The Ministry Scene Revisited
In the weeks leading up to the release of the Half-Blood Prince, I found myself, probably like thousands of other people in the world, re-reading the rest of the series books leading up to the penultimate installment. I was, of course, winding my way through the books very much engaged in the unfolding events (as much as if it had been my first run-through) and keeping a close eye on any subtle details that our dear Jo may have cleverly interjected, as is her style. I was closing up my scrutiny of Order of the Phoenix when a particular chapter seemed to catch my attention more fully than ever before: Chapter 36, The Only One He Ever Feared. What was it that so specifically intrigued me this time, you ask? Well, it was amidst the conflict between Dumbledore and Voldemort in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic, when Voldemort disappears and, whilst Dumbledore warns Harry to remain still (”Stay where you are, Harry!”), the brief stint of silence is broken by a very disturbing phenomenon:
And then Harry’s scar burst open. He knew he was dead: it was pain beyond imagining, pain past endurance —He was gone from the hall, he was locked in the coils of a creature with red eyes, so tightly bound that Harry did not know where his body ended and the creature’s began. They were fused together, bound by pain, and there was no escape —
And when the creature spoke, it used Harry’s mouth, so that in his agony he felt his jaw move…
“Kill me now, Dumbledore….”
Blinded and dying, every part of him screaming for release, Harry felt the creature use him again…
“If death is nothing, Dumbledore, kill the boy …”
Let the pain stop, thought Harry. Let him kill us … End it, Dumbledore… Death is nothing compared to this…
And I’ll see Sirius again…
And as Harry’s heart filled with emotion, the creature’s coils loosened, the pain was gone, and Harry was lying facedown on the floor…
(Order of the Phoenix, p.815-816)
Naturally, I was not overly surprised by this turn of events; Voldemort was, after all, one of the greatest Dark Wizards to walk the earth and possessing Harry did not seem like anything out of his skill-set. But what struck me as curious was the particular pain that Harry feels. J.K. Rowling uses very specific diction here: Locked in the coils of a creature with red eyes, fused together, bound by pain, the creatures coils loosened. Indeed, it sounds as though its not simply his mind being commandeered, but that something is physically holding him (or, at least, Harry perceives being held). I remember one particular editorial written by Daniela Teo: The Two-Way Mirror #12 — “Harry’s Scar and the Prophecy” (which, I might add, was an absolutely fantastic column). In it, it was suggested that perhaps Voldemort is inside Harry’s body and that the physical motion of Harry’s mouth is registered by one aspect of Harry’s mind, whereas the tight coils that surround Harry are indicative of another aspect of the twisted and tormented body that is now Voldemort. She [Daniela] said that what Harry felt to be death inside the coils was in fact the twisted, broken being of Voldemort (which, after our post-HBP knowledge of Horcruxes and soul-splitting, makes perfect sense) and that the words “he was gone from the hall” literally meant that Harry was briefly taken into the physical body of Voldemort, wherever he, Voldemort, may have been at the time. In essence, one of two conclusions can be drawn from this analysis: (a) that at that specific moment, both Harry and Voldemort were inhabiting the same body (Harry’s) and were in conflict with each other, or (b) Harry and Voldemort have not fused into one but have in fact switched bodies altogether.
Now you may be asking, what is the purpose of such a tedious analysis? Who cares? Well, like you, I took this with a grain of salt and went on about my daily routines. Soon after this re-reading, however, I came upon the luck of having to read the great Italian Classic Dante’s Inferno (circa 1314) for a class of mine. As you can guess, a story built around a man’s exploration of Hell would pique anyones interest, so I was reading along quite happily until I came to Canto XXIV, wherein Dante and Virgil enter the seventh bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell. Here they see a horrible pit of serpents, amidst which are a panicked population of naked souls, all desperately fleeing the torment of these beasts. Dante speaks with one of the souls, a Tuscan named Vanni Fucci, who, as he is bitten by one of the serpents, burns on the spot and is reduced to a puddle of ash, only to rise again from the ashes and join the pit of tormented souls once more. I think I’m not the only one who immediately thought of the phoenix; in fact, Dante himself writes:
Just, as is attested by great sages,
the phoenix perishes and is reborn
when it approaches its five-hundredth year — (108)
The semantics of phoenix-longevity aside, this is roughly an accurate description of the only phoenix we’ve been able to observe in our beloved series: Fawkes, of course. We’ll come back to this later.
