Elements of the Arthurian Tradition in Harry Potter
by Phyllis D. Morris
"My Holy Grail is to end the seven-book series and know I was really true to what I wanted to write." - J.K. Rowling (Thomas)
Elements of the Arthurian tradition are woven throughout Rowling's Harry Potter series. Both Arthur and Harry are heroes; both were taken from their parents and hidden for their own safety; both have wise, aged mentors; both are on a quest to fulfill their destiny and both have the potential to become immortal. This paper explores the parallels between the themes and characters in Arthurian legend and those in the Harry Potter series.
Both Arthur and Harry are heroes in the classical sense. Both have fates that are predestined for them. The magician Merlin, who is living life in reverse and has therefore already experienced the future, knows that Arthur is to become King and save Britain from the Saxons. Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy identifies Harry as the only person capable of vanquishing Voldemort. Merlin also predicts Arthur’s son Mordred will destroy Arthur and his knights. In a Voldemort-ish attempt to thwart the prophecy, Arthur orders all babies born on Mordred’s birthday put to sea. However, while the ship wrecks, Mordred survives.
Both heroes have parents who died young, and both achieve great feats while in their youth. Harry saved the Philosopher’s Stone from Voldemort while he was only 11. Arthur ascended to the throne while still in his teens and soon thereafter proved himself a capable leader (Ashe).
Both heroes exist to save their people from doom. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who authored Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) in 1136, Arthur “led his troops against the Saxons, who were still making trouble in various parts of the country, and after various vicissitudes he defeated them on a hill outside Bath, wielding a wonderful sword called Caliburn1” (Ashe). Arthur “is presented as a kind of Messiah delivering Britain from these troubles” (Ashe). In addition to vanquishing the Saxons, Arthur “defeat[ed] the Picts and Scots who had aided them, and conquer[ed] Ireland ” (Ashe). Similarly, Harry provides the wizarding world with 14 years of rest from Voldemort – by surviving Voldemort’s death curse (which then rebounded upon Voldemort and reduced him to spirit form); by thwarting Voldemort’s quest for the Philosopher’s Stone and by eliminating Riddle, Riddle’s diary and Slytherin’s monster. Harry has also defeated the Death Eaters who, like the Picts and Scots of Arthur’s day, are assisting Voldemort in his attempt to gain control over the wizarding world.
The Hero’s Origins
Arthur was conceived when Uther Pendragon, then Britain ’s king, fell in love with a married dutchess named Igraine. When her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, realized this, he locked Igraine in the guarded castle Tintagel. Merlin, Uther’s advisor, cast a spell to transform Uther’s appearance into that of the Duke of Cornwall, which enabled Uther to enter the castle after the Duke’s demise. “That night, Arthur, the heir to Uther’s throne and the future king of Britain , was conceived” (Kronzek and Kronzek 165). However, in return for Merlin’s spell, Uther promises Merlin his first-born son, Arthur (Lopez).
Because Merlin knows that Arthur is in danger, he hides him with a knight named Sir Ector and his wife (Colbert 188). Similarly, Dumbledore knows that Harry is in danger and hides him with the Dursleys. Both Arthur and Harry, are therefore, brought up in ignorance of their true parentage. However, while both boys know they are parentless and therefore different, Arthur’s home life is very different than Harry’s. Arthur is loved and wanted (White 33) while the Dursleys take every available opportunity to remind Harry that he is unloved and unwanted.
The Mentor and Guide
The parallels between Dumbledore and Merlin do not end with the protection of the hero in danger, however. In addition to both characters sporting long, flowing beards (and blue eyes, according to T.H. White), Merlin was King Arthur’s mentor and guide (Colbert 188) as Dumbledore has been Harry’s guide and mentor. To protect Arthur, Merlin took the king to a magical lake where the Lady of the Lake (known as Nimue) gave Arthur Excalibur, a sword with an unbreakable blade and a protective scabbard (Ford). Similarly, Dumbledore sends Harry the sword of Godric Gryffindor when Harry is facing the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. Harry pulls the sword out of Gryffindor’s hat (the Sorting Hat) in a parallel to when Arthur pulled a sword from a stone to prove that he was the true king. This sword (which preceded Excalibur) was “drawn by Arthur as proof of his birthright and of his nobility. It was both a test and a miraculous sign of his royalty” ( University of Rochester Camelot Project). Both the scabbard of Arthur’s sword and the Sorting Hat know the qualities necessary for an individual to be able to pull a sword from their depths. By pulling Gryffindor’s sword from the Hat, Harry proves that he is “a true Gryffindor” (CoS 245) and puts to rest any lingering doubts about whether he belongs in Slytherin house.
