Minerva McGonagall: The Most Underrated Character in the Series – Part 1
by Jack R. Pease
Harry Potter is one of the world’s largest and most successful franchises, spawning eight critically acclaimed books, seven highly successful films, and a growing prequel series. It features many highly complex characters – courtesy of J.K. Rowling’s skill and talent – and some of those remain incredibly popular: for example, the beloved Professor Albus Dumbledore or the popular but controversial Professor Snape. However, there are other characters, such as the formidable Professor McGonagall, Hogwarts’s deputy headmistress, who tend to be overlooked by many fans despite her popularity in polls.
It is impossible to cover all of her achievements, but we aim to evaluate her personality, skills, and achievements today and see if we can raise the profile of Hogwarts’s best witch.
Professor Minerva McGonagall, the deputy headmistress of Hogwarts, is the first face the new first years meet inside the castle grounds after Hagrid has escorted them across the Black Lake. When Harry Potter first glimpses her in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, he sees a “tall, black-haired witch in emerald-green robes” with a “very stern face” (SS 113). His first thought is that this is someone not to cross, and her imposing first impression proves correct on a number of occasions. Professor McGonagall, as well as being deputy headmistress and head of Gryffindor, is the sole professor of Transfiguration at the school, teaching the art of changing something into something else (e.g., a desk into a pig). In their first lesson, she gives Harry and the class a very stern warning about their behavior:
Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts…. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.” (SS 106)
As head of Gryffindor, the House that most values bravery and courage, she is their role model and an excellent one at that. She proves time and time again how to be courageous in the face of adversity and danger. She is also a very strict teacher, tolerating neither foolishness nor excuses from her students or from any staff member foolish enough to challenge her. Like Professor Snape, she has the skill of being able to control a class with minimal effort, being held in great respect and some fear by the majority of the student body and faculty alike. However, unlike Professor Snape, she is unbiased and fair down to a tee, and whilst a famously difficult teacher, she shows more care for all her students than any other teacher in the school.
Though she rarely shows her compassionate side, usually preferring to hide it behind her strict demeanor, it has been glimpsed on a number of occasions. When Neville Longbottom, often ridiculed and nervous, comes to her seeking advice about his NEWT exams in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, she explains that his work only lacks confidence. His grandmother, Augusta, who looks after him after his parents were tortured to insanity in the First Wizarding War, does not wish him to take Charms, taught by Professor Flitwick, because she believes it is a “soft” option compared to McGonagall’s Transfiguration class. McGonagall says to him:
Hmph…. It’s high time your grandmother learned to be proud of the grandson she’s got, rather than the one she thinks she ought to have…. Take Charms…. and I shall drop Augusta a line reminding her that just because she failed her Charms OWL, the subject is not necessarily worthless.” (HBP 174)
Neville passed his OWL exam on Charms with an Exceeds Expectations grade, proving McGonagall was right – he only lacked confidence. This moment is a major turning point in the series for Neville, who previously has been known as a bumbling, sad excuse for a Gryffindor and now begins to turn into a courageous and skilled student, later charging Voldemort head-on in the final battle though he is easily disarmed. McGonagall, whilst she does not have any children of her own, is often like a mother figure to her students, pushing them hard only to make them the best witches and wizards they can be.
Unlike Professor Snape, who is famously biased for the students in his House, Professor McGonagall has no qualms about harshly punishing her House’s students. When Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Neville Longbottom are caught out of bed after dark, she promptly takes 50 House points away from them each despite the fact that Gryffindor was previously in the lead. However, though a famous stickler for the rules, she does bend them from time to time: When Hermione was petrified by the Basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, McGonagall allows Harry and Ron to visit her in the Hospital Wing despite it being against the rules at the time for them to leave their dormitory. Harry notes she had a “tear glistening in her beady eye” as she allows them to visit (CoS 288). She is very moved by Hermione’s predicament; Hermione perhaps reminds McGonagall of her own student days, both being seen in their respective times as the most talented student of their year.
Professor McGonagall was well known for being extremely hard to intimidate and having a cast-iron moral sense, despising people who abuse their power or other people. In the series struggle between light and dark magic, McGonagall finds herself in conflict with newly installed Professor Umbridge. Umbridge is actually a Ministry of Magic employee, who involves herself at Hogwarts in every way she can, intimidating the teachers and controlling the students. Umbridge begins to inspect each of the teachers in their classroom. Many teachers find themselves victims of Umbridge’s cruel methods, which include humiliation and threats. However, when it comes to McGonagall’s inspection, Umbridge bites off more than she can chew.
Minerva refuses to bow to Umbridge’s demands, threats, or cruelty. Instead, she does everything she can both to warn the students of Umbridge’s power and to undermine Umbridge without risking her job – she knows she cannot protect the students if she isn’t there. Umbridge often tries to intimidate and control McGonagall, only for McGonagall to clap back with a highly scathing insult or statement. During McGonagall’s class inspection, Umbridge tries to interrupt McGonagall’s lesson, only for McGonagall to frankly tell her that her behavior isn’t welcome:
‘Hem, hem,’ said Professor Umbridge.[…]
‘I wonder,’ said Professor McGonagall in cold fury, turning on Professor Umbridge, ‘how you expect to gain an idea of my usual teaching methods if you continue to interrupt me? You see, I do not generally permit people to talk when I am talking.’
Professor Umbridge looked as though she had just been slapped in the face. She did not speak, but straightened the parchment on her clipboard and began scribbling furiously. Looking supremely unconcerned, Professor McGonagall addressed the class once more.” (OotP 320)
McGonagall gives the students – and the readers – a valuable lesson here. You should never tolerate poor behavior from anybody even if they have more authority than you. Many of the teachers choose to put up with it or even submit to Umbridge’s demands, but McGonagall does not. Instead, she chooses to call Umbridge out on her behavior, much to the glee of the staff and students, which helps give them the motivation at the end of the year to end Umbridge’s tyrannical rule.
In another scene, Umbridge tries to prevent Harry from following his dreams of becoming an Auror, falsely asserting that he has a criminal record, only for McGonagall to correct her that he was cleared of all charges. When Umbridge continues to make up accusations, McGonagall loses her patience. She supports and encourages Harry to pursue his dreams and then issues the finest comeback in the entire series:
‘He has achieved high marks in all his Defense Against the Dark Arts tests -‘
‘I’m terribly sorry to have to contradict you, Minerva, but as you will see from my note, Harry has been achieving very poor results in his classes with me -‘
‘I should have made my meaning plainer,’ said Professor McGonagall, turning at last to look Umbridge directly in the eyes. ‘He has achieved high marks in all Defense Against the Dark Arts tests set by a competent teacher.'” (OotP 664)
The beauty of this statement by McGonagall is it implies that Lockhart, the DADA professor in Chamber of Secrets who turned out to be a fraud, and Quirrell, who had Voldemort on the back of his head, were both better teachers than Umbridge is. Here, McGonagall gives us a powerful message – if you really want something, don’t let anybody else stand in your way.
Check out Part 2 of this article tomorrow where we’ll examine Professor McGonagall’s skills and abilities.