Red Hen Publications

Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: On Parseltongue
The Potterverse Essays

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

Parseltongue; most probably derived either from “parcel” a verb; to divide and distribute, or, “parse” to analyze structure by examination of the *parts* of the whole, as in "parsing" a sentence; in either case an oblique reference to the fact that snakes have divided tongues, is identified as the language specific to serpents. At this point it is unknown whether other creatures with divided tongues also use this language. This is not ever actually suggested in canon.

Wizards who have the gift of being able to communicate with snakes are commonly referred to as Parselmouths. This particular talent, even among wizards, is described as being exceedingly rare.

It is not, however, so rare as not to be widely known and recognized by wizards worldwide. As one of the very earliest of all wizarding abilities to have been identified, in fact. Parseltongue has a long and chequered history. Indeed, a prehistory.

The association of Parseltongue, or rather, of Parselmouths with Dark magic is an unfortunate side effect of the gift’s extreme rarity. The talent itself was first recognized in prehistoric times, and the Parselmouth’s rapport with a creature which was both so potentially dangerous and so heavily laden with symbolic significance as the serpent soon became was a major contributing factor to the establishment of wizards as the shamans and priests of their tribes.

Prehistoric magic, as has already been stated elsewhere, was, by necessity, Dark magic, and many of the spells and procedures developed by early Parselmouths which made use of this rare ability have not ever been remade to operate through the indirect channeling methods of modern domestic magic. The gift is so rare that there have been few wizards who were equipped to undertake such a project, and those few who have the necessary ability, have clearly seen no practical purpose to be gained in doing so.

Which is perfectly reasonable, since, as far as the gift itself goes; although the exercise of this gift is technically classified as Dark magic, the classification, in this case, is misleading. For, while there is no currently known method of being able to communicate with snakes through any sort of indirect channeling of magical energies, the actual amount of magical energy which is channeled in this process is too low to be harmful to even the youngest or most low-powered wizard or witch who has the gift.

I was inordinately pleased when Rowling had Professor Dumbledore confirm my suspicion, that the gift itself is not evil. That particular contention of my own, stated in the spring of 2003, is one of the oldest in the collection, even if it is not an issue of particularly large significance. Parseltongue seems to have functioned as primarily a useful means by which Harry has been able to acquire information which is not accessible to others. In CoS and later in DHs his ability to speak it enabled him to perform a function that at that point no one else would have been qualified to.

And, no, I flatly do not believe that Ron Weasley, five months after the fact, with no training, would have been able to imitate the sounds well enough to have done the same. Particularly given that at no point in canon had it ever established that Ron had a gift for mimicry. That was shoddy plotting and shoddy writing, and I reject it.

What I think he and Hermione ought to have done is to have pinched the school Pensieve from the Headmaster’s office, taken it down to Myrtle’s loo (or hell, summoned it), extracted the memory of Harry speaking it — either from the Forest of Dean with the Locket, or back in CoS right there in Myrtle’s loo — and replayed it publicly the way Albus had replayed Trelawney giving the Prophecy, and let the memory of Harry open the passage. Harry has told them about that Pensieve. Hermione has probably read about how to operate one (and has the books there in her bag). Ron would certainly have earned due credit for remembering it. It’s much more the sort of intuitive leap that Ron is capable of.

And they'd need to do it again when they had to open the inner Chamber, unless that had been standing open since CoS.

At this point it is unclear whether Parseltongue might even turn out to be one of those uncommon magical traits, such as the true seer’s gift of “sight” which may even occasionally manifest in individuals whose psychic abilities are so low as to classify them as Squibs, unable to channel enough magical energy to register at birth as being wizards at all. In any event, no wizard or witch has ever been documented as coming to any degree of psychic harm merely through conversing with snakes.

Nor that the snakes are likely to have much to say for themselves in any case.

• • • •

To normal human ears, Parseltongue, when expressed by a human wizard, is a hissing and spitting without drawing breath. When expressed by a snake, however, it seems to produce no sound at all. At most it might sound like a simple hissing of air. Snakes, like most reptiles, hiss, because snakes, like all other land animals and amphibians, breathe. Snakes do not, however, produce vocalized sounds, because they do not possess vocal cords, or, indeed any sort of vocal apparatus. (They also do not possess ears, or hearing centers in their tiny pea brains, and consequently are fundamentally deaf, but let that pass.)

