of Names. Unfortunately, one cannot copy images from their page. But using their search engine, you will find for example that…

The name Potter was brought to England by the Normans in 1066. The crest on their coat of arms is a wyvern, a sort of dragon.

The name Evans (Harry's mother's maiden name) goes back to the ancient Celts. The crest on their coat of arms is a stag. Remember that Harry's father took the form of a stag as animagus, and that the stag is also Harry's patronus.

Interestingly, the crest on the Snape coat of arms is also a stag's head. In the last book, we learn that Snape's patronus is a doe, because of his feelings for Lily Evans.

Snape's mother's maiden name was Prince; this name goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, and on the shield there is a cross of ermine (white with black spots), which is associated with crusaders.

Granger, Hermione's surname, is also an old one, and the family crest is a portcullis, associated with castles and a symbol of protection.

The name Weasley is of Norman origin and arrived in England with the conquest in 1066. Their crest is a wyvern, their motto is "God is Love", and on their shield there are three sea shells. (In the seventh book, Bill and Fleur Weasley live in Shell Cottage.)

The motto over the Riddle coat of arms is "I hope to share". Too good to be a coincidence, I think, since Tom Riddle=Lord Voldemort split his soul into several "shares"…

The Dumbledore coat of arms has a red shield with two golden lions, and a bend of ermine across it. (The bend signifies defense or protection.)

On the Black coat of arms shield, there are three stars. Sirius is the name of a star, and in Rowling's Black family tree, there are several other "star" first names as well.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Names: Cho Chang

Sometimes a book can be more helpful than the internet. It was in a Swedish book on Chinese mythology and history (by Alf Henriksson & Hwang Tsu-Yü) that I found Chou Chuang-tzu, also sometimes spelled Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher in the 4th century b.c. (Chou is the first name.)

There are especially two stories about him (out of the few I've glanced at) that I think sort of relate to the story in The Goblet of Fire (GoF); which is the book where we are first introduced to Cho Chang (who becomes Harry Potter's girlfriend in the next book, The Order of the Phoenix).

One is this:

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (Quoted from a website about Taoism)

In GoF, we have Rita Skeeter transforming into a beetle. Before GoF, we had only been introduced to "mammal" Animagi. A butterfly is a kind of insect, and so is a beetle. (It always seemed to me a very risky kind of transformation...)

With the name Cho Chang, Rowling might also want to indicate subtly that Cho will not be Harry's lasting female companion. Cho is a "butterfly", who does not quite have the endurance that Ginny later shows...

The other story I haven't been able to find on the internet, but Alf Henriksson & Hwang Tsu-Yü include in the Swedish book:

This is a story about Chuang-tzu, from the 17th century collection of stories Chin-ku Ch'i-kuan. In this story, Chuang-tzu lies dead in his coffin, which is still kept in his house. His widow falls in love with a prince who used to be his student. On the night of their wedding, the prince falls ill, and says the only thing that could cure him would be a piece of a human brain. Chuang-tzus widow does not hesitate; she breaks open the coffin of her former husband. But when she does, the body of her husband wakes up, and the prince disappears. It turns out the prince was just another incarnation of Chuang-tzu. The wife hangs herself, but Chuang-tzu beats a drum and sings a happy song about death.

In GoF, we have Lord Voldemort rising from the dead by digging up the bones of his father in a graveyard, and using these (and a few other things) for a sort of second incarnation of himself.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

Professor Dumbledore's full name is:
Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

"Dumbledore is an old English word meaning bumblebee. Because Albus Dumbledore is very fond of music, I always imagined him as sort of humming to himself a lot." J.K. Rowling

AlbusLatin for "white".
Albion is an ancient poetic name for Britain which the Romans connected with the Latin "albus" referring to the whiteness of cliffs seen from the sea, but which is more likely of Celtic origin.

After Dumbledore's death, he was buried in a white marble tomb. (HBP 30)

Percival - one of King Arthur's knights whose virtue was so great that he alone could retrieve the Holy Grail, the chalice from Christ's Last Supper.

Wulfric - Anglo/Saxon, meaning wolf power, or wolf ruler.
(Wulf = wolf. Ric = power, rule.)

Together with Dumbledore's victory over the magician Grindelwald, his middle name Wulfric might be a hint towards the 8th-century Norse epic Beowulf and Grendel. See my previous post about Harry Potter and Beowulf.

Brian (Celtic, Irish, Gaelic) "High, noble; strength."
Brian Boru (10th century) was a warrior who became High King of Ireland, and one of its greatest national heroes. His reign was unique in that he mangaged to establish himself as King of Ireland in more than just name, by forcing all other challengers to swear allegiance to him. After his death, Ireland soon fell back into chaos and anarchy.

