Halloween! About the Hogwarts Ghosts

A Halloween Guest Post from David Martin! Joyous Walpurgis Nacht, Everyone!

As we approach Halloween, the time when we are concerned with

Ghoulies and Ghosties,
And long-leggity Beasties,
And Things that go bump in the Night…

let us pause a moment to consider the Hogwarts ghosts and how different they are from other literary ghosts. Let’s compare the Hogwarts ghosts with what are perhaps the two best-known literary ghosts, Marley from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Hamlet’s father.

The first difference to observe is the “age” of the ghosts – or whatever we should call it when considering how long a ghost has been dead. Marley, we are told very clearly, has been dead for seven years at the start of A Christmas Carol. With Hamlet’s father, we aren’t given an exact date but it seems clear that his death is recent, perhaps less than a year before the play begins. By contrast, the “youngest” of the Hogwarts ghosts that we meet is Moaning Myrtle who has been dead about 50 years. Professor Binns has been dead for several centuries. Nearly headless Nick has been dead 500 years. The Fat Friar dates from the middle ages – so perhaps 800 years ago. And the Grey Lady and the Bloody Baron died within a generation of the founding of Hogwarts – so, 900 to 1,000 years ago. That’s a major difference.

The second difference to observe is what the ghosts tell us. Both Marley and Hamlet’s father carry grim warnings of judgment and perhaps suffering after death. They bring us information about the next world. The Hogwarts ghosts, on the other hand, tell us things about this world. Nick tells us that the Sorting Hat has issued warnings before. Professor Binns tells us when the International Statute of Secrecy was signed. The discussion between Harry and Nick after the death of Sirius makes it clear that Nick, at least, knows nothing of the next world.

I believe what we have here is another instance of one of Rowling’s favorite techniques, namely giving a specific form or representation to a non-physical reality. She tipped us off about this technique years ago when she told us that Dementors are representations of depression. Looking around the novels, it’s easy enough to find other instances of this technique.

Boggarts can be seen as representations of phobias. I see the Mirror of Erised as a representation of daydreaming. I also think – though it may be a stretch – that Ginny’s enslavement by Tom Riddle’s diary can be seen as a representation of an addiction, perhaps alcoholism because of the memory lapses. And using the Pensieve to sort out your thoughts when there are too many of them – that’s Rowling’s representation of the confusion at the start of the writing process. (My personal Pensieve is a big, flat table and several dozen Post-It notes.)

So what do the Hogwarts ghosts represent? I believe that they can be seen as representations or memories of the past, and often as representing the influence of the past on the present.

First of all, let’s note that speaking of memories as ghosts is common enough. The folk singer Judy Collins has a song called “Secret Gardens” about visiting the remains of her great-grandfather’s farm. She sings “Inside the old kitchen I still see the ghosts of the people I knew long ago.” In a TV program made about her life, J. K. Rowling visited her former flat in Leith where she lived while writing the first Harry Potter book. While looking around it she said “Coming back here is just full of ghosts.”

Such “ghosts” may also represent what might be called collective or cultural memories. My wife had some ancestors who came west to Colorado in a wagon train 150 years ago. Once in Nebraska we stopped at a roadside park where the ruts of the very wagon trail they must have followed are still visible. My wife “felt the ghosts.” I live near Philadelphia. Once I took an out-of-town friend to tour Independence Hall and she, too, “felt the ghosts” there as I suppose most Americans would.

If we accept this interpretation of the Hogwarts ghosts, then a number of details fall into place. Of course, history is taught by a ghost. History is about the past. Of course each house has a ghost to represent its traditions and values, rather than, say, a mascot. And of course the key information from the past that is needed to solve the mystery at hand is sometimes given by a ghost. Moaning Myrtle tells Harry and Ron where she was murdered. The Grey Lady tells Harry what happened to the Diadem of Ravenclaw.

This interpretation of the Hogwarts ghosts is consistent with a fundamental viewpoint that is observable in the Harry Potter novels. The Harry Potter novels seem to have the viewpoint that the present is best understood as the result of the past, or as an expression of the past. For instance, when Rowling wants us to know more about a character, she does not give us their horoscope or their classification on some magical equivalent of the Myers-Briggs personality test. Instead, she tells us their personal history. (But that’s another essay.)

In the 1960s there was a cheery saying that “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That saying looks to the future and suggests that your future can be liberated from your past. The viewpoint in the Harry Potter novels is different. It’s more like “Today is the latest installment in the ongoing, continuing story of your life.” We are all firmly connected to the past. Our ghosts – both personal and collective – remind us of that.

— David Martin of Hufflepuff

Four Dropped Threads in Beasts Films

I’m a shameless Laurie Beckoff fan-boy. She’s a UChicagwarts alumna, a Jeopardy champion, and a first tier Potter Pundit. If you have any doubts about that, go back and listen to the ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling’ podcast in which she was the guest expert on King Arthur and the Medieval aspects of the Hogwarts Saga, the subject of her Master’s thesis. Smart, funny, well-read — did I mention “smart like Hermione”? You can watch her tell her Harry Potter story (with great pictures of her pre-teen Luna Lovegood Halloween costume) here.

Anyway, I stumbled on an article Beckoff wrote for MuggleNet last year — she is a regular contributor to the “#1 Wizarding World Resource since 1999,” not to mention MNet podcast producer and their Campaign Co-ordinator — about The Crimes of Grindelwald. The piece is just what its title says it is, namely, Four “Fantastic Beasts” Threads Lost in “Crimes of Grindelwald.”

