Symbolism of the Phoenix: A Solution to the Question

by Allie

From Fawkes to the name of the anti-Voldemort Order, the phoenix has played an interesting and important role in the first six Harry Potter books. The purpose of this article is to describe the powers of the phoenix and summarize my thoughts regarding its symbolic function in the series. I first began writing on this subject in June 2003, shortly after the Order of the Phoenix release. Although most of the ideas and all of the canon references presented in this essay are mine, I have embellished my original theory with the help of several fellow fans over the past three years; main contributors include my sister, Kristy, and Veritaserum Forums members gwenhwyfar and RABH. I consider this theory a continuous work-in-progress, so please comment if you spot any logical flaws or have additional ideas – I am always ready to make modifications. With that said…

I. Powers of the Phoenix

  1. “… burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”
  2. “… can carry immensely heavy loads …”
  3. “… tears have healing powers …”
  4. “… make highly faithful pets.”
    (CoS, American hardcover, pp. 207)

Bearing these qualities in mind, I have traced what I consider are the most significant references to the phoenix throughout the series. Deciding which scenes to highlight, granted, was a subjective process, so if there are any other excerpts that you feel deserve emphasis, my apologies.

II. Significant Scenes Involving the Phoenix: First Five Books

1. The phoenix is first mentioned in Chamber of Secrets. Harry enters Albus Dumbledore’s office because he has been witnessed near the scene of Justin Finch-Fletchley’s petrification. He is very nervous, but the sight of the phoenix nonetheless mesmerizes him (“Harry stared at it and the bird looked balefully back… Harry had forgotten what he was there for,” CoS, pp. 206-7). Harry is stunned when Fawkes bursts into flame, initially thinking him to be an ordinary bird (“Harry yelled in shock and backed away from the desk. He looked feverishly around in case there was a glass of water somewhere,” pp. 207). Dumbledore enters and explains all the properties of the phoenix to Harry.

2. At the end of Chamber of Secrets, Fawkes carries the Sorting Hat into the Chamber of Secrets, where Harry is having his confrontation with Tom Riddle. In this scene, Fawkes demonstrates all of his powers and then some to save Harry. He comes when Harry shows loyalty to Dumbledore (“‘He’s not as gone as you might think!’ Harry retorted,” pp. 315), blinds the Basilisk (“Harry looked straight into its face and saw that its eyes, both its great, bulbous yellow eyes, had been punctured by the phoenix,” pp. 319), sheds tears over Harry’s wound to save his life (“A pearly patch of tears was shining all around the wound – except that there was no wound,” pp. 321), and carries Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Lockhart out of the Chamber of Secrets (“‘He looks like he wants you to grab hold…’ said Ron,” pp. 325).

In Chamber of Secrets, the reader is introduced to Fawkes and his powers in the most basic sense; Fawkes never bursts into flame in the heat of the action, for example. However, he proves to be a symbol of hope for Harry (“[The music] was eerie, spine-tingling, unearthly; it lifted the hair on Harry’s scalp and made his heart feel as though it was swelling to twice its normal size,” pp. 315), as well as a reminder of Dumbledore (“‘This is what Dumbledore sends his defender! A songbird,'” pp. 316). When Harry hears the phoenix song, he immediately feels more secure and capable of taking on Riddle (“‘Fawkes?’ Harry breathed, and he felt the bird’s golden claws squeeze his shoulder gently,” pp. 315).

The phoenix is mysteriously absent from Prisoner of Azkaban, but then again, most of the action is centered around the Marauders and Voldemort is basically absent as well.

3. In Goblet of Fire, Fawkes never physically enters the graveyard where Harry is chained to Tom Riddle Sr.’s headstone. During the priori incantato scene, however, Harry finds himself “speaking” with music that reminds him of phoenix song (“I know, Harry told the music, I know I mustn’t,” GoF, American paperback, pp. 664), and says that the music gives him a “fortified” and hopeful feeling, which leaves him better able to cope with Voldemort and the Death Eaters (“It was a sound Harry recognized, though he had heard it only once before in his life: phoenix song,” pp. 664).

4. Fawkes heals Harry’s injured leg back in Dumbledore’s office after the graveyard scene at the end of Goblet of Fire (“… thick, pearly tears were falling from its eyes onto the wound left by the spider. The pain vanished. The skin mended. His leg was repaired,” pp. 698).