Merlin was the architect of the Round Table and was “closely involved in aiding and directing the events of the king and kingdom of Camelot ” (Britannia). Dumbledore was the creator of the Order of the Phoenix and assisted and guided Harry on his quests. In addition, Merlin “was said to have the gift of transfiguration” (Kronzek and Kronzek 167), so is it any wonder that Albus Dumbledore was the transfiguration teacher during Riddle’s tenure at Hogwarts (CoS 230) or that he “did things with a wand” Professor Marchbanks had “never seen before” when she tested him for his Transfiguration NEWT (OotP 627)? In addition, both Dumbledore and Merlin are betrayed by those they trusted. Merlin fell in love with Nimue, who then played a trick on him and locked him in a cave that he was incapable of leaving. Similarly, Snape murdered Dumbledore at the end of Book 6.
Merlin also makes appearances in the Harry Potter series in more humorous ways – by being featured on Chocolate Frog cards (a mark of distinction he shares with Dumbledore); by having his name used to connote honors (the different classes of the “Order of Merlin” – not surprisingly, Dumbledore’s Order of Merlin is First Class); and by having his name used in various expressions of surprise or disbelief (“Merlin’s beard”).
The myths and legends surrounding King Arthur center on the quest for the Holy Grail. According to legend, King Arthur saw the Grail in a vision, and subsequently he and his knights attempted to find the Grail. Between c. 1160-90, Chretien de Troyes, a French medieval romance writer, introduced the Grail into Arthurian literature. However, while “Chretien used the grail as a symbol of beauty and mystery, he never presented it as an object of religious devotion.” The connection between the Holy Grail and the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper that was then used by St. Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ while on the cross was made c. 1210 by Robert de Boron (Hampton and Ford).
While the location of the Grail was forgotten over time, there was a prophecy at the Court of King Arthur that the Grail would one day be rediscovered by a descendant of St. Joseph . According to the prophecy, the person who would find the Grail would be the person designated to sit in the Siege Perilous (Ford). The Siege Perilous was the seat at the Round Table allegedly created by Merlin “in which none but the chosen Grail knight may sit without disastrous consequences … When Galahad arrives at Camelot, his name appears on the seat destined for him” (University of Rochester Camelot Project). Galahad is the grandson of King Pelles, a descendant of Joseph of Arimathea and the father of Elaine, Galahad’s mother. After a series of unsuccessful attempts by other knights, Galahad arrives at the castle where the Grail was located, and “was permitted entry to the Grail Chapel and allowed to gaze upon the great cup. His life became complete and together grail and man were lifted up to heaven” (Ford). Prior to his death, however, Galahad uses the power of the Grail to heal his grandfather of the “dolorous stroke” inflicted by Balin’s sword many years earlier.
Each one of the five Harry Potter books written thus far involve quests. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort is on a quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone to achieve immortality. Voldemort’s quest becomes Harry’s quest, as Harry believes himself to be the only one capable of stopping Voldemort from obtaining the Stone once he learns that Dumbledore has left Hogwarts. The quest takes Harry through a series of obstacles, and while he is accompanied at first by Ron and Hermione, it is he alone – like Galahad – who must complete the quest and save the Stone from Voldemort. Interestingly, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival “presents the Grail as a stone which provides sustenance and prevents anyone who beholds it from dying within the week” ( University of Rochester Camelot Project ). The portrayal of the Grail as a stone that prevents death is very similar to Rowling’s portrayal of the Philosopher’s Stone as the means of making an elixir that assures immortality.
