The Requisite Nicolas Flamel

I’ve found him!” he whispered. “I’ve found Flamel! I told you I’d read the name somewhere before, I read it on the train coming here – listen to this: ‘Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel‘!”

After scouring the library with Ron and Hermione and even going in to the Restricted Section at night under his Invisibility Cloak, Harry finally finds Nicolas Flamel quite by chance on the card of a Chocolate Frog that he gives to Neville. As the Trio learns, Flamel is a famous Alchemist – the only known creator of the Philospher’s Stone, which “will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.”

“A stone that makes gold and stops you from ever dying!” said Harry. “No wonder Snape’s after it! Anyone would want it!”

Well, let’s set aside for a moment the erroneous assumption that Snape is after the stone. How about Nicolas Flamel?

Flamel is the one (off-stage) character in Rowling’s series that has a life outside the pages of her novels. In fact, he’s the one character who actually had a life!

This is a guy who has streets in Paris named after him. Whose tomb stands empty. Who was rumored to have appeared at the Parisian opera as late as 1761. (Can you imagine even Elvis being sighted 350 years after death?)

Flamel remains an obsessive object of popular culture, most recently as the subject of the series The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.

In PS/SS, Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone – and its intersection with the Snape and Quirrell plotlines – will put the Trio on their first major adventure. Next time, we’ll talk a bit more about these intersections. And, of course, Quidditch!

Is Severus Snape a Sociopath?

The LOST Finale just ate my brain! Consequently, at the moment, I’m more equipped to blog on Benjamin Linus than on the “Nicolas Flamel” chapter in PS/SS. So instead of proceeding mechanically with the re-read, how about I answer some simple questions implied by search terms people have used to land on this blog in the past few days?

Search #1: Is Severus Snape a sociopath?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: I am assuming that the person who asked this question knows that Snape kills Dumbledore but does not know how the story ends. But if by some weird chance this person is asking the question after reading the series, I suggest doing a re-read and paying closer attention to what Snape is actually doing… not to how Harry is interpreting it! Seriously!

Severus Snape is a flawed and wounded hero with a tormented past. But he is not a man without conscience. He is a man with a very heightened sense of conscience but no externally manifested affection for Harry Potter. And because Harry is not his favorite person, Harry (who is desperate for affection) always thinks Snape is up to no good. However, Albus Dumbledore has, in fact, essentially made Snape his right-hand man, and trusts him “completely.” And despite appearances to the contrary (i.e. Snape killing Dumbledore), Snape never betrays Dumbledore’s trust.

Being completely trustworthy is not something you would ever be able to say about any sociopath. Hence long answer: Severus Snape is not a sociopath.

Search #2: I open at the close

This is the message Albus Dumbledore inscribed on the first Snitch Harry ever caught in a Quidditch match (against Slytherin, of course). The Snitch responds to the touch of Harry’s lips because Harry caught the Snitch in his mouth, and Snitches respond to the touch of the first person who touched them – i.e. the first person that caught them.

In the broader context of the series, this message is telling Harry that he will be able to access what is hidden in the Snitch (the Resurrection Stone) when the time is right – i.e., when Harry is about to meet Voldemort and sacrifice his life.

Search #3: Silver Doe

The Silver Doe is Severus Snape’s beautiful, light-filled Patronus. It is a partner to Harry’s mother’s Patronus and is an external manifestation of Snape’s light-filled soul. The Patronus is so powerful that Harry recognizes instinctively that it is not a product of Dark Magic and chooses to follow it, despite not knowing who it belongs to and despite the perilous circumstances he’s in. The Patronus leads Harry to the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, which Snape has planted in a frozen pool for Harry to retrieve.

Search #4: Harry Potter – 3 Narrative Techniques

I was sick and tired of the person in the books who wore the glasses was always the brainy one and it really irritated me and I wanted to read about a hero wearing glasses.

It also has a symbolic function, Harry is the eyes on to the books in the sense that it is always Harry’s point of view, so there was also that, you know, facet of him wearing glasses.
J. K. Rowling, 2005

3rd Person Limited: The primary narrative technique used in the Harry Potter series is a close 3rd person point of view (or a 3rd person limited point of view), tied to Harry’s consciousness and perceptions – as Rowling indicates in the quote above. Because Rowling uses this technique throughout over 95% of the series, we rarely know more than Harry knows or see more than Harry sees. Because Harry is sane, however, his perception of other characters’ actions should be taken as accurate. For example, if Harry sees Severus Snape disappearing into the 3rd floor corridor, then the reader can safely assume that Severus Snape literally did go into 3rd floor corridor.

