Deathly Hallows Discussion Point #29: Arthuriana

Philosopher’s Stone was laden with references to the legends of King Arthur, from Harry’s life in secret as a Muggle, unaware of his heritage and the protection of a Merlin-esque wizard to specific plot points (remember the King and his crown on McGonagall’s chess board?). As we reached the story’s conclusion, Ms. Rowling seemed to reach deeper into Arthur lore for Harry’s heroic quest — corny word? nah –with Harry falling in love with Ginevra and the Graille elements of Harry’s Horcrux search and fascination with the three Deathly Hallows.

Travis Prinzi, as usual, is right on this over at Sword of Gryffindor; what are your thoughts on the Arthuriana in Deathly Hallows and the series as a whole? Ms. Rowling uses the alchemy to advance both her traditional and postmodern themes and concerns; how do the Arthurian backdrops and set-pieces, not to mention the names and story points reinforce what she has to say about love’s victory over death? Prejudice? Choice?


  1. The use of Arthurian names and symbols has always been a big part of these stories, but I don’t think it ever leapt out at me with such force until Harry saw that sword, glinting like a silver cross, shimmering under the dark, cold water. I suddenly found myself flooded with thoughts about swords in stones and ladies in lakes.

    When Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, it was the sign of his coming kingship, his royalty. What was interesting to me about Gryffindor’s Sword in DH is that we never really see Harry take it and possess it and wield it decisively. I don’t think we had to see that (or that Harry needed to do it) as he’d already done that in Chamber of Secrets, where the calling up of the sword and the use of it proved his “royalty” — or rather proved that he was a true Gryffindor, courageous of spirit.

    What’s interesting to me in DH is all the other men who take the sword and use it to great effect:

    — Snape, who isn’t a Gryffindor but whose love for a Gryffindor has been the guiding light of his broken life (and who, on the instructions of yet another Gryffindor, presents the sword to Harry in a time of great need… interestingly enough, Snape apparently is the one who comes up with the sword in the water idea…and water is the Slytherin element, isn’t it?)

    –Ron (who actually pulls it from the depths while saving Harry — and by the way, what a great reverse kind of echo of Harry bringing Ron up out of the water in Goblet of Fire)

    –Ron again, who wields it to destroy the locket horcrux.

    –Neville, who pulls it from the sorting hat in a wonderful Chamber of Secrets/Harry echo, and who uses it to slash off Nagini’s head at highly crucial moment in the final battle, essentially clearing the path for Harry to be able to face Voldemort

    Harry does use the sword in Gringotts, but not so much as a weapon. It’s the instrument he uses to reach the cup.

    No great insights here…I’m just thinking aloud about what the use of the sword (receiving it, gifting it, wielding it) might mean for all these characters. Thoughts?

  2. _________
    No great insights here…I’m just thinking aloud about what the use of the sword (receiving it, gifting it, wielding it) might mean for all these characters. Thoughts?
    Beth, it might be another iteration of the theme that choices matter. It isn’t only Harry who can wield the sword (remember all the Heir of Gryffindor speculations?) as the “Chosen One.” Ron, Neville and Harry can all wield it because they are all Choosers– they have chosen Gryffindor’s way of valor in the service of a righteous cause. It’s not a privilege restricted by birth– if you choose to be the right kind of person, it’s available to you when you truly need it.

  3. Arthur received Excalibur (not the Sword in the Stone; that was a different sword) from the Lady of the Lake; I thought of that when I read about the sword in the water.

  4. I think Beth is spot on in her discussion of Arthurian references in the books. However, in my case the finding of the sword in the water in DH amounted to a clever instance of authorial misdirection. When Harry, weighed down by the horcrux around his neck (echoes of Lord of the Rings), is unable to retrieve the sword, while Ron accomplishes the deed, I thought Harry would surely die. He was meant to be the sacrifice while Ron was meant to be “king” or leader.

    Yet it turned out that three Gryffindors actually wielded the sword: Harry, Ron, and Neville. So membership in the house of Godric Gryffindor, along with personal heroism, was the sign of royalty, or of the leader.

  5. TheHarryinMe says

    I found the tip of the hat to Arthurian themes quite refreshing. There is only one point of them that is not consistent with the legend: the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere.

    Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked in the series, and maybe it would have been uncalled for. The only thing that stands out is this: We have the picture that “All is well.” nineteen years after the closing chapter of Deathly Hallows. However, if this part of the legend – left out of the series – were to be held as true, what does that say for Harry’s future? Would Ginny become disloyal to him and ultimately bring about the downfall of Harry, the new Ministry, Hogwarts or some other institution? Sorry to bring this up, but I have grown lonely after the release of Deathly Hallows – speculating about the books was the best bit, and I am none too anxious to give it up just yet.

    But the sword in the lake was a very nice allusion. Too bad it was Ron who grabbed it instead of our “Arthur” hero Harry. Or perhaps that means Hermione will have the affair now? Makes you wonder?

    Okay, I’ll stop it. Enough speculation.

  6. TheHarryinMe–

    The adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere is not part of the original Arthurian legends. It is a later French addition added to please an unhappily married woman who wanted to read a romance about adultery. So set your mind at rest about Ginny.

  7. Although they are used differently in HP than in Arthurian legend, both tales share the motifs of True and False Sword (Arthur’s sword is swapped out for a fake by Accolon) and the Kidnapping of Guinevere/Ginevra (by Meleagant/Voldemort).

