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.

Right vs Easy

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead of us. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It’s easy to do what’s right when what’s right is also easy, but doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and it’s worth doing anyway. That’s a valuable lesson to learn, and one that certainly applies to real life just as much as it does to the world of Harry Potter. But it’s more than just a quote with a good message. It’s a theme that’s woven throughout the series in the journey of every single character. (At least, every character with enough of a conscience not to do the wrong thing just for its own sake. Voldemort, Bellatrix, and Umbridge are their own special category.)

Harry has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in every single book, and he always chooses the former. When he goes after the troll to save Hermione, when he fights a basilisk to save Ginny, and when he travels back in time to save Sirius, he is choosing the right thing over the much easier alternative of simply doing as he’s told and letting events unfold without him. Likewise, Ron and Hermione often make those choices alongside him. As the series goes on, he seems to have less of a choice – Voldemort wants him dead – but even then, he chooses to fight him. Near the end of Deathly Hallows, when Aberforth encourages him, Ron, and Hermione to flee the country rather than face Voldemort, they refuse to even consider it. And, of course, running away might become even more tempting once he realizes he has to die in order for Voldemort to become mortal, but Harry is willing to lay down his life to protect his friends, just as his mother sacrificed herself to save him. That’s not an easy choice to make.

Order of the Phoenix is all about the choice between what’s right and what’s easy. It’s what separates the Order from the Ministry of Magic and Dumbledore’s Army from the Inquisitorial Squad. It’s easy for Fudge to deny that Voldemort is back; it would be much harder to admit the truth. It’s easy for the Daily Prophet to publish whatever “news” will sell and scandalize, but harder for Harry and those who support him to speak the truth when the Ministry is actively trying to silence them. It’s much harder for the Order to fight against Voldemort when they find themselves at odds with the magical government as well, and Dumbledore’s Army likewise refuses to let themselves be unprepared for the coming war. The DA’s insistence on doing the right thing even when it’s not easy becomes even more obvious in Deathly Hallows, when they spend the year fighting back against the Death Eaters who now run Hogwarts and fight on Harry’s side in the final battle.

Everyone at Hogwarts has to choose between what’s right and what’s easy in the final battle: to evacuate or stay and defend the castle, to hand Harry over to Voldemort or fight on his side, and eventually, to surrender or keep fighting once Harry appears to be dead. Nothing says choosing what’s right over what’s easy like Neville telling Voldemort “I’ll join you when hell freezes over”, pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the hat, and chopping off the head of Voldemort’s monstrous snake, Nagini, right there in front of everyone, especially not when – as far as he knows – Harry is already dead.

I think it’s interesting that the movie-makers chose to contrast his actions with those of Draco Malfoy, a character who consistently chooses the easy path, rather than the right one or even the wrong one. He doesn’t kill Dumbledore, but nor does he accept Dumbledore’s offer to protect him. Later, in Deathly Hallows, he pretends not to recognize Harry, but he doesn’t do anything to help him escape. In both cases, he does nothing and simply allows others to act. Draco is not in the book version of the scene where Voldemort announces Harry’s “death”, and I’m not a big fan of the awkward hug, but going back over to join his parents does seem consistent with his character and emphasizes that standing up to a powerful Dark Lord who seems to have already won is not an easy thing to do.

There are many characters who make the easy choice, some more sympathetic than others. Of course, that’s largely a matter of personal opinion, but I think few people would argue that Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal of Lily and James Potter was anything other than vile and cowardly, while on the other hand, Xenophilius Lovegood’s decision to turn Harry in was very complicated due to the fact that Voldemort was holding his daughter hostage. Many more characters struggle with making the harder, better choice, like Professor Slughorn, who initially gives Dumbledore a false memory, not because he wants to protect Voldemort, but because he is ashamed of having unknowingly helped young Tom Riddle become Voldemort. The amount of nuance is surprisingly deep for a children’s series, but I love it. I think it’s important to understand that not everything is black and white, without downplaying the importance of trying to do the right thing.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it seems harder to make the right choice after having already made the wrong one; the consequences and risks become much greater. Take Regulus Black, for instance. He joined the Death Eaters as a teenager and quickly realized it wasn’t what he had expected it to be. When he found out just how far Voldemort had gone, he did the right thing, but it cost him his life. Likewise, Snape made many wrong choices as a young man, and it wasn’t until he found out he had inadvertently put Lily’s life in danger that he began trying to do the right thing. The Harry Potter books certainly don’t send a message that morality is black and white or that you can never come back from your mistakes, even very serious ones. On the contrary, many characters do, including Dumbledore himself, who made mistakes of his own in his youth. However, they do seem to say that it takes great courage to do so, and that it’s never easy.

Most people are not Voldemort. There may be some, both in fiction and reality, who care so little about right and wrong that they would hurt other people for no reason at all, but I think that most people would rather do the right thing when we can, and yet sometimes struggle with it. It’s easy to tell the truth if you have nothing to hide. It’s easy to be brave if you’re not afraid. It’s easy to stand up for what you believe in if everyone around you agrees. It’s when doing the right thing is the hardest choice to make that things get difficult, and it’s in those moments that our character is truly tested.