Philosopher’s Stone actually tells us about two quests – the quest for the Stone, as well as Voldemort’s quest to kill the boy who has been prophesized to be the only one who can be his undoing. As Galahad’s seat is marked with his name, signifying that he is the only one who can find the Grail, Voldemort’s attack on Harry as a baby leaves him marked with the scar that signifies Harry as Voldemort’s equal and as the only one who can vanquish Voldemort.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry’s quest is to find the elusive Chamber of Secrets to stop Slytherin’s monster from attacking Muggle-born Hogwarts students. But perhaps more importantly, Harry is seeking to discover his heritage – particularly, whether he is in fact a descendant of Slytherin. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry seeks to discover how to repel Dementors. Through the process of learning the Patronus Charm, he discovers that happiness is the solution to fear. As Book 3 progresses, Harry finds his father in himself, saves his godfather and sends Voldemort a Death Eater who is in his debt. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry strives to understand the significance of the black door that keeps reappearing in his dreams and, without knowing it, is on a quest to discover the prophecy. With Half-Blood Prince, Harry now knows that he alone (with, perhaps, a little help from Ron and Hermione) must find and destroy the remainder of Voldemort’s horcruxes and, ultimately, the entirety of Voldemort himself.
The most obvious Grail imagery appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Malory describes the Grail as being housed in a “chest of gold and precious stones” (746), which is reminiscent of the “casket” in which the Goblet of Fire arrives. In addition, as David Colbert, author of The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter, explains:
The Goblet of Fire is more than a little similar to another powerful goblet that has launched tournaments and battles: the Holy Grail … Though sometimes depicted as a shining silver goblet, the Holy Grail, being the cup of a poor carpenter, would probably have been made of wood – like the Goblet of Fire. The Grail is also a magical object. To drink from it is to be miraculously healed. And like the Goblet, it can sense whether or not a person is worthy. (Colbert, 85-86)
Each of the tasks in the Triwizard Tournament represents a microcosm of the quest. In the First Task, Harry must fight a dragon to retrieve the golden egg (notably, dragons are also featured prominently in Arthurian legend). In the Second Task, Harry must brave grindylows and merpeople to rescue Ron from the depths of the lake (and displays the chivalry of King Arthur and his knights in rescuing Fleur’s sister unnecessarily). In the Third Task, Harry must get past acromantulas, blast-ended skrewts, a boggart and a sphinx “to literally find a Grail, in this case the Triwizard Cup, and to win it for Hogwarts” (Colbert 86).
As in Arthurian legend, Harry is not the only one who embarks on quests through the Harry Potter series. In Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort uses Quirrell to try to find the Stone. The entire Hogwarts teaching staff (with the one notable exception of Professor Lockhart) is looking for the Chamber of Secrets in Book Two. The Dementors are searching for Sirius Black in Prisoner of Azkaban. The other contestants in the Triwizard Tournament, like Knights of the Round Table, are also on quests as they complete each Tournament task in Goblet of Fire. At the Yule Ball, the contestants and the judges even sit at “a large round table at the top of the Hall”2 (GoF 361). In Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort is on a quest to obtain the prophecy and regain his power.
The Harry Potter books diverge from Arthurian tradition, however, in that it is the villain, rather than the hero, who initiates the majority of the quests in the series. Moreover, while the villain’s quests appear to succeed initially, they tend to backfire on Voldemort in the end: Voldemort attacks Harry as a baby, only to have the curse rebound and turn him into a bodiless spirit, as well as fulfilling the terms of the prophecy by marking Harry “as his equal” (OotP 741); while Voldemort’s past self successfully lures Harry to the Chamber of Secrets, Harry winds up killing the Basilisk and destroying Riddle’s diary (thus preventing Voldemort from ever returning again via that mechanism and, while not realizing it at the time, destroying one of Voldemort’s horcruxes); Voldemort succeeds in his scheme to enter Harry’s name into the Goblet of Fire and to have Harry be the first to reach the Triwizard Cup, but fails to kill Harry in the graveyard, leaving himself vulnerable to “the one with the power to vanquish” him (OotP 741) and exposing Barty Crouch, Jr. as an imposter; and Voldemort lures Harry to the Department of Mysteries only to have the prophecy destroyed before he can hear its contents.