By this point, Harry has mentally established the association between “phoenix song” and “hope” and “Dumbledore” (“It was the sound of hope to Harry… It was the sound he connected with Dumbledore, and it was almost as though a friend were speaking in his ear,” GoF pp. 664). In Chamber of Secrets, he was simply glad to see another being in the Chamber besides himself, Riddle, the Basilisk, and unconscious Ginny Weasley. ByGoblet of Fire, he is consciously correlating phoenix song with hope even though a phoenix is not physically present in the action. Contrary to Chamber of Secrets, in which J. K. Rowling prolongs Harry’s “dying moments” and Fawkes acts as a savior by healing Harry’s Basilisk wound, in Goblet of Fire, the fact that Fawkes heals Harry’s leg is almost incidental to the phoenix symbolism that I am attempting to trace; Harry already knew of this property of the phoenix before Book Four began.

5. The major phoenix symbolism comes in Book Five. To start, the name of the anti-Voldemort group: the Order of the Phoenix.

6. At the end of Order of the Phoenix, when Dumbledore and Voldemort duel at the Ministry of Magic, Fawkes flies in front of Dumbledore and swallows an Avada Kedavra curse, thus saving his master (“Fawkes swooped down in front of Dumbledore, opened his beak wide, and swallowed the jet of green light whole,” OotP, American hardcover, pp. 815). Fawkes bursts into flame and is reborn on the floor (“He burst into flame and fell to the floor, small, wrinkled, and flightless,” pp. 815).

At this point, we begin to consider the fourth and final property of the phoenix that Dumbledore explains in Chamber of Secrets. In addition to carrying heavy loads, having healing powers, and being faithful, the phoenix is able to swallow Killing Curses, die, and then reincarnate; in other words, the phoenix dies for new life to be born. This is exactly what the Order of the Phoenix does as well. As Sirius told Harry, Ron, Fred, George, and Ginny after Arthur Weasley was attacked by Nagini, “there are things worth dying for” (pp. 477). The members of the Order of the Phoenix have gone into service aware of the possibility of death, but they have done so to preserve lives that otherwise could have been lost to Voldemort. Fawkes also gave one of his incarnations to save Dumbledore’s life. Therefore, we now see that in addition to functioning as a symbol of hope, the phoenix is the ultimate symbol of self-sacrifice.

III. Implications: First Five Books

If all of this logic proves to be correct, Dumbledore is bound to die. In an interview at the August 2004 Edinburgh Book Festival, J. K. Rowling stated that Dumbledore’s Patronus is a phoenix “for reasons that are quite obvious.” A Patronus represents a person’s inner personality traits in the form of an animal. Therefore, if a phoenix represents hope and self-sacrifice for new life, we can make an analogy in which Dumbledore is the phoenix and Harry is the new life (as we know from the end of Order of the Phoenix how important Harry is to Dumbledore – “‘I cared about you too much,’ said Dumbledore [……] ‘I acted exactly as Voldemort expects we fools who love to act,’ pp. 838). This means that as a symbolic phoenix, Dumbledore will provide hope for Harry, which he already has (among other examples, Harry felt a new sense of hope when he saw Dumbledore arrive at the Department of Mysteries). It also seems to imply that Dumbledore will sacrifice his life to save Harry’s. Similarly, other members of the Order of the Phoenix will die (this is obvious for reasons that extend beyond phoenix symbolism). Sirius has already died by this point, and he is not going to be the last to go.

IV. Significant Scenes Involving the Phoenix: Book Six

This is the point that I had reached prior to reading Half-Blood Prince; the majority of this essay thus far (with the exception of elaborations on a couple of ideas and nearly all of the quotations), in fact, was written before the Book Six release in 2005. Suffice it to say, I was extremely pleased with the way my theory turned out; unlike my Hermione/Terry Boot ship and my Mark Evans theory, both of which brutally caved after I read Half-Blood Prince, I did not have to revise my phoenix theory in any way to make it continue to hold with canon. However, it is undoubtedly true that Book Six holds a variety of new phoenix references and scenes that must be incorporated into the theory, and the latest canon also raises new questions for the final book.

7. Fawkes himself – exhibiting new properties and powers, at least – is absent from Half-Blood Prince until the final chapters of the novel, when he then takes on, arguably, his most important symbolic role in the series thus far. After Snape kills Dumbledore, Fawkes sings his lament and disappears from Hogwarts (“Fawkes had stopped singing. And he [Harry] knew, without knowing how he knew it, that the phoenix had gone,” HBP, American hardcover, pp. 632). Whether Fawkes will return in Deathly Hallowsremains unclear, although J. K. Rowling has told us that he was Dumbledore’s pet – not property of Hogwarts – which suggests to me that Harry will be able to call him at some point in the future.

