Monday marks Harry Potter’s fictional birthday (and the real birthday of his creator, J.K. Rowling), so we got to thinking about what sort of gift would be suitable for The Boy Who Lived. If science fiction and fantasy fiction teaches us anything, the most meaningful gifts are often small, personal treasures—items of very little commercial value, but of potentially great emotional significance to both the gifter and the giftee. In fact, some gifts carry so much meaning that they can alter the fate of entire worlds.
Here are 6 fun examples to illustrate what we mean.
Dobby’s Sock — Harry Potter
Often the simplest gifts are truly the greatest ones (as anyone who has ever read Corduroy or The Polar Express can attest). But it’s doubtful that a young Harry Potter could realize just how precious his sock would come to be. True, handing it off to Lucius Malfoy secreted away in Tom Riddle’s old diary was a stroke of small genius and ultimately resulted in the freedom of one Dobby the house-elf, but that freedom had ripples that would change the course of the wizarding world forever. From that moment on, Dobby took it upon himself to be there for Harry and his friends whenever they called, helping them out of some truly tight spots… all the way up until his murder by Bellatrix Lestrange, as he saved Harry and their cohort from Malfoy Manor. In the end, it was only Dobby’s ability to move about as a free elf that ensured Harry’s survival up to the Battle of Hogwarts. If Harry had never given up that single sock, Voldemort would likely never have been defeated at all.
Daenerys’ Dragon Eggs — A Song of Ice and Fire
Daenerys is gifted three petrified dragon eggs from the Pentosi merchant Illyrio Mopatis, possibly as an apology for selling her into marriage or possibly as inspiration to be MAGIC and use them to reclaim her heritage and probably save the world. It’s hard to know what the intent of the gift was, but it’s absolutely certain that Dany has accomplished what none thought possible in using the gift to transform Westeros and the world beyond it. We have yet to see what changes will ultimately be wrought, but it seems clear that Daenerys and her dragons are the brightest flame standing against the darkness of the forthcoming Long Night. The eggs have certainly come a long way from being ancient curios meant for display. One wonders if anything on our own shelves at home might hatch and help us save the world…
Katniss’ Mockingjay Pin — The Hunger Games
While the origins of Katniss Everdeen’s iconic pin vary between the page and the screen, the emotional beats are the same: Intended as a good-luck token to accompany Katniss in the Hunger Games, it instead becomes the symbol of a rebellion after she outsmarts the Capitol and wins her first time in the Arena. Much like the bird it depicts—a hybrid between the genetically-modified spying jabberjays and mockingbirds—the mockingjay begins replicating too quickly for the Capitol to contain: pins, tattoos, secret symbols of solidarity between members of the growing rebellion. While citizens of Panem are discreetly flashing this symbol at one another, Katniss is doing the opposite: She embodies the Mockingjay, from her wedding dress that burns into a life-size outfit complete with wings, to taking on the name as she enters the Capitol preparing to take down President Snow. And all because Madge handed her this heirloom to represent District 12 in Games she was never supposed to win.
Lyra’s Golden Compass — His Dark Materials
The alethiometer, or truth-measuring device, resembles a compass—but instead of directions, its various needles point to 36 different symbols, from an hourglass to a chameleon to a marionette. The user must align three of the needles with three symbols and use them to form a question; then they leave their mind open to an answer, as the fourth needle touches upon various symbols. These pictures contain multiple meanings, so that no answer is entirely straightforward. Lyra doesn’t know any of this when she is gifted the alethiometer by the master of Jordan College (who is himself skilled in how to read the golden compass), told only to keep it a secret from adults like Mrs. Coulter. In truth, that was probably the best way for Lyra to receive her gift, as she had to learn its uses on her own. If Lyra had known that the alethiometer, powered by Dust, would allow her to divine answers to the past and even make some hazy predictions about the future, she might not have accepted the present.
Bilbo’s Ring — The Lord of the Rings
All right, so it wasn’t so much a gift as it was… a bequeathal? Either way, when Bilbo left everything to his nephew Frodo before his retirement in Rivendell, it all seemed like a rather nice gesture. Nice until Frodo learned that inheriting Bilbo’s old gold ring meant that he would be responsible for its destiny. And that he would be required to take said ring all the way to Mordor and destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom, and that he was quite likely to die along the way. Destiny has a funny way of working out, of course–in the end, Frodo was the only one fit to be the Ringbearer. (Sure, Sam takes it there for a while, but that’s part of how that destiny stuff works; only Frodo comes with a Samwise Gamgee.) But it didn’t stop him from wishing that the burden could have wound up elsewhere, or that the War of the Ring had stayed far away from the lands of the Shire. Bilbo’s inheritance came with a lot of land and luxuries, but it also came with the weight of an entire world’s future attached.
Shadow’s Coin — American Gods
Mad Sweeney didn’t intend to give Shadow Moon a royal coin, but when Shadow left it on his wife’s coffin, it was as great a gift as he could leave for her, something gold to keep with her in her grave. He didn’t know the coin’s true nature, but he “gave it away and freely and of his own will” and the coin worked its magic: Laura Moon rose from her death into something more like limbo, drawn to her old love, and Mad Sweeney spent his last days damned and doomed. Laura followed Shadow across the country, even as he was given a moon coin to match her sun coin, maybe it did bring them good fortune after all? How many people would trade the sun itself for the chance to say a proper goodbye?
These were the most potent examples we could think of, but there are so many more. (The Wheel of Time is almost nothing but gift-giving, for example!) Chime in with your favorites below!
This article was originally published in November 2016.