The individual responsible for quest initiation changes in Half-Blood Prince, however – Harry is now in control of directing the quest for the missing horcruxes and the ultimate destruction of Voldemort in his entirety. Dumbledore makes it clear to Harry that it is Harry’s choice to vanquish Voldemort, that this is not something Harry is being forced to do: “… you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy!” (HBP 479). This underscores the importance of choice that was first highlighted in Chamber of Secrets when Professor Dumbledore told Harry “It is our choices … that show what we truly are” (CoS 245).
Characters and Cards
Morgana joins Merlin in the category of characters from Arthurian legend that are featured on the Chocolate Frog cards. In addition, four Harry Potter characters bear names that are associated with the Arthurian tradition: Percy Weasley, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Lucius Malfoy and Arthur Weasley.
Morgana/Morgan Le Fay
Morgana is one of the Chocolate Frog cards Harry discovers on his first trip on the Hogwarts Express. Morgana is a fictional character who was introduced into Arthurian legend by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who renamed her “Morgan le Fay,” which means “Morgan the Fairy” (Kronzek and Kronzek 172). In Sir Thomas Malory's LeMorte d'Arthur, Morgan le Fay is “Arthur's half sister, the daughter of Arthur's mother Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Cornwall” ( University of Rochester Camelot Project ). While Geoffrey’s Morgan le Fay heals Arthur when he is brought to the Isle of Avalon with a near-fatal wound, Malory portrays Morgan negatively, holding her responsible for stealing Arthur’s sword Excalibur so that his enemy (a knight named Accolon) can use it against him and then throwing the scabbard of Excalibur, which protects Arthur, into a lake.
Percy Weasley and Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore
Most of the Arthurian legends focus on a character named Percivale. “Born into a peasant family, Perceval eventually proves his virtue and becomes a Knight of the Round Table” (Colbert 86). Percivale is depicted differently depending on which version of events one reads. The first version describes Percivale as a fool who was the first to locate the Grail at the Great Castle of Carbonek but does not ask the wounded King of Carbonek (King Pelles) about the Grail “because he has been advised of the impoliteness of asking too many questions”3 (University of Rochester Camelot Project). As a result, he does not realize that the Grail resides at the castle and that he can heal the King by obtaining the Grail. In the second version, Perceval le Gallois, which was left unfinished by Chretien de Troyes and was continued by Manessier (c. 1230), it is Percivale, not Galahad, who is destined to find the Grail and who eventually becomes the keeper of the Grail and heals the wounded King (Hampton and Ford).
Percy Weasley is similarly born into a “peasant family,” as the Weasleys are a down-to-earth family with limited financial resources. As the Percivale of Arthurian legend is foolish, in Goblet of Fire, Percy Weasley is portrayed as a fool who puts a high value on cauldron bottom thickness reports and displays unswerving loyalty to his boss, Mr. Crouch, even when Crouch shows that he barely recognizes his existence by calling him “Weatherby” (GoF 83). Moreover, Percy attributes Crouch’s odd behaviour to “overwork” instead of realizing that Crouch is being controlled by the Imperius Curse. Percy Weasley’s foolishness increases in Order of the Phoenix, where he is shown as Cornelius Fudge’s lapdog whose eagerness to please is demonstrated by his willingness to allow ink to splatter his nose while he hastily copies down Dumbledore’s “confession.” Even after the Ministry accepts Voldemort’s return in Half-Blood Prince, Percy remains estranged from his family and only visits them when the Minister needs an excuse to talk to Harry.
In Malory's LeMorte d'Arthur, Percivale’s mother dies of grief after he leaves her (Malory 660). Hopefully Percy’s estrangement from his family will not lead to such a tragic end for Molly Weasley, although her encounter with the boggart is a strong indication of how upset she is about Percy’s departure. Malory also recounts how, when Percivale saw a lion and a serpent fighting, Percivale came to the aid of the lion and slew the serpent with his sword. Hopefully this is an indication that Percy will rejoin the Gryffindor lions in the fight against the serpent-like Voldemort in Book 7.