But readers do need to be careful about accepting everything Harry believes to be true. He is often wrong in interpreting motives of characters he dislikes (cf. Snape) – as the ending of PS/SS and as “The Prince’s Tale” demonstrate. The difference here between perceiving actions and interpreting them goes something like this: Severus Snape disappears into the 3rd floor corridor (True) in order to steal the Philosopher’s Stone (False). Since the narrative is coming through Harry’s perception and interpretation, the motive he ascribes to Snape of wishing to steal the Stone is stated in the narrative as if it were fact. But it’s not.

Since we see nearly everything through Harry’s perspective, many readers accept Harry’s interpretations without question. This tendency to accept everything Harry believes to be true is what I will call the “Applied Harry Filter.” The “Applied Harry Filter” does not refer to Harry’s perceptions but to readers’ uncritical acceptance of Harry’s interpretations – even those interpretations that are objectively proven to be false.

I have written more on limited point of view on the CoS Forum. Unfortunately, what I wrote was rather seriously misinterpreted elsewhere on the Forum, where a poster claims that I make the case that we can trust nothing that Harry perceives. It’s like being polyjuiced into a Deconstructionist!

Omniscient Narrator: Omniscient narrator point of view is used in “The Boy Who Lived,” “The Riddle House,” “The Other Minister,” and a couple of Snape-centric chapters – “Spinner’s End” and “The Dark Lord Ascending.” An omniscient narrator provides the reader with information that the lead character is not privy to. JKR’s use of omniscient narrator in the Snape-centric chapters, though, is a great example of misdirection. By choosing to describe these scenes from an omniscient point of view, she shows us Snape acting as a Death Eater while offering us no access to Snape’s thoughts. Because we get no access to Snape’s thoughts, we are unaware that he is actually infiltrating the Death Eaters and working against Voldemort. JKR uses omniscient in these instances to create an impression that is actually the opposite of what is occurring beneath the surface.

Narrative Reliability: Unreliable narrator is not a point of view but is a technique that JKR uses occasionally in what I will call “micro-narrations” (i.e. short first-person trips into having another character tell a story). For instance, in one micro-narration, she has one of Snape’s enemies (Sirius Black) describe Snape as having been quite adept at the Dark Arts before ever arriving at Hogwarts. However, there is no evidence in the text to show that what Sirius says is true. When we actually see Snape’s childhood in “The Prince’s Tale,” there is not only no evidence of an interest in the Dark Arts, there is evidence that he does not want to become the type of person who would ultimately be sent to Azkaban. Sirius’ comments on Snape are not reliable – i.e, they cannot be taken at face value. But this does not mean they are untrue – just unverified by the text and unconfirmed by characters who have more objectivity concerning Snape.

Search #5: Expecto Patronum Significance

“Expecto Patronum” is Latin for “I expect a Protector.” In its most basic sense, it is the spell used to conjure a Patronus and protect a person from the Dementors.

In addition, Expecto Patronum is the name of this blog (which is probably why the user landed on this page). And as a huge fan of LOST, I’m thinking of expanding the blog to include commentary on LOST in light of the Finale.

Thankfully, the name Expecto Patronum can readily cover LOST content as well as Harry Potter content. After all, the Island needs a protector. And the native language of Jacob – the Island protector when Oceanic Flight 815 crashes – is Latin.

It works!

Note: I have reorganized and expanded this post to address some distortions of my points on 3rd person limited that have appeared elsewhere.

Mirror of Desire

Formerly titled ‘Use It Well’

He looked in the mirror again. A woman standing right behind his reflection was smiling at him and waving….

She was a very pretty woman. She had dark red hair and her eyes – her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought, edging a little closer to the glass. Bright green – exactly the same shape, but then he noticed that she was crying; smiling, but crying at the same time. The tall, thin, black-haired man standing next to her put his arm around her. He wore glasses, and his hair was very untidy. It stuck up at the back, just as Harry’s did.

When Harry acquired the Invisibility Cloak, Dumbledore’s note told him to “use it well.” So what is the first thing Harry does with the Cloak? He goes on a solo adventure to try to find out more information about Nicolas Flamel.

