The Phoenix in Harry Potter: the Metaphoric Power of the Past
by Edmund M. Kern
Department of History, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin
Near the end of J. K. Rowling’s most-recent book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a number of characters experience a moment of sublime enchantment, rooting them in place as they find in their pain some release from it:
Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt, as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds and through the castle windows.
How long they all stood there, listening, they did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning. (HPB – US 614-15)
For a while, at least, the song continues, passing in and out of Harry’s consciousness. Upon climbing into bed later, he first notices its significant absence:
As he lay there, he became aware suddenly that the grounds were silent. Fawkes had stopped singing.
And he knew, without knowing how he knew it, that the phoenix had gone, had left Hogwarts for good, just as Dumbledore had left the school, had left the world . . . had left Harry. (HPB – US 631-32)
Yet, I would argue, in the solitude and despair of that moment another phoenix begins more clearly to emerge: Harry Potter himself.
When considered historically, the symbolism of the phoenix has implied the reconciliation of counterbalancing realities: death and rebirth, destruction and re-creation, change and continuity. The phoenix was also the symbol of individual constancy, a symbol of the countless readjustments and renewals that a person required to survive so many setbacks and disappointments. For these reasons, the phoenix also represented the philosopher’s stone of medieval alchemy, the result of the ‘chemical wedding’ of opposites that produces pure love. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in her Harry Potter books, Rowling has chosen to cast her hero as a kind of metaphorical phoenix: a reconciler of opposites and a bringer of hope out of despair. He is a hero who possesses love in abundance, ‘a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature’ (OotP – US 843-44).
In this most striking of examples, the lament and disappearance of Fawkes, readers can glimpse the double meaning of my title, ‘The Phoenix in Harry Potter,’ and begin to asses how Harry’s adventures emerge from Rowling’s highly inventive uses of the past. Their hero is the product of a past, a hero who possesses the intellect to recognize history’s shaping influence upon the future. Yet its setting is a near-contemporary world that resembles our own. In addition, ancient symbols structure an age-old tale of good versus evil set within a near-contemporary present. Through this blending of past and present, Rowling performs her own literary alchemy, combining both to create something new.
In what follows, I shall rehearse some of the arguments advanced in my book, The Wisdom of Harry Potter, paying some special attention to developments in The Half-Blood Prince. I encourage you to think of Rowling’s sixth story as an extended history lesson (albeit an enjoyable one!) and as the fulfillment of Dumbledore’s promise at the end of Harry’s previous year at Hogwarts to tell him everything. As my opening observations suggest, I shall argue that through her uses of traditional notions of heroism and historical symbolism, Rowling has chosen to depict Harry as the culmination of historical forces extending well into the past: a phoenix born of troubled times but in control of his own future. As is so often the case in Harry’s adventures, Rowling paints him simultaneously as a victim of past circumstance and a hero free to shape his own destiny.
I would like to begin again by suggesting that Rowling takes up big issues rooted in the past and explores them in the present. Although she doesn’t treat history, legend, and myth as a historian would, she does use them in imaginative ways that are available to the novelist. She takes elements from very old tales, which have never really gone away, and reshapes them for a present-day audience, which is eager (if only unconsciously) to encounter them in new and contemporary contexts. In her expert hands, an archetypal hero comes to life in the late twentieth century.
In portraying both the familiar and the fantastic, Rowling draws extensively upon history, legend, and myth—in both prosaic and preposterous ways—to establish the features of her imagined world. In her highly imaginative uses of the past, Rowling is playing a double game. On the one hand, through her realistic presentation of fantastic elements taken from the past, she provides an alternative version of the world. On the other, through her realistic presentation of familiar elements taken from the past, she provides an ordinary version of the world. In an important sense, all writers of fiction who make use of the past play this same double game. They draw upon human history to comment upon the human condition. In doing so, they elaborate upon age-old themes and illustrate how they still inform today’s world.
