The Two-Way Mirror #25: Caput Draconis: Will Harry and Voldemort Keep Their Heads?

by Dan

What often happens in Potterverse is that a seemingly insignificant detail, when kept track of, multiplies into a remarkable pattern. A detail that has recently caught my attention is the image of the decapitated head.

We get our first glimpse of the decapitated head when we meet Nearly Headless Nick, the ghost of the Gryffindor House. Initially I thought this was just a darkly humorous idea, proof of Rowling’s boundless imagination, though it was immediately and dubiously reinforced by the first password to the Gryffindor Tower, Caput Draconis, meaning ‘the head of the dragon.’ In the second book, the detail of Nick’s decapitation was amply magnified by the dramatic entrance of the Headless Hunt, a bunch of headless horsemen who played ball with their heads. Still, I simply enjoyed the show and thought nothing of it. It was only recently that I noticed how widespread the motif of the severed head is in Potterverse. I am beginning to suspect this detail of decapitation serves as an illustration of a message that is central to the plot.

By headless I don’t necessarily mean decapitated, but any image that draws attention to the head, especially as disembodied or in some other fashion set apart from the body. When it is the hero who appears symbolically decapitated, I think we have cause to worry. We see Harry literally as a disembodied head a couple of times, thanks to his invisibility cloak, a visually striking image that Rowling insists upon. The first time we see Harry’s disembodied head is on Christmas when he gets his invisibility cloak from Dumbledore. He tries it on and looks at himself in the mirror:

Harry looked down at his feet, but they were gone. He dashed to the mirror. Sure enough, his reflection looked back at him, just his head suspended in midair, his body completely invisible. He pulled the cloak over his head and his reflection vanished completely.

(Chapter 12, SS)

The second time is in PoA when Harry gave Malfoy quite a scare near the Shrieking Shack as the invisibility cloak slipped off his face: “‘AAARGH!’ he [Draco] yelled, pointing at Harry’s head.” Harry’s subsequent conversation with Snape upon his return to Hogwarts gave Rowling the excuse to really drive home the image of the severed head:

‘Mr. Malfoy then saw an extraordinary apparition. Can you imagine what it might have been, Potter?’

‘No,’ said Harry, now trying to sound innocently curious.

‘It was your head, Potter. Floating in midair.’

‘What would your head have been doing in Hogsmeade, Potter?’ said Snape softly. ‘Your head is not allowed in Hogsmeade.’

‘I know that,’ said Harry, striving to keep his face free of guilt or fear. ‘It sounds like Malfoy’s having hallucin-‘

‘Malfoy is not having hallucinations,’ snarled Snape, and he bent down, a hand on each arm of Harry’s chair, so that their faces were a foot apart. ‘If your head was in Hogsmeade, so was the rest of you.’

(“Snape’s Grudge,” PoA)

It is mainly because we see Harry’s head more than once and rather strikingly without his body that I have grown suspicious of the image of decapitation. I think the two instances in which Harry was presented this way were meaningful, especially since we know that something very unusual is going on with Harry’s head: he bears on his forehead the scar that Voldemort’s Avada Kedavra left on him. So far, this scar has only affected his head it seems, giving him head-splitting headaches, and his only inherited talent so far has manifested itself through his mouth: he can speak Parseltongue. Harry’s head also, in a sense, can defy the laws of space and time. He can travel to wherever Voldemort is through his mind, in his dreams, although his body remains safely in his bed.

Harry was worried that because he was in the Department of Mysteries in his mind, his body must also have been there, to attack Mr. Weasley, and Ron had to convince him that his body was in Hogwarts thrashing about the whole time. This contradicts Snape’s statement that if Harry’s head is in some place, so is the rest of him, or rather, it acts as a bridge between the image of the disembodied head in the conversation with Snape and Harry’s relationship with Voldemort. It is because of this consideration that I began to realize that the images of disembodied heads, as well as the accessory characters of Nearly Headless Nick and the Headless Hunt may be meant to participate in the weaving of a message through persistent illustration.