Remember, the Trio have convinced themselves that they need to find out about Flamel so that they can stop Snape [sic] from stealing the Philosopher’s Stone. I’m not entirely sure why they think they know more than the adults (well, probably because they are kids, and kids always know more than adults!). But anyway, they do. So Harry steals out of the portrait hole under his Invisibility Cloak and makes his way to the Restricted Section of the Library.

And after a noisy mishap, he finds himself pursued by Filch… and Snape… and ducks into a classroom so they won’t knock into him. And there, he finds the Mirror of Erised, with an inscription reading: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. No, it’s not another language. It’s English backwards and broken up. For example, the first phrase (backwards, from the end of the line) reads: “I show not your face…” I imagine you can figure out the second phrase without assistance.

In the mirror, Harry sees his family for the first time – not just his mother and father but generations back beyond theirs. And as a result of the experience, Harry has “a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.”

The next night, he brings Ron, who sees himself as Head Boy and Quidditch Captain. (In case you couldn’t figure it out, the second phrase reads: “but your hearts desire”). On the third night, he encounters Dumbledore who explains what the mirror does.

The encounter with Dumbledore is important because it shows that the Headmaster has been keeping an eye on Harry (unless, of course, he’s just keeping an eye on the Mirror!), and it’s his first actual interaction with the boy. When Harry plops himself down in front of the mirror on the third night, Dumbledore breaks the silence by asking:

“So – back again, Harry?”

He’s seen Harry here before. Sat here in this very room, invisibly watching Harry gaze into the Mirror. But why might Dumbledore be keeping such a close eye on the boy? Well, aside from the obvious (he’s Harry Potter – the Boy Who Lived – the Boy of the Prophecy), Dumbledore is probably curious about what Harry is going to do with the Cloak. Will he “use it well”?

I’m guessing that Dumbledore would also wish to be there to offer guidance in case Harry starts to go astray. And sure enough…

Even Ron realizes that the Mirror is having an unhealthy effect on his friend. He urges Harry not to go back for the third time. He urges him to play chess! To visit Hagrid! To do anything except sit in front of that mirror!

And in this instance, Ron’s instincts are correct. As Dumbledore explains, the Mirror of Erised (or “Desire”) shows “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Gazing into it has become a sort of “Lotus Eater” experience for Harry. He has forgotten about everything that previously mattered to him – like finding out about Nicolas Flamel (and preventing Snape [sic] from stealing the Stone). As Dumbledore tells Harry:

“… this mirror will give us neither knowledge or 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.”

Harry’s vision of his family gives him neither knowledge nor truth. It is his desire for what his family should be. That doesn’t mean that the people he sees in the Mirror do not resemble his actual family members. But as a boy without a family, Harry not only desperately wishes to know his family, he desperately wishes them to be some idealized version of themselves.

This dynamic plays out for years before Harry finally witnesses Snape’s memories in the “Snape’s Worst Memory” (SWM) chapter of OotP… and discovers that his father was not perfect – that as a teenager at least, he had tendencies toward arrogance and bullying.

In some ways, I think, the Mirror shows us more about Harry than it shows Harry about his family. In showing us the deepest desire of his heart, we can see how this desire plays out during the series, sometimes leading him to make false assumptions about his parents and parental figures. But in order to become a man, Harry will ultimately have to forgive his father and all his other surrogate parents and protectors for their all-too-human imperfections.

To his credit, Harry does take Dumbledore’s advice, and moves on from the Mirror and goes back to finding out what he can about Nicolas Flamel… and to considering how he can prevent Snape [sic] from stealing the Philospher’s Stone.

Harry Potter and the Invisible Man

Something fluid and silvery gray went slithering to the floor where it lay in gleaming folds. Ron gasped.

“I’ve heard of those,” he said in a hushed voice, dropping the box of Every Flavor Beans he’d gotten from Hermione. “If that’s what I think it is – They’re really rare, and really valuable.”

“What is it?”

Harry picked the shining, silvery cloth off the floor. It was strange to the touch, like water woven into material.

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron, a look of awe on his face. “I’m sure it is – try it on.”

The great thing with the Harry Potter series is that the title formula makes it very easy to write bizarro-scenario titles like the one I just wrote. (And if anybody wants to use “Harry Potter and the Invisible Man” for a fanfic, be my guest!)

