Wreath Theory in the “Potter” Books
Most Potter fans are somewhat familiar with John Granger’s ring theory: Books 1 and 7, and 2 and 6, and 3 and 5 reflect each other, sometimes with Book 4 thrown in for good measure as the axis across which it reflects. As should come as no surprise, the Christmases in the series subscribe perfectly to this theory. I alluded to this somewhat in my last article, “Getting a Clue for Christmas” – Jo made Christmas round, round, ring-a-ring round. So I’m going to show how ring theory applies to the holidays: Let’s call it “wreath theory”!
Part 1: Gifts from a Killer
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry received a present that is suspected to be from a murderer – the Firebolt Sirius sends him. But while the present is from Sirius, as Hermione correctly suspects, it is not dangerous and Sirius is not a murderer.
Reflecting that, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is a present that everyone assumes is innocuous but turns out to be lethal, having been sent by a murderer. I’m referring to the Devil’s Snare sent by the Death Eaters to Broderick Bode in St. Mungo’s, with everyone “unaware that it was not an innocent Flitterbloom, but a cutting of Devil’s Snare, which, when touched by the convalescent Mr. Bode, throttled him instantly” (547). In other words, the Devil’s Snare is a perfect reflection of the Firebolt – and in both cases, their deadliness or lack thereof was not apparent until later.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there’s another inversion of this: On Christmas, Harry receives a second-hand gift from an actual murderer posing as a good guy, except this gift is meant to save Harry’s life instead of taking it. After the Yule Ball, Cedric gives Harry the gift of a clue, to take a bath with the egg in the prefects’ bathroom. As Crouch, Jr. later reveals, he was the one who gave Cedric the gift of this clue in the first place – all designed to help Harry survive the second task.
Part 2: 50 Years Ago
In both Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, come Christmastime, Harry is suspicious of Draco being up to no good. In Chamber of Secrets, he thinks Draco is opening the Chamber of Secrets; in Half-Blood Prince, he thinks Draco is a Death Eater who attacked Katie Bell. Both times, the idea of Arthur doing a search of Malfoy Manor is brought up.
Ron panted, closing the bathroom door behind them. ‘I know we still haven’t found out who’s doing the attacks, but I’m going to write to Dad tomorrow and tell him to check under the Malfoys’ drawing room.'” (CoS 225)
‘I checked, Harry,’ said Mr. Weasley at once. ‘I went and searched the Malfoys’ house. There was nothing, either broken or whole, that shouldn’t have been there.'” (HBP 331)
More importantly, at both Christmases, Harry gets an integral clue to one of the book’s key mysteries: that it happened 50 years ago.
In Chamber of Secrets, when a Polyjuiced Harry and Ron interrogate Draco, he drops a crucial piece of information:
Father won’t tell me anything about the last time the Chamber was opened either. Of course, it was fifty years ago […] I know one thing — last time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, a Mudblood died.” (223)
The crucial number of 50 years is what allows Harry and Hermione to make a connection between the Chamber, the diary, and Tom Riddle.
In Half-Blood Prince, we are once again wondering about a book from the past that preserved a very formidable wizard’s teenage self within its pages. When Harry queries Lupin at Christmas about whether James was the Half-Blood Prince, Lupin offers the sound advice to check how old the Prince’s textbook is. Harry “turned its pages, searching, until he finally found, at the front of the book, the date that it had been published. It was nearly fifty years old” (337).
Of course, this is a red herring in addition to being a deliberate throwback to the diary. We later find out that the book did, in fact, belong to Severus Snape. Its age can be easily explained: It originally belonged to Eileen Prince, who passed it on to her son due to financial issues they were having. This also ties into a theory I’ve really liked ever since first reading it right after Book 6 came out: Lady Lupin’s assertion that some of the ideas in the Prince’s textbook came from Lily. If the book was passed on to Severus by his mother before he began taking NEWT Potions – plausible, if he was enough of a nerd to read textbooks a year in advance – then Severus would have written down stuff he and Lily were coming up with together before the debacle of “Snape’s Worst Memory.”
On our axis of Goblet of Fire, there are no suspicious books, and no one is concerned about Draco. But during the 1994 Christmas, there are still significant things said about what happened 50 years prior. During his ill-fated moonlit stroll with Madame Maxime, Hagrid tells Madame Maxime about his childhood – his relationship with his father, his father’s death, and Dumbledore’s kindness. We know that this all happened approximately 50 years ago – and these revelations affect many things, from “Rita Skeeter’s Scoop” to the souring of Hagrid and Maxime’s relationship.
There is also a more trivial, but really fun, reflection for Books 2 and 6: In both of them, food from the Christmas feast is weaponized. In Chamber of Secrets, Hermione uses chocolate cakes to knock out Crabbe and Goyle in the service of Polyjuicing into them:
She held up two plump chocolate cakes. ‘I’ve filled these with a simple Sleeping Draught. All you have to do is make sure Crabbe and Goyle find them. You know how greedy they are, they’re bound to eat them. Once they’re asleep, pull out a few of their hairs and hide them in a broom closet.'” (213)
Meanwhile, in Half-Blood Prince, all the Weasley children deploy food against Percy Weasley:
Percy had stormed from the house on Christmas Day with his glasses splattered with mashed parsnip (for which Fred, George, and Ginny all claimed credit).” (349)
Part 3: Harry and His Parents
In the opening and closing Christmases of the series, the heart-wrenching focus is on Harry seeing a specter of his family and wishing he were with them.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry takes his Invisibility Cloak on an excursion for the first time. When he wanders into a classroom, still invisible, he is surprised by seeing his parents in the Mirror of Erised. And he yearns to be with his family:
The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.” (209)
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there’s an inversion of how Harry gets to his family. Instead of the Invisibility Cloak being exciting and new, Harry has spent an awful lot of time under it. And this time, he is deliberately seeking out his family instead of stumbling onto them by accident, so he takes off the Cloak:
Harry did not want to enter the village like a pantomime horse, trying to keep themselves concealed while magically covering their traces.
‘Let’s take off the Cloak,’ said Harry.” (322)
When Harry finally comes upon his parents’ grave, it presents one of the most heartbreaking passages in the entire series.
He let [the tears] fall, his lips pressed hard together, looking down at the thick snow hiding from his eyes the place where the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them.” (328–329)
Once again, Harry yearns to be with his family, but with a much darker twist this time. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry wishes to be reunited with his parents by having them be alive once more. In Deathly Hallows, he wishes to reunite with them on the other side of the veil, wishing he were dead. In the same vein, in Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s family “smiled and waved” and were happy to be with Harry. In Deathly Hallows, James and Lily are “not knowing or caring” that Harry was there.
This is one of the instances where Goblet of Fire does not serve as an axis for the mirroring of Sorcerer’s Stone and Deathly Hallows – the two scenes just work beautifully as a pair, and I trust we’re all sufficiently depressed now, and want to give Harry a big hug. Happy Christmas, everyone!