Albus P W Brian Dumbledore's achievement as Headmaster of Hogwarts could possibly be compared in some ways to that of Brian Boru as High King of Ireland. For a long period of time, Dumbledore managed to keep the four Houses of Hogwarts together, in spite of the differences. When he is not there, chaos and anarchy break out. This is seen both during his shorter absences in the earlier books, for example under the temporary "reign" of Dolores Umbridge in Book 5, and especially in Book 7, after Dumbledore's death.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Names: Lily and James

Looking up the meanings of names used in the Harry Potter story was one of the things that made me aware of how much effort J.K. Rowling put into the details of her story.

One common flower name that has a lot more connotations than you might think is Lily – which was the name of Harry's mother.

The flower Lily, and hence also the name, commonly represents purity, innocence, beauty, death and majesty. In the Church, the Lily is used as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The fleur-de-lis, a stylized design of a lily, is a common symbol in heraldry (particularly associated with the French monarchy), for example in coats of arms.

"Other folklore tells of lilies, unplanted by any human hand spontaneously appearing on the graves of people executed for crimes they did not commit. Some believe that planting lilies in a garden will protect the garden from ghosts and evil spirits. In China, the day lily is the emblem for motherhood. To dream of lilies in spring foretells marriage, happiness and prosperity; to dream of them in winter indicates frustration of hopes, and the premature death of a loved one."

Furthermore: "Long ago, Spaniards believed that eating a lily's petals would restore someone who had been transformed into a beast back into human form."

It is tempting to believe that Rowling knew about this. In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry learns that his father James was an Animagus; that is, he could magically transform himself into an animal (a stag). In his fifth year, through the magic Pensieve, Harry learns less flattering things about his father: "Judging from what he had just seen, his father had been every bit as arrogant as Snape had always told him." (OP28) Yet, as James grew older, he seems to have shaped up under the influence of Lily, and stopped playing cruel games just for fun.

James, by the way, is the English version of the Hebrew name Jacob, meaning: "He who supplants." Supplant means "take the place of". Jacob in the Old Testament outsmarted and took the place and birthright of his older twin Esau. Seen from the perspective of additional things that we learn in the 7th book about Lily's early life, it could perhaps be said that for her, James (in a way) came to supplant Severus...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Names: Harry, Ron, Hermione

The name Harry is used as a nickname both of Henry
(French origin) = "home ruler", and Harold (Scandinavian origin) = "army ruler".

In The Order of the Phoenix Harry becomes the leader of a group of Hogwarts students who call themselves "Dumbledore's Army".

Ron, Ronald: (Old Norse) = "Ruler's counselor."

Hermione: (Greek) = "Messenger; earthly." Femine form of Hermes. Hermes was a messenger for the gods on Olympus and was himself the god of eloquence. Hermione is a witch, but Muggle-born. She reads a lot, knows a lot, talks a lot - and provides a lot of useful information.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Names: Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Hogshead

As all readers of the Harry Potter books know, the school of Wizardry and Witchcraft that Harry goes to is called Hogwarts.

J.K. Rowling said in an interview back in 1999, about the name: "I thought I made up Hogwarts, but recently a friend said, 'Remember we saw lilies in Kew gardens (a garden in London.)' Apparently there are lilies there called Hogwarts. I'd forgotten!"

Today, if you try to look up "hogwart" on the internet, the problem is that you just get referred to thousands of pages talking about the Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. However, Hogwart as the name of a plant can also be found on lists over toxic plants that shouldn't be eaten by rabbits...

There are two more important "hog" references in the Harry Potter books: The village near Hogwarts Castle is called Hogsmeade, and in the village, there is also a pub called The Hogshead.

Mead is an alcoholic liquor of fermented honey and water. And if you look up hogshead in a dictionary, you will find that it is a large cask or barrel, or a measurement equaling around 50 gallons of liquid (for example beer).

It turns out in the last book in the HP series (after just being subtly hinted at in the previous ones) that the landlord of The Hogshead is Aberforth Dumbledore, brother of Albus. The earlier hints about Aberforth include that he is somehow mysteriously associated with goats. This connection is never really explained in the books, but...

… In Norse mythology, in the Hall of the Gods, Valhalla (the place where all the slain heroes go), there is a goat (named Heidrun), that continually produces mead. And the meat served at the same table comes from a boar (called Sarimner) that gets killed every night but always comes back to life again after being eaten…

(Digging deeper into Norse mythology, other links between the brothers Dumbledore and the Norse god Odin also seem possible, but I'm not going into that in this post.)

Furthermore, the pig/boar/ hog is also an animal connected to the wizard Merlin in the Celtic/ Arthurian legends. According to a book I have*, Merlin kept a pig as a "pet". The same book also provides this information about the pig in the Celtic tradition:

"It is, first of all, the preferred dish for the banquets that take place both here and in the Otherworld. The wild boar, 'le solitaire' or solitary one, is the animal symbol of the druid, adept in magic and prophecy, protector of heroes, bringer of abundance and good fortune. The position of swineherd was one of the most honoured among the Celts."
(as opposed to for example Biblical contexts)

*On the Trail of Merlin. A Guidebook to the Western Mystery Tradition, by Deike Rich and Ean Begg, 1991

If you want to look up the names from the Norse mythology, try Wikipedia, or just Google them.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Going to the Bathroom

In some LeakyLounge discussion thread back in 2005, post-HBP, someone posted the question:

"Why would Dumbledore go to the bathroom?"

