I present to you here what is by no means the final word on "Deathly Hallows," but a collection of as many of the background materials as I could find that would inform an understanding of "deathly hallows." This is intended to be a sort of Master Collection of where we're at so far in thinking about this, a week after the title was revealed. I am greatly indebted to a lot of research that is already done, particularly by John Granger, Felicity, and Muggle Matters, and you will find a multiplicity of links to theirs and other sources embedded in this post that develop these thoughts further.
Rowling and the "Totally Bastard Mythology"
I think it best to stick with theories that are rooted in great literature - literature that we know Rowling has read and appreciates. Rowling has a tremendous way of taking mythology and contorting it into new ways to fit her brilliant world. Read Rowling's words from an interview with Stephen Fry (audio linked here):
I’ve taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I’m quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we’ve been invaded by people, we’ve appropriated their gods, we’ve taken their mythical creatures, and we’ve soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it’s so varied.
There you have it: she takes mythology and makes it her own, because British mythology is already "totally bastard" (great phrase). She's not using that in a derogatory sense: she calls it "one of the richest folklores in the world." And Rowling's new twists just add to the richness.
So I think it's safe to say that the baseline for speculating about the Deathly Hallows has got to be Arthurian legend. What more prominent British mythology/folklore is there than that? And she's already employed it significantly. Over a year ago, I read just the first volume of Howard Pyle's telling of the Arthurian legends, and found these links (noted by others as well; John Granger had tipped me off to the ceiling parallel). There's even similar symbolism used, like the white stag (direct reference to the Arthurian legend in that link) and the gryffin.
We could easily note all the direct references to Arthurian legend, particularly to Merlin, who, it seems evident, is considered not just an object of mythology, but a real historical wizard (Order of Merlin, "Merlin's beard") in the Harry Potter series. Of course, we're never told anything about him in particular; no references are made to his lifetime or actions (Merlin did this, Merlin lived then, etc.). Nevetheless, it seems evident that Merlin is part of wizarding history in the Harry Potter world. There are also multiple ties between the Weasley family and Arthurian legend, not least the kingly names of all the males (ahem...Arthur, in particular), and Ginny (which is short for Ginevra, which is an alternate spelling of Guinevere).
Speaking of the White Stag and the Arthurian legends, there's one more important author who used both of these elements in his writing: C.S. Lewis. The white stag plays a role in getting the Pevensies back to England (the hunt for the white stag is medieval Christ imagery) in the Narnia series, and in the Space Trilogy, Merlin himself actually enters the story. The third book, That Hideous Strength, is based on the premise that it has been discovered that Merlin is real and his body is being sought (he is to come back to life); Ransom, the key character of the series, is the new "Pendragon." In typical Lewis fashion, the "truth myth" of Jesus finds expression in British mythology - for Lewis, the mythology that ranks second behind the Jesus story.
In other words, here's what I'm saying: Both Rowling and Lewis have deliberately employed Arthurian legend, which is also rooted in similar symbolism. Rowling, Lewis, and traditional Arthur tales are woven together with the same thread, so to speak. They're telling similar stories in different ways. And both Rowling and Lewis have a high regard for British mythology.
Lewis' Door in Last Battle and Rowling's Veil
Let's return now to just after the release of Half-Blood Prince. She's pulled off the impossible; she's written a book 6 of 7 that leaves us with as many questions (or more!) for book 7 than when we started - an incredibly difficult feat. Yet the theories began flying, and even Rowling has admitted to coming across a few that made her fear she'd given the ending away. And there's no fear greater in Rowling's mind, whose goal it is to surprise us like Austen did in Emma. So a very odd article comes out in Time: an interview with Lev Grossman, who is all too happy to point out that Rowling is really a Lewis-hater in disguise and everything a Christian would hate anyway.
Ok, perhaps that's overstating the case. But let's look at the relevant passage:
Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn't even read all of C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There's something about Lewis' sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. "There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."
