Essay: Blood Sport
When Harry first enters the wizarding world, where someone stands on Quidditch is a metaphor for how well they fit into that world. That Harry takes to flying immediately clearly delineates him as a soldier, a warrior. It also contributes to the animus between him and Draco Malfoy, who first mentions the word “Quidditch” to Harry. For Harry to join the Gryffindor house team as a first year and actually be good at it cements the separation between them.
In addition to there being an archetype aligning with each book in the series (see The Game Pieces or QuantumHarry, the Podcast, Episode 2: This Old Man), JK Rowling has also engaged in a clever bit of self-referential recursion. Each of the seven obstacles to the Philosopher’s Stone also aligns with one of the seven books in the series, and links to a significant theme in each book.
The first obstacle to the Stone is “Fluffy”, the three-headed dog Hagrid loans Dumbledore to guard the trapdoor leading to the Stone. Harry initially sees Fluffy due to Draco challenging him to a midnight duel, though Draco obviously never intended to follow through on that. Dueling is an obvious mock-war and Harry is alarmed by Ron stepping up to be his “second”, should anything happen to Harry. Harry showing up to play/fight Draco leads directly to his meeting Fluffy. The first step to overcoming this obstacle is knowing that it exists, so this is valuable knowledge for the later battle/game, and mirrors another time when Draco refuses to play a game that is really a war and Harry reaps the benefits: Draco does not kill but disarms Dumbledore in the sixth book and by doing so becomes master of the Elder Wand, a role that will pass to Harry when he disarms Draco in the seventh book.
On Christmas, a holiday that usually means toys, games and sweets for children, Harry receives a mysterious anonymous gift: his father’s Invisibility Cloak. In the seventh book, we learn that it’s probably a Deathly Hallow. The Cloak can be used for games, as James did when he was in school, or war, which is how members of the Order of the Phoenix use their Cloaks. Harry uses his for war first, in the library’s Restricted Section, to search for information on Nicolas Flamel, which leads to his discovering the Mirror of Erised. Like many of Rowling’s mirrors, it is more like a toy than a “normal” mirror, and his mastering the Mirror Game leads to success in the Philosopher’s Stone Game. Harry first sees Flamel’s name on Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card, something collected by kids that comes with a sweet.
The legend on the mirror is simple backwards English: “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.” This isn’t explained but perhaps Rowling knew that most of her readers would master this game. Dumbledore confirms that this is how the mirror works. As with the Resurrection Stone, the second Deathly Hallow Harry acquires, it’s possible to be so transfixed by the mirror that you can forget to live. Harry seems to be in danger of this, and by the end of the seventh book we can guess what Dumbledore saw in the mirror, rather than himself holding a pair of socks, as he claims: the family he no longer has, like Harry.
Quidditch is also important in the first book because Harry learns that his father was an excellent player and by extension of the metaphor, this refers to James’s prowess in combat. Harry follows in his footsteps as a warrior and receives a metaphorical weapon—a broom—at a younger age than most wizards, foreshadowing his need to engage in real combat at an early age, which he’s already done with Dudley.
When Snape catches Harry outdoors with Quidditch Through the Ages and confiscates it, claiming that library books cannot be taken outside the school, he impedes Harry’s ability to take after James by engaging in the metaphorical combat in which James excelled. During the first match, however, Harry is attacked by Quirrell and he’s saved by Snape.
Why does Quirrell wait until the first match to attack Harry? He could do it at any time, and Rowling could have used other reasons besides a midnight duel to get Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville acquainted with Fluffy. Quirrell using a Quidditch match, not another random moment, highlights the combative nature of Quidditch. It’s properly engaging in a mock war to play this game, and a mock war is, symbolically, the appropriate setting for an attack.
Rowling uses the Snitch, the key piece in the game of Quidditch, as a metaphor for Harry by having Harry catch the Snitch in his mouth during his first match. (See A Unified Theory of the Potterverse or QuantumHarry, the Podcast, Episode 1: The Kids’ Table.) When he spits it out he symbolically gives birth to it; it is of him. Harry and the Snitch are now entangled. After this, when Harry is Seeking the Snitch it can be seen as Harry pursuing a piece of himself, as though the Snitch is a Horcrux for him. Paradoxically, since the Snitch was originally external to him it’s both a “missing” part and not a missing part that’s necessary for Harry to be integrated and whole. Harry is inherently complete, a whole soul, in contrast to Voldemort, but catching the Snitch makes him more complete, it augments him.
