“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.