Essay: Red Riding Hood Goes to Hogwarts
Many readers have (rightly) seen traces of famous myths in Chamber of Secrets, such as Persephone and Hades, in addition to the abundant sexual symbolism in the book. In an earlier blog post (see Female Archetypes in Harry Potter, Part I or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 3: Iron Maiden), I compared Ginny Weasley to Persephone because they both embody the archetype of the Maiden and Persephone’s return from Hades each spring was similar to Ginny’s return from the Chamber, which brings her world back to life the way that Persephone’s return each spring also reawakens the world.
However, “Little Red Riding Hood” is the story that really pervades the book, and this positions the second Harry Potter book at a very important place in a Young Adult series: after this Harry is spiritually mature and no longer needs rescuing.
As rewritten from numerous folk-sources by Wilhelm Grimm, “Little Red Riding Hood” is a Pentecostal tale. Pentecost is the Christian holiday that comes fifty days after Easter; many people consider it to be the “birthday” of the Christian church. In Acts 2:1-31, the story of Pentecost is told, when the Holy Spirit appears as tongues of fire on the heads of Jesus’ disciples, or so the story goes, after which they can speak in languages they previously hadn’t known.
Some biblical scholars call this the flip side of the story of the Tower of Babel, in which God is supposed to be upset about humans having the presumption to try to build a tower reaching heaven, so they all suddenly start speaking in different languages and can no longer understand each other—they sound like they are “babbling”, in other words. In his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye writes that biblical scholars say the Tower of Babel story is a tale that ‘prefigures’ the Pentecost story, or foreshadows it, as well as flipping it—we go from an angry god confusing humans’ speech so that they will not commit an act of hubris, to the Holy Spirit making it possible for humans to speak the language of the Other in order to spread the Gospel.
By the middle ages, Pentecost was traditionally when young people in Europe were “confirmed” and joined the church, after which they were considered adults. Wilhelm Grimm was aware of this when he added the woodsman to “Little Red Riding Hood” as a savior-figure, to avoid the heresy of Pelagianism—the idea that humans can be saved from damnation without an outside agent to make up for the Original Sin stemming from the Fall in Eden. Pelagianism is the opposite of Divine Providence, a theological concept that was very important to Grimm.
Grimm’s religious motivation for rewriting many old folk tales as “religious poetry” is documented by G. Ronald Murphy in his book The Owl, The Raven and the Dove. Murphy asserts that Grimm also rewrote “Hansel and Gretel” to conform to this religious ideal. In early versions of that story, the brother and sister escape from the witch who is fattening Hansel in a cage and they return home under their own power, whereas Grimm confronts them with “an unbridged river”, creating the necessity for them to rely upon what Murphy calls “supernatural transport”. Murphy, a Jesuit, equates this with God’s grace and the intercession of the Holy Spirit.
An outside agent—or a savior—being necessary in a story to avoid blasphemy wasn’t an idea created by Christianity. Long before Wilhelm Grimm or Christianity, Greek playwrights used the deus ex machina in stage dramas. The “god from the machine” (the meaning of deus ex machina) was an actor portraying a god who was lowered or raised onto the stage by a mechanical device, bringing proclamations concerning the characters and tying off any trailing plot threads with the wave of an omnipotent hand.
Today the deus ex machina in any kind of writing is considered a trite, “easy” solution, and when it’s called out it’s not usually because a critic wants to praise the author for avoiding blasphemy. Many critics of this device may not even know it had anything to do with blasphemy, but if you’re going criticize this in pre-modern works it is wise to recognize that it was originally meant to show respect. It was an embodiment of a common belief, crossing religious lines, that humans’ salvation was in the gods’ hands, not our own. There are people who still adhere to this belief, and people are still writing works with a deus ex machina of some sort, quite deliberately.
The insertion of a savior into “Little Red Riding Hood” isn’t Grimm’s only manipulation of the story. The Charles Perrault version is a cautionary tale: the girl and her grandmother are devoured by the wolf at the end, which is abrupt and violent. This is followed by a pithy moral about being wary of wolves, not all of whom run “on four legs. / The smooth tongue of a smooth-skinned creature / May mask a rough wolfish nature...” There’s yet another version in which the girl and her grandmother defeat the wolf with their wits, but Grimm would have had the same issue with that that he had with Hansel and Gretel getting home on their own.