Another striking example of a disembodied head that seems to me to be meaningful is what happens to the Death Eater’s head in the Department of Mysteries when it falls into the time jar. Although this is not a case of a head being or seeming removed from its body, symbolically a form of decapitation does take place; if not spatial, then temporal. The Death Eater no longer has his adult head, which has been removed to a different time:

They were all gazing, open-mouthed, appalled, at what was happening to the man’s head. It was shrinking very fast, growing balder and balder, the black hair and stubble retracting into his skull, his cheeks smooth, his skull round and covered with a peachlike fuzz…

A baby’s head now sat grotesquely on top of the thick, muscled neck of the Death Eater as he struggled to get up again.

(“Beyond the Veil,” OotP)

When the Death Eater removes the jar from his head, he is left forever with a baby head that stands disproportionately on his adult body. Hermione stared at the Death Eater and commented, “It’s time. Time.” This moment in the series was too intense for the plot, as well as visually and philosophically striking not to bear a deeper meaning. We seem to have the opposite of Harry’s problem who, as a baby, received on his head the trace of an adult villain. The Death Eater with a baby head seems an allusion both to Harry’s baby head cursed by Voldemort and to Voldemort’s temporary Babymort phase. Since “time” is what transformed the Death Eater’s head, will “time” also help solve Harry’s problem if he is a Horcrux? Has Voldemort himself messed with time, which is why he had the shape of a baby when he began to regain a body?

Concerning the symbolic decapitation of the Death Eater, it is also reminiscent of our first meeting with Voldemort when he was but a disembodied face at the back of Quirrell’s head. I found it rather ominous that in Prince, when Harry ends up in the hospital with a cracked skull after the game in which McLaggen takes part, he feels his head “strangely heavy,” wrapped in “a stiff turban of bandages” (“Elf Tails,” HBP). It seemed to be an allusion to Quirrell’s own “turban,” a hint that perhaps something as ominous is hiding under Harry’s turban – a piece of Voldemort’s soul.

Snape’s description of the Dark Arts as an enemy with many heads seems all the more meaningful in view of all these images that draw attention to the head:

‘The Dark Arts,’ said Snape, ‘are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting against that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible.

(“The Half-Blood Prince,” HBP)

This aspect of the Dark Arts seems to have been illustrated from the first obstacle course of the series with Fluffy, who, though he is not a dark creature, had three heads and foreshadowed the danger waiting for Harry at the end of the road – Quirrell and his two faces. The Runespoor, or the snake with three heads, seems to be an illustration of this philosophical vision of the Dark Arts, as well as perhaps a metaphor for what Voldemort himself has become, and will be in his final stages after his inanimate Horcruxes will be destroyed: a dark creature with three living heads – his own, Nagini’s, and possibly Harry’s (see also my editorial Does Dumbledore Know Why Voldemort Didn’t Die?. Sharing a head with Harry through the scar could cause immense problems in the final quest to defeat the Dark Lord. We could truly say, at least from Voldemort’s point of view, that the Dark Arts have succeeded in growing a nearly indestructible head, if this head belongs to Harry. But the power of love ought to be able to deal with this challenge, as love does not fear self-sacrifice.

It is because of the meaningfulness of these images that I began to collect other, perhaps more trivial instances, of symbolic decapitation. For example, I am sure you remember Fred and George’s ‘Headless Hats.’ That was an impressive bit of magic, even Hermione conceded, and it was a vision that caused witnesses to scream with shock. It was an invisibility charm placed on the hats, which could extend beyond their limits to the heads wearing them. I believe this idea served as a purposeful reminder of Harry’s disembodied head, isolated from its body as a result of a similar optical illusion created by his invisibility cloak.

Another one of Fred and George’s inventions, the fake wands, literally draws our attention again to decapitation as Harry’s fake wand duels with Ron’s:

‘Now that Potter and Weasley have been kind enough to act their age,’ said Professor McGonagall, with an angry look at the pair of them as the head of Harry’s haddock drooped and fell silently to the floor – Ron’s parrot’s beak had severed it moments before – ‘I have something to say to you all.’

(“The Unexpected Task,” GoF)

I find it telling that the head that is severed belongs to Harry’s wand, as even this small and playful detail brings us back to the now rather obsessive theme of Harry’s disembodied head. Although playful, this detail is pregnant with a veiled threat. Harry seems, by association with his wand, the victim represented by the symbolic decapitation. In fact, when McClaggen cracked his head with the Beater’s bat, he did symbolically decapitate Harry, and the Quidditch team to boot, which lost spectacularly without its Captain. As a result, Harry ended up with the ominous turban of bandages around his head in the hospital.

