Understanding Literary Concepts Through Harry Potter: Foil Characters

Theme. Symbolism. Conflict. Plot structure. Mood and style. These terms are worth knowing, but they’re not always easy to understand – and I say that as someone who absolutely lived for English class from about eighth grade onwards. When you’re already struggling to understand the antiquated language of your very first Shakespeare play, the last thing you want to do is decide which characters are flat characters or round characters, because what does that even mean and how do I apply it? But when it comes down to it, these concepts don’t have to be difficult or confusing. They’re a natural and universal part of storytelling.

I have a vivid memory of one of my old English teachers doing a lesson on foil characters. At first, I remember being confused, but then he gave an example that I knew so well, the pieces suddenly fell into place. I felt as if I’d always known what foil characters were; I just didn’t know what they were called. The example he gave was Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

Just before winter break last year, it all came full circle. I taught a lesson on foil characters. I used an example from a book that the sixth graders were reading, but after I’d explained the concept, I asked them if they could think of any other characters they thought might be foils. For a moment, there was silence, but then a boy raised his hand and hesitantly offered that very same example. It was as if, just like for my younger self, they suddenly saw the pieces fall into place. All of a sudden, all the hands in the room were up. They had examples to give, questions to ask, aha! moments to share – and just like that, a new, intimidating concept didn’t seem quite so scary.

That gave me the idea for a blog series, and it seems only fitting that I should start with foil characters.


Foil characters draw the reader’s attention to each other’s traits by being the opposite. They are often similar at first glance, but their differences are more important than their similarities. Harry and Malfoy are pretty much a textbook example of foil characters. On the surface, they have a lot in common. They are both Hogwarts students, the same age and gender, and play the same position on their House Quidditch teams. However, beyond these surface-level similarities, they are polar opposites.

They both play Seeker, which means they are often opponents on the Quidditch pitch. They are in rival houses, with Harry having consciously chosen Gryffindor over Slytherin. Harry has two close friends, while Malfoy has two lackeys to do his bidding. He seems to have no true affection for Crabbe and Goyle and certainly doesn’t see them as his equals. Even in their appearance they are opposites, Harry with his messy hair and hand-me-down clothes, Malfoy with his slick, polished look and traditional wizard’s robes (or, in the movies, fancy suits).

Both were born into the roles that they play in the war. Harry is the Chosen One of the prophecy, the only one who can defeat Voldemort. He is targeted from a young age, his parents are killed, and he’s fighting Voldemort from the moment the dark wizard re-enters his life. Draco, on the other hand, is a Malfoy. He grows up idolizing Voldemort and wishing he would return, and he’s eager at first to join the Death Eaters, although he becomes disillusioned as the war goes on. Neither of them has much choice in the side that they choose, but it would be a mistake to say they don’t make choices. Harry chooses to fight on many occasions when it would be easier to run or hide, while Draco often chooses not to make a choice at all.

At the beginning of the series, Harry is an outsider to the magical world and spends much of his time as a passive observer, figuring things out as we do. He reacts to whatever the conflict of the book is, but he doesn’t see himself as a hero and tries to live a normal life. Voldemort’s return in Goblet of Fire is the turning point, when Harry realizes that a war is coming and he will have to be ready for it. He spends Order of the Phoenix training Dumbledore’s Army and attempting to convince the world that Voldemort is back, while he spends Half-Blood Prince learning Voldemort’s secret weaknesses and investigating Malfoy, who he’s convinced has joined the Death Eaters. By Deathly Hallows, he is no longer an observer or a reactive character. He is a hero on a quest and a soldier in a war.

Malfoy, on the other hand, starts off the series as an active antagonist. While Voldemort has always been the ultimate evil, it was Malfoy’s schemes, taunts, and bullying that Harry had to deal with on a daily basis. Yet as the series goes on, Malfoy becomes more of a nuisance than a real threat. His role in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix is greatly diminished, he’s not all that successful as a Death Eater, and he’s totally unaware that he’s the master of the Elder Wand until after the fact. Just as Harry starts to become an active hero with a clearly-defined goal, Malfoy goes from being an enemy to an annoyance to little more than a pawn in other people’s schemes.

In Half-Blood Prince in particular, they are on parallel and yet opposite journeys. Both are taking a more direct role in the war, and both have been chosen to do what others on their side consider impossible: killing the leader of the opposing side. They both spend the year working to accomplish this, keeping it secret from all but a select few trusted people. However, while Dumbledore really does want to help Harry succeed and spends the year teaching him about Voldemort’s greatest weakness, it’s strongly implied that Voldemort chose Draco to punish his family for his father’s failure to retrieve the prophecy. He doesn’t care whether he succeeds and doesn’t expect him to.

