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.


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.

Centaurs of the Forest

“Hullo, Bane,” said Hagrid. “All right?”

“Good evening, Hagrid, I hope you are well?”

“Well enough. Look, I’ve jus’ bin askin’ Ronan, you seen anythin’ odd in here lately? There’s a unicorn bin injured – would yeh know anythin’ about it?”

Bane walked over to stand next to Ronan. He looked skyward.

“Mars is bright tonight,” he said simply.

“We’ve heard,” said Hagrid grumpily. “Well, if either of you do see anythin’, let me know, won’t yeh? We’ll be off, then.”

Harry and Hermione followed him out of the clearing, staring over their shoulders at Ronan and Bane until the trees blocked their view.

“Never,” said Hagrid irritably, “try an’ get a straight answer out of a centaur. Ruddy stargazers. Not interested in anythin’ closer’n the moon.”

Centaurs, as everybody knows, are horse on the bottom with human on top. They are hybrid creatures, struggling with dual natures – animal and human. Not surprisingly, classical myths depict them variably as base or wise.

In the ancient myths, centaurs are primarily bestial, embracing the more Dionysian characteristics of drunken revelry and unbridled lust. The centaur Nessus tried to rape Hercules’ (Heracles’) wife Deianira and told her the lie that resulted in the hero’s death. A group of drunken centaur guests attacked the wedding of Pirithous and tried to carry off the bride. When the wise centaur Pholus invited Hercules to dine, the wine fumes incensed the other centaurs to attack. Pholus and the wisest centaur of all, Chiron – teacher of Hercules and Achilles – both died as a result of the other centaurs’ ferocity.

Sadly, Dante places all the centaurs – whether ferocious or wise, whether Nessus or whether Pholus and Chiron – in the Inferno. But in The Chronicles of Narnia (one of JKR’s favorite works), C.S. Lewis portrays the centaurs as the wisest of Narnians, invariably loyal to Aslan and to the rightful Kings and Queens of Narnia.

JKR places her centaurs within both these traditions. As in the classical myths, there are ferocious centaurs and wise centaurs. And her wisest centaur, like Chiron, becomes a teacher. When that wisest centaur, Firenze, rescues Harry from Voldemort and places the boy on his back, though, he incenses Bane, the most ferocious of the forest centaurs:

“Firenze!” Bane thundered. “What are you doing? You have a human on your back! Have you no shame? Are you a common mule?”

The pride of JKR’s centaurs could be seen, in traditional terms, as being at odds with the animal part of their nature. Unlike horses (or mules), they do not wish to be seen as beasts of burden. After all, they possess the gift of reason. However, according to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, centaurs have been classified as “beasts” by the Ministry of Magic at their own request. Why would these fiercely proud rational beings wish to be classified as “beasts”? Is it merely to show their disdain of human classifications? I am curious to know what anybody else makes of this.

Whatever the case, some other points of interest about centaurs (found in Fantastic Beasts):

Centaurs are believed to have originated in Greece, though there are now centaur communities in many parts of Europe. Wizarding authorities in each of the countries where centaurs are found have allocated areas where the centaurs will not be troubled by Muggles; however, centaurs stand in little need of wizard protection, having their own means of hiding from humans.

The ways of the centaur are shrouded in mystery. They are generally speaking as mistrustful of wizards as they are of Muggles and indeed seem to make little differentiation between us. They live in herds ranging in size from ten to fifty members. They are reputed to be well-versed in magical healing, divination, archery, and astronomy.

The footnote indicates that centaurs have been given a XXXX classification. And here’s the interesting part…

not because it is unduly aggressive, but because it should be treated with great respect. The same applies to merpeople and unicorns.

In JKR’s universe, centaurs, merpeople (whom we won’t meet until GoF), and unicorns all command the same respect. And on the issue of aggressiveness, Newt Scamander has apparently never met Bane!

Note also that whether ferocious or wise, all the centaurs – like their Greek mythological forerunner Chiron – are stargazers and prognosticators. In fact, JKR’s centaurs (with the exception of Firenze) are practically cultic in their adherence to what is written in the stars. For them, Fate rules, not Free Will. The future is predestined, and if the stars say that Harry Potter must die, then Harry Potter must die:

“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?”

Ronan pawed the ground nervously. “I’m sure Firenze thought he was acting for the best,” he said in his gloomy voice.

Bane kicked his back legs in anger.

“For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our forest!”