In another seemingly trivial passage, Harry is, on the contrary, the perpetrator of the decapitation. He manages to behead a caterpillar in the context of an argument with Draco, who pretends his arm has been seriously wounded by Buckbeak: “‘So that’s why you’re putting it on,’ said Harry, accidentally beheading a dead caterpillar because his hand was shaking in anger” (“The Boggart in the Wardrobe,” PoA). We soon find that this minuscule image of beheading was actually quite portentous, foreshadowing the imminent threat to Buckbeak’s life when McNair showed up with the ax.

Additional striking images of material beheadings are evident on the walls of Sirius’ home – 12 Grimmauld Place – horribly decorated with the severed heads of former house-elves. The shop of Borgin and Burkes offers dubious shrunken heads for sale. And in the episode of Hagrid’s return from his trip to the Giants, we learn of Karkus’ violent end: “An’ when the sun came up the snow was scarlet an’ his head was lying’ at the bottom o’ the lake” (“Hagrid’s Tale,” OotP).

An image of a material decapitation in the guise of a manifest symbol is the picture motto of the Hog’s Head:

A battered wooden sign hung from a rusty bracket over the door, with a picture upon it of a wild boar’s severed head leaking blood onto the white cloth around it.

(“In the Hog’s Head,” OotP)

I find it ill-boding that such an image should greet the first meeting of an association whose leader, in other words, “head,” is Harry. In fact, when the DA gets caught, a head does fall, though not Harry’s, the intended victim. It is the “Headmaster,” Dumbledore, who leaves Hogwarts. I might take this moment to point out how significantly the word “Head” figures in the various titles associated with Hogwarts: Headmaster, Headmistress, Head of House, Head Girl, and Head Boy. The head of each student also figures prominently in the ceremony of the Sorting Hat.

Sometimes, the symbolic body seems to perform just fine without its head, just as the body of a chicken still runs for a while with its head cut off. The students rise to the occasion the moment Dumbledore leaves the school and make Umbridge’s first day as Headmistress a living hell. And when Harry, the captain of the Quidditch team, is removed for detention by Snape on the day of the game, the team manages to win spectacularly even without its head, or perhaps ironically because it is without its head. That is because, as Dumbledore so famously said, one is absent only when there is no one there faithful to him. Both Dumbledore and Harry were present in the hearts of the students and the team. It is as if their absence was only an optical illusion, as if Harry and Dumbledore were only hidden by an invisibility cloak, but were still essentially present. Perhaps such is also the relationship between the dead and the living. Perhaps just as Harry was present on the tower but invisible under his cloak, Dumbledore will be present in the seventh book, but invisible because not bodily alive, and the team will win even without him, or because it is without him only in appearance.

These are a few more instances in which attention was drawn to the head: in SS, Hermione’s face transformed into that of a cat; in GoF, Viktor’s botched self-transfiguration giving him the head of a shark; in GoF, the lion-bodied Sphinx with the head of a woman; in OotP, Luna wearing a ridiculous hat in the shape of a lion’s head; in GoF and OotP, the bubblehead charm that Fleur, Cedric, and then all Hogwarts students used to keep a supply of fresh air; in HBP, the card about Sirius’ and James’ misdeed saying they tripled the size of the head of a classmate; in OotP and HBP, Marietta’s cursed face hidden under heavy make-up and a balaclava; and in HBP, Bill’s mutilated face.

Perhaps I might also add Hermione’s attempt to free the House-elves by knitting for them – hats in particular – and Dobby collecting and wearing all the hats grotesquely at the same time. The brains flowing in the aquarium in the Department of Mysteries also draw our attention to disembodied heads. The “floophone,” the method of communication by floo powder in which a wizard’s head appears in someone else’s fireplace, provides an additional excuse to present us with images of heads without their bodies. The first time Harry sees Amos’ head in the fire, he jumps with fright. Subsequently, we will see Sirius’ face in the Gryffindor fireplace, the second time almost caught by Umbridge’s disembodied hand. Finally, Harry’s head will appear twice in the fireplace of 12 Grimmauld Place. These images serve to keep the figure of the disembodied or decapitated, or otherwise transfigured, head permanently in our field of vision.