I'll be blunt: I'm really skeptical about Grossman's reporting here. Three things: (1) We don't have direct quotes on the claims about not finishing Lord of the Rings or Narnia, (2) Rowling adores the Lewis books, and (3) Rowling said she read Lord of the Rings when she was nineteen (interview here, HT to Felicity). And there's actually a fourth reason: the part where Susan is "lost to Narnia" comes at the very end of Book 7. Either she's just copying an argument that she's heard before (Philip Pullman and others have entirely misunderstood this passage; listen to Hog's Head PubCast #3 for my take on it), or Grossman has incorrectly reported her having never finished Narnia.
Wanna know what else happens right there in that very spot where we learn Susan is lost to Narnia? Aslan makes a door between Narnia and the afterlife. Can any say "Veil"? We are going to return to that Veil in the Department of Mysteries, right? And what if she got at least some of her inspiration for said veil from The Last Battle? And what if she didn't want us to know that? Update: Rowling really didn't read The Last Battle. (That doesn't really change the fact that we'll probably be heading back to the Veil; it just kills one particular link between her and Lewis.)
Lots of what ifs, to be sure, but check out Felicity's theory on the potential significance of the Veil (which is related to her thoughts on hallows...this is a post about hallows, remember?):
The phrase “deathly hallows” is a particularly good description for the Horcruxes themselves since the soul itself is a holy thing, but Voldemort has torn his and encased each soul fragment in an object to create a Horcrux, “wickedest of magical inventions.” The Horcruxes are examples of something good that has been perverted to an evil purpose, and Voldemort has effectively killed his humanity by making them.For Harry, the destroyed Horcruxes will each be a type of “hallow” in the sense of a reward for a successful Horcrux hunt.
In the sense of the meaning "to make holy," the successive destruction of Voldemort's Horcruxes will possibly cause the soul fragments to reunite behind the Veil (my theory), which will ultimately make Voldemort's spirit whole again when the seventh part of his soul residing in his maimed body is released.
Fascinating. Simply fascinating. Which brings us back around to what hallows are. We established credible and strong links between Rowling's world, which is a beautiful mythological creation rooted in British folklore, a tradition of merged mythologies ("totally bastard"), and Lewis' own employment of said mythologies. The Arthurian legends have been demonstrated to be central both in Lewis' writing (particuarly the Space Trilogy) and Rowling's.
As has already been noted here, Book 7 of the Harry Potter series is not the first appearance of something called "Hallows" in British mythology. There are actually thirteen "Hallows of Britain," and hallows were typically employed in Arthurian legend in fours (sword, spear, cup, pentacle; also crown, stone).
By the way, it's no surprise that one of Harry's key magical objects is the invisibility cloak, since the "Mantle of Arthur" is a "Hallow of Britain" that "makes the wearer invisible to any observer". Perhaps in Rowling's mind, the "mantle" of Arthurian mythology has fallen upon a boy wizard, in whom, in a sense, both Arthur and Merlin are combined (though, strictly speaking, Dumbledore is the "Wise Old Man" archetype, the Merlin figure).
Hallows and Relics
Obviously you see where this is going: the Founders' Relics. There are a few options. Let's first look at what we know. The "sword" is obvious: Gryffindor. The "cup" is obvious: Hufflepuff. The "pentacle" refers to an amulet, hence, Slytherin's locket. This leaves us with Ravenclaw: my money would be on "crown" - tiara; or, alternately, a wand, corresponding to the spear, which would fit the tarot connection (see below).
But this is still too simple. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" does not mean "Harry Potter and the Horcruxes," or there would be no mystery to the title; and there's always mystery to the title. This is where Gryffindor's sword is important: it's not a horcrux. It appears Voldemort never did succeed in getting relics from every Founder. And this might just be really significant.
Recall young Tom Riddle's conversations with Hepzibah Smith. When old lady Smith talked about the relics, she spoke of them having great magical powers. What powers? And why did they have them?
