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...!


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