Re-Reading Harry Potter: “Mars is Bright Tonight”

Erised

Chapters 11-15 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone cover Harry’s first ever Quidditch game through his detention in the Forbidden Forest when he discovers it’s actually Voldemort who is after the Philosopher’s Stone (roughly November through May or June, I think). The first statement that caught my eye in chapter 11 was that “Hermione had become a bit more relaxed about breaking rules since Harry and Ron had saved her from the mountain troll and she was much nicer for it.” I think this new attitude of Hermione’s speaks to the need for balance. Had she landed in Ravenclaw after all, she might never have developed this side of her personality. Sometimes, you need to break rules because greater things than obeying rules are at stake, as the trio discovers many times throughout the series. Sometimes, the rules are wrong and should be broken. Hermione learns both of these lessons from Harry and Ron.

Rowling also continues to build up her case against Snape when Harry glimpses Snape’s wounded leg when trying to get Quidditch Through the Ages back from him. Naturally, Snape was checking on Fluffy to make sure Quirrell wasn’t going through the trap door, but Harry is much more inclined to think Snape is up to something than that Quirrell is because Snape is so unpleasant.

During the Quidditch game, naturally Hermione sees Snape muttering a curse (actually a counter-curse to keep Harry on his broom) and thinks Snape is jinxing the broom. Rowling is clever enough to point out that Hermione knocks Quirrell over in her attempt to set fire to Snape’s robes, thus breaking the true culprit’s concentration. Can we pause for a moment and wonder why Dumbledore hasn’t fired Quirrell at this point? I mean, Snape has surely told Dumbledore that Quirrell let in the troll at Halloween (I know Snape has guessed this much) and that he is after the Philosopher’s Stone. Why does Dumbledore keep so many rotten and frankly dangerous teachers around Hogwarts? I have a vague memory that Snape and Dumbledore discuss this issue in the Snape’s memory near the end of Deathly Hallows.

Yet another plot device that seems unimportant becomes crucial in Deathly Hallows: Harry catches the Snitch in his mouth. Who knew those things had flesh memories? I mean, it makes sense because there are bound to be instances when who caught the Snitch first is in dispute.

Early in chapter 12, the trio has agreed not to ask Madam Pince about Nicolas Flamel even though they are sure she could tell them who he was. Not sharing information with those who could help becomes a running theme in the series. Thankfully, Harry grows out of it by Half-Blood Prince. I doubt Madam Pince would have put two-and-two together enough to share information about who was trying to learn about Nicolas Flamel. Perhaps she would, but the trio strikes me as a bit paranoid here. She’s not the most helpful librarian, however, so it stands to reason they don’t feel like asking her questions for that reason.

We get to see our first Christmas at Hogwarts as Harry and the Weasleys stay behind during the holidays. I love Christmas at Hogwarts. One thing Rowling writes so well is descriptions of food. I think her descriptions of Hogwarts feasts and various other treats such as wizarding candy and Butterbeer are perhaps the most evocative descriptions in the whole series. I never fail to crave French onion soup, for example, whenever I read that passage near the beginning of Half-Blood Prince when Molly Weasley is making Harry French onion soup. She even manages to make foods I dislike, such as peas, sound appetizing.

Harry actually has a pile of presents on Christmas morning, including his father’s old invisibility cloak, which we learn is THE invisibility cloak in the “The Tale of the Three Brothers” by Beedle the Bard. This story, it turns out, has its origins in the true story of the Peverell brothers: Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus. And I pause here to share this cool image that circulated on Pinterest:

threebrothers

That image captures an interesting parallel to “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” While it is actually Dumbledore who suffers the most in the series because of the Resurrection Stone (he did himself an injury that would ultimately be fatal, had he not died before it killed him, remember, in trying to use the Resurrection Stone, now a horcrux), and it is arguably the one item of the Deathly Hallows he himself would most have liked to have possessed (he does possess it later, I know), this graphic makes some sense to me. I can’t remember anymore where I read it, but I did read once that Harry is definitely descended from Ignotus Peverell, which makes sense because he inherits Ignotus’s cloak. It is to Dumbledore’s credit that he ultimately decides not to keep this artifact. Had he done so, he would have possessed all three Deathly Hallows at the same time once he found the Resurrection Stone. But he recognized it as Harry’s rightful property and knew Harry would need it more. Most invisibility cloaks, we later learn, lose their power after a time. They are made from Demiguise pelts. Harry’s is a true artifact, an heirloom that has been passed down in his family since the Middle Ages.

