The Darker Side of Harry Potter: 7 Things You Might Have Missed as a Kid

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On the face of it, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a charming, quintessentially British tale of magic and friendship meant for kids. However, the books have become highly popular amongst adult readers, and for very good reason. Underneath the owls and wands and talking letters, there lies a world which is not that different from our own… meaning it has its kinks and its darkness. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of 7 of the darker elements of Harry Potter you may not have picked up on as a kid. Enjoy!

(Note: this post is obviously full of ***spoilers***)

 

 

1. Dolores Umbridge was sexually assaulted by centaurs

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In The Order of the Phoenix, after she goes into the Forbidden Forest with Harry and Hermione to find Dumbledore’s make-believe “weapon,” Umbridge manages to aggravate the smartest and most deadly creatures in the forest – the centaurs – and ends up being carried off by the herd. The next time we see her, she is in the hospital wing, described as being traumatised (though physically unhurt) with a number of “twigs in her hair.” So what happened to Umbridge?

One need only look to Greek mythology to find the answer. According to legend, centaurs had a nasty habit of abducting women, dragging them into the forest, and raping them repeatedly. Given J.K. Rowling’s familiarity with the Greeks, it’s extremely likely that she knew this and was alluding to it in her own work. Sort of puts Ron torturing her with clip-clopping noises into a new light, doesn’t it?

 

2. Albus Dumbledore had a thing for bad boys

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Well, one bad boy in particular, actually – the notorious Gellert Grindelwald. Although Dumbledore confesses later in The Deathly Hallows that he knew Grindelwald’s intentions were not as well-meaning as his own, he failed to acknowledge this fact to himself until it was much too late… and it cost him the life of his sister. Now, we all know that Dumbledore is utterly brilliant even as a teenager, and so his wilful blindness really can’t be justified… unless there was a good reason for the young Albus to see Gellert as far more than he really was. Teenage hormones, maybe? An out-of-control crush?

Suddenly all those secret conversations and plans for the future as a team and sending notes in the middle of the night make a lot more sense, as does Dumbledore’s reluctance to face him later in life – he was the first boy he ever loved, and now he was going to have to kill him, or be killed by him. Who wouldn’t delay in those circumstances?

If you’re not convinced, I hate to be the one to tell you, but J.K. Rowling has explicitly stated on Pottermore that it’s 100% true – the announcement came shortly after she confirmed Dumbledore’s homosexuality.

 

3. Severus Snape really wished Neville was dead

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…but not because he was rubbish at Potions. Snape is one of the very few people that knows Neville could have been the Chosen One – it was Severus, after all, who overheard the beginning of the prophecy (the bit where it still could have been Harry or Neville, as both were born at the end of July to parents that had thrice defied Voldemort, etc. etc. etc.).

Snape would much rather that it had been Neville and his parents that were brutally murdered, as then Lily would still be alive (happily married to another man, yes, but alive nonetheless). Harry’s existence might be a painful reminder that his childhood love chose someone else, but Neville? Each breath he takes is one that Lily should be taking instead (in his mind at least), which makes him a personal affront to Snape. Plus, there was that whole dressing-Boggart-Snape-in-drag thing. That probably didn’t help.

Poor Neville – he never knows how close he became to being Voldy chow, or that his good fortune is the primary reason Snape hates him so much!

4. Merope Gaunt was guilty of rape

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Sorry to burst the bubble but a love potion is not romantic, not in the slightest. You’re removing consent from the equation and that can only mean one thing: any sex you have is not “making love,” it’s flat-out rape.

Everyone always hates on Tom Riddle for leaving Merope despite the fact that she was pregnant with his kid (including Voldemort, who killed him for it), but who wouldn’t want to get the hell outta Dodge after what he’d been through? If Merope was a man, readers everywhere would think he belonged in Azkaban. Yes, she might have had a horrible life and suffered at the hands of her brother and father, but that’s no excuse for drugging and stealing a boy-toy to keep her company as she starts a new life without them, is it? No wonder he legged it and never looked back.

 

5. Moaning Myrtle’s voyeurism was out of control

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Although most of us raised an eyebrow when, in The Goblet of Fire, Myrtle admitted to spying on Hogwarts Prefects whilst they bathed, not many people pick up on the references throughout the books to her tendencies to hang around in toilets, even when they’re being used. Although Myrtle claims that she often caught by surprise, the fact remains that she has chosen to live in an S-bend rather than choosing another location in the castle. The only logical conclusion, then, is that she likes catching students with their knickers quite literally around their ankles, and has thus positioned herself in the perfect spot to witness the most private and intimate acts a person can perform.

 6. Norbert wasn’t the only stolen goods Hagrid handled

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In the very first instalment of Harry, Ron and Hermione’s adventures, The Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone if you’re in the US), we learn that Hagrid is the owner of a terrifying 3-headed dog named Fluffy. Anyone familiar with Greek mythology will know that 3-headed dog by another name: Cerberus, the hound of hell who guards the gates to the underworld.

Cerberus originally belonged to Hades until he was captured by Heracles (more commonly known in the West as Hercules) in the last of his twelve labours to repent for his sins. However, King Eursytheus was terrified when he was presented with the beast and demanded Heracles got rid of it. So, that “Greek chappie” in the pub who was keen to find Fluffy a new home might actually have been everyone’s favourite demi-god, looking to pass off his stolen goods! As it is said that Heracles could only control the beast due to his immense strength, it makes sense that he would choose a half-giant with a love of monsters to look after the creature.

