The History Behind Harry: The Phoenix

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are easily among the most influential literary works in recent memory. Part of what makes the series so memorable is the rich fantasy world that Rowling constructs. Both remarkably parallel and completely different from our own, she populates it with a soaring, sprawling castle on a Scottish loch; a myriad of magical creatures many of us want for our very own; magical but also relatable characters; spectacular spells, elixirs, potions, and gadgets; and, perhaps most importantly, a world of deep lore.

In some cases, it’s easy to see where Rowling found inspiration for characters, creatures, or magical objects. Teasing out the history (the stories behind the stories) of some of Rowling’s inspiration adds great depth to the wonderful wizarding world of Harry Potter. Learning more about magical history allows readers and film watchers alike to build connections between history and fandom, giving us the chance to experience the magic just a bit more deeply.

This is my grand plan for this segment. I get to combine my love of history and folklore with my love of Harry Potter. I sincerely hope you learn something fun as we embark on this journey together!

Image of a phoenix
Image of a phoenix from the Medieval Bestiary at the British Library. [Source]

A Brief History of the Phoenix

The first post in this series centers on the phoenix. This scarlet-plumed bird is well-known throughout history as a symbol of rebirth. The Medieval Bestiary succinctly summarizes two general accounts of its mythology:

There are two similar versions of the account of the phoenix. In the first, it is a bird that lives in India. When it reaches the age of five hundred years, it flies to a frankincense tree and fills its wings with spices. In early spring a priest at Heliopolis covers an altar with twigs. The phoenix comes to the city, sees the altar, lights a fire there and is consumed by it. The next day a small, sweet-smelling worm is found in the ashes. On the second day the worm has transformed into a small bird, and on the third has the form of the phoenix again. The bird then returns to its place of origin.

The second version says that the phoenix is a purple or red bird that lives in Arabia. There is only one living phoenix in the world at any time. When it is old, it builds a pyre of wood and spices and climbs on to it. There it faces the sun and the fire ignites; it fans the fire with its wings until it is completely consumed. Some say it is the sun that ignites the fire; others say that the phoenix starts it by striking its beak against a stone, or that stones gathered with spices in the pyre rub together to create a spark. A new phoenix rises from the ash of the old.

Other versions of the story combine parts of the above accounts. The tale of the phoenix is very old and was widely known throughout antiquity, with many variations.

Each of these legends is utterly fascinating on its own. Rowling takes the phoenix mythology just one step further in her novels.

The Phoenix in Harry Potter

Rowling infuses both of these legends into her own phoenix: Dumbledore’s trusty companion, Fawkes. First introduced in The Chamber of Secrets, Fawkes appears to readers (and to Harry) as a sickly bird on the decline, unsteadily perching in Dumbledore’s office.

Standing on a golden perch behind the door was a decrepit-looking bird that resembled a half-plucked turkey..Harry thought it looked very ill. Its eyes were dull and, even as Harry watched, a couple more feathers fell out of its tail.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle edition, page 205).

This stands in stark contrast to the magnificent bird we see later on in the novel when Fawkes comes to Harry’s rescue in the Chamber of Secrets. As written on Pottermore:

A crimson bird the size of a swan had appeared, piping its weird music to the vaulted ceiling. It had a glittering golden tail as long as a peacock’s and gleaming golden talons, which were gripping a ragged bundle. (source)

Thus, through the course of the novel, Harry experiences Fawke’s rebirth from an ugly birdling into something magnificent and legendary. Interestingly, Rowling expands on the phoenix legend by granting Fawkes additional powers such as healing tears, the capability of carrying immensely heavy loads, and intense loyalty to any who in turn prove their loyalty to Dumbledore. She breathes life into this mythical creature by not only making it an integral part to the novel but adding even more fascinating facets to its mythology.

Similarly to a phoenix, Harry himself undergoes such a change – he morphs from an uncertain, reluctant lad to a hero after mightily slaying a basilisk with a sword. He, in a way, rises from the ashes into a phoenix of his own. It’s quite a remarkable journey! Next time you read the Chamber of Secrets, try seeing if you notice this change in Harry as he progresses through the novel You might just be surprised!

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