For all of her slinging around blithe statements about; “A thousand years ago...” we get no real impression that the average wizard, at any point in their history, has ever thought, felt, or behaved in any manner other than the way he does today. Such a reading is only sound insofar as that, no, human nature does not really change. But human schools of thought, and human perception invariably do. Wizards can be no exception.
It also appeared to be obvious throughout the first 6 books in the series, that Harry was going through a very deep process of learning to recognize and evaluate the nature of good and evil. This was only to be expected in what had been positioned as a of coming-of-age quest adventure.
And we expected him to ultimately learn to distinguish and separate these fundamental concepts from the manner in which individual people might treat him. Frankly, he didn’t appear to be doing very well at that part of the equation. And ultimately this did not matter, since the story turned out not to be about the question of good vs. evil at all.
But for quite a long time Harry appeared to be dealing specifically with the face of evil as it presents itself in the modern day. Rowling never found it necessary to modify the image she shows us to the point of acknowledging the fact that the face, even if not the nature, of evil does change over time. Such considerations turned out to be irrelevant.
Nevertheless, the perception of evil changes at least as much as anything else in human civilization does. Consequently, we have been denied the luxury of having any sort of historical context in which to evaluate the actions of the historical figures in the Potterverse. Any of them.
• • • •
Given that we had been told nothing regarding the existence of a wizarding royalty (and it was confirmed in HBP that there is none, and probably never had been), taken together with the fact that to that point in the series, every subject of every one of Rowling’s titles throughout the books in the series — apart from that of “Lord” Voldemort — had been absolutely literal on at least some level, this suggested that if the 6th book concerned an honest-to-ghod half-blood Prince, either this gentleman was a foreigner, or he was a character tucked away somewhere in History.
Instead, Rowling took a sidestep on us. The Half-Blood Prince was a nickname. An ironic one, at that.
Until Book 6, all of Rowling’s book titles had been literal and meant exactly what they said. Even if the subject of the title might not be central to the action. Consequently, “Half-Blood Prince” was a considerable departure from the pattern established. And, in fact, prior to HBP she had given us some precedents for “titled” even if not “royal” wizards.
The Gryffindor House Ghost is “Sir” Nicholas de Mimsey-Porpington, which is a title, even if only that of Knight. The Slytherin House ghost goes him one better, being commonly referred to as the Bloody “Baron”. For that matter, the Peverill Ring which was passed down through the Gaunt line was engraved with what Marvolo Gaunt claimed was a “coat-of-arms” (although it turned out to be nothing of the sort), misidentifying the Peverills as armigerous, even if not titled. The Black family also has a coat-of-arms prominently on display in their Head of the family’s former home. As may the Malfoys, and possibly some other pre-Seclusion wizarding families.
Which draws a lot of inconvenient attention to the consistent weaknesses of Rowling’s handling of History. We do not know anything of the truth of the History of the Potterverse. Only the “authorized version” as distorted by Bathilda Bagshott, which, even from the few glimpses we’ve gotten in the text appears to have been drastically edited. This pervading ignorance seems to be shared by every one of the series characters, with the possible exception of the Sorting Hat. Apparently, it isn’t just the Potterverse Muggles who have had their own history rewritten at the discretion of the Ministry of Magic.
• • • •
For example; we do not know any of the truth about the oh-so “heroic” Godric Gryffindor. He could well turn out to have been about as heroic as the 15-year-old James Potter. Conversely, he could have exuded a greatness even more obvious than that of Albus Dumbledore. We flatly do not know. And it is beginning to look like we are not ever likely to find out. Rowling seems completely uninterested in any event prior to about 1920. (ETA: modify that to 1899.)
We also don’t know much of the background or character of the clever Rowena Ravenclaw, or of the doughty Helga Hufflepuff.
Nor, for that matter, the cunning Salazar Slytherin.
Other than that he had allegedly come to Hogwarts via the fens.
