The Life and Lies of Joanne K. Rowling: Harry Potter and Folklore
By: Date: July 29, 2020 Categories: Essays Tags: , , , ,

Co-Authored by Abigail Olshin.

“I chose my feeble imitation of life instead”

  • Nearly-Headless-Nick, (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 861)

J. K. Rowling was once considered the greatest writer of a generation, the pinnacle of creativity and imagination, a trendsetter for young adult fiction, but now, as she is sinking into her own ashes, she will not be reborn like Fawks the Phoenix, she “has hit the floor with a mundane finality…killed by [her] own rebounding” tweet (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 744). A once-celebrated author, Rowling has been reduced to the likes of Gilderoy Lockhart, shambling about the bowels of St. Mungos Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. She is a reflection of her creation, the salacious Rita Skeeter, ruining the minds of her fans with horrible rumors and awful opinions. We are witnessing the very disgrace and downfall that fell to the Wizarding World’s Prime Minister Cornelius Fudge, as he ignored the warning signs and blundered to his own replacement in the midst of a Wizarding War. Much like Fudge, Rowling does not have the self-awareness or ability to read a room (or global social-political climate). Most enduring in Rowling’s texts, most free from the tinges of racism and homophobia, is her magical creatures, inspired by real mythology and folklore.  

Death is the core of much of Harry Potter’s mythology.  A fear of Death, and its evasion, is the main motivating force (aside from blood genocide) behind Tom Riddle – the Dark Lord.  He, above all else, does not want to die.  He does not think a wizard should die.  When initially he learned of his half-blood heritage, it was his assumption that his mother must have been the Muggle.  How else could she have died?  This fear of Death is what keeps Nearly-Headless-Nick around.  He could not face the beyond.  In Dumbledore’s commentary in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, he talks about how much of a boyhood fascination he had with “The Tale of Three Brothers” and how the moral always seemed clear to him: Humans cannot evade Death for long.  This young interest carries through his life.  From his obsession by the side of Grindelwald over the Hallows themselves to his own long friendship with Nicholas Flammel. Dumbledore is surrounded by Death, his sister Ariana being the most likely catalyst.  Monsters, magical creatures, and intelligent beings beyond human are commonplace in the Wizarding World.  The mystery that remains is that of Death.  

It is important to note that even in a world where transformation and dramatic change are merely a wand-wave away, healing and medicine are shrouded in darkness.  It isn’t until Order of the Phoenix that we see proper healing done by anyone other than Madame Pomfrey (discounting of course Lockhart’s disastrous attempt).  St. Mungo’s, in their attempt to save Mr. Weasley, reveals to the reader that something as mundane as stitches is an anomaly in the Wizarding World.  Injuries caused by magic, such as George’s severed ear, are impossible to mend.  Health and vitality are delicate things.  Even in a world rife with mundane miracles, human life is not an easy repair.  This makes it easy to extrapolate why Death is the most prominent figure in their colloquial mythos and why he stalks so many characters through the series as a specter. 

The only one immune to this fear seems to be Luna Lovegood.  She alone seems unfazed by death.  It saddens her, yes, especially the memory of her mother who died when Luna was a child, but she does not fear it.  She accepts it as part of life.  This is most apparent in her introduction of the Thestrals.  She is perfectly at ease with them, despite the general Wizarding fear surrounding them.  Tied so closely with Death, it makes sense why these are some of the few magical creatures that are not widely discussed and often entirely avoided.  Interestingly, while thestrals are of the most intriguing creatures in the series, they seem to have the loosest mythical basis.  Very little can be found about their origins.  They reflect, in visage and associating with Death, the Kelpie, though, Kelpies do occupy the Wizarding World.  Newt Scamander writes in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the textbook) that Kelpies “devour the rider” that they lure onto their backs “letting the entails float to the surface” when they are through (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 23).  This correlates with how the thestrals are attracted to raw meat and the smell of blood, and that they too are horses.  Similarly, Thestrals are skeletal or invisible while Kelpies are occasionally spectral.  