Moving on to Canto XXV, Dante finds another perplexing spectacle: just as he takes sight of three sinners approaching them, a serpent appears and binds itself tightly to one of them (they are referred to as shades). He describes the serpent to be constraining the man with such force that it was difficult to discern where the beast began and where the man ended, until they became fused into one being neither here nor there:
Never did clinging ivey [sic] fix itself
so tight upon a tree as did that fearsome beast
entwine itself around the other’s limbs. (60)
Then they fused together, as if made
of molten wax, mixing their colors
so that neither seemed what it had been before, (63)
as over the surface of a scrap of parchment,
before the flame, a brownish color comes
that is not black, yet makes the white die out. (66)
The other two were looking on and each
was shouting: ‘Oh my, Agnello, how you change!
Look, now you are neither two nore [sic] one!’ (69)
Already the two heads had been united,
two sets of features blending,
both lost in a single face… (72)
Yes, I, too, found it fascinating. We see that the two of them (the man and the serpent) seemed to fuse together, much in the same way that J.K. Rowling describes the scene with Harry and Voldemort. This seems to coincide with conclusion (a) that we said could be drawn from the analysis above, that they are fused into one being. Now, we will consider the implications of this comparison later on, but first let’s move on to the next part of Canto XXV. Dante then sees another of the souls (called the transfixed) being assailed by a serpent. Again, a remarkable phenomenon occurs:
The one transfixed just stared, said nothing.
Indeed, with his feet stockstill, he yawned,
as if deep sleep or fever had assailed him. (90)
He and the reptile stared at one another.
Both gave out dense smoke, one from its wound,
the other from its mouth. Then their smoke merged… (93)
Well, isn’t that interesting! The merging smoke of a serpent and a transfixed man… Immediately I was reminded of that scene in Dumbledore’s office after Harry sees the vision of the snake attacking Arthur Weasley. Dumbledore moves to one of the gadgets on the walls and takes it to his desk. Tapping it, he sees smoke rise out of it, entwining and then separating, with the image of snakes staring at each other, as Dumbledore mumbles to himself, “Naturally, naturally. But in essence divided?”
Soon after this scene in Inferno, the serpent and this transfixed man seem to exchange shapes; that is to say, the serpent becomes a man and the man a serpent. That serpent then goes on to switch bodies with another soul, and so on. I won’t bore you with the details of the transformation, but suffice it to say that the author makes it plain and clear that the serpent seemed to have stolen the body from the man and the man was forced to become the serpent. This description aligns quite well with conclusion (b), that the switching of bodies may have taken place.
All right, now we’re getting to the bottom of our analysis. Now we have three different transformations: (1) the man dying and being reborn from the ashes (phoenix); (2) the man and the serpent becoming united into one being; and (3) the man and the serpent switching bodies; all three of these transformations having some apparent correlation to the Harry Potter universe. We’re all very well aware of the fact that J.K. Rowling has herself admitted that she uses her background in classic literature to influence her writings; you must surely agree with me that these things cannot be mere coincidence. Inferno is certainly a well-known classic, and when writing a book about the Dark Side of witchcraft and wizardry, surely some aspect of the classic Hell must present itself (such as through symbols like serpents and skulls). So what could these allusions possibly mean?
I think it is generally agreed upon that classics like Inferno are usually valued not for their entertainment value, but for the symbolic insight they provide into the philosophy of their time. As it turns out, each of the three transformations we observed relates to the theme of the seventh ditch of simple fraud: Thievery. In accordance with the philosophical pontifications of Thomas Aquinas, the three incidents recorded by Dante refer to three different kinds of thievery. The phoenix-like rebirth relates to Sacreligio, or theft of church property; the fusing of man and serpent to create a new creature relates to Peculato, or theft of goods commonly held; and the exchanging of physical natures between serpent and man relate to Plagio, or theft from fellow men. On how these conclusions were determined, I have no earthly clue. But since people much older and much wiser than me have done their homework, I’ll go ahead and take their word for it.
