What is Slithering in the Forest

Firenze suddenly reared on his hind legs in anger, so that Harry had to grab his shoulders to stay on.

“Do you not see that unicorn?” Firenze bellowed at 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.”

The confrontation between Firenze and the other centaurs takes place after the thing that’s lurking in the forest – the thing that’s drinking unicorn blood – stands up and comes straight at Harry Potter. It is, of course, Voldemort, or Quirrellmort (as some like to call him at this stage of his “comeback”). And this is the first encounter between Harry and Voldemort since Voldemort gave Harry his scar.

The sound that “Quirrellmort” makes, curiously enough, is a “slithering” sound, and it is definitely out of place. It doesn’t sound like anything Hagrid has heard before in the Forest. This out-of-place sound appears twice – first, while Harry is with Hagrid and then later when Harry is with Draco. The fact that the sound is “slithering” conjures images of snakes… and reminds us subconsciously (or perhaps not so subconsciously) of Slytherin. And in reminding us of Slytherin, it reinforces the “Slytherin = Evil” notion that Hagrid first introduced to Harry in Diagon Alley.

If we need any more reinforcing, the thing making the slithering sound – Voldemort – is a Slytherin… as is Draco. But Draco is not quite up to the horror of this encounter. In fact, here is how Draco handles this first encounter with his future Lord:

The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, lowered its head over the wound in the animal’s side, and began to drink its blood.

“AAAAAAAAAAARGH!”

Malfoy let out a terrible scream and bolted – so did Fang.

I find Draco’s reaction worth noting. It is easy to assume that it’s simply cowardice… except that Harry (who is hardly a coward) will find his own feet bolted to the Forest floor in fear. In addition, about 6 years from now, Draco will endanger his own life to save Harry and his friends at Malfoy Manor, and will endanger his life to save Gregory Goyle when the Room of Requirement is engulfed in Fiendfyre. So I’m not as certain as I was when I first read this passage that Draco is simply a coward. Surely he’s scared. He’d be a fool not to be. Harry’s scared too. But his response indicates to me that he is more than merely frightened. He is horrified. After all, he watched the cloaked figure slither up to the unicorn. It was only when it began to drink the unicorn’s blood that he let out the cry.

I find this potentially significant because this is the boy who will ultimately find that he is unable to commit murder. And this is his first encounter with the person who will charge him to commit murder. And he is as horrified here as he will later be when Voldemort murders Charity Burbage over the dinner table at Malfoy Manor. In other words, I think that this could very well be our first hint that Draco is not as “bad” as he’d like to believe he is.

And as for Voldemort himself, I find it curious that he’s driven away by Firenze. True, he doesn’t have his full powers. He doesn’t even have his body, and he is reduced to drinking unicorn blood in order to preserve some semblance of life. But still… this is Voldemort himself! The Dark Lord! You Know Who! He Who Must Not Be Named! And he’s slinking – or slithering – around in the Forest and getting chased away by centaurs!

And in this encounter, Harry has his first experience of the blinding pain in his scar. Though he had a flitting pain during the Great Feast at the beginning of term, this is much worse:

The hooded figure raised its head and looked right at Harry – unicorn blood was dribbling down its front. It got to its feet and came swiftly toward Harry – he couldn’t move for fear.

Then a pain like he’d never felt before pierced his head; it was as though his scar were on fire. Half blinded, he staggered backward. He heard hooves behind him, galloping, and something jumped clean over Harry, charging the figure.

The pain in Harry’s head was so bad he fell to his knees. It took a minute or two to pass.

He has never felt anything like this before. And this pain – this connection between Harry and Voldemort – will only grow stronger during the course of the series.

Now, here’s my question about the Voldemort-Quirrell-Harry encounter:

We know (or will soon know) that Quirrell encountered Voldemort during a trip to Albania and allowed the Dark Lord to become his master. Since that trip, he has developed the “stuttering Quirrell” persona – so much so that Hagrid mentions it on their trip to Diagon Alley. This indicates to me that he has probably already taught at least one term since his return. If that’s the case, then did Voldemort time his attempt to steal the Philosopher’s Stone (and gain eternal life in bodily form) to coincide with Harry’s appearance at Hogwarts?

Yes, I know the whole thing is contingent upon encountering Quirrell in Albania. But I mean afterward. If Quirrell has already taught a term, then did Voldemort decide that the time would be right when Harry arrived? Or is this Quirrell’s first term back, and is this actually Voldemort’s first opportunity to resume bodily form, and is it merely coincidental that it all coincides with Harry’s first term at Hogwarts? But let’s not forget… Harry was the target of the attack that murdered his parents. And Voldemort is scared of this boy.

Whatever the case, in their discussion about the properties of unicorn blood, Firenze gives Harry the clues he needs in order to figure out who the hooded figure is and why Harry’s life is in danger – clues that ultimately enable Harry to score his first Hogwarts defeat of Voldemort… and escalate his misinterpretation of Snape’s motives.

6 responses to “What is Slithering in the Forest

  1. “The fact that the sound is “slithering” conjures images of snakes… and reminds us subconsciously (or perhaps not so subconsciously) of Slytherin. And in reminding us of Slytherin, it reinforces the “Slytherin = Evil” notion that Hagrid first introduced to Harry in Diagon Alley.”

    This is a really good point, and I think JKR was definitely going for that reaction here.

    Draco actually has even more reason to be horrified by what he’s seeing than Harry does. Harry doesn’t yet know what unicorn blood is for and how terrible it is to kill a unicorn. Granted, Draco has probably been taught that it’s OK to do whatever it takes to attain a goal, but he may still understand the significance of what he saw the shadowy figure doing.

    “If Quirrell has already taught a term, then did Voldemort decide that the time would be right when Harry arrived? Or is this Quirrell’s first term back, and is this actually Voldemort’s first opportunity to resume bodily form…?”

    I would say the second, actually. I usually shy away from assuming a coincidence has occurred, but in this case, I’d say Voldemort was taking his first opportunity. In GoF, Voldemort claims that he had almost lost hope before Quirrell stumbled upon him “four years ago,” placing the Albania trip shortly before Harry’s first year.

    • “Granted, he’s probably been taught that it’s OK to do whatever…”

      Gah, I wish there was an edit function. This is confusing as is. “He” is Draco here. XD

    • Good point about Draco knowing more about what he’s seeing wrt the unicorn blood than Harry does. Also, Draco’s wand core is a unicorn tail hair.

      I wonder how much of a connection there is between the wizard and the type of magical beast from which the wand core was taken. Harry feels an immediate connection with Fawkes. Of course, Fawkes is not merely a Phoenix. He is THE Phoenix whose tail feather is at the core of Harry’s wand.

      Of course, I don’t imagine Voldemort would have much connection with Fawkes, since he has no connection with much of anything – except Nagini. I suppose the reason the Phoenix wand chose him was because of his gambit for immortality.

      Good point about Quirrell. I wasn’t sure about the chronology (and it’s been awhile since I’ve read GoF). I guess I need to go back and read the “Death Eaters” chapter? (or one of those chapters in the graveyard?)

  2. I really like what you write about Draco here, about the precise moment at which he screams and runs away, and what it suggests.

    • Thanks, arithmancer! It sort of jumped out at me that this was not merely Draco encountering something scary. This was Draco encountering the Dark Lord for the first time… and he didn’t like what he saw at all.

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