Nor, for that matter, do snakes possess eyelids. In Harry’s exchange with the boa constrictor in the zoo, however, Harry understood the snake to have both heard him, and spoken to him, and, in addition, winked at him. It seems reasonable to assume that both the voice and the wink were some form of psychic projection, which Harry was able to receive, interpret and to respond to in kind, while the exchange remained either inaudible — or unintelligible, and invisible to onlookers.

Consequently, we must conclude that snakes themselves are inherently psychically active on some limited “frequency” that a few rare wizards are able to access. Rather like some creatures, such as owls, being able to “see” into the infa-red range of the light spectrum. One might postulate that this frequency might be positioned at one end or the other of the magical “scale”. However, given that both of the wizards who have demonstrated this ability in canon resonated best to phoenix feather wands which seem calibrated to transmit magical frequencies at greater force, rather than within a specific range. (That is, if the wand type of the wizard is even relevant to the issue. It may not be.) For that matter, we do not know the wand types favored by the members of the Gaunt family, or indeed by Salazar Slytherin, who are the only other Parselmouths on record, in Britain, although we know that there have been others with this particular gift elsewhere.

• • • •

The passage of Newt Scamander’s ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ describing the African Runespoor states that the information regarding this rare, three-headed snake was made available to wizarding researchers by Parselmouths, who could understand the dialogue between the Runespoor’s three heads. That there were multiple Parselmouths available to make such observations of these creatures leads me to postulate that Parselmouths, while rare, may nevertheless sometimes occur spontaneously — chiefly in those parts of the world that are particularly rich both in number and variety of serpents. Or that the wizards of these regions are more likely to carry whatever trait produces it

Northwestern Europe and the British Isles are not one of these regions. To be sure, there are snakes found native to Europe as far north as the arctic circle. But the climate of most of Europe is not particularly hospitable to serpents and comparatively few varieties are to be found there when compared to warmer areas such as Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and Australia. I would hazard a guess that no Parselmouth has ever occurred spontaneously in Northwestern Europe, or in any of the other more temperate climactic zones of the globe.

However, Parselmouth, like most other magical traits, can be inherited by any of the descendants of the wizards who have manifested this gift, once it is has occurred in their particular bloodlines. And in fact it has been shown to have “bred true” among the Gaunts, to the point that they were able to use it among themselves at home. This was no doubt assisted by their unsavory, and unwise, practice of intermarrying mostly among their own cousins. It should also be pointed out that the descendants of any such gifted bloodline can certainly migrate to anywhere else in the world, far from the geographic area where the gift first spontaneously occurred.

It seems probable, then, that Parseltongue was introduced to Great Britain by way of either Salazar Slytherin himself, or through one of his ancestors, possibly by way of the Phoenician traders who had dealings with the tin mines in the west. Although, given that he himself is credited as having hailed from the fens, if this is the case, there would have been some migration among his forebearers since that early date. Given the rarity of this gift, in Europe, it is probable that all known British Parselmouths have been able to trace their descent to the same originating bloodline (which, if all such matters are parallel within the Potterverse to our own world, would include one rather well-known Irish Saint). Which might explain some of the confusion and disquiet of the onlookers when the gift was publicly manifested by Harry Potter, who has no known connection — so far as we know — to the Slytherin bloodline. There may be a few other such known Parselmouth bloodlines on the Continent, but we have not as yet been informed of this.

• • • •

The former Tom Riddle’s sweeping statement that he and Harry Potter may have been the only Parselmouths to have ever attended Hogwarts since Slytherin, on the other hand, is almost certainly untrue. Tom Riddle frequently makes false exaggerated statements in order to impress whoever he is speaking to. (Mm. Who does that remind us of? Er, no, not Albus. Albus already knows he’s impressive. His lies are typically for the purpose of concealing things.)

Difficult as it is to imagine either Merope or Morfin Gaunt ever having attended Hogwarts, the probability is that they at least attended up to the point of sitting the OWLs, for the Ministry of Magic did permit them both to bear wands. Indeed, Riddle’s statement was probably prompted by his actually having met Morfin Gaunt. I might have also concluded that that man had no schooling whatsoever.