The first and trickiest of these is the phoenix and its relation to sacrilege. In my mind at least, Fawkes is and will forever be implicitly connected to Dumbledore, so the relationship between the phoenix and sacrilege can naturally be equated to a discussion of Dumbledore (if you would rather have this equation based on canon than my own whims, recall Harry’s vision of a white phoenix rising from the flames of Dumbledore’s White Tomb). I was never much of a religious man myself, so, supposing we take some extreme liberties and assume sacrilege to mean a betrayal of one’s own principles or values, then perhaps this image of Dumbledore and the phoenix suggests that somewhere in Dumbledore’s past he has committed his own kind of sacrilege, that at some point in his past Dumbledore made a grave mistake by forgetting his own principles. This might help to explain his behavior at the climax of Half-Blood Prince, when he is drinking the green potion in the basin and is yelling out strange things such as ”It’s all my fault,” and ”Please make it stop, I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop and I’ll never, never again ” (HBP, Ch.26, P. 572). Perhaps this potion forces the drinker to relive his/her worst and most painful memories, and perhaps Dumbledore is crying out about his own horrible mistakes in his past, his own sacrilege.
More to the original point of this discussion, we now turn to the remaining two forms of theft: Peculato (theft of common goods) and Plagio (theft from fellow men). I have tried desperately to relate theft of common goods to the situation of Harry and Voldemort, but I feel that this moral cannot be specifically translated into the allegory of our Harry Potter universe; are there any commonly-held goods in their world? Do they have highways or museums? Perhaps the Fountain of Magical Brethren counts? In any case, I draw a blank on this relationship, and if anyone reading this editorial has any ideas of how Voldemort committed theft of goods commonly held, then please share with us. Otherwise, I see this as reason to shy away from the idea that Peculato has anything to do with this, meaning that the corresponding symbolic physical transformation – the fusing together of the man and the serpent – is not the case here, either.
Instead, I believe the case is one of Plagio, theft from fellow man. The reason for this is closely related to the sight of the smoke-snakes in Dumbledores office: the way the snakes coiled around each other and stared at each other very closely resembles the merging of the dense smoke given off by the characters in Inferno. Dumbledore even says, ”But in essence divided?” Just as the two characters in Inferno in this specific place do not merge together, per se, but instead switch bodies altogether, I believe that Dumbledore ascertained from his own instrument that this is what Harry and Voldemort have done, and that this is precisely what happens in the scene at the Ministry of Magic. Rather than both Harry and Voldemort inhabiting Harry’s body at the same time (which, incidentally, would presume that Voldemort’s body was temporarily spirit-less), I believe that what Harry was experiencing was the physical status Voldemort’s body and being, having been completely divided from his own body. What Harry felt must have been what Voldemort feels all the time, the tightly wrapped coils of a serpent representing all of the pain and suffering that he, Voldemort, must have gone through over the years. The countless experiments with Dark Magic that he has done have shredded his body apart, transforming his very face into a terrible snake-like visage. Perhaps the coils that Harry feels around him are a metaphor for the turmoil that Voldemort carries inside his body every day. Murder after murder, stealing lives from family members all across the country over the years (which, incidentally, would be Plagio) has forced him to face the wrath of the coils of the figurative serpent within him, a metaphor I believe is very significant both to our understanding of who Tom Riddle is, and Harry’s understanding as well.
Voldemort, unable to bear the foreign emotions of guilt and love that begin to swell inside Harry’s heart at the thought of Sirius, is forced to leave Harry’s body and return to his own, and so Harry, too, begins to feel the coils loosen and his own body return. In a sense, it would seem that Harry and Voldemort are incompatible opposites; Harry cannot bear the incredible lack of integrity of Voldemort’s body, while Voldemort cannot bear Harry’s most powerful gift, his ability to love.
]I think J.K. Rowling is trying to tell us that what Harry should understand is not ultimately how best to destroy Voldemort, but why Voldemort became what he is today and how years of the same self-destructive spiral of fear and prejudice have changed his very perspective on life, a lesson we should all probably pay attention to. I believe that the greatest things about the Harry Potter series are the subtle metaphors that are cleverly nestled among them, each of them examining a different facet of our lives. The scene in the Ministry of Magic is, I believe, one of the most important metaphors of all and is definitely worth a closer look.
*All book references correspond to the U.S. Hardback Editions
*Inferno, Dante Alighieri, Translated by Robert & Jean Hollander. © 2000, Doubleday Books, a division of Random House Inc.
*Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. II, II, q.66, a. 6: an aggravated theft, cited by Filomusi Guelfi, pp. 199-206.