The Phoenix Files: Folder #1: Minerva McGonagall

By Christopher Stephen

Hello, everyone! My name is Christopher Stephen, and I will be writing this bi-weekly column to explore J.K. Rowling’s characters and (try to) see what their futures may hold. I want to especially thank my MuggleNet editor, Sharon; my awesome friend and the best proofreader this side of the Mississippi, Denise; and of course, that one kid, Emerson, for giving me the chance to share my ideas. If anyone would like to contact me (comments, concerns, ideas, etc), please do so at christopherstephened at hotmail dot com. I encourage your feedback!

Now, on to the first Phoenix File…

The first character I chose to analyze has been one of my personal favorites since she first appeared in the books. Professor Minerva McGonagall is intriguing from the first time we meet her as a tabby cat sitting near the Dursley’s home. If you have an uncanny ability to remember everything about a character (or have re-read the series more than five times and are uninterested in a quick review), please feel free to skim down until you see the capital letters.

McGonagall introduces us for the first time to some of J. K. Rowling’s writing tricks. What seems at first an innocent cat, apparently mentioned in passing, turns out to be one of the main characters throughout the series. Who else in the first chapter of the first book does this apply to? Oh, that’s right, Sirius Black. And I am sure I do not need to remind everyone how consistently this situation arises throughout the books. Remember the uproar over Mark Evans? We were finally catching on.

She also introduces us to animagi. Her transformation is the first obviously magical event that takes place (yes, the Put-Outer was cool, but it doesn’t compare to McGonagall’s transformation) in the series. Once again, this bit of information proves to be vital to the series. When we meet Scabbers, how many truly believe he could be a traitor? Or that James Potter, Harry’s own father, would himself illegally learn to transform?

Minerva McGonagall’s name itself is extremely interesting. Rowling uses many literary tricks to fool us while dropping us huge hints at the same time; and one of these techniques is alliteration, which is, of course, the technique of using the same letter or sound at the start of consecutive words, and it is common in poetry. She uses it over and over and over (see Severus Snape, Pansy Parkinson, Cho Chang, Filius Flitwick, etc., etc., etc.), and it helps us to remember names. There are so many characters in the books, she doesn’t want to mention someone and then have all her readers think, “Who’s that?!?” McGonagall is a Scotch-Irish name, of course, and many other people have broken it down linguistically to try to interpret it. Personally, I believe her name has no more meaning than to assist us in remembering her as an important character.

We learn McGonagall is obviously not at Dumbledore’s level early in the first chapter; she is on the edge of panicking (wouldn’t you be?) while Dumbledore is calmly eating candy. (I love that scene; why did they cut it from the movie? Oh well…) Dumbledore is obviously the more advanced wizard, but McGonagall is apparently quite important in whatever hierarchy exists in the wizarding world.

We learn much more about Deputy Headmistress McGonagall during the Sorting Ceremony and afterward. She teaches the advanced art of Transfiguration. She is known, however, as being extremely strict, especially among Gryffindors, as we learn she is Head of Gryffindor House. (Need evidence? How about the “I’m sorry Potter” line when Harry wants to go to Hogsmeade in Book Three? There was a good reason behind it, but still…) On the other hand, she is obviously partial to her Gryffindor students. Remember how disturbed she was when she learned Hermione and Colin were petrified in Book Two? Or how emotional she gets at the Quidditch matches? In any case, Professor McGonagall is not just the strict witch she is sometimes made out to be. It is quite obvious she cares very much about her students, and their welfares.

As the series progresses, we learn more and more of McGonagall’s background and her closeness to Dumbledore. She would stand up for him under any circumstance; no matter how much she questions Dumbledore’s decisions, she realizes he usually knows better than she does. (“Do you think it wise to trust Hagrid with something as important as this?”) She is right there throughout the petrifications in CoS, with Dumbledore and Snape when Dumbledore stuns the Imposter Moody in GoF (although in quite a state), and leads the resistance against the Umbridge dynasty. This (or early in Book One) is probably her most shining moment. Throughout the middle books, I was constantly waiting for Rowling to develop McGonagall’s character; I thought there was so much potential there. Apparently, Book Five was to be her “coming-out” party, if you will. She “came out” as one of the major characters in the series (along with Flitwick), as she defies Umbridge to her face, a very brave (though foolish) act. In fact, perhaps that is why she is Head of Gryffindor House. And let’s not forget her bravery during Harry’s Astronomy O.W.L. exam; she was the one person who came to the aid of Hagrid, and she ended up in St. Mungo’s for her trouble. Poor Gryffindors–for all their bravery, they sure don’t use their heads when they need to the most. Ah, well, we all have our flaws.


