Deadly Dysfunctional Families: King Lear and Harry Potter

I mentioned in my weekly sorting hat post that the siblings from King Lear remind me a lot of Sirius Black and his family. Well, once that occurred to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and there are a huge number of parallels – as well as a few obvious differences.

Edgar and Sirius

The eldest son of a nobleman, Edgar is forced to run away from home when his younger brother convinces their father he’s plotting against him. Like Sirius, he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit against a person he would never want to harm. And like Sirius, he’s forced to flee or face a horrible punishment. However, Sirius really did hate his parents, who were pretty awful people. It was his best friend – whose family treated him as their own son once he ran away from home – that he was accused of betraying. Edgar is also one of the few characters to survive the play, whereas Sirius is murdered by his cousin in Order of the Phoenix.

Edmund and Regulus

To be fair, Regulus Black was a better person than Edgar’s younger brother, Edmund. While he did join the Death Eaters, he quickly came to realize how evil Voldemort was and gave his life trying to stop him. Edmund, on the other hand, seems to repent somewhat as he’s dying but never redeems himself the way Regulus does. His decision to call off Cordelia’s execution is too little, too late. However, the rivalry and hatred between the two brothers and the contrast of a heroic older brother and a villainous (or at least morally gray) younger one is similar.

Bellatrix and Regan

Regan is devoted to two things: her own attempts to gain power, and the equally evil man she loves. These two things consume her and drive her down darker and darker paths. She is arguably the worse of the two “bad” daughters, although that’s more up for debate than Bellatrix being the worst out of her family. Regardless, they have a lot in common.

Narcissa and Goneril

Like Regan, Goneril treats her father poorly, forces him to dismiss many of his knights, and eventually joins with Edmund to go to war with him. However, she then poisons her sister and commits suicide, thus ensuring a victory (however hollow) for the heroes. Likewise, Narcissa Malfoy’s lie to Voldemort allowed Harry to conceal his survival and go on to win the battle. As with Regulus, there are more shades of gray in Harry Potter: Narcissa had become disillusioned with her Dark Lord, whereas Goneril turned on her sister out of simple jealousy. The differences are important, but the similarities are there.

Andromeda and Cordelia

Again, these two have as many differences as they do similarities. Cordelia remains loyal to her father and returns to try to save him, while Andromeda walks away from her family and never looks back, never speaking to any of them again except her similarly rebellious cousin Sirius. While Andromeda was disinherited for marrying someone the family didn’t approve of and going against their prejudice, Cordelia’s offense was merely answering a question honestly instead of offering false flattery. However, the idea of a daughter refusing to give up her own principles and suffering for it holds true for both.

I’m not saying the siblings from Harry Potter are exactly like the ones from King Lear. The differences between them are as significant as the similarities: the Harry Potter series has more room for moral ambiguity, is less forgiving of bad parents, and allows different characters to survive the story. The fact that the three sisters and two brothers are cousins, rather than from separate families, impacts the story as well. For example, if Regan had tried to kill Edgar, it would not mean much; when Bellatrix kills Sirius, it’s even worse because they are cousins and likely grew up together.

The fact that Harry Potter is not a tragedy may also have an effect. However, I would argue that this particular family’s story is a tragedy even if the series as a whole isn’t. Sirius’ and Regulus’ stories certainly are, and there are few characters I feel more pity for than Andromeda, who lost her family as a young woman, her only remaining cousin twice after that, and the family she made for herself in a war against the family she was born into.

The families aren’t identical, but the similarities are astonishing: two brothers, three sisters, two good, three evil, the good ones shunned by their parents in favor of the bad ones, all of them pitted against each other in a war that doesn’t benefit any of them in the end. There are so many parallels there that I can hardly believe it was a coincidence, especially knowing that J.K. Rowling has cited another Shakespearean tragedy – Macbeth – as having influenced the series.

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Named for the Night Sky

Names are important in the Harry Potter series, and one family – the Blacks – draw their names almost entirely from stars and constellations. Today I’m going to look at a few of those names and what their significance might be.

