The Seven Tasks
A narrative detail struck me in the Harry Potter books: Harry is said to have affronted Voldemort five times in five books, but Voldemort was conspicuously absent from Book 3, the PoA. The missing (first) confrontation takes place before the books begin, and is only talked about. Rowling really wants to have her seven confrontations, though (I believe); she just doesn’t give them all to us when we expect them. And if Voldemort was in every book, that would make eight confrontations and, well, eight is not seven! Let us seize this key and see what we can open with it.
In the SS/PS obstacle course guarding the stone, there were exactly seven tasks set by seven teachers representing seven basic classes taught at Hogwarts (in its seven years that parallel our seven Harry Potter books). Here is a quick review:
1. Fluffy (Hagrid, Care of Magical Creatures)
2. Devil’s Snare (Sprout, Herbology)
3. Troll (Quirrell, DADA)
4. Flying Keys (Flitwick, Charms … and a hint of Hooch, Quidditch)
5. Chess (McGonagall, Transfiguration)
6. Riddle and Phials (Snape, Potions … with a hint of Arithmancy? Ancient Runes? logic and translation: Hermione’s forte.)
7. Mirror of Erised (Dumbledore… Astronomy? Dumbledore, Our Heavenly Father? Sinistra is not directly mentioned here… No perfect parallels. But we can’t leave out Dumbledore. And Dumbledore does wear robes with stars and moons on them. He seems Astronomy embodied. And there’s a hint of Divination in this mirror…)
Did everyone’s eyes go to task number #3 (the equivalent for Book 3, PoA) like I wanted them to? That was my original puzzle. The task was conspicuously absent: Quirrell had already dealt with the Troll. But in a way, the task had already been dealt with by the three students, in the toilet: remember the first Troll on Halloween? Fighting with a stupid Troll twice, when the only way to defeat one is to hit it on the head, ought to make for a boring story… But I find an interesting parallel here: the Troll is absent in the third step of the obstacle course, but the Troll was defeated before the obstacle course began… Isn’t that just like Voldemort? Absent from Book 3, dealt with before Book 1? Now maybe Troll is also a hidden insult for Voldemort… Not that smart at times, is he? Like with Lily’s sacrificial protection of Harry, or with the healing tears of the Phoenix.
Let us look at the other tasks for a moment and see if there are any other parallels.
The first thing that jumped off the list at me was #5, the Chess Game. Why? Ron’s sacrifice. Can you think of a painful sacrifice that the author makes in Book 5? And she has said it, it hurt her so much to do it, but it had to be done… Sirius, the first great death of the series (not counting Cedric, who was not as major of a character). Sure, there will be more deaths to follow, but the first time we are hit with the idea of the sacrifice of a great character is in Book 5, the equivalent of task #5.
Now, that I have dealt with the obvious, I will go back and take the tasks one by one, trying to understand the more subtle clues.
1. Hagrid’s Fluffy
the danger = multi-headed vicious murderous monster (not for Hagrid!)
the solution = playing soft music (harp, flute…), putting it to sleep
The picture of the danger definitely predicts what is waiting for Harry at the end of the obstacle course: a multi-headed monster, the two-headed, two-faced Quirrell… The solution – music – does not offer a perfect parallel. However, perhaps we can’t expect perfect parallels in J. K. Rowling’s world: this world develops on so many magic levels that we need to work much harder to detect all the connections between the structures of her ideas. Like the Hogwarts stairs that unexpectedly move once in a while, perhaps the connecting paths between ideas also switch places and lead us not where we thought they would, but a little more to the left, or to the right. The solution is a path, transferring us from level 1 to level 2. What if music takes us to Book 2: the music of the Phoenix announces to Harry he is saved in CoS. It might even take us to Book 4: the music of the Phoenix announces to Harry he is saved, in GoF, again! 2, 4… 6? Any music in Book 6? And Dumbledore (Bumblebee) is also fond of music (might the HBP be a music-loving Dumbledore’s… son?) Actually, the opposite (?) of music – silence – was important in the final room of Book 1. The Harry in the mirror winks, signals silence to the real Harry and gives him the stone.
