Quidditch… through the Ages

Everyone from wizarding families talked about Quidditch constantly. Ron had already had a big argument with Dean Thomas, who shared their dormitory, about soccer. Ron couldn’t see what was exciting about a game with only one ball where no one was allowed to fly. Harry had caught Ron prodding Dean’s poster of West Ham soccer team, trying to make the players move.

We’ve gotten to Hogwarts. We’ve met the main characters. Now it’s time for some Wizarding Sport!

“The Midnight Duel” is really a transitional chapter between the “establishing” detail of earlier chapters and the main Hogwarts plot. It picks up on hints about Quidditch from earlier chapters and propels the Quidditch subplot forward… and spends most of the chapter developing the Gryffindor/Slytherin rivalry.
(and with that, I’m done with writing a thesis statement for a blog post!)

A Bit about Quidditch

The intro to this chapter really gives the reader a feel for the significance of Quidditch in the Wizarding World. All the kids are talking about it. Neville is terrified of flying. Hermione, of course, is trying to learn how to fly by reading a book. And Harry is afraid of making a fool of himself in front of Draco Malfoy during the upcoming Flying Lessons.

Hermione’s book, taken from the library, is called Quidditch through the Ages. In his Foreword to a Muggle edition of the book, Albus Dumbledore writes:

Quidditch through the Ages is one of the most popular titles in the Hogwarts school library. Madam Pince, our librarian, tells me that it is “pawed about, dribbled on, and generally maltreated” nearly every day – a high compliment for any book.

The book itself describes the history of Quidditch – the origins of flying by broom, racing brooms, the history of flying broom games, the development and historical changes to the game, the origin of the seeker’s Golden Snitch, as well as the various teams of Britain, Ireland, and abroad. It is a quite comprehensive history of the Wizarding Sport – all crammed in to about 56 densely packed pages.

Unfortunately, you can’t learn much about actually flying out of a book, no matter how helpful the tips. So Hermione doesn’t get much benefit out of the text. Harry Potter though – who we soon learn is a natural flyer – will later learn plenty from the book. About Quidditch, not how to fly.

Gryffindor vs. Slytherin

While Quidditch may be one of the main topics of the chapter, the Gryffindor/Slytherin rivalry is really at the chapter’s foundation:

  • Flying Lessons: Gryffindor 1st years take flying lessons with Slytherin first years.
  • Harry vs. Draco: The most prominent 1st year boy in Gryffindor faces off – multiple times in this chapter – against the most prominent 1st year boy in Slytherin.
  • McGonnagall vs. Snape: The Gryffindor Head of House is willing to bend the rules (re: 1st years not owning racing brooms or playing on the House Quidditch teams) specifically in order to show up the Slytherin Head of House.

We know that the rivalry dates all the way back to Godric Gryffindor and Salazar Slytherin themselves – the two male founders of Hogwarts – and that it is currently embodied in the battle for the future of the Wizarding World between Albus Dumbledore (Gryff) and Lord Voldemort (Slythie).

Yet Hogwarts insists on putting these two bitter rival Houses together in Double Potions and Flying Lessons and even Care of Magical Creatures… yet they can seemingly never get along. What’s the purpose of forcing them together?

My personal theory is that these are the dominant Houses, and it’s for the well-being of the other Houses. Can you imagine putting the poor Hufflepuffs in Double Anything with either Gryffindors or Slytherins?

Ravenclaws might hold their own – particularly from an intellectual standpoint – but the Hufflepuffs would, I think, just wither away. Better to put them with the Ravenclaws and let the Gryffs and Slythies fight it out amongst themselves.

If anybody has a better theory, I’d love to hear it!

Asphodel, Wormwood, Bezoars, and Aconite

“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.

“I don’t know, sir.” said Harry.

Well, now the fun begins.

I was not involved in Potter fandom during all those years of speculation about Snape’s true nature, his motives, or his loves. I missed the pre-DH Snape Wars. I missed the Sev/Lily ship. I missed it all. So when I read Harry’s first classroom encounter with Professor Snape, it just looked like Snape was singling out and taunting Harry with questions about things the poor kid couldn’t possibly know about.

