This post is the third part of a series which began here in part one, a discussion of the lion, eagle, griffin, serpent, basilisk, and badger: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/harry-potter-and-the-bestiary-of-christ-part-one/ and continued here, with a discussion of the unicorn: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/harry-potter-and-the-bestiary-of-christ-part-two/. Now on to the third installment…
The Hunting of the White Stag
A Christ symbol that is closely related to the unicorn is the stag, whose earliest representation in Christian art can be found in the Roman catacombs and in baptismal font designs and basilica altar mosaics of subsequent periods. It appeared as a Christ symbol in bestiaries, stories of the lives of the saints, and in medieval romances, such as the Queste del Saint Graal, where the stag served as a guide toward the object of the quest, the Holy Grail.
The stag appeared as a symbol of Christ in the story of St. Eustace. This saint, like C. S. Lewis’s fictional character Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, experienced a miraculous conversion.
The pagan Eustace was a Roman general who enjoyed hunting. On one hunting expedition, Eustace tracked a stag through the woods and prepared to kill the magnificent creature. Just as Eustace was ready to slay the majestic stag, a miraculous vision appeared to the hunter: a vision of Christ crucified appeared between the stag’s antlers. The hunter was converted to Christianity on the spot. A similar tale of a hunter who converted due to a miraculous vision is in the story of St. Hubert. While out hunting on Good Friday the future saint encountered a stag with a crucifix between its antlers. A voice spoke to him from where the stag was. It asked why Hubert was pursuing him, and Hubert realized he had been searching for Christ for many years, and had finally found him. Hubert was converted at that moment. St. Hubert’s desire to find Christ was a thirst for God that manifests symbolically as a stag. This symbol of the soul’s thirst for God is derived from Psalm 42:1 (NRSV), “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
Because of the stag’s longing for streams of water described in the Book of Psalms, it became associated with the soul’s desire for purification through Baptism.
Just as the deer devours the snake,
Then rushes off his thirst to slake,
Lets spring the venom wash away,
So all is well, can Christian say,
For he is saved, sin’s trace is lost,
When in baptismal font he’s washed. (Biedermann 93)
This explains why the relief-work on many old baptismal fonts often includes representations of deer. Mosaics in some European churches, such as the mosaic above the altar in Rome’s Basilica of Saint Clement, sometimes depict a doe or stag drinking the water of life from the running stream described in Psalm 42.
Early Christian texts such as Physiologus describe the deer as spitting water into every crevice in which poisonous snakes hide, then trampling on them, just as Christ strikes at the Devil with the heavenly water of Baptism. (Biedermann 92) The stag was thus seen as the symbol of the triumphant Christ. When a stag’s antlers break, they regenerate, and for this reason the stag became a symbol of the Resurrection as well.
Other ancient lore associated the stag with the discovery of dittany, a miraculous herb that cures all wounds. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione carries a bottle of the essence of dittany to cure the wounds of her injured companions during their quest to destroy the Horcruxes. This miraculous liquid is mentioned first in Chapter 14 when Hermione heals the bleeding Ron Weasley, who has splinched himself while apparating. Hermione also uses dittany to heal Harry when he has been bitten by the snake Nagini in Chapter 17. In Cavallo’s The Unicorn Tapestries, the author quotes from Margaret L. Freeman’s book of the same title in the appendix, where it says, “Stags can shake off any arrows which they have received if they partake of the herb called dittany.” (Cavallo 119) J. K. Rowling must have had some knowledge of this ancient lore of dittany because she made great use of it in Deathly Hallows.