The question refers to Chapter Four in The Half-Blood Prince, where Dumbledore excuses himself (very politely, as usual) to go the bathroom, in the middle of a conversation he and Harry are having with Dumbledore's old friend and former colleague Horace Slughorn. His main purpose would have been to leave Harry alone for a while with Slughorn, to let them get to know each other. But the question pin-points a theme used both cleverly and amusingly by J.K. Rowling throughout the books: In lots and lots of other adventure stories throughout literary history, people never seem to be in need of finding a toilet in midst of their other predicaments. In the Harry Potter books, the lack of toilets in other stories is revenged: Here, toilets and bathrooms are made an integral part of the story. However, they still seem to be used chiefly for other purposes than the most obvious…

Some examples:
Book 1
– Hermione hides in the bathroom to cry, and gets shut in with a Troll.
Book 2 - Riddle's diary gets thrown into a toilet. Moaning Myrtle, the bathroom ghost who lives in the u-bend of a toilet, is introduced. Polyjuice is secretly made in the bathroom. And last but not least, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is through the bathroom.
Book 4 - Harry uses the prefects' bathroom when trying to figure out the secret of the egg.
Book 5 – A Slytherin student turns up jammed in a toilet after having vanished through a Vanishing Cabinet.
Book 6 – Harry finds Draco crying in the boys' bathroom, and that's also where Harry tries out the sectumsempra curse.
Book 7 – Since Voldemort took over, Ministry employees are forced to enter the Ministry of Magic through toilets instead of through the fireplaces.

Rowling connects the Four Houses of Hogwarts to the Four Elements:

  • Fire/Gryffindor

  • Earth/Hufflepuff

  • Air/Ravenclaw

  • Water/Slytherin.

The use of bathrooms in the books is in no way random. As water is the symbol connected to Slytherin, bad and secretive things and use of dark magic tend to take place in the bathrooms. Whereas fireplaces are chiefly used for communication (except when Umbridge shuts down that possibility in Book 5).

I don't remember just now in which book it is that Dumbledore first tells the story about how he had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and happened to conveniently find a room full of chamberpots; but the chief purpose that this story serves, is to introduce the Room of Requirement.

To return to Chapter Four in The Half-Blood Prince, and the Muggle house where Slughorn has temporarily made himself at home:

Dumbledore re-entered the room and Slughorn jumped as though he had forgotten he was in the house.
'Oh, there you are, Albus,' he said. 'You've been a very long time. Upset stomach?'
'No, I was merely reading the Muggle magazines,' said Dumbledore. 'I do love knitting patterns.'

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Harry Potter and the Detective Perspective

Old classics like Beowulf, Arthurian Legend and Greek Mythology are not the only sources that J.K. Rowling has been drawing from in the Harry Potter books. Especially in The Half-Blood Prince, she also seems to be putting in deliberate clues to make us think of the great classic detectives, like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and others.

Dumbledore, in The Half-Blood Prince (HBP), really has a lot in common with Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Dumbledore's use of the Pensieve (the magical devise used to take an objective look at your own or someone else's memories) resembles Sherlock shutting himself up, leaning back and just thinking hard to solve mysteries. Then up and away he goes, disappears in some disguise or other and takes action; and then returns to his rooms again and explains the whole mystery to the astonished Dr Watson - who in between is often sent out on other missions, sometimes without quite understanding the purpose. Harry has a lot of private meetings with Dumbledore in HBP, in which Dumbledore shows him pensieve scenes from Voldemort's past. But another possible candidate for the post of Dr Watson is Snape, whose healing skills are pointed out in HBP, and who also seems to be in Dumbledore's confidence.

Dumbledore's resemblance to Sherlock Holmes was one source among others that misled me to suspect that his death at the end of HBP might have been faked. Because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, after a number of books, grew tired of his hero, and killed him off - but had to revive him again because of angry protests from his readers! I have only one of the Sherlock Holmes books in my own bookcase, but it happens to be The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), which is the book where Sherlock "comes back from the dead". It has a preface by the author, explaining why he changed his mind:

I had fully determined at the conclusion of The Memoirs to bring Holmes to an end, as I felt that my literary energies should not be directed too much into one channel. That pale, clear-cut face and loose-limbed figure were taking up an undue share of my imagination. I did the deed, but, fortunately, no coroner had pronounced upon the remains, and so --- it was not difficult for me to respond to the flattering demand and to explain my rash act away.