Perrault’s story of Red Riding Hood has blatantly sexual overtones—the wolf has the girl join him in bed—but Grimm omits this. Perrault and Grimm seem to want the story to either be about sexual or spiritual awakening, while Rowling, through her imagery and symbolism, enmeshes both elements in Chamber of Secrets.
Murphy discusses Perrault’s and Ludwig Tieck’s versions alongside Grimm’s. In Tieck the girl is looking forward to her confirmation and receives a red cap from her grandmother. Murphy writes that this most likely stems from “a folk custom of wearing red...in honor of the feast of Pentecost, when confirmation is customarily administered...” If Perrault’s is a cautionary tale and Tieck’s is an early horror story—his ending is both humorous and gory—then Grimm’s is an allegory of receiving salvation by the grace of God despite being a flawed sinner.
The girl in the story is called “sweet” and everyone who lays eyes on her is fond of her. We can easily transpose this description to Ginny Weasley. Grimm’s heroine receives a red hood from her grandmother. Ginny’s red hair is her chief distinguishing physical trait, a legacy from her parents and grandparents. Murphy cites Bruno Bettelheim calling the red hood “a sign of female sexuality”, while in Murphy’s reading of Grimm, it is “a sign of the moment of spiritual maturity”, due to the tie to confirmation and Pentecost that’s more explicit in Tieck. Again, one can see sexual and spiritual maturity being equated, just as it is in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. (See Arrested Development or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 12: Grow Up Now.)
Early in Grimm’s tale the girl is told not to “go off the path” on the way to her grandmother’s. In Chamber of Secrets we learn that Ginny had a similar warning from her father. Near the end of the book, Arthur Weasley says, “What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.” Both girls are going to a place connected to their family heritage, they’re on the cusp of knowing the difference between good and evil, of being sexually and spiritually mature, but they both fall prey to a Tempter.
When Red Riding Hood first encounters the wolf in Grimm’s story she’s not afraid, because she “did not know what a bad animal he was”. Ginny thinks of Tom Riddle as “a friend I can carry round in my pocket.” Murphy calls the girl’s reaction “a statement of prelapsarian innocence”—which means innocence like Adam and Even had before the Fall, before they knew about good and evil, which also seems to be how we’re supposed to regard Ginny. This may be why Dumbledore holds Ginny blameless. The fault lies with the “wolf”—Tom Riddle.
Murphy points out that earlier versions had Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf in the village, while Grimm moves this to the woods. According to Murphy, entering the woods “…is to enter one’s grandparents’ and parents’ world, the continuum of the ancient awareness of right and wrong by becoming capable of doing good and doing wrong.” This is the equivalent, for Ginny, of going to Hogwarts, where her parents, grandparents and other ancestors learned to use magic responsibly, where they learned to discern the right path.
Murphy sees the wolf as “the Germanic equivalent for the serpent in the garden.” He mentions the wolf Fenris from Germanic mythology, who, at the end of the world, is “to kill the god Thor (and be killed by Thor’s hammer at the same time).” Like Thor, Harry’s “emblem” is a lightning bolt: his scar. This encounter between Thor and Fenris in Norse mythology is eerily similar to Harry’s battle with the basilisk, since, at the moment that Harry kills the beast, he is also penetrated by one of its fangs, which contains poisonous venom. It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that, in the sixth book (which mirrors many elements of the second) Rowling introduces a character called Fenrir, a werewolf who makes it a habit to prey upon children.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the battle at the end of the world involving Thor, Odin, Fenris-wolf and the world serpent. He writes:
The dog Garm at the cliff-cave, the entrance to the world of the dead, shall open his great jaws and howl...Fenris-Wolf shall run free... The world-enveloping serpent of the cosmic ocean shall rise in giant wrath and advance beside the world upon the land, blowing venom.... [Odin] shall advance against the wolf, Thor against the serpent....Thor shall slay the serpent, stride ten paces from that spot, and because of the venom blown fall dead to the earth. [Odin] shall be swallowed by the wolf...
