Re-Reading Harry Potter: Trelawney’s Not a Fraud

Tea_leaf_readingWhat do you see in this cup? Harry would say, “A load of soggy brown stuff.” Sybill Trelawney gets a bad rap because of all of her supposed inaccurate predictions. Leaving aside the two predictions she made when she was “possessed” by her inner eye, she made a few pretty accurate predictions, some of them in chapter six, “Talons and Tea Leaves.” First, Neville did break that cup. While you could argue it was coincidence or that she had heard about Neville’s clumsiness or perhaps deduced it by observing him in class for a few moments, it is still kind of weird. She told Lavender the thing she’d been dreading would happen on October 16. Lavender found out that day that her rabbit had died. She told Parvati to beware a red-headed man, and Parvati instantly suspected Trelawney meant Ron. Ron was somewhat responsible for Parvati’s bad date with Harry at the Yule Ball (and he was completely responsible for Padma’s). He also drew Lavender Brown’s attention away from Parvati during sixth year when Ron and Lavender dated. She predicted that one of the class would leave them forever around Easter. Hermione dropped the class around Easter. Her record is not actually all that bad. She does make some inaccurate predictions, but on the whole, her record is better than you’d think, especially if you start looking closely and paying attention to what she says.

However, I do absolutely love Professor McGonagall’s reaction to the moroseness in Transfiguration: “‘Ah, of course,’ said Professor McGonagall, suddenly frowning. ‘There is no need to say any more, Miss Granger. Tell me, which of you will be dying this year.'” McGonagall is often at her funniest when she’s responding to Professor Trelawney in some way. “You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in.”

And here a note about some differences between the American and British versions of the series. I like the British versions better. I can’t remember if I mentioned it or not before, but, for example, in the scene at Nearly-Headless Nick’s Deathday Party, when Hermione sees Moaning Myrtle and moves to avoid her, she says, in the American edition, that it’s “awful trying to have a pee with her wailing at you.” In the British edition, the same line is rendered, “it’s awful trying to go to the loo with her wailing at you.” Obviously, the American editors didn’t think American children would be smart enough to deduce what “go to the loo” meant or, Heaven forfend, that they’d look it up. Sigh. I just think it’s out of character for Hermione to say the word “pee.” She would naturally use a more proper term. That line always bothered me for that reason, and after I read the British version, it bothered me more because Hermione didn’t say it. Another case in point happens in chapter six of Prisoner of Azkaban when Hermione says, “The Grim’s not an omen, it’s the cause of death! And Harry’s still with us because he’s not stupid enough to see one and think, right, well, I’d better kick the bucket then!” in the American edition. In the British edition, she says, “The Grim’s not an omen, it’s the cause of death! And Harry’s still with us because he’s not stupid enough to see one and think, right, well, I’d better pop my clogs then!” Way funnier, and I’m not sure why. A lot of the great British diction is removed from the story in the American editions, and as an English teacher who values the choices authors make in their writing, it makes me sad. It may seem like a small difference in that no meaning is changed, but the changes do alter Hermione’s character a bit. She is funnier in British English.

In chapter seven, “The Boggart in the Wardrobe,” we get our first real look at Professor Lupin’s skills as a teacher, and let me say, as a teacher, that I think he’s possibly the best teacher at Hogwarts. He is awesome. First, I love it that he begins with a hands-on, practical lesson. Instead of assigning the chapter for reading first, he engages the class in solving an authentic problem. Then they read the chapter for homework in order to understand the theory. Their reading comprehension and understanding is likely enhanced by their own experience with the boggart. He also ensures that every student in the class participates and ignores Hermione and calls on Harry after Hermione had already answered his first question. You watch. The only other teacher in the series who ignores Hermione and tries to call on another student is Snape. All the other teachers call on her because it is easier to call on the student bouncing out of her seat to answer your questions. It is much harder to identify the student who has something to share and doesn’t, for whatever reason. You learn a lot from those students, and Hermione’s other teachers don’t give other students the opportunity to participate. Lupin’s lessons are also very organized. The students always seem to know what the roadmap for the class will be to the point that they protest when Snape tries to make them skip ahead.

Rowling expertly juxtaposes Lupin’s first lesson next to a description of the Potions lesson in which Snape tries to poison Neville’s toad. If Snape were not so horrible, he would be a great teacher himself. In fact, as I will continue to argue as I finish the series, Harry learns more about how to defeat Voldemort from Snape than from anyone else. Even Dumbledore. The only quibble I really have with Lupin’s lesson is that he asks the students to summarize the chapter. It might be that he is just trying to help them improve their note-taking skills, but I think he could go a little deeper with that assignment. Since I haven’t read the chapter in question, I’m not sure what he might have done with it, but summary is just checking comprehension and is not a very high critical thinking skill.

I actually was interviewed for an Irish radio show about Professor Lupin many years ago. You can list to what I had to say if you like (just click the link, and you can play it in a new tab):

Moncrieff Interview

In chapter eight, “Flight of the Fat Lady,” Harry and Professor Lupin have an interesting conversation about the Boggart class. Lupin is direct with Harry when Harry asks why Lupin didn’t give him a crack at the Boggart. (He didn’t give Hermione one, either… that is curious, no?) Instead of denying he did any such thing, he admits he feared the Boggart would assume the shape of Lord Voldemort. When Harry confesses it would have been a Dementor instead, Lupin says, “Well, well… I’m impressed… That suggests that what you fear most of all is—fear. Very wise, Harry.” Naturally, one thinks of FDR’s speech, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Later when Snape comes in with the Wolfsbane Potion for Lupin to drink, Lupin is very complimentary of Snape’s skills—you never see Snape reciprocate. In fact, he denigrates Lupin in front of his students. Lupin says, “I am very lucky to be working alongside Professor Snape; there aren’t many wizards who are up to making it.” He is grateful in spite of Snape’s outright disrespect. However, it must be noted, Snape makes the potion carefully, and it does ease Lupin’s symptoms while he is at Hogwarts.

