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.

Draco in Detention

“I suppose you think you’ll be enjoying yourself with that oaf? Well, think again, boy – it’s into the forest you’re going and I’m much mistaken if you’ll all come out in one piece.”

At this, Neville let out a little moan, and Malfoy stopped dead in his tracks.

“The forest?” he repeated, and he didn’t sound quite as cool as usual. “We can’t go in there at night – there’s all sorts of things in there – werewolves, I heard.”

Neville clutched the sleeve of Harry’s robe and made a choking noise.

“That’s your problem, isn’t it?” said Filch, his voice cracking with glee. “Should’ve thought of them werewolves before you got in trouble, shouldn’t you?”

Since a resurgent Snape War closed down the Snape thread on the CoS forum, one of the most obsessive topics of debate has been Draco. The difference between a Snape debate and a Draco debate, though, goes something like this: Most Snape fans are convinced that Snape is at core good; hardly anyone believes the same of Draco. In fact, hardly any of the people arguing that Draco is not evil incarnate are actually Draco fans per se. Most are just HP fans who believe that in Years 6 & 7 there are mitigating circumstances for Draco’s behavior. The people who reject the “mitigating circumstances” argument just want to see him locked up in Azkaban.

It’s hard to tell how much of this fierce judgment of Draco comes from his early years and how much comes from his years as a Death Eater who just seems revolted and terrified by the circumstances he finds himself in. But whatever the cause, it’s certainly true that Draco does not acquit himself well in the early books… and that he never lands even by the end of Year 7 as being solidly opposed to Voldemort. He just wants to survive. And he wants his family to survive and be restored to honor.

For me, Draco becomes a pathetic figure in Years 6 & 7, and it’s very difficult for me to work up much animus towards pathetic figures. But years before terror incarnate comes knocking at Malfoy Manor, Draco is just a little brat who does everything he can to make Harry – and the reader – detest him. The adventure in the Forest is no different.

From the start of the adventure, Draco is whinging on about how it’s too dangerous to go into the Forest, or how he simply won’t go into the Forest. He would rather be copying lines. He sounds like the spoiled child of privilege who thinks he’s well above this “servant stuff” and will go running off to daddy the moment he’s crossed.

Draco is also drawn to appearances over reality (not a terrible crime, given that this is one of Harry’s biggest flaws as well). Hagrid’s dog, Fang, looks the part of a formidable opponent, so Draco insists on being the one to take Fang. But in reality, Fang is, as Hagrid indicates “a coward.” In fact, later, when Harry and Draco (with Fang) encounter Quirrel/Voldemort in the Forest drinking the blood of the unicorn, Draco and Fang are the ones to “bolt.”

But probably the most damning thing Draco does on his detention has nothing to do with providing running commentary on how far the task is beneath him or with insisting on taking the seemingly protective hound. Rather, it’s that once he gets deep into the Forest, he plays a prank on Neville, of all people:

Malfoy, it seemed, had sneaked up behind Neville and grabbed him as a joke. Neville had panicked and sent up the sparks.

This is a kid who worried earlier about werewolves in the Forest, who insisted that the Forest was too dangerous a place for students to enter. What would possess him to play such a prank? Has he lost his fear of the Forest? Had he been faking his fear? Whatever the case, if there was ever an inappropriate time to essentially sneak up on someone and go “boo,” this was it!

I’d be interested in hearing what others think of Draco’s behavior on this first trek into the Forest – and on what motivated him to play such a prank on poor, terrified, hapless Neville.

The comments are open!

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.