The Harry Potter Reread could very easily fit itself into a parody of the Wells Fargo Wagon song from The Music Man. Why this is relevant, it has no idea.
We’re about to get some new Divination lessons and get an uncomfortable look into the past. It’s Chapters 27 and 28 of The Order of the Phoenix–The Centaur and the Sneak, and Snape’s Worst Memory.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
Chapter 27—The Centaur and the Sneak
Lavender and Parvati are very excited for Firenze’s Divination classes to begin (though they are sad for Trelawney, of course). Hermione believes that Umbridge is planning revenge on Dumbledore for appointing Firenze without her approval. Harry and Ron head to the class, which is now on the ground floor in a classroom that has been charmed to seem like the forest. Firenze greets Harry, which awes several of the students. The reason he can’t have their class in the Forbidden Forest is because he’s been banished by his herd for agreeing to work with Dumbledore. (The other centaurs see that as a betrayal.)
Firenze’s class is nothing like Trelawney’s. He is utterly unconcerned with fortune-telling, and insists that most of her methods are nonsense. He attempts to teach the students about the movement of the stars and planets, and to divine their meanings better by burning herbs, but he’s more interested in making it clear to the students that this wisdom is very difficult for humans to comprehend, and even then it is not absolute. After dismissing the class, he calls Harry to him and gives him a message for Hagrid: his “attempt” is not working and he should give up. Firenze won’t tell Harry what this piece of advice pertains to, however.
Harry delivers this advice to Hagrid eventually, but Hagrid insists that Firenze doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and still won’t tell Harry what the problem is. With Umbridge on the war path and O.W.L.s drawing ever-nearer, the only thing that gives Harry any pleasure at all is D.A. lessons. The crew are working on Patronuses (it’s Seamus’ first meeting) when Dobby arrives and manages–though he has been forbidden–to tell Harry that Umbridge knows about them… and she’s coming. The whole group scatter in a hurry, but Harry gets caught by Draco, and Umbridge brings him to the Headmaster’s Office. Fudge, Kingsley, McGonagall, Percy, and another Auror are waiting there for him, and Fudge asks Harry if he knows why he was brought here. Harry intends to answer in the affirmative, but subtle gestures from Dumbledore let him know that he’s expected to lie. Umbridge brings in the person who turned them in–Cho’s friend Marietta. Who now has the word SNEAK spelled across her face in large purple pustules.
Marietta is terrified to talk, so Umbridge has to tell everyone that the girl came to her office to warn her of the meeting. Umbridge then tells them of their first informant (Willy Widdershins, who had a minor crime dismissed recently for giving up the information) who saw the group meet in Hogsmeade for the first time. Dumbledore points out that the first meeting was not against school rules yet; the decree disbanding all student clubs of three or more was instituted two days after. Harry hears Kingsley whisper something, and when Umbridge asks Marietta if the group has been meeting for the past six months, she shakes her head no. Umbridge almost throttles her in the office, and is only stopped by Dumbledore and Kingsley. But Pansy did go into the Room of Requirement after the kids scattered and retrieved the list of members–with the words “Dumbledore’s Army” at the top.
Dumbledore tells Fudge that the game is up; he was building an army within the school, this was meant to be the first meeting, it was all his doing. When Harry tries to stop him, he’s shut’s down. When McGonagall insists on fighting at Dumbledore’s side when Fudge gleefully readies to takes him in, Albus stops her. Fudge shouts at the Aurors (Kingsley and Dawlish) to apprehend Dumbledore; there’s a flash of light, everyone gets stunned apart from McGonagall, Harry, and Marietta. Dumbledore urges Harry to practice his Occlumency, and tells them that Fudge will regret driving him from the school. Then he grabs onto Fawkes’ tail and disappears in a flash of fire. When the rest of the office occupants come to, they are baffled by Dumbledore’s disappearance.
The opening of this chapter is weird to me for several reasons. First, I have a hard time believing that someone could curl their eyelashes around their wand, as Parvati is supposed to be doing, unless her eyelashes are an inch long or she has a very thin wand. (What, I think about these things, and it’s weird.) Second, Parvati and Lavender are talking about Firenze like he’s a sexy beefcake professor, which I don’t have any problem with, but then they tease Hermione about being sad that she left the class because now they have a hot professor, and Hermione’s response is “I don’t like horses.”
