Parseltongue: More Common Than We Thought?

by Sarah Merritt

Among the MuggleNet editorials, Harry’s ability to talk to snakes seems like a much mentioned but rarely discussed subject. I have a feeling it will be an important talent before the series ends. Since I started writing this, I have investigated Parseltongue on Project Leglimensia, where there is a whole thread on this very subject. It seems I’m not the only person thinking along these lines.

I first started thinking about this on a reread of HBP. Something caught my attention about the memory of the Gaunts in the Penseive. This is why.

Throughout the series, much has been made about the rarity of this particular talent. In CoS, Ron is surprised to find out that Harry is a Parselmouth, yet Harry assumes everyone can do it. We are also told that Voldemort was a Parselmouth, as was Salazar Slytherin (hence the basilisk). Also, Tom Riddle mentions that they are probably the only two Parselmouths to attend Hogwarts since Salazar Slytherin. If this is the case, then where did the rest of Slytherin’s heirs go to school? Was Slytherin’s split with Gryffindor so significant that he sent the rest of the family to Durmstrang?

In HBP we discover that Voldemort inherited this talent from his family, which is directly descended from Salazar Slytherin. If this talent is inherited, what on Earth is Harry Potter doing with it?

In CoS Dumbledore suspects that the ability to talk to snakes came as a result of Voldemort’s curse rebounding. Of course at this point he is privy to the details of the prophecy and we are not, yet he doesn’t know for sure that it is part of the marking. JKR has never specifically told us. His actual words are “Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure” (CoS, UK version, page 245). It is possible Dumbledore is mistaken — he was mistaken about Sirius for 12 years, after all, and look what happened there.

Now for the thing that bothered me about that memory. Harry is amazed that the Ministry employee cannot understand Morfin and Marvolo, and only realises they are speaking Parseltongue when Dumbledore says, “You understand him, I’m sure, Harry?” (HBP, UK version, page 191). What Dumbledore doesn’t do is ask Harry what they are saying or give any indication that he doesn’t understand. What this would indicate is that Dumbledore does understand, either because he has already had it translated or because he is a Parselmouth. Dumbledore himself says that Parseltongue is “a rare ability, and one supposedly connected with the Dark Arts, although, as we know, there are Parselmouths among the great and the good too” (HBP, UK version, page 259).

This is typically ambiguous, but there is enough information here to suggest that Harry is not the only “good” wizard to have this talent. Therefore Tom’s assertion in CoS that he and Harry are the only Parselmouths to attend Hogwarts since Slytherin must be false.

Enough speculation about Dumbledore. The memory also got me thinking about the Black family tree (there is a tenuous connection in my head…) When Sirius first shows it to Harry, he points out Tonks’ mother whose name was obliterated because she married a Muggle. What if a similar thing happened to the Slytherin family tree? Could any of the family be obliterated from the histories because they married a Muggle by the name of, say, Evans, or maybe even Potter. See where I’m going with this?

What if Harry inherited this ability from one of his parents? It’s entirely possible that either one of them could have been born with the ability to talk to snakes and not know about it. Britain only has three native species of snake, all of which are very shy and rarely spotted in the wild. Magical creatures notwithstanding, snakes don’t hang about in Diagon Alley on a daily basis. Unless Lily or James was a regular visitor to zoos, chances are neither of them saw many snakes up close and personal. Another factor in this is that Harry’s first conversation with a snake is instinctive; he doesn’t realize he is speaking another language. Would he ever have realized that he was a Parselmouth if Draco Malfoy had conjured a dragon, or if the basilisk had not come calling?

Much is made of the fact that Voldemort gave Lily the chance to live. Suppose he had a snake with him when he went to Godric’s Hollow and discovered Lily could communicate with it. Would that have been enough for him to offer her life? It may be, especially if he thinks she could be descended from one of the obliterated branches of the Slytherin family tree. Of course Lily chose her own death above Harry’s and so the killing curse rebounded, leading to the speculation that Voldemort transferred some of his powers. Since nobody really knows what happened that night, anything is possible.

So, to conclude, the whole point of this editorial is to demonstrate that Harry may not have received the gift of Parseltongue from Voldemort’s rebounded curse. We only have Dumbledore’s assumption that this is the case. As JKR has gone out of her way to ensure that her readers know that Dumbledore is not omniscient, does it not then follow that he could either have been wrong about the results of the rebounded curse, or that he chose to obfuscate the point? Perhaps the important thing we are to find out about Lily is that she, too, was a Parselmouth.

Of course, it could just be a giant red herring, but I believe this ability has still got a part to play.