Antioch may be an ancestor of Tom Riddle’s. He, of course, wanted the Elder Wand, just as Antioch did before him. I don’t know if this is true or not, but Marvolo Gaunt did have the Resurrection Stone set in a ring and declared its markings were the Peverell Coat of Arms. He claimed Peverell ancestry. So wouldn’t it be interesting if Dumbledore or even Snape descended from Cadmus Peverell? I think the two men had such a strong friendship because they had a strong connection through loss. The echo of “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in the lives of their descendants is an interesting idea to ponder.

I will save some of this discussion for later when I get to that point in re-reading Deathly Hallows, but I find it interesting that even here, we find the seeds for the series’s conclusion planted.

In chapter 12, Harry finds the Mirror of Erised. This chapter is all the more poignant when you realize Rowling had lost her mother as she began writing this book. The longing and aching for lost loved ones is sharp and perhaps could only have been written by someone who had experienced that feeling: “He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.” The Mirror of Erised is an interesting device. We never do learn who brought it to Hogwarts, or what became of it after Philosopher’s Stone. Of the Mirror of Erised, Pottermore says,

The Mirror of Erised is a very old device. Nobody knows who created it, or how it came to be at Hogwarts School. A succession of teachers have brought back interesting artefacts from their travels, so it might have arrived at the castle in this casual manner, either because the teacher knew how it worked and was intrigued by it, or because they did not understand it and wished to ask their colleagues’ opinions.

The Mirror of Erised is one of those magical artefacts that seems to have been created in a spirit of fun (whether innocent or malevolent is a matter of opinion), because while it is much more revealing than a normal mirror, it is interesting rather than useful. Only after Professor Dumbledore makes key modifications to the mirror (which has been languishing in the Room of Requirement for a century or so before he brings it out and puts it to work) does it become a superb hiding place, and the final test for the impure of heart.

The mirror’s inscription (‘erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi’) must be read backwards to show its true purpose.

It is to Ron’s credit that he mistrusts the device early on and urges Harry not to go back to it again. Sure enough, Harry visits the mirror again and is caught by Dumbledore, who tells Harry he doesn’t need a cloak to become invisible. Two things Harry doesn’t figure out here: 1) Dumbledore mentioned the cloak. He knows Harry has it. 2) There is some other way to make yourself invisible. We find out later that Dumbledore is really good at casting Disillusionment Charms and that Dumbledore had James’s cloak and was the person who gave it to Harry on Christmas.

Towards the end of the chapter, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees when he looks in the Mirror of Erised. Dumbledore claims he sees himself holding a pair of thick socks. Harry speculates that Dumbledore might not be telling the truth. I think Dumbledore probably sees something similar to what Harry sees: his family, whole and smiling out at him.

In chapter 13, Harry makes the observation that Snape appears to be following him around and that “he sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds.” Of course, we do find out he was following Harry around to protect him and that he can read minds. Sort of. He is gifted at Legilimency and Occlumency. Earlier in the book, when the trio catches the troll, we see Snape give Harry a “swift, piercing look” but Harry “looked at the floor.” I think this is perhaps the first instance in the series when Snape attempts to use Legilimency to find out what Harry is up to, but Harry prevents him from being successful by looking down so that Snape cannot look into his eyes. Clever, as later, Rowling establishes eye contact as important in this branch of magic. Later in this chapter, Harry overhears Snape threatening Quirrell and deduces that Snape is trying to find out how to get past Quirrell’s magic behind the trap door. The conversation is cleverly worded and plotted with a few gaps so that later, we can interpret it as Snape threatening Quirrell away from the trap door and from the Philosopher’s Stone.

