Rising from the Ashes: The Importance of the Phoenix
by A. Abraham (aka Gryffinpuff)
Peter Humphreys for BBC Newsround: Who did Fawkes previously belong to and will he play a vital role in the next book?JK Rowling: I am not going to answer about the role in the next books, which probably gives you a big clue, and he has never been owned by anyone but Dumbledore. You will notice that when Harry goes back in the Pensieve in this book, Fawkes is never there, and no, I am sorry, not in this book, I take that back. When Harry has previously seen the study with a different headmaster he saw it with Dippet and Fawkes was not there then. Fawkes is Dumbledore’s possession, not a Hogwarts possession.
-July 18, 2005, Post-HBP Children’s Press Conference
With this statement, Rowling managed to squash an entire well-formulated editorial I had completely planned out. At first I was despondent, but slowly a new idea started to grow, a revelation of sorts. In my original editorial formation, Fawkes had belonged to Gryffindor himself, and was a key player in the lives of great wizards throughout the ages. But as my new epiphany began to take shape, the idea of anyone other than Dumbledore owning Fawkes seemed wrong. I realized, in fact, that Dumbledore being the only owner of a pet phoenix we have seen in the series is extremely significant.
There was some merit to my first idea. Fawkes, a symbol of friendship, bravery, and strength, beautifully represents everything that Dumbledore and Gryffindor stand for: equality, courage, and love. It’s easy to picture Gryffindor owning a phoenix himself, his house element being fire and the bird proudly displaying his house colors of red and gold. The students of Gryffindor house seem drawn to all that the phoenix stands for, many eventually joining the ranks of the Order of the Phoenix. Oddly enough, the only member of the Order that has revealed their house thus far as being something other than Gryffindor has been Severus Snape, but more about him later.
So what does it matter if Gryffindor owned a phoenix? In truth, I’m not sure if he did or not. And even if he did, I really couldn’t say if that fact would be important to the plot of the series or not. For the time being, however, I feel the significance of the phoenix lies solely in its symbolic meaning.
Mythology of the Phoenix
For centuries, the symbol of the phoenix has appeared in various cultures, signifying life and rebirth in many forms and meanings. According to Arabian mythology, only one phoenix is alive at any one time. Their lives are planned for a specified number of years, until the aging phoenix decides it is time to die. According to legend, the bird prepares its own funeral pyre, and then sings a song of such ethereal beauty that the god of the sun stops his horses of fire in the sky to listen. As the song finishes, and the chariot is pulled away, sparks fly from the hooves of the chariot horses, setting the pyre ablaze, and a new phoenix springs forth from the ashes. The new phoenix then pays homage to his predecessor before carrying on with his own life.
In Chinese history, the phoenix (known as the Feng Huang) symbolizes the union of yin and yang, as the bird is exceedingly gentle, though also exceedingly powerful in its own right. The most common depiction of the Feng Huang is of the bird attacking a snake with its talons, while its wings are spread wide.
Generally, the phoenix symbolizes life and death, ending and beginning. It has been used to express something as simple as the sun rising and setting each day. It can be a symbol for royalty, or nobility. Sometimes it’s used to mark someone of great worth, or an era of peace. The phoenix has even been used in the Christian religion as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
So what does any of this mean when related to the story of Harry Potter?
Albus Dumbledore and the Arabian Phoenix
The farther we delve into the world Rowling has created, the more impressed I become, and the more I’m convinced she’s a genius. Since the release of HBP, Potter fans have been asking some very important questions.
- Did Dumbledore really die, and if so, was it planned?
- Is Snape really bad, or is he on Dumbledore’s side?
- Harry could hardly hold his own against Snape, is he really going to stand a chance against Voldemort, the Horcruxes, and a slew of Death Eaters?
For me, all these questions were answered when I began to look at the true importance of Fawkes. Fittingly, Fawkes is the only phoenix we have encountered in the series. I believe Rowling did this on purpose, so that we would directly relate the phoenix and its symbolic meaning with Dumbledore, who, in reference to question one, had every intention of dying.
Dumbledore is, in a literary sense, a phoenix. We know it’s the form his Patronus takes. He used it as the mascot for his band of warriors, the Order of the Phoenix. And when, like an aging phoenix, he realized the time was approaching when he would die, Dumbledore “prepared his funeral pyre,” laying out everything the newly born phoenix would need.
The new phoenix, Harry Potter.