Percivale was mocked and scorned when he was knighted (Malory 600-601) much in the same way Fred and George ridicule Percy for being named Head Boy in Book Three. However, Percivale is one of the few who can see the Grail, because he is a “perfect man;” i.e., he is “clean of his sins” (Malory 602-3; 636). In Malory’s version, only Galahad, Launcelot, Bors and Percivale are able to achieve the quest for the Grail. The quest is the beginning of the end for Percivale, however, as he survives for only one year and two months after the Grail is found.
During Harry’s disciplinary hearing in Order of the Phoenix, we are provided with Dumbledore’s complete name for the first time, and learn that he had not one, but three middle names – Percival, Wulfric and Brian (OotP 127). Dumbledore has been most akin to the Percivale in Perceval le Gallois, who became the keeper of the Holy Grail, as Dumbledore was not only the keeper of the Grail-like Philosopher’s Stone in Book One, but also possessed other magical objects, such as the Sorting Hat and Godric Gryffindor’s sword, that came to Harry’s aid during his quest in Chamber of Secrets. In addition, Dumbledore owned Fawkes the phoenix, whose tears had healing powers. As Percivale used the power of the Grail to heal the wounded Grail King, Dumbledore sent his phoenix to heal Harry after he is wounded by the Basilisk in the Chamber. As Percivale died shortly after the Grail was achieved, Dumbledore died shortly after finding some of the horcruxes.
Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy
The Roman ruler Lucius attempted to extort money and lands from King Arthur. King Arthur refused to succumb, and defeated the Romans to conquer large parts of Gaul . King Arthur also killed Lucius in the process.
In Harry Potter, there are two characters who engage in battle, albeit not bedecked in armor and astride horses – Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy. In Chamber of Secrets, the usually gentle Arthur Weasley uncharacteristically hurls himself at Lucius Malfoy when Lucius calls him “a disgrace to the name of wizard” and mocks his association with Muggles (CoS 51). During that fight, Lucius Malfoy planted Riddle’s diary on Ginny Weasley in an attempt to discredit her father. Arthur Weasley is also attacked by Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, while Lucius Malfoy’s master, Voldemort, possesses the snake. While Arthur Weasley’s daughter winds up being possessed by Voldemort and Arthur himself suffers a “cut lip” from the bookstore brawl (CoS 51) and grievous wounds from the snake, his nemesis Lucius gets his comeuppance when he is exposed publicly as a Death Eater and sent to Azkaban at the end of Order of the Phoenix.
During Harry’s careers session, when Professor Umbridge declares that Harry will never be accepted as an Auror by the Ministry of Magic, Professor McGonagall proclaims “‘There may well be a new Minister for Magic by the time Potter is ready to join!’” (OotP 586). This may be an indication that Arthur Weasley will succeed Scrimgeour as Minister for Magic in Book 7. Ron Weasley’s prediction in Order of the Phoenix that “We’ve got about as much chance of winning the Quidditch Cup this year as Dad’s got of becoming Minister for Magic” (OotP 575) could be a clue that Arthur Weasley will eventually take over the Ministry since Gryffindor actually wound up winning the Quidditch Cup. Arthur Weasley’s ascension to Minister for Magic would also parallel King Arthur’s coronation as emperor of Rome after Lucius’ death.
Further support for the Arthur-as-Minister theory is found in the numerous references to both red and purple, the royal colour, in connection with Arthur Weasley and members of Arthur’s family. Red and purple are also significant colours in alchemy, which is “the study of the transformative processes involved in the perfection or evolution of matter” (Bower). The last phase of the alchemical Great Work is “‘the work of reddening,’ which alchemists originally separated into two complementary moments, that of gold (Citrinitas or Xantosis) and that of purple or transmutation of venom (Iosis)” (Aniane). Rowling’s books are full of alchemical imagery right from the start, with Dumbledore’s work on alchemy with Nicholas Flamel and the focus on the Philosopher’s Stone.