However, regardless of Riddle’s impressions of his uncle Morfin, the Gaunts are certainly listed in the books of wizarding families (i.e., genealogies) kept as references at Hogwarts, for that is where Riddle has to have found the information he used to trace his maternal grandfather. And, being listed, they were certainly sent Hogwarts letters when their names showed up on the enrollment list. We already also know that there is a fund which covers the requirements of students in financial need. Tom’s disdain of his mother’s family in itself is not convincing evidence to establish that they did not attend Hogwarts.

• • • •

Such reference books on wizarding families are probably kept for the use of the Deputy Head to determine which projected students are likely to be Muggle-born and will need their Hogwarts letters delivered by hand. As well as for the use of those members of pureblood families who are determined to retain their pureblood distinction, thereby tracing the bloodlines of prospective marriage partners with whom they might form an attachment while at school in order to avoid too close a relationship.

A further relevant issue to the question of the Gaunts is the issue of what constitutes a “qualified” wizard. In the modern day, only such qualified wizards are legally permitted to own and use wands. Underage wizards are permitted wands only with the tacit understanding that they will use them only for training purposes, under supervision, in a controled environment, until they attain their majority and have been properly qualified. Clearly such “qualifications” must be rather low.

We’ve already been told that when Hagrid was expelled from Hogwarts, his wand was snapped. Over 50 years later he has still never been given the go-ahead to replace the broken wand and live openly as a wizard. Evidently by the 20th century, one must both be of age and be “qualified” in order to live openly as a wizard. It seems likely that we have already been given as much information on the subject as Rowling is ever likely to give us. But the indications to this point are that one “qualifies” as a witch or wizard by receiving passing marks on some minimum number of the OWLs, and attaining your seventeenth birthday. This supposition may be off-base, but we have only what Rowling has given us to date in canon to reason from. We do not know the minimum number of OWLs necessary to qualify a wizard as a wizard. But the fact that the Weasley twins each received 3 OWLs suggests that they may have put in only enough effort to comply with the bare minimum to scrape a qualification each. Given that their own father is a Ministry lifer, they would probably know how little they could get away with.

A failure to pass a given OWL disqualifies you from further study in that subject, apparently, unless a remedial class is available, which for some subjects it is. But there may be students who do so poorly that they simply do not return after their 5th year. The indications are that Stan Shunpike is one such example. Still, there has been no verification that lackluster educational success disqualifies you from retaining your wand. And the likelihood of a student failing all of his subjects is rather distant, even when one considers the Gaunts.

• • • •

The first scene that we witnessed regarding the House of Gaunt, took place in the summer of 1925, when Bob Ogden was responding to a complaint by the DMLE of an attack made by a wizard on a Muggle.

That Morfin Gaunt was in possession of a wand when he was arrested, and that his wand was returned to him after his release from Azkaban three years later, is a strong indication that he “qualified” as a wizard. That Merope was left in possession of her wand when the DMLE took away her father and brother strongly suggests that she was understood to be “qualified” as a witch.

Either that or there was a store of legacy wands secreted somewhere in the Gaunt house.

The Gaunts did not have to have attended Hogwarts, of course. Durmstrang may have been more to the family’s taste. Particularly if my suspicions as to the fate of Salazar Slytherin are wrong, and he merely stomped off to the other end of Europe to found Durmstrang Academy, according to his own principles, and run it as he pleased.

However, Salazar was already old when he left Hogwarts, and his own children were probably already grown, and they may not have shared their father’s resentment of the place, nor did they all choose to leave Britain with him. Durmstrang is not in England and I tend to doubt that it is a non-fee paying institution, such as Hogwarts. The Gaunts had long ago beggared themselves through bad choices and I very much doubt that Marvolo Gaunt could afford to send his children to Durmstrang.

And, for all that there might be a family recollection of contempt for the school which Slytherin left, 1000 years is a long time. The family had worked its way through several changes of name and fortune and Salazar Slytherin was still honored as a founder of the place, which would be at least some advantage. You get the feeling that Marvolo Gaunt was the sort of man to take any advantage that he could. The probability was that he and his children had indeed attended Hogwarts.

And Tom Riddle found a record of the existence of a “Marvolo Gaunt” at Hogwarts, and enough information to be able to trace his address years later, after all.