Sirius Black: Sirius is the dog star, so his name literally means “black dog”, which is his animagus form. Sirius is also the brightest star in the night sky, perhaps indicating that he is one of the best people in a dysfunctional family with warped beliefs. Canis Major, the constellation Sirius is part of, was thought to represent Orion’s dog, but Sirius is anything but loyal and devoted towards his father.

Regulus Arcturus Black: Regulus – aside from meaning “king” – is a star in the constellation Leo, an interesting choice for a Slytherin, but Regulus certainly turned out to be capable of great courage, so perhaps the star he’s named after is an allusion to that. Arcturus is one of the brightest stars in the night sky; the only ones brighter are Canopis, Alpha Centauri, and … Sirius. Coincidence? I think not.

Orion Black: Many constellations are based in mythology, and Orion is one of these. The mythological Orion was a hunter, who – among other things – hunted with Artemis and was killed by a scorpion on her orders. But we’ll get to that later. Orion’s constellation seems more important for its connections to Sirius, Bellatrix, and Scorpius than for the mythological character associated with it.

Bellatrix Lestrange: Bellatrix is Latin for female warrior, which the character certainly is. It’s also a star in the constellation Orion; Bellatrix was Orion Black’s niece.

Andromeda Tonks: The constellation Andromeda comes from a myth about a princess who is chained to a rock to be sacrificed to a sea monster. Perseus comes in to save the day, turns the monster to stone with Medusa’s severed head, rescues Andromeda, and marries her. It seems like a fitting name for a girl who rebelled against her family for love, and maybe a commentary on what being born into a family like theirs is like. Chained up and fed to a monster is not much of a stretch, when Bellatrix is fully capable of killing her own cousin and niece.

Nymphadora Tonks: Not an astronomy name, and I think the fact that it’s not is significant. Her mother broke family tradition in many ways, including not naming her daughter after a star. However, Nymphadora – which means “gift of the nymphs” – still has mythological connections, as most of the family’s non-constellation names do. Perhaps Andromeda didn’t fully abandon all of her family’s traditions.

Draco Malfoy: Draco is the Latin word for a dragon or serpent, as well as a constellation. His name comes from his mother’s family and hints at his connection to the Blacks. The constellation is associated with several mythological dragons, including one that was killed by Hercules and another killed by Minerva. Well, he didn’t die, but Professor McGonagall (whose first name is Minerva) certainly didn’t show him the favoritism that other teachers like Snape and Umbridge did.

Scorpius Malfoy: The constellation Scorpius is supposed to represent the scorpion that killed Orion. If Orion and Walburga Black represent the evils that were passed down in the family from even before they became affiliated with Voldemort, it seems fitting that Scorpius, who is born after Voldemort’s downfall and rejects what his family once stood for, would be named for the creature that killed his ancestor’s namesake.

Merope Gaunt: While she’s not directly related to the Blacks, I think Voldemort’s mother is worth discussing here. Merope is one of the Pleiades, a cluster of stars intended to represent the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. In some versions of the myth, her star is the dimmest of the seven because she’s the only one who married a mortal. Almost sounds like a descendant of Slytherin falling for a muggle, doesn’t it?

Previous Generations: There’s really not enough information about the rest of the family to draw too many conclusions about their names, but I do have to point out that the four children of Cygnus Black and Violetta Bulstrode are probably an allusion to four mythological siblings: Castor, Pollux, Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. The myth involves Zeus turning into a swan, which is exactly what Cygnus’ name means, and what the constellation is usually taken to refer to. Pollux is the name of the eldest son, and his younger brother Marius was removed from the family tapestry for being a squib, while in the myth, one of the gemini twins was mortal and the other a minor god. Cassiopeia, another constellation name, comes from a mythological beauty whose good looks led to a lot of conflict, much like Helen of Troy. And the youngest daughter, Dorea … let’s hope she didn’t do to Charlus Potter what Clytemnestra did to Agamemnon, but knowing this family, nothing is out of the question.