The Sword Until Recently Known as Gryffindor’s
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
J.K. Rowling loves Monty Python, and I think we can be confident that, like any self-respecting Python fan, Rowling has chuckled over Scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Constitutional Peasant.” This scene generates comedy from the surreal juxtaposition of tradition (Arthurian legend) and radicalism (anarcho-syndicalist attitudes to power relations). Dennis argues that traditional hierarchies of Arthurian legend prop up unjust power structures.
Arthur: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet.
Woman: Order, eh? Who does he think he is?
Arthur: I am your King.
Woman: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
Arthur: You don’t vote for kings.
Woman: Well, how did you become King, then?
Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the waters, signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I’m your King.
Dennis: Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.¹
Arthur, as Dennis rightly points out, does not have a terribly convincing explanation as to why he’s their king.
The sword of Gryffindor is the single most Arthurian object in Harry Potter. When it is drawn by a true Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat, it echoes the sword that the young Arthur draws from the stone, and when it magically appears in a pool in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it echoes the sword given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake. These links with Excalibur legends (as Rowling notes on Pottermore) are one of the clearest Arthurian parallels of her series. But – as with unexpected mixing of Arthur and politics in this Holy Grail scene – the sword of Gryffindor is also involved in one of the most political aspects of the Potterverse: the goblins.
Ragnuk the First made the sword of Gryffindor, and he – unlike Arthur in Holy Grail – has no difficulty explaining why he is king. Goblin kings are not chosen by inherited privilege (nor indeed, by strange women lying about in ponds) but by skill: “Ragnuk the First, finest of the goblin silversmiths, and therefore King (in goblin culture, the ruler does not work less than the others, but more skilfully)” (Pottermore).
The skill of goblin craftsmen is slowly revealed throughout the final three books of the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix notes that the Black family owns valuable 15th-century goblin-wrought silver goblets, while Hagrid presents the giant Karkus with a magnificent battle helmet that is “goblin-made an’ indestructible” (OotP, Ch. 20). In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Muriel’s beautifully wrought goblin-made tiara is first mentioned, as is Hepzibah’s goblin-made armor (which is clearly of extraordinary workmanship given that penny-pinching Burke is willing to offer her 500 Galleons for it). In Deathly Hallows, both this tiara and the goblin-made sword of Gryffindor become central to the plot, and the astonishing power of goblin craftsmanship – when Phineas Black mentions in passing that goblin metalwork requires no dusting and imbibes only that which will strengthen it – is fully revealed. Goblin craftsmanship – which means that the sword of Gryffindor imbibes Basilisk venom, and hence destroys Horcruxes – is an essential part of the defeat of Voldemort.
This slow build of getting the reader to value goblin craftsmanship culminates in the revelation in Deathly Hallows that perhaps the most important object of the series (the sword that saves Harry’s life in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the whole wizarding world in Deathly Hallows) is made by goblins. The sword of Gryffindor was made by goblins and – they believe – belongs to them too. The goblin value system holds a genuine challenge to the wizarding perspective, starting with what the sword should be called. Should a possession be named after the person who paid for it or the person who made it? Are you more connected to an object you make or one you buy? Phrased this way, it seems pretty clear that (regardless of who owns it) the sword that Harry and Griphook are wrangling over should actually be called Ragnuk’s sword (not Gryffindor’s).
The first hint of the importance of goblin craftsmanship occurs in Order of the Phoenix. Hermione explains to Dumbledore’s Army about the serial number on the edge of Galleons: “On real Galleons, that’s just a serial number referring to the goblin who cast the coin” (OotP, Ch. 19). It is a tiny detail that suggests goblin pride in their labor. Muggle coins – from Roman times to the present day – have mint markings, which means that every coin can be traced to the mint where it was made. But Muggle coins are not traceable to individual craftsmen, whereas goblins have ensured that every coin is traceable to its maker. It is a detail that, two novels prior to Griphook’s jealous glance at Muriel’s tiara and the wrangles over the sword-until-recently-known-as-Gryffindor’s, demonstrates that Rowling (as she noted in the 2005 interview) was already thinking about the political challenge that goblins might present to the wizarding worldview.²
It also presents a striking new light on the idea of goblins as bankers. Goblins are not bankers in a modern sense: They guard treasure rather than lend at interest. They are bankers because they are metal workers. Indeed, the name “Galleon” calls to mind the beautiful craftsmanship of gold Tudor coins – known as “angels” – which were decorated with a galleon.
