On an upcoming episode of SQPN’s “Secrets of Harry Potter” podcast, we will be discussing chapter four of The Lord of the Hallows, entitled “Harry Potter and The Bestiary of Christ.” This week, I am posting excerpts from that chapter. Here’s the first installment.
“There might be eagles. There might be stags…”
“Badgers!” said Lucy.
—conversation between Peter and Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW 112, emphasis mine.)
In addition to the themes of free will, life after death, the immortality of the soul, and the power of love and self-sacrifice, the Harry Potter novels are rich in symbolism derived from ancient and Medieval folklore and legends. A wealth of information on Christian symbolism relevant to Harry Potter can be found in The Bestiary of Christ by Louis Charbonneau-Lassay.
This book was published in French in 1940 and in English in the early 1990’s. Much of the information in this book is a compilation of various Medieval bestiaries, which were treatises on animals and what they symbolized. Bestiaries were highly imaginative popular literature in Medieval times and were used to teach moral lessons and Christian theology. Some of the animal symbols in this book which are used in the Harry Potter novels include the lion, the serpent, the unicorn, the stag, the phoenix, the basilisk, and the weasel, among others. Our examination of animals used as symbols in the novels will begin with a closer look at the mascots of the four Hogwarts houses: the Slytherin serpent, the Gryffindor lion, the Ravenclaw eagle, and the Hufflepuff badger.
The Symbolism of the Four Houses
During Harry’s first year at Hogwarts he is introduced to the Sorting Hat ceremony, a yearly ritual at the school in which the new students are sorted into one of four different houses, each house named after the four founders of Hogwarts: Salazaar Slytherin, Godric Gryffindor, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Hufflepuff. The hat sings a song to explain the qualities that the four founders of Hogwarts were seeking when selecting students for his or her house:
You might belong in Gryffindor
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart;
You might belong in Hufflepuff;
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil;
Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;
Or perhaps in Slytherin
You’ll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 118)
The conflict of good versus evil at Hogwarts focuses on the enmity between two houses that are always in direct opposition to each other: Gryffindor and Slytherin. Harry Potter, our heroic Gryffindor, is a model of what this house stands for: chivalry and courage. Draco Malfoy, Harry’s Slytherin arch-rival, is also a model of his house’s ideals: ambition and pure-blood supremacy. Even the two characters names reveal their allegiances. Likewise, Professor Albus Dumbledore, a Gryffindor, and Lord Voldemort, the Heir of Slytherin, have names that were carefully chosen for their symbolic meaning.
Harry’s name could be thought of as the verb “to harry.” The term “to be harried” means to be harassed or distressed by repeated attacks,” as when Harry is harried by the many attempts Voldemort has made to kill him. The name Potter has symbolic meaning derived from the Bible, where God is referred to as a “potter,” as in Isaiah 64:8: “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we are all the work of thy hand.” (KJV) Other references to God as the “potter” can be found in Jeremiah 18:5-6 and Romans 9:20-21.
The name Albus Dumbledore means “white bumblebee.” An alb is the white garment worn by a Catholic priest, and dumbledor is an archaic word that means bumblebee. Tolkien made use of this word in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in “Errantry,” a poem which tells of a diminutive hero who vanquished the giant insects in battle. (Tolkien Reader 214) According to the Bestiary of Christ, the bumblebee was a symbol of the soul’s survival after death. The bee disappears in winter and reappears in the spring, thus becoming a signifier of the Resurrection.
Draco Malfoy, on the other hand, has a name that has very negative connotations. Draco is the Latin word for “dragon” or “serpent,” both traditional Biblical symbols of Satan, most notably the serpent who tempted Eve in the book of Genesis and the serpent described in Revelation 20:2, “…the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan…” (KJV) The surname Malfoy can be thought of as the French mal foi, which translates as “bad faith,” so Draco Malfoy’s name literally means “Dragon of Bad Faith” or “Serpent of Bad Faith.”
The most extensive serpent imagery associated with any one character in the novels is that imagery which surrounds the supreme villain, Lord Voldemort. He is a descendant of Salazaar Slytherin, the founder of Slytherin House. He, like his ancestor, is a parselmouth who can speak to snakes. Voldemort has a hairless, snake-like appearance, having two slit-like nostrils instead of a human nose.
His loyal minions, the Death Eaters, are each identified by the Dark Mark, a distinctive snake and skull tattoo. This is a symbol from Christian art: the skull and serpent are often depicted at the foot of the Cross of Calvary. The skull represents death, the punishment for the sin of Adam, and it is symbolic of the fallen nature of mankind. According to Jewish legend, Adam’s burial place was at Golgotha, the “place of the skull.” The skull at the foot of the cross was there to represent Adam’s skull, and the serpent was present as an allusion to Satan, the great tempter in the Garden of Eden who brought about the fall of mankind.