Okay, okay, you say, I already know all this, I’ve read the books. What does the future hold for McGonagall? Unfortunately, that is the question we fans ask ourselves more often than any other, and most of the time we begin speculating when we should really look deeper into the novels. Usually, there are many, many hints as to what the future will hold for many of the characters. Let’s review (extremely quickly) the few points we now know about McGonagall:

1) McGonagall is NOT on Umbridge’s good side.
2) McGonagall is a registered animagus.
3) McGonagall is Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts.
4) McGonagall is excellent (behind only Dumbledore, perhaps?) at Transfiguration.

Obviously, we all know about all of this. But, looking back at it again, I believe these four points hold the keys to the future of McGonagall in the series.

First, Umbridge clearly loathes McGonagall. She definitely led the resistance (as far as the teachers go) against the High Inquistor, and refused to even take her own advice to Harry. Umbridge is not dead. I repeat: Umbridge is not dead. At the end of the fifth book, we learn she is in the Hospital Wing and slightly crazy, but she escapes (Peeves chasing her all the way). Perhaps she will end up in St. Mungo’s, or perhaps Dumbledore has something else in mind. Either way, Umbridge can–and I believe WILL–still have a MAJOR effect on the series. She nearly epitomizes the whole genocide factor: SHE HATES HALF-BLOODS. Oh, wait, what’s the name of the sixth book? Half-Blood Prince? Oh, okay. Just checking. I see Umbridge playing a major role in Book Six, even if we don’t know about it while it is happening. And that role just might come back to haunt McGonagall (and make her wish she’d never led that resistance against Toady).

Secondly, McGonagall is a REGISTERED animagus. This means whoever becomes the new Minister of Magic will most likely have access to this information, if it is not already widely known. Who says the new MoM is going to be on Dumbledore’s side? From Jo’s comments on her website in response to Arthur Weasley being the next MoM (“Alas, no.”), I would assume it will be someone even more helpful to You-Wish-You-Didn’t-Know than Fudge was. On a related note, do we know if Voldemort knows about McGonagall being Catwoman? If not, it is probable he could easily find out. Hermione clearly states in Book Three that animagi are registered with all their identifying characteristics, too. That seems to me to be a slightly overlooked bit of information that Jo attempted to slip by us. Since we do not know any other registered animagi (The Marauders and Rita Skeeter are all unregistered), how does this information help us? It is unlikely Jo inserted this piece of information out of frivolity. I believe it will help Voldemort and his gang more easily distinguish between everyday felines and the transfigured McGonagall.

Third, McGonagall is the Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts. We have known this forever. This is another piece of information, another mystery for us to solve. I believe this tells us one key point (and, granted, I could be TOTALLY wrong on this one): Dumbledore will die/retire BEFORE McGonagall dies/retires. Why else would we know this information? On the other hand, however, perhaps McGonagall has already served her duty as Deputy Headmistress. Recall in Book One that Dumbledore was gone; Book Two, suspended; and even in Book Five, McGonagall should have been Headmistress if frog-woman hadn’t taken over.

Fourth, McGonagall is excellent at Transfiguration. This serves two purposes. She can both defend herself with her knowledge in the case of a direct battle with a Death Eater and she can educate Harry. It seems vital to me that a good Auror know Transfiguration.

Now, on to the speculations! Well, I believe Book Six (and possibly Book Seven) will show McGonagall develop into an even MORE major character. Rowling hinted that we may see more of the staff’s families, and McGonagall seems to me to be one of the great candidates (we already know about Dumbledore’s goat of a brother) for that kind of story-line expansion. Also, I have a hunch that McGonagall will not live to see the end of the series. If you can help back up my claim on this using canon, I would much appreciate an e-mail. As much as I hope she does survive to the end (I would mourn her death much more than Sirius’s), she would almost seem expendable after making sure Harry was on his way to becoming an Auror. And her bravery could very likely be her end if she doesn’t think things through more before acting. It scares me that Umbridge and her followers could easily put her into St. Mungo’s; just think about what a few Death Eaters could do.

No matter what the future holds for Professor McGonagall, it is obvious she will continue to be a major player in the fight against You-Know-Who, in the progress of Harry’s wizarding skills, and in her roles as Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts and Gryffindor Head of House. I can’t wait to see her antics (“It unscrews the other way”) in the final two novels.

One last little bit on McGonagall that I personally passed over: she probably knew James (and Lily) very well when they were students at Hogwarts. Because she is Deputy Headmistress, it follows that she has quite a bit of seniority around the school. Note that James’s wand was “particularly good for Transfiguration.” It seems McGonagall would indeed have spent a lot of time with James. Perhaps she knew about his animagus pursuits (or other pertinent information about Harry’s father)?

Thanks for reading! Remember to send your comments to christopherstephened at hotmail dot com and be on the look-out for Folder #2: Headmaster/Professor Albus Dumbledore, Supreme Mugwump, etc., etc., etc.