After this, when others catch the Snitch, especially if Rowling emphasizes it, it’s as if they’ve caught Harry. Rowling not only uses games to structure the books and consistently morphs games into battles, she positions Harry as the equivalent of a “piece” in the books’ most prominent game and metaphorical war.
Ron sees himself holding the Quidditch Cup when he looks in the Mirror of Erised. This is an important symbol to him, and his winning the Cup in his fifth and sixth years points to his worthiness as Harry’s comrade, as he is during the seventh book especially. In their first year, Ron teaches Harry wizard chess, more metaphorical combat, exercising Harry’s mind rather than his body. Wizard chess is a mock-war for the humans controlling the chessmen, but a real war for the pieces on the board. This is still more training for Harry-the-warrior, and Ron-the-warrior is a force to be reckoned with, having mastered this form of combat.
In Harry’s second Quidditch match, Snape is the referee, but neither he nor Dumbledore tells Harry why Snape is the referee, so Harry is nervous about the ref being someone he thinks is trying to kill him. Dumbledore also attends the match, as if he and Snape fear Quirrell will attack, despite his having ample opportunity to do it at any other time. Quirrell engages Harry on the field of war very formally by jinxing him in the first match. Non-game-related scenarios are not even considered by Quirrell, Dumbledore or Snape as times when Harry may be attacked.
It is confirmed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Snape being the referee and Dumbledore’s attendance at the match is due to Dumbledore’s awareness that Quirrell is a threat. Quirrell and Voldemort’s lack of scruples and Voldemort’s disdain for sweets, toys and games does not preclude their having a strong sense of the appropriate. They never attack Harry during anything but a game that is a metaphorical battle or a literal battle with the overtones of a game.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling introduces Dementors, who aren’t fought with violence but with happy thoughts. Those recovering from proximity to Dementors are “treated”, both as a “treat” and as one “treats” someone who’s ill, with chocolate, many people’s favorite sweet. In the first book, in addition to bolstering Neville’s spirits by telling him that he’s worth twelve of Draco, Harry instinctively senses that a Chocolate Frog is as good as a cheering charm when he offers one to Neville after Draco curses him. Harry sees Nicolas Flamel and alchemy on Dumbledore’s Famous Wizard Card in the Chocolate Frog package he gives to Neville and realizes that Fluffy is guarding the Philosopher’s Stone. Rowling again goes from war (Neville being cursed) to play (sweets and toys) and back to war (protecting the Philosopher’s Stone).
After his second match, Harry sees Snape heading toward the Forest, so he uses his broom to spy on him. The metaphorical war of the Quidditch match again segues into real war, since spying is part of war. Unknown to Harry, Snape is his ally, not his enemy, but he cannot tell this from the conversation with Quirrell.
Ron mutters in his sleep about Quidditch fouls, thinking about metaphorical combat even while sleeping, and specifically fouls, when a player breaks the rules. Ron is wrong, however, to say that Neville will play Quidditch for England before Hagrid lets Dumbledore down. While he’s playing cards at a pub, Hagrid reveals to a stranger (Quirrell in disguise) that Fluffy is pacified with music. This could have happened during a conversation over a pint at the pub, or Quirrell could have plied this from Hagrid at any time, but when Hagrid slips up, it is during metaphorical combat: a card game.
Another game played throughout the school year is the House Cup competition, which Slytherin has won seven years in a row. Most of Gryffindor considers Harry to be persona non grata after he and Hermione are caught out after hours after taking a baby dragon up a tower. Neville is also caught out, trying to warn them that Draco is sneaking around, hoping to catch them. Gryffindor is in last place. When Neville tries to prevent Harry, Ron and Hermione from leaving the common room again, Hermione, apologizing, puts a full-body bind on him. With the opening battle won, they go off to play a much deadlier game with higher stakes than the House Cup.
