Hunting the White Hart in Harry Potter

A Guest Post from Wayne Stauffer in Honor of the White Stag Sightings in Scotland: Enjoy!

I started this pursuit by noticing a visual similarity between Harry’s luminescent white stag patronus in Prisoner of Azkaban and my memory of references to the hunt for the white hart in my readings of medieval literature over the years.[1] So, I wanted to explore how far Rowling uses the image.

The Image

The White Hart is real and not simply a figurative or symbolic image.

Marcus Dunk in “How the magical white hart inspires legends (as well as the name of a thousand pubs),” UK Daily Mail, 14 February 2008, tells us that, biologically, the white hart is a result of a genetic mutation called leucism, which affects fur pigmentation. It is different from albinism in that leucism leaves the eye color natural while albinism turns the eye color red.

Real-life sightings of white stags occur in numerous places in Britain and Europe. An article in the UK Daily Mail, “Pictured: Mythical white stag found in the forests of Gloucestershire,” December 6, 2009, reports that British photographer Ken Grindle managed to photograph a white hart in the Forest of Dean in Gloustershire, UK, thought to be home to an array of unusual and wild creatures, including wild boar, big cats, and white stags. (Now, where have we heard of this place before? 😉

Dunk further tells us that ancient Celts considered the white hart’s appearance a bad omen, a sign of moral transgression, and a sign of imminent divine judgment. In medieval literature, Arthurian legends record the hunt for the white hart as the quest for knowledge and the unattainable. The white hart was believed to be one animal that could never be caught. In Hungarian mythology the white hart led the Huns to their homeland. For the French anyone who killed a white hart was struck by unrequited love. In Christian imagery the white hart represented the presence of Christ on earth. And King David I of Scotland built Holyrood House in Edinburgh in response to a real-life encounter with a white hart.

In discussing this article idea with John Granger before this posting, he referred me to a previous, complementary Hogwarts Professor post from 2012, “Theophany Sermon: Stags as Serpent Killers.” In it Fr. Deacon Theophan Warren discusses the Church as Desert, Living Water, and the Way of the Lord, and then turns to an image in Isaiah 35:6 of the “lame leap[ing] like a deer.” He then refers to 5th Century writer St. Cyril of Alexandria on this event as one of several signs of God’s return in judgment. Fr. Warren points out that, “In the ancient world, deer were known for two peculiar things. Firstly, it was believed that they ate snakes. And partially because of this diet, they were also known for having an insatiable thirst for springs of water.” He also comments on Harry’s stag patronus and the doe patronus that leads Harry to the sword of Gryffindor underwater. The association of the stag killing snakes fits well with this symbolism of the white hart in Harry Potter. Check it out for the full analysis.

Jonathan Hughes tells us in “King of the White Hart,” History Today, December 2012: 17-23, that the White Hart was the emblem of English King Richard II, who was Chaucer’s king. In Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess the narrator goes on a hunt. Though not specifically identified as a hunt for the white hart, the narrator searches for elusive consolation at the death of the Lady Blanche.

Shakespeare mentions Herne the Hunter (a Windsor Forest keeper from British legend) in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Herne is associated with white hart legend because his ghost often took the form of the white hart.

The Brothers Grimm record incidents of the spectral wild hunt (though not necessarily for the white hart) as a ghostly apparation of hunters thundering through the countryside. Apparitions of this wild hunt were often interpreted as a portent of impending war. (Seems like we’ve seen a ghostly hunt somewhere before, too,… Hmmmm…  😉[2]

In more recent literature C.S. Lewis uses the hunt for the white hart at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The adult king and queen Pevensie children go hunting the white hart and follow it into a thicket that leads to the back of the wardrobe and out of Narnia.

So, from reality and legend we learn that the white hart is a rare creature. Its appearance was interpreted as a precursor to both positive and negative subsequent events (depending on the culture). It was difficult or impossible to catch and, therefore, often linked metaphorically to something sought but elusive.  And it is associated with killing snakes.

Anyone familiar with Granger’s Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, Chapter One, “Narrative Drive and Genre: Why We Keep Turning the Pages,” knows already that each book has several mysteries in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione search for clues to solve them by book’s end, and that some of those mysteries are partially resolved in one book only to be more fully or completely resolved in a later book. Each book, then, has quite a bit that is sought and mostly found by its end. But in the 7-story arc the white hart only makes a couple of appearances. I think it is a signal of Harry’s specific search for elusive or unattainable knowledge/wisdom about himself. When we see the white hart, Harry is seeking deeper self-awareness.

Evidence from the Stories

The white hart first surfaces in the Harry Potter series in Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry wants to protect himself from the dementors, which suck the spiritual and emotional life from a person. Professor Lupin guides him with the patronus charm. The word patronus comes from the root for “deliverer.” In the climax of the story Harry discovers that his patronus is a stag. As the story progresses, Harry further discovers that his father James’s animagus and patronus forms were both a stag. It makes sense that Harry inherited his father’s patronus animal. His contact with Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, both close friends of his parents, is a catalyst in his search for connection with his parents. His concentration on happy memories to produce the patronus brings up memories of his parents pleading for their lives with Voldemort. His full-bodied patronus near the end of the story results from his strong desire to protect his newly realized godfather, Sirius, from the dementors.

Granger further illuminates the image of the stag as a symbol of immortality in Chapter 9, “Evidence of Things Unseen,” How Harry Cast His Spell, 102-103:

It’s simple, really. The power of the symbolism comes from the antlers. Just as the Phoenix is the “Resurrection Bird” because it can rise from its own funeral pyre, so the noble stag “came to be thought of as a symbol of regeneration because of the way its antlers are renewed.”