7. The Sorting Hat knows all your dirty secrets

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Well, the 11-year-old you, anyway. As we all know, all new arrivals at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are designated their Houses (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin) by the Sorting Hat. The Hat figures out which traits define you and then place you into the House that suits you best.

Have you ever thought about how exactly the Sorting Hat decides whether you’re clever, or brave, or loyal? Why, it uses legilimency, of course; it quite literally reads your mind (or at least, your memories) to determine exactly what sort of person you will grow up to be. Now I know the Sorting Hat is a sentient object, not a person, and it’s hardly going to spill your secrets to anyone else, but the idea that any object possesses that much power is a little unnerving.

Sidenote: the Sorting Hat is also a bit of a b*stard – not only did it place Snape in Slytherin away from Lily despite knowing how much he loved her, he also kept his mouth shut about the darkness inside everyone’s favourite nightmare child, Tom Riddle. Yeah, nice one Hat. Way to go. *slow clap*

Is there anything I’ve missed? Please feel free to share in the comments below!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

HP Fan Theories: Is Dumbledore Really Death?

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Let me be clear from the outset: I have thoroughly and gleefully surrendered myself to the Harry Potter fandom. I can, for example, pronounce myself a proud Ravenclaw and brag about the rarity of my 10 ¾ inch Vine and Phoenix Feather wand to a room of fully-grown adults without shame, and I actually squealed and clapped my hands like a 5-year-old when stepping aboard the Hogwarts Express at Warner Bros. Studios in London for the first time. I have never been able to resist the urge to try and pick J.K. Rowling’s story apart and take a good look at the threads that hold her narratives together.

If you’re anything like me, you will no doubt be familiar with many of the fan theories that have emerged online since the first instalment’s publication in June 1997 – proclamations that Draco’s a werewolf, Sirius is gay, and Ginny only managed to bag herself the Boy Who Lived through trickery and love potions (to name but a few) have been coming thick and fast, particularly after the seventh book was published in 2007 and those of us who were completely addicted to the HP Universe had to try and fill the void created by the end of the series (although Rowling has helped significantly in this respect, creating new content for Pottermore and bringing out textual accompaniments to the main narrative such as Hogwarts: A Incomplete and Unreliable Guide, Quidditch Through the Ages, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard).

Some of these fan theories are more credible than others, but one of the most impressive IMO has to be the assertion that Beedle the Bard’s ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ actually mirrors the narrative arc of Rowling’s story, and that the characters of Harry Potter, Severus Snape, and Lord Voldemort each share characteristics with three brothers of the story, who are in turn based on Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus Peverell – the creators of the Deathly Hallows… and Dumbledore? Oh, yeah, he’s Death.

J.K. Rowling has actually given this fan theory her personal seal of approval on Twitter, commenting that ‘it’s a beautiful theory and it fits.’ As if you need any more convincing!

So, how does this theory fit together, you ask? Read on to find out!

 The First Brother: Voldemort

The first and eldest brother – Antioch Peverell – is widely believed to have created the Elder Wand, an immensely powerful wand with a bloody history, although in Beedle’s story this is gifted to him by Death himself (more on that later). Antioch is described as “a combative man” who wishes to be “more powerful than any[one] in existence.” Remind you of anyone? Yup, that’s right, Lord Voldemort fits this description more closely than any other character is Rowling’s novels.

Lord Voldemort’s obsession with becoming powerful is the very reason that he creates Horcruxes, generally terrorises the wizarding world, and seeks to kill Harry before he can become a sufficient threat. Lord Voldemort prioritises personal gain and glory above all else – for instance, killing Hepzibah Smith to gain possession of her treasures despite this drawing unwanted attention to him, turning his resurrection into a bizarre ritual where he is glorified by his Death Eaters (robe-kissing much?), and creating a Horcrux with the specific purpose of proving he is the rightful successor to Salazaar Slytherin. More importantly, he is constantly expressing his determination to prove his worth in combat. I mean, why else would he re-arm Harry in the graveyard in Goblet of Fire, or forbid anyone else to kill him during the Battle of Hogwarts, if not to show that he could finish him off without help?

He receives his most deadly weapon, as the first brother does in Beedle’s tale, from Death (who is the wise, clever and ancient stranger who the brothers believe they have tricked, aka Dumbledore). Voldemort literally takes the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s dead hands after he breaks into his tomb, cementing the metaphor of Dumbledore as Death, and far from being able to use it to take out his deadly enemy and become invincible – the same aim expressed by the first brother in the story – he actually ends up being killed and passing the Elder Wand onto his rival. Bummer. Should have paid more attention to the children’s section in the Hogwarts library, Voldy. #sorrynotsorry

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The Second Brother: Snape

The second brother, thought to be based on Cadmus Peverell, is thought to be the original possessor of the Resurrection Stone, although as we know, it passes through the hands of many characters including Marvolo and Morfin Gaunt, Voldemort, Dumbledore and, of course, Harry. One character who does not actually lay hands on the precious little stone, but whose desires and misfortunes closely mirror those of the second brother, is poor old Severus Snape. Snape is a complex character who is the literary equivalent of Marmite – you either think he’s a sadistic loner whose infatuation with a dead teenager and dalliance as a spy doesn’t justify years of child abuse and general nastiness, or you sobbed uncontrollably at the end of Snape’s last chapter and can’t hear the word ‘always’ without becoming a gibbering wreck – and so many might quibble my choice of Snape as the second brother.