In a way, you could say they were both chosen by Voldemort. The prophecy could have referred to either Harry or Neville, but Voldemort chose to attack the infant Harry and therefore handpicked the boy who would grow up to defeat him. Voldemort’s choices make a physical mark on both boys: while Draco is given the Dark Mark, branding him as Voldemort’s servant, Harry’s lightning scar is the fulfilment of the line in the prophecy that claims “The Dark Lord shall mark him as his equal”.

It comes down to a lot more than their positions on the Quidditch team or the fact that they are members of rival Houses. In fact, you could say that Harry represents Dumbledore and the Order among his peers, while Malfoy represents Voldemort and the Death Eaters. This larger-scale conflict at first plays out via Quidditch games and school rivalry, and as the kids get older, they themselves become part of the war they’ve already chosen sides in. Although by the end of the series, the rivalry between Harry and Draco is far from the most important battle being fought, it still symbolically represents the war in microcosm. It’s not a coincidence that Harry, having fought with Draco and taken his wand during the battle at Malfoy Manor, is then easily able to win his duel against Voldemort and therefore the war as a whole. Yes, there’s the Elder Wand explanation, but what it comes down to is that, symbolically, he’s already won.

Are there other examples of foil characters in Harry Potter? Certainly. Dudley is another foil to Harry, spoiled where Harry is neglected, greedy and selfish where Harry is generous and selfless, and – to an even greater extent than Malfoy – irrelevant and no longer threatening by the final books in the series. Hermione and Luna are foils to each other: one is the “brightest witch of her age”, but a Gryffindor who ultimately values courage and friendship more than knowledge, while the other is a Ravenclaw who is more perceptive, open-minded, and individualistic than book smart. The two often clash and disagree as if they were designed to be opposites, which they probably were. And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the two werewolves: the kindly, civilized Professor Lupin, who sees his condition as a curse, and the brutal Fenrir Greyback, who fully embraces it. However, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are probably the most intricate example of foil characters, with not just a few surface-level similarities to highlight opposite personalities, but contrasting plotlines and character journeys centering around a personal feud in which they are not just school rivals but symbols of opposite sides in the story’s main conflict.

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Rosier Family Tree

Between Vinda Rosier from Crimes of Grindelwald and Felix from Hogwarts Mystery, the new material in the Wizarding world is making me think we need an official Rosier family tree. But, for lack of an official one, I’m going to do my best to work it out.

Let’s start with the youngest known family member and work backwards. Felix Rosier is about 2 years older than Bill Weasley, meaning he was born in 1968 or 69.  If this bit of dialogue in Hogwarts Mystery is to be believed, his father was “a top Death Eater”.

The past tense makes me think they meant for Evan Rosier, who is dead by this point, to be his father, but that doesn’t actually work.  Evan Rosier was one of Snape’s peers, and Snape was born in 1960, giving them an age difference of only 8 or 9 years. They could be brothers or cousins, but not father and son. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume they’re brothers and that the past tense is because Voldemort is no longer around. (Alternatively, both died during the war).

There are a few other notable members of the family. One is Druella Rosier, who married Cygnus Black. Another was one of Tom Riddle’s school peers who went on to become one of Voldemort’s first followers. To be near Tom Riddle’s age, he would have had to be born in the late 1920’s, around the time of the first Fantastic Beasts movie. I think it makes a lot of sense for the new character of Vinda Rosier in Crimes of Grindelwald to be his mother, although she could also be an aunt. Druella’s age is not given, but her husband was born in 1938; if she is near his age, she could be either a much younger sister or a cousin to the Rosier who was at school with Tom Riddle.

That character could easily be Evan and Felix’s father. He would have been in his mid-30’s when Evan was born and in his early 40’s when Felix was born if that’s the case. He could also be Felix’s grandfather if both he and his son had children in their early 20’s, although in that case Felix and Evan would probably be cousins, rather than brothers. And, of course, it’s also possible that he’s the father of one and the uncle of the other.

Or, in other words …

rosier family tree

 

 

The Hogwarts Mystery Generation

I guess it’s pretty obvious by now that I can’t actually just enjoy something without analyzing it to death. I’m a Ravenclaw for a reason. So here’s a weird thought I had about Hogwarts Mystery.