• • • •

But, as regards the business of Parseltongue: by HBP I was beginning to wonder more and more whether Albus was a Parselmouth himself. It would resolve a few minor questions, such as how could Albus know what was being said between Tom and Morfin in that recovered memory. Or among the Gaunts in the Ogden memory, too. Because both of those conversations were conducted in Parseltongue. Of course, Albus turning out to be a Parselmouth himself would up-end my contention that all known British Parselmouths have been connected to the Slytherin bloodline, but I’d have been happy to trade that for some rationality concerning the elements that are actually seen to be in play in the series.

Still, Albus would hardly be telling us that Tom was the last descendant of Salazar Slytherin if he and Aberforth are connected to that bloodline themselves. Even if both of them are childless and over 100. But being able to understand the language when it is spoken by a human Parselmouth (even if not when it is expressed by a snake) could be something else altogether. For one thing a human Parselmouths rendition of Parseltongue is at least audible, whereas a snake’s is not. Ergo: It’s a language. It can’t be significantly harder to understand than Merrow. And we know that Albus understood that, for we saw him conversing with the chieftaness of the mer-people in GoF.

Plus, of course, if you can hear it, a charm may be able to translate it. Dumbledore would have certainly felt he had good and sufficient reason to have devised a charm to be able to understand what was being said in the Ogden memory — which had been in his possession for a long time.

And the Albus Dumbledore that we finally ended up with at the end of the series would certainly have been twisty enough to have made a point of calling Harry’s attention to the fact that Harry could understand the conversations, without adding that he could understand them too — without ever explaining how.

Because there really was no point in his having played those records for Harry unless he already knew what was in them. Or not unless he wanted Harry to translate them for him. But he never asked Harry to do that.

• • • •

It is also likely that Dumbledore, knowing that Riddle claimed to be a Parselmouth, in the summer of 1938, went specifically looking for someone who might have had some recollection of the Gaunts. And it is hard to believe that he would have known of the Gaunts at all if none of them had ever shown up at Hogwarts. If Albus is correct about Merope’s age in 1925 she would have finished not too much more than a decade before he was confronted by that disturbing child in the orphanage, and if Morin had stayed on for the NEWTS he might have been there as recently, too.

There must at least have been some association to provide grounds for Albus’s leap to Bob Ogden and his dealings with the Gaunts. Even though I now contend that the connection was made after 1945 and from a different direction, the fact that Tiberius Ogden, school examiner and former member of the Wizengamot, is an associate and admirer of Dumbledore’s, raises the possibility that Dumbledore had already been told the anecdote of Bob’s face-off with a family of Parselmouths, not impossibly around the time that it happened, and later had merely contacted him to get a copy of the memory.

Dumbledore’s statement in passing that Merope was 18 years of age in the scene in which we witnessed the last day she ever saw her father or brother suggests that he might even remember her from a school context, but it may only mean that he looked up her school records and birth date as noted by the Hogwarts quill afterward, while he was tracing the background of Tom Riddle.

And, if this is so, unless she had continued no further with her schooling than sitting her OWLs, it is possible that she had only just that summer completed her stay at Hogwarts. Indeed, her determination to entrap Tom Riddle may have been due to her no longer having the prospect of Hogwarts to escape to at the end of the summer. It isn't just fatherless boys who may have considered the castle their only true home. I’m sure that motherless daughters have also found it a welcome refuge.

Of course, her time at Hogwarts is likely not to have been all that much of an escape. Morfin seems close enough in age to have been able to keep an eye (one at a time, of course) on his sister for most of the time she was there, and to chase off anyone who might try to befriend her. By the time he finished school, her position in whatever had been the established pecking order was too set in stone to change. And if Morfin continued into NEWT studies (difficult to believe, but not absolutely impossible, his magic seems strong enough at any rate) while Merope was kept home after sitting the OWLs, then their time as school may have entirely coincided. Dumbledore’s little witticism that perhaps Marvolo had simply never learned to feed himself I think can be safely placed in the same category as his stated uncertainty as to whether his own brother knows how to read.

Riddle’s inflated statement is, perfectly in keeping with both his determination to regard himself as special, and his apparently standard practice of attempting to immediately establish some sense of “connection” between himself and whatever person he is attempting to influence. But the statement itself is almost certainly false.