8. There is one other mention of the phoenix in Book Six which I, along with the rest of the Harry Potter fandom, consider particularly significant:

Then several people screamed. Bright, white flames had erupted around Dumbledore’s body and the table upon which it lay: Higher and higher they rose, obscuring the body. White smoke spiraled into the air and made strange shapes: Harry thought, for one heart-stopping moment, that he saw a phoenix fly joyfully into the blue, but next second the fire had vanished. In its place was a white marble tomb, encasing Dumbledore’s body and the table on which he had rested.

I will address the significance of the “Phoenix Lament” and Fawkes’s seeming immortality in the following implications section, but it is the second passage from Half-Blood Prince that it is in my mind particularly important. I have ready a variety of theories concerning the phoenix that flew out of Dumbledore’s grave – Dumbledore is a phoenix Animagus and he didn’t actually die, since Dumbledore sacrificed himself, a new phoenix was born from his grave, etc. – but personally, I choose to interpret this scene as a confirmation of the “Dumbledore – phoenix” analogy. His Patronus is a phoenix, the smoke animal that flies out of his tomb is a phoenix; Dumbledore is The Phoenix of the Harry Potter series. He has made the ultimate sacrifice to protect Harry’s life: as he said himself, “your blood is worth more than mine” (HBP, pp. 560).

V. Book Six Implications – and Questions

So now I wonder… is there any way that a phoenix can be killed? In my view, if a phoenix could be killed, Voldemort would prevail. This is because the phoenix’s first incarnation (Dumbledore and the generation of the Order of the Phoenix) would die and then the second incarnation (Harry and the generation of Dumbledore’s Army) would die and never be reborn in the next generation (which would be their offspring, who would presumably pursue the struggle against Voldemort). If all those people die, and with them, the anti-Dark Side ideals, Voldemort will inevitably live.

When you look at things this way, the matter of whether a phoenix can die die – i.e., go away and never come back in a new incarnation or otherwise – is one that cannot possibly be ignored. The answer may well be the solution to The Question: will Voldemort or Harry be the one to go at the end of Book Seven? Therefore, I have devoted a good deal of time to discussing this issue with my fellow Harry Potter fans; in particular, I would like to acknowledge RABH of Veritaserum Forums for introducing me to several mythological properties of the phoenix, beyond those of J. K. Rowling’s invention, which have greatly influenced my thoughts regarding the outcome of The Final Battle.

According to Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese folklore, the phoenix holds most of the properties that J. K. Rowling has already introduced in Books 2 through 6 – fidelity, virtue, grace, power, and seeming immortality. It is the characteristics of the phoenix in Arabian mythology, however, that interest me the most; the Arabian phoenix is characterized by its melodious cry and its very long lifespan (500 to 12,994 years), and the phoenix also takes three days before rising from its ashes to be reborn. All of these qualities, in my opinion, make enormous sense in the context of Half-Blood Prince, and since we already know that J. K. Rowling frequently makes allusions to astrology (get the whole Sirius, Andromeda, Regulus deal) and mythology (see Remus Lupin and Fenrir Greyback), I find it perfectly legitimate to draw conclusions about her books based on the Arabian definition, so to speak, of the phoenix.

The “melodious song” is already accounted for in the Harry Potter books – the “Phoenix Lament” at the end of Half-Blood Prince is described as “a stricken lament of terrible beauty” (pp. 615) – and although Fawkes is reborn within minutes of his “death” inChamber of Secrets, if we are looking at the phoenix from a purely symbolic perspective, I believe there is a valid argument that the “three days before rising from its ashes” represents Harry’s emotional trauma in the immediate aftermath of Dumbledore’s death in Book Six. At the end of Half-Blood Prince, he does not seem too eager to go hunting for Horcruxes (“He felt no curiosity at all about R.A.B.: He doubted that he would ever feel curious again,” pp. 631); this indicates that although the first incarnation of the phoenix (Dumbledore) has died, the second incarnation (Harry) has yet to be fully “born,” i.e., he is not yet ready to take up the war against Voldemort entirely on his own. The lifespan of “500 to 12,994 years,” I admit, gave me some pause at first, although I have subsequently researched Arabian mythology and found that this is in reference to the lifespan of each incarnation, not the entire phoenix. This makes sense; we know that the lifespan of a wizard is long, too. We have yet to hear of one who has died of natural causes.

Now I’m looking at the immortality (or mortality, as the case may be) of the phoenix as a major symbolic question in the series. There are others, too – how the first incarnation of the phoenix is born, for instance – but it is clear to me that if the phoenix can never be killed, the Dark Side will be vanquished and Harry will live; it means that Dumbledore and Harry’s ideals will never be crushed. If the phoenix is mortal, however… I’m afraid things are looking rather grim for the Order. Mythology in conjunction with thematic evidence (a topic for a different essay, perhaps), however, leads me to believe that Harry will survive and Voldemort will be killed – my official Deathly Hallows theory.