The Wyvern of Wye: A St David’s Day Post

By Dr Beatrice Groves

Happy St David’s Day!

Wales is renowned for sporting prowess in Harry Potter – home not only to the Holyhead Harpies, an all-female team founded in 1203 whose captain is the famous Gwenog Jones but also (according to Quidditch Through the Ages) the Caerphilly Catapults, and then there are the Tutshill Tornados flying near, and no doubt sometimes over, the Welsh border. But the most important thing flying around the Welsh skies is, of course, not Quidditch players but the Common Welsh Green – inspired by the dragon of the Welsh flag and which (according to Newt Scamander) ‘has an easily recognizable and surprisingly melodious roar.’ (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [2001]). The subject of this post, however, is not the Common Welsh Green itself but a rather more obscure Wizarding World beast with which it has sometimes been confused– the Wyvern.


flag of Wessex

A gold wyvern on a red field, the flag of Wessex. Source


A Wyvern is a two-legged dragon with a curled tail and although it is not mentioned in Harry Potter, it is a Wizarding World beast, appearing in both Secrets of Dumbledore and Pottermore. Rowling grew up in Tutshill, along the banks of the river Wye and the synchrony of the Wyvern’s name with this beautiful river of her childhood was too tempting to resist and thus she invented the Wyvern of Wye:

Sir Cadogan’s most famous encounter was with the Wyvern of Wye, a dragonish creature that was terrorising the West Country. At their first encounter, the beast ate Sir Cadogan’s handsome steed, bit his wand in half and melted his sword and visor. Unable to see through the steam rising from his melting helmet, Sir Cadogan barely escaped with his life. However, rather than running away, he staggered into a nearby meadow, grabbed a small, fat pony grazing there, leapt upon it and galloped back towards the wyvern with nothing but his broken wand in his hand, prepared to meet a valiant death. The creature lowered its fearsome head to swallow Sir Cadogan and the pony whole, but the splintered and misfiring wand pierced its tongue, igniting the gassy fumes rising from its stomach and causing the wyvern to explode.

Elderly witches and wizards still use the saying ‘I’ll take Cadogan’s pony’ to mean, ‘I’ll salvage the best I can from a tricky situation.’


Highly local ferocious beasts and their likewise local hero-vanquishers were an important part of medieval romances and folktales. Sir Cadogan and his Wyvern of Wye remind me of the local legends of another writer’s childhood: Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Warwickshire youth meant he would have been familiar with the local hero Guy of Warwick who vanquished a very large cow: the formidable Dun Cow of legend.

Rowling’s childhood was spent at Wyedean Comprehensive – a school whose name irresistibly recalls the area’s two most famous natural beauties: the Wye River and the Forest of Dean.


Wye River and the Forest of Dean

Image taken by Robert Hindle, from Wikipedia


A teacher at Wyedean interviewed by Sean Smith spoke of how ‘You couldn’t live by the Forest or the Wye Valley and not be inspired by its history and traditions.’(1) The Forest of Dean, of course, plays an important role in Deathly Hallows and the trailer for Deathly Hallows – Part 1 features an aerial shot of Harry, Ron, and Hermione walking along the Wye. Source. The Forest of Dean may be an important location in Deathly Hallows not only due to its childhood associations for Rowling (note that Hermione also talks of visiting it as a child) but also due to the wider cultural importance of this forest in the work of the – temptingly named – Dennis Potter (as I have discussed here) and Welsh Arthurian tales.

The Forest of Dean was probably once part of the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and Ergnyg and the silver doe Harry meets there has deep connections with Welsh tales of Arthur in which white animals – often deer – are messengers from the Otherworld. Harry Potter drew on the deep mythic springs of the Forest of Dean in both Rowling’s personal history and in the wider cultural landscape and Pottermore revisits the same area in comic mode. Cadogan’s myth creates a comic, Arthurian story for the same area ‘with the Wyvern of Wye, a dragonish creature that was terrorizing the West Country.’ (Comic Arthuriana, incidentally, has never been done better than in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – a film which influences Potter: see here and here).

The most important role for the wyvern in the Wizarding World, however, is in the opening sequence of The Secrets of Dumbledore when it plays a pivotal role, closing the opening credits by carrying our hero to safety:


Opening scene from Secrets of Dumbledore

From The Secrets of Dumbledore.


From deep below, in the belly of the case, we follow the leggy limbs of a WYVERN as it climbs upward toward the sky, past the picture of TINA GOLDSTEIN stuck to the inside of the case lid, and then Teddy before emerging UP AND OUT of the case into the Angel Eye itself.