Beginning with May of 2007, however, each of the four founders of Hogwarts was featured as Wizard of the Month on Rowling’s first official site. Not that this added a great deal of information to our store of knowledge on them. But it did at least add a little.
Helga was evidently renowned for her food-related Charms, and many of the recipes still served at Hogwarts Feasts were of her devising. Madam Hepzibah Smith in the mid-20th century, claimed to be one of her descendants.
Rowena evidently was regarded as the most brilliant witch of her time, and died young (well, in her 40s). Of a broken heart, it is believed. This is gone into with marginally more detail in the course of DHs. She did produce one daughter who was murdered at a comparatively early age. It is uncertain whether she predeceased her mother. It is unknown whether Rowena left any other descendants.
Godric Gryffindor is reported to have been an accomplished duelist, and ultimately fought against Muggle discrimination. (ETA: Post-DHs it turns out that he was an insensitive sort who, for all that he was willing to enroll human Muggle-borns in his school had no respect for the traditional views on property ownership of Goblins.) Everything else we already knew.
Salazar Slytherin turns out to have been, in addition to a Parselmouth, an accomplished Legilimens.
From all of which it is possible to propose that in the Founders’ day, Helga may have been the Charms Mistress, and Gryffindor the teacher of what in those days was the equivalent of DADA. It is uncertain, from what we have to be able to speculate what studies were taught by Rowena and Salazar. At a guess, one taught Potions and the other Transfiguration. But it is just as likely that in those days none of the teachers specialized in only one subject.
We have been told more than once that Salazar Slytherin, an ambitious pureblood wizard, had wanted to bar Muggle-born students from attending Hogwarts. We were told originally that the other three Founders having overruled him on this issue was the primary reason for his breaking with them and leaving the school.
Later we were told that, in fact, the whole school had been locked in a violent power struggle incited by “deadly exterior foes” and that Slytherin’s breaking away from the conflict and leaving the school broke the stalemate. That these two accounts are in fairly complete disagreement with one another has never been openly acknowledged by Rowling. I would be more inclined to accept the Sorting Hat’s version of the matter than Professor Binns’s, however. The Hat at least was there at the time.
• • • •
We have been deliberately led to assume that Slytherin was motivated in his objections to Muggle-born students by the same sort of blind, unthinking, unsupported prejudice displayed in the modern era by Lucius Malfoy and his ilk. But is it true?
(“Assume” after all, makes an ass of both “u” and “me”.)
While this conclusion is far from impossible, I find it somewhat difficult to swallow whole. Even if my reading of the distinction between the natures of Dark and Light (i.e., domesticated) magic is completely out in left field, I am too well aware that conditions and prevailing social viewpoints change over a thousand years to be able to accept such a simplistic summation of such events. This is, IMHO, the very worst sort of “history” and a perversion of the truth. Rowling’s presentation of the wizarding world’s treatment of the subject of History throughout the entire series has been dismissive, disrespectful and just plain BAD. This is robbing the dead. I speculated for years that she might turn out to have had a reason to do this, which would ultimately be made known to us. But it was no such thing.
And, while we are on the subject of perversions of the truth; what little we were shown of the “great historian” Bathilda Bagshot’s ‘History of Magic’ — which is established as the official authorized version — appears to have been nothing less than exactly that.
Without any sort of a recognizable historical context, it is impossible for us to know just why Slytherin was so opposed to the admission of Muggle-born students. Yes, he could certainly have just been a spiteful old bigot. He could have just as easily been a paranoid in the style of Mad-Eye Moody who viewed Muggles in mobs as such a serious threat to wizarding safety that they must be given no clue of the school existence. He could have been any of a half-a-dozen other things. What we have actually been told is that he did not trust Muggle-born wizards, but not that he necessarily hated, despised, or held them in contempt. We also have no information whatsoever regarding his opinions concerning actual Muggles. But the last thing that he seemed to believe is that wizards had any business trying to rule them.