I’m not sure what is more awkward in how this conversation collided; the idea that Hermione can’t be attracted to Firenze because he has horse parts, or the suggestion that Hermione is kind of prejudiced against Firenze due to said horse parts, or the fact that Parvati and Lavender are super into Firenze to the point that they want to have a Hot For Teacher discussion while their eating breakfast. I just… huh?
Of course, we can see just how little wizards know about centaurs once we’re in class and Dean actually asks Firenze if Hagrid bred them. I mean, Dean is Muggle-born, so we can cut him some slack for knowing even less on that front, but I feel like there is no universe where asking a sentient creature if they were bred is an okay question.
Something else occurred to me in Firenze’s lesson, which is that there’s an element of cultural appropriation to wizards practicing Divination at all. Dumbledore himself says that true Seers are few and far between, and when we witness an actual moment of soothsaying from a human, it is nothing like the crystal-gazing, tea reading, and goofy star charts that make up Trelawney’s class. (It might be considered a different form of magic altogether; prophecy is not really the same as prediction in the Potterverse.) Firenze goes so far as to state that the meanings Trelawney assigns to the heavens for her Astrology portion of the course are “human nonsense.” He teaches them how to interpret the heavens according to centaur practices, still emphasizing that it is possible to make mistakes. But it is clear that this form of divining is intrinsic to centaur culture, as we saw in the discussion between Firenze and his herd in the very first book. Which means that wizards choosing to practice it and assigning their own meanings to Astrological work is all about them asserting their will and use of magic over something that is deeply rooted in the centaur experience.
Firenze tells Harry to give a message to Hagrid, and that message is basically “Knock it off, dude.” At this point on the first read, I remember that not knowing what was going on with Hagrid was really beginning to get on my nerves. Knowing this time around makes me care far less, but wow, it’s like every chapter Hagrid is bloody and won’t talk about stuff. It’s overkill.
It’s exciting to see the D.A. get to Patronuses, and I actually wish that these books spent a little more time on Patronus forms and what they mean for the user. Harry keeps giving people a hard time for going on about how cute they are, but it seems to me that’s part of the point whether he realizes it or not–a Patronus is meant to defend you, and looking at it should make you feel safe. And cuteness is a factor in feeling safe and comforted, which in turn would make the caster happier and the Patronus stronger.
Dobby feeling obligated to harm himself for going against Umbridge’s instructions is a perfect example of how the house-elf system is abused, even in seemingly “good” situations; we know that the Hogwarts elves are better treated than most, and that Dumbledore takes care of them. But Dobby’s reaction to Umbridge’s orders proves that the house-elves are required to obey whatever commands they are given from the staff–which could be horribly misused. And is in this case, as we see.
Everyone scatters from the meeting as Umbridge rushes to catch them, and Harry is tripped up (literally) by Draco and hauled off Dumbledore’s office where everyone is waiting. Shout out to Headmaster Fortescue, a relative of Florean the ice cream man in Diagon Alley. His portrait is super against the Ministry cutting deals with petty criminals to catch people out because he’s cool like that.
So… this whole scene is horrible, start to finish. Fudge is clearly hoping to expel Harry, but then what is the Auror guard for? Was he planning to cart Harry off to Azkaban following his expulsion, or are they just there for his peace of mind? The only real reprieve here is Dumbledore very subtly maneuvering Harry to say the right things with winks and nods, because silent communication is awesome, and it’s amazing how much Albus gets away with just by being generally cuddly and affable the rest of the time.