Glancing through the first story in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes - "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" - I found that this story alone contains, among other things:

  • A note from a client to Sherlock, written much in the same polite tone as the notes from Dumbledore to Harry in HBP.
  • A Baron who collects antiques – cf. Lord Voldemort collecting antiques to use as Horcruxes. 
  • Watson being given a mission of which he understands nothing, he just obeys the instructions Holmes gives him (as do both Harry and Snape).
  • An old book, which has been scribbled in (cf. the Potions book).
  • A big glass cupboard with antiques in it (cf. the glass cupboard in Grimmauld Place).
  • A woman with "ethereal other-world beauty" (cf. Fleur)
  • A "beastly" man (cf. Bill being bitten by werewolf).
  • A newspaper announcing a murderous attack upon Sherlock Holmes (the attack was made by "two men armed with sticks"), Holmes making the most of this and pretending to be dying, while he was really recovering quite fast.
The rest of the stories in the book also involve several other things and places that remind me in one way or another of events or persons in The Half-Blood Prince.

Other similarities between Sherlock Holmes and Dumbledore: Sherlock has an evil adversary by the name of Moriarty, turning up every now and again. Dumbledore keeps fighting Voldemort. Sherlock's has a brother that comes into the story now and then - so does Dumbledore. Sherlock has contacts within the Ministry - so does Dumbledore. Sherlock plays the violin; Dumbledore loves music. Sherlock uses shifty caracters to spy for him – Dumbledore uses Mundungus and Snape…

Furthermore, in the Pensieve in HBP we meet an unpleasant character by the name of Morfin. That struck me as a very odd name for a person, even among all the other inventive names that Rowling uses. I think this may be another hint to Sherlock Holmes and the detective perspective - Sherlock used the drug morphine...

What about other classic detectives? G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown is not unlike Holmes, or Dumbledore. He also has a very sharp mind, and has a recurring adversary, a master thief by the name of Flambeau. One of Brown's characteristics is that he's always very polite, even to his enemies. So is Dumbledore.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot is also not unlike Holmes, or Dumbledore. He uses his brain to solve problems, and uses his faithful Captain Hastings much the same way Holmes uses Watson. This might seem far fetched, but perhaps not put together with all the other hints: At the same time Dumbledore begins to take him more in his confidence, Harry is made Captain of the Quidditch team…

Titles of Agatha Christie mysteries include, for example:

  • After the Funeral (cf. After the Burial, chapter title in HBP)
  • Cards on the Table (cf. Sybill Trelawney making predictions using cards)
  • The Secret Adversary (cf. The Secret Riddle, chapter title in HBP)
  • Halloween Party (seen a few of those, haven't we)
  • The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (cf. the mirror Sirius gave to Harry)
  • They Do It With Mirrors
  • Sleeping Murder (in HP, there is much talk of the potion the Draught of Living Death)
  • Why Didn't They Ask Evans (Harry's mother's maiden name was Lily Evans)

But in HBP, Harry is really also doing a lot of detective work on his own. He is not just Watson or Hastings, obeying orders and admiring the mind of the Master. On his own accord he is spying on Draco Malfoy, following him around, disclosing what he is up to… He also engages Dobby the House-Elf to help him. This rather reminds me of Dorothy Sayer's rich gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey. He wears a monocle (Harry wears glasses), has no money problems because of inherited fortune (the same goes for Harry), and his assistant is his faithful servant Bunter, who gets to do the more menial tasks, but is at the same time also a true friend (cf. Dobby). By the way, Bunter came into Wimsey's service after Wimsey had saved his life, if I remember correctly (and Harry saved Dobby). There is also a new character introduced in HBP - Romilda Vane, who has a crush on Harry. The love in Lord Peter's life is named Harriet Vane…

Hermione, in HBP always knitting, with a keen eye for what is going on on the relationship front, really also has quite a potential of becoming a Miss Marple - another Agatha Christie detective (who is always knitting).
There are also a number of really suspicious deaths in HBP. There are the many stories occurring in The Daily Prophet in HBP, for example Amelia Bones, whose death was not only described as particularly nasty, but also mysterious, since the room was locked from inside. There is also Slughorn's staging of his murder (or violent removal) when Dumbledore and Harry come to visit.

By the time Rowling was writing The Half-Blood Prince, there were already a lot of discussions about the HP books going on the internet. I suspect she consciously filled the sixth book with both true and false clues, to keep us going while she finished the last one...
In doing so, she is also paying homage to all of the authors mentioned above, because, just like Rowling, they also loved to make use of such things as riddles, wordplay, clever use of numbers, precious jewellry and antiques, disguises, spying… They also all belong to the same world where Harry Potter takes place: a world of castles, aristocracy, boarding schools and orphanages, rich and poor, masters and servants, steam trains and carriages, handwritten documents and dusty libraries. (The Wizarding world in Harry Potter reminds more of 19th century Muggle England than of the late 20th).

In Retrospect:
Along with many other readers, my "detecting" took me a little too far. I guessed that Dumbledore's death at the end of HBP might (like Slughorn's at the beginning of the book) also turn out to be faked, and even Sirius's in the previous book. I was hoping that Rowling would do what Doyle did with Sherlock – revive the fallen hero(es). And in her own way she did call a number of people up from the dead - Dumbledore and Sirius among them - but not quite in the way that I guessed! (They were and remained dead; but still played their part at the end, in helping Harry do what he must do.) And this is one of the things I really admire her for: She is a terrific Recycler – she resuses all kinds of old ideas and stories, but always gives them her own unexpected twist in the end, so that they come out as new!