This insight is just one of many offered by A. S. Byatt, the famed author of Possession and other works of fiction. Although she has famously criticized Harry’s adventures, in her assessment of him, as we shall she, she fails to follow her own signposts. In describing them as having ‘no place for the numinous’ and denouncing their magic as ‘ersatz’, she is curiously unable to see the metaphorical power of the past that she finds so important to story-telling (Byatt 2003 A13).
In a collection of essays titled On Histories and Stories, Byatt reviews the ‘uneasy and unsettled’ (10) boundaries between fiction and history and notes that both historians and writers of fiction construct the pasts they portray. Yet, in fiction, encounters with the past become opportunities not only for listening to what she calls ‘the voices of persistent ghosts or spirits’ (45) but also for situating them within an imagined present. For, as she asserts, ‘the writer of fiction is at liberty to invent—as the historian and the biographer are not’ (54). The process of inventing produces a kind of re-writing of the past, a process that excavates ‘recurring themes and patterns’ (107) for applications within new fictional contexts. For Byatt, old stories continue to inform the new.
Byatt also considers how authors use ‘tales, old, invented and reinvented, to charm, to entice, and to galvanise their readers in turn’ and how ‘old tales and forms have had a continued, metaphoric life’ (124). Her assessments of Roberto Calasso’s views are particularly insightful. Applying his ideas, she tells us that primal themes are organic and metaphoric in their ability to take on new forms. As Calasso states in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, ‘Stories never live alone: they are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward’ (10). What’s more, according to Byatt, these old stories, endlessly recounted in newer forms, possess a kind of truth in their basic simplicity. They challenge succeeding generations to consider what she labels ‘the fate of beauty and ugliness, fear and hope, chance and disaster’ (129). Returning once again to her own work on old stories, she reflects:
I understood that the tales had power because they were alive everywhere. A myth derives force from its endless repeatability. ‘Originality’ and ‘individuality’, those novelistic aesthetic necessities, were neither here nor there. (132)
Byatt’s explorations of the relationship between history and fiction strike me as particularly significant for an analysis of the Harry Potter books, despite her own claims about them. Granted, the books do contain a good bit of ‘whimsy’ (100), too much, obviously, for Byatt, whose tastes run in the opposite direction, but even a cursory reading of them reveals a dynamic relationship between past and present.
Rowling rewrites the past but in a way that builds upon considerable research. She charms, entices, and galvanizes her readers through the metaphoric power of the past, and she gives new life to historical, legendary, and mythical themes. Most important, her updated, fictional considerations of ‘beauty and ugliness, fear and hope, chance and disaster’, among still other tensions, rewrite the simple historical parables that Byatt and Calasso (along with millions of Harry’s fans) find so appealing.
Let’s examine how the past serves Rowling. In her fiction, she explicitly uses the past in roughly three different ways, which, I believe, make her stories all the more appealing. First, she employs simple and exotic elements of history, legend, and myth to give her magical world its form. In addition, she places each of her characters in a present that is the consequence of past events, and she gives them the intellect to recognize how those events continue to influence and shape the future. Finally, she draws upon a rich historical legacy of ethical problems and reasonable, essentially Stoic, solutions to them. To her readers’ delight, she embeds them within a new literary myth that displays a keen awareness of traditional patterns of heroism and ancient understandings of symbolism.
In taking up the first of these uses of the past, I need not belabor how aspects of history, legend, and myth simply give shape to Harry’s world. After all, it is an imagined world whose features correspond rather well with fantastic and familiar elements of the real human past. Nonetheless, these features are essential to Harry’s stories as fantasy fiction. Even though fantastic plot developments within the books might often seem merely incidental to larger moral questions, their tremendous ability to entertain and to instruct should not be underplayed. Such ‘old tales’ in ‘new forms’ bring readers into contact with issues that have not only long histories but contemporary significance as well.
Rowling accomplishes this trick most obviously in the ‘realistic’ feel of Harry Potter. Both the suburban qualities of Little Whinging and depictions of astrology, transfiguration, or potions take historically accurate forms, despite their inventive and parodic portrayals. At first glance, matter-of-fact historical allusions to such things as trials for witchcraft (real events) or goblin rebellions (made-up ones) might not seem to remind readers of their own circumstances, but upon reflection, these events do come to resemble forms of persecution and resistance against them in our own times. By employing the past in these ways, Harry’s adventures may gently encourage readers to see both themselves and important contemporary issues in light of historical developments.