When you imagine the scene on “The Lightening-Struck Tower,” it’s nowhere near as beautiful as the death of a phoenix in myth appears to be. Dumbledore is approaching the end of his life, and as such lays out everything he knows in such a way that his successor may follow easily in his footsteps, passing along all his knowledge to Harry. Atop the tower, Dumbledore asked for Snape. When Snape finally arrives, he stares at Dumbledore for a moment as Dumbledore calls out to him. Snape then sends a blast of light, killing him instantly. Upon Dumbledore’s death, Harry is able to spring to life, released from his bonds, pursuing Snape in his flight from the school. Now, I’m in no way trying to compare Snape to a sun god. However, he was the catalyst. When Dumbledore knew his time had come, he called for the one he could depend on. We can still speculate as to whether Dumbledore and Snape had planned for this to happen, or whether Dumbledore knew what Snape was really about in the end, just like he knew Malfoy had been feebly attempting to kill him the entire year.
I also firmly believe that Dumbledore is truly gone, that he truly did die upon the tower. At the end of the chapter “The Phoenix Lament” in HBP, while lying in bed, Harry:
“…became aware suddenly that the grounds were silent. Fawkes had stopped singing. And he knew, without knowing how he knew it, that the phoenix had gone, had left Hogwarts for good.”
-pg. 632, emphasis mine
In that quote, Rowling showed us the truth. Dumbledore, the phoenix, had truly gone.
Feng Huang, the Lion, and the Snake
When you consider how little we truly know about the founding members of Hogwarts, it is no wonder that there is so much speculation about their importance to the series. We know that the four greatest witches and wizards of the age worked together, forming Hogwarts. We also know that Gryffindor and Slytherin, once close friends, had a falling out due to differences of opinion (basically on the worth of Muggle-borns), and after an ugly feud between the two, Slytherin left the school.
The mascots of the two houses, Gryffindor and Slytherin, express not only the personalities and ideals of the two men, but also seem to stand for Rowling’s representation of good and evil. Gryffindor’s mascot, the lion, is a symbol of courage, bravery, and strength. The snake, on the other hand, is often a symbol of shrewdness, transformation, and at times an omen of difficulties and darkness. The snake is also a symbol of life, death and rebirth in many cultures (each year the snake sheds its skin, appearing new and fresh as if it had been reborn).
The Chinese phoenix, Feng Huang, portrays the image of yin and yang, the idea of balance. The need for both good, and evil, in the world. The lion versus the snake. In our story, the “first lion” was Godric Gryffindor, and Salazar Slytherin was the “first snake.” Centuries later, we find the snake and the lion reborn in Grindelwald and Albus Dumbledore. True, we know little about Grindelwald, and it’s unlikely that he attended Hogwarts and was in Slytherin house, but the symbols fit. Shortly after Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald, Lord Voldemort rose to power. The rebirth of the snake, Tom Riddle transformed. As such, Dumbledore’s fight was over, and a new lion had to step forward. Enter Harry Potter.
Rowling paints a beautiful picture of the current lion/snake struggle throughout the series, cleverly aligned with the symbolic Feng Huang from time to time. Harry and Lord Voldemort are tied together through the phoenix, both their wand cores having a feather from Fawkes, forcing balance between them. When the scale is tipped too far in one direction, the balance is often restored by the presence of the phoenix.
In CoS, Harry is facing not only Voldemort, but a giant Basilisk. There is no way Harry could have survived merely on his own devices. Enter Fawkes, attacking the snake with his talons like the Chinese Feng Huang. Once Voldemort’s weapon (made accessible to him by means of the original “snake” himself, Salazar Slytherin) was reduced in powers to one — his venomous fangs — Harry was able to find a compatible weapon of his own in Gryffindor’s sword (oddly enough, made accessible to him by means of the original “lion,” Godric Gryffindor, as the sword came from Gryffindor’s hat). To be fair, Fawkes then proceeds to help Harry again, healing him and throwing the diary before him, giving Harry the idea to stab it with the Basilisk fang. The balance was still off. Harry was dying, and Voldemort had a wand he could have used at any time. In the end, Harry reacted faster.
There is a second time when the Feng Huang returns to restore balance between the lion and the snake. In GoF, during the graveyard scene, Harry is ridiculously outnumbered. The snake has tipped the balance in his favor. Once again, enter the phoenix with the Priori Incantatem. The phoenix core of their wands created a link between Harry and Lord Voldemort, surrounding them with a web of phoenix song, separating them from the Death Eaters. This put them on equal footing; it was up to their own strengths to get them out. Once again, Harry makes it through. But these brief victories leaves me wondering: What happens if Harry succeeds in the end, and Voldemort finally falls?
