Thursday, 4 June 2009

Harry Potter: Books 4-5 - Centaurs and Sphinxes

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an odd one for me - the book is my least favourite of the series, but the film is my favourite of the films so far.

Being annoyingly serious for a moment, I can't stand the house elves sub-plot in the book, because I don't think slavery is a suitable subject to play for laughs. All of Ron's justifications for enslaving the house elves - that they like it, that they were born to serve etc - have been used of real slaves by real slave owners, and the way Hermione is treated by both the other characters and the narrator for trying to win rights for the house elves - laughed at and ignored - seems totally inappropriate to me, especially in a book aimed at a young audience.

I don't get the main plot of Goblet of Fire either - why on earth would Voldemort hatch such an incredibly complicated plan to get his hands on Harry, when surely Wormtail could just kidnap him in Hogsmeade? Why would the Triwizard Tournament have such ridiculously unbendable rules in the first place, how could Harry be magically bound by a contract he didn't sign and why didn't the Ministry cancel the tournament when it became obvious that something very dodgy was going on? For me, all of these are worse problems than the question of why Gandalf didn't just fly to Mordor on an eagle in The Lord of the Rings.

But, for some reason, in the film, none of this bothers me! I get swept up in the story and stop worrying about all these things and, best of all, the house elves sub-plot is gone! Patrick Doyle's music is sublime and the film has some really powerful sequences - Harry and Cedric racing each
other to get to the Goblet, Harry nearly becoming overcome with competitive ambition and abandoning Cedric, the entire scene in the graveyard, especially Ralph Fiennes who is amazingly good at playing pure evil (is there anything more chilling than his cry 'I want to see the light leave your eyes!') and, most brilliantly horrible of all, Harry appearing, clutching Cedric's body and weeping, among a crowd of cheering schoolchildren, parents and a brass band playing eerily cheerful music.

Goblet of Fire has the usual mix of Classical, Norse, Celtic and other mythologies, but the bit I'm picking up on today, ironically, isn't in the film. I also have to confess that I haven't read the book in a while and don't have it in front of me - I have several copies of Philosopher's Stone in several languages (including Latin and Ancient Greek) but Goblet of Fire is at my parents' house, so I'm relying on the internet to refresh my memory.

During the third task, in the maze, Harry encounters a Sphinx who asks him a riddle. Sphinxes (body of an animal, usually a lion, head of either a man or a woman) are known from art all over the ancient Mediterranean, including from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoan and Mycenean art on Crete and mainland Greece, and later Classical Greek art. In literature, the best known sphinx is the one that harrassed Thebes until she met Oedipus. Oedipus himself is much better known for the later parts of his story, but it is his defeat of the sphinx that gets him married to his mother in the first place (see the pretty decent Wikipedia article here).

The Greek sphinx's riddle is a simple and traditional riddle, in which the words of the riddle need to be understood symbolically in order to produce the answer. The riddle Harry's sphinx asks is a bit different:

"First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies,
Next tell me what's always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?

And finally give me the sound often heard,
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?"
(Thanks to Mugglenet - the editorial here is somewhat out of date, but makes interesting reading.)

The answer Harry gives, correctly, is 'spider'. This is more like a series of crossword clues than a riddle, relying on word play. If this riddle had appeared in an ancient Greek text, it would make no sense at all as soon as it was translated into another language. The last bit is especially odd, as the one creature in all the Harry-Potter-verse that one would least want to kiss is obviously a Dementor. Sure, kissing a spider would be pretty unpleasant and certainly gives me nightmares, but its not a particuarly clever observation.

Its a nice idea to use a sphinx - a suitably scary-looking creature - and a riddle in the maze, playing on not only Greek mythology, but also echoing JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, which features riddles heavily in what would turn out to be its most important chapter. I find the riddle itself somewhat disappointing though - for several rather better designed riddles, see the aforementioned Hobbit, 'Riddles in the Dark'.