In chapter nine, “Grim Defeat,” Hermione notes that it’s lucky that Black picked Halloween to try to break into the Gryffindor Common Room. Ron suggests that Black must have lost track of time, being on the run. I would, of course, submit he chose that night precisely because he knew the students would all be out, and if he could catch Peter Pettigrew, he could do away with the rat with little fuss.

We also meet Cedric Diggory for the first time in this chapter. He is the new captain and Seeker for Hufflepuff, and he famously catches the Snitch before Harry. Possessed of a tremendous sense of fair play, however, he offers to call the game off when he learns that Harry has fallen off his broom, but Hufflepuff won, fair and square. He is a pretty decent person.

Of course, also in the chapter, we see another example of Snape’s meanness when he takes five points from Gryffindor because Hermione is “an insufferable know-it-all.” While on the surface, it’s a horrible thing to say, and it’s completely out of line, I think it might be a misguided attempt on Snape’s part to remind Hermione there are other students in the class. He goes about it in exactly the wrong way, but even Harry says the rest of the class had at one point called Hermione at know-it-all, too. But Ron is right: “You asked a question and she knows the answer! Why ask if you don’t want to be told?” Later on Ron wonders aloud, “Why couldn’t Black have hidden in Snape’s office, eh? He could have finished him off for us!” Once again, Ron is right when he’s only joking around—Black and Snape are enemies, and had they seen each other, a duel likely would have ensued. However, I don’t think Black would have been finishing Snape off. Snape repeatedly shows he is an extremely skilled wizard in this series, and I really don’t think Black would have had a chance, especially not after being in Azkaban for 12 years. He is subtle in his attempt to unmask Professor Lupin as a werewolf, but he’s effective. It’s still a jerk move.

In chapter ten “The Marauder’s Map,” Lupin tells us a great deal about Dementors:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them.

Rowling has said that Dementors were meant to be her description of what depression is like. It’s an apt description.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but there is a mention in this chapter of the match between Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, during which “Ravenclaw flattened Hufflepuff.” Cedric Diggory was the Hufflepuff Seeker, but did you remember who was Seeker for Ravenclaw? Cho Chang. That means that Cho was pitted against both of her Hogwarts boyfriends in Quidditch this year. She wouldn’t face off against both of them again as Quidditch would be canceled for the Triwizard Tournament the next year, and Cedric would die. Harry is a little taken with her charms and almost lets her get one over on him (more on that later when we get to it), but did you ever wonder if maybe Cedric did lose some focus because he was checking her out? I mean, Hufflepuff was flattened, the book says. Cho had to have caught the Snitch. We know that Cedric is a good Quidditch player. It adds up for me, anyway.

As everyone else is in Hogsmeade, Harry is brooding and trying to figure out how to spend his time when Fred and George Weasley gift him with the Marauder’s Map. First of all, why do they give Harry this map? He is really more Ron’s friend than theirs, and this artifact is really valuable to them. Second, how did Fred and George happen upon the right incantation to work this map? Do a number of variations on the phrase, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” work just as well? Or does it have to be that exact phrase? Pottermore does not answer this question, but does mention that the magic involved in its creation was complex and difficult: “it includes the Homonculous Charm, enabling the possessor of the map to track the movements of every person in the castle, and it was also enchanted to forever repel (as insultingly as possible) the curiosity of their nemesis, Severus Snape.” Rowling said in an interview that Harry’s son James later finds the map in his father’s study and sneaked it out. After Harry uses the map to sneak into Hogsmeade, we are treated to this fabulous description of Honeyduke’s:

There were shelves upon shelves of the most succulent-looking sweets imaginable. Creamy chunks of nougat, shimmering pink squares of coconut ice, fat, honey-colored toffees; hundreds of different kinds of chocolate in neat rows; there was a large barrel of Every Flavor Beans, and another of Fizzing Whizzbees, the levitating sherbet balls that Ron had mentioned; along yet another wall were ‘Special Effects’ sweets: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (which filled a room with bluebell-colored bubbles that refused to pop for days), the strange, splintery Toothflossing Stringmints, tiny black Pepper Imps (‘breathe fire for your friends!’), Ice Mice (‘hear your teeth chatter and squeak!’), peppermint creams shaped like toads (‘hop realistically in the stomach!’), fragile sugar-spun quills and exploding bonbons.

I cannot read that passage without wanting to scarf some candy. One thing Rowling has a gift for is food descriptions.

Later in the chapter, of course, Harry overhears that Sirius Black betrayed his parents and was responsible for their deaths when he is listening to Cornelius Fudge, Hagrid, Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, and Rosmerta talking. Cornelius Fudge makes a very accurate observation, though he has confusion about the particulars: “I must say, You-Know-You alone and friendless is one thing … but give him back his most devoted servant, and I shudder to think how quickly he’ll rise again…” And yet, as we know, his inability to acknowledge that what he says he fears in this passage has come to pass causes all sorts of problems and makes it possible for Voldemort to infiltrate the government in a matter of years.

2 thoughts on “Re-Reading Harry Potter: Trelawney’s Not a Fraud

    1. It's part of a series of blog posts written as I re-read Harry Potter and reflected on my observations. I wouldn't necessarily think of it as an article myself. One of the observations I had was that Professor Trelawney actually makes a lot of accurate predictions. Didn't mean to mislead with the title!

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