Harry misinterprets this as a wish for him to die. When he gets back to Gryffindor Tower, he says that if Snape [sic] steals the Stone, and then Voldemort comes to finish him off, “Bane’ll be happy.” But that’s not exactly what Bane is saying. He is saying that centaurs do not interfere. They do not set themselves against the stars. That does not mean that they are necessarily happy about what is written in the stars.

The reason I’ve gone on at such length about the centaurs is that they will prove one of the more important creatures living in the Forest. They are crucial to the outcome of OotP as well as DH, so it’s important to take a look at the characteristics of JKR’s centaurs – and see how they fit in with the centaur myth.

We will take up again with Firenze when we discuss Harry’s encounter in the Forest with Voldemort.

Forbidden Forest

“First years should note that the forest on the grounds is forbidden to all pupils. And a few of our older students would do well to remember that as well.”
-Albus Dumbledore, at the Great Feast

“I’m not going in that forest,” [Draco] said, and Harry was pleased to hear the note of panic in his voice.

I feel like I just returned from the Forbidden Forest!

Today – taking advantage of a great academic deal on Windows 7 (yes, I am eligible!) – I installed Win7 into Parallels on my Mac, and then had a problem with the product key. It took multiple calls to Tech Support to get it resolved.
(It’s all working fine now)

Sorry for the geek talk, but the Win7 problem is the reason this post is so hastily written – and written during the hours of the night that Hagrid took the students into the Forbidden Forest!

The Forbidden Forest has made only minor appearances before now. Dumbledore mentions it in his opening remarks. Harry sees Snape corner Quirrell in the Forest – and parks his broomstick in a tree so he can overhear the conversation. But we have not yet entered the Forest. All of that is about to change.

There’s so much diverse content in this chapter to cover that I’m going to take it in small pieces – and multiple posts. Some things I’d like to look at in particular are Quirrell, Draco, the Centaurs, Harry’s (yawn…) suspicions of Snape, and The Boy Who Lived’s direct encounter with Dark Lord who tried to kill him. Okay?

So… after losing 150 points for Gryffindor in one night, Harry determines not to get involved in all that Philosopher’s Stone business anymore. And when he overhears Quirrell cowering in a classroom, he tries to forget about it… even though he’s certain that Snape [sic] has just about achieved his dastardly aim of learning what he needs to know in order to steal the Stone.

Here’s what Harry overhears (and a little of what he assumes):

Walking back from the library on his own one afternoon, he heard somebody whimpering from a classroom up ahead. As he drew closer, he heard Quirrell’s voice.

“No – no – not again, please – ”

It sounded as though someone was threatening him. Harry moved closer.

“All right – all right – ” he heard Quirrell sob.

Next second, Quirrell came hurrying out of the classroom straightening his turban. He was pale and looked as though he was about to cry. He strode straight out of sight; Harry didn’t think Quirrell had even noticed him. He waited until Quirrell’s footsteps had disappeared, then peered into the classroom. It was empty, but a door stood ajar at the other end. Harry was halfway toward it before he remembered what he’d promised himself about not meddling.

All the same, he’d have gambled twelve Sorcerer’s Stones that Snape had just left the room, and from what Harry had just heard, Snape would be walking with a new spring in his step – Quirrell seemed to have given in at last.

Harry would have lost that bet. But let’s set Snape aside for a moment (don’t worry… we’ll come back to him. We always do!) and let’s take up with Quirrell.

The very next morning after Quirrell pleads with his unseen adversary, Harry, Hermione, and Neville get notes from McGonnagall telling them that they will be serving their detention late that night. And what is that detention? To go into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid (as they later learn) and track down a dying unicorn whose blood can be seen all over the Forest floor. This is the second slain unicorn, and not-so-coincidentally Harry heard Quirrell pleading “no – no – not again.”

As we later learn, Quirrell is actually pleading with Voldemort, who needs to drink unicorn blood in order to preserve his own cursed half-life. According to the timeline, Quirrell pleads with Voldemort, loses his bid, heads into the Forest that night and implements the order by grievously wounding the unicorn, and the next night – detention, investigating the damage Quirrell has done. During that detention, he returns again to the Forest so that Voldemort (whom he serves as host) can drink the unicorn’s blood.

I’m mentioning all this because this is the first time it has really jumped out at me that once Quirrell agrees to kill the unicorn, he wastes no time at all in doing the Dark Lord’s bidding. The evidence is in what happens the next night.