The house colors represent the elements
In Harry Potter’s magical world, nothing is as it seems—and that goes for the books themselves. Master storyteller J.K. Rowling wove in all kinds of mysterious meanings, surreptitious signs, and cloaked clues that, when deciphered, illuminate the themes of the story.
For example, everyone knows that students are sorted into the four houses of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry based on their personalities—but did you know the house colors have a deeper meaning? “The four Hogwarts houses have a loose association with the four elements, and their colors were chosen accordingly,” Rowling wrote on the official Pottermore site. “Gryffindor (red and gold) is connected to fire; Slytherin (green and silver) to water; Hufflepuff (yellow and black, representing wheat and soil) to earth; and Ravenclaw (blue and bronze; sky and eagle feathers) to air.” For each book’s 20th anniversary, new U.K. editions are being released in all the house colors and crests, with special house-specific content inside. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the U.K. name for the first book in the series) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets‘ house editions are out now and available on Amazon; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban releases this month.
Harry has two contrasting father figures
Colors also come into play with orphaned Harry’s father figures in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Rubeus (or “red”) Hagrid and Albus (or “white”) Dumbledore. Rowling points out that red and white are complementary colors in the mystical science of alchemy, and represent different stages of spiritual transformation. “Where my two characters were concerned, I named them for the alchemical colors to convey their opposing but complementary natures: Red meaning passion (or emotion), white for asceticism; Hagrid being the earthy, warm, and physical man, lord of the forest; Dumbledore the spiritual theoretician, brilliant, idealized, and somewhat detached,” she wrote on Pottermore. “Each is a necessary counterpoint to the other as Harry seeks father figures in his new world.”
Names reveal who—or what—people really are
Several of Rowling’s characters’ names have hidden meanings—and in many cases, if you know what they are, you can uncover the plot. For example, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, beloved teacher Remus Lupin is discovered to be a werewolf, and Harry’s godfather Sirius Black is revealed to transform into a dog. Remus’s name refers to the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, two brothers who were raised by wolves; and Lupin comes from the Latin word “lupinus,” meaning “wolfish.” Sirius, on the other hand, is the name of the “dog star” in astronomy, part of the Canis (i.e., canine) Major constellation. Check out more surprising Harry Potter details you may have missed the first time you read the books.
Lupin’s condition is a metaphor for HIV
Speaking of Lupin, Rowling revealed a deeper layer to his werewolf disease and the secrecy surrounding it. “Remus Lupin’s affliction was a conscious reference to blood-borne diseases such as the HIV infection, with the attendant stigma,” Rowling wrote on Pottermore. “The potion Snape brews him is akin to the antiretroviral that will keep him from developing the ‘full-blown’ version of his illness.” Unfortunately, the discrimination Lupin unfairly faces when his condition is made public is the reason he has to leave Hogwarts. “The sense of ‘apartness’ that the management of a chronic condition can impose on its sufferers was an important part of Lupin’s character,” Rowling wrote. In the Prisoner of Azkaban movie, the filmmakers wanted to present Lupin’s condition as an illness, so he appears pallid, unwell, and sad.
Names also reveal the characters’ true natures
Some characters’ names give readers clues to their hidden motivations and feelings. J.K. Rowling is proficient in French, and that shows in her naming of Draco Malfoy and Voldemort. In French, mal foi means “bad faith,” fitting for a character whose family follows the evil wizard He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Voldemort’s name comes from the French vol de mort, or “flight of death,” which makes sense as he fears dying and does everything in his power to gain immortality. Of course, as Chamber of Secrets reveals, “I am Lord Voldemort” is also an anagram of the Dark Lord’s original name, Tom Marvolo Riddle. Rowling assured fans she had no “anti-French feelings” in naming Voldemort. “I needed a name that evokes both power and exoticism,” she said while receiving the French Legion of Honor. (Fun fact: In accordance with French pronunciation, Rowling revealed the last “t” in Voldemort is silent, meaning we’ve been saying it wrong all these years.)
Hedwig symbolizes the comforts of childhood
Although Rowling herself hasn’t elaborated on the meaning behind Harry’s pet owl, the Catholic St. Hedwig had seven children and took care of orphans. Who does this sound like? Harry’s best friend Ron’s mother, Mrs. Weasley, mother of seven who sheltered Harry whenever he needed somewhere to go, sure fits the bill. Hedwig the owl likewise cared for Harry: In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, he said she was “the only friend he had at number four, Privet Drive [his Muggle relatives’ home].” And perhaps that’s why fans were so saddened when she was killed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “The loss of Hedwig represented a loss of innocence and security,” Rowling said. “Voldemort killing her marked the end of childhood.” With meanings this deep, it’s no wonder Harry Potter is one of the 10 young adult novels grown-ups secretly love.
Dementors personify depression
The soul-stealing dementors, creatures that suck hope and happiness out of anyone they’re near, first appear in Prisoner of Azkaban. According to Rowling, they’re a physical manifestation of what it’s like to experience depression. “It’s so difficult to describe [depression] to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness,” Rowling said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling—that really hollowed-out feeling. That’s what dementors are.” For Harry, dementors also cause him to relive the trauma of his mother’s death at the hands of Voldemort: When dementors are near, he hears her screams. If you’re going through a difficult time, these J.K. Rowling quotes can motivate you through any slump.
