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.

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.

Resisting Dementors Without a Patronus

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry seems to struggle in Snape’s class despite having personally fought dark wizards and monsters many times and survived. He even expects to do poorly on a dementor essay, despite being able to cast the patronus charm:

Having wasted a lot of time worrying aloud about Apparition, Ron was now struggling to finish a viciously difficult essay for Snape that Harry and Hermione had already completed. Harry fully expected to receive low marks on his, because he had disagreed with Snape on the best way to tackle dementors, but he did not care … (page 448, American hardcover edition)

Does this make any sense? At first glance, no. After Harry learns the patronus charm in Prisoner of Azkaban, no alternative ways of fighting off dementors are ever presented. It’s obvious why Snape doesn’t want to teach his students to cast a patronus: his love for Lily is his most deeply-buried secret, and the form of his patronus makes it obvious. But if Harry could disagree with him on how best to deal with a dementor, there must be another method he prefers.

In fact, since very few dark wizards can cast a patronus, I think there must be another method that relies on something besides love and happiness. Voldemort forms an alliance with the dementors in Order of the Phoenix, and yet neither he nor any of his followers seem to be tormented by them. It’s true that the dementors are dark creatures, and the Death Eaters’ allies, but if bad people weren’t affected by them, Azkaban wouldn’t be the nightmare it’s portrayed as. Or at least, it would only be a nightmare for the innocent.

Still, there is one character who manages to stay sane through his years in Azkaban: Sirius. Near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban, he tells Harry: “I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn’t a happy thought, so the dementors couldn’t suck it out of me … but it kept me sane and knowing who I am …”  Later, he describes that finding out Peter Pettigrew was at Hogwarts in his rat form “was as if someone had lit a fire in my head, and the dementors couldn’t destroy it … it wasn’t a happy feeling … it was an obsession … but it gave me strength, it cleared my mind” (371-372, paperback)

It cleared his mind? That sounds a lot like occlumency, which – as described by Snape in Order of the Phoenix – “seals the mind against magical intrusion and influence” (530, paperback). When Snape attempts to teach Harry occlumency, he continually tells him to clear his mind of emotion in order to shield it. Perhaps Snape’s way of dealing with dementors is to use something similar to occlumency against them, clearing his mind and focusing on something powerful yet not happy, much like Sirius did when he was in Azkaban. It wouldn’t do any good against the Dementor’s Kiss, but it could help against the misery they spread. And Harry, who never mastered occlumency, would certainly have disagreed that such a method was better than casting a patronus.

In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – SPOILER WARNING – Snape and Scorpius encounter dementors in the world ruled by Voldemort and get past them without ever casting a patronus. It makes sense that they can’t, since Snape’s would reveal his true loyalty and Scorpius has never learned how. And, of course, being who they are, casting a patronus would make them look suspicious rather than protecting them, something that is true of Snape throughout the Harry Potter books. However, the way the scene plays out is interesting: while Scorpius begins describing the effects of a dementor and hears his mother dying, Snape seems totally unaffected and tells Scorpius to “stay calm” and “think of something else”. “Think about why you’re doing this”.

SNAPE: Think about Albus. … All it takes is one person. I couldn’t save Harry for Lily. So now I give my allegiance to the cause she believed in. And it’s possible – that along the way I started believing in it myself.

SCORPIUS smiles at SNAPE. He steps decisively away from the dementor.

SCORPIUS: The world changes and we change with it. I am better off in this world. But the world is not better. I don’t want that. (141, Nook edition)

Like Sirius’ fixation with his innocence, these are not happy thoughts. Snape’s actions led to the death of the woman he loved, and in this timeline, he was also unable to save her son. Scorpius accidentally erased his best friend from existence and created a world like something out of a nightmare. Those are the kind of thoughts a dementor would remind you of, not ones they would drain away, and yet they would act as a sort of anchor to reality.

It would be easy to write off that scene as making no sense, because protecting yourself from a dementor without casting a patronus shouldn’t be possible. But it always has been possible. Sirius was able to retain his sanity and eventually escape from Azkaban by focusing on something that, while not happy, reminded him of who he was. Snape disagreed with Harry on how to deal with dementors, and presumably, that means he did have a different method that he considered effective enough to shield his mind from them. Could it have been something like what he and Scorpius do in Cursed Child? I don’t see why not.

Wand of the Week: Sirius Black

Sirius is another character whose wand is never revealed, and whichever one he used after his escape from Azkaban must have been one he stole, borrowed, or won by defeating its previous owner, because he could hardly walk into Ollivander’s and let a wand choose him. But what kind of wand would have chosen the younger Sirius Black?

I love the idea of Sirius using a dogwood wand, and not just because of his animagus form. Here’s what “Ollivander” has to say about dogwood:

Dogwood is one of my own personal favourites, and I have found that matching a dogwood wand with its ideal owner is always entertaining. Dogwood wands are quirky and mischievous; they have playful natures and insist upon partners who can provide them with scope for excitement and fun. It would be quite wrong, however, to deduce from this that dogwood wands are not capable of serious magic when called upon to do so; they have been known to perform outstanding spells under difficult conditions, and when paired with a suitably clever and ingenious witch or wizard, can produce dazzling enchantments. An interesting foible of many dogwood wands is that they refuse to perform non-verbal spells and they are often rather noisy.

Much like the Weasley twins, the younger Sirius Black was something of a prankster, his playful nature reflected in his animal form. However, like the dogwood wand, he was perfectly capable of being serious (no pun intended); he is one of the few from his family to choose not to pursue dark magic and follow Voldemort, instead joining the Order of the Phoenix shortly after leaving Hogwarts.

However, he could just as easily fit the description for red oak:

You will often hear the ignorant say that red oak is an infallible sign of its owner’s hot temper. In fact, the true match for a red oak wand is possessed of unusually fast reactions, making it a perfect duelling wand. Less common than English oak, I have found that its ideal master is light of touch, quick-witted and adaptable, often the creator of distinctive, trademark spells, and a good man or woman to have beside one in a fight. Red oak wands are, in my opinion, among the most handsome.

This fits him especially well as an adult, when his mischievous childhood persona had been eaten away by years in Azkaban and fighting in the war. The adult Sirius is certainly warm-hearted and has little regard for rules, but he’s grown up quite a bit. I think that instead of the “quirky and mischievous” dogwood, the Sirius we meet in the present day might have favored something more like red oak if he had the chance to be chosen by a wand.

For the core, my first instinct is dragon heartstring, which produces the flashiest magic, but phoenix feather is also a possibility, for its independence and spontaneity.