The Wyvern’s body starts to expand magically and beautifully before us. With his last bit of strength, Newt gathers the Qilin close, pulling it within the folds of his coat. Shivering, it bleats softly in his arms. The tail of the Wyvern wraps around Newt, and he and the baby Qilin are lifted gently into the air.

The Wyvern ascends high into the sky, its great majestic wings
expanding gracefully as it carries Newt and the baby Qilin over the expansive waterfalls and toward the horizon, which glimmers faintly with the day’s first light.

(Screenplay of Secrets of Dumbledore)

The name ‘Wyvern’ is never mentioned in the dialogue of the film (only in these stage directions) so it would be an unusually acute viewer who spotted the identity of this fantastic beast! – but it does follow the traditional attributes of a Wyvern with its dragonish wings, two legs, and, importantly, a curly tail that can wrap around Newt and the Qilin and fly them to safety.

This Wyvern may be Kloves’s addition to the script, but Rowling has written about wyverns in relation to Fantastic Beasts before. Shortly after Scamander’s textbook was published in 2001 Rowling received a letter (addressed to her as Professor Scamander) by a certain Howard Brayton noting that the wyvern had unaccountably been omitted from his work, and stating that the beast appeared both in Robert Browning’s poetry and on the heraldic crest of his alma mater. Rowling’s reply has been published by the Rowling Library which brilliantly spotted this letter when it came up for auction in 2014:

Dear Howard,

Ah yes, the fabled “wyvern”. Well, naturally I had heard the rumours ~the poet Browning’s allusion had not escaped me~ and so I set out to investigate. Extensive research however, has convinced me that the beast in question was a Common Welsh Green whose legs were counted by a Muggle with a very shaky grasp of numeracy. You know how that is, you’re an educational consultant.

It is always a blow to have a cherished part of one’s life dismissed as a figment of the imagination, so I tender my apologies to yourself and your alma mater – but we wizards have to deal with that every day.

With best wishes,
Newt Scamander
a.k.a. J.K. Rowling


It is noticeable that fourteen years before Rowling wrote about the ‘Wyvern of Wye’ she was already associating wyverns with Wales (in this case claiming ‘that the beast in question was a Common Welsh Green whose legs were counted by a Muggle with a very shaky grasp of numeracy’).

My attention was caught by this letter because it is the only time Rowling has mentioned Browning and I’m always interested in hints about possible literary allusions in Harry Potter. Browning is a great – and difficult! – poet and his reference to the wyvern (‘Browning’s allusion had not escaped me’) comes in a passage in his 1835 poem Paracelsus. This poem, according to the critic William O. Raymond, turns ‘upon the poetic antithesis between “loving” and “knowing”’ embodied in the poem by the poet (Aprile) who ‘seeks in the inner shrine of the heart an unfolding of God’s purposes and the clue to the mystery of life’ and the Renaissance scholar and ‘empirical mystic’ Paracelsus who seeks for “a manifestation of the divine order… in the world of outer nature”.(2) The passage about the wyvern comes as Aprile describes – in language replete with confidence in the power of his art to capture the transcendent beauty of creation – how:

I would contrive and paint
Woods, valleys, rocks, and plains, dells, sands, and wastes,
Lakes which, when morn breaks on their quivering bed,
Blaze like a wyvern flying round the sun.

It is a stunning image and, given that we know Rowling had read it by 2001, interestingly similar – in its linking of lakes blazing with reflected light and wyverns/dragons – to the way in which when the trio ride a dragon in Deathly Hallows it flies over a lake ‘coppery in the sunset… [with] flashes of reflected sunlight’ (Chap 27).

Browning’s poem as a putative source for Harry Potter is also interesting given that the poem’s eponymous protagonist is the physician and alchemist Paracelsus – who not only turns up on the Chocolate Frog cards Harry opens on his first journey to Hogwarts but is also honored by a bust in the castle itself. In Fantastic Beasts Paracelsus returns as a swearword (Newt exclaims ‘Thank Paracelsus!’ in the first film, on discovering that Frank, at least, has not escaped from his case) – and this (as a god-substitute position for English swearwords) is a position of high honor usually reserved in the Wizarding World for the greatest of wizards, Merlin.(3)

The historical Paracelsus is a fascinating character, known by a mononym but baptized in 1493 with a name to give even Albus Dumbledore a run for his money: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He was trained in metallurgy in his youth – in the smelting of ores and the pursuit of metals that ‘grow’ in the earth – which fed into his later fascination with the transmutation of base metals in gold. He traveled Europe as a young man – learning from physicians, astrologers, apothecaries, and alchemists – before establishing the therapeutic use of chemicals (the first example of chemotherapy).(4) As Emily Strand argues the presence of Paracelsus in Hogwarts may be taken as a signpost pointing to important alchemical and theological ideas underlying the way in which the Wizarding World works.(5) It is also possible that the bust of Paracelsus plays an important role in the plot:

‘I would not go that way if I were you,’ said Nearly Headless Nick, drifting disconcertingly through a wall just ahead of Harry as he walked down the passage. ‘Peeves is planning an amusing joke on the next person to pass the bust of Paracelsus halfway down the corridor.’
‘Does it involve Paracelsus falling on top of the person’s head?’ asked Harry.
(Order of the Phoenix, Chap 14)

This moment echoes that in Chamber of Secrets when Nearly-Headless Nick tells Harry that Peeves had dropped something else in the corridor – a Vanishing Cabinet which is then badly damaged in the fall and so jettisoned to the Room of Lost Things. It is possible then, that when Peeves likewise breaks the bust of Paracelsus the chipped bust is likewise tidied away into the same place. It is a tempting possibility that the ‘chipped bust of an ugly old warlock’ (Half-Blood Prince, Chap 24) that Harry finds just after he passes the broken Vanishing Cabinet in the Room of Requirement is the bust of Paracelsus damaged by its fall. If it is, then Paracelsus is once against a signpost to what is crucial: in this case the location of a Horcrux.

The heraldic Wyvern

Browning’s reference to the wyvern in Paracelsus is also noteworthy for occurring fairly early in the wyvern’s mythical life. Howard Brayton mentioned in his letter to Professor Scamander that his ‘alma mater’ carried an image of a wyvern – but it is noticeable that the two universities with Wyverns on their arms (Bath and Essex) only received these arms in the 1960s. In the case of Essex this takes the form of a rather charming bit of canting heraldry as wyvern stands atop an annulet (a little ring or ‘O’) on its crest – forming a pun on the location of the University’s main campus, Wivenhoe Park. Source (Folk etymology, indeed, traces the name of the town from the mythical beast Source).

Heraldic beasts are, of course, central to Hogwarts with each house represented by an apposite heraldic beast (I’ve gone into Hogwarts’ heraldry in detail here). Rowling’s description in her letter to Brayton of a wyvern as being a dragon with two legs is a heraldic understanding of the beast which – in English heraldry alone – is strictly divided from the dragon proper by virtue of its paucity of limbs. Source. Dragons and serpents have long been closely intertwined (in ancient Greece they are pretty much the same beast: the ‘Draco’ constellation after which Draco is named is really a huge snake Source) and the wyvern’s reduced number of legs and serpentine tail links it particularly closely with snakes. The name wyvern, in fact, derives (like many heraldic terms) from Old French – it is a variant of ‘vivre’ meaning ‘serpent;’ originally a ‘wyver’, a viper, as in the 1599 citation given by the Oxford English Dictionary:

A Wyuer is a kynde of serpent of good Bulke, not vnlyke vnto a dragon, of whose kinde he is, a thinge well knowen vnto the Heroldes, vsinge the same for armes, and crestes, & supporters.

This heraldic ‘wyver’ predates the mythical beast proper – the Wyvern – by a century. The Wyvern was a heraldic animal long before it went marauding through the forests of romance. The fantastic beast (rather than the heraldic device) does not make an appearance until the beginning of the eighteenth century when a certain Sir Conyers is said to overthrow ‘a monstrous, and poysonous vermine or wyverne’ (cited in OED).

For a mythical animal 1700 is a very late arrival. Most of the Wizarding World’s fantastic beasts have a far more ancient pedigree and it seems therefore that Professor Scamander was quite right – in the letter above – to defend its non-appearance in his book (whatever filmmakers may have later decided) on the grounds that it does not exist. (Unless of course, given the existence of the Wyvern of Wye and the deus ex machine wyvern of the Secrets of Dumbledore Scamander is just lying to the Muggles.)

(1) Sean Smith, J.K. Rowling: A Bioography (2001), p.63.
(2) William O. Raymond, The Infinite Moment and Other Essays in Robert Browning (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1950), 157-59.
(3) For Merlin as the ‘deity of reference’ in these swearwords, see: Kathleen Langr, ‘”Merlin’s Pants!”: The World of Wizarding Insult’ in Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays For Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks, ed. Tranvis Prinzi (Unlocking Press, 2011), 135-55 (esp.154).
(4) E.J. Holmyard Alchemy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), 163.
(5) Emily Strand, ‘Harry Potter and the Sacramental Principle,’ Worship 93 (Oct. 2019): 345-365 (349-50).

Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford, and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Solve et Coagula: Part 1 – Rowling’s Alchemical Tattoo,” – all of which can be found in Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Potterversity.