In chapter 14, Hagrid acquires a Norwegian Ridgeback from a mysterious stranger in the pub. Oh, Hagrid. He sure causes a lot of trouble with his critters. In this case, covering for Hagrid costs Harry and Hermione (and Neville, as an innocent bystander) 150 house points. How unfair is it for McGonagall to take away 150 points for being out of bed at night when she only took away five from Hermione for trying to tackle a troll on her own and only awarded ten to Harry and Ron for defeating it? I think this spot of unfairness is why it seems fair for Dumbledore to pile on the points at the House Feast. It is not overly generous so much as it is righting a wrong, if you remember how many points McGonagall takes from her students in this chapter. Neville winds up losing the house 40 points, in the end; Hermione breaks even, as Dumbledore awards her the same amount of points as she lost; Harry earns ten points over what he lost. Ron is the only one who might be said to be unfairly awarded points, as he himself didn’t lose any that night (he was in the hospital wing, recovering from Norbert’s bite). It is really Ron, then, who clinches the House Cup for Gryffindor, all other things being equal, because it is his 50 points that makes the most difference in the scores.

In chapter 15, McGonagall scolds her students for being out of bed, adding that “nothing gives [them] the right to walk around school at night especially these days, it’s very dangerous” (emphasis mine). So my question is, why? We don’t have a basilisk wandering the halls, as we do in Chamber of Secrets. No escaped criminal from Azkaban has found a way in the castle. So what gives? What is going on in this book that McGonagall knows about? Do we ever find out? Does she know that there is a traitor in their midst?

Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Malfoy have to serve their detentions… in the Forbidden Forest, chasing something that has slain a unicorn. I ask you what kind of sense this makes? I think Malfoy is actually right to question this punishment, and I wonder what Lucius Malfoy actually would have done had Draco told his father about it. I suspect he would not, as Hagrid claims, have shrugged it off and said that’s how it is at Hogwarts. I realize it’s a plot device for Harry to learn about the centaurs’ predictions and find out that Voldemort is seeking the Philospher’s Stone, but still… it’s a ridiculous detention, especially for a bunch of 11 and 12-year-old students. However, Harry and Hermione do not question their punishment. They feel “they deserved what they’d got.” That said, Harry’s interaction with the centaurs is particularly interesting. Their insistence that “Mars is bright tonight” can be read as their prediction that war is imminent, which, indeed, it is. Ronan adds that “Always the innocent are the first victims… So it has been for ages past, so it is now.” He refers to the onset of war, when atrocities are often committed against the innocent, who are not responsible for the events but are caught in the crossfire. We also learn that the centaurs do not think it is their responsibility to share too much information with humans. Bane accuses Firenze of divulging too much information, saying “we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens.” They are the ultimate bystanders, knowing what is to come, but steadfastly refusing to intervene, even if their information might help. As Hagrid says, “Ruddy stargazers.” Firenze, at least, will not stand for it. He tells Bane, “Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.”

We learn that drinking unicorn blood will “keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenceless to save yourself and you will have but a half life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.” Of course, Voldemort manages to get his body back later, but one wonders what might have been different if he had not chosen to drink unicorn blood. Did that mistake have repercussions he didn’t realize? Is it one of the choices he made that contributed to his ultimate downfall? Obviously, the Elder Wand played a bigger part, but you have to wonder.

Firenze bids Harry farewell, saying he hopes that this is one of the times when the planets have been read wrongly. So what did the centaurs see in the stars? Just that Harry was in peril or that he would die? Did they not see his choice to return from King’s Cross? Well, as Hermione says, “It sounds like fortune-telling to me, and Professor McGonagall says that’s a very imprecise branch of magic.”

Indeed.

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