Even though the Dursleys often treat Harry as if he’s invisible (and even though Severus Snape pretends he’s invisible after Harry witnesses a memory of his father humiliating Snape), Harry Potter never actually does not meet up with a literal Invisible Man in the course of JKR’s series. However, he does acquire an object that gives him invisibility at will. And there are “invisible” men willing to stay in the background as Harry moves to the foreground in the war against Voldemort.

Remember way back in January? We talked in one of the first re-read posts about the comparison between Harry and Cinderella. As a Cinderella figure, Harry has never really experienced a proper Christmas since his parents were killed. And his first Christmas at Hogwarts begins to set things right.

But a little backtracking is in order. When the Trio concludes that Snape tried to kill Harry during the Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match, Hagrid accidentally lets it slip that what Fluffy is guarding is a matter “between Professor Dumbledore an’ Nicolas Flamel.” Naturally, the Trio becomes obsessed with finding out more about Flamel – setting up Harry’s first adventure with the Invisibility Cloak.

In fact, it should be noted that before that adventure, the Trio spends considerable time in the Hogwarts Library looking for Flamel… in all the wrong places. Harry even goes into the Restricted Section, and gets shooed out of the Library entirely by Madam Pince, the Hogwarts Librarian. Whatever possesses them to assume that Flamel is famous, I don’t know. But he is, and they do.

Before we get to Harry’s first Cloak adventure, however, let’s talk more about his first real experience of Christmas and his acquisition of the Cloak.

On Christmas Eve (six years to the day before his nearly fatal visit to his birthplace of Godric’s Hollow), Harry goes “to bed looking forward to the next day for the food and the fun, but not expecting any presents at all.” Instead, when he wakes up in the morning, he is stunned to find that he has a small stack of presents at the foot of his bed.

“Will you look at this?” [Harry exclaims] “I’ve got some presents!”

“What did you expect, turnips?” said Ron.

As it turns out, Harry gets a hand-carved flute from Hagrid, a 50-pence piece from the Dursleys (from which we learn that Muggle money fascinates Ron), a Weasley sweater from Molly Weasley (signaling the beginning of his unofficial adoption into the Weasley family), a box of Chocolate Frogs from Hermione, and the Invisibility Cloak. The Cloak comes with a mysterious note, written in a “narrow, loopy” hand:

Your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well.

A Very Merry Christmas to you.

Since this is a re-read, I am going to assume that we all know that the note is from Albus Dumbledore and that it is his first direct outreach to Harry since Harry arrived at Hogwarts.

The Cloak not only belonged to Harry’s father, but his father inherited it from one of his parents… going all the way back to his ancestor Ignotus Peverell, with whom the Cloak originates, and who is buried not far from Harry’s parents in the graveyard at Godric’s Hollow.

Through Ignotus Peverell, Harry is distantly related to Voldemort (a direct descendent of Ignotus’ older brother Cadmus Peverell, who possessed the Resurrection Stone). The oldest brother, Antioch Peverell, possessed the Elder Wand – which is currently in the possession of Albus Dumbledore.

The reason I have mentioned the Cloak’s background is that I’d like to draw attention to something rather remarkable – the fact that Albus Dumbledore actually returns the Cloak to Harry, even though legend claims that the person who unites the three Hallows will become the Master of Death.

For 10 years, Dumbledore has held two of the Hallows in his possession. But rather than seek out the final Hallow, he instead relinquishes the Hallow that rightfully belongs to another. He could have kept it, and Harry would have been none the wiser. But Dumbledore allows himself to be merely the custodian of the Cloak until he can safely pass it on to Harry, its rightful owner.

Such an action would be remarkable for any Wizard who made a study of the Hallows. It is even more remarkable for Dumbledore, whose youthful fantasies specifically involved uniting the Hallows to create a world ruled by Wizards… or more specifically, by himself and Gellert Grindelwald. Returning the Cloak to Harry shows the  extent to which Dumbledore has turned his back on his past failings.

Though Dumbledore is later fatally tempted by the Resurrection Stone, it’s not through an attempt to unite the Hallows. It’s just a moment of weakness in which he succumbs to the temptation to bring back his dead sister (a point that is indirectly related to the second part of this chapter).

Regardless of Dumledore’s failings, returning the Cloak to Harry shows significant character growth since his sister’s death. In a very real sense, Dumbledore is one “invisible man” in this post’s title – a man willing to remain anonymous, willing to guide Harry from the background, willing to let the boy ultimately move into the spotlight.