Two enormous sphinxes guard the entrance to some of the Near Eastern galleries at the British Museum. The picture on the left, which unfortunately came out a bit dark, gives some sense of the scale of these - compare the size of the person with the statue.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is actually one of my favourites of the books, while the film is not my least favourite, but definitely comes behind 3 and 4. The first time I read Order of the Phoenix I didn't like it - because it was too well written. JKR really excels at describing teenage-dom in all its glory and misery, and just as the Yule Ball (both film and book versions) reminds me of every teenage dance that left half the attendants in tears or sulks, the OWLs in Book 5 are just too well-described.

Explanation for non-Brits: OWLs are the wizardly version of British GCSEs, playing on the old exams taken by my parents that GCSEs replaced - O-Levels, standing for Ordinary Level (hence Ordinary Wizarding Level). Whereas most other sensible countries have 1 set of school-leaving exams, when I was at school we had 2, and now we actually have 3 (I was the in last year group to take old A-Levels, thank goodness). Students can leave school at 16, after taking GCSEs, or can choose to stay and take AS-Levels and A-Levels, and university requires A-Levels or equivalent.

Although I have done many, many exams since and have two degrees with a third hopefully coming up soon, I remember Year 11, GCSE year, as the most horrifically stressful of the lot (closely followed by MA year, FYI). I only took 3 A-Levels, but 9 and a half GCSEs, which is still less than many others do. The worst part was the pressure put on us by the teachers - 'this is the most important year of your life, how you do in these exams will affect your future career, you must study, you must work', etc etc etc. All of that comes across so clearly in Book 5 that I was taken right back to the age of 16 and I hated it. Later, I read it again, put a bit more distance between it and me, and loved it. I do have a bit of a fondness for ridiculously long fantasy books.

The most intriguing use of Greek mythology to me in Order of the Phoenix is the depiction of the centaurs. I grew up with a Narnian view of centaurs - wise, noble, vicious and brave in battle it's true, but absolutely peaceful unless forced to fight. Harry Potter's centaurs are actually closer to the Greek version. Greek centaurs were imagined as, for the most part, a gang of wild, drunken, violent rapists, presented as the opposite of human civilization. There were occasional exceptions, and both Narnian and Potterian centaurs get their astrological skill from Chiron, who seems to have tutored half the heroes of Greek mythology (see Wikipedia again). However, star-gazing aside and leaving out the rape and alcohol parts, Potter's centaurs are much closer to Greek centaurs than Lewis' noble heroes. Like Greek centaurs, they live in the wild forest, in opposition to human civilization (represented by Hogwarts) and whatever it is that they do to Umbridge is, thankfully, left undescribed.

I like the Classical rendering of the centaurs, and I like that they are so different to Narnian centaurs (while retaining the useful divinatory astrological knowledge) but I must admit, I'm always a little disturbed at the way Hermione deliberately leaves Umbridge to their mercy, and that they would have killed Hermione and Harry without Grawp (my least favourite character of all, by the way). But then, Umbridge was pretty nasty, and its a very effective scary set piece.

A Roman mosaic showing a very unusual image - a female centaur. Unfortunately I didn't write down the exact date of this piece. The mosaic is in the museum at Tunis and is therefore probably Imperial or Late, since Carthage was repopulated under Augustus.

Hmm, between anti-slavery campaigns and the woes of the British educational system, that ended up being a rather more earnest blog than I had anticipated! I'll have to find something more light-hearted to look at before tackling Jesus Christ Superstar...


  1. Properly speaking the figures in the British Museum aren't sphinxes, but lamassu or shedu.

    My problem with Order of the Phoenix, both book and movie, is that it is really bad for my blood pressure. I find myself absolutely vibrating with anger. For me, Umbridge is the most evil charcter in the entire series.

    Just once, I'd like to see somebody do centuars the way they appeared up until roughly the Classical era, completely human in front with the horsey bits attached at the back.

  2. Nice review. I also grew up with the idea that centaurs are noble warriors, but not because of Narnia; actually, now you made me wonder where I've got that idea from.

