The Legend Behind Thestrals
While browsing the local bookstore, I wandered over to the myths and folklore section and spied the Celtic section. I have a particular interest in Celtic legends and the like, being a Tolkien fan, and picked up a thick volume labeled Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis**, and flipped through it. As I worked my way to the back of the book, one word caught my eye: kestrel.
Now, kestrel is very similar to thestral, so I stopped and read a few lines of the page, and my interest was piqued even more. The story also involved a horse. More excited, I read the beginning of the story and was delighted to find that said horse resembled a thestral greatly, in that it was skeletal and had a keen ability to transport its owner to places far away by magic.
The story is called “N’oun Doare,” which translates to “I don’t know” in the Breton language. It tells the tale of the typical king and queen who cannot bear a child, and miraculously obtain one. In Bras’s case (the king) he and his servant hear crying in a thicket off the side of a road, and find a small boy huddled there who does not know anything — who he is, where he came from, etc. All he can answer is “I don’t know,” thus, he is named N’oun Doare.
The boy is adopted and sent away to a Druid for his education. When he turns 17, he returns to his father and they basically go shopping for manly things — horses, weapons, and the like. N’oun Doare rejects every fine sword he lays his eyes upon, until he fishes around in a rubbish heap and discovers a rusty, ancient sword inscribed with “I am Invincible.” The boy chooses this sword, to the dismay of his father.
Next they examine war chargers, but the boy again settles for something rundown and ancient, this time a skeletal mare led by a man in a long black robe and cowl; the mare is called, what else, “The Mare of Doom.” Before N’oun Doare leaves with the mare, its owner whispers to him that the knots in the horse’s halter can be untied, and that the boy is to untie a knot and tell the mare where he wishes to go, and he will be taken there instantly.
N’oun Doare enjoys his purchases; the horse is nimble and quick, and one day while out on a road, he spots a crown and puts it on, thereby sealing his fate to embark on many adventures. One includes a fish, kestrel, and demon that all assist him in freeing a princess under a spell, only to find out that the magical steed he rides is the princess’s sister, under her own enchantment. N’oun Doare marries the once-mare princess and discovers that his rusty sword (which later on in the story became strong and brazen) was to assist her in undoing her enchantment.
She tells the boy that she was to be engaged to an evil Druid’s son, but her father promised her to a young prince instead. The Druid retaliated by killing her father, enchanting her and her sister, and throwing the young prince to a faraway place without a memory. N’oun Doare says that he wishes he could help her find her prince, but she answers that she has found him already. She asks him if he would like to know about his past, but he replies that he has a good family and inheritance, and that the past does not matter to him. Wise words for a boy of 17.
Now, there are obvious similarities between N’oun Doare’s mare and thestrals, such as their remarkable traveling abilities, their appearance, and their association with abstract things such as destiny, death, and magic. Rowling’s thestrals were carnivorous, which brings me back to the bird, kestrel. Kestrels are mentioned in Quidditch Through the Ages as the name of a team, denoting that Rowling is familiar with them. Kestrels are dark birds of prey, with white patches below their eyes. Perhaps Rowling combined these birds with the mare of doom? One thing I also caught was N’oun Doare’s education by a Druid and his return at 17. Druids were ancient scholars and magicians who are believed to have practiced rituals in such places as Stonehenge. He reminds me very much of a certain young wizard…
I do not know if this is the story where J.K. Rowling discovered her intriguing creature, but one is allowed to speculate, no?
**Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends. 1999. Carroll & Graf.