I mean, sure, he’s not the only one to desperately miss the dead, but unlike other characters such as Sirius and Harry, Snape is well and truly stuck in the past. Just like the second brother, he is consumed by his grief and longing for the ‘girl he had hoped to marry before her untimely death.’ His entire existence since Lily’s death has been dedicated to bringing about the downfall of the wizard who killed her. Although he has already failed to save her, he carries on with his dangerous task because he is reminded by Dumbledore that Lily ‘lives on in Harry.’ Ergo, by protecting Harry, he is desperately trying to bring Lily back to life. Dumbledore’s role as Death is significant here again as it is he who orders Snape to become a spy, using his love and grief for Lily as leverage, thus placing him at Voldemort’s mercy (or lack thereof). He is also the one who puts him directly in the line of fire – after all, Voldemort never would have killed him, if not for the fact Snape killed Dumbledore.

Of course, we all know that Snape despises Harry, which makes this life decision all the more interesting – unlike Hagrid, Sirius, Lupin and Slughorn, whose interactions with Harry help them move past the pain of losing James and Lily and become a source of positivity and hope, Harry’s hybrid appearance is a constant reminder to Snape that Lily loved his enemy and therefore cannot bring about any positive feelings. Much like the second brother gains no satisfaction from resurrecting the object of his affections, Snape is driven mad by hopeless longing (as we see in his replication of her Patronus, a symbol of his infatuation) and eventually dies as a result. True, Snape’s death is not a suicide per se, but I would argue that agreeing to go undercover as a Death Eater is a suicide mission and by undertaking it, Snape reveals his self-destructive (if rather noble) tendencies.

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The Third Brother: Harry 

The third brother corresponds, of course, to Harry. This is the simplest connection, given that Harry’s confirmed to be a descendant of Ignotus Peverell and subsequent inherits the Invisibility Cloak in The Philosopher’s Stone (passed onto him by Dumbledore, as Death does in Beedle’s story), but it goes deeper than that. Firstly, the third brother is described as ‘the most humble and wise’ of the three brothers – the admirable nature of Harry’s character is referred to repeatedly throughout the books, from his ability to look past immortality and riches in the Mirror of Erised in The Philosopher’s Stone to his gaining the trust of unlikely allies such as Griphook and the Grey Lady in The Deathly Hallows due to his humility and lack of personal agenda. In the final book, Dumbledore claims he is the only one in the book ‘worthy’ of uniting the Deathly Hallows, and this again reinforces the idea that Harry is wiser, humbler and generally better than everyone else.  

Perhaps most interesting, though, is that Harry does indeed remove his Invisibility Cloak in order to meet his death at a time of his choosing, and who is he presented with in the strange, King’s Cross limbo Rowling imagines? Why, it’s your friendly neighbourhood Death, Dumbledore himself. They meet ‘as old friends’ and as ‘equals’, just like in the story, and although Harry does return from his make-believe reunion, he has nevertheless shown that he does not fear Death and will meet him willingly when the time comes.

Another point to consider is that the Cloak’s greatest strength is that it can shield others, and by meeting his death, this is exactly what Harry manages to do – shield everyone from Voldemort, so that his magic cannot keep him silent, or bound, or really do anything evil to them for more than a few seconds.

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All in all, I think it is fair to say that this HP fan theory is pretty convincing… but what do you think? Let me know in the comments!

(Images: Warner Bros Studios)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations of the Harry Potter Series (Part 4)

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Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 4: Foreshadowing, Prophecy, and a Few Heart-Breaking Red Herrings

J.K. Rowling, like many great authors before her, appreciates the importance of foreshadowing in fiction – the art of dropping hints for the reader about events to come. All of the books in the series contain some form of foreshadowing, although some examples are more significant than others.

Take, for example, Ron’s jest in Book 2 that Tom Riddle might have been given an award for ‘Special Services to the School’ because he killed Moaning Myrtle. At first glance, it appears to be a throwaway comment, but those re-reading the books will be all too aware that Tom Riddle, the young Voldemort, was indeed responsible for Moaning Myrtle’s death (as the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets was unleashed by him, and the award conceals the truth that he actually framed Hagrid by claiming Aragog was the monster).

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The presence of the locket in Sirius’ old house (12 Grimmauld Place) that no one could open in Book 5 is another example of the use of foreshadowing. This object is understood to be evil but nothing else is really said about it initially. It is, of course, a Horcrux, but the reader does not realise this until Book 7, once the hunt for R.A.B. (who turns out to be none other than Regulus Articulus Black, Sirius’ little brother) has begun. Rowling demonstrates an uncanny ability to hide clues like this in plain sight.

Another one of these ‘clues in plain sight’ has to be the Vanishing Cabinet. Harry encounters this as early as Book 2, in Borgin & Burkes, and in Book 5, it is confirmed that the cabinet allows passage to somewhere beyond the castle when Montague (a member of the Slytherin Quidditch team) is trapped in the broken Hogwarts cabinet. All the hints are there that it could be used to enter the castle from outside – a feat which Hermione stresses repeatedly is difficult to achieve. Now, when Harry walks past the Vanishing Cabinet in Book 6 to hide his Potions book, I actually can’t help but groan, because it seems so damn obvious.