But that’s not what some people who’ve spent years reading and thinking about this passage have gotten out of it.

First, let me mention the parts I do “get” without any outside assistance:

  • I get that the bezoar foreshadows Slughorn’s accidental poisoning of Ron Weasley, when Harry takes the Half-Blood Prince’s suggestion just to shove a bezoar down his friend’s throat.
  • I get that monkshood/wolfsbane/aconite foreshadows the arrival of Lupin as DADA professor during Harry’s third year.
  • I get that Snape only takes takes single points from Harry on this first encounter – despite Harry’s impression that Snape really hates him. (Admittedly, the second point Snape takes is unfair)
  • And I, of course, get why Hagrid won’t look Harry in the eye when he says that Snape has no reason to hate him.

But then there’s asphodel and wormwood, which – from what I have gathered – is one of the original foundations of the Sev/Lily ship. Here’s what Iggy wrote recently on the CoS Forum about Snape’s asphodel and wormwood question:

There were a few hints or things that made people consider [Sev/Lily]. In Snape’s first Potions class, he talks about the combination of two ingredients, Asphodel and Wormwood. Wormwood is a very bitter root, and Asphodel is a type of lily. Snape says these two create the Draught of Living Death, and in DH, there are a few instances where Snape’s eyes suggest he’s, to use a somewhat melodramatic phrase, dead inside.

Another commenter here, Judith, was kind enough to leave a link in a comments thread to a post she wrote several months before the publication of DH, in which she argues that…

Asphodel symbolically means death, esp. death of someone beloved to the person who offers asphodel. Asphodel is also a lily. Wormwood symbolically means bitter sorrow. So in essence, Snape is asking Harry if he knows what death wrapped in bitter sorrow is. Or put another way, he might be trying to tell Harry that he loved her and that he bitterly regrets Lily’s death.

Harry, of course, ignorant of not just the wizarding world, but of symbolism, feels the clue-by-four whizz over his head and begins to wonder why Snape appears to be singling him out for abuse.

Snape, of course, feels Harry (whose mother was a Potions prodigy) is being remarkably obtuse and/or possibly spurning his carefully couched condolences.

Additionally, I have discovered this rather extensive blog post on the Asphodel and Wormwood theory.

In essence, what these interpretations tell us is that it’s possible that Snape is not taunting Harry at all, but is rather giving him symbolic information, possibly even condolences on the loss of his mother.

So for those of you who have spent considerably more time in thinking about this passage than I have, I would love to hear your perspectives on Snape’s first interrogation of Harry… and on asphodel and wormwood. What was he really trying to accomplish in this encounter? Was he trying to put Harry in his place? Or was he trying to accomplish something else? Or both?

And with that, we will next turn to Chapter 9, “The Midnight Duel.”

The Poet Master

Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.
– Minerva McGonnagall to 1st year Gryffindors, 1991


You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potions-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. . . . I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.
– Severus Snape, to 1st year Gryffindors and Slytherins, 1991

Minerva McGonnagall and Severus Snape are my favorite Heads of House, and their introductions to their first year students are remarkably telling.

McGonnagall’s method of communicating is stern, no-nonsense, straightforward, and to the point. In her opening remarks, there are no introductory phrases, no subordination, no compound sentences. The only coordination she uses serves to connect a couple of adjectives or a couple of verbs.

Lost yet? I hope not because we are about to make a short leap into explication…

Sound

Severus Snape, on the other hand, uses a variety of rhetorical devices in his introduction – from complex and periodic sentences to alliteration, assonance, consonance, and even rhythm. The man could be a rhetorician or a poet were he not a Potions Master.

Ironically, when Snape tries to rhyme, it comes out doggerel:

Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead…

But when, unrhymingly, he illustrates his devotion to Potions, something different happens. He begins to use poetic devices far more sophisticated than mere mechanical rhyme.

