SENIOR LECTURER OF ENGLISH GAIL ORGELFINGER
As did so many others, I read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books first for pure pleasure; it wasn’t until The Prisoner of Azkaban that my medievalist antennae began to tingle. My “aha” moment came when Harry’s patronus—a white stag—appeared across the lake to save him and Sirius Black from the Dementors. The white stag is a ubiquitous and multi-layered symbol in the Middle Ages. So that connection prompted my own research quest into whether the many animal allusions in Harry Potter’s world might resonate with what I knew about their appearance in medieval literature.
Having written Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, Rowling signaled both her interest in and knowledge of the rich tradition of medieval animal symbolism. Fantastic Beasts is essentially a bestiary. In the Middle Ages, a bestiary was an illustrated manuscript that described both real and imaginary animals, with interpretations of them according to points of Christian doctrine. Early bestiaries had around 40-50 chapters, each typically beginning with a Biblical quotation, continuing with a précis of the creature’s natural history—some of it truly fantastic—and ending with an allegorical interpretation.
By choosing familiar members of the bestiary—a snake to represent Slytherin and a lion to represent Gryffindor, Voldemort’s and Harry’s respective houses at Hogwarts—Rowling appears consciously to set up the story’s central conflict in mundane terms: the serpent-devil vs. the lion-Lord. However, contrary to popular belief, most such explication in the Middle Ages does not result in one-to-one allegory. The exegetical tradition is often at pains to show the ability of an object to symbolize conflicting qualities, an approach Rowling also uses. For example, even before he knows Hogwarts exists, much less is sorted into Gryffindor, we learn that Harry can talk to snakes. This ability marks him as a Parsel Mouth, a gift his peers fearfully associate with the Dark Lord Voldemort. Still, on his first night at Hogwarts, despite the Sorting Hat’s suggestion that he might do well in Slytherin, Harry is “sorted” into Gryffindor. According to the medieval habit of mind—and Rowling’s—both lion and serpent may be seen as good or bad, just as Harry is sometimes brave, sometimes irascible, sometimes wise, sometimes imprudent.
Harry’s own dealings with animals also echo the bestiary. At various times, these reveal his innate mettle, and at others, animals lend him important powers. At still others, that same interaction highlights his immaturity or lack of readiness. Most important is how certain creatures function at moments of crisis for Harry, in particular, the phoenix, lion, and stag, each one a foe of the snake, according to the bestiaries. In fact, so is the weasel, which in most bestiaries is said to be the only creature that can defeat the basilisk, a form of serpent. And the Weasleys, a wizarding family with whom Harry is closely entwined, are staunch allies of Harry against Voldemort. Appropriately, Harry’s friend and ally Hermione Granger’s patronus is an otter, which was a Greek translation of ichneumon, a foe of the dragon, a type of serpent, in some bestiaries.
Rowling also uses the bestiary to demonstrate how human love operates in the magical world. Before Harry reaches the maturity that enables him to sacrifice himself, he could never defeat his nemesis alone, not even with the help of the real and symbolic foes of the snake. It is only through love and sacrifice, especially those made by his mother, Lily, and Severus Snape, both of whose patronus is the doe (a symbol of maternal love in the bestiary), that Harry is able to defeat Lord Voldemort. In this way, Rowling succeeds in expanding the bestiary’s Christological symbolism to encompass the human heart.
Adapted from “J.K. Rowling’s Medieval Bestiary,” which was originally published in the journal “Studies in Medievalism“