However, the most effective and direct examples of Rowling foreshadowing significant plot points come in the form of Trelawney’s prophecies and predictions. In an earlier post, I have already mentioned that her first prophecy – that “neither can live while the other survives” – does hint that they both have to die, and that Harry must die to extinguish the ‘Other’ part of Voldemort that lives in within him, but all this is cleverly disguised in ambiguous wording.

Her comments regarding the “servant” who will return to his “master” in Book 3 also predict Pettigrew’s return to Voldemort, and Voldemort’s resurrection, before the reader is aware that Pettigrew is still alive and that Sirius did not kill him after all. These comments also, to some extent, help foreshadow the events at the end of Book 4 – the prophecy states that Pettigrew will help Voldemort return to power, and Harry’s dreams repeatedly stress that the two are together and plotting.

However, Trelawney’s ability to predict the future does not end there, despite her character being portrayed as an old fraud. I’m not talking about Neville dropping his teacup or Hermione leaving the class at Easter – the first is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the latter a coincidental alignment (Trelawney most likely meant “leaving” as “dying”, and was referring to Harry not Hermione).

She makes another prediction in Book 3, as she prepares to join the table for the Christmas feast, and hesitates and states that “when thirteen people dine together, the first to rise is the first to die”.  This is an accurate prediction. Of course, Trelawney is not aware when speaking that there are already thirteen people dining at the table, as Pettigrew is in Ron’s pocket. Dumbledore is therefore the first to rise from the table, to greet her as she arrives. Dumbledore is also the first of the thirteen gathered there to die, in Book 6.

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However, not all the comments made by characters and their behaviour actually hint at what is to come. Some of them are red herrings which make what actually happens all the more heart-breaking. Harry making Dobby promise never to try and save his life again, and then Dobby doing just that, leading to the little elf’s death (still not quite over that). Fred talking about how it’ll be when he gets married at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, then dying at the Battle of Hogwarts, young and single, never to grow old (definitely not over that). And Snape… perhaps the most heart-breaking red herring of all. He’s portrayed as the villain until his very last moments, and now I know he’s really one of the good guys, I can’t read his final words (“look at me”) without tears in my eyes.

All in all, I think it’s fair to say that Rowling is pretty damn skilled at her craft. I can’t remember the last time a twist in the plot surprised me more than Moody turning out to be Barty Crouch Jnr., and although it seems so obvious now, I don’t know a single Potterhead who expected Rowling to ‘kill’ Harry in the final book of the series.

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More to come in further posts in this series!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations of the Harry Potter Series (Part 3)

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Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 3: The Hidden Magic of Rowling’s Etymology

Right then. Let’s get one thing clear right from the outset – J.K. Rowling is a full-on language nerd. Every element of the wizarding world she has constructed in her books is deliberately and cleverly named. Although the dualities she creates in her invented words are mostly rooted in her etymological knowledge of French and Latin, others are simply wordplays or nods to certain concepts, places and/or ideas. The more you look, the more you find!

In this post, I aim to point out just a few of the marvellous word games that Rowling has been playing with her readers. The consideration will be split into the following categories: place names, species names, character names, spells, and magical objects.

Place Names

Many of the place names in Harry Potter are invocative of the atmosphere, character and/or inhabitants of the location they describe. It’s no mistake that 24 Privet Drive, home of the Dursleys, takes its name from a particularly rigid form of hedge, or that Sirius’ house, 12 Grimmauld Place, is, indeed, a very grim and very old place. For me, The Burrow invokes a mental image of rabbits (although a ‘burrow’ can refer to the underground home of many different creatures), which fits well with the description of the Weasleys, who have “more children can they can afford”, and whose home has been repeatedly enlarged and extended to create more space for the growing family.

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Another interesting couple of street names are those of Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. Knockturn Alley, a place you would not want to be seen and where ‘dark’ magical artefacts are sold, becomes ‘nocturnally’ when you say it quickly (i.e. ‘by night’). Diagon Alley becomes ‘diagonally’, or possibly ‘diagonal ley’ (perhaps a reference to ley lines, which some believe connect ancient sites of Britain and have magical powers). Diagon Alley is, of course, a magical street, hidden from the Muggle population, but running straight through a highly urbanised and well-populated area of London.

Other references are more subtle. For instance, the wizard prison Azkaban, which is meant to be inescapable but is subject to a number of breakouts, shares similarities with Alcatraz (a high security prison from which a number of inmates broke out in June 1962 – later the subject of a book by J. Campbell Bruce and a film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood).

 

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Species Names

Obviously, many of the creatures which Rowling refers to already exist in mythology (trolls, centaurs, merpeople, and so on). However, in the cases where Rowling is responsible for naming a species or subspecies for herself, she often uses clever little etymological references designed to make geeks like me smile!

Take, for instance, the term ‘Squib’. In the Harry Potter series, this refers to a child with no magical powers born to magical parents. This term originates from the colloquial phrase ‘damp squib’, which denotes a firework or explosive that has failed to go off due to a fault.