The craftsmanship of gold Galleons and the pride of the goblins who make them suggests that goblins’ status as bankers follows from their skill as metal workers rather than the other way around.
The numismatic mark to which Hermione draws attention hints at the idea – strongly linked with Marxism in popular understanding – of the importance of the relationship between a maker and what they produce. Marx critiqued capitalism for creating (in factories) a system of production in which workers are alienated from what they create. The continuing relationship that the goblins perceive between the maker and their craft object – in which the “buyer” merely rents it for their lifetime and it reverts to its creator at their death – is at odds with the capitalist ethos of wizarding society. The capitalist power relation between those who create and those who purchase is fundamentally inverted by the goblin perspective. Rowling’s 2005 hint of the goblins as an “active political force” gestures toward their Marxist challenge of capitalist assumptions in Deathly Hallows. When Griphook insists that he has a better right to the sword than Harry – insists, in effect, on the superior value of labor to capital – Harry is left nonplussed.
This conceptual challenge of Harry’s worldview is then sidetracked into the question of whether Gryffindor or Ragnuk has stolen the sword. The dominant narrative tries to simplify the moral challenge of the goblin perspective and bring it safely back within traditional confines of property rights.³ But within Deathly Hallows, even this simplification is kept “live” since the idea that the sword may belong to Ragnuk remains a potent possibility. Hermione reminds Harry that their own knowledge of the story comes from wizarding history and is therefore strongly biased against the goblin perspective.
Rowling has written about this on Pottermore.
I am interested in what happens when cultural beliefs collide. In the Harry Potter books, the most militant of the goblin race consider all goblin-made objects to be theirs by right, although a specific object might be made over to a wizard for his life-span [sic] upon a payment of gold. Witches and wizards, like Muggles, believe that once payment has been made, the object belongs to them and their descendants or legatees in perpetuity. This is a clash of values without a solution, because each side has a different concept of what is right. It therefore presents Harry with a difficult moral dilemma when Griphook demands the sword as payment for his services in ‘Deathly Hallows’.
It is interesting that – in one respect at least – the sword-that-maybe-should-be-known-as-Ragnuk’s complies with Marxist, rather than the wizarding, perspectives on ownership. For it is a magical object that cannot be “owned” as such. Harry cannot, in effect, give it to Griphook any more than Dumbledore could pass it to Harry – whoever thinks they own it will lose it when the Sorting Hat bestows it on one worthy to wield it. When it is left to Harry in Dumbledore’s will, Scrimgeour tells him that it is no one’s “exclusive property” but can “present itself to any worthy Gryffindor” (DH, Ch. 7). Not only does the sword refuse to comply with capitalist assumptions about property inheritance, but it is also corporately, rather than individually, owned: “It belongs to Professor Snape’s school,” as Phineas Nigellus puts it (DH, Ch. 15). This treasure’s defiance of possession may be more magical than Marxist, but it certainly bears out the goblins’ questioning of capitalist assumptions about ownership.
Harry Potter may not ratify the goblin’s Marxist perspective, but by the end of the series, it is clear that the goblins question capitalist assumptions rather than embody them. There seems to be quite strong evidence that the value system of Harry Potter’s goblins carries a political challenge to the capitalist power structures of the wizarding world. Therefore, they cannot be seen as exemplifying the anti-Semitic myth of the “economic” Jew.
¹ Chapman, Graham, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Methuen, 2002, Scene 3, pp. 8-9.
² For more insights into J.K. Rowling’s 2005 interview with Lev Grossman, check out Episode 5 of Reading, Writing, Rowling.
³ The challenge of this episode is flattened out even further by the story given on Pottermore, in which Ragnuk “covets” the sword and attempts to steal it.
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Shakespeare at Oxford University and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet, in which she discusses Harry Potter and Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes, and more!