Minerva McGonagall: The Most Underrated Character in the Series – Part 2
by Jack R. Pease
In Part 1, we covered Professor McGonagall’s personality, including her cast-iron moral sense, her refusal to turn a blind eye to injustice, and her never-wavering loyalty to her students. In Part 2, we look more into the side of McGonagall that is only mentioned a few times – when she unleashes her awesome power in defense of the school. McGonagall does not appear in many duels in the series and thus we feel is rather underrated as a duellist. However, make no mistake – never mess with Minerva McGonagall!
McGonagall in Battle
Minerva is named after the Roman goddess of war and wisdom, which is appropriate since – true to her goddess namesake – Professor McGonagall proves herself an incredibly powerful and skilled witch. She is an immensely formidable opponent in battle, and though she fights rarely, she fights exceptionally, sending Death Eaters running away in fear:
‘Take that!’ shouted Professor McGonagall, and Harry glimpsed the female Death Eater, Alecto, sprinting away down the corridor with her arms over her head, her brother right behind her.” (HBP 599)
Even when former Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin, a powerful wizard in his own right, was at the same time struggling with a single Death Eater, McGonagall had no issue sending two of them away at once, running for their lives with the ferocity of her attack.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort prepares to attack the school for the first time, and McGonagall engages Professor Snape, someone she still believes to be an agent of Voldemort, in a fierce duel to take back control of and defend the school:
Professor McGonagall moved faster than Harry could have believed: Her wand slashed through the air and for a split second Harry thought that Snape must crumple, unconscious, but the swiftness of his Shield Charm was such that McGonagall was thrown off balance. She brandished her wand at a torch on the wall and it flew out of its bracket: Harry, about to curse Snape, was forced to pull Luna out of the way of the descending flames, which became a ring of fire that filled the corridor and flew like a lasso at Snape –
Then it was no longer fire, but a great black serpent that McGonagall blasted to smoke, which re-formed and solidified in seconds to become a swarm of pursuing daggers: Snape avoided them only by forcing the suit of armor in front of him, and with echoing clangs the daggers sank, one after another, into its breast -” (DH 598)
Whilst they are both extremely powerful wizards and Professor Snape did initially out-react her, he is forced onto the back foot almost immediately by McGonagall’s attack. Using her outstanding Transfiguration skills, she turns a small torch into a fiery whirlwind that surrounds Snape and fills the entire corridor with fire. Snape is talented in Transfiguration too and turns this fire into a huge black snake that lunges at McGonagall. McGonagall however instantly neutralizes this, turning it to smoke and then turning the smoke into daggers, which she sends back at him. At this point, it becomes clear Snape cannot further Transfigure the attack. McGonagall has used more advanced Transfiguration than he is able to counter, so he hides behind a suit of armor. Note in the description of the duel, it says “Snape avoided them only,” – emphasis on the “only” – which implies the only way he avoided being killed by these daggers is to hide. Further evidence of the skill of both McGonagall and Snape is that they duel nonverbally, which is a much more advanced level of magic.
This scene is very important because McGonagall directly defies both the authority of Dumbledore and Voldemort to protect the students. McGonagall had her suspicions of Snape due to his previous life as a Death Eater but did not act on them because Dumbledore trusted him. With Dumbledore gone, she acts. Voldemort now controls the school, and she defies him too by ousting his headmaster, Professor Snape, proving she will put every ounce of effort she has into protecting her students, her children.
McGonagall is an exceptionally effective leader and takes charge of the school, securing it against Voldemort’s incoming army. Whilst she knows nothing they do will keep out Voldemort indefinitely, that doesn’t mean she won’t try – true to Gryffindor, she values bravery. In a scene brilliantly illustrated in the film, she tells Professor Flitwick that “his name is Voldemort. You might as well use it – he’ll try to kill you either way,” referring to the general fear by the wizarding world of saying his name. She then instructs the staff members to evacuate the younger pupils to protect them and then to join her and the senior professors in protecting the school with every spell they are capable of. McGonagall then performs one of her most spectacular spells yet as she leads the defense of the castle:
‘And now – Piertotum Locomotor!’ cried Professor McGonagall.
And all along the corridor the statues and suits of armor jumped down from their plinths, and from the echoing crashes from the floors above and below, Harry knew that their fellows throughout the castle had done the same.
‘Hogwarts is threatened!’ shouted Professor McGonagall. ‘Man the boundaries, protect us, do your duty to our school!’
Clattering and yelling, the horde of moving statues stampeded past Harry: some of them smaller, others larger, than life. There were animals too, and the clanking suits of armor brandished swords and spiked balls on chains.” (DH 602–603)
In this scene, McGonagall uses a single spell to bring to life all of the castle’s thousands of statues and suits of armor – which she controls – to man the boundaries of the school. When battle commences, she is seen by Harry shepherding a herd of desks into battle, with a scream of “CHARGE!” (DH 644).
In the armistice during the midway point, she lets out a scream of despair when Voldemort presents Harry as dead to the defenders. Harry, who is only pretending, finds this very distressing as he never “expected or dreamed that Professor McGonagall could make such a sound” (DH 730).
When battle recommences, McGonagall engages Voldemort head-on, dueling him bravely to a stalemate, aided by Professor Slughorn and Kingsley Shacklebolt. Meanwhile, Molly Weasley takes on Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort’s right-hand witch, and both duels come to a head in the Great Hall, hundreds of people lining the walls. Bellatrix’s childlike attitude and years of torture mean she underestimates Molly, who brutally kills Bellatrix when Ginny is nearly killed. Enraged, Voldemort’s fury explodes with the force of a bomb, sending McGonagall and allies flying through the air. Whilst McGonagall, Kingsley, and Slughorn are ultimately overpowered by Voldemort because he lost control, neither side is able to hurt the other, and there is no record of McGonagall suffering any injury from her duel with Voldemort, further proving she is like her goddess namesake. It should also be noted in her favor that she, Horace, and Kingsley had been fighting Death Eaters since midnight and were likely fatigued, whereas Voldemort had only just entered the battle.
After Voldemort is killed once and for all by Harry, McGonagall becomes the permanent headmistress of Hogwarts where she no doubt continued to be a formidable but inspirational teacher for many years to come.