Slytherin appears to have virtually defined the wizarding isolationist mindset, but there is no indication that he would have supported any notion of wizarding supremacy in its modern iteration.
We have also been told that as time went by he became more, rather than less, determinedly opposed the admission of Muggle-borns to the school, and that when he was overruled by the bold (and possibly rash) Godric Gryffindor, and the other two Founders backed Gryffindor up, he refused to work with them any longer and stormed off. (In a high-perch dudgeon.)
Leaving behind a secret chamber in which there was a Basilisk.
• • • •
In any event, we have very little — apart from people’s unsupported speculations — to go on when we try to examine the rather slippery question of just what this particular one of Hogwarts’s four Founders was really like. The very shallowness and internal contradictions of Rowling’s presentation of this figure to date constitutes a positive invitation to Slytherin apologists.
Well, as I have stated elsewhere, on more than one occasion, the Harry Potter fandom has no shortage of Slytherin apologists.
My own feeling is that we might do best to give a bit less weight to the fact that Slytherin eventually split with the other three Founders and a bit more to the fact that he had joined in with them on a project of this magnitude in the first place. For I seriously doubt that either Gryffindor or Slytherin would have ever chosen to be partners in such a monumental endeavor if they had started out so thoroughly at odds over a matter that was so basic to its purpose. It must have been obvious going into the Project that they were all four engaged upon what would probably turn out to be their life’s work.
Even the Sorting Hat was finally forced to remind everyone that Godric and Salazar had originally been the best of friends. And that Slytherin’s leaving the school was felt to be a definite loss, rather than a “good riddance”.
We also do not know how long the school had been in operation when Slytherin left it. Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? For that matter where are the relevant dates of anything to do with this matter — which is still a sore point nearly a millennia later? Wizards are presumably literate. And people did keep records back in those days, you know.
Evidently the records have been lost.
Unless they have been deliberately suppressed.
Given the caliber of the rest of the teaching of History at Hogwarts now, that would not surprise me in the least.
• • • •
Nevertheless we were handed a second possibility when, in Book 5, the Sorting Hat sings that it was outside pressures which had finally brought matters to a head. What on earth was going on outside the school which finally sent Slytherin into a such a tailspin over admitting Muggle-born children to it? Widespread “witch-hunting” did not develop until the Reformation, remember? A cool 500-600 years later. (Unless the whole claim that Hogwarts has been around for about 1000 years is just so much gammon and spinach.)
And was this conflict from outside the School, or from outside the castle?
In fact, given that Slytherin reportedly had worked contentedly enough with his three partners for years before his ultimate falling out with Gryffindor, the very thinness of the official explanation leads me (and many others) to suspect that there must have been some other factors at work in the matter.
For example; doesn’t it seem likely that there must have been some specific incident — either one of local experience or one of far-traveled rumor — that caused Slytherin to start seeing his colleagues’ Muggle-born students as a potential threat? And, given that there is a distinct strain of Dark Arts-tolerant thinking running through Slytherin House to this day, we cannot overlook the possibility that whatever this incident might have been, it may have been something that would not have suggested such an interpretation to a wizard who was not already at risk of developing the sort of skewed perceptions related to some form of Dark Arts-related dementia.
And unquestionably Slytherin was. In fact, we have been positively invited to simply write Salazar Slytherin off as “a Dark wizard”, as though that was all there is to be said about him. (Which; given that we now know that he and Gryffindor were friends for years, raises some questions regarding Godric, as well. And about Rowena and Helga, for that matter.)
As I have stated in the article on a history of Magic; if we can take former Professor Snape’s description of the nature of the Dark Arts at face value (“...many, varied, ever-changing, eternal.” “...unfixed, mutating indestructible.”) then getting in too deep sounds like a positive recipe for developing some form of delusional thinking.