What if non-horcruxed relics contain some sort of magical power that is deeply significant to the plot? Sort of a good-magic that combats the tainted and distorted horcruxed relics? Or what if any relic, once it is de-horcruxed, contains magical powers significant to the plot?
Let's ask a different question that might inform our thinking here: What other story is Lewis, Pyle, and Rowling telling? The Christian story. And what has been a rather large part of the Christian story? Relics. Both Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity have affirmed the importance of relics. Relics are "part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint" (see article at Catholic Encyclopedia). A relic can also be an object closely associated with the departed saint (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). There was never a realm of Christianity in which relics played a more prominent role than in Celtic Christianity (and the four Grail Hallows originate in Celtic mythology, originally as the "Treasures of Tuatha du Danaan": sword, spear, cauldron, and stone).
Of course, the point of the relic is not magical power; branches of Christian theology that believe in relics do not believe they are inherently magical, but that the "magic" (to use that word loosely) comes in what they point to: the dead saint. The relics are not ends in themselves. The real reason that the Grail is the mother of all Hallows in mythology, and supposed pieces of the cross are the mothers of all relics in history, is that they both point to the supreme figure of both mythology and Christian theology: Jesus Christ.
Hence, if the relics are important to the Harry Potter plot, they are important because they point to the Founders. Now we need to talk about graveyards.
Perhaps the most important early relics in Christian history are the tombs of the martyrs, where many miracles were said to have occurred. Felicity has a quote from Cuaron, the director of Prisoner of Azkaban, that is relevant to our speculation here:
Alfonso Cuaron: We needed a place where the kids could see the execution of Buckbeak, and we thought about having a graveyard. And we consulted Jo about it and she said "No, the graveyard is not there," and I said "Why?" And then she gave me the whole explanation of why the graveyard cannot be there, because it's in a different place of the castle. Because it's going to play...and she knows her thing, she knows exactly what's going to happen later. And once I remember having little people in some storyboards, playing some keyboards and an organ in the Great Hall. And Jo said "No, there are no little people in this universe." I said "Yes, it's like..." she says, "Yes, lovely image, but they don't make sense in this universe."
But what is the purpose of the graveyard? McGonagall informs us in HBP that headmasters and headmistresses were not buried at Hogwarts; if they weren't, neither were teachers. I think Felicity's speculation is right on the mark: at least three of the Hogwarts founders may very well be buried on the grounds. I'm not even opposed to the possibility that Slytherin wanted his body transported back there.
Felicity also notes that a burial place in Lord of the Rings is referred to as "the Hallows." It is a burial place that (a) is only open to those bearing the "token of the tombs" and (b) reserved only for Gondor royalty. I'm not going reproduce all of Felicity's speculation here, but you must go read it. No, really - you must.
Let's transport the Hallows of LotR into the Hallows of Hogwarts, assuming it's a burial place: It is a burial place that (a) is only open to those bearing the proper "token of the tombs," which, in this case, would be a Founder's relic, and (b) reserved only for the Hogwarts Founders. As Felicity notes, Harry's needing something special (knowledge, skills, etc.) in order to descend to a certain place (figurative death) is part of every book thus far. It's highly like the figurative death (and resurrection) will center around the "deathly hallows," and in particular if it turns out to be a graveyard. The idea of needing a certain token to get in ties in the relics nicely.
While I doubt she'll take that path directly, as it would be kind of evident that she was borrowing straight from LotR (unless there's a parallel in Norse mythology of which I am unaware), nevertheless, the significance of the relics will lie in their pointing to the Founders themselves.
And since the Founders are all dead, their graveyard is as good a candidate as any for a hallowed place that relates to death. In this sense, the Deathly Hallows would refer both to the relics (and remaining therefore solidly in the tradition of British mythology) and the graveyard, because the relics would, in effect, point us to the graveyard.