Notice that in his introduction to Potions, there is a near constant stream of l and s sounds flowing through the passage – a combination of “liquid” and “sibilant” sounds, emulating the liquids being brewed in Potions and the simmering sound of the heat used to brew them.

Snape’s Liquids: learn, subtle, little, will, hardly, believe, really, softly, cauldron, delicate, liquids, bottle, glory, usually

Initial (or nearly-initial) Sibilants (in substantive words): subtle, science, softly, simmering, ensnaring, stopper

Since liquids – literal, not phonetic ones – are the subject of this speech, it is rather appropriate that phonetic liquids fall into varying positions in the words, flowing over Snape’s syllabic boundaries, just as literal liquids flow over physical boundaries. The sibilants, on the other hand, tend to alliterate – i.e. fall at the beginnings of words.

There are also a good number of “stop” sounds in this passage (p, t, k, b, d, g). It may be a bit of a stretch, but thematically, stops phonetically parallel the “stopper” Snape claims he can put in death – one that he literally puts in place to arrest Dumbledore’s inevitable death shortly before HBP begins.

Initial Stops (in substantive words):
b/p words: believe, bewitching, bottle, brew, big, bunch, Potions-making, power
g/k words: glory, cauldron, creep
d/t words: delicate, death, dunderheads, teach

The reason I put certain stops together (such as b/p) is that you use the same shape of your mouth to form the sounds. Try it, and determine what you do differently to make the two consonants in these pairs sound different.

Sense

Of course, sound can serve non-sense. Therefore, it is the sense of Snape’s words that matters most. And what he tells his students in this short passage is that Potions-making requires a subtle mind, precision, patience, and some measure of creativity. It is not big, brash, bold. It requires brains, not brawn.

In this mixed Potions class of Gryffindors and Slytherins, it fits less with the Gryffindor sensibility and possibly more with his own Slytherin preferences. But he apparently has little hope even for the Slytherins in his class, lumping Gryffs and Slythies alike into the probable category of “dunderheads.”
(One wonders what he tells his Ravenclaws.)

Essentially, he is saying that much benefit can come to the student who perfects this art/science – as he did (and as Harry’s mother did).

In her book Bring forth the best robes: a spiritual understanding of Severus Snape, Logospilgrim provides a mystical reading of this passage, taking it apart as a poetic description of deep prayer. I don’t expect that Snape is consciously describing prayer. But the worshipful language he uses about Potions-making certainly makes logospilgrim’s interpretation worth checking out.

‘Our New Celebrity’

“There, look”
“Where?”
“Next to the tall kid with the red hair.”
“Wearing the glasses?”
“Did you see his face?”
“Did you see his scar?”

Whispers followed Harry from the moment he left his dormitory the next day. People lining up outside classrooms stood on tiptoe to get a look at him, or doubled back to pass him in the corridors again, staring. Harry wished they wouldn’t, because he was trying to concentrate on finding his way to classes.

Remember the scene in the Leaky Cauldron, when Tom the bartender, Dedalus Diggle, and all the pubs’ patrons form a spontaneous line to shake Harry’s hand? Well, Hogwarts is Leaky magnified a few hundredfold.

Doris Crockford may have come through that Leaky line a bundle of times, but imagine hundreds of her, lining the halls at Hogwarts to get a glimpse, doubling back to pass and goggle Harry a second time. And as if that’s not bad enough, imagine going in to Professor Flitwick’s Charms class, and have the guy fall over with excitement!

At the start of their first class [Professor Flitwick] took the roll call, and when he reached Harry’s name he gave an excited squeak and toppled out of sight.

It’s unnerving enough to have your schoolmates treat you as a celebrity, but to have your Professor react this way?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love Flitwick, and the incident is kind of endearing. And we will find in general that every time this man gets excited, he gets a little squeaky.

