Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus: A Mere Proverb or an Important Clue?

by Bojana Kenda

I went to a Latin session the other day, and there was some talk about JK’s extensive knowledge of the above mentioned language. So there I started thinking — not about the meaning, but about the significance of the saying Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus (or, Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon). Obviously, it must be VERY important, or JK wouldn’t have made it a part of the Hogwarts’ Coat of Arms, and it wouldn’t have been put before us on the very first pages of the books. Therefore, I believe it is a clue worth exploring.

Now, what exactly does “Never tickle a sleeping dragon” mean? Well, it means exactly what it says, of course ;-). If there is danger (or a dangerous individual/group/situation) ahead of you, or you are threatened by it, don’t go and provoke it! In other words, if a dragon is asleep, leave him be; don’t wake him up with tickling and laugh at him like you’ve just done the prank of a century. He won’t appreciate it.

So we understand the meaning of the proverb — but what does it have to do with Hogwarts? Why is it a part of its symbol? The definition of symbol goes as follows: a shape or design that is used to represent something. According to that definition, “Never tickle a sleeping dragon” is to represent Hogwarts as an institution. To me, that doesn’t make any sense. It has nothing to do with teaching young wizards and witches to do magic. Or does it?

To perhaps understand why those four particular words were put on the school’s crest, we must go back to the time of the Four Founders. They obviously had a good enough reason to choose this wording. Now as we know, they all cooperated perfectly until Salazar and Godric had a quarrel and Salazar consequently left the school. Could he have been the “dragon” whom the other three have accidentally pushed over the edge of patience by (metaphorically) “tickling” him and realized that it was a mistake?

We don’t know the full details of the dispute that took place there and then, so for all we know, Godric could easily have done something to provoke Salazar, something he perhaps thought was rather amusing and Salazar did not (I’m mentioning only Godric here, since the argument was said to be mostly between the two of them). That could be possible: Salazar as a parselmouth was connected to the snake, and therefore to the dragon (draco) as well.

And since we know what terrible consequences the quarrel had — a Basilisk was left in the Chamber of Secrets in order to kill as many muggle-borns as possible — the saying could’ve been put on the crest as a warning for future generations never to mess with someone so dangerous. This is one possible interpretation, and if so, the saying should not be regarded as a clue, but simply as a reaction of Godric, Rowena and Helga to Salazar.

Another alternative to the interpretation of Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus can be the following: each of the four words represents a particular House. Draco as “dragon” would therefore represent Slytherin, since there is a relation between dragons and serpents, and the serpent is Slytherin’s animal. Dormiens as “sleeping” would then be an equivalent to Hufflepuff, if we relate the house mascot, a badger, to sleeping. I’m not saying badgers sleep through all of their lives, but they are nocturnal animals, which means they’re active during night time, and so they usually sleep, while humans, snakes, eagles, lions, etc. are normally awake.

Next, we have Nunquam as “never,” which could stand for Ravenclaw. Before you start laughing, I realize how ridiculous this may sound, but it’s the only connection I could come up with. If we focus on the raven instead of the eagle (which is the official house animal) in regards with Ravenclaw, Edgar Allan Poe’s famous (and my personal all-time-favourite poem) “The Raven” comes to mind. Those of you who are familiar with the poem will surely recall the well-known “nevermore” that the speaker of the poem repeats (correct me if I’m wrong) eleven times. Twelve times actually, if we count “nevermore” and “never” as well. That’s more than enough for anyone who has ever read the poem to subconsciously connect this particular word with it. Ravenclaw = never(more) = Nunquam.

Now all that we’re left with is Titillandus as in “to tickle.” This can be related to Gryffindor (though not too much to its lion), since Gryffindors like to go looking for trouble, or better said, “be brave,” tickling dragons if they find it necessary. Moreover, Gryffindors like to joke around (remember George, Fred, Lee, the Marauders, etc.), which is not a characteristic that can be as easily applied to any other House. And tickling is, of course, a thing one usually does in a joke, to have fun.

And there we have it: Draco, Dormiens, Nunquam, Titillandus = Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor. To be honest, this was what came to my mind when I first opened PS/SS, and I didn’t even know what those Latin words meant, I simply assumed they said “snake, badger, eagle, lion” (not necessarily in that particular order, though).

However, my guess is, there’s probably something more to it. Keep in mind that JK has a habit of leaving clues all over, and how could she have possibly resisted putting something important in the last place we would have thought of looking? After all, why should anyone pay attention to where the story doesn’t even begin to take place yet? Well, it still could be a trick for that matter, but let’s explore it a bit nonetheless.

Now, everyone wants to know how can/will Voldemort die/be destroyed. This is perhaps the one thing we’ve asked ourselves most often, ever since we first figured in PS/SS that he wasn’t altogether gone. Could the stated proverb reveal that mystery? I would very much like to believe that, but Voldemort is neither “sleeping” (he is VERY active, or at least he will be in the future books), nor is, as far as I’m aware, a popular target for “tickling”; so I don’t really see in what way a parallel could be drawn here. (If you have any ideas however, please e-mail me here.)

Leaving Voldemort aside, another person comes to mind as the “Draco” (and this is perhaps even more interesting!), namely Draco Malfoy. If so, we can interpret the saying in a way such as: “Never tickle Draco (Malfoy) when he is sleeping”. And if we take sleeping and tickling in a metaphorical sense, we can understand this simply as “Don’t provoke Draco, if he doesn’t present a danger to you.” And why would anyone deliberately provoke or challenge him? It is always he that annoys and irritates Harry, thus provoking him to do things that get him into trouble.

However, Harry has always, in a way, been provoking Draco just the same, as unintentionally as he might have. Yet he is still guilty as charged. There’s been a war going on between them ever since they’ve met, and Draco was not the only one attacking (and of course we’re all glad he got some of it back!). Anyway, what really hit Draco was when Harry put Lucius in Azkaban. That, I believe, gave Draco reason enough to hate Harry for life and to become (literally) his mortal enemy. I’m afraid we can expect some notable danger from him in the future; even close cooperation with Voldemort. Furthermore, my prediction is that Draco will be the one finally bringing Harry to Voldemort (or vice versa) and “arrange” the final confrontation. Hence,tickling a sleeping dragon will bring Harry face to face with a very dangerous enemy.

So, this is my view on the matter of Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus. Whether I’m right or wrong, and the saying is either important or completely insignificant and coincidental, I hope the mystery will be clarified before the series’ end.