The game begins in 1984. Voldemort disappears for the first time in 1981, and Harry Potter starts his first year at Hogwarts in 1991, the year after the characters in the game would graduate. Their entire time at Hogwarts would take place in between the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone and the rest of the book. However, while their years at school are Voldemort-less, their lives aren’t.

The youngest kids who would be adults before Voldemort’s return would be born in 1975-76 and start Hogwarts in 1987, the same year as Percy Weasley. The oldest ones to still be in their pre-Hogwarts years when he was defeated would be born in 1970-71 and start school in 1982, along with Bill. This is a very small age range to be defined as a generation, but their experiences as children and young adults would be drastically different from either those older than them, who attended Hogwarts while Voldemort was powerful the first time, or those younger than them, who were still school-age children when he returned. In more general terms, they might be grouped with Harry’s generation – children when Voldemort was defeated but old enough to fight him the second time – but while the Hogwarts Mystery generation have relatively peaceful teenage years and adventures that have little to do with Voldemort, the same is not true for their slightly younger peers, who come of age in the middle of a war.

The Hogwarts Mystery characters would have been 7 or 8 years old when Voldemort fell and will be 21 or 22 in 1995, when Voldemort returns. Unlike Harry and his peers, they are old enough to have distinct memories of what life was like when Voldemort was powerful before, and he may have touched their lives in powerful ways. This is already becoming apparent in the game, where Merula Snyde has accused my character’s brother of working for Voldemort, to which she reacted with horror and denial. In the time after Voldemort’s defeat, there was so much uncertainty, with innocent people like Sirius being sent to Azkaban while actual Death Eaters like the Malfoys manipulated and bribed their way out of trouble. That kind of environment would greatly affect the students of Hogwarts even though the actual danger has (temporarily) passed.

They’re also likely to be affected by the second war against Voldemort.

  • At the age of 24 or 25, Ben will, like all muggle-born wizards, find himself persecuted and denied the right to use magic. He will have to find his courage to survive when Voldemort takes over the Ministry.
  • At some point in Merula’s early 20’s, her Death Eater parents will escape from Azkaban. They will almost certainly expect her to join them – and if she does, she will likely join them in prison after Voldemort is defeated again.
  • I think it would be easy enough for Penny and Rowan to stay out of the conflict. They don’t come from muggle or Death Eater families, and Penny is a Hufflepuff who would likely be underestimated in a conflict involving mostly Gryffindors and Slytherins. However, Rowan gets wholeheartedly involved in her friend’s dangerous adventures, and Penny admires the main character for standing up to Merula, so there’s a good chance they would want to help those fighting Voldemort as well.
  • It’s hard to say about the main character, because they depend so much on the decisions you make. But it sounds like in any version of the game, they stand up for others and investigate the mysteries of the school. Is it likely someone who makes a name for themselves by beating the school bully in a duel would sit back and let Voldemort take over?

It’s worth mentioning that out of the few members of this mini-generation mentioned in the books, almost all of them are involved in the war against Voldemort. Bill, Charlie, and Tonks are part of the Order of the Phoenix; Percy supports the Ministry over his family but reunites with them in time for the Battle of Hogwarts; and Oliver Wood likewise fights in the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving Penelope Clearwater and Marcus Flint as the only ones who may not have been involved. With such a small sample, it’s hard to tell how indicative this is, but the Hogwarts Mystery characters are already talking about Voldemort even while he’s gone, so I think it’s safe to assume they will be affected by his return.

Game Review: Hogwarts Mystery

This game should have been every Harry Potter fan’s dream. And in a way, it is. You get to design your own character and send them to Hogwarts, where they attend classes, form friendships, and go on exciting quests. It’s incredibly fun to play – until you run out of energy.

The storyline so far follows the younger sibling of a former Hogwarts student who was expelled as they navigate their first year at school. You get to pick your character’s name, gender, and Hogwarts House, as well as designing their physical appearance. The game provides several options for hairstyle, skin tone, and facial features, but the animation style is just a little unnerving at times, in the way that old CGI movies like The Polar Express can be unsettling to watch. Here is my character:

Hogwarts Mystery 1

And here’s a picture of the Ravenclaw common room:

Hogwarts Mystery 2

The game is set after Voldemort’s defeat but before Harry starts school. However, most of the characters are stand-ins for ones from the book series. Awkward, nerdy Rowan, who offered to tell me a comprehensive history of Ravenclaw house right after the Sorting ceremony, is a lot like Hermione. “Cowardly” Gryffindor Ben Copper reminds me a lot of Neville, and Merula Snyde is essentially a female Draco Malfoy. The teachers are all familiar ones. So far, Flitwick seems very impressed by my character and Snape seems to hate her with a burning passion, but that might change depending on which House you’re in and which subject you choose as the one you’re most excited about.