But imagine this scene from Harry’s perspective. The poor kid is at a new school, having to find his classes while dealing for the first time with ghosts, a poltergeist, stairways that won’t stand still, pictures that move and talk, students lining the corridors to get a look at him… and then he gets to watch his Charms Professor fall over from excitement at the mere mention of his name. It just has to be unnerving.

Professor Snape can’t help but sardonically mock all the attention at the start of the first class Harry ever has with him:

Snape, like Flitwick, started the class by taking the roll call, and like Flitwick, he paused at Harry’s name.

“Ah, yes,” he said softly, “Harry Potter. Our new – celebrity.”

I know Snape gets a bad rap for this line. But he does nicely sum up the absurdity of all the attention this unproven child is getting. And to be getting it over something that the child really is not responsible for (i.e. surviving the Killing Curse) just makes it snark fodder all the more.

Had Snape let Harry in on the joke rather than make him the butt of it, this moment might not have become the first in a long string of missed opportunities between these two.

And had Snape bothered to find out that Harry found his celebrity equally absurd (rather than assume that he enjoyed all the attention as his father would have (cf. “The Prince’s Tale”)), these two might have come to an understanding that did not first require Snape’s horrific death.

I know. In. My. Dreams.

And speaking of the Potions Master, MinervasCat on the Chamber of Secrets Forum gave this rather nice, succinct character analysis of Severus Snape (across the seven books) this morning.

Cheers, MC!

Moving towards ‘The Potions Master’

I guess this blog proves that you can write about Harry Potter for a few months, slowly build an audience, and then the second you write about Severus Snape… BAM! The blog explodes.

The other day, Severus Snape finally made his first appearance onstage in this re-read. It wasn’t, however, his first appearance on this blog. In fact, I started the blog right after finishing my first read of the series, while I was trying to unravel my feelings about Snape and Dumbledore. But at that time, the blog had no audience.

What happened the other day, though, is that visits to the blog suddenly exploded exponentially. Yes, the comments thread exploded too, but the comments were all from a group of Snape fans that I already knew and had invited to come on by and take a look at the post. That group of fans cannot account for the hundreds of visits the blog has since received beyond its normal audience level.

In the comments thread, by the way, arithmancer made a good point about an aside I made concerning Snape being Head of Slytherin:

“Oh, and of course, Harry also knows that Snape is the head of Slytherin House.”

Yes, I do think this is a part of Harry’s reasoning [in assuming that Snape is the villain] (if we shall charitably call it so), and the thought process Rowling hopes her readers will follow. We’ve had Hagrid revealing all the bad wizards come from that House, including, specifically, Voldemort. We’ve met Draco, the unpleasant little snob, who wants that House and gets Sorted into it, and seen Harry ask not to end up in this house. By the end of this chapter, we are shown Harry making this chain of associations in a dream, from Slytherin to Draco, to Snape, to Voldemort (though he does not at the time know it himself, as he does not remember whose laughter it is he hears and what the green light signifies):

“Harry told the turban he didn’t want to be in Slytherin; it got heavier and heavier; he tried to pull it off but it tightened painfully — and there was Malfoy, laughing at him as he struggled with it — then Malfoy turned into the hook-nosed teacher, Snape, whose laugh became high and cold — there was a burst of green light and Harry woke, sweating and shaking.”

Heck, I fell for it when I first read this book (mostly because by the time Hermione “saw” Snape trying to kill Harry, I had decided I was reading *that* sort of children’s series.)

Yes, never underestimate the power of suggestion… and beyond that, the power of suggestion from dreams you don’t even remember!

The real villain in the “turban-as-sorting-hat” dream is actually underneath that turban, but in his dream, Harry morphs Draco into Snape and then Snape into Voldemort’s laugh – along with the green light of the Avada Kedavra curse that gave Harry the very same scar that burned when Snape first looked at him.
(It was actually burning, of course, because of what was underneath that turban.)

Harry’s unconscious mind is connecting Snape with Voldemort. And even though that association would have been true a little over a decade earlier (when Snape was a Death Eater), it is very far from true now.