The footnote source citation provides a crucial bit more. He has just quoted J.E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols, 308-309:

Its symbolic meaning is linked with that of the tree of life…equivalent to a symbol of immortality [emphasis mine]…because of the resemblance of its antlers to branches….The stag …came to be thought of as a symbol of regeneration because of the way its antlers are renewed….In the West during the Middle Ages, the way of solitude and purity was often symbolized by the stag…

Although my assertion is that the white hart represents elusive additional information about Harry’s parents, we also know of someone closely associated with Harry who desperately seeks the immortality that the hart traditionally represents (Voldemort as soul fragment living in Harry). Rowling has taken this somewhat obscure symbol for eternal life and put it to double duty to also represent an adolescent boy’s search for identity. (The later Chapter 13, “Despair and Delivery,” in How Harry Cast His Spell goes into much more detail on Harry’s patronus and the stag imagery. Check it out.)

In Order of the Phoenix (the PA mirror story in the Ring arc) Harry uses the patronus to defend against the dementors in Little Whingeing at the beginning of the book. This time he is protecting himself and cousin Dudley. It stands out as a source of light, comfort, and the familiar in this darkest of the books. Harry’s personal search this year at Hogwarts is for his identity as a light or dark wizard and his desire for separation from any possible connection to Voldemort. He also grows in his magical abilities due to his work with Dumbledore’s Army. Yet Harry is unable to protect Sirius from Bellatrix’s killing curse at the end. In his occlumency lessons with Professor Snape Harry discovers more family history when he inadvertently sees one of Snape’s memories of James tormenting/bullying him when they were teens. Harry sees that his dad was not the perfect person he had imagined.

Readers learn more about the patronus in Half-blood Prince. We find that Nymphadora Tonks’ patronus changes into “an immense, silvery four-legged creature” (158) because of her deep affection for Remus Lupin and his turning away from her. Professor Snape comments on her change of patronus a couple pages later. This foreshadows the revelation in Deathly Hallows of Severus’s patronus change to a doe after Lily’s death years earlier. Although not directly associated with Harry’s search for self, in learning that his mother’s and Severus’ patronuses were both a doe, Harry learns of Severus’ deep love for Lily, so much that he changed the form of his patronus to hers in her memory.

In Deathly Hallows Harry produces his patronus one last time to fend off Dementors. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have just apparated into Hogsmeade to enter Hogwarts in search of the diadem horcrux (“The Missing Mirror”). They are under the invisibility cloak and overhear a couple deatheaters talking about what to do with Harry once they catch him. One suggests calling a dementor to weaken Harry to make him easier for Voldemort to kill. Harry then feels the air change and grow colder as ten or more dementors come their way in the darkness. Harry calls forth his stag patronus to chase them off, but a deatheater sees it and comes their direction. Aberforth pulls the three into his house and steps out to confront the deatheaters who have closed in on their location. He then misdirects the deatheaters by claiming that they have seen his goat patronus instead when he put his cat out for the night, mistaking the horns of the goat for stag antlers in their zeal to catch Harry. Aberforth is convincing and the deatheaters leave.

The conversation that follows between Harry and Aberforth focuses Harry’s resolve to finish this set of tasks to defeat Voldemort. The three are still able to back out, yet Aberforth’s questioning of his apparently reckless actions forces Harry to think through it one more time. He knows they have three more horcruxes to destroy and nothing with which to destroy them. They still do not even know where the diadem is hidden inside Hogwarts. Aberforth advises Harry to get away as far as possible, but Harry holds fast to his task. As dramatic and memorable as the line is in the movie, Harry does not say, “I trusted the man I knew.” He says, “…sometimes you’ve got to think about more than your own safety! Sometimes you’ve got to think about the greater good! This is war!…I’m going to keep going until I succeed—or I die. Don’t think I don’t know how this might end. I’ve known it for years” (568-569). With this appearance of the white hart, Harry remembers and renews his commitment to Dumbledore and the need to defeat Voldemort once and for all.

In the bildungsroman of the series, part of Harry’s coming of age is his search for identity. He wants to distinguish himself from those unappealing qualities of what he sees in others’ memories of his dad, or what he is told about his dad—arrogance, laziness, bullying, and so on (in one memory young Lily even calls James a “toerag”) –and from his growing sense/fear that he could become a dark wizard due to the vague but present connection with Voldemort (which he discovers finally in DH is the soul fragment that makes him a horcrux).

Harry searches for knowledge in all of the books, most notably in HBP and DH for more about Voldemort, the 3 Deathly Hallows, and the locations of the hidden horcruxes. And he succeeds in finding this desired information without the white stag’s intervention. But when it comes to self-knowledge and more on his family, the white heart guides him very specifically in that search.

Although not an extensive use of the image across the series of 7 books, the few appearances of the white hart are signals to us that Harry seeks more about himself that he initially thinks is unattainable.

[1] My own search for the sources of my information on the White Hart turned into its own hunt …but that’s another story….

[2] In Chamber of Secrets the headless horseman’s hunt seems to be simply a random rampage by the ghosts from which Sir Nicholas is excluded. But the cultural association of a ghostly hunt with the hunt for the white hart reinforces the connection. The object of the headless huntsmen’s hunt in CoS is never identified—what are they hunting?—because the focus is on Nick’s exclusion from it, but as the 7-story arc unfolds, we can see that it foreshadows Voldemort’s growing numbers of dark forces in HBP (the CoS mirror story in the Ring arc) and the battle at Hogwarts in DH.

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