PS. I am still convinced there are way too many similarities between Sherlock Holmes and Dumbledore for this to be just a coincidence… ;-)
Link: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (e-text)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Harry Potter and Beowulf

This comparison was originally posted in the "Academic Analysis: Obscurous Books" subforum at The Leaky Lounge in September 2005 (i.e. after the publication of the 6th book in the series, The Half-Blood Prince).

Basically, I feel that the interpretation I made back then still holds. Apart from adding a few clarifications, I have let my original conclusions and conjectures stand as they were at that time, but have added some "post Deathly Hallows" footnotes at the bottom.

* * *

September 2005


Digging deeper into the meanings of names used in the Harry Potter books, I came across the idea that Dumbledore's second middle name, Wulfric*, together with his victory over the evil wizard Grindelwald in 1945, is probably an allusion to the old tale of Beowulf & Grendel. (*Dumbledore's full name is Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.)

I had never really read the whole poem about Beowulf, just struggled with excerpts from it in Old English in my language studies, many years ago. Now I got curious, searched and found an adaptation of it into modern langugage. * (See link at the bottom of this post.)

After reading the whole poem, I searched the internet again for comparisons between Beowulf and Harry Potter. To my surprise, I found almost nothing; most of the links that came up seemed to focus on a translation of Beowulf winning some literary prize in 2003, with the Harry Potter books coming in second. Other links just kind of drew general classic hero parallells. I haven't seen anyone suggest what now seems obvious to me:

The Beowulf poem seems to have been used by Rowling as foundation (or "skeleton") for the story in the Harry Potter books, in almost chronological order from beginning to end. "Starring" Dumbledore as king Hrothgar, Harry as Beowulf, and Grendel/ the Dragon as Voldemort; but with a shift of perspective when it comes the death of Beowulf, whose funeral in the poem resembles Dumbledore's.

This makes me guess Rowling must have found those literary prize discussions hilarious - people discussing how Beowulf "won" over Harry Potter, but no one -?!- recognizing that she's basically using the same old story… (?)

Comparing the plots

In Beowulf we first meet a king named Hrothgar (= Dumbledore), who has won many battles and is well respected by everyone. He builds a mead-hall, a "high-towered" building, "the greatest the world had ever seen, or even imagined" (= Hogwarts Castle with its Great Hall; there is possibly also an allusion to the mead-hall in the name of the village, Hogsmeade). The name of Hrothgar's hall is Herot, which means "hart". (Note Harry's "patronus" being a stag.) In the Hall the old king sits at the table with "his most trusted men" (= the teachers' table at Hogwarts).

The introduction of the Beowulf poem mentions the four elements: earth, water, air, light (=fire). These four elements also used as a basis for the structure of the Harry Potter books. For example, the houses of Hogwarts can be said to each represent one of the four elements: Hufflepuff/Earth, Slytherin/Water, Ravenclaw/Air, Gryffindor/Fire.

In Beowulf there is an evil demon, Grendel, "of the race of Cain, that man punished for murdering his brother", who threatens the peace in the kingdom and the hall. (=Voldemort)

Grendel begins to attack the Hall. "Grendel killed more - blinded by sin, he felt no remorse." Finally, he even moves into the Hall himself. (Voldemort moves into Hogwarts in Book 1 by possessing Professor Quirrell.)

Then comes a warrior, Beowulf, to the rescue, with a number of companions. They arrive over the sea by ship (Harry and other first-years arrive by boat over the lake in Book 1), armed with spears of "ash wood tipped with gray" (=wands of wood with core of something else). Beowulf's father was "a leader well known among the people" (=Harry's father, James Potter, was well known as a member of the opposition against Voldemort in his time). Hrothgar also says he knew Beowulf "when he was a boy". (Dumbledore knew Harry when he was a baby.)

Beowulf defeats Grendel not by weapons - "no battle sword could harm him - he had enchantment against the edges of weapons" - but by "firmly grasping Grendel's hand until the fingers broke". In Book 1, The Philosopher's Stone, Quirrell-Voldemort cannot endure the touch of Harry's bare skin, and that is how Harry defeats him.

We also learn that "Each was hateful to the other alive." Compare the prophecy made about Harry and Voldemort: "… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…" (We don't learn about the prophecy until Book 5, however.)

Grendel, mortally wounded, withdraws; the warriors rejoice; and the King gives a feast in his Hall, which is decorated with "gilded banner"; many speeches are delivered. Harry defeats Quirrell/Voldemort at the end of Book 1, and afterwards there is a feast in the Great Hall, with Gryffindor decorations (red and gold).