Turning to Rowling’s second way of using the past, I’d like to note that the pronounced fatalism in Harry’s adventures serves to communicate the same message. Suffice it to say, the fact that Rowling’s characters are so clearly the products of past events and display an acute awareness of them should suggest to readers how important a historical sensibility is to her stories. Each subsequent book in the series carries the central story not only forward but backward as well. The more readers learn about the future, the more they learn about the past. As we are made keenly aware in The Half-Blood Prince, characters’ histories—and the futures they promise—are interconnected. With regard to this tendency, real historical antecedents are far less important than the age-old ‘recurring themes and patterns’ that some of us find so appealing—just like Byatt, even if she has some trouble identifying them at times. Rowling develops personal and collective histories for her characters, outlining the interplay of friendship and enmity, love and betrayal, wisdom and ignorance, and right and wrong. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Because Rowling’s vision of Harry’s world is so fully realized, in a very basic way, significant events within it always emerge from earlier ones. For example, multiple hints and intimations serve to portray Voldemort’s agonistic struggle with Harry as only the most recent manifestation of similar animosities between Salazar Slytherin and the other founders of Hogwarts. What’s more, Rowling shows that her characters are cognizant of the workings of historical forces. Harry’s experiences with Dumbledore’s Pensieve are particularly revealing in this regard. Within this magical data base, the headmaster stores his memories for later retrieval, when, upon reflection, he may more easily recognize connections and significant patterns. Once he reconsiders events and communicates his thoughts to Harry, memory becomes history.
Again and again, Harry and other characters recognize the past’s potential to make itself felt in the present. Even before the arrival of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I suggested that the trend would likely continue and intensify within subsequent volumes of Rowling’s series. The author promised as much in The Order of the Phoenix when she wrote,
Dumbledore lowered his hands and surveyed Harry through his half-moon glasses. ‘It is time,’ he said, ‘for me to tell you what I should have told you five years ago, Harry. Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything.’ (OotP – US 825)
In fact, it is largely Harry’s ignorance of the past that leads him to embark upon the rash actions that result in Sirius’s death. For unlike his earlier adventures, in this fifth book, Harry actually creates the dangerous situation in which he finds himself and places his friends.
In The Half-Blood Prince, Professor Dumbledore again and again invites Harry to comprehend the revelations of history, working diligently—as time presses—to correct his own earlier errors of judgment in choosing not to reveal the past to Harry. Given that Harry must prepare himself for a troubled future, Dumbledore’s pensieve, again, becomes the vehicle upon which important aspects of the past are conveyed. The headmaster prepares Harry by allowing him to witness events leading to the emergence of his archenemy and by allowing him to freely choose those steps that necessity dictates—in classic Stoic fashion.
As I argue in The Wisdom of Harry Potter, Dumbledore, much more than most characters, models Stoic moral behavior, and his uses of the past in The Half-Blood Prince follow the same basic pattern. The ancient Stoics paid a great deal of attention to the importance of education in their works. This emphasis stems from their cosmopolitanism, their egalitarian ethic, which insisted upon the dignity of reason in all people. Through education, they sought to foster the good in others. But teaching for the Stoics was a matter of inspiring independence, rather than a means of instilling doctrinaire prescriptions. Stoic teaching offered guidance but repudiated subservience. Others had to take charge of their own educations. Stoics did not promise perfection, but they did promise progress—if their pupils were willing to work. Their pedagogy offered students a freedom commensurate with their abilities, rather than an image of self-worth dependent upon status, reputation, or riches. In keeping with their emphasis upon individual freedom, the earliest Stoics often invoked a perfect (if also hypothetical) sage who modeled wise behavior. Although, in time, they abandoned their pursuit of such perfection, preferring to speak instead of an ‘apprenticeship to wisdom’ or ‘degrees of wisdom’, self-conscious imitation of the sage remained an important aspect of their message (Nussbaum 2001 6; 1994 344-47 and 353-54; 1997 28-35; ‘Stoicism’ 20).