Wolf and snake are conflated in Chamber of Secrets. Both the basilisk and Tom Riddle, who plays the role of the wolf from the fairy tale, are “snakes”. There may have been numerous sources known to Grimm in which a wolf is linked to the devil, so equating the tempting wolf of the fairy tale with the tempting serpent in the garden hardly seems like a stretch. Another parallel is that, as an adult, Riddle changes his name to Voldemort, but most people in the wizarding world say, “He Who Must Not Be Named” or “You Know Who”. This is similar to folk customs that forbid people to say the name of the Devil, substituting things like “Old Nick”, due to superstitions that to name the Devil is the same as invoking or summoning him. Similarly, no one wants to invoke or summon Voldemort by saying his name, and this “game” becomes very real in the seventh book.
When the wolf asks Red Riding Hood where her grandmother lives, she replies, “...under the three great oak trees, underneath them are the hazelnut hedges...” In this passage, Murphy believes that Grimm is indirectly referencing a Germanic god, Odin, to whom the oak is sacred, which again reminds the reader of Fenris, the adversary of Odin and Thor. The fact that it’s three oak trees, however, evokes the Trinity, which brings the symbolism into Christian times.
The hazelnut reference can be considered another pagan element, since, according to Murphy, “The hazel-nut hedge marks off sacred space in Germanic mythology, hazel sticks being placed in a circle to create the sacred space required for a judicial assembly with divine sanction in ancient times. Thus the hazel image is that of a place of contest and divine judgment.”
Rowling converts the hazel to the myrtle: Moaning Myrtle. Myrtle the plant can be grown as a hedge and is known for its thick, protective, impenetrable foliage. It’s also a symbol of Aphrodite and love, and the myrtle flower was often included in bridal bouquets. Rowling may also have liked the Jewish story (if she knows it) of a woman accused of and killed for being a witch who was turned into a myrtle tree after her death. Part of the lore surrounding the tree also says that if you chew myrtle leaves you can detect witches.
Like Ginny, who is symbolically “swallowed” by her wolf, Red Riding Hood is swallowed whole by the wolf. This allows the hunter to cut her and her grandmother, who was eaten first, out of the wolf’s stomach, where they are alive and well. Murphy writes:
“The hunter’s identity as the Savior, as Christ, is shown in the resurrection of the two women, ancient and new, from the death which comes through succumbing to temptation, sin.... Even after he deceives good persons...their souls still shine with the red glow of their gifted spiritual light even in the darkness of his belly, until Christ comes and descends into the darkness of their death and performs...one of the favorite mysteries of medieval Christianity, the harrowing of hell.”
Harry is the woodsman/hunter/savior in Rowling’s version, descending into a metaphorical hell to save Ginny from the wolf/snake who has tempted her, deceived her, removed her volition, and drained most of her life-force. Unlike the woodsman in Grimm’s tale, Harry is not the deus ex machina—another entity assists Harry. This, in addition to Ginny’s red hair being the equivalent of a Red Hood, adds even more Pentecostal imagery to Chamber of Secrets.
Despite Rowling presenting a child/young adult as the protagonist, which means he should be the one to resolve the plot, she seems to use the deus ex machina in the first two books to distinguish between Harry-the-child and Harry the newly-born-hero, which he cannot become until the end of the second book, after he spiritually matures.
In the two books in which Rowling uses the deus ex machina, Harry is still inarguably a child, and his achieving salvation on his own is implausible; he hasn’t acquired the skills or maturity. But he does have wholeness and purity of heart bestowed by an outside force: his mother Lily. Her love, the power of wholeness, protects him and prevents Quirrell from touching Harry without doing himself irreparable harm. Harry did nothing to accomplish that; he is saved by outside agents active before he was born, in addition to Dumbledore, another deus ex machina in the first book, who pulls Quirrell off him when he returns to Hogwarts.
Rowling uses the deus ex machina in the second book when Harry makes his statement of faith in Dumbledore, the god-figure who embodies the Godfather variant of the Wise Old Man archetype. This simple statement of faith brings Fawkes the phoenix to Harry in the Chamber of Secrets. Fawkes is carrying the Sorting Hat, and Gryffindor’s Sword is inside it. Fire is the thing most associated with the phoenix, through which it dies and is reborn. As I wrote earlier, the story of Pentecost says that Christ’s disciples saw the Holy Spirit appear as tongues of fire on their heads; this is a sign of their faith, their belief, and when this happens on Pentecost, they receive the ability to speak in other tongues so they can spread the gospel.
Fawkes symbolizes the Holy Spirit, but when he appears in the Chamber, creating Harry’s Pentecostal moment, Harry already has the gift of speaking to those who are the “Other”, a side-effect of Voldemort making him the accidental Horcrux. This ability is displayed early in the first book, when Harry talks to the snake he frees from the zoo, but it isn’t named until the second book, in which he has his symbolic confirmation or bar mitzvah.