Lewis and Alchemy
Before finishing up, we have to backtrack to Lewis one more time. There is one other amazing parallel between Rowling's and Lewis' use of Arthurian legend. I've already noted that Lewis' most blatant use of Arthurian legend is found in his Space Trilogy, the third of which is rooted in the Arthur story. But there is another key to understanding Lewis' Space Trilogy, which turns out to also be a key to understanding Harry Potter: literary alchemy.
One of my first-ever posts here at SoG was an explanation of alchemy in Perelandra, the second book of the Space Trilogy, and a comparison of that to Harry Potter. In short, both Rowling and Lewis are telling stories and incorporate, and to some extent re-invent, the Arthurian legends, and they're telling those stories with an alchemical framework.
John Granger has done significantly helpful work on literary alchemy in Harry Potter, and his post on the Deathly Hallows takes a look at the title from the alchemical point of view. I commend the entire post to your careful consideration (once again, you must read it), but I'll draw out some of the important points here.
In very brief form: alchemy deals in seven stages with a set of four that can be united in the "quinta essentia." Put into Harry Potter terms, the seven books are the seven stages of alchemy, the seventh of which involves the divided fours (four Hogwarts houses, four magical brethren) into one central unifying place (Harry Potter himself). In alchemy, it's the four elements: earth, water, fire, air. Rowling has already confirmed four us that the four houses "correspond roughly" to these four elements: Gryffindor=fire, Hufflepuff=earth, Slytherin=water, Ravenclaw=air. Granger quotes Rowling:
But [the Slytherins are] not all bad. They literally are not all bad. [Pause] Well, the deeper answer, the non-flippant answer, would be that you have to embrace all of a person, you have to take them with their flaws, and everyone’s got them. It’s the same way with the student body. If only they could achieve perfect unity and wholeness that means that they keep that quarter of the school that maybe does not encapsulate the most generous and noble qualities, in the hope, in the very Dumbledore-esque hope that they will achieve harmony. Harmony is the word.
"Harmony" is the word, and Harry is that alchemical "quinta essentia" in which the four houses must find harmony. (Note the phrase "Dumbledore-eqsue." Dumbledore has been the master alchemist throughout the series, and Harry is his "philospher's stone," the end product of alchemy).
Some will also be reminded of the link to Tarot here (if you had not already been reminded of it upon hearing of the Grail Hallows above). Indeed, there are four Tarot suits, and they correspond to the Grail Hallows: swords, wands, cups, coins (coin being the "pentacle" or "amulet"). In fact, they may have been derived from Celtic and British mythology; see this essay at HP Lexicon). And hence, we have come full circle back around to Grail mythology.
Trying to Make Sense of it All
But what does all this mean, and what can we speculate from it? We can say this: Rowling has brilliantly put together a multiplicity of sources and blended them into her own story: Celtic mythology, British/Arthurian legend, Christian history/theology, Tarot cards, alchemy, and more: a truly "totally bastard mythology," but a wonderful and rich one nonetheless.
One thing is certain: Rowling is not going to make her "hallows" a direct parallel to any of the ideas here. In other words, she's not going to simply remove the hallows from Arthurian legend and stick them directly into her story, unchanged. Relics in Harry Potter are not going to function exactly as they do in Christian theology.
No, she'll take a little from here, a little from there, introduce her own ideas, and make it fit her own world. My next moves are to go pick up Volumes 2 and 3 of Howard Pyle's Arthurian tales and to revisit the conclusion of Lewis' Perelandra and the relevant portions of That Hideous Strength.
But no matter what I find, Rowling's creativity and her own way of using the mythology will keep us all in the dark. I agree entirely with John Granger here:
We won’t know what Deathly Hallows refers to until the seventh book is published. It’s fun to speculate and said speculation can throw light on the meaning of the series, but let’s not kid ourselves about our ability to figure this out ‘for sure.’ That ain’t happening.
Other Posts on "Deathly Hallows":
- Book 7 Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
- Hog's Head PubCast #10
- Deathly Hallows: Brief Thoughts and Theories
- Four Hallows, Relics, and Horcruxes?