A friend, Muggleharte, has shared with me a compilation of interesting examples of hands in Potterverse and after HBP, I can’t help but think there may be a connection between these hands and the image of the disembodied head. Dumbledore’s blackened hand, which hardly seems to belong to his body anymore, seems a counterpart of Wormtail’s severed hand that has been replaced by a glowing silver replica created by Voldemort. These images reproduce the notion of a body that has a missing, cursed, disconnected or otherwise transfigured part, and I can’t help but think about the scar on Harry’s forehead as meaningfully associated with such images. I wonder if the confusion between the functionality of Harry’s hand and head in the first Quidditch game in which Harry caught the snitch with his mouth (“Quidditch,” SS) is meant to foreshadow that perhaps Harry’s hand that is supposed to vanquish the Dark Lord will collaborate unexpectedly with his head, and he’ll somehow “cheat” the rules of the Prophecy and use his head in a material way to defeat Voldemort.

It is obvious from all the preceding examples that decapitation is a way that wizards and magical creatures can be killed, and at this point, we are all curious about methods of killing that might be effective in getting rid of Voldemort. It seems a Muggle method of execution, but apparently, it works. If the Runespoor is really supposed to be a metaphor for Voldemort and his three heads – Voldemort, Nagini and possibly Harry – then one of these heads will fall, because, according to Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, one of these heads is so annoying that eventually one of the other two will bite it off. The question is, which head will fall? It would be rather gruesome for it to be Harry’s head. I do think that after Snape’s description of the Dark Arts as a many-headed monster who always grows a stronger head in the place of each severed one, we should see a head literally and dramatically fall in Harry’s final fight against Voldemort, although I admit, there’s something dreadful about the idea.

The three heads of the Runespoor were the Critic, the Dreamer, and the Planner: I think Harry is the Dreamer and Voldemort is the Planner, but who is the Critic?

The right head is the critic and will evaluate the efforts of the left and middle heads with a continual irritable hissing. The right head’s fangs are extremely venomous. The Runespoor rarely reaches a great age, as the heads tend to attack each other. It is common to see a Runespoor with the right head missing, the other two heads having banded together to bite it off.

(“Fantastic Beasts”).

I see the applications of this description to our trio, with Harry being the Planner, Ron the Dreamer, and Hermione the Critic, but I think that’s just a little joke. On the other hand, the Runespoor might really tell us something about Voldemort’s three heads. The only trouble is, Nagini is never described as a critic (her name does sound a bit like “Nagging,” but Nagini has other, more likely meanings). Another “Critic” in Voldemort’s circle, Dumbledore’s former “right hand,” that unpleasant hisser who has proven himself poisonous, is Snape. If it weren’t for my pet idea that Snape will become a monk, I would fear for his head.

But then, consider these ominous signs of Snape’s possible future decapitation. In Prince, when Harry goes inside the Room of Requirement, among the many objects hiding there and in fact, the last on the list, and thus the most visible, was a “heavy, bloodstained ax” (Ch. 24 “Sectumsempra”). The next thing Harry finds is the vanishing cabinet, and then the cupboard where he hides his book. Most noticeable, on top of the cupboard, there is a bust on whose head Harry puts a wig and tarnished tiara to make it more distinguishable (I remember Snape wearing Neville’s grandmother’s vulture hat: maybe a vulture perched on his head doesn’t bode well for Snape and his head either). The wig and tiara draw attention to the head, and the fact that we have a bust draws attention symbolically to the act of decapitation, as a bust is the head and part of the upper body cut from the rest. After the bloodstained ax, perhaps we are meant to see this symbolism in the bust. It is under this bust that Harry places the Half-Prince’s book, i.e. Snape’s book. Thus I wonder if Rowling symbolically seals Snape’s fate through this conjunction of images. I really don’t want Snape to be decapitated! But then, look at his first name, Severus, and how many times Rowling uses the verb “to sever” to speak of decapitation. Indeed, more and more I fear for Severus’ head.