Harry bears a resemblance to another “chosen one”
A sword with magical powers that only can be summoned by a special someone…nope, we’re not talking about the legendary King Arthur’s Excalibur, but the sword of Gryffindor. If Harry’s sword bears resemblance to Excalibur, though, does that mean Harry is King Arthur? Arthur, after all, was also an orphan from humble beginnings who was chosen to possess a powerful sword and become a leader. (Not to mention Dumbledore could be Arthur’s wizard mentor, Merlin, and Hogwarts could be Camelot.) “Gryffindor’s sword owes something to the legend of Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur, which in some legends must be drawn from a stone by the rightful king,” Rowling said on Pottermore. “The idea of fitness to carry the sword is echoed in the sword of Gryffindor’s return to worthy members of its true owner’s house.” Rowling included another intentional throwback to the Arthurian legend. “There is a further allusion to Excalibur emerging from the lake when Harry must dive into a frozen forest pool to retrieve the sword in Deathly Hallows,” she says. “In other versions of the legend, Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake, and was returned to the lake when he died.”
Bathrooms are another kind of “room of requirement”
Rowling hasn’t revealed exactly why this is, but bathrooms are really, really important to the Harry Potter books. Nearly everyone has a major scene taking place in the “loo,” as the British call it: the troll fight in Sorcerer’s Stone; the home of ghost Moaning Myrtle and the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets; Harry solving a Triwizard Tournament clue in a bathtub in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Harry’s wand battle with Draco in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Plus, one of the first hints of the hidden Room of Requirement, which changes to fit the seeker’s needs, is Dumbledore mentioning coming across a room full of chamber pots when he had to go the bathroom in Goblet of Fire. Perhaps this potty preoccupation exists because, before bathrooms, wizards apparently went wherever they pleased, cleaning it up with a flick of the wand. “Hogwarts didn’t always have bathrooms,” revealed Pottermore in a tweet that caused a fan frenzy. “Before adopting Muggle plumbing methods in the eighteenth century, witches and wizards simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence.”
Snape’s first words to Harry were about his mother
As Pottermore explains, the Harry Potter books often employ floriography, or conveying meaning through flowers, a pastime popular with the Victorians. So, the first words cold Professor Snape says to Harry in Sorcerer’s Stone—”What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”—aren’t just a way to humiliate Harry by asking him about a potion he hasn’t learned yet. Asphodel is a type of lily and means “my regrets follow you to the grave”; wormwood is also associated with regret and bitterness. Snape, who was in love with Harry’s mother, Lily, is telling Harry he bitterly regrets her death. (By the way, the answer to the question is the Draught of Living Death, which Professor Slughorn’s class attempts to make in Half-Blood Prince.) Dive deeper into Snape’s first words to Harry here.
Seven is the most powerful number
In numerology, numbers have mystical meaning, as they do in Harry Potter. Lucky number seven, for example, pops up everywhere: seven Potter books, seven children in the Weasley family, seven players on a Quidditch team, seven years at Hogwarts, seven Horcruxes containing pieces of Voldemort’s soul, and more. In Hogwarts lore, a 13th-century witch named Bridget Wenlock was the first to discover the magical properties of seven. Another number that pops up often? The trinity, or number three: three Deathly Hallows, three unforgivable curses, the three-headed dog, three tasks and three schools in the Triwizard Tournament, and the core trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Wizards like Starbucks?
The books aren’t the only places secret messages turn up. Look closely in the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film, and you’ll see what looks like a Starbucks logo in the Black family tapestry at Sirius’s former home and current Order of the Phoenix safe house, 12 Grimmauld Place. (Check it out on the bottom left side of the tapestry in this photo on Pottermore.) Could the filmmakers be paying homage to the coffee shops where J.K. Rowling wrote the early books? In truth, Rowling favored Edinburgh’s The Elephant House, not Starbucks, as the spot to craft her tales—one of the offbeat places where the most famous books were written. Perhaps the tapestry’s creators at graphic design firm MinaLima were just really in need of caffeine.
There’s a secret Daily Prophet character
The cheeky artists at MinaLima didn’t stop there: There’s subliminal advertising for a wizard perfume called Divine Magic in the Half-Blood Prince and Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movies. But perhaps the designers’ boldest move is the creation of a whole new character who appears in the Daily Prophet and New York Ghost newspapers throughout the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts movies: a mischievous criminal called the Ginger Witch. Could this be a long-lost relative of the red-haired Weasley clan? According to MinaLima’s Eduardo Lima, she’s based on a friend of theirs named Debbie.
Mirrors are the window to the soul
Even in the Muggle world, mirrors seem enchanted, but they take on an even greater significance in the wizarding world, reflecting crucial truths about the characters. First in Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry becomes entranced by the image of himself with his parents in the Mirror of Erised (“desire” spelled backward). But the lesson the mirror represents, Rowling says, is that “life can pass you by while you are clinging on to a wish that can never be.” In Goblet of Fire, Harry comes across a Foe-Glass, which reveals your enemies. Then in Order of the Phoenix, Sirius gives Harry a two-way mirror for them to communicate—only to meet his own death soon after. But even after Harry shatters the mirror in frustration, he sees an eye staring back at him in a shard: Harry later discovers it’s Aberforth, Dumbledore’s brother, who helps him to safety using the mirror in Deathly Hallows. If you picked up on these meanings already, try our Harry Potter quiz that only diehard fans can ace.
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