As the teenager Tom Riddle, Voldemort opened the Chamber of Secrets and unleashed the great serpent, the basilisk, upon the Hogwarts School. The basilisk, or cockatrice, is another symbol of Satan which is mentioned in Isaiah 14:29 (KJV): “Out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.” In The Bestiary of Christ, the basilisk is described as a symbol of Satanic evil. This is mentioned in a description of a little country church that was decorated with “the image of a knight on foot striking a helmeted basilisk with his sword. It is the struggle between Good and Evil, so often and variously depicted, and could be seen as Christ fighting with Satan.” (Bestiary 423) This imagery is found in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in the chapter that describes how Harry used the Sword of Godric Gryffindor to slay the basilisk.
The name Godric means “power of God,” reminding us that the Christian, like Harry, will not be abandoned in his or her fight with the Great Serpent. We have the “power of God” on our side in our conflict with the Dragon. Also note that the surname Gryffindor can be thought of as the French griffin d’or which means “griffin of gold.” The griffin, according to the bestiaries, is a symbol of Christ because of its dual nature: it is both lion and eagle, just as Christ is both God and Man. The eagle is a creature of the heavens, symbolizing the divine nature of Christ, and the lion is a creature of the earth, representing Christ the Man. The griffin’s mastery of the earth and sky came to be associated with Christ’s Ascension. The griffin was, through its association with Jesus Christ, thought to be the enemy of serpents and basilisks who, as previously mentioned, are symbolic of the Devil.
The eagle, mascot of Ravenclaw House, was a symbol of Baptism because the ancients believed the eagle’s life was renewed by plunging itself three times into a body of water, hence its depiction on Christian baptismal fonts. The eagle was often depicted as a slayer of serpents in many cultures, and thus viewed as an enemy of Satan. Its ability to soar to great heights was associated with Christ’s Ascension, as well as with St. John, the evangelist who was considered to be the most “intellectual” of the four gospel authors. This association of the high-flying eagle with great intellectual acumen may be the reason J.K. Rowling made it the mascot for Ravenclaw, whose motto is “Wit beond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” The eagles in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have a brief but important role, used symbolically to represent Divine Providence or Divine Intervention.
That the Gryffindor mascot is a lion is not surprising; the lion is a Biblical symbol of Christ and a symbol of the Resurrection. In Revelation 5:5 Jesus is referred to as “the lion of the Tribe of Judah.” The lion was also a symbol of the Resurrection to the early and medieval Christians because it was believed that lion’s cubs were born dead. When the cubs were three days old, the father lion breathed on them and brought them to life, just as Christ lay in the tomb for three days before the Resurrection. This same symbolism of Christ the Lion is used by C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia. The character of Aslan is a magnificent lion and a literary “Christ figure” who sacrifices himself to save the life of a human traitor. He is gloriously resurrected due to the workings of “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.” We know that Jo Rowling read and loved this story as a child, and I believe that Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles had an influence on the plot and symbolism of the entire Harry Potter series.
Perhaps that is why Aslan’s colors are associated with Gryffindor House: Peter Pevensie’s shield was decorated with a red lion rampant, and his sword had a golden hilt. (LWW 160) Aslan’s army had tents of crimson and yellow, with banners depicting the red lion. (LWW 168) The colors of Gryffindor House are, of course, red and gold.
J.K. Rowling’s description of the Hufflepuff dormitories will seem familiar to fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: There are “little underground tunnels leading to the dormitories, all of which have perfectly round doors, like barrel tops,” she said in the Bloomsbury live online chat on July 30, 2007. This description sounds remarkably like the description Tolkien gave of Bilbo Baggins’ home, a comfortable hobbit hole called Bag End. Bilbo’s home is a cozy, luxurious tunnel-like construction with perfectly round doors.
Hufflepuff House is known for the virtues of loyalty and hard work, and is represented by a badger mascot. Perhaps a Narnian influence can be detected here as well: in Lewis’ Prince Caspian the badger Trufflehunter is one of the Old Narnians that aids Caspian in the war with the wicked usurper, King Miraz. Trufflehunter the Badger is loyal to Aslan even in the darkest of times. Trufflehunter’s faith in the Great Lion remains strong, even when many other Narnians have ceased to believe. Likewise, there are many Hufflepuff students who are loyal to Harry: some are members of Dumbledore’s Army, and many more are among the large number of Hufflepuff students who stand alongside the Gryffindors and Ravenclaws who fight to defend the castle in the Battle of Hogwarts.