Harry is about to turn thirteen, which is the “commandment age” for Jewish boys. Preparing for a bar mitzvah includes learning to speak an unfamiliar language, in order to read a portion of the Torah during the ceremony. (This is unfamiliar even to children in Israel, many of whom grow up speaking Modern Hebrew, a different language from Ancient Hebrew, just as Modern Greek is not the same as any dialect of Ancient Greek.) Afterward, the boy is considered to be a man, a responsible member of the community who must perform mitzvot—good deeds—and go on a fast at Yom Kippur.
No matter how you look at it, Harry is past his “prelapsarian innocence”, as Ginny is also after the diary is destroyed and she awakens. It’s also of note that Jewish girls studying for their bat mitzvahs often celebrate their majority at the age of twelve, not thirteen. Ginny is approaching her twelfth birthday and, while she was possessed by Tom Riddle, she also spoke Parseltongue, which is how she opened the Chamber. After the incident in the Chamber, Harry and Ginny are both spiritually mature, responsible for their moral decisions, whether you want to think of the experience as a symbolic confirmation or bat/bar mitzvah. It serves the same purpose as any spiritual coming-of-age.
Like Grimm’s hunter, Harry uses a weapon to slay the basilisk, though a snake is standing in for a wolf, rather than the other way around, which is what we get in Grimm’s story. Harry uses the serpent’s tooth itself to stab the diary, freeing Ginny from the metaphorical belly of the beast. They both leave the Chamber, having spiritually and physically matured. Rowling again makes good use of Fawkes, her symbolic Holy Spirit, by having him heal Harry, so he doesn’t die. Fawkes also bears everyone—Harry, Ginny, Ron and Lockhart—out of the symbolic hell of the Chamber.
Having reached this milestone, Harry doesn’t encounter a deus ex machina at the climax of the next book, and in each subsequent book Rowling also refrains from using this device. It had its place in the first two but it would be inappropriate in the rest of the books. Harry now has the ability to save himself and others and no longer needs an outside force for his salvation. The savior of the wizarding world needs no other savior.
Grimm didn’t include his woodsman to “cop out”, and Rowling doesn’t rely on Fawkes to help Harry because she couldn’t think of something else. He plays a very specific role as the embodiment of the Holy Spirit and allows us to see that Harry was still a child earlier, though he was on the cusp of adulthood, and needed to cross over into adulthood before fulfilling the role of savior to all of Hogwarts, but specifically Ginny, who represents all children who stumble before learning the difference between right and wrong.
In an earlier blog post (see Blood Sport or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 11: Wargames), I wrote about the seven thresholds Hagrid crosses with Harry in the first book that each align with one of the seven books in the series. The first threshold was when Hagrid brought Harry to Dumbledore in Surrey, Dumbledore being the best embodiment of the Wise Old Man, the archetype ruling the first book in the series. (See The Wise Old Man Archetype or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 2: ThisOld Man.)
Just as the first threshold involved Hagrid flying with Harry over water to bring him to Dumbledore in Surry, the second threshold Hagrid crosses with Harry again involves a water-crossing: He delivers Harry’s Hogwarts letter to him in the hut on the rock. If JK Rowling hadn’t made Uncle Vernon desperate to flee the letters, Hagrid wouldn’t have needed to cross water to reach Harry, and Harry wouldn’t have needed to cross water with Hagrid again to leave the rock. I believe Rowling did this quite deliberately to manipulate the circumstances because she wanted another water-crossing for Harry, signaling another symbolic rebirth. Once again, he does this with Hagrid, an archetypal Mother. (See The Mother Archetype, Part I or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 4: Mother, May I?)
The link between this episode in the first book and the second book of the series is very straightforward: this threshold-crossing involves Hagrid delivering a letter to Harry, a piece of writing. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ginny Weasley is the character who best embodies the Maiden, the ruling archetype for that book, and she not only features prominently in JK Rowling’s version of a classic fairy tale—a piece of writing—but she also spends the better part of her first year at Hogwarts writing—in Tom Riddle’s cursed diary, which Harry also does before entering the Chamber to return both Ginny and Hogwarts to life again.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 13: Deus ex Machina, 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.