Aside from Thestrals, many of the magical creatures in the Harry Potter series are recognizable to the average fantasy consumer, but Rowling oftentimes does impose her own spin or style onto them. The Wizarding World is a very opinionated society and has a myriad of social-political problems within their society despite the whimsy of magic, resulting in sometimes intolerant opinions towards the magical creatures of their world. Throughout the series, Harry discovers the intolerance towards Muggles and the bias and bigotry toward the humanoid creatures, such as centaurs, giants, and werewolves. Funnily enough, it is with these already recognizable creatures that J.K. Rowling both misses the mark on consistent mythology and lore surrounding them but also reveals between the lines of her writing that she may also share these prejudices beliefs that Harry, Ron, and Hermione so fervently fight against. 

Harry is first introduced to the existence of werewolves in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, although it is not until the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that Harry, in fact, meets a werewolf. It is not surprising that Rowling includes werewolves into the lore of her series, given the popularity of them. Bisclavret by Marie de France which tells the story of a werewolf trapped in his wolf form, was largely influential, and given Rowling’s degree in Classics, is something that she would likely be familiar with. 

Remus Lupin, who is arguably one of the most beloved characters within the series, is Harry’s Defense Against the Dark Arts professor during his third year at Hogwarts, and he is revealed to, in fact, be, a werewolf.  Rowling is by no means subtle in her references and clues to Lupin being a werewolf. First of all, his name is Remus Lupin after all – Remus the name clearly being taken from the Roman myth of the twins Romulus and Remus, the two who were raised by wolves and then found the city of Rome. “Lupin” is also a clear reference to lupine which is an adjective that relates to wolves and wolf classification. Given how imaginative and off the wall many of her character’s names are, even this name is rather heavy-handed, even for Rowling. 

Before Lupin’s identity is revealed, Snape substitutes for one of his classes and tries to out him, by teaching the class the hallmarks of identifying a werewolf. Through Snape’s teaching, Rowling informs the readers of the telltale signs of being a werewolf and explains that one can only become a werewolf by being bitten by one while in wolf form. As noted in the accompanying book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them “Humans turn into werewolves only when bitten,” (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 41), and “Once a month, at the full moon, the otherwise sane and normal wizard or Muggle afflicted transforms into a murderous beast,” (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 42). Harry even witnesses this horrifying transformation when his otherwise reserved and kindhearted Professor Lupin transforms into a werewolf right in front of his eyes.

Despite the detail in which Rowling goes to explain the rules of the werewolves’ existence, and the fact that Rowling created what is considered one of the most impressive magical worlds and societies of the decade, she is also extremely careless and inattentive to continuity within her own writing. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling pens this iconic line:  “…blundering Hagrid, in trouble every other week, trying to raise werewolf cubs under his bed,” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 311). This line is spoken by Tom Riddle to Harry explaining how Hagrid was expelled from the school and how his proclivity for taking in exotic or “dangerous” creatures lead him to that demise. But it makes absolutely no sense. Wouldn’t a werewolf cub be…a human? Unfortunately, there is nothing in the series or in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that details whether or not werewolves can procreate while in wolf form, but given the unlikelihood due to the instinct to hunt and kill during the full moon, it feels very unlikely. What is more likely is that Rowling simply messed up. The image of Hagrid hiding children under his bed is extremely disturbing and most likely not what Rowling was envisioning while penning the sentence, so it is far more likely that she meant wolves; but given the lore she set up, it does not work. Additionally, the discomfort with which one reads Rowling framing a character who is half-giant and continuously demonized by others of keeping children under their bed is extreme.

The depiction of werewolves within the wizarding world is one of extreme bias and fear. Werewolves often occupy a marginalized space in most works, representing man’s uncontrollable urges or the spread of disease.  J. K. Rowling herself inexpertly compares Remus Lupin’s lycanthropy to HIV, intentionally linking the hunting and changing of children into monsters with an epidemic that largely impacted the gay community.  This is not done carelessly, and is an intentional assault.  Fenrir Greyback is everything society frames predatory gay men to be, even when exonerating Lupin and queer coding him beyond his monthly excursions.  Rowling keeps werewolves in a marginalized space, illustrating how difficult it was for Lupin to get a job in the first place given his “condition”, a clear parable to queer teachers.  Yet, despite the development and importance of Lupin’s character, her work is rife with contradictions about the werewolf lore. Perhaps it is by her sloppily imposing her own ideas of HIV into the lore that causes her carelessness and mistakes within the writing, but either way, the results are both uncomfortable and offensive. 