In the Harry Potter books, we can see an imperfect sage at work in the character of Albus Dumbledore. He guides Harry without forcing an orthodoxy upon him. Dumbledore provides numerous examples of his preference for precise usage, accurate descriptions, and clear courses of action—even if his mentoring of Harry sometimes relies upon leaving things unsaid. The best instance of this approach is Dumbledore’s encouraging Harry to use Voldemort’s name, rather than the preferred euphemisms employed by most others in the wizarding world: ‘Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself’ (SS 298). His insistence that Harry describe—in detail—the painful events leading to and following upon Cedric’s death, before he can hope to recover from them, can be viewed in this light as well. He encourages Harry to confront immutable realities rather than ignoring them. The same moral is to be found in his forthright descriptions of Voldemort’s evil and the proper response to it, delivered to the assembled student body of Hogwarts. In each case, Dumbledore acts to diminish ambiguity. For Dumbledore and the Stoics, reason ultimately strikes the balance between individual desire and unrelenting reality. Ambiguities certainly persist, but it is an individuals own distinctive freedom to choose his or her attitudes towards them.
We find a perfect illustration of how the Stoics understand the relationship between desire and reality early in Harry’s adventures, when Dumbledore explains the powers of the Mirror of Erised:
‘Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?’
Harry thought. Then he said slowly, ‘It shows us what we want ... whatever we want ...’
‘Yes and no,’ said Dumbledore quietly. ‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts .... However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or [Sic] truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
‘The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.’ (SS 213-14)
It is no mere coincidence that when Harry again sees himself in the Mirror, he sees himself as he is, exactly as he is, in possession of the Stone. For in exercising his distinctive freedom to choose his attitude towards fate, Harry is as unrelenting as the realities beyond his control. He finds the right thing to do when confronted with conditions that he cannot escape. Before the Mirror, in Voldemort’s malevolent presence, Harry accepts what is necessary, without denying what is possible. He strikes the Stoic balance, and not for the last time.
As becomes clear in The Half-Blood Prince, for both Dumbledore and Harry, history affords one of the best means for ascertaining the difference between what is necessary and what is possible. Readers can see this clearly in Dumbledore’s last ‘history lesson’:
‘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, when you stared into a mirror that reflected your heart’s desire, and it showed you only the way to thwart Lord Voldemort. . . . Harry, have you any idea how few wizards could have seen what you saw in that mirror?’ . . .
‘But, sir,’ said Harry . . . , ‘it all comes down to the same thing, doesn’t it? I’ve got to try and kill him, or—’
‘Got to?’ said Dumbledore. ‘Of course you’ve got to! But not because of the prophesy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried!’
. . . ‘In other words, you are free to choose your own way, quite free to turn your back on the prophesy.’ . . .
[Harry] understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew—and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents—that there was all the difference in the world. (HBP – US 511-12)
Thus, does Rowling put the metaphoric power of the past to work in a story whose morals an audience must infer: she paints her hero as someone caught between the demands of freedom and fate. How telling it is that Harry likens his experiences to that of a gladiator forced to enter the arena, but free to choose how he does so—a favored metaphor of the ancient Stoics.
If I turn now to Rowling’s third way of using the past, her elaboration of a moral system with deep historical roots, we can see even more clearly how she appeals to what Byatt calls the ‘endless repeatability’ of old tales. The most palpable aspect of this tendency emerges in the many resemblances Rowling’s hero has to other, age-old protagonists found within stories that have been around forever. But given the sheer scope of her project, we must conclude that she goes even further. In the final analysis, Rowling puts history, legend, and myth to work in what we might consider a literary myth, an epic fantasy conveying important moral lessons (Purtill). We can see why the books offer a good example of literary myth if we consider two of their chief features: they represent heroism in very traditional ways, and they often employ historically significant symbolism.