A New Snake: The Transformation of Snape
The theory of balance would suggest that a new “snake” must step forward. We’ve only met two characters in the books that could be the true antithesis of Harry. In the beginning it was Malfoy, but his failure to act on the tower convinces me that some kind of redemption may come for him. Snape, on the other hand, is perfectly set up to transform into the newly realized form of evil. In answering my second big question (whose side is Snape really on), I think the recent editorials on MuggleNet have got the right idea. Snape hasn’t chosen a side; he exists for the sake of balance at this point in the story. He was the antithesis of Dumbledore, his equal in so many ways. Casting darkness and doubt on Harry, while Dumbledore presented love and light. He was a member of the Order, neatly balancing out all the “lions” of Gryffindor house with his presence.
It’s impossible to know what might happen next between Snape and Harry should this “transformation” occur. Is Harry’s fight over once he defeats Voldemort (much like Dumbledore’s stage as “the lion” ended with Grindelwald?), or is Harry to face a second snake? Somehow, I think a new lion will present itself. This would probably mean that Harry was unable to fight, as it would be most unlike him to sit idly by and watch Snape attempt to take power. In my mind, I like to picture Wormtail as the new lion. He’s yet to show his true Gryffindor colors, and he still owes Harry for saving his life. Not to mention that he and Snape have a long history and it seems the perfect opportunity for Wormtail to finally prove himself. The other natural choice would be Ron. Ron has truly been waiting in the wings, and he will have to prove himself and his worth before the story is over.
Finally we reach the ultimate question: What lies in store for Harry? Basically, Harry doesn’t have any choice at this point. He must grow, adapt, and be reborn into the great lion, the new phoenix that will carry on in Dumbledore’s footsteps. He has been tapped as the next in line, and now he must step up and face his destiny.
The true question in my mind is how far the symbolic context of the phoenix goes with Harry. Does it end with the notion that he’s the next great wizard to fight evil, or is it deeper? Apart from having a phoenix feather in his wand core, Harry seems to have a very strange connection to the phoenix, as shown in the following quotes:
“And then an unearthly and beautiful sound filled the air. It was coming from every thread of the light-spun web vibrating around Harry and Voldemort. It was a sound Harry recognized…phoenix song. It was the sound of hope to Harry…the most beautiful and welcome thing he had ever heard in his life…he felt as if the song were inside him instead of just around him.”
–Goblet of Fire, pg. 664, American version“The phoenix let out one soft, quavering note. It shivered in the air, andHarry felt as though a drop of hot liquid had slipped down his throat into his stomach, warming him, and strengthening him.”
“Somewhere in the darkness a phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt, as he had felt about phoenix song before, that the music was inside of him, not without. It was his own grief turned magically to song that echoed across the grounds.”
–Half-Blood Prince, pg. 614
Harry has a truly physical connection with phoenix song. Perhaps this is just because Fawkes is a representation of Dumbledore, and Harry feels a close connection with his mentor. It’s possible that Rowling is only trying to express the fact that Dumbledore’s strength will live on in Harry. But what of the third symbolic meaning of the phoenix; death and resurrection?
It’s hard to know if Harry’s physical reactions to phoenix song are the norm, as we only see things through his eyes and observations. I find myself leaning towards the idea that there is more than just a standard connection. I feel that Harry is both the lion and the newborn phoenix. Fawkes may have left at the end of HBP, signifying the true death of Dumbledore, but the quote from Rowling at the beginning of my editorial leads me to believe that Fawkes is coming back. Once Harry makes the change from teenager to man, from reluctant hero to his true lion form, I think Fawkes will return.
We know that deep down, Harry possesses the same ideals as Dumbledore. He inherited them from his mother, Lily. Dumbledore was known for being someone who could see the best in others, even if they couldn’t see it in themselves. In the PoA movie, Lupin uses these words when describing Lily Potter. It’s true: that statement was not in the book. But, Rowling herself stated that things in the third movie surprised her, as they touched on important parts of the seventh book.
Though Harry is doing fairly well in the department of seeing the worth of others, he still struggles with his very judgmental nature. This will probably prove to be a great strain for Harry in the last book. I actually see Harry succumbing to this weakness, and perhaps Harry will do something he will ultimately regret. By this, I mean Harry will kill or injure someone in his quest to defeat Voldemort. It is here that Harry will transform. He will take a new approach in his attempts, trying to fight with love rather than vengeance and anger. Upon seeing the evil mixed with the good in himself, he will be able to see it in others as well. Once he has achieved true balance, been “reborn,” Fawkes will return, symbolizing the change in our hero. Once Harry has Fawkes on his side, and he has taken his true form as the lion and the phoenix, there is no telling what fate will have in store for him.