• • • •

So. Did Albus understand the Parseltongue through Legilimency, or through some terribly sophisticated translation charm, or did he actually understand what was being said? From his comments to Harry he seems to have been perfectly conversant with what was being said. (Which raises the question of whether he also was hearing the Basilisk in the pipes back in CoS.)

Or were the memories that we were played the original copies, or were there other, edited copies, with translations, which Albus had attempted to use in order to present his case against Tom Riddle to the Wizengamot, and from which he had been disuaded due to the probability that the Wizengamot would not have accepted it as admissible evidence?

At one point, acto Rowling, a human wizard who is not a Parselmouth may, with difficulty and some training, be able to understand the language when it is expressed by another wizard, even if he cannot understand it, or may not even be aware of it when it is expressed by a snake. Rowling confirmed in at least one early interview that Albus Dumbledore was, indeed, able to understand Parseltongue. But then she also had Ron Weasley able to imitate it well enough to get a door to open. So I am not sure how willing I am to believe her — for I certainly didn’t believe that. And given that she later contradicted herself by claiming she didn’t think it was a language that one could learn, I guess anyone’s own interpretation is optional.

Yet although she later flip-flopped and claimed that Parseltongue wasn’t a language that humans could learn, she did not, however, claim that it was a language that magic would be unable to translate — once it was expressed audibly, that is. Otherwise Albus’s campaign to secure Morfin Gaunt’s release from Azkaban is completely impossible and unworkable, since, due to memory tampering, Morfin was unable to tell Albus what had actually taken place. He had no consious recollection of having ever met his nephew, until Albus interviewed him. And the memory as we saw it was conducted entirely in Parseltongue.

Ergo: there must be some way in which wizards are able to access it — at least when spoken by a Parselmouth (not by a snake). Otherwise far too many of Albus's statements and claims simply fall apart as untenable. It is not impossible that there is some variant of translation spell which can decipher the human meaning of the speech when it is spoken by a human being, with a human brain. Given that the whole issue of Parseltongue appears to be a form of psychic projection this ought to fall within the parameters of what is magically possible.

One could also use such a spell at leisure to decipher the speech as recorded in a Pensieve memory.

• • • •

But I’m prepared to discard the theory that all British Parselmouths descend from old Sal at need. I suppose the gift could crop up in other bloodlines as well. Or the connection may be there but no one has ever managed to trace it. I never really got all that much of an impression that Albus was an “aristocratic” pureblood — although he did have the requisite self-confidence for it — or even that he was necessarily a pureblood at all, although that whopping string of primary and secondary names suggested as much. The old English form of his family name suggests that the family may be very old indeed. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a wizarding family.

• • • •

None of this answers the question of where Albus might have learned the language, according to Rowling’s original statement, however. Which is probably why she changed her story. It is an outside possibility that his own time at Hogwarts may have overlapped that of Marvolo Gaunt, or that of Marvolo’s late wife, who was probably a cousin, and probably also a Parselmouth. Harry’s estimation of Marvolo being “elderly” in 1925, may not have been altogether accurate. He was wrinkled, but his hair had not yet gone grey. Now that Rowling has repositioned Albus Dumbledore’s birth year in 1881, Marvolo could have been not more than 50 at that point and still been at school when Albus arrived around 1892 or ’93. But this is likely to be an enquiry which will lead nowhere.

However, if Dumbledore understood, or was able to translate the conversation in Bob Ogden’s memory, I had originally wondered why he had gone to speak with Morfin in Azkaban at all. I’d originally assumed that it was to get a translation from the Parseltongue for the Ogden memory. But if he could follow that family quarrel in the first place was he simply following every available lead on the ring? That’s certainy what I have come around to believing now.

And did he *find* the memories in the order he showed them to Harry? Or did the uncovered memory from Morfin send him to Bob Ogden, whose report had led to Morfin’s earlier arrest?

And more to the point, how could he mount that campaign to secure Morfin’s release from Azkaban — as he claims he did — without producing the recovered memory as evidence, and providing some form of translation? I think there must be a charm which will allow a non-Parseltongue wizard or witch to understand Parselmouths without needing to study the language. Unfortunately, I haven’t a lot of confidence that these are details that Rowling ever intends to fill us in on.