We’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink here about the failings of Crimes of Grindelwald (check out the fifty pieces listed on the film’s Pillar Post) but I think this Beckoff post on ‘Lost Threads’ brings up the more obvious and at least as important point not discussed here. The sequel failed to deliver on expectations primarily because it didn’t work as a sequel, i.e., the things we learned in Beasts 1 didn’t mesh with the developments we were given in Beasts 2. Jacob’s obliviated-by-rain memory and his shop? Credence’s death? Newt’s expulsion from Hogwarts? Leta’s relationship with Newt? “All gone!”

Yes, there’s a lot more that’s wrong with Crimes than that. We had the director once again butcher Rowling’s shooting script ring composition, for example. The Leta Lestrange sub-plot was incomprehensible because almost every cut scene was one that included Leta or was about her. Check out the Pillar Post for the full agonizing survey. Having noted all that, though, it pays to remember the first great disappointment with Crimes for fans was that it didn’t work as a Fantastic Beasts follow-up. Beckoff’s list of “lost threads” brings that shock back into sharp focus. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Lorrie Kim on Snape and Dumbledore

Lorrie Kim, author of Snape: A Definitive Reading, gave a talk at this year’s Leaky Con on the relationship of Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the two must idiosyncratic and powerful wizards ever to be Headmasters at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If, like me, you were unable to weekend in Boston this year and missed the talk, Ms Kim has generously posted her notes for this talk at her website. Enjoy ‘And My Soul, Dumbledore? The Dumbledore-Snape Relationship’!

Hat-tip to Kelly for the great find.


Selected Readers’ Comments in Response to the NYTimes Article of 9/23/2019 “Harry Potter and the Poorly-Read Exorcists”

I have chosen not to comment publicly about the controversy in Tennessee about a priest who pulled the Harry Potter novels from the library of his parish’s school. David Martin, though, long time friend of this blog, put together something of interest, I think, that is of ‘Shared Text’ interest, namely, the responses to the priest’s decision in the letters page of the New York Times, America’s ‘paper of record.’ Enjoy!

On September 23rd, the New York Times published an opinion piece entitled “Harry Potter and the Poorly-Read Exorcists.” (The piece can be seen here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/opinion/banned-books-harry-potter.html ) This piece noted that it was then Banned Books Week (see https://bannedbooksweek.org/ ) and expended a fair amount of ink criticizing the Catholic priest Fr Reehil in Nashville who in August banned the Harry Potter books from a Catholic school where he worked. (Sigh. To quote a Sunday school lesson of my youth, “Not all the servants of the great King are as wise as the great King Himself.)

The coverage given to this unusual bit of censorship – and the failure to note that such censorship of Harry Potter is unusual (now) – gave the article an anti-Catholic tone. Or perhaps even an anti-religion in general tone. Those of us who find faith both in the Bible and in Harry Potter can be glad that some of the comments by the readers have a different orientation. What follows is a selection of readers’ comments on the original New York Times article. These comments represent an admittedly minority view among the comments, but let us be glad that the other side of the issue is being expressed.

(To see all the comments on the original article, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/opinion/banned-books-harry-potter.html#commentsContainer and then, when the comments column appears on the right side of the screen, click on the word “All” at the beginning of the comments.)

David Martin of Hufflepuff


From: Andrew Parker
In: Houston

I am an Episcopal priest and a huge Harry Potter fan. I read the books to my children and have three times led a vacation Bible School based on the books (Wizard and Wonders by leaderresources.org) I also recommend “God and Harry Potter at Yale” by the Rev. Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio. To quote an old Episcopal ad “Jesus died to take away your sins, not your mind.”

More after the jump!

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Guest Post – Bezoar: The Princely Stone

Pratibha Rai is an Oxford University graduate and she has been a Harry Potter partisan since 2001. Her research today mostly concerns the sociology of collecting in early modern Europe. She enjoys finding parallels between Harry Potter and history of art — and you will enjoy reading what she has discovered about that life-saving short-cut antidote, the Bezoar!

Bezoar: the Princely Stone

For today’s lesson, we descend to the shadowy dungeons of Hogwarts to “learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making”. As Philosopher’s Stone describes, it is “colder here than up in the main castle and would have been quite creepy”. Among its steaming cauldrons and apothecary jars, Harry Potter learnt of the power of potions under the watchful eye of Professor Snape. In the first ever Potions class in chapter 8 of Philosopher’s Stone, Snape teaches the class about the unusual Bezoar stone, which has the ability to cure the victim of almost any poison (except Basilisk venom). In order to chastise Harry for not paying attention in class, Snape quizzes Harry: “where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?” Only to answer the question himself: “A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.” We know that bezoars were stocked in the Potions classroom cupboard and in the hospital wing of Hogwarts (both mentioned in chapter 18, Half-Blood Prince). The Potions textbook Magical Drafts and Potions by Arsenius Jigger also contains a recipe called ‘The Antidote to Common Poisons’, which uses ingredients such as Bezoars, mistletoe berries, and ground unicorn horn. Though Harry had not shrugged off the mysterious antidote in his first Potions class, his life at Hogwarts was to be particularly shaped by it. [Read more…]