Continuing with the thread of HIV and its association with Harry Potter’s werewolves, disease has always been a companion of lycanthropy.  Rabies and tuberculosis are often associated with the origins of werewolves.  Also, it was not uncommon for real wolves to eat shallowly buried bodies, giving the impression of the body rising as a wolf (Kaplan 154).  This expands the shadow of Death.  Not only do werewolves bring Death at their heels, they are also spawned by it as both disease and catalyst.  The aspect of transformation is also vital.  In both mythology and Harry Potter lore, the transformation of a werewolf comes with a bloodlust that takes over an otherwise sane man.  Humans fear Death, but they also fear becoming Death’s right hand.  They fear that they might turn on their neighbor, that their neighbor might turn on them.  A combination of infection and Death makes the werewolf the hidden killer.  

Blood status is of enormous importance in Harry Potter.  Individuals are judged on their blood purity, and prejudice does not remain limited to human characters.  While a teacher at Hogwarts, Umbridge abuses her power and does what she can to get Hagrid fired from his teaching position at the school, due to her distrust and consideration of him being a “half-breed” because of his mother being a giant. Umbridge is extremely transparent in her hatred of other magical species, and the one group of which she speaks the most violently about is centaurs. Although Umbridge is not alone in her hate of centaurs, she is the one character out of the series that is at the forefront of this agenda against them. In the first book, Harry meets centaurs while in the Forbidden Forest and is in awe of the majesty and knowledge they all possess, but it is not until Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts that Harry and the readers become aware of the wildly hateful prejudice and bias some witches and wizards in the wizarding community have.

Rowling does not delve very deep into the why of the deep-seated hatred Umbridge has for centaurs and other “half-breed” characters, but it likely stems from the belief of wizards being the superior magical creature, and the fear internalized fear of twofold creatures, which centaurs are. It is even in Wizarding law, as stated by Umbridge: “Law Fifteen B states clearly that ‘Any attack by a magical creature who is deemed to have near-human intelligence, and therefore considered responsible for its actions–’” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 754). Centaurs are clearly not bestial animals, but we are unable to view them as human either.  They are explicitly half.  Like the chimera, like the minotaur, and like Cerebus, they are combinatory. We view them as off somehow, as elements of the uncanny. Not quite human. In the same way that these fears of biological alteration appear The Island of in Dr. Moreau and in Frankenstein.  Twofold creatures are “an aberration”, they “deviate from normal biology in an extreme way”, one that makes our skin crawl (Kaplan 45).  They are human but not quite, like the Victorian automata.  They are us but so very reshaped and changed.

Centaurs, which are creatures J. K. Rowling adopted from Greek mythology, is a being that is half horse and half man. The head, arms, and torso are human and are joined at the waist with the body and legs of a horse. Although the characteristics of a centaur vary across different interpretations and various mythologies, in Harry Potter they have the ability to read the stars, and one centaur named Firenze eventually goes on to teach divination at Hogwarts alongside Professor Trelawney. Although Rowling does not characterize centaurs as especially violent or chaotic creatures, despite their want of privacy away from wizards, Umbridge is extremely hateful towards them and describes them as “Filthy half-breeds… Beasts!  Uncontrolled animals!” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 755), and provokes them enough to move them to violence against her when she voices more of her cruel hate speech against them.   

Although centaurs have the ability to kill wizards, they are not known only for their deadly abilities. On the other hand, centaurs are also much more difficult to kill because of them being twofold – therefore being a superior being to wizards. Perhaps it is this ability they have to easily kill wizards, but not so easily be killed that instills both fear and hate into wizards’ veins. Additionally, centaurs have the ability to read the stars – an advanced style of divination that wizards are challenged by – giving them an ability to understand the future better than wizards. Because of this, centaurs also have a different relationship with Death than wizards do. 