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The term ‘Muggle’ is also based on a colloquialism – ‘mug’, an English slang term for fool or idiot – as confirmed by the writer herself in an interview last year.

Another interesting term that Rowling uses is ‘Animagus’ – referring, of course, to a wizard who is able to transform at will into an animal. ‘Magus’ is another word for wizard, and so by combining this with the prefix ‘ani-‘ (with ‘anima’ being a clear reference to the change to animal form), she manages to give this process a name which aptly and succinctly describes it in its entirety.

Character Names

OK, in terms of character names, I could do this all day, as there are so many which are significant. I’ve just chosen a few of my favourites here though. The first and foremost name to be considered has to be Lord Voldemort’s. It’s important to note that, just like English, there are a number of homonyms in French (words that sound identical when pronounced but have different meanings depending on the context of use). ‘Vol’ is one of them. It can mean either ‘flight’ or ‘theft’, and so ‘vol de mort’ can be translated as either ‘flight from death’ or ‘theft of death’ – both of which are rather appropriate to describe his character’s main goal and motivation.

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Sirius Black also has a rather significant name. Sirius is a star linked with the star system Canus (canine, of course, being another way to describe the species of dogs like the one he transforms into). When he transforms into Padfoot, he is black, just like his name. The name Sirius can be translated from the Ancient Greek as “scorching” or “glowing”, referring to the fact that it is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius’ character is known for being popular, charismatic and talented (before the turn of events which lead to his incarceration).

Another interesting name is that assigned to Ludo Bagman, the head of the Ministry’s Department of Magical Games and Sports who cheats the Weasley twins out of their winnings for betting on the Quidditch World Cup. ‘Ludo’ is Latin, and can be used to describe ‘play’ and ‘sport’, but also refers to deluding or deceiving someone when used in certain contexts. This impression of deceptiveness is emphasised by the surname ‘Bagman’, as ‘bagman’ was the term used to describe early US mobsters who collected money from illegal gambling and for protection rackets. Interestingly, his name may be an abbreviated form of another Latin phrase – ‘victor ludorum’ – which means ‘winner of the games’ (as he was a highly successful Quidditch player).

I rather like Olympe Maxime’s name, too. ‘Olympe’ is invocative of both ‘Olympians’ (i.e. those who surpass all others in scope) and of Mt. Olympus (the largest mountain in Greece). This first part of her name could refer to both her physical size and her magical abilities (which Hagrid notes are impressive).  ‘Maxime’ is French for ‘principle’, and Madame Maxime is the ‘principal’ of Beauxbatons School. Combined, she is the ‘giant principal’ – which is a pretty apt description!

The examples go on and on. Arabella Figg, who is mentioned in passing as a harmless, cat-loving, “batty” old lady in the first four novels but reveals herself in Book 5 to be a Squib who has been surreptitiously keeping a watchful eye on Harry for years on Dumbledore’s behalf, also has a rather appropriate name. ‘Figg’ symbolises the fig leaf (that which keeps certain things secret and covered up – for instance, in the Bible, it is used to hide Adam and Eve’s nakedness).

Broderick Bode – member of the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries – does, too. A ‘bode’ is a warning or omen. His mental impairments do, indeed, serve as a warning of what Voldemort is trying to do in Department of Mysteries in Book 5.

Fawkes – Dumbledore’s loyal pet phoenix – could be named for Guy Fawkes, the English conspirator whose failed attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605 is still celebrated every year on Bonfire Night… bonfires and fireworks seem like a fitting celebration for a phoenix, don’t you think?

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Seriously, I could do this all day. I mean, have you noticed, for instance, that if you switch the first letters of Crabbe and Goyle, you get ‘Grabbe’ and ‘Coyle’ (‘grab’ and ‘coil’), which is exactly what a snake does to its prey. Both boys are in Slytherin House (represented by a serpent), and are in the grips of Lord Voldemort’s dark magic.

 

Objects

A number of objects in the Harry Potter series also have etymologically significant names. For example, the name ‘Horcrux’ is formulated from two French words: ‘hors’ (meaning ‘outside’) and ‘crux’ (meaning ‘cross’). As the cross could be understood to be a cultural symbol of death (e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion, and the multiple instances where decorative crosses adorn grave sites), the phrase ‘Horcrux’ could suggest being outside of, and beyond the reach of, death. As Jesus’ crucifixion is inevitably related to his resurrection, the cross can also be a symbol of life or rebirth, and so ‘Horcrux’ also could suggest life or regeneration outside of the physical body.  This, of course, is its purpose – to make it impossible for Voldemort to be killed, and to allow him to resurrect his physical body.

Another object with an intriguing name is the ‘Pensieve’. The word ‘pensive’ refers to a deep, serious, and often brooding, thought process, and is derived from the French word (same spelling), which signifies thought itself. This is significant, given that the purpose of this object is to allow the user to siphon off, and sort through, their own thoughts and memories. This process of sifting through thoughts is further reinforced in the etymology by the suffix ‘-sieve’, as a sieve is a device used for exactly this (albeit in cooking or such like, rather than magic).

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The potion ‘Veritaserum’ gets its name from the Latin ‘veritas’ (meaning ‘truth’), with ‘serum’ being another word for ‘potion’. Again, there are a multitude of examples, and I’m just covering a few here.