The Case of the Bucking Broomstick

Hermione had fought her way across to the stand where Snape stood, and was now racing along the row behind him; she didn’t even to stop to say sorry as she knocked Professor Quirrell headfirst into the row in front. Reaching Snape, she crouched down, pulled out her wand, and whispered a few, well-chosen words. Bright blue flames shot from her wand onto the hem of Snape’s robes.

Okay, kids. Here’s where it starts getting good!

The Halloween and Quidditch chapters are really two parts of the same story, and they’re very much centered around Quidditch.

In the Halloween chapter, Harry receives his Nimbus Two Thousand broom, learns the rules of Quidditch from Gryffindor captain Oliver Wood, and starts practicing with the Gryffindor team.

In the Quidditch chapter, Harry borrows Hermione’s library book (Quidditch through the Ages), has it taken from him by a suspiciously limping Snape, and when Harry tries to get it back, he discovers that Snape’s leg has been mangled by the three-headed dog. The very next day, he is nearly knocked off his broomstick during the Quidditch match against Slytherin – presumably by the Slytherin Head himself.

Harry is primed to be suspicious of Snape because Snape is unfriendly (compared to the far more dangerous Quirrell, who just seems like a good-natured buffoon). When Snape takes the library book, Harry starts to wonder what’s wrong with his leg. When he sees Snape bandaging his leg in the staff room, he jumps to the conclusion that Snape tried to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. He doesn’t bother to consider any alternate possibilities (like perhaps that Snape was trying to protect the stone from the person who actually was trying to steal it) – because Snape is somewhat less than happy to see Potter in the staff room.

Here’s the scene:

Snape and Filch were inside alone. Snape was holding his robes above his knees. One of his legs was bloody and mangled. Filch was handing Snape bandages.

“Blasted thing,” Snape was saying. “How are you supposed to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?”

Harry tried to shut the door quietly, but –

“POTTER!”

Snape’s face was twisted with fury as he dropped his robes quickly to hide his leg. Harry gulped.

“I just wondered if I could have my book back.”

“GET OUT! OUT!

Later, Harry concludes that Snape got his wound on Halloween (a week earlier), trying to steal whatever the dog was guarding… and that he probably also let in the troll. (Actually, Harry would have bet his broomstick that Snape let in the troll. And that would have been one Nimbus Two Thousand down if he’d actually made that bet!).

Now, before we move on to the rest of the logic in this scenario, I’m just very curious about Snape’s leg wound. Obviously, he got it in a confrontation with Fluffy. But on Halloween? On Halloween, he was trotting along after McGonnagall into the girl’s bathroom when Harry and Ron took down the troll. Not only that, but Halloween was a week earlier. Why would his leg still be bloody? Why would he still be needing bandages? Why would the boys only have noticed the limp a week later? And why not have just gone straight to the hospital wing? (Okay. Okay. It’s so he can play Mr. Red Herring, I know!).

Now, as for why Snape would have been so livid… imagine this from Snape’s point of view. Here is a man who never likes to be seen as vulnerable (possibly why he’s trying to heal the leg himself). Then, a student barges in on him in a vulnerable moment. And it’s not just any student. It’s the student who looks almost exactly like James Potter… the guy who humiliated him over and over and over again and exploited his vulnerability during their schooldays. No wonder he was capslock upset. Curiously, though, he did not take any points from Gryffindor.

Now, let’s take a look at the logic from Harry’s point of view. Snape is livid. He’s been “caught” with a mangled leg, taking part in a conversation about how to get past the dog. And he’s conversing with Argus Filch… another person Harry can’t stand. Oddly, I don’t recall Harry ever accusing Filch of aiding and abetting the thief. But logically, if what Harry is saying about Snape is true, then Filch must be an accomplice. Snape has confided in him how he got the wound.

And now we come to poor Hermione. At first, Hermione takes the logical stance – i.e. that even if Snape is “not very nice,” he “wouldn’t try to steal something Dumbledore was keeping safe.” (Ron, of course, would put nothing past Snape).

What I find curious is that the very next day at the Quidditch match, when Hermione scans the crowd for evidence of a hex on Harry’s broomstick, she notices that Snape has eye contact and that his lips are moving non-stop… but she stops right there. Why? Well, actually, she tells us. She had a preconceived notion of who was hexing the broomstick before she even looked:

“I knew it,” Hermione gasped, “Snape – look.”