The obstacles to the Philosopher’s Stone are all game-like or games help Harry, Ron and Hermione conquer them. Thanks to Hagrid’s loose lips, they know music calms Fluffy, something considered frivolous by many people but which Dumbledore calls “...a magic beyond all we do here.” And, of course, the card game Hagrid was playing with Quirrell when he revealed that music pacifies Fluffy also helps Harry, Ron and Hermione when Hagrid recounts the game.
Fluffy clearly owes a debt to Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entry to the underworld in Greek myth, so getting past Fluffy is symbolically the same as entering the underworld to get a boon that prolongs life, a common quest in myth and folklore. In other words, despite the properties of the Philosopher’s Stone, you cannot completely escape death by using it to create the Elixir of Life, since accessing it means, in this story, having to metaphorically die.
The next obstacle is the deadly Devil’s Snare plant. Each Herbology lesson is also a game in which Professor Sprout lays down the rules for play and students must follow them or suffer dire consequences, so her lessons/games are also miniature wars. This plant is pacified through relaxing your body after it wraps around you, or by exposing it to sunlight. Rather than fretting about having no wood for a fire, Ron prompts Hermione to use magic to conjure the portable flames she used earlier to set Snape’s robes on fire.
Next is Flitwick’s contribution: the flying keys. The relationship to games here is obvious—they’re a flock of Snitches, and Harry, the youngest Seeker in a century, makes short work of catching the right key to move on.
It’s Ron’s turn. We finally get what the wizard chess games were leading up to: live combat. Harry is too inexperienced to excel at this so he’s lucky Ron can serve as his strategist. They quickly learn that the game is played exactly like wizard chess; captured pieces are attacked and violently subdued.
During the chess game Harry is in the role of a bishop, a position of spiritual rather than secular or military authority, like the king or the knight. This and Harry’s ability to speak to snakes points to his being an axis mundi, a link between worlds, a Liminal Being. (See Hail, the Conquering Liminal Being or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 8: Have You Tried Not Being Liminal?) Through Harry being a bishop, it’s easier to see why it is his job to join divided entities and share power that has been abused or hoarded: this is the role of a high priest, a holy man. This role is revealed not though his magical education but in a metaphorical war that is also a real war.
Metaphorical war segueing into real war is an important aspect of the books, but Harry’s role as a unifier and power-sharer puts him at odds with both gamers and warriors and suggests strongly that he will be victorious through refusing to fight, rather than vanquishing his enemy with the magical equivalent of brute force—and this is exactly what happens in Deathly Hallows.
Contrary to Quirrell’s assertion that those who do not seek power are weak, it is clear that refraining from grasping power requires more strength of character. Harry’s weapons are consistently non-traditional, healing, and uniting. Rowling has created a staunchly non-traditional warrior in Harry, an anti-soldier who is successful not despite this, but because of this. We see this again in the Triwizard Tournament, foreshadowed by this chess game.
After Ron sacrifices himself, Harry and Hermione would be at a disadvantage in subduing a troll, the next obstacle, if Quirrell had not already done it. They’ve previously played The Troll Game, which needs Ron—it needs all three of them—but it would be redundant for them to play this game again and they would likely fail without Ron.
Next is another game that’s a battle, one at which Hermione excels: the potion bottles, which is pure logic. There is a rhyme to accompany the game, which we also saw when Harry entered Gringotts and when he played the Sorting Hat Game. Ron was worried that being Sorted involved having to fight a troll. The Potions Game is as dangerous as the others. If Hermione is wrong, she and Harry could be poisoned at worst and unable to protect the Stone at best. However, Hermione succeeds, so Harry drinks the potion that lets him go on.
Harry plays another game with the Mirror of Erised and Professor Quirrell: Keep Away. Dumbledore designs the game specifically with Harry in mind, it seems, since Harry’s impulse to protect the Philosopher’s Stone, rather than use it, allows him to acquire it from the mirror. The Stone is small, like a Snitch, the most prominent game-piece in Quidditch. The Philosopher’s Stone also turns base metal into gold, though it’s not gold-colored itself. This ties it to the Golden Snitches that Harry is an expert at catching.
