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


  1. Kelly Loomis says

    Thank you for giving us another “literary” technique” used by Rowling. I love reading but as a science major, had a difficult time in lit classes. Once someone points out these things, I can appreciate them and understand them. Thus, in the Rowling stories, I am mainly a detail, fact and clue finder for her mysteries but need others to put together the more subtle messages and techniques she is employing.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thanks for this, including the accent on the spread of ages of the House ghosts – so, that part of Hogwarts’ tradition must have gradually accumulated through its history. Sadly, I’m not well enough read to know much about how the Fat Friar has been treated by the Professor and others among the scholarly, but I find his presence fascinating, with its hints of centuries of positive interaction between the Wizarding world and the Church, however distinctly saddening the prospect of a Friar lingering (like Nick) for centuries.

  3. David Martin says

    There is not a lot of evidence about interaction between the church and the wizarding world, but there is some.

    FIRST, there is the Fat Friar himself. Here is a summary of what has been written about him in various places in WizardingWorld.com:

    The Hufflepuff house ghost is the Fat Friar, a jolly fellow who resembles a monk and who was sorted into Hufflepuff back in his day. He was executed because senior churchmen grew suspicious of his ability to cure the pox merely by poking peasants with a stick, and his ill-advised habit of pulling rabbits out of the communion cup. Though a genial character in general, the Fat Friar still resents the fact that he was never made a cardinal. The Fat Friar is a merry soul who loves the students of his house. He has a kind, charitable nature and even voted to give Peeves a second chance to attend the start-of-term feast: “Forgive and forget, I say.”

    SECOND, monks are mentioned several times as appearing in the portraits in Hogwarts. For example, this is from “Prince” page 351 when the students are just returning from their Christmas holiday:

    (Hermione said the password is) ”Abstinence.”

    “Precisely,” said the Fat Lady in a feeble voice, and swung forward to reveal the portrait hole.

    “What’s up with her?” asked Harry.

    “Overindulged over Christmas, apparently,” said Hermione, rolling her eyes as she led the way into the packed common room. “She and her friend Violet drank their way through all the wine in that picture of drunk monks down by the Charms corridor.”

    THIRD, there is this interesting answer by Rowling in a question-and-answer session with the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival, on Sunday, August 15, 2004:

    Question: Does Harry have a godmother? If so, will she make an appearance in future books?

    Answer: No, he doesn’t. I have thought this through. If Sirius had married… Sirius was too busy being a big rebel to get married. When Harry was born, it was at the very height of Voldemort fever last time so his christening was a very hurried, quiet affair with just Sirius, just the best friend. At that point it looked as if the Potters would have to go into hiding so obviously they could not do the big christening thing and invite lots of people. Sirius is the only one, unfortunately. I have got to be careful what I say there, haven’t I?

    (Taken from http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2004/0804-ebf.htm )

    Presumably for a christening one needs a clergyman.

    FOURTH, the “small, tufty-haired wizard” who presides at Dumbledore’s funeral and later at Bill and Fleur’s wedding seems to me to be a standard-issue, straight from central casting Anglican parish priest.

    IN CONCLUSION, it seems to me that most people in the wizarding world have a relationship with the church similar to what the average citizen of the UK has. One comes to church for certain important ceremonies in life, some come more often than that, and a few people find a calling in the church as monks or priests. (And we may pause to wonder why monks are mentioned several times but nuns are not. I’ll leave that question for others more qualified than I am to deal with it.)

Speak Your Mind