I also wonder if the decapitated wizard of the fountain in the Ministry Atrium is symbolic of Snape’s future role in the fight against Voldemort. It was Bellatrix who decapitated that wizard: “her counterspell hit the head of the handsome wizard, which was blown off and landed twenty feet away…” (OotP Ch. 36 “The Only One He Ever Feared”). The allusion to the headless wizard was persistent afterward, and its role was to protect Harry: “He had edged right around to where the goblin stood beaming up at the now headless wizard“; “the headless golden statue of the wizard in the fountain had sprung alive… and landed on the floor with a crash between Harry and Voldemort. The spell merely glanced off its chest as the statue flung out its arms, protecting Harry“; “The headless statue thrust Harry backward, away from the fight, as Dumbledore advanced on Voldemort…” “He wanted to cry out a warning, but his headless guard kept shunting him backward toward the wall, blocking his every attempt to get out from behind it“; “Harry opened his eyes, saw his glasses lying at the heel of the headless statue that had been guarding him, but which now lay flat on its back, cracked and immobile.” The images of the inanimate statues coming to life is also a foreshadowing of Voldemort’s Inferi, except Dumbledore has a different style, obviously… these are not corpses, but statues. The protective statue flinging its arms protectively in front of Harry makes me think of Snape and the trio in the Prisoner of Azkaban movie. Will Snape play such a protective role in Harry’s fight against Voldemort? Will he lose his head as a consequence? Will Bellatrix be the one to do it? She loves him nearly as much as she loved Sirius…

If the ominous images speak true, I also think we can conclude that something dangerous is going on with Harry’s head, which we have seen associated with decapitation now a number of noticeable times. It is for this reason that I fear that a part of Voldemort’s soul is in fact probably somewhere in Harry’s scar, making Harry a Horcrux. But I don’t think Harry will join the Headless Hunt at the end (that’s a fate I reserve for Voldemort). Unlike many readers, I think all members of the trio will ultimately survive, and the life-guaranteeing reason is that they have been romantically paired. I know Cedric was also paired up with Cho, but Cho was a variable at the time, intensely desired by Harry. Harry’s pairing with Ginny is definite, as is Hermione’s with Ron, Hagrid’s with Madame Maxime, and Lupin’s with Tonks. These are guarantees in my mind that all these characters will see the end of the books alive. As I think Rowling’s books are also a celebration of life, she is likely to allow for a maximum amount of weddings and a minimum number of funerals, the latter being mainly of loners like Sirius and Dumbledore. That is not to say that Harry won’t undergo something like a temporary death. Harry is special. He has defied death once. I think he can die and live again, unlike anyone else in the series.

Thus, although there is definitely an ax hanging over Harry’s head, I don’t think Harry’s head will fall entirely, only nearly. I think he will metaphorically follow in the footsteps of his House ghost, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, and become nearly headless (which will make Nick’s day). For a nearly headless solution, we could bring the veil into the equation. Brandon Ford has humorously argued today (as I am putting the finishing touches on my editorial) that Harry will chuck Voldemort’s Horcruxes through the veil and then jump after, hopefully holding Voldemort’s hand. Talk about cleaning up the house. It reminds me of Sirius’ house and the belching trash can. Thanks to this idea I can add an interesting scenario to my beheading model. Remember when Harry couldn’t figure out a way to survive underwater in GoF, and Ron finally offered him the usual “just wanted to join in the conversation” solutions:

‘Harry, just go down to the lake tomorrow, right, stick your head in, yell at the merpeople to give back whatever they’ve nicked, and see if they chuck it out. Best you can do, mate.’

(“The Second Task,” GoF)

We’ve seen that passing wholly through the veil basically spells death. Perhaps Harry’s friends can hold onto his body while he bravely sticks his head inside the veil and looks around for a solution to his Horcrux problem. We have yet to see what happens to someone who doesn’t completely enter the hungry curtain. Harry could yell at the invisible voices to take the Voldemort thing out. I wonder, if Harry sticks his head in the veil, what will he see?

If not the veil, there could be other magical solutions to temporarily or partially removing Harry’s head, with the possibility of safely returning it to his body after the Voldemort piece has been dealt with. I’m not sure I like the idea of physical decapitation of Harry though. It’s a bit grisly. I’d rather it be something symbolic, like with the veil. In fact, considering that Harry’s symbolic decapitation so far has been achieved mainly through the veiling of his body with an invisibility cloak, why not have a spiritual decapitation take place by veiling his head temporarily with the death curtain?

I guess we’ll find out in the seventh book if all these severed heads are just a lingering obsession with the guillotine that Rowling has kept from her French days, or if it’s part of a bigger, more dramatic, and possibly gruesome plan… “Off with their heads!”