2. Sprout’s Devil’s Snare
the danger = a plant that likes the dark, something with many coils that kills by strangling
the solution = a burst of light, which makes it shrink away in fear
The picture of the danger again predicts at least in part what is waiting for Harry in the dark Chamber of Secrets: a great serpent. Although this serpent kills through his petrifying stare and poisonous bite, serpents can kill through strangling, and there is something serpentine about the Devil’s Snare, not to mention its name, so often associated with the Biblical Serpent…
Tom Riddle’s diary was also a form of Devil’s Snare. Placed there seemingly to break the fall in Book 1, a birthday present for Bode in Book 5, the diary also parades as a friendly present to Ginny in Book 2. Harry liked the Devil’s Snare at first, something soft, that hugged him and Ron, coiling himself around them… with the purpose of killing them. Isn’t that what Tom Riddle does with Ginny through his diary? Winning her trust, slowly taking over her body, with the purpose of killing her…
The solution again is troublesome… light is not what Harry uses against the Basilisk or Tom Riddle. But here is another moving stair that takes us forward to the climax of Book 3: Harry’s great Patronus. Isn’t the Patronus Charm the most important spell practiced throughout Book 3? A burst of light, the light that can shrink away those dark creatures with their groping fingers like the Devil’s snare, the Dementors. Light is not the only solution in PoA, but I am not looking for perfect parallels. Ironically, light is the danger posed by the Basilisk: the petrifying rays of his eyes. As silence was important in the climax of Book 1, darkness is important in the climax of Book 2: the Phoenix puts out the Basilisk’s light (pecking his eyes out), and Harry puts out Tom Riddle’s light (destroys his luminous body) by mimicking Fawkes in a way: sticking a fang in the diary.
3. Quirrell’s Troll
the danger = a foul, stupid creature
the solution = hitting it on the head? Fight or flight? They would have fled, Ron and Harry, had Hermione not been caught with the Troll in the toilet. How was the first Troll hit in the head? With his own club: raised with the first spell of the book (I think) used by the children, a flying Charm: Wingardium Leviosa!
I have already pointed out the obvious narrative parallel here (the relative absence of the Troll and of Voldemort).
A parallel more closely related to the description of the danger: a foul, stupid creature… wouldn’t that be the rat Pettigrew? And a bit of a Troll? Will he get a few “Trolls” in his OWLs? “How thick are you, Wormtail?” says James to him after they discuss the OWL exam question about werewolves (their own friend Lupin…). Hmm: thick-headed, thick-skinned, Troll… But maybe there is hope for Peter. He showed some kind of courage by cutting off his own hand in Book 5… who knows?
Wingardium Leviosa is a flying charm. And flight is extremely important in all the books, and especially in Book 3, both in the sense of fleeing and flying. Hurrying up was all Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to worry about in the Troll room. They simply ran, making up for lost time. There are many ways to fly: the brooms, the Thestrals, Buckbeak, Portkeys, Time Turners, Floo Powder, Apparation… In PoA, Sirius flees from Azkaban, Harry flies from home, we have the chapter “Flight of the Fat Lady,” Harry flies on Buckbeak in Hagrid’s class, Pettigrew flees from Ron and then from his former friends, Harry and Hermione in a sense fly through time with the time turner, and then on Buckbeak to Sirius’ room, and we see Sirius and Buckbeak fly away into the night.
4. Flitwick’s Flying Keys
the danger = none whatsoever, it seems, except simply “not managing the task”! and losing Time. Hm! the Task… within a certain Time…
the solution = flying, team work, catching the Key…
In Quidditch (another seven member sport), teamwork is displayed especially by the Chasers, and to some extent by the Beaters. The Goal Keeper seems to work alone, although his function ties in nicely with that of the Beaters: the nonscoring, hitting back the aggressors’ balls, attack, and defense team (besides, Ron, Fred, and George really are a trio). Only the seeker works truly alone, although in tandem with the team as a whole, as he needs to keep an eye on the score. Is it not interesting that in this obstacle course in the depths of Hogwarts, three students end up playing seeker? I think it has great symbolic significance about the importance of unity. Definitely, this obstacle predicts the foregrounding of Quidditch (at the International level) in Book 4, and the importance of a different kind of game, one with three champions (in principle) seeking the same thing…
The Triwizard tasks are not without their dangers, but the final task, getting the cup, seemed harmless. The Golden Triwizard Cup that both Harry and Cedric catch at the same time (and they really have to coordinate themselves to do it) what was it, if not a key? A Portkey. And I also remember the first task Harry had to do, or the way he did it, was fly on a broom and catch something like a golden key: the golden egg, which was a key to the next task.