But… It turns out that Grendel's mother, a fearful water-monster, is seeking revenge, and again the Hall and its inhabitants are seized by terror. And again, Beowulf comes to the rescue, kills the water-monster and cuts the head off the already mortally wounded Grendel. In Book 2, "The Chamber of Secrets" is reopened, letting a frightful monster, a Basilisk, loose in the castle. Harry fights the Basilisk and Voldemort's memory/diary down in the Chamber. The entrance to the Chamber is through the waterpipes.

Between and after the battles in the poem, both recent and historic events are repeated in songs and tales, seen from different angles. In HP Book 3,The Prisoner of Azkaban, Voldemort "retreats", but Harry & co are learning more about the past. In Book 4, the Goblet of Fire, we have a repetition of earlier themes in the Triwizard Tournament, which also involves Harry going down under water to rescue his friends from the Mer-People; more of the imagery from Beowulf's adventure under water is used here.

While Beowulf is under water, "The old gray-hairs spoke together, saying they did not expect the famous prince to be victorious." There is much discussion in Book 4 about Harry's being in the Tournament at all, and if he will be able to win, or even survive.

After Beowulf resurfaces, with Grendel's head as proof for his deeds under water, Hrothgar gives a long speech again, and explains what it takes to be a good warrior. Peace can be as dangerous as war, because when you have won great victories, you can be overcome by arrogance:

but then arrogance grows;
the guardian of his soul
sleeps. That sleep is
too heavy, bound with affliction,
and the killer very near who shoots his bow
with evil intent.Then he is hit
in the heart,
beneath his armor,
with a bitter arrow--
he cannot guard himself
against the perverse commands
of his accursed spirit.

In Book 5, The Order of the Phoenix, Harry has to fight "mind battles", not only accusations from other people, but in his own thoughts, and nightly visions. He also has to take lessons in how to guard himself againt these attacks, but finds this very hard to practise.

Beowulf becomes king. After the Return of Voldemort is officially acknowledged, Harry in Book 6 is regarded as "the chosen one". And at the end of Book 6, The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore is relying on Harry instead of Harry on Dumbledore. The Beowulf poem shifts perspective, and so, I believe, does Rowling; at least in part, since some of the things that happen to Beowulf at the end are rather what happens to Dumbledore in book 6. The description of Beowulf's Funeral fits the description of Dumbledore's funeral - big fire, smoke, mound/tomb…

Before that, the Beowulf poem tells of a Dragon, who has collected a hoard. But a thief comes along and takes one of the treasures. However, "the thief did not of his own accord plunder the treasure". The treasures are hidden in a "cave /that/ stood near the sea, protected by secret spells." In Book 6, Dumbledore tells Harry about Voldemort's Horcruxes; valuable objects that he has put parts of his own soul into, and hidden. All these objects must be found and destroyed, before Voldemort can be killed. One of the objects, a locket, was hidden in a cave near the sea. Dumbledore and Harry go to retrieve it; it turns out, however (but not until after Dumbledore's death) that the original locket had already been stolen earlier by a person with the initials "RAB", whose identity is not revealed in Book 6. "The thief" could fit both RAB and/or Dumbledore [1]

The theft awakes the Dragon: "The thief had stepped with insidious craft near the dragon's head." He goes looking for revenge - "went in flame, prepared with fire" - "The beginning was fearful to people in the land, as was the ending: death for their king." Dumbledore somehow burned his hand in connection with destroying another of the Horcruxes, a ring. At the end of Book 6, he is hit by the Avada Kedavra curse – a deadly curse which includes a flash of fire. [2]

In the episodes which tell of the final slaying of the Dragon in the Beowulf poem, I believe we're probably entering the realm of Book 7 in the HP series, which makes it hard to draw exact parallels yet. But a few hints - maybe…

"(Beowulf) knew for a fact that the best wood --- couldn't help against flame." Harry knows his wand can't kill Voldemort. (This was established in Book 4.) [3]

"Beowulf scorned a host, a large army, when he sought the dragon --- No one but myself can fight this monster." – But Beowulf finds that he can't kill the dragon alone. He tries to cut off the dragon's head by sword, but the sword "stuck in the dragon's head. --- Then Wiglaf showed courage, craft and bravery, as was his nature--he went not for the thought-seat, but struck a little lower /the heart/, helped his kinsman though his hand was burned. --- Then the king controlled his senses, drew his battle knife "--- and cut the dragon through the middle. The enemy fell--strength had driven out life; the two kinsmen, together, had cut down the enemy. So should a warrior do."