Voldemort tells Quirrell to use Harry to get the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry lies about what he sees in the mirror, referring to a game: he says that he sees Dumbledore shaking his hand because he’s won the House Cup for Gryffindor. He pictures himself winning contests many times in the books, and Ron sees himself winning the House Cup and Quidditch Cup in the Mirror of Erised. Voldemort knows that he’s lying, probably through Legilimency, but it’s significant that, when faced with his mortal enemy, Harry refers to a game. He could have said almost anything, but he chooses this.
The first obstacle, Fluffy, is aligned with the first book in the series. The significance of Fluffy to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is that Fluffy is a threshold guardian provided by Hagrid, and Hagrid is involved in every threshold Harry crosses in this book. The clue to Hagrid being a threshold guardian himself is that one of his titles is “Keeper of the Keys,” a title held by St. Peter, who is supposed to hold the keys to heaven. Hagrid is not just the herald of Harry’s adventure when he brings him his letter in the hut on the rock, he is himself a symbolic key, a talisman that helps Harry cross many thresholds throughout the first book, as well as later in the series. He also carries what he thinks is Harry’s dead body in the seventh book—though in that case, he is carrying Harry back into the world of the living, away from heaven. It is fitting that Hagrid does this, in addition to its being a pietà moment reminiscent of many representations in art of the Virgin Mary holding the crucified Christ.
There are seven threshold crossings for Harry and Hagrid in the first book alone, and these are yet another set of recursive links to the seven books, in addition to the seven obstacles to the Philosopher’s Stone each aligning with one of the books and each book having a ruling archetype. The links between these threshold-crossings and each book are entwined with the ruling archetype for each book, and the last threshold is the first obstacle to the Stone.
Threshold #1: Hagrid the archetypal Mother delivers baby Harry to Dumbledore, the best embodiment of the first book’s ruling archetype: the Wise Old Man. Hagrid flies over water to do so, which is a symbolic rebirth. (See TheMother Archetype, Part I or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 4:Mother, May I?)
The links between the other threshold crossings and the remaining six books will be described in future essays, but in brief, here are the other thresholds:
Threshold #2: Hagrid delivers Harry’s Hogwarts letter, crossing water again to reach Harry in the hut on the rock, after which he takes Harry over that body of water to go shopping for his school things.
Threshold #3: Hagrid takes Harry through the wall at the Leaky Cauldron to reach Diagon Alley.
Threshold #4: Hagrid takes Hagrid to an underground vault at Gringotts, a symbolic underworld.
Threshold #5: Hagrid is with the first years on the lake, the threshold-crossing ritual all Hogwarts students go through.
Threshold #6: Hagrid takes Harry, Neville, Hermione and Draco into the Forbidden Forest, another symbolic underworld, for a detention.
Threshold #7: Through Hagrid’s slip of the tongue, Harry learns how to pacify Fluffy so he, Ron and Hermione can enter another symbolic underworld, crossing the seventh and most dangerous threshold so far.
While he’s surrounded by the sweets other students have brought to the hospital wing for Harry, his reward for successfully playing the Philosopher’s Stone Game, Ron tells him that Gryffindor were “steamrollered” by Ravenclaw without him, further evidence that Harry is integral to both literal and metaphorical battle. Without Harry, the great unifier, or a surrogate chosen by him, reuniting with the missing-and-yet-not-missing fragment of himself, the Snitch, there is no victory. Harry was busy catching a metaphorical Snitch: the Philosopher’s Stone. In that match, he is the victor.
The final metaphorical war of the book is the competition for the House Cup, in which the “real” war, protecting the Philosopher’s Stone, now contributes to success in a game. Through their acts of bravery, skill and ingenuity, Harry, Ron and Hermione amass nearly enough points for Gryffindor to win the Cup. It’s Neville, however, who puts them over the top with his final ten points, awarded because he stood up to his friends, which Dumbledore esteems as much as standing up to enemies. We don’t learn why he feels this way until the last book—and even then, we don’t truly learn the reason until JK Rowling opens a certain closet door and lets Albus Dumbledore out into the open at last.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 11: Wargames, Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.