In the Medieval religious story, The Quest for the Holy Grail, the Knights Galahad, Percival, and Bors were riding through the forest when they encountered a white hart escorted by four lions. The three knights followed the white hart, and it lead them to a chapel where the Mass was being sung. Inside the little church the four lions transformed into the four living creatures that symbolize the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and the stag transformed into a man enthroned, Jesus Christ. The priest explained the symbolism of the miracle that the knights had witnessed. It is only after they have had the vision of the transformation of the white stag that they are able to find the Holy Grail. (Matarasso 243-245)
In The Grail: Quest for the Eternal, John Matthews explains the symbolism of the white stag with relationship to the Holy Grail quest:
To reach the temple of the Grail, the knights who set out from Camelot must undergo many tests and experience terrible ordeals. But often, when the way seems darkest, the enigmatic white stag or hermit figure appears, to lead them forward through the mazes of forest and hill. In medieval iconography the stag was identified with Christ and the soul’s thirst for God, which accounts for its appearance in this context. (Matthews 88)
In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the author made use of the same symbolism that is found in the Grail legends. When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie followed the white stag they were able to re-enter the wardrobe to return home to England. Recall the symbolism of the stag and the running stream in the book of Psalms which signifies the soul’s thirst for union with God. The Pevensies’ s quest for the White Stag is symbolic of the soul’s search for Christ, a search that will eventually lead the seeker further up and further in to his or her true home. This parallels the story of the knights who follow the white stag to find Christ and the Grail.
The stag appears in Harry Potter’s world as a symbol of his father. “Prongs” was the nickname given to Harry’s father James, an animagus who could transform himself into a stag. In the third novel Rowling spoke to her readership through Dumbledore, who told Harry (and us) that the ones who love us never truly leave us, not even in death. When Harry suffered from attacks from soul-sucking Dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban, he had to learn how to conjure a patronus to protect himself. The words “Expecto Patronum!” translate as “I expect a protector!” and protection arrived in the form of a luminous, graceful four-hoofed animal, which Harry initially mistakes for a unicorn. (PA 385) It is a luminous stag, the form his father once took when he was alive, and the brilliant patronus, like a guardian angel providing protection, drove away the darkness and despair of the Dementors. Harry’s protector is a stag, which like the unicorn, is a symbol of Christ.
The stag’s female counterpart is the doe. Just as the Knights of the Grail and heroes of Narnia followed the white stag, our hero must follow the silver doe in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “The Silver Doe” is one of the most beautiful chapters in the novel:
A bright silver light appeared right ahead of him, moving through the trees. Whatever the source, it was moving soundlessly. The light seemed simply to drift toward him.
He jumped to his feet, his voice frozen in his throat, and raised Hermione’s wand. He screwed up his eyes as the light became blinding, the trees in front of it pitch-black in silhouette, and still the thing came closer…
And then the source of the light stepped out from behind an oak. It was a silver doe, moon-bright and dazzling, picking her way over the ground, still silent, and leaving no hoofprints in the fine powdering of snow. She stepped toward him, her beautiful head with its wide, long-lashed eyes held high. (DH 365-366)
Just as King Arthur’s knights followed the White Stag to find the Holy Grail, Harry followed the Silver Doe into the dark forest. The luminous creature led Harry to a frozen pool where, beneath the ice, lies a shape like “A great silver cross.” (DH 367, emphasis mine) The Silver Doe had lead Harry to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, which lay trapped beneath the frozen water.
Harry, wearing the locket of Slytherin Horcrux, dove into the frozen pool and was nearly drowned by the evil power of the Horcrux. Ron’s dramatic return to rescue Harry and destroy the locket occurred in a chapter filled with the imagery of baptism and words of reconciliation between the two best friends.
Please subscribe to this blog so that you don’t miss the next installment of “Harry Potter and the Bestiary of Christ,” which is entitled “Phoenix Rising.” If you would like to order a copy of my book, The Lord of the Hallows: Christian Symbolism and Themes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, it can be obtained from www.outskirtspress.com/thelordofthehallows.
If you are wondering what other connections can be made between the quest for the Grail Hallows and the quest for the Deathly Hallows, you should read this blog post: https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/the-deeper-meaning-of-the-quest-for-the-deathly-hallows/ You might also like https://phoenixweasley.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/melissa-anelli-and-j-k-rowling-interview/. Comments are welcome! 🙂