Harry’s dream closes the chapter and leads in to the first chapter that is actually named after Snape – “The Potions Master.” And that is where we will pick up in a couple of days. But until then, here’s some silly Snape humor. LET’S DANCE!

The Look That Launched a Thousand Flames

Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes – and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.

“Ouch!” Harry clapped a hand to his head.

“What is it?” asked Percy.

“N-nothing.”

The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had gotten from the teacher’s look – a feeling that he didn’t like Harry at all.

Straight into Harry’s Eyes

This post is one of the scariest of all posts to write, but being a Gryffindor, I will try to ignore the fact that the comments thread could explode into vituperative rants and the entire blogosphere could fly apart into billions of tiny pieces. I will be brave. I must.

The reason this post is so potentially explosive is that the sallow-skinned Professor’s look right here, in this scene, launched a battle that has been raging ever since. Even the fact that this man looks straight into Harry’s eyes could be the spark that ignites the flames that destroy us all! And if you think I’m kidding… just take a look at some of this morning’s discussion (yes, that is me posting as ccollinsmith)!

(A word to first-time-Potter-readers: You can still move away from this page right now, before it becomes highly spoilerific!).

The opinion that Harry forms right here, in this scene, is the one that stays with some fans forever – long after Harry has moved on, gotten over it, and even… gasp!… named his child after this man.

The hook-nosed Professor is, of course, Severus Snape, who will be the seeming villain all throughout PS/SS. In actuality, he is “Mr. Red Herring,” and in this scene he first lays eyes on “Mr. Love-Me-Or-I’ll-Think-You’re-Evil” Harry Potter.

Now, I love Harry. Don’t get me wrong. But in the course of this book, Harry will take Snape’s coldness and spin out of it a wild fantasy of horrific misdeeds – of working to steal the Philosopher’s Stone in order to return Lord Voldemort fully to life.

Now mind you, Harry knows nothing of Snape’s past – nothing of Snape having been one of the Dark Lord’s Death Eaters, nothing of Snape’s role in the deaths of his parents, nothing of Snape’s subsequent deep and abiding loyalty to Albus Dumbledore, nothing of his hard work behind the scenes to protect Harry Potter. All he knows is that Snape appears to hate him, and therefore he must be eeevol!!! Murderously so.

Oh, and of course, Harry also knows that Snape is the head of Slytherin House.

When Snape looks into Harry’s eyes and Harry feels the sharp pain in his scar, Harry concludes that the pain must come from Severus Snape. The logic running through Harry’s mind goes something like this: If Professor Snape looks at me and if I then feel pain, the pain must come from Professor Snape’s look.

That’s called a “post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy” (for anyone keeping score) – or a “post hoc fallacy” for short. What it means is that the person committing the fallacy confuses sequence with cause. That is, if x occurred before y, then x must have caused y. As Hermione will say later in this book, “Most wizards don’t have an ounce of logic.” Harry’s conclusions about Snape in PS/SS illustrate that point quite beautifully.

And how about that look? Severus Snape has never seen Harry before. But he did hear on the day that Harry’s mother died that the boy who lived had her eyes. Also on that day, he swore to protect the boy, in order to honor the mother’s sacrifice. (uh-oh… the “obsession chorus” is about to start!)

Here, Snape finally sees the boy he has vowed to protect, and see if there is something of the mother in him. And of course what he sees is that ZOMG!!! THE BOY HAS HIS FATHER’S FACE!!! It’s a miracle that he didn’t throw his resignation at Albus Dumbledore right there on the spot and fly shrieking from Hogwarts Castle as fast as Gilderoy Lockhart would run if confronted by a monster!

But I’m getting ahead of the story… and Snape is after all no snivelling coward – despite the humiliating nickname Harry’s dad gave him as a boy.

At any rate, Snape begins his relationship with Harry by looking straight into the boy’s eyes, and he will end his life looking straight into this boy’s eyes – thus bookending what Harry Potter will ultimately acknowledge to have been one of the most important relationships in the course of his life.