The fact that she already knew it was Snape is probably why she stopped scanning the second she got to Snape. One wonders what Hermione would have seen real culprit Quirrell doing if she had bothered to continue scanning the stands near Snape.

The irony of the scenario is that when Hermione rushes in to light Snape’s robes on fire, she breaks Quirrell’s eye contact (knocking him into another row)… and thus helps Harry get control of his broom. Snape’s lips were moving because he was muttering the countercurse that was keeping Harry from getting killed.

At the Quidditch match, hyper-logical Hermione makes the illogical leap that the hex must be Snape’s… apparently because the boys have primed her to believe that it’s Snape’s. And from this moment, Snape not only becomes the Trio’s only suspect, but Harry never overcomes his general suspicions about the Potions Master, even after he finds out how wrong his suspicions have been.

So… how is it that Hermione (of all people) reached such a strong conclusion on such flimsy evidence? Was she trying to get in good with the boys?

And when did Snape injure his leg? And if it happened on Halloween, why did it take the Trio so long to notice his injury?

Halloween

I could get snarky and give the following summary of the next couple of chapters:

Quidditch Quidditch Quidditch Quidditch Quidditch
Hermione! Feast! (quirrell) Troll! SNAPE!!!! Hermione! Troll!!!!! McGonnagall-SNAPE!!!!!!!!!!-(quirrell)
Quidditch Quidditch Quidditch Quidditch Quidditch
Bucking Broomstick (quirrell) SNAPE!!!!!!!!!!!! Hermione!!!
Quidditch! Snitch! Caught!

But I won’t. Instead, let’s talk about Halloween.

Halloween 1981. Probably the most important event in the series occurs on this Halloween – the murder of James and Lily Potter. With their murder, Harry Potter was orphaned, he acquired his scar (which is not merely a scar – but a piece of Voldemort’s soul), and as a result he became the “Chosen One” – the only one capable of destroying Voldemort.

But in addition to the impact on Harry, the deaths of Lily and James compelled a despairing Severus Snape to devote the remainder of his life to helping Dumbledore protect the Potter boy… and drove Wormtail to frame Harry’s godfather Sirius for the “murder of Peter Pettigrew” and a street filled with Muggles. Basically, this is the day that changed the lives of several of the major players.

Halloween 1991. Ten years after his parents’ murder, Harry spends his first Halloween at Hogwarts. At this point in the series, there’s no indication that Harry is aware that his parents’ deaths occurred on October 31. The Halloween Feast, though, is ruined by Quirrell’s famous “Troll in the Dungeons” announcement. Harry and Ron save Hermione from the troll, who has gone into the girl’s bathroom – thus starting the Trio’s friendship.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to keep an eye on Quirrell and head him off at the Philosopher’s Stone, Severus Snape goes into the corridor where Fluffy is guarding something. For his efforts, his Fluffy mangles his leg, awakening Harry’s suspicions of Snape.

Halloween 1992. Harry and the Trio are asked by Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor ghost, to come to his 500th Death Day Party. Harry hears a voice (actually, the Basilisk speaking Parseltongue), and the Trio come face-to-face with the first attack by the “Heir of Slytherin.”

Halloween 1993. Harry is not allowed to go to the first Hogsmeade weekend. Instead, he has tea with Professor Lupin. When Snape brings Lupin his Wolfsbane Potion, Snape becomes suspicious of Lupin having Harry alone with him – fearing that Lupin is trying to hand Harry over to his school friend, the escaped “murderer” Sirius Black.

During the Halloween Feast, Sirius attacks the portrait of the Fat Lady, trying to force his way into Gryffindor Tower. In doing so, Sirius ends up wrongly confirming Snape’s suspicions about Lupin. Sirius’ actual co-conspirator is Hermione’s cat!

Halloween 1994. Harry’s name comes out of the Goblet of Fire, making him the fourth champion in the Triwizard Tournament.

In later years, Halloween is not so clearly delineated. We don’t know exactly what happens on Halloween during the Umbridge era. All we know is that during the weekend after Halloween, Harry and the Weasley twins get a “lifetime ban” from Quidditch. What happens in 1996 and 1997 is something of a mystery.

Harry finally gets a good look at Halloween 1981 on December 24/25, 1997 – after his ill-fated trip to Godric’s Hollow. Nagini’s bite, and Harry’s subsequent delirium, cause him to “see” the attack on through Voldemort’s eyes.

So… why Halloween?

