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)


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