We find out about the jinx that Hermione put on the parchment and… damn. Rowling has stated that the pimples eventually fade, but that Marietta has scars from that jinx for the rest of her life. That’s a particularly callous brand of justice, one that Hermione has no issue in distributing, and let me count the ways that is disturbing. For one, it’s in the facial region, guaranteeing that those marks will be visible in every daily life scenario. It’s an attack that is structured not to hurt, but to shame, through both word choice and appearance. It could have affected anyone on the list, but the fact that it ends up happening to a female member of the group is extra disconcerting, as public humiliation and abuse toward women often leans toward disfigurement or marking in some way; according to societal standards, a woman’s primary “value” is found in her looks, and this jinx effectively “ruins” them. So on the one hand, I understand the desire to punish someone who betrays them (and even maybe the impulse to keep that punishment a secret), but the fact that Hermione makes it this specific retribution–and never appears to feel any remorse over it–is pretty scary. It’s also strange when couched in a chapter that already has her being weird about centaurs, and features Dobby showing up in the many hats that she knits for elves who don’t want her help. It draws a clear circle, reminding us of what Hermione cares about, and showing us just how little she cares for anything outside of those parameters.
Marietta’s autonomy is further violated by Kingsley when he wipes her memory, so that she cannot reveal the actions of the D.A. over the past six months. And here there is an actual need to prevent her giving away the information, but it is still ultimately wrong, and another violation that she never signed up for. When she cannot give Umbridge the information she wants to hear, she is then further abused when Umbridge grabs hold of her and shakes her like a rag doll. As far as we understand, all of this happened because Marietta decided to tell Umbridge about the D.A. because she was worried for her mother (who might have been punished if anyone had found out about her daughter’s involvement with all this).
Of course, the real answer here is two-fold; definitely don’t get involved in serious defense organizations with other students when you never wanted to be there in the first place. Also, don’t be the friend who forces your friend to come with you to a serious defense organization with other students when she doesn’t want to be there in the first place. Cho is going through a lot, absolutely, but she knew from the beginning that Marietta hated the idea of the group. She shouldn’t have pushed her friend.
What we get is this horrible thing, and then Dumbledore takes the fall for Harry by confirming Fudge’s fears, and has to make a quick exit. His typically benign temperament never falters here, and that makes something fun of an otherwise rough chapter. I’m forgetting though–is Fawkes essentially Apparating here for the both of them? The fire makes it seem that way to me. McGonagall pretty much wins here just by virtue of being vehemently on Albus’ side and not caring who knows it at this point.
And then we get the best line of the chapter from Phineas, of all people (portraits?):
“You know, Minister, I disagree with Dumbledore on many counts… but you cannot deny he’s got style….”
Chapter 28—Snape’s Worst Memory
The next educational decree names Umbridge as the new Hogwarts Headmistress. The next day, the entire school seems to know what happened, and everyone wants to ask Harry about it. Ernie Macmillan informs them that the Headmaster Office sealed itself against Umbridge, and that she had a fit over it. Malfoy appears out of nowhere and docks points from all of them for a multitude of terrible reasons–and he has that ability because he’s a member of the new Inquisitorial Squad, a group of students “loyal” to the ministry and to Umbridge. The twins almost had points docked by Montague, but they shoved him into the Vanishing Cabinet. They inform everyone that they’re done with Hogwarts and no longer care if they get expelled. Then they advise everyone to get to lunch, so they’re not implicated in what happens next….
Harry tries to go to lunch, but Filch calls him to Umbridge’s office, cheerfully telling him that the new headmistress is allowing him to bring back the old punishments, and that she’s ordered for the expulsion of Peeves as well. Umbridge insists that Harry have a drink with him, and adds milk to his tea with her back turned. Harry pretends to drink the tea while she grills him on Dumbledore and Sirius’ whereabouts. Then there’s a large commotion downstairs and she dismisses him; the twins have set off a load of their own enchanted fireworks in the hallways. Umbridge has to spend the day ridding the school of them while the teachers pretend not to know what to do. Hermione congratulates the twins this time, and decides to forgo homework that night, feeling rebellious. Harry dreams again of the Department of Mysteries, and gets further into it than ever before. He hasn’t had time to practice Occlumency, and his lesson is the next day.
