Wednesday, 25 May 2011

S for Severus Snape (ABC Wednesday)


Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films


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

Severus is Latin meaning stern, strict, serious.

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

(spoiler warning)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Q for Quidditch (ABC Wednesday)


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

P for Pensieve (ABC Wednesday)


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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