 

Spells

I could dedicate an entire post exclusively to looking the names of spells in Harry Potter, but again, I’ve highlighted just a few of my favourites here. Pretty much all of the spells in Rowling’s series have solid reasoning behind them, and so if you look closely, you’ll start to notice more and more just how apt the spell names are.

I think the most important one to discuss first off is ‘Avada Kedavra’. This is the spell to perform the killing curse – one of the three Unforgiveable Curses. There are arguably two translations which could be offered for this. The first, ‘abra kadabra’ (yes, that magical phrase all magicians say before making something disappear) is Arabic, and translates as ‘let the things be destroyed’. Another interesting similarity noted is to an Aramaic phrase, ‘abhadda kedhabhra’, which means ‘disappear like this word’. Both phrases essentially refer to destruction of some kind, and Rowling’s spell appears to be a combination of the two.

‘Patronus’ means ‘protector’ in Latin, so the spell ‘expecto patronum’ (to summon a Patronus, which is a protective being that can drive away Dementors) can be translated as ‘expect a protector’. Apparation – the magical ability to disappear and reappear at any location – is also taken from the Latin ‘appareo’ (meaning ‘to become visible’).

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‘Nox’ – the spell to extinguish light from the tip of the user’s wand – is Latin for ‘darkness’ for ‘night’. ‘Accio’ – the summoning charm – is also Latin, meaning ‘to call to or summon’. Expelliarmus – the disarming charm – is a combination of the Latin ‘expel’ (to force or drive out; eject forcefully) and ‘arma’ (weapons). Impedimenta – used for obstructing pursuers – is based on ‘impedio’ in Latin (meaning ‘to hinder’).

I’m probably missing hundreds of great ones – why not suggest  a few in the comments below?

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More to come in further posts in this series!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations on the Harry Potter Series (Part 2)

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HPSemiotic

Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 2: Dual Cores, Dual Characters

The battle raging between Harry and Voldemort is the main event, the primary narrative arc of the entire series. It’s unsurprising, then, that the complex duality Rowling creates between these two characters resonates throughout each of the books in a number of different ways. Two of the main structural mechanisms used throughout are that of symmetry and opposition. This post intends to explore Rowling’s usage of both in the construction of the relationship between Harry and his nemesis.

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Firstly, it is important to note that the similarities between Harry and Voldemort are striking. They are both half-blood wizards (although their parentage is inverted, with Harry having a Muggle-born mother and wizard father, and Voldemort having a witch mother and Muggle father), who grew up without their parents, only discovering their wizarding heritage at age 11.

Both are similar in appearance, with their dark hair and slim physique. The wands they select (or, in fact, are selected by) both contain feathers taken from the same phoenix, Fawkes. Both are known readily to the public, and often by a title other than their name – Harry is The Chosen One, or the Boy Who Lived, and Tom Riddle disregards his Muggle father’s name in favour of the title Lord Voldemort. His Death Eater followers know him as the Dark Lord, and to the wizarding public, he is You-Know-Who or He Who Must Not Be Named.

Harry has a gang of followers, like Voldemort – firstly, he assembles the DA, and he is followed by the Order of the Phoenix as their leader and rallying point after Dumbledore’s death. Like Voldemort, he is able to summon and instruct them (using the Galleons with the protean charm cast on them – Voldemort, of course, uses the Dark Mark).

Harry and Voldemort are both charming enough to retrieve information from highly unwilling people, such as the Grey Lady and Horace Slughorn.  Both can speak to snakes. Both discovered all of the secrets of Hogwarts Castle, where others had not. They share each other’s minds. They share the same blood. Rowling has deliberately created clear symmetry between her protagonist and antagonist, and draws attention to it repeatedly throughout her books.

However, Harry is, of course, presented as Voldemort’s absolute opposite, in that he has chosen the side of good rather than evil. They are thus presented in continual opposition. This is, I think, symbolised quite nicely by the seven Potters and seven Horcruxes in the seventh book. Hermione asserts, when explaining Horcruxes, that a Horcrux is the “complete opposite” of a human being.

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So, whereas Voldemort occupies the inside of his seven Horcruxes, Harry is present externally in seven forms (as several characters transform into him using Polyjuice potion). This inside/outside opposition is one of many dichotomies created by Rowling to symbolise the battle between good and evil. Another is the opposition between love/hate, with love being Harry’s greatest weapon, according to Dumbledore, and Voldemort’s greatest weapons (the unforgivable curses) being fuelled by hatred – Bellatrix Lestrange says as much in the fifth book.

Perhaps the most prolific, though, in terms of a semiotic analysis, is the contrast formed in the text between the colours red and green – red symbolising anything Harry-related, and green symbolising anything Voldemort-related. These are, of course, the colours of Gryffindor and Slytherin Houses respectively, and this distinction between Harry as red and Voldemort as green is underlined continually.

Note how Harry’s signature spell – ‘expelliarmus’ – emits red light from his wand, whereas the ‘avada kedavra’ curse used so often by Voldemort creates a burst of green light. Fawkes, a red phoenix, is Harry’s defender in the Chamber of Secrets against the Basilisk, a green snake. When Harry seeks a way to destroy Voldemort in the cave with the Inferi, he takes what he needs from a basin containing Voldemort’s green potion. When Voldemort desires the protection of Harry’s mother’s sacrifice as a means to destroy Harry, he seeks what he needs within the red blood of Harry’s arm.