  8. Brian Basore says

    I’ve been reading The Return of King Arthur: The Legend through Victorian Eyes, by Debra N. Mancoff (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995). This book sets my Harry Potter wheels going in all sorts of ways.

    JKR may not be a historian, but she planned her way around the potential problems of using the Arthurian legend to her purposes. Well, like what? Harry is not the Once and Future King of England; that’s a *big* one that just wouldn’t work for her at all. I say she planned that, because it’s part of the structure of the story as well as in the details. For one thing, there are two boys who could be the Chosen One, Neville and Harry, and that remains true to the end (Harry was the misdirection so Neville could as a surprise use the sword on the snake). That’s both, not one or the other (a clever misdirection on the part of the author). This division of the role of Arthur is handy other ways as well, such as it means there is no Wizard King of England (which is exactly what Slytherin, Grindenwald, and Riddle wanted, and muggles historically feared would happen) and that the Elder Wand is not the equivalent of what makes one the King of England. (The Elder Wand works for anyone who can take it from the most recent “owner”.) The role of the sword in Arthurian legend does not exist in HP because, again, it has been changed by dividing it. There is no Arthurian adultery question in HP because there is no Once and Future King. That’s handy because it also allows JKR to skip the Manhood/Womanhood/Empire/Monarch and Country problems that brought down Arthur the Perfect King.

    Now, *that’s* planning.

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Dear Brian Basore,

    Thanks for your comment – including bringing my attention to the existence of this ten-year-old post (with, alas, a 404 when I try follow the Prinzi link). I have not read Debra Mancoff’s book, yet (thanks for that accent, too), but I wonder, if we go into the Edwardian age, and to Evelyn Underhill’s novel, The Column of Dust (1909) (handily scanned in the Internet Archive), we might not have a parallel in the secret succession of Keepers of the Graal down to the present with the Wizarding World, a parallel varied by Lewis in That Hideous Strength (1945) in the secret succession of Pendragons. Might Harry be doubly analogous to the Keeper of the Graal and the true King, as parts of a secret, beneficent existence rather than a public exercise of sovereignty, power, etc.? I wonder whether Charles Williams’s ideas in his poetry of a split between the Wounded Grail King, Pelles, and King Arthur, which is eventually healed, might be relevant, too? (Not least Harry as like the Wounded ‘King’ who must suffer throughout the whole history, awaiting healing, though Harry is also like the successful Grail Knight, who, achieving the Hallows in contrast to any improperly trying to seize them, also brings healing to the Waste Land.)

    Reading post and older comments, before reaching yours, I got suddenly wondering if DH did not present us with a super-compressed actualization of Harry as Once and Future ‘King’, in his passing to, and returning from, the Avalonian ‘King’s Cross Station’ – an exit from the world in which he had been preceded by his Merlinian mentor? (Again, a peculiarly Charles Williamsy passing of Merlin, in some respects?)

  10. Beatrice Groves says

    I’ve also very much enjoyed discovering this thread!

    In addition to giving Arthur Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake gives him Excalibur’s scabbard – a magical token of protection. Merlin tells Arthur it this scabbard – though seemingly much less exciting than the sword – is much more valuable, and I think this has interesting parallels with Dumbledore’s stressing to Harry that the Hallow of protection (the cloak) is worth more than the Elder Wand – the most obviously powerful Hallow.

    The Arthurian connections of Harry Potter, of course, are highlighted through names – Arthur Weasley, Percival Dumbledore, Aunt Muriel’s cousin Lancelot and Gawain Robards – and I really like Lisa Hopkins’s suggestive parallel between the name of the Peverell brothers and the Norman nobleman Payn Peveril ‘to whom King Arthur’s domain is said to have fallen after the Conquest, and who is sometimes said to have had the Grail in his possession’ (‘Harry and his Peers’, in Berndt and Steveker (eds.) Heroism in the Harry Potter Series (2011), p.60). My favourite Arthurian name parallel, however, is another link between the Grail and the Hallows. Believers in the Deathly Hallows set out – like Arthurian knights of old seeking the Grail – on a ‘Hallows Quest’ (DH, Chap 21) in which their purity of heart as well as their singleness of vision will be crucial. It seems highly relevant in this regard that Percival is one of Dumbledore’s middle names – for while Galahad was the only knight pure enough to hold the Grail, Percival was permitted to see it. Rowling has explicitly linked Harry’s purity of heart with that of Galahad: ‘Harry has that sort of Galahad quality… The person who is leading the quest—it seems that they have to have this weird purity about them’ ( I think Dumbledore’s middle name is a clue about the Hallows quest: while Dumbledore will find the Hallows, only Harry can unite them.

  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Dear Dr. Groves,

    Thank you for the further wealth of Arthurian detail, and fine attention to Percival! Reading it, Percy Weasley sprang to mind – who seems indeed simply to be named ‘Percy’, and not nicknamed so from ‘Percival’ (though my mastery of relevant details is not extensive) – and yet, might there be an element of play with the characterization of Percival as ‘foolish’ in various tellings where both Percy and Dumbledore are concerned? Then again, with the Queste del Saint Graal – Malory trio of Achievers in mind (and how Charles Williams works and plays with it), might we also compare Ron with Bors, Hermione with Percival, as well as Harry with Galahad? (I suppose going on to recall that Arthur’s lance/spear was named ‘Ron’ is running rather wild…)

    A fun question, given the reality of Merlin in Wizarding history, and this wealth of Arthurian names, would be to wonder how much more of Arthurian history is thought – or known – to be real, among Magical folk?

Speak Your Mind