I am convinced that Slytherin may have been among those who had adopted the school of thought that one could judiciously combine both Dark and Light magic without ultimately coming to grief. For that matter, a wizard probably can use the occasional Dark spell without putting himself at any serious risk. I propose that it is the prolonged exposure to the insidious distortions of perception, and the delusions which the chaotic forces which underpin the Dark Arts generate and deploy in response to any attempt to control them — particularly by way of the direct channeling methods utilized in this now generally obsolete style of directing magic — which leads one astray.
But the damage seems to be cumulative, and it may be irreversible (it was certainly irreversible in Slytherin’s day) and some people are more subject to such damage than others. The only way to avoid drifting into some form of the dementia which results from this kind of damage is to recognize when you are being harmed by such processes and to avoid further exposure to them.
Unfortunately not every wizard is sufficiently self-aware to recognize when he has entered the danger zone and has become increasingly at risk. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Salazar Slytherin’s involvement in the Dark Arts had already blunted his capacity for empathy and had also begun to affect his perception of the world around him. Nor that one of the primary symptoms of his descent into some form of dementia may have been exactly this growing suspicion of, and opposition to the presence of Muggle-born students in the school.
If this is the case, (and this is by no means certain) his partners must have realized what was happening. Such descents were no longer so common as in the days that all magic was Dark magic, but they were still common enough. The other Founders must have tried to help him. But it is likely that their efforts were either rebuffed or were unavailing. At length they must have realized that he was beyond their help and represented a danger to the school and everyone in it. I do not know whether it is most likely that they forced him out, permitted or encouraged him to leave, or, however regretfully, took the necessary steps to “restrain” him. But if there had ever been any mention made of any particularly ancient tree in the Forbidden forest, I would have been regarding it with grave suspicion.
There is also the possibility that the Slytherin bloodline already had a touch of the strain of violence and instability which so characterized his last direct descendants. But in the Gaunts, the tendency had been strengthened immeasurably by generations of inbreeding. This tendency might also have been contributed not from Slytherin, but from the Peverill line into which a Slytherin descendant must have at some point married. Or some other introduced bloodline to the mix. There is no certainty that, even if it was present, it was anywhere so pronounced in Slytherin himself. But if it was present, it wouldn’t have been at all helpful once he started fixating on the “mudblood threat” to the point that there was no reasoning with him.
• • • •
It also blew past us in year 5 that, according to the Hat, the problem wasn’t just Slytherin. All four Founders were engaged in a nasty power struggle related to the school.
Or possibly, the castle. I still contend that until comparatively recently there was more going on in that castle than just Hogwarts school.
And when the going got really rough, Slytherin skipped out. Had enough, bye-bye! A plague on all your Houses! Frankly, that sounds a lot more like Horace Slughorn (“that pestilential school”) than it sounds like Tom Riddle.
Of course, Slytherin could have merely stomped off to the other end of Europe and founded his own school where Muggle-borns would not be welcome. We are reminded that Durmstrang Academy does not admit Muggle-born students, you know. Openly still teaches the Dark Arts, too.
Or — and this is a more recent speculation, but one which rather amuses me — he could have dug himself a bat cave under London and founded a subterranean research center which later morphed into the Ministry’s current Department of Mysteries.
Later to be added to by three brothers from a family named Peverill. Who succeeded him.
• • • •
Which brings us back around to the pesky consideration that whatever the circumstances were of Salazar’s leaving, he didn’t take all of his property with him. There is the not-so-minor, 30–60-foot question of a Basilisk to be considered here.
Which rather calls for an additional side note on that Basilisk and the Chamber of Secrets. Some of this may have been mentioned in other articles, but it really does merit collecting and restating here.
Rowling’s “history” is total bollocks. She really wasn’t creating a proper fantasy world; fantasy worlds each have their own history. Rowling thought she was writing a fairy tale. There is no historical context to a fairy tale. In fairy tales, all times are one.
Consequently, you have to do a major bit of retrofitting in order to simulate any kind of an historically plausible method of getting that Basilisk into that bathroom.