At the end of Book 6, Harry thinks that he has to find and destroy the horcruxes and kill Voldemort all by himself. If Rowling is consistent in following the Beowulf outline, Harry probably won't be as alone as he thinks. Remains to be seen who "Wiglaf" will turn out to be...? [4]

And since the funeral scene at the end of the Beowulf poem has already been used in Book 6, I don't think that Harry will actually have to die at the end of Book 7. [5]

Additional details

We also in the Beowulf tale have many such things as: Cups, ancient swords (cf. Gryffindor sword), a sword's guard (sheath) (cf. the Sorting hat, which serves as a sheath for the Gryffindor sword in Book 2) [6], objects decorated with ancient runes and snake ornaments (as are some objects in the HP books), shields (cf. shield charms), ravens (Ravenclaw), a strong-horned hart (Harry's Patronus and James' Animagus + nickname "Prongs"), horses (cf. Centaurs, Hippogriffs, Thestrals, brooms), importance of lineage (pureblood vs mudblood theme in HP) and ancient heirlooms (Voldemort's Horcruxes), a melting swordblade (a knife-blade melts away when Harry tries to open a locked door in the Department of Mysteries in Book 5), "gold ancient men had encircled with a spell so that no man could touch it" (again, the Horcruxes)…

And there are phrases like:
"It's a mystery where a good man goes when he reaches his end, when he can no longer live in the houses of men", and
"He was alive still, sound in mind, that aged man…" [7]

* * *

In Retrospect (February 2009)

[1] It turned out that it was the house-elf Kreacher, servant of RAB (=Regulus Black), that removed the original locket from the cave. Since he did it on his master's order, not by his own initiative, he fits with the thief in the Beowulf poem who "did not of his own accord plunder the treasure".

[2] I was not convinced after book 6 whether Dumbledore was really killed by the Avada Kedavra curse, or if there was some kind of stunt involved, so that he was just faking his death. See also footnote [7] below.

[3] The fact that Harry could not kill Voldemort with his (Harry's) wand actually played a bigger role in the previous books than it did in the last one. In The Deathly Hallows, what turned out to be of greater importance was that Voldemort also knew that he would not be able to kill Harry using his (Voldemort's) old wand, and therefore had to seek for another one.

[4] Harry did have to duel Voldemort alone at the end, but at the same time he could not have finished him off without help. He had help in destroying all the Horcruxes (except the Diary back in Book 2). The last one was Nagini, the big snake that also helped Voldemort to get "reborn" in Book 4 – cf. Grendel's mother, the water-monster. It was Neville who killed her, and so played the final Wiglaf part. Something that many readers suspected, even if they didn't think of Beowulf/Wiglaf, but simply because Neville fitted the original prophecy just as well as Harry (both boys being born at the end of July the same year, to parents who had opposed Voldemort). What made Harry "the chosen one", was really the choice of Voldemort himself (as Dumbledore pointed out to Harry).

[5] … and I was right, Harry did not really die…

[6] The Sorting hat again acts as a sword sheath in Book 7, when it delivers the Gryffindor Sword to Neville, so that he can kill Nagini; in much the same way it was delivered to Harry in Book 2, when had to kill the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets.

[7] "
It's a mystery where a good man goes when he reaches his end, when he can no longer live in the houses of men" - "He was alive still, sound in mind, that aged man…"

These phrases in the Beowulf poem was one of the reasons why I doubted that Dumbledore had really died! As it turned out, Dumbledore did die; but Harry still got to meet him again, in a "mystery place" – reminding Harry of King's Cross station – dead but at the same time "alive still, sound in mind, that aged man"…

* Link: Beowulf (e-text)

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Harry Potter and I

… or How To Grow From Reader To Fan …

In 2001, I listened to the first Harry Potter book on tape (in Swedish translation) and in 2002 the three following ones (that is, all that had been published so far). I read them because I was curious; I had heard and read discussions about them, and I wanted to form my own opinion.

(I should perhaps add that I was more than grown-up myself when I first read them, and did not have any children to read them to or with...)

I remember that one of my very first impressions of the first book was that I did find the style of writing kind of exaggerated. Not really the magic stuff - because how does one judge that? - but how Harry was treated by the Dursleys, for example. But I certainly couldn't understand all the fuss and worry expressed by some people about the "magic" in the books. I could only guess that most critics probably hadn't bothered to really read them. To me, Harry Potter seemed to be firmly rooted in the same tradition as lots of earlier children's books within British literature: From the stories of Merlin and King Arthur, to Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda), Edith Nesbit (e.g. The Enchanted Castle), P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins), Mary Norton (The Borrowers, The Magic Bedknob), C.S. Lewis (Narnia) and many others. Funny, imaginative, playing on the borderline between reality and fantasy. And to me, the magic in the Harry Potter series translated just as easily as for example in Lewis or Tolkien, to spiritual power that can be used either for good or for worse.

By the time I got to the 4th book in the series, The Goblet of Fire, it also became clear to me (as to a lot of other readers) that this was not just a series of separate stories starring the same heroes and villains, but that it was all ONE ongoing story, heading towards an end, but also with each book revealing more and more of the past. So that with each new book, if you went back and reread the previous ones again, they seemed to have more to say than the last time you read them… That makes "magic" reading, and that made the Harry Potter books stand out compared to many others.