Because of the huge mistakes both characters make in understanding each other, the tension that rises between them over the course of seven years, and the conclusions Harry ultimately draws about his most hated Professor, we will be keeping a very close watch on the development of the Snape-Harry relationship.

Let the flames begin!

Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!

Albus Dumbledore had gotten to his feet. He was beaming at the students, his arms opened wide, as if nothing could have pleased him more than to see them all there.

“Welcome!” he said, “Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”

You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to write that!

“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” is perhaps my favorite line in all seven books (and people say Snape gets all the good lines!). An entire essay is devoted to these words at The Hogwarts Professor. An essay is devoted to them at The Leaky Cauldron. Multiple threads are devoted to them on the Chamber of Secrets Forums. But of course, nobody is closer to knowing today what he meant by those words than they did in 1997 when the book was published.

And I do not intend to try my hand at interpreting them! I just wish to celebrate the strangeness that is Albus Dumbledore (okay, and maybe analyze him a little too)… as did students at the Welcoming Feast of 1991:

He sat back down. Everybody clapped and cheered. Harry didn’t know whether to laugh or not.

“Is he – a bit mad?” he asked Percy uncertainly.

“Mad?” said Percy airily. “He’s a genius! Best wizard in the world! But he is a bit mad, yes. Potatoes, Harry?”

We have met Dumbledore only briefly before, when he laid Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep. We met his accomplishments in passing when Harry opened the card in the Chocolate Frog. But now, we meet Albus Dumbledore in his element – at Hogwarts, where he serves as Headmaster of this venerable institution.

And we immediately learn that he’s perhaps a bit more eccentric than just lemon drop would indicate! Later during the Feast, that point is reinforced by his mode of conducting the school song. Dumbledore instructs the students to pick any melody they wish, and then he conducts a presumed cacaphony of melodies on the single set of words.

Nobody reading this scene for the first time is going to see any significance in the wand he’s using to conduct the school song. But the wand does have significance. It is presumably the wand that Dumbledore mastered in 1945 when he defeated Gellert Grindelwald. It is the Elder Wand, the Death Stick, the first of the Deathly Hallows.

At this point in Dumbledore’s story, we know next to nothing of his past – and we will know next to nothing of it until the final book. But there was a time in Dumbledore’s life when he sought the Hallows with Gellert Grindelwald, in order to create Wizard dominance over Muggles “for the greater good.” He has spent his life training up wizards as a sort of penance for his short, but catastrophic, trip into the Dark Arts.

In the small piece of fiction that I recently wrote for the Elder Wand contest (I won’t belabor you with the link yet again!), I imagined what might have been going through Dumbledore’s mind as he conducted the school song with this extremely powerful and often murderous wand:

The Elder Wand! If only Gellert could see it – really see his “Deathstick” – conduct a room of schoolchildren in song! The incongruous image alone was sufficient for Albus to continue the practice, no matter how disapproving the fixed stares of Minerva and Severus. Using the Wand for such mundane, even eccentric, pursuits helped diminish its power, especially over him, and render the dormant cancer benign.

And it had been a cancer, the consuming desire for power and Hallows, that had gripped him during Gellert’s summer in Godric’s Hollow. His friend’s rise, his pursuit of the Wand, his murderous reign – all of it had started there, with Albus at his side.

Before writing the story, I hadn’t really given much thought to the school song (and even less to the wand Dumbledore uses to conduct it). I just thought that the scene was very funny. But in the “King’s Cross” chapter of DH, Dumbledore tells Harry that he was allowed to “tame” the Elder Wand. In fleshing out the scenario for the story, it occurred to me that one of the ways in which Dumbledore “tamed” the wand was by putting it to such incongruous uses as this. It is a far cry from a “Death Stick” to a conductor’s baton.

I have no doubt that in many ways, Albus Dumbledore was a highly eccentric man. But much of the eccentricity seems cultivated, a front to hide his more strategic, calculating inner self. At the same time, I consider him an essentially benevolent and deeply good man… despite being a ruthless wartime general.