Turning first, and briefly, to traditional forms of heroism, I should note that more than a few scholars have chosen to interpret the Harry Potter books as an updated folktale, fairy tale, legend, or myth. Those who prefer to comprehend them in terms of epic fantasy invariable note their similarities to these popular genres as well. Regardless, Harry is often likened to Moses, Oedipus, King Arthur, Superman, or other manifestations of the heroic myth, which Joseph Campbell reintroduced to the public in the popular reprint of his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Some writers have even chosen to interpret Harry’s stories as highly symbolic religious allegories, suggesting that Harry works very well as a Christ-figure (Grimes; Pharr).
Since Harry has so many of the traits associated with such heroes, we can read his adventures as an extended and updated allegory on historical forms of heroism. While remaining an ordinary boy, Harry nonetheless possesses the classic virtues of the traditional hero. Harry’s quest thus involves fear, suffering, struggle, and triumph over adversity. Ultimately, these features of his adventures offer children and adult readers vicarious pleasures and simple reassurances—what critics of Harry often denigrate as retrograde childhood fantasies (Grimes; Pharr). Yet, given the emphasis that folk tales, fairy tales, legends, and myths place upon cultivation of the self and service to others, we should not be surprised that their themes often relate to the Stoic virtues that I outline in The Wisdom of Harry Potter: constancy, endurance, perseverance, self-discipline, reason, solidarity, empathy, and sacrifice. Rowling’s new version of an old story becomes a literary myth communicating these same morals.
Also important to our understanding of Harry Potter as literary myth is the symbolism at work in the books. Once again, in the very old symbols Rowling deploys, we encounter another kind of ‘endless repeatability’—old ideas fashioned within a new context. Although it is tempting to view symbols as ‘universal’, I want to emphasize that their meanings are context-dependent. If readers have already gone through the available volumes of Harry Potter without recognizing Rowling’s many uses of symbolic meanings, they have already experienced what I’m talking about. In our own times, many symbols with impressive historical pedigrees go entirely unnoticed because they are unfamiliar. They take on new significance, however, within the context of Harry’s stories, which ask readers to suspend their disbelief of the fantastic. Symbols can certainly reflect human ideals, but they do not exist independently of how they are used
If we turn our attention to the many legendary creatures in Harry Potter, we can begin to get a sense of how Rowling uses symbols to communicate important moral lessons. Often enough, she simply drops these creatures into her stories to add vibrancy—or, crucially, comic potential. They nearly always appear for the first time in episodes that are humorous, but upon closer examination, even the humor associated with incidental creatures functions within the texts in ways that are significant. For example, a host of lesser folkloric creatures populates Harry’s day-to-day life. Rowling deploys, among still others, the English grindylow, the West Country hinkypunk, the Japanese kappa, the Cornish pixie, the German poltergeist, and the English red cap as only so many magical pests. Each is symbolic of the unexpected difficulties and uncertainties that life so indifferently places in an individual’s way. They are potentially dangerous but mostly frustrating, easily dealt with, if one remains patient and diligent and recognizes them for what they are (Kronzek and Kronzek; Colbert; Mack and Mack; Barber and Riches; Cirlot).