Before getting to the lesson, Harry has a run-in with Cho where she attempts to apologize on Marietta’s behalf, saying that it’s hard for the girl because her mother works at the Ministry, and also that it was terrible of Hermione to jinx the parchment. Harry isn’t pleased with the defense, nor with Cho’s assessment of Hermione’s actions and they part ways in a huff. Harry goes to his Occlumency lesson angry, but before Snape can start tearing into him again, Draco shows up because Umbridge has need of the Potion’s Master. (They found Montague in a toilet on the fourth floor.) Snape tells Draco that Harry is there for Remedial Potions, which doesn’t help Harry’s mood any, and instructs him to come for his lesson the following day. Being in such a crappy mood, Harry’s thoughts drift to the Pensieve and what sort of memories Snape could be hiding from him. Thinking it might have something to do with the Department of Mysteries, Harry decides to be reckless and dives into the Pensieve.
The memory begins during Snape’s DADA exam in fifth year. Harry gets to see all the Marauders in the memory as well, including his own father. The memory progresses so that Harry is able to keep an eye on his father and friends because Snape isn’t far from them. The Marauders set up under a tree by the lake, James messing around with a Snitch he stole, Peter gasping in awe. Sirius gets bored and puts a stop to it, so James looks around for something else to occupy their time. He picks Snape, who has just gotten to his feet after reexamining his test paper. They stop him, disarm him, and belittle him. When Snape curses at him, James uses a cleaning charm, washing his mouth out with soap.
It’s then that Lily Evans shows up, shouting at James to leaves Snape alone. James says he will if Lily dates him, which is an idea that she clearly abhors. While they’re talking, Snape is able to get to his wand; he fires a curse at James that cuts his face open, and James retaliates by lifting Snape upside-down, revealing his underwear. Everyone laughs, but Lily insists that James release him. He does, but Sirius hits Snape with a binding curse to prevent a counterattack. Lily insists that they release him entirely, which James does. He tells Snape that he was lucky Lily was there to save him, but Snape insists that he doesn’t need any help from “mudbloods” like her. Lily quickly turns her back on Snape, with a parting shot that he should wash is underwear. James is furious on her behalf, but she insists that he’s just as bad as Snape. (James is taken aback by the suggestion that he’d ever call her a mudblood.) Lily insists that James’ M.O. of super-coolness and bullying combined with his ego is disgusting, and stalks off. James is pretty upset that the woman of his dreams feels that way, and promptly goes back to Snape, flipping him upside-down again and threatening to remove his underwear–
The memory stops short as Harry is pulled from the Pensieve by a livid Snape who practically bodily throws him from the office, telling Harry that he can never tell anyone what he’s seen and that his Occlumency lessons are over. Harry hurries away, mortified not at being caught or the end of his lessons, but recalling exactly what it’s like to be bullied that way, and realizing that everything Snape said about his father was true.
The Headmaster Office sealing itself against Umbridge is the perfect literal point to detail this book’s underlying theme of Hogwarts fighting back against an invading force. (It occurs to me that this should have been a major tip-off as to Snape’s loyalties once he became headmaster….)
So, we have the introduction of the Inquisitorial Squad, as well as the incident with Montague and the Vanishing Cabinet; the Weasley twins push him into it to prevent him from docking House points. We get word of him being in the toilets toward the end of the chapter, but what we’re not told yet is that Montague was trapped in the cabinet (because it was broken by Peeves in Harry’s second year), and that he tried to get out by Apparating before he’d received the lessons or license for it. He splinches himself terribly in doing so, and has to be nursed back to health very carefully. It’s unclear if he ever fully recovers, but Draco asks him about the cabinet, which will enable him to use it next year to get Death Eaters into the school.
I understand that some people think this particular act from the Weasley twins is one step too far, but as far as we know, no one knows that the Vanishing Cabinet is broken. Presumably the twins figured that they’d shove him in, he’d end up in the other Cabinet that the one at Hogwarts was connected to, and have to find his way back. Unless the assumption is that the twins must have known it was broken? Thing is, I’m fairly certain that most magical people don’t know precisely how Vanishing Cabinets work anymore–they are clearly rare, and use very powerful magic (repairing them takes a lot more than a single spell, and they are capable of creating a doorway into Hogwarts when you can’t use other types of magic to bypass the security systems) as is evidenced by Draco’s need to correspond with Borgin in his sixth year to fix it and learn how to use it. It’s entirely probable that the twins assume that the Cabinet is a one-way device, or they likely would have tried to use it themselves at some point.