Godric Gryffindor’s sword – the magical artefact symbolising Gryffindor House, the only House-related relic Voldemort never succeeded in obtaining and transforming into a Horcrux, the object used by Harry to destroy both of Voldemort’s snake-related Horcruxes and the Basilisk – is inlaid with red rubies. The relation between Harry and the sword is reinforced further by the fact that the sword, like Harry, only imbibes that which makes him/it stronger. Just like the sword takes venom from the Basilisk but resists dirt and dark magic, Harry, too, takes what he needs from Voldemort’s mind/soul without ever being corrupted by evil. Yes, he can see what Voldemort is doing and knows what he is thinking, but unlike Voldemort, he is not encouraged towards undertaking a mission to avoid his own death – he decides not to pursue the Hallows as a way to become the ‘master of death’, and instead dies to protect his friends.

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In doing so, he actually does become the master of all three Hallows and ensures his survival, and his enemy’s demise. In complete opposition, it is Voldemort’s pursuit of immortality that means he is no longer properly alive, and that he cannot kill his enemy.

The prophecy regarding Voldemort and Harry – specifically the phrase “neither can live while the other survives” – is particularly significant, I think, in this regard. The most obvious translation is the one that Harry asserts – that one of them will have to kill each other in the end, as Voldemort will continue to pursue him until one of them ends the battle.

However, it would also be accurate to say that neither can die while the other survives, as Harry acts as a Horcrux for Voldemort, tying him to life, whereas Harry’s blood runs in Voldemort’s veins after his resurrection, and this ties Harry to life, too (note how, again, Harry resides in the flesh, on the outside, whereas Voldemort is hidden deep within Harry, on the inside, as a fragment attached to his soul).

It perhaps makes more sense, then, to read this part of the prophecy as being more subtle… “neither can live” (i.e. they both have to die) “while the other survives” (i.e. whilst that piece of the other lives on within them). To truly kill Harry, Voldemort would have to discard his living body (and therefore ‘kill’ the blood keeping Harry alive), and as we know, to kill Voldemort, Harry has to let himself be killed (to destroy the bit of Voldemort’s soul living within him).

Their rises and falls in power and influence are inextricably linked in inversion, too. The destruction of Voldemort’s body coincides with – indeed, it actually causes – Harry’s gaining of additional powers. Voldemort’s rise to power corresponds with Harry’s loss of the powerful and helpful figures in his life (Sirius and Dumbledore in particular).

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The resistance gain momentum as Harry diminishes Voldemort’s power through his destroying of Horcruxes, but as Harry dies, they are weak and mourning their dead (again, the love/hate dichotomy arises – Rowling often uses the concepts of love and grief as if they were synonymous… perhaps they are, but that’s a question for another day).  Harry’s revival coincides with their defiance and resistance – as they are now protected by his sacrifice – and they are able as a singular force to reduce Voldemort to his weakest state… that of Tom Riddle. Harry’s final triumph is, of course, Voldemort’s defeat.

So, as this deconstruction has shown, certain ideas and dichotomies echo throughout Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and all this adds to the overall enjoyment and experience of the books.

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Ok, more to come on this in further posts – as ever, please feel free to share your thoughts below!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations on the Harry Potter Series (Part One)

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HPSemiotic

Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)


Part 1: The Three Gryffindors

The three main characters of Rowling’s story – Harry, Ron, and Hermione – all belong to Gryffindor House. However, throughout the course of the story, the narrative repeatedly draws attention to the fact that each of these characters actually possess all the characteristics of another Hogwarts House – that, in fact, they would have been sorted into Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw respectively, had they not specifically asked the Sorting Hat to place them in Gryffindor House.

From the perspective of a semiotic analysis, this unity is significant, for it emulates the message conveyed throughout the series by the Sorting Hat all along – that evil can only be banished from Hogwarts school, and the wizarding world, if all four houses stand together as one.

Indeed, Harry would never have been able to overcome the numerous challenges he is presented with, and continue to remain alive long enough to defeat Voldemort, were it not for the assistance of Ron and Hermione, and for his own Slytherin-related abilities. Thus, the three characters’ interactions and reliance upon one another signify the relationship between the four Houses.

The union or separation of Ron and Hermione from Harry is sometimes mirrored by Harry’s relationship with secondary characters from the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw Houses – for instance, in the fourth book, members of Hufflepuff House treat Harry coldly and with disbelief during the same period that Ron is behaving this way – to reinforce this. So, too, are the characteristics which divide and diversify them reiterated throughout the series.

Harry

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Given that Harry is the protagonist and the majority of the text is narrated from his point of view, it is unsurprising that his connection to Slytherin House is the best documented.

Some of these are obvious – his ability to speak Parseltongue, for instance, is a clear signifier of his ‘Other’ identity – but as the Sorting Hat and Dumbledore both note, Harry’s personality also complements the traits prized by Slytherin House: he has resourcefulness, cleverness, determination, and a certain disregard for the rules.

Additionally, Slytherins care greatly about their reputation, and are more interventionist and more risk-oriented than Hufflepuffs or Ravenclaws. Despite their reputation for self-preservation, Slytherins are not necessarily the type to fall back and be cautious – they dislike showing weakness, and are prepared to fight to defend themselves, or attack an enemy, if necessary. Harry’s interactions with Draco throughout his early school years, and with the Death Eaters, Umbridge, Snape and Voldemort later on, all serve to demonstrate these qualities in Harry. He is not without darkness, either, particularly in the fifth book, although this is perhaps caused as much by adolescence as his Slytherin connection.