In contrast, other legendary creatures carry more symbolic weight—even when humor is present in their deployment. Let me briefly describe a few examples from the symbol-rich third volume, The Prisoner of Azkaban. The boggart Harry encounters well suits Rowling’s development of her hero’s growing maturity—a central theme in the book. A well known figure within northern English folklore, the boggart adopts the form of what individual people most fear. Upon learning that Harry most fears the dementors, Professor Lupin responds, ‘Well, well ... I’m impressed .... That suggests that what you fear most of all is—fear. Very wise, Harry’ (PoA 155). The boggart thus becomes a symbol for fear itself—and something the hero must overcome. Significantly, laughter renders the boggart harmless. A similar moral is conveyed by the grim, a common omen of death in the British Isles, which Harry repeatedly sees in the same book. The grim turns out to be Sirius, again, as a kind of ironic joke, but before Harry realizes this fact, he must come to grips with the threat of his own demise (repeated often enough by the fraudulent Professor Trelawney). True to form, he meets it with poise, having already done so on numerous occasions. In her portrayals of the boggart and grim, Rowling thus puts fear and the threat of death into symbolic form. Harry, of course, greets both with their opposites, courage and a life-affirming resolve. Of course, not all legendary creatures symbolize negative aspects of the human condition. The hippogriff, invented by the Italian author Ludovico Ariosto in his epic poem Orlando Furioso, might be read as a symbol of human potential or the pursuit of dreams. Churlishly taunting human beings, the Hippogriff becomes tame and loyal once mounted, capable of soaring quickly and to the highest altitudes. In the course of Harry’s adventures, the stand-offish Buckbeak literally becomes the vehicle upon which Harry and Hermione successfully pursue a hopeless cause. Eschewing faintheartedness, they need only dare to try (Kronzek and Kronzek; Colbert; Mack and Mack; Barber and Riches; Cirlot; Nigg).
Mythical creatures may also be read as symbols in the Potter books. Some ambiguously signal contrary tendencies and reflect the many tensions inherent within the human condition. We can certainly see this characteristic among the centaurs depicted, since they read the future in the stars except when they choose not to. They symbolize both instinct and wisdom, befitting their half-animal, half-human forms. Dragons are, perhaps, less ambiguous but still symbolize power in both its creative and destructive forms. It is telling that Harry must rescue an egg (another symbol) in the face of an extremely violent Hungarian Horntail. Hagrid likewise obtains a dragon’s egg, only to have the baby nearly set him and his hut on fire. In mythology, mermaids (especially) and mermen (less so) symbolize enchantment, temptation, and death. Again, it is telling that, under the lake, Harry avoids all three. He ultimately ignores the instructions of the merpeople, shows his moral fiber by refusing to leave any of the captives, and successfully escapes with Ron, Fleur’s sister, and his own life. The sphinx Harry encounters during the Triwizard Tournament rather unambiguously signals enigma and wit, but the same creature in ancient mythology could also symbolize royalty, fertility, and immortality (in Egypt) or death and destruction (in Mesopotamia). Less ambiguous creatures include manticores, which symbolize evil and malevolence, as well as unicorns, which symbolize innocence and the sacred. Fluffy, the three-headed dog who guards the forbidden corridor in The Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone), is an allusion to Cerberus who guarded the gates of the underworld. He symbolizes evil genius, as well as death and decay. In Greek mythology, Hercules overcame him through physical strength alone in pursuit of immortality. Orpheus, in contrast, soothed him with music. Each of these creatures enrich Rowling’s tales (and offer Potter-maniacs ample opportunities to follow fresh leads); in an important sense, they also contribute to our understanding of her work as literary myth. They resurrect old ideas for those who care to look (Kronzek and Kronzek; Colbert; Mack and Mack; Barber and Riches; Cirlot; Nigg).
Even more significant, however, are two additional creatures drawn from legend and myth: the snake and the lion. Rowling uses the snake, along with its relative the basilisk, in a number of ways in her stories, most prominently as the symbol of Slytherin House and as the monster Harry must confront in The Chamber of Secrets. The lion, in contrast, appears only obliquely on the crest of Gryffindor House. Significantly, however, the lion’s relative, the half-eagle, half-lion griffin appears in the name of Godric Gryffindor and on the knocker to Dumbledore’s office. Although the meanings associated with snakes are many and contradictory, both positive and negative, when used symbolically, they tend to represent evil more often than not. Lions, in contrast, despite a reputation as violent and rapacious beasts, usually carry more positive associations. In mythology, the basilisk and the griffin share many similarities. They are both guardians of treasure, they are ‘kings’ of their respective realms, and they are equally dangerous. Nonetheless, the similarities end there, for they are also mortal enemies of one another. The basilisk is the deadliest of all creatures, while the griffin is the most noble. Of the basilisk, John Guillim writes in his seventeenth-century Display of Heraldry:
he seemeth to be a little king amongst serpents, not in regard to his quantity [size], but in respect of the infection of his pestiferous and poysonfull aspect, wherewith he poisoneth the aire.