We get word from Filch that Umbridge is letting him bring torture back to Hogwarts as a form of punishment (huzzah), and that she’s given leave to expel Peeves, and I feel like the first time I read this I thought “Oh, that’s a terrible idea.” It’s pretty obvious that the only reason that Peeves is still around is because it’s more dangerous to try and drive him out than it is to let him hang around. We’ll get to all that later, of course….
Then Harry sits at Umbridge’s desk and is handed some truth-serum laced tea, so you know, that’s great. The prose tells us that Umbridge makes a big show of putting milk in the tea with her back to Harry, making it clear that she not only isn’t concerned with getting caught at something like that, but also that she’s been sanctioned to use whatever means are necessary to get all this stuff squared for Fudge. Weasley fireworks are a welcome introduction to the day, and a handy break from how utterly horrible everything is right now.
Harry gets that awkward meet-up with Cho before his Occlumency lesson, and while it would really be nice for Harry just to say sorry, even a little, Cho handles this one pretty badly. Her apology is more the one you would expect from someone who brought a extra friend to a party uninvited because they were visiting her on vacation. She might have led with ‘I’m super sorry that I brought someone to this group who didn’t want to be here and endangered the whole operation. What we’re doing is too important to have risked this way. But also, what Hermione did was pretty uncool, and we all deserved a warning.’ What we get is, ‘Sorry, but my friend is under a lot of pressure from her Ministry mom, which I neglected to care about when I dragged her with me. Your friend Hermione did something terrible, but of course you don’t care because you’re in love with her.’ Ick. Iiiiccckk. I’m just as happy that this is pretty much the end of Harry and Cho’s thing because it got uncomfortable real fast.
Harry gets a brief reprieve from his lesson when Draco busts in, but the revelation that he’s taking “Remedial Potions” to his worst enemy makes him punchy enough to take a big risk and plow into Snape’s memories via Pensieve. I’ll get to the meat of this in a second, but I want to start with the reminder that Pensieve memories are not tinted by the person doing the remembering. What that means is that the incident we see here is just as it unfolded. What I find most interesting about that is Harry’s ability to follow conversations and activities that Snape is not paying attention to (following his father and friends rather than Snape), which really calls into question how these memories function. Perhaps the idea is that your brain captures everything that happens in your surroundings whether you’re actively focusing on them or not? I doubt Rowling put that much thought into it, but it’s an interesting idea.
So… remember how I said last chapter that everything was horrible start to finish? This is worse. Much worse. And I think it’s made worse by an extreme lack of context, which will later get “filled in” by Remus and Sirius. Because when they fill in, it has the ability to be unreliable narration, even if they’re basically telling Harry the truth about his father. Rowling’s choice to show us very little of Harry’s parents outside of this incident is a mistake in my opinion, particularly because there is so much here that we don’t have a good grasp on.
The opening is pretty cute as an introduction to the Marauders goes. We see the boys finishing up their exams, and James is sketching Lily’s initials on a scrap of parchment because this somehow seems like a good way to get out his feelings, wow boy, get a grip, you’re fifteen, not eleven. James and Sirius start ribbing Remus over one of the test questions–How to Identify A Werewolf–but Peter isn’t sure he got everything on that question right. When Sirius gives him a hard time, pointing out that he runs with a werewolf once a month, Remus tells him to keep down his voice. Which, okay, but Remus, you just announced out loud in a hall full of students that the signs of a werewolf are that he’s sitting in your chair, wearing your clothes, and has your name, so it’s sort of funny to me that you’re worried about Sirius giving you away. The boys head out onto the lawn, and James produces a Snitch that he plays a game of catch-and-release with for the purpose of looking cool and getting Peter to fawn over him, which is eight kinds of eyeroll-worthy. One of my favorite things about this passage are the ways that Rowling uses even clearer dog markers in her descriptions of Sirius–the way his attention diverts and perks up, his bark of a laugh.
The unfolding of this scene sits weirdly to me because there are too many unknowns particular to it. How long has James been harboring a serious crush on Lily (to the point where he is now pursuing her)? How was the relationship between Lily and Snape directly before this incident? Does Remus ever participate in the pranks or the bullying, and how far is he willing to go? I’ll give you my personal take on it and the reasoning, and we’ll see where we end up.