A lot in the game depends on your choices. You gain “attribute” points for courage, empathy, and knowledge that affect who your friends are and what choices you can choose to make. Then based on those choices, you get even more attribute points. I’ve been trying to mostly make the decisions I think I really would, but there’s nothing saying you have to. I’m curious how the game might be different if I’d chosen to be in a different House or to make decisions in a different way.

My biggest complaint so far is that you only get a certain amount of energy and can’t continue playing once it runs out unless you buy more (with real money). I normally don’t mind this in app games and see it as a sort of screen time control to keep me from wasting too much time on my phone. However, it’s really annoying when it happens in the middle of an activity. It’s totally possible to start a game or a lesson with a full energy bar and still not have enough to finish it. You get one new energy point every four minutes and several hours to finish each activity, so it’s pretty much taken for granted that you’ll start, run out of energy, put it away for a while, and come back when your energy is full. Or just pay for a refill, which I’m sure is the point. I’d much rather only be able to do a certain number of activities before my character has to rest than get stuck with Devil’s Snare wrapped around my neck for half an hour because I ran out of energy points.

Hogwarts Mystery 3

What Makes Half-Blood Prince So Important?

Between the darker tone and heavier themes of Order of the Phoenix and the all-out epic conclusion to the series in Deathly Hallows, it’s easy to overlook Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It seems lighter, softer, tamer, and far less significant. The movie was rated PG, while all the others from Goblet of Fire onward were PG-13. Its plot spends a great deal of time focusing on teenage romantic drama and day-to-day life at Hogwarts, while Voldemort himself never appears except in flashbacks and in the looming threat of danger that remains in the background until the end. It’s certainly not the most exciting Harry Potter book, and I’ll admit it’s not my personal favorite. But it does have a significant role to play.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence. Not that Harry has ever been totally innocent, at least not in the “sheltered and naïve” sense of the word. But in Order of the Phoenix, he has seen his parents’ killer return from the dead and murder one of his classmates, barely escaped with his own life, and attempted to warn his fellow wizards, only to be mocked, ridiculed, and viewed as either delusional or a liar by almost everyone. He sees the most trusted adults in his life fighting in secret to protect the wizarding world from a threat it won’t acknowledge exists, and at school, he does the same with his friends, forming a Defense Against the Dark Arts study group that grows into a full-blown resistance movement. Meanwhile, his dreams are haunted by that night in the graveyard and by visions of what Voldemort is doing, leading him and his friends into a battle against the Death Eaters where Harry loses one of his father figures and has to withstand being possessed by Voldemort. Harry has certainly endued hardships before, but this is different.

Order of the Phoenix is about loss of innocence, and Deathly Hallows is a high-stakes war story. In contrast, Half-Blood Prince is a last chance for Harry and his friends to just be teenagers. The world believes them now; the adults in power are doing their best to defeat Voldemort; Harry has heard the prophecy and knows he will have to face him someday, but that might be years in the future; and in the meantime, he has tests to pass, Quidditch games to win, and a growing crush on Ginny to deal with.

That doesn’t mean it’s filler, though. I would argue that Harry needs the chance to be a teenager before he sets off on his quest to defeat Voldemort. He needs to understand and experience the normal life he’s giving up in order to be the Chosen One. More importantly, he’s fighting to allow others – perhaps not his classmates, who mostly get drawn into the war along with him, but the younger students and the next generation – to live in a safer world where they will be able to live normal lives, and where teenagers will not have to fight in wars against Dark Wizards. Those moments “out of someone else’s life” that he spends with Ginny matter more than they seem to at first. Ron, Hermione, and to an extent all the children of Hogwarts are also given one last peaceful year before the full-fledged war portrayed in Deathly Hallows.

I said that Order of the Phoenix is a loss-of-innocence story, but so is Half-Blood Prince – not for Harry himself, but for Draco Malfoy. Like Harry, Malfoy has never been entirely innocent – he’s a vicious, mean-spirited bully – but in his own way, he’s incredibly sheltered and naïve. He doesn’t seem to have had an independent thought in his life and has never been through any real hardship. In Half-Blood Prince, he’s recruited to work for Voldemort and given a special mission to kill Dumbledore, which does not go according to plan. He becomes increasingly sullen and withdrawn as the year goes on, before finding himself unable to commit murder when the opportunity finally arises. In the same way that Harry transformed from child hero to pariah to resistance leader, Draco goes from playground bully to Death Eater to a conflicted young man incapable of either true good or true evil. Their stories are parallels that come to opposite conclusions, which makes sense since they are foil characters.