What does facing Voldemort have to do with flying and catching? Harry flees first, behind the tombstone. “Come out, Harry… Come out, and play…” He coordinates himself with Voldemort perfectly, catching in mid-flight the Aveda Kedavra curse with his Expelliarmus spell. And the idea of Fawkes, the symbol of flight, appears, surrounding Harry and Voldemort with music and light! In the end, Harry flies again, flies away from Voldemort and the Death Eaters, flies to Cedric, catches the portkey (Accio!) and flies back to Hogwarts: he has caught the key and opened the door, but the obstacle course is not over…
5. McGonagalls’ Chess Game
the danger = playing with transfigured chessmen: the most dangerous of which is the Queen; losing the game, losing a piece.
the solution = teamwork; Ron’s skill
the winning solution = the danger = sacrifice
I have pointed out the sacrifice parallel with the death of Sirius. But let’s think also of the MoM’s Department of Mysteries: true, it is set up like a multi-circular structure: but doesn’t it also greatly resemble a chess board? An alternate chess board, of course, a magic chess board, like three-dimensional chess. From each room one can step into any direction towards the other rooms: isn’t that like being on a chess board, able to move in sixteen different directions (including the knight)? It might be interesting to explore Rowling’s various chessboards, but not now. In Book 5, we have the transfigured chess pieces: the masked Death Eaters, playing against the real kids, but these last ones have the advantage of being DA members. The DEs against the DAs. Or rather, the knights, bishops, and castles (I hate giving them such noble names) and even the Queen of Voldemort (Bellatrix Lestrange: doesn’t she strike you as an Evil Death Queen screaming and laughing at the top of her head? and she does come from the Most Noble and Most Ancient House of Black.) against the little adorable pawns (but who could transform into great pieces any day now). And then the knights, bishops, and castles of the Order finally show up, though not the king, not yet. (An aside on evil Queens: isn’t Umbridge one? Fudge’s undersecretary transfigured into DADA teacher transfigured into High Inquisitor… Doesn’t this nasty queen take some important pieces off the Quidditch chessboard? Harry, Fred, George. How can the team possibly win with so few good pieces left? Ron’s hidden skill at Quidditch, as Ron’s sacrifice at chess, saves the day; in Book 5, Ron knows his moment of glory as in task #5: he is crowned Gryffindor Prefect and King of Quidditch).
The Black and White Kings (black-gowned Voldemort, white-bearded Albus Dumbledore) do finally meet and then the game is temporarily a draw. Well, two kings cannot win against each other without other pieces in the game, not in chess. That’s always a draw. But Dumbledore still has his most precious pawn, Harry, so close to the end of the board, so near to transforming into something great (temporarily he transforms into Voldemort… No, that’s not the kind of transformation Dumbledore had in mind. He is not tempted by this “sacrifice” [remember Ron’s sacrifice]). He does not eat the piece Voldemort seems to give him. Have you noticed how carefully Dumbledore plays with all his pieces? Especially during his encounter with Voldemort when he brings the members of the Fountain of Magical Brethren to life (isn’t that like McGonagall transfiguring the stone pieces? Remember Dumbledore used to teach Transfiguration?) The way the pieces block each other, the way Dumbledore sacrifices certain pieces (Fawkes… but that’s a brilliant sacrifice, no loss, because Fawkes is coming back). This confrontation in the MoM is all about chess. Have you also noticed in general how Dumbledore acquires and keeps all kinds of small pieces around, interesting fellows that others might scorn and reject, Peeves, Mundungus, Dobby. Notice that teamwork is a running theme throughout OotP, starting with the title, The Order of the Phoenix, the Hat’s new song about unity among the houses, Dumbledore’s Army, and the little team of friends that goes to the Ministry of Magic. When the children begin their fight with the Death Eaters, perfect teamwork is also necessary.