Hermione

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Hermione’s status as a would-be Ravenclaw is also outlined repeatedly. The Sorting Hat seriously considered putting her in Ravenclaw, and so it is implied that, like Harry, she asked to be in Gryffindor House (after asserting clearly on the train beforehand that Gryffindor House was the best House to be in).

Ravenclaws are defined by curiosity and the love of learning, and will want to seek as much knowledge as possible, whenever possible, by whatever means they can – even if that may involve some risk. This fits Hermione to a T.

She is repeatedly challenged by other students as to why she is not in Ravenclaw House, given that she is the most intelligent student in Harry’s year – Terry Boot’s observation that her Protean charm in the fifth year was of N.E.W.T. standard is one of many. The library is her favourite haunt and her first go-to place whenever information is needed, and she repeatedly seeks out additional reading in order to increase her knowledge. Her first individual action after agreeing to hunt Horcruxes with Harry was to see if she could summon any books from Dumbledore’s office. Books are very much her weapon in the fight against Voldemort.

She also shows an adeptness for solving logic puzzles – a trait which is underlined to be complementary to inclusion in Ravenclaw House by the questions asked by the brass knocker which admits students to Ravenclaw Tower – and is usually first one to figure things out (with the exception of when Harry’s insight into Voldemort’s mind gives him access to information Hermione doesn’t have). In the Triwizard maze under pressure from a sphinx, Harry asserts that logic is Hermione’s area of expertise.

Ron

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The argument that Ron emulates the qualities of Hufflepuff House is probably the least evidenced, although he does possess some of the qualities that define Hufflepuffs.

Hufflepuffs are defined by their love of family and comfort, and intensely dislike feeling unloved. Hufflepuffs are also the most likely to simply avoid conflict, even if it means a miscarriage of justice. They are humble, loyal to their friends, and decent people, above all.

Ron, of course, shows just how much he cherishes his family whenever they are in peril (which is repeatedly – Ginny, Arthur, Bill, George, and Fred are all in peril at different points in the series), and his love of good food and comfort are particularly exemplified in the seventh book of the series, when both are distinctly lacking.

His interactions with both the Mirror of Erised and the third Horcrux (the locket) demonstrate that his biggest fear is being overlooked and unloved, and although his boasting after his Quidditch performances cannot be deemed humble, his protests that his destruction of the locket Horcrux was not nearly as impressive as it sounds reveal a humbler side. This is seen again after he manages to open the Chamber of Secrets himself after realising the potential of using Basilisk fangs to destroy the remaining Horcruxes.

His loyalty to his friends enables him to use the Deluminator and return to Harry and Hermione in the seventh book. This same loyalty drives him into the Forbidden Forest to confront Aragog, despite his arachnophobia, in the third book. However, he often encourages Hermione not to pester Harry in order to avoid conflict, even if he thinks she is right – another Hufflepuff trait.

 

So, what is the significance of the fact that all three characters end up in Gryffindor House? Firstly, it is important to note that the clear opposition created between Gryffindor and Slytherin House, emulated by Harry’s conflict with Voldemort (more on that in Part 2), is shared by his fellow Gryffindors. Harry’s battle to destroy Horcruxes is shared by Ron and Hermione, and Neville is responsible for slaying Nagini. Dumbledore, too, was a Gryffindor, as was Sirius, Lupin, and many of the members of the DA and the Order of the Phoenix. All have made the brave and bold choice to be a Gryffindor, and all similarly have chosen to defy and resist Voldemort.

With this in mind, in terms of symbolism, the relevance of Godric Gryffindor’s sword – the magical artefact symbolising Gryffindor House, and the only House-related relic Voldemort never succeeded in obtaining and transforming – cannot therefore be understated. Whilst relics associated to the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin Houses – the diadem, the cup, and the locket – all succumb to darkness by becoming Horcruxes, Godric Gryffindor’s sword continues to assist in the resistance to and destruction of Voldemort’s power.

In the Chamber of Secrets, the sword helps Harry to slay the Basilisk, and when in the Forest of Dean, Ron uses it to destroy the locket. Neville similarly uses it to kill Nagini, the final Horcrux. Given that the sword only imbibes that which makes it stronger – it takes in Basilisk venom, thus using the powers of Slytherin’s heir’s monster in order to defeat Slytherin’s heir – but is not tainted by it (much like Harry – again, more on that in Part 2), signifiers of Gryffindor House are synonymous with resistance, with the force of goodness, and with strength. The pureness of heart and imperviousness to evil needed to distinguish ‘a true Gryffindor’ is symbolised by its best-known artefact – a sword able to slay evil monsters, resist dirt and darkness, and jump to the aid of any brave soul in need of help.

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Ok, more to come on this in further posts – as ever, please feel free to share your thoughts below!

(Oh, and to finish, here’s a headcanon of me and my sister at Hogwarts… I warned you I was a Potter nerd 😛 )

  tumblr_nognizKiFX1u7kou3o1_500(An Original Commissioned Artwork by Rachel)

(Other Images: Warner Bros. Studios)