Of the griffin, in contrast, he writes:
by reason he uniteth force and industry together .... having attained his full growth, [he] will never be taken alive; wherein he doth adumbrate [exhibit] or rather lively set forth the property of a valorous souldier, whose magnanimity is such as he had rather expose himselfe to all dangers, and even to death itself, than to become captive. (Nigg 208 and 209)
If we apply Guillim’s observations to Harry Potter, we can see why Rowling generally uses the snake or the basilisk to symbolize evil and the lion or the griffin to symbolize good. By placing the two related pairs in conflict, she structures the epic struggle at the core of Harry’s adventures. Salazar Slytherin and the school house that bears his name represent one set of values, while Godric Gryffindor (the ‘golden griffin’) and the house that bears his name, along with its lion crest, represent quite another. We already know that Voldemort is the heir of Slytherin; I think we might learn that Harry is the heir of Gryffindor. Yet, Rowling is not wholly unaware of the ambiguities surrounding the snake and the lion, the basilisk and the griffin, nor the many similarities that they share. After all, on the one hand, Harry is a parselmouth, and the Sorting Hat did consider placing him in Slytherin; on the other, Snape has acted with courage, and Dumbledore has consistently signaled his complete trust in him. Whether for good or for ill, we shall have to wait and see!
Complicating, but ultimately clarifying, matters is an additional mythical creature, the phoenix, which symbolizes, through its immolation at death and its rebirth from the ashes, both destruction and recreation. We can therefore understand Fawkes, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, as a mediating symbol, one situated (in a sense) between good and evil to serve as a reminder that, in the midst of devastation, hope may be found. In this sense, the immortal Fawkes represents the dual realities of never-ending change and similarly persisting continuities. I have already signaled my own view of what we should make of Fawkes disappearance at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.
We can see the contrary symbolism of continuity and change at work in many early works of literature. For example, in The Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid reflects upon the ceaseless transformations of nature and the seeming permanence of the phoenix:
How many creatures walking on this earth
Have their first being in another form?
Yet one exists that is itself forever,
Reborn in ageless likeness through the years. (Nigg 55)
The fourth-century Egyptian Horapollo describes how his ancestors used the phoenix to symbolize both transformation and permanence (‘a long-enduring restoration’) in human endeavors: ‘When they wish to indicate a long-enduring restoration, they draw the phoenix. For when this bird is born, there is a renewal of things’ (Nigg 91). The symbolism of the phoenix, therefore, implies the reconciliation of counterbalancing realities: death and rebirth, destruction and re-creation, change and continuity. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the phoenix is also a symbol of individual constancy, perhaps the chief virtue of the Stoics, a symbol of the countless readjustments and renewals required to survive so many setbacks and disappointments. No less a person than Leonardo da Vinci interpreted the phoenix as such: ‘For constancy, the phoenix serves as a type; for understanding by nature its renewal, it is steadfast to endure the burning flames which consume it, and then it is reborn anew’ (Nigg 223).
Throughout Harry’s adventures, Rowling has portrayed her hero as possessing such constancy. It is no mere coincidence that in The Order of the Phoenix, she has him meet likeminded individuals who are both personally and politically dedicated to the same virtue. Nor, I shall offer, is it coincidental that Dumbledore is taken from Harry at the end of The Half-Blood Prince. It must be so, not merely because traditional heroes always lose their mentors, but because Dumbledore’s death is necessary for Harry’s emergence into a new life. (Dare I say, the headmaster’s classically Stoic, self-imposed and sacrificial death?)