The game is a draw, but we have lost one great piece: Sirius Black: and he really disappears off the board (and who hit him with her spell? Bellatrix; who hit Ron on the head? the Queen: the queen didn’t really kill Ron, so maybe Bellatrix didn’t really kill Sirius; the veil may have) (P.S. Would you say Sirius was a bishop, knight, or castle?)
6. Snape’s Riddle and Phials
the danger = drinking poison or not being able to pass through fires: remaining stuck, getting caught, losing time
the solution = using cool logic in the face of fire; solving the riddle; separating the Harry and Hermione couple (one advances, one returns)
This is where the guessing game gets fun, as it might tell us something about the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince book. First of all, as this is Snape’s task, we might come to learn more about Snape in this book. And we have all been waiting for the unlocking of Snape’s mystery. What will Harry’s relationship to Potions be this year? You see, all of this suspense has been so well built up, but also predicted from the #6 task of Book 1. Aren’t we all anxiously waiting with Harry for his OWL results? And I am sure that the only results anyone cares about are Harry’s Potions and DADA grades (although Charms might be worth a look, too, from what has been said lately of Lily and Charms).
And what about the Harry and Hermione couple? Aren’t folks getting curious? Well, they did hug, I think, in that 6th Chamber of Book One… But then they separated… Temporarily…
There is another fact that we all know about: Harry needs to cool it! Moderate his fire, i.e., emotions, anger especially: use cool logic in the face of fire. And solve the riddle. What riddle now? The theme of the “riddle” has been very important in all the books: Snape’s riddle, Tom(‘s) Riddle, the Time-turner riddle (yes, that is a riddle, perfectly set up as one: remember Hermione’s test schedule? “Monday: 9 o’clock, Arithmancy. 9 o’clock, Transfiguration. Lunch. 1 o’clock, Charms. 1 o’clock, Ancient Runes.” Solve that riddle!), the riddle of the Sphinx (maybe not major, but it’s there – a portal into the last task inside the maze), the Prophecy – a riddle if there ever was one! What riddles are left in store for us? How about the titles Rowling gave us, including the title of Book 6? (and don’t forget that nice “Chapters” riddle when her door opened on Halloween). They certainly are brain Twisters, aren’t they? “The Half-Blood Prince.” “Spinners End.” “Draco’s Detour.” “Felix Felicis.” Do you notice the circularity in all of them? A certain back-and-forth movement, a doubling-and-redoubling, a turning-and-returning.
7. Dumbledore’s Mirror of Erised
the danger = no real danger from the mirror itself, except not managing the task, not getting the stone; although there is the danger noted earlier with the mirror: getting stuck on desire and forgetting reality
the solution = purity of intentions; approaching the mirror without base desires of personal profit; wanting the thing for the thing itself
Book 7, the final book of the series… What does it have in store for us? Dumbledore must be alive in it. He must be there to set the task! He had better not die in Book 6. Truly, any book after Dumbledore would feel empty to me. Even if Dumbledore dies on the first page of the book, at least he was there to get it started. I expect we will see Dumbledore in Book 7. In any case, we should somehow feel his hand and presence. Or else, my whole theory falls apart, doesn’t it?
Purity of intentions: well, as love has been talked about much lately, we might find in this book great emphasis placed on Harry’s heart and moral character, and the task itself may in some ways prove to be of a spiritual nature. Questions of identity are definitely raised in the Mirror of Erised. And isn’t identity another theme that has been central to the books? What idea did Rowling get initially? A boy who does not know that he is a wizard. Now he comes face to face with himself, before the Mirror of Erised. What does that mean for Book 7?
I notice that in general, the solutions to the seven tasks of the PS/SS obstacle course are of a spiritual nature: music, light, flight, unity, sacrifice, intelligence, and purity of intentions… These solutions are spiritually uplifting (sacrifice and flight temporarily create pain or fear, but can ultimately also be uplifting). To prepare for the final magic battle, it seems that certain spiritual weapons are the most powerful.