When the 5th book was published (The Order of the Phoenix, 2003), I did not wait for translations or pocket editions or library queues, but bought it the day it was released… I also bought the previous four in English, and had to admit that I was "hooked"… (or under the spell, if you wish…) This book is still my favourite, because it fit so perfectly into my own mood the first time I read it. I know it is not the author's own favourite, but it is mine!

Shortly after the publication of the 6th book (The Half-Blood Prince, 2005) I found my way to the internet discussion forum Leaky Lounge , which turned my private reading experience into a literary hobby shared with thousands of other people all over the world, while waiting for the 7th and last book in the series (The Deathly Hallows, 2007). This was an awesome and unique experience in itself; which new readers of the series will never be able to share in the same way. "Everyone else" around them will already know how it ended; and they themselves will be able to just read on and find out.

Waiting for The End together with all these other readers was not all about wild speculations either. For many of us it also lead to a lot of "extracurricular" reading, mostly classical, as we tried to figure out what J.K. Rowling had in mind, what her literary influences were and so on. I also explored a lot of websites that I would never have visited otherwise. It was quite simply a lot of fun - but also educational.

In a previous post, I have listed books that I read and reread because of Harry Potter and the discussions at the Leaky Lounge – mainly in the subforum Obscurous Books - between 2005 and 2007. The list includes several works of classical fiction, as well as collections of Celtic and Norse and other mythology. Looking at it now, I think the list in itself probably more or less explains (if anyone still wonders) "how to make a literary hobby out of Harry Potter"…

I have to add, though, that without the discussions, I probably would not have thought of even a third of the connections that came up in interaction with others. (If any other old LL members, especially Obscurous Books enthusiasts and Scribbulus authors, ever happen to find your way to this post – a great big thanks to all of you!)

What I'd like to do here is to try and collect some of my own Harry Potter-related "research" and speculations, and also links I have found useful.

I suspect this will be a slow process, in some respects more like cooking a polyjuice potion than using a time turner. I'm doing this mostly for my own enjoyment, but hoping that a few other people might perhaps get some amusement from it, too.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Other books I read because of Harry Potter

This is a list of books I read and/or bought because of Harry Potter.

  • Beowulf (the oldest surviving epic in British literature, 8th -11th century)
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  • Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)
  • Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)
  • Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie (1934)
  • The Hollow by Agatha Christie (1946)
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)
  • The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1927)
  • The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck (1976)
  • The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart (1979) (3rd in her series about Merlin)

Bought & Read

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher-Stowe (1852) (borrowed)
  • The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle (1903)
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1865-1869)
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
  • Fornnordisk mytologi (Old Norse Mythology) by Lars Magnar Enoksen (2004)
  • The Hermetic Cabinet: Alchemy and Mysticism by Alexander Roob (2005)
  • The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865)
  • Witches, Werewolves and Fairies - Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages by Claude Lecouteux (2003)

Bought but not all read (yet)

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  • The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford (2004)
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (1889)
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White (1938-1958)
  • The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes (12th century) (translated by David Staines, 1993)
  • Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould (1894)
  • Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis (1999)
  • Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire (1905/2001)
  • The Mabinogion, unabridged, translated by Lady Charlotte E. Guest (1906/1997)
  • The Mabinogi and other Medeival Welsh Tales by Patrick K. Ford (1977)
  • Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2001)
  • Mythologies of the World (2001)
  • Mytologi – gudar, hjältar, myter (Mythology – gods, heroes, myths) (2005)
  • Tro i den keltiska världen (Christianity and the Celts) by Ted Olsen (2003)
  • Draken, fabeldjurens konung (The Dragon, King of Fabulous Beasts) by Åke Dahlström (2002)

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Through My Spectrespecs

In another world within the vast Cyberspace - the Harry Potter discussion forum Leaky Lounge - I go by the name of Spectrespecs.

It occurred to me that it would perhaps be a good idea to set up a separate blog, with a name including that signature, as a place to look closer at the Harry Potter books. However, it might just as well turn out to be a really bad idea, since I would probably need a Time-Turner to be able to go through with the project...

I found my way to Leaky in 2005, shortly after the publication of the sixth Harry Potter book, The Half-Blood Prince; and I had a lot of fun taking part in discussions there while waiting for the final book in the series, The Deathly Hallows, published in 2007.

Two years of guessing the end of the story, together with thousands of other readers all over the world, was a "fantastic" experience, in more than one sense of the word.* In the end, I was more or less right about some things (I think); completely wrong about others; and am still just guessing about some.

If I do find that Time-Turner, I'd like to collect some of my scattered ideas from between the 6th and 7th books here, in my own quiet corner, and take a new look at them from the perspective of now knowing the ending that Jo Rowling chose (and probably had in mind all along, even if people debate that, too).

In the meantime, occasional potterisms can also be found in my blog The Island of the Voices.

*fantastic a. extravagantly fanciful, capricious, eccentric; grotesque or quaint; excellent, extraordinary (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, sixth edition 1976)

PS. The Leaky Lounge forum also includes a Non-HP-Related section, for discussion of other books and topics.


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