If we turn our attention to alchemy, we can view the mediating quality of the phoenix in another light, which, I hope, will clarify my claim that Harry himself is become the phoenix. For within alchemy the phoenix represents the philosopher’s stone itself, the result of a chemical wedding’ that achieves the reconciliation of opposites through destruction and re-creation. The production of the stone involves repeated cycles of chemical dissolutions and coagulations. Through this process, base matter is transformed into ‘prime matter’ (prima materia), the original stuff of creation, which is then transformed into ever purer forms. Each stage represents the successful chemical reconciliation of opposite states and qualities (such as sulfur and mercury, hot and cold, dry and moist, fixed and volatile, spirit and body, form and matter, active and receptive, and male and female), which eliminates differences between them and unites their contrary attributes. The ultimate coagulation is the stone itself, capable of transmuting base metals into gold and humans into the divine (Abraham).
Alchemists always present this process in highly metaphorical language, which Rowling has adopted and adapted in her work. If my reading of the alchemical symbolism of the phoenix is correct, it suggests that Rowling has chosen to depict it as the reconciler of the snake, on the one hand, and the lion and the griffin, on the other. Often, in alchemical writings, the snake represents the matter with which work is begun, as well as the prime matter. It is highly volatile. In contrast, the lion symbolizes sulfur, and the griffin symbolizes mercury. Thus, the lion represents the hot, dry, solar, active, and male principle, while the griffin represents the cold, moist, lunar, receptive, and female principle. When the lion and the griffin are united and brought to bear against the snake, the phoenix is born (Abraham).
Always described in ornately metaphorical language, as I have shown, this physical ‘wedding’ of opposites is also a metaphysical union. Its explication begins with the Platonic assumption that humanity is divided against itself, separated into two sexes. Often enough, it is depicted as the marriage of the masculine sun and the feminine moon. Invariably, it unites willful power (the active male force) and wisdom (the receptive female force) to produce pure love, the philosopher’s stone or the ‘philosophical child’. This metaphysical union leads to death of the alchemist, as the soul leaves the body to unite with the eternal spirit, but out of this death emerges new life. For the soul’s departure cleanses the body, and its return, now united with the spirit, resurrects the body. Dissolution and coagulation take place simultaneously.The body dissolves into spirit, and the spirit coagulates into form (Abraham).
Thus, in a very important sense, we should understand Harry’s trials and tribulations as a metaphorical pursuit of the philosopher’s stone—not for gold and eternal life, but for moral and, perhaps, spiritual virtue—an eternal and pure love. For in setting the values of Gryffindor (the lion and the griffin) against the values of Slytherin (the snake), Harry emerges as the exemplar of constancy (the phoenix). Furthermore, Dumbledore himself is an alchemist (his wizard card says so) and he has carefully guided Harry’s development. Dare I say through metaphorical cycles of dissolution and coagulation? Many years ago, a French scholar of the occult, Pierre Vincenti Piobb, described the metaphysical process of dissolution and coagulation in the following way: ‘analyze all the elements in yourself, dissolve all that is inferior in you, even though you may break in doing so; then, with the strength acquired from the preceding operation, congeal’ (Cirlot 8).
In this way, we can begin to view Harry himself as an alchemist. Thus, we may also view Harry, the mythic hero, as the phoenix, as a reconciler of opposites, who brings hope out of danger and devastation. I think it likely that at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, with the demise of Dumbledore, Harry is poised to undergo the kinds of transformations to which alchemical symbolism alludes—not necessarily literally, but metaphorically. By following the path of Stoic virtue, he has already begun to do so.
Through highly inventive uses of the past, Rowling develops Harry’s adventures as a literary myth promoting virtue and conveying moral lessons. She employs ancient symbols to structure an age-old struggle between good and evil, and constructs her hero according to traditional patterns of heroism. She makes him the product of a past and gives him the intellect to recognize its shaping influence upon the future. And finally, she places him in a near-contemporary world, resembling our own, which combines numerous elements, both familiar and fantastic, drawn from history, legend, and myth. Thus, does J. K. Rowling work her own literary alchemy and, through the metaphoric power of the past, create the phoenix in Harry Potter.
Some passages of this essay are excerpted from chapters 3 and 5 of The Wisdom of Harry Potter by Edmund Kern. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Copyright ©2003 by Edmund Kern. Reprinted with permission.
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