Most obviously, Arthur Weasley and all of his children have red hair. Ron’s socks, pyjamas and sweaters are almost always referred to as maroon, and I’ve lost track of the number of times his ears have turned red! In Goblet of Fire, Ron hands Dobby “a pair of violet socks he had just unwrapped”4 along with his annual maroon Christmas sweater (GoF 356). In addition, Mundungus Fletcher “rescu[es] Ron from an ancient set of purple robes …”5 in Order of the Phoenix (OotP 110). Mrs. Weasley is described as wearing a “quilted purple dressing gown”6 a few pages later (OotP 112). Arthur Weasley’s assumption of the responsibility for protecting the British wizarding community would parallel King Arthur’s protection of Britain in ancient times. Moreover, Arthur Weasley would be in a much better position to convince Harry to join forces with the Ministry than the current Minister for Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour.
The Immortal Hero
In the legend of King Arthur as described by both Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth, as Arthur kills his treacherous son Mordred, Mordred pierces him with a near-fatal wound. Arthur is then taken to the Isle of Avalon to be treated. “A popular legend, current among the British people, claimed that King Arthur had never actually died and that he would one day return to his people when their need was great” (Hampton). Because Malory and Geoffrey do not record the actual death of Arthur, they promote the belief that Arthur never really died and was immortal. One version of the tale portrays Arthur as asleep in a cave. This parallels Harry’s sleeping in the closet under the stairs until Voldemort began his attempts to regain his body and his power, when Harry “returns to his people” – the wizarding world – to attempt to vanquish Voldemort for good.
Throughout all of the books, there is an overarching quest – Harry’s quest to find out who he is and what his destiny will be. The fact that his position on the Gryffindor Quidditch team is called “Seeker” is no coincidence – Harry is on a search for his identity and his fate. Through the process of completing each individual quest, Harry’s character and skills are becoming defined, and he is developing an understanding of what is important. While at the end of Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is amazed that Nicolas Flamel would voluntarily destroy the Stone and therefore lose the ability to remain immortal, by the end of Order of the Phoenix, Harry comes to understand that “death is nothing” compared with the pain of Voldemort’s possession and the loss of Sirius (OotP 720).
While Voldemort initiates the quests in the first five books, it is Harry who succeeds in finding the Stone in Book One, who is able to find and open the Chamber of Secrets in Book Two, who finds Sirius in Book Three, who reaches the Triwizard Cup first in Book Four and who denies Voldemort the ability to hear the prophecy in its entirety in Book Five. While Harry has help along the way, in the end he succeeds by relying on his own inner strength and convictions. Just as the Grail in Arthurian legend is found by Galahad because his soul is completely pure, Harry’s “untarnished and whole” soul has the “incomparable power” to vanquish Voldemort (HBP 478).
In Arthurian legend, Galahad’s pure soul is consumed by the Grail, and both go to heaven. Galahad achieves the Grail because he is a “perfect man,” because he is “clean of his sins.” Harry is similarly clean of sin – as Dumbledore tells him in Half-Blood Prince, “In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart, just as pure as you were at the age of eleven …” (HBP 477-478). As with Galahad, I believe the ultimate fulfillment of Harry’s quest will be for him to become a living Grail or Philosopher’s Stone and to rejoin his mother, father, godfather and mentor in the heaven that exists “beyond the veil” (OotP 689). According to the prophecy, if Harry were to die, Voldemort would be able to pursue the destruction of the wizarding world unchecked. While this would be an unfortunate outcome, it would parallel Arthurian legend. The achievement of the Grail is accompanied by death and loss, and eventually the destruction of the entire Round Table itself.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, I believe Harry will remain immortal in the same ways Arthur has remained immortal – not only by how the stories about both heroes end, but in the enduring legacy of their characters.
1. In later writings, Caliburn is renamed Excalibur. ^ back to article
2. My emphasis. ^ back to article
3. The Dursleys also discourage Harry from asking questions: “Don’t ask questions – that was the first rule for a quiet life with the Dursleys” (PS 20).
^ back to article
4. My emphasis. ^ back to article
5. My emphasis. ^ back to article
6. My emphasis. ^ back to article
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