Harry Potter Portal to Literature
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In this section, we’ll learn about a couple of literary references in the Harry Potter books. Plus we’ll read about Beowulf, the oldest and one of the most famous stories in all of British literature. In it Beowulf fights two monsters and a dragon just like Harry fights the monster basilisk and steals treasure guarded by the dragon at Gringott’s.
Macbeth and the Weird Sisters
In Harry Potter the Weird Sisters are a musical group. They played at the Hogwarts Yule Ball in The Goblet of Fire.
In Literature, in the Shakespeare tragedy Macbeth (written in the late 16th century), Macbeth was a military leader and hero who encountered three witches known as the “Weird Sisters.” They told him a prophecy concerning his future. They told him he would become first the Thane of Cawdor (a “thane” is much like an English “earl”), and then the King of Scotland. This prophecy about his becoming king of Scotland made Macbeth crazy with ambition. He killed the current King, Duncan, and several other people who could have posed a problem for Macbeth becoming king. The Weird Sisters told a prophecy about how Macbeth would die:
- He was to “beware the Thane of Fife”
- “None of woman born/shall harm Macbeth”
- “Macbeth shall never be vanquished until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/shall come against him.”
Because of these prophecies Macbeth thought he was invincible. How likely was it that the Woods would fight against him? However, things turned out just like the prophecy claimed:
- Macbeth was killed by the Thane of Fife
- The Thane of Fife was born from a C-Section (not of woman born)
- The army that attacked Macbeth’s castle of Dunsinane disguised themselves behind branches of trees. Thus “Birnam Wood” marched on Dunsinane.
- Macbeth was killed and beheaded by the Thane of Fife, just like the Weird Sisters predicted.
Harry Potter Connection! Professor Trelawney gives a prophecy to Dumbledore about Voldemort and Harry that comes true. She also goes into a trance while he was taking his Divination final exam and tells Harry that the Dark Lord will rise again. That prophecy came true too. Just like the Weird Sisters.
Voldemort and the Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel published in the late 19th century by Oscar Wilde. In the book, Dorian Gray, an extremely attractive young man, believed that the only things worthwhile in life were beauty and pleasing the senses. Dorian asked a painter friend to paint a picture of him that would age for him, and his wish was granted. Dorian ended up living a life of indulgence and every sin he committed showed up in his portrait—the Dorian in the portrait either aged or became disfigured with every sin (including murder) the real Dorian committed. The physical Dorian stayed young and beautiful. In the end Dorian went crazy and stabbed the painting. The physical Dorian Gray died horribly disfigured while the painting reverted to its original form.
Lord Voldemort, though not coveting youth and beauty, did covet immortality to an unnatural degree. Like Dorian Gray, Voldemort attempted to put his soul into another form—the Horcruxes. The Horcruxes served the same purpose as Dorian Gray’s painting; they held his soul and allowed him to commit murder and other awful acts. Dorian Gray stayed young and beautiful while his painting revealed the ugliness of his soul. Voldemort ripped his soul through murder to create the Horcruxes and it showed in his real face. The more evil he became, the more hideous and snake-like he looked. As he murdered he lost the youthful attractive look of Tom Riddle, and became the monstrous Lord Voldemort. In the end, like Dorian Gray’s painting, once the Horcruxes were destroyed, Voldemort was destroyed as well.
The epic poem Beowulf was written in the 10th century, but was taken from a much earlier oral storytelling tradition. It is considered the first work of English literature, since it was written in Old English and not in Latin. In this epic poem we see many creatures and situations that will feature in later English stories right up to Harry Potter. In Beowulf we have:
- A brave young man who fights and kills a monster that terrorizes people.
- A hero who must fight underwater.
- A dragon guarding an underground treasure and a hero attempting to steal that treasure.
- A young man who steals a cup from the treasure.
In the tale of Beowulf, Beowulf was a young accomplished warrior who fought several monsters. First, there was the great monster, Grendel, who was attacking and killing people in Denmark. Although the king of Denmark, Hrothgar, had sent out his own warriors to kill Grendel, no one could succeed. Beowulf, being young and brave and eager to prove his worth, traveled to Denmark to kill Grendel. King Hrothgar accepted Beowulf’s offer and had a banquet in his honor.
When Grendel arrived at Hrothgar’s hall to kill more Danes, Beowulf fought him with his bare hands. They struggled and eventually Beowulf won, tearing off Grendel’s arm. Grendel slunk off to his home in a swamp to die.
Mythology Connection! The Greek mythology hero Hercules kills monsters with his bare hands.
Harry Potter Connection! Harry fights a monster in The Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk. Like Grendel killing Hrothgar’s men in his great hall, the basilisk is killing (or trying to kill) students at Hogwarts. Although Harry does not fight the basilisk with his bare hands, he does go down into the chamber of secrets with very little to fight with.
Grendel’s mother (whose name we never learn; she is just “Grendel’s mother”) wanted revenge for her son’s death. She killed one of King Hrothgar’s advisers and then returned to her swamp. Beowulf and a company of men went to the swamp to fight Grendel’s mother. Beowulf dove into the swamp and it took him all day to swim to the bottom!
Harry Potter Connection! Like Beowulf, Harry fights monsters underwater during the second task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He magically stays underwater for longer than is humanly possible (although not all day), and he has to fight off underwater creatures, like grindylows, to get to his objective. Beowulf also had to fight off underwater creatures, “…swarming through the water, throngs of sea-beasts threw themselves upon him…” (Beowulf, 98).
Beowulf used a magic sword to kill Grendel’s mother, found Grendel’s body, cut off its head, and then returned to King Hrothgar in triumph.
Harry Potter Connection! Harry and Beowulf are both gifted with a magical sword at just the right moment to kill the monster. Beowulf found a “giant-sword” which was the “wonder of its kind was yet so enormous that no other man would be equal to bearing it in battle-play” (Beowulf, 100). Harry is given the Sword of Griffindor to kill the basilisk right when things look bleak. He’s begging for help to save him from the basilisk when, “something very hard and heavy thudded onto the top of Harry’s head…a gleaming silver sword had appeared inside the hat…” (COS, 319-320). Both kill the monster and save their people.
Beowulf returned home to Geatland (Ee-ate-land), was treated as a hero, and eventually became king. He ruled well for 50 years.
When Beowulf was old and gray one of his people, a slave of one of the warriors, found his way into a barrow, and came across a huge stash of treasure—he later found out that it was the treasure of a race of men long since dead and forgotten. A dragon guarded the treasure, but it slept, so the slave stole a goblet.
Harry Potter Connection! Harry, Hermione, and Ron steal a goblet (Helga Hufflepuff’s cup) from an underground cavern guarded by a dragon! They also unleash the dragon, although they do it on purpose, and the dragon does not go on to destroy the nearby villages.
The dragon awoke and discovered that someone had intruded into his lair and stolen the goblet. He left the underground lair and started wreaking havoc on the land. He breathed fire and burned down the villagers’ houses and buildings, killing many people. At the end of the night, he returned to his barrow.
Sound Familiar? The story of a dragon (or monster) terrorizing and killing people is very common. It appears with the Greek mythology story of Perseus. He saved Andromeda from being a sacrifice to save her city from a sea monster. We see it with the story of Saint George and the dragon. And we see it with Harry and the basilisk. The basilisk is roaming Hogwarts castle and attacking students. Eventually one of the students (Ginny) becomes a “sacrifice” to the monster and our hero (Harry of course) has to kill the monster and save the girl and town (Hogwarts).
Beowulf believed that somehow he had angered the “gods” and this dragon attack was their way of punishing him. Even his own house and wealth had been burned by the dragon. He proposed to fight the dragon and had his men make him a shield made from iron. At the time the men had shields made from wood, but Beowulf knew that wood could not withstand the dragon’s fire. Beowulf also realized that he was old and would die soon so he wanted to do one last brave deed and save his people from the dragon.
Beowulf and some of his warriors went off to fight the dragon. The dragon came out from under the barrow and attacked them. Beowulf was hurt, which scared his men and they ran away. They watched Beowulf from afar, but one brave warrior, Wiglaf, went back to help their leader. Wiglaf remembered all the good things that Beowulf had done for him as a lord and king. Beowulf stabbed the dragon a couple of times with his sword but it didn’t do anything. He started to lose hope. Then the dragon bit Beowulf and had him in his jaws. Wiglaf stabbed the dragon in his underbelly and he let go of Beowulf and began to die. Beowulf then beheaded it.
Beowulf was now dying (from the dragon’s poison as well as from the wounds), but he asked Wiglaf to go down and retrieve the treasures from the dragon’s hoard. Wiglaf did as Beowulf asked and brought as much as treasure as he could carry back up. Beowulf died. Unfortunately for Beowulf, he had no Fawkes the Phoenix with his magically restorative tears to save him!
The cowardly warriors came back, Wiglaf chastised them for their cowardice, and then he sent a messenger to tell all the Geats that their king was dead. He proclaimed how bravely Beowulf fought against the dragon. Beowulf was cremated on a funeral pyre and placed in a burial mound with much of the dragon’s treasure.