Despite Rowling’s failures throughout the series to have consistent and thorough creatures and mythology, one area in which she has massive success is in the seventh book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which, Harry and the reader are introduced to a Wizarding World folktale called “The Tale of the Three Brothers”. This wizarding folktale tells the story of three wizard brothers, who one night, encounter Death, after creating a magical bridge over a river to cross it, therefore “cheating” Death. Because Death is “cunning”, he decides to congratulate each of the brothers and present them with a prize of their choosing. The oldest of the three requests a powerful wand, the middle brother a stone that can bring back the dead, and the youngest an invisibility cloak. The story goes on to detail how the first two brothers meet their demise, despite their prizes. The first brother dies for power, the second dies for a lost love, but the youngest brother successfully evades death with his invisibility cloak. Death goes looking for the youngest brother for years, but is unable to find him, until, the brother, having grown old, passes the cloak on to his son and “greets Death like an old friend”. “The Tale of Three Brothers” is deeply embedded in the Wizarding World’s culture and ideology, expressly, how it is both a vehicle that shows both the Wizarding World’s fear of death, as well as a warning against attempting to overcome or conquer death. Although the real three brothers died a long time before Harry and his friends trapse the world, we can see the archetypal characteristics of the brothers within the three pivotal characters of the Wizarding War; Tom Riddle much like the first brother, dies having wanted to achieve power. Snape, like the second brother, dies relating to his lost love – Lily Potter. And then, although Harry does not stay dead in the series, he greets Death like a friend as he goes to willingly sacrifice himself to Tom Riddle. This is also fittin, as he carried the cloak, just as the third brother did. Rowling’s writing chops are on the forefront in “The Tale of Three Brothers” – it reads like a real folktale that has been passed down through generations, as exemplified by Ron’s familiarity with it and the rest of Beedle the Bard’s collection of children’s stories, where “The Tale of Three Brothers” is from. Although the other stories form The Tales of Beedle the Bard are not heavily featured in the Harry Potter series, they all also read like folktales that have been passed down through generations.

Death and rebirth are a constant theme in the series.  Harry, in the Sorcerer’s Stone, becomes aware that even magic cannot bring back his parents.  The binding of a human to life, once severed, can only be reformed with a mangled scar.  Tom Riddle’s many attempts at life are monstrous, not true resurrection.  They require despicable acts and the sacrifice of others to regain even a shadow of vivacity.  Given J. K. Rowling’s repeated attempts to bring Harry Potter back to relevancy (despite it never leaving the public eye), it is clear why she is so fascinated with the subject.  From the development of Pottermore to the publication of Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling is terrified of what lies beyond.  When the hype over the series dies, where will she be?  What will she have?  She’s already split her soul seven ways, penning seven works.  What more does she need to do to keep her audience’s attention?  Like Nearly-Headless-Nick, she refuses to consider passing on and now leads a shadow existence, at once hated and celebrated by readers.  In a world where the Creator is terrified of Death, it follows suit that her characters would also be hounded by him.  Tom Riddle’s followers don the title of  Death Eaters.  The Potter’s grave is inscribed with “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 328).  Hero, villain, and author alike sway for Death.

Fuck JKR: Our Epilogue

We have bashed J. K. Rowling quite a bit in this paper for people who are genuine fans of the series.  Given interviews and tweets that JKR has given over the years, we find this warranted.  We’re not sure how much you follow her outside of her core series, so we thought we’d give a few qualifications for our rage.

What J. K. Rowling lacks in cohesive world-building she makes up for in an unshakable hatred for trans women and the support of an incredibly harmful pseudofeminist ideology. JKR is what the trans community calls a “TERF”, or, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I am of the opinion that it is harmful to call her any sort of feminist as she doesn’t support all women. As a trans man and a long-time Harry Potter fan, it breaks my heart to see someone who wrote seven books about abolishing oppressive rules and supporting the marginalized would turn around and sling the same sort of derogatory hate speech at my trans sisters. In a way, it almost follows suit. JKR taught readers that when an unjust power exerts control it is our right and our duty to combat that power. Harry and the DA when under Umbridge’s nose and continued defense against the dark arts lessons without her blessing or authority. We will do the same with Harry Potter canon. It is time to pry it out of her homophobic, antisemitic, and transphobic hands and reclaim it for ourselves. 

  • A. D. Brown

Works Cited

Kaplan, M. (2012). Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite. New York, NY: Scribner.

Olmert, M., 1996. Milton’s Teeth & Ovid’s Umbrella. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Rowling, J., 1999. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

Rowling, J., 1999. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury.

Rowling, J., 2000. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Rowling, J., 2003. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.

Rowling, J., 2005. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Rowling, J., 2007. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. New York: A.A. Levine.

Rowling, J., 2008. The Tales Of Beedle The Bard. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Rowling, J., 1998. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Rowling, J., Tiffany, J. and Thorne, J., 2017. Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. London: Sphere.

Scamander, N. and Rowling, J., n.d. Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

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