Fluffy and the Gates of Hell

They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling, mad eyes; three noses, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs.

It was standing quite still, all six eyes staring at them, and Harry knew that the only reason they weren’t already dead was that their sudden appearance had taken it by surprise, but it was quickly getting over that, there was no mistaking what those thunderous growls meant.

In the second episode of the “Midnight Duel” chapter, Draco Malfoy has challenged Harry to, well, what the title indicates – a Wizard Duel, at midnight. Though Harry is worried about pressing his luck by breaking another school rule, he keeps seeing “Malfoy’s sneering face… looming up out of the darkness”… and knows he can’t pass up the opportunity to “beat Malfoy face-to-face.”

Of course, Malfoy doesn’t show up. But he does seemingly let Filch, the caretaker, know that some students will be in the Trophy Room at midnight. In the ensuing chase, Harry and company enter the forbidden 3rd floor corridor and discover the monstrous three-headed dog.

There’s plenty of character development in this episode:

  • Malfoy proves as cowardly as he is malicious.
  • Harry (no matter what) cannot back down.
  • Ron is impulsive and quick-tempered (in fact, he’s the one who speaks up for Harry when Malfoy makes the challenge).
  • Hermione goes into control-freak mode and decides that she just has to prevent the boys from losing Gryffindor any more points… and so follows them out of the portrait hole, “hissing at them like an angry goose.”
  • Neville, again, cannot remember something (in this case, the password), and so has been stuck outside Gryffindor Tower for hours.

Once the adventure starts, neither Hermione nor Neville can return to Gryffindor because he Fat Lady has left her portrait. So instead of two Gryffindors and two Slytherins meeting up in the Trophy Room, there are four Gryffindors (two of whom are not at all happy to be there) and no Slytherins – acting as sitting ducks for Filch and his cat Mrs. Norris.

Of course, the ensuing chase leads Harry and company to flee into the forbidden third floor corridor… and discover the monstrous three-headed dog.

Since JKR was trained in the classics we should assume, of course, that some Greek and Latin myth will wind their way into her tale. The description of the dog is one her first forays into all-out classical myth.

In fact, the three-headed dog is one of the more memorable images from the classics and Western Civilization in general. It alludes to Cerberus – the guardian dog of Hades – whom Hercules must retrieve during his final labor. But beyond the labors of Hercules, Cerberus also makes a memorable appearance in Dante’s Inferno, as a tormentor of damned spirits in Hell:

Cerberus, a beast fierce and hideous, with three throats barks like a dog over the people that are immersed there; he has red eyes, a beard greasy and black, a great belly, and clawed hands, and he scars and flays and rends the spirits. The rain makes them howl like dogs, and the profane wretches often turn themselves, of one side making a shelter for the other.

When Cerberus, the great worm, perceived us, he opened his mouths and showed us the fangs, not one of his limbs keeping still, and my Leader [Virgil] spread his hands, took up earth, and with full fists threw it into the ravenous gullets. As the dog that yelps for greed and becomes quiet when it bites its food, being all absorbed in struggling to devour it, such became these foul visages of the demon Cerberus, who so thunders at the souls that they would fain be deaf.

The way JKR draws the dog has many echoes of Dante’s description. The three-headed dog, then, has overtones of the Hound of Hell (despite Hagrid’s naming the poor misunderstood creature “Fluffy”). And given that symbolism, we could argue (as I would imagine John Granger does) that what’s underneath the trap door is some sort of Underworld – the Hades of Hogwarts, if you will – and that this Underworld is one into which Harry must descend in order to succeed in his first confrontation with Voldemort.

Regardless of Underworld symbolism, meeting up with Fluffy is very decidedly not a good thing. Though our heroes escape, through sheer dumb luck, the dog will later nearly rip Severus Snape’s leg right off.

Still, meeting up with the dog does set up the major plot that will play out through the rest of the story. As Hermione points out when they (successfully) make their way back to Gryffindor Tower, that dog was not just standing there. It was standing on top of a trap door. It was guarding something. Harry and Ron, and soon Hermione, will be speculating on what that dog is guarding – and conclude that it’s the package that Hagrid retrieved from Gringotts, the titular Philospher’s Stone. And eventually, they will brew wild fantasies about how Snape [sic] is trying to steal the Stone.

Their attempt to prevent that outcome will lead to their first adventure together to save the Wizarding World… and their first lesson that appearances may not always be quite what they seem.