Finally, Half-Blood Prince sets the stage for Deathly Hallows. In Harry’s private lessons with Dumbledore, they explore flashback memories of Voldemort’s past, which allow them to figure out what kind of Dark Magic he used to make himself immortal and how to reverse it. His journey in Deathly Hallows revolves mostly around this, ending with the revelation that Harry himself must die in order for Voldemort to die – and, of course, the further twist that he doesn’t die at all. Dumbledore’s death at the end puts Harry in a position of having to face Voldemort alone, without his most powerful protector, while Snape’s actions seem to establish his role as a villain rather than an ambiguous character in Deathly Hallows, thus subtly setting the stage for the revelation of his true loyalty.

While the threat of Voldemort is present only in the background, it’s still there, and it casts its shadow over the whole story. Students are pulled out of school by parents who are afraid the school is not safe. Shops in Diagon Alley close down when the shop owners go missing. Bridges mysteriously collapse, morally-lacking opportunists sell bogus protective charms, and thanks to Polyjuice Potion and the Imperius Curse, you can never be quite sure who might not be who they seem. The war against Voldemort is raging in the background, a student is plotting to kill the Headmaster, Harry is learning and preparing to eventually fulfill the prophecy, and by the end it’s clear that he will have to do so sooner rather than later. All of this leads directly into Deathly Hallows, which in turn builds up to the Battle of Hogwarts and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort.

 

The Virtues of Harry Potter: Equality

How could I possibly write this series of posts without talking about equality? One of the biggest common threads running through all seven Harry Potter books is the idea that everyone should be treated equally and given the same opportunities.

It’s there in the story of Hogwarts’ founding, when Helga Hufflepuff insists on accepting all magical children and personally takes it upon herself to teach those rejected by her co-founders. Her vision of Hogwarts as a welcoming and inclusive school persists to the present day, and Dumbledore is known for turning no child away from Hogwarts. He accepts not just those from Muggle families, but even those who are not fully human, such as werewolves and half-giants. This stands in stark contrast to the more selective Durmstrang, which is run by a former Death Eater and accepts only children from old magical families.

It’s there in the portrayal of non-human characters, too. Much time and care is spent telling Lupin’s story: how his parents were sure he would never even be allowed to attend Hogwarts, how he carefully hid his true nature from even his closest friends, and how he struggled to find work as an adult, all because he was a werewolf. While some werewolves, such as Fenrir Greyback, are in fact monsters, so are some humans, such as Voldemort and Bellatrix. Hermione equates the discrimination against werewolves with the oppression of house-elves, and she’s missing a few fine distinctions, but she’s not far off. Magical society tends to view any not-quite-humans, even those that are clearly intelligent and human-like, as their inferiors – and they are relentlessly condemned for doing so.

The themes of equality and inequality cut right through to the novel’s central conflict. Voldemort, although his own father was a muggle, uses the magical community’s distrust of muggle-born wizards to rally supporters to his side. Meanwhile, Harry himself grew up in the muggle world, one of his two best friends is muggle-born, and he constantly stands up against the Death Eaters’ bigoted views. Even the first time he meets Draco Malfoy, he has no patience for his offhand comments that Hogwarts should be only for the old magic families and shouldn’t let “the other sort” in.

He also has no patience for Malfoy’s scornful attitude toward Ron, who at that point he has just begun to become friends with. He doesn’t care about Ron’s hand-me-down clothes and lack of pocket money; he can already tell that Ron is a true friend, and that’s all that matters. The Weasleys have very little in comparison with the Malfoys, but they are happy to adopt Harry as an honorary family member and share with him everything they have.

Snobby, superior attitudes are not tolerated in the world of Harry Potter. Every character, whether magical or muggle, pure-blood or muggle-born, human or non-human, is treated with the respect they deserve by the series’ heroes. That’s not to say they’re Stepford children who are kind and respectful to everyone, but if they dislike certain professors or classmates, it’s because of who they are, not what. The villains, on the other hand, almost all display ignorance and prejudice, sometimes taken to a murderous extreme. It’s clear that the novels have a message to share here, and one that is perennially relevant.