Hogwarts castle is approximately 1000 years old. Castles, like any other human habitation are continually being modified by their residents. And the longer there are residents the more modification is made. Hogwarts Castle has been continually in use for nearly 1000 years. If we are trying to overlay any kind of plausible history onto its construction, it is not difficult. That castle is described as one hell of an elaborate and complex bit of architecture. And that kind of complexity does not date from year 1. The original Hogwarts Castle probably consisted of no more than what is now the central block. The original Hogwarts by now is surrounded and encased in numerous later additions and modifications.
Even just 300 years ago when wizards split off from general society the population of England was no more than about a 10th of what it is now. The wizarding population would have been correspondingly smaller too. 1000 years ago when the school was founded the school probably consisted of only 3-4 dozen students, and four teachers. The Castle — whatever the other purposes it may have served for the wizarding community in addition, at that time, or over the years — has grown as the wizarding world has. And since occupants have virtually all been magical, far more modifications have probably been inflicted upon it than would have been made in a similar structure occupied by Muggles.
For example; the current dormitory towers are probably a recent addition from maybe the 15th–18th century (decent arguments could be made for any point between those dates). Consequently the original school had its dormitories in the central block, which is now exclusively given over to classrooms and offices. The Founders and the early staff were also originally housed in the central block. As were the people who were in charge of whatever other functions the castle may have served to the community as a whole.
The bathrooms throughout the Castle have been modified and upgraded any number of times, and that particular loo, being in the central block, may have originally been a part of a private suite of rooms rather than serving as a “public” loo. It may have originally been in Salazar’s own living quarters. The room itself has been enlarged since those days. The tap that doesn’t work probably replaced an earlier tap that didn’t work, etc., that was simply plopped on top of the original shaft, which had always been activated by Parseltongue. The snake scratched on the current tap was probably added by Tom Riddle himself. Not because he needed it, but because he wanted to “leave a mark”.
• • • •
As to the Basilisk itself; Rowling clearly doesn’t seem to know squat about snakes. Or maybe she just doesn’t care.
She shows us a boa constrictor (natural, not magical) winking, when snakes have no eyelids, she has Nagini acting like a devoted pet, whereas snakes have scarcely the brains to register human presence at all. Snakes are part of nature’s clean-up crew. They don’t need brains. Their whole purpose in life is to eat anything that they can catch and swallow, and keep the vermin population down. In reptiles pretty well everything is hard-wired in. They operate on instinct, not considered thought. Go to a zoo one day and visit the reptile house. Some of those snakes have been in those enclosures for years, yet they show no awareness of anything beyond the glass. (There will be exceptions. There was a python in San Diego who seemed very aware of his visitors. I suspect that the poor thing was somebody’s pet and accustomed to being handled, and was given to the zoo when he got too big to be handled safely.)
Nor are snakes’ teeth designed to tear bites off of anything or to chew before swallowing. Snakes have teeth that are designed to hold onto things (or to inject poison into them). Snakes don’t rip the meat from the bones (regardless of what she has the Basilisk muttering about in the pipes, and that is bollocks, too). Snakes do not tear their prey at all. They grab it, swallow their prey whole, and digest it, bones and all.
In other words; there would have been no rat bones lying about at the level of the chamber if the Basilisk had wandering about eating all the rats.
If the Basilisk had the freedom of that level of the Castle, there might have been ossified snake droppings, lying about, but there would have been no bones. Admittedly, we were never actually told that the Basilisk has been eating rats for 1000 years, we saw the bones and were expected to draw our own conclusions. The obvious conclusion which most readers have been invited to draw is a conclusion that does not make any kind of zoological sense.
The best retrofit that I can think of is that since Riddle had to call the Basilisk into the Chamber, and it entered from a hidden passage through a statue which did not open until it was addressed in Parseltongue, the Basilisk did not actually live in the Chamber at all, and that from its own lair it had access to the lake and has spent the past millennium feeding on the lake fauna. Snakes can hold their breath under water for