The first really telling thing in this progression of events: James ends up bullying Snape because Sirius is bored and he’s trying to find something to occupy his friend. It’s fascinating to me insofar as Sirius seems entirely uninterested in girls (though they are clearly interested in him) the way James is at this point, and also because Harry notes that Sirius is the only person James is willing to stop showing off in front of. For my part, this is the most odious piece of the puzzle. It’s entirely cruel, and there’s no forgivable aspect to it whatsoever. They’re being assholes for the sake of it, and they clearly get enough support from the student body that they feel comfortable doing it out in the open. People are watching, and the only one who decides to say a word is Lily.
Here is something that strikes me as super important–when Snape gets a chance to counter, he’s the only person to enact physical violence in this incident. (Here I mean physical violence in the traditional sense of blows and cuts and the like.) And it’s not a fight-or-flight gesture; Snape goes for James’ (arguably handsome) face to mess him up, he’s not scrabbling to get away. The first time that James flips Snape upside-down seems to be an instinctual riposte to that curse; the narration indicates that it happens instantly afterward. To be clear, I’m not making a value judgement here on who did the worst thing, but I think it’s relevant that Snape is prone to physical violence, and that it seems to be his first move rather than his last ditch attempt. It makes sense for a character whose primary emotions tend toward anger and bitterness, and it also makes me wonder if this reaction was ever something he had to employ at home. (Like Sirius’ mother, we’re never quite sure if Snape’s father was physically abusive, but it’s entirely possible, if not probable.)
Lily is trying to come to Snape’s rescue, but she’s not a truly innocent party here. I’d completely forgotten that when Snape goes upside-down, the prose indicates that she nearly smiles/laughs along with everyone else. Which, I mean, if there’s a Golden Character in the Potterverse it’s Lily Evans, and it’s important to remember this part of her too. I have to presume that her relationship with Severus at this point has already strained to the breaking, otherwise I doubt she would have dropped him so quickly. Mudblood is a terrible curse to wizards, but Lily is like Hermione, and it’s entirely possible that the word doesn’t mean much to her. But after five years of being parted due to different Houses, watching her old friend fall in with a bad crowd, watching him develop violent spells and curses that he uses on other classmates (even if said classmates are being little jerks), I think Lily has pretty much had enough. The use of “mudblood” against her just offers a clean breaking point in their relationship, and her parting shot is particularly nasty considering that James goes right back to tormenting Snape once she leaves. (Hopefully someone else stepped in before it went that far, but again, we don’t know.) Pointedly, he does so after Sirius says that Lily seems to think he’s conceited, which leads me to believe that James hasn’t been going after Lily for that long. It makes sense for his crush to go full-force around this age anyhow, and he seems surprised that his “wooing” hasn’t worked out.
Many fans interpret the title of this chapter to mean that it’s Snape worst memory because this is when he lost Lily forever in his mind. But I doubt it’s just that–this strikes me as the worst incident of bullying as well, in that I doubt that Snape was ever so helpless against them in their other encounters. (We’ll get into this when we hear Sirius and Remus’ side of things later on in this book.) I’m fairly positive that this incident was meant to occur before Snape goes into the Whomping Willow and is saved by James from Remus in werewolf form; I’d wager that moment was a pretty big wake-up call to James, who realized that indulging Sirius too much led to a complete lapse in his best friend’s value judgements and morality. Which is REALLY INTERESTING the longer I consider it. In fact, I feel like you could make an entire argument for the development of James’ personality that centers entirely on Sirius rather than Lily. I think that Sirius’ deterioration via his family was the primary factor in James Potter’s turn-around in his later teen years.
And then we have the end of the chapter, where poor Harry is left with the horrible realization that his father was far from the saint that any orphaned child would hope for. And that his father in fact participated in acts of bullying that Harry himself has experienced. And I don’t think I’ve ever really wanted to hug Harry more than I do reading this moment. It’s one rugs too many getting pulled from under him when stability is the thing he’s craving most of all.
Emily Asher-Perrin is having too many thoughts about James Potter’s development, her brain is going to explode, brb. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.