It was Albus Dumbledore’s stated contention in CoS that Harry Potter is only able to manifest this gift due to his proximity to the destruction of Voldemort’s original body when the curse that the Dark Lord had thrown at Harry rebounded. That, in short, Harry received this gift, and possibly others, by what was effectively a magical “transfusion”. According to the Changeling hypothesis, the overall procedure was rather more far-reaching that that, although Albus, no doubt considered this an acceptable simplification to be given to a 12-year-old.

And, for that matter, Harry’s command of this gift does seem to be imperfect. Although he can hear the language whenever it is spoken, he is only able to express Parseltongue when he has managed to convince himself that he is speaking to an actual snake. It is clearly implied that this is not normally the case among Parselmouths who have had this talent from birth, given that the Gaunts seem to be in the habit of even speaking in Parseltongue among themselves. We have also been shown that Voldemort is able to express Parseltongue for the purpose of calling his snake companion to him when the snake herself is not physically present. He also probably was speaking Parseltongue to open the passage through Slytherin’s statue in order to call the Basilisk. For that matter the Diary revenant may have slipped into speaking Parseltongue to Harry for their entire conversation. Harry is usually not altogether able to determine whether the language he hears is Parseltongue or English. Having come by it late and artificially, it is also uncertain whether Harry will retain it (he didn’t, acto Rowling) or to pass it on to his own descendants (unlikely), should he survive to have any.

It is also not yet been determined whether the ability to access the psychic frequency needed to receive and express Parselmouth can be induced by less drastic means than by a miraculously-deflected curse, wielded by a Parselmouth with a brittle and unstable soul. But Ms Rowling has already stated in the joint interview of July 2005, that Ginny Weasley did not retain this ability once she was freed from possession by the Diary revenant. So, once again, Harry Potter’s case seems to be unique.

• • • •

With the adjusted time lines that we got in DHs and afterwards, Albus himself might be younger than Marvolo Gaunt. If Merope was indeed 18 when we first met her, and that was the summer of ’25, as it seems to be from other pieces of timeline that we are left to deal with, then she would have been born in ’07. Morfin didn’t seem much older. That might put Marvolo’s possible birth year as late as the 1880s or thereabouts. Which would put him into the same general age bracket as the Dumbledore siblings. The most recent information on Rowling’s first official site, posted in 2007 claimed that Albus was born in 1881. Marvelo could have been born just about any time before that just as easily, however.

But one now does have to ask oneself, if the Albus’s translation of the Parseltonge conversations — and there was clearly a translation available, for he certainly appears to understand what was in them — was not due to a spell, then just who taught Albus to understand Parseltongue? Having Albus Dumbledore land at Hogwarts around the same time as Marvolo Gaunt could help to draw a line between those two points.

Something that might further draw such a line: Marvolo was also very quick to spout about his connection to the Peverills. We know that Albus was already fascinated by the legend of the Hallows before he finished school, and he was particularly fascinated by the tale of the Resurrection Stone. Not that Marvolo seems to have known that the real thing was sitting right there in his father’s seal ring, or that Marvolo necessarily had possession of the ring when he was Hogwarts age (Marvolo’s own father probably was still alive then). But the sigil carved in that stone was known to have been the mark of that group of loons who had been questing after the Hallows for centuries, and I certainly wouldn’t have put it past young Albus to have asked questions about it if he ever saw it.

It might also make it a little easier to explain how he knew exactly where to go to find the damned Ring when he decided that it was time to take it out of action.

But the sort of jokey dismissive statements that Albus directs at Marvolo Gaunt echo those which he earlier turned upon his own brother Aberforth. And you do have to admit that the level of squalor of the Gaunt hovel is more closely mirrored in canon by that of the Hog’s Head than just about anywhere else. Nor does someone who gets his name in the papers for casting inappropriate charms on goats sound like he has a lot of common sense (no apparent taste for grandeur there, at least). Chatting to snakes and luring them close enough to catch and torture them isn’t particularly socially “appropriate” behavior either.

So. Did Albus manage to get that Azkaban interview with Morfin on the grounds of being “family”? Or perhaps by claiming to be an old family friend on the basis of having been at school with Morfin’s father?

Admittedly, by this time, I think a different angle of approach is a good deal more likely.

But, like I say, I don’t know just what to make of any of it.