  3. My bad on the British museum statues - Mesopotmian archaeology isn't my strong point!

    On the depiction of centaurs, though, they are depicted as the body of a horse with human torso in art going all the way back - see the Wikipedia article on the archaic Francois vase. According the the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Chiron is often depicted with the full body of a human and horsey rear end, in order to emphasise that he is closer to humanity than other centaurs. Your bog standard centaurs would always be half and half.

    Umbridge is sooo evil - but I love how she crosses so many lines that the entire school turns against her, including all the staff and Peeves!

    It was years before I questioned the centaurs' depiction in Narnia - I wonder if they appear like that in something else? Must have a look-see...

  4. My understanding (and I did a bit of research on this a while back for a discussion at AncientWorlds, though I can no longer find my sources) is that up until roughly the mid-sixth century centaurs were often shown in the way that only Chiron would be later. This is especially to be seen in Orientalizing and proto-Corinthian pots.

  5. Interesting. Must admit, I prefer the more usual depiction - it seems to make more sense somehow... :)

  6. Good to see I'm not the only one who collects versions of the "... Philosopher's Stone". I have German, French, Italian, and ancient Greek. I try to get only the versions that I can actually read (though I haven't attempted the Greek version yet).

  7. I have German, Latin and Greek, and my housemate has French. I can read the French, I can slooooowly translate the Latin and Greek and I'm working on the German!

    I'm aiming to get the French one myself at some point - I started with Books 3 and 4 in French, being optimistic! And if I ever get around to learning more Italian, I'll get that - my housemate has Deathly Hallows in Italian, but since all I can do is order pizza, I don't think I would get very far with that!

  8. My! I'd never think to get the books in other languages (except for the first which I received as a gift in Spanish) because I really, really don't like translations!

    I think my favourite moment in Order of the Phoenix is the twins farewell... what a glorious exit! And sadly it wasn't well done in the film.

    This is the point where I start getting upset at the movies for leaving so many things out. Not that I missed the discussions on house elves, but the quidditch?! (ditto for book 3 on that one), Ron's ghastly tryouts?

    And yes, Umbridge is truly the scariest vilain in the series... all that pink! *shudder*

  9. Once I'm finished with the PhD, I'm thinking of doing some work on the different translations of Harry Potter and the differences between a translation for non-English speaking children and a translation for an English-speaking adult classicist - should be interesting! So far, the best translations I've found in French are of the Narnia Chronicles - somehow the French translator has managed to keep Lewis' old fashioned style in French, which I was very impressed by.

    Must re-read Book 5, most of the major sequences seem somehow more impressive in book form...

  10. HOW DARE YOU SAY BAD THINGS ABOUT THE HARRY POTTER SERIES!!! they are most definitely among the best books written within fifty years. they are decently complicated, but also understandable. They are not realistic at all but when you read them ou still get caught and it seems as if you are in that world.they are truly incredible books and they should not be insulted.

  11. the Harry Potter books are immpressive, I grew up listening to them and reading them. I have to agree that some of the things that Harry and Ron say about the house elves is... disterbing however if the house elves truly like doing work and they have a good home then they should be entitled to their rights.

  12. i love the harry potter series but i was reading the goblet of the fire last night and i started to understand what my RE teacher used to tell me (that the harry potter books aren't actually that well written)and i mean i do absoloutly LOVE them, but it just occured to me that all the rude retorts i used to give him may not have been completely necessary. I'v also read the twilight saga and although i will always prefer harry potter but i prefer the way that twilight is written. I also think that if rowling had written harry potter in the first person (from harrys point of view), as meyer did with the twilgith saga then it would have made the books very interesting to read. Not that they aren't already.

  13. You are harry potter haters! it is fiction and in the end ron does look out for the elfs wellfare i think you have to remember it is a book and that in most books things don't always make sense.

  14. don't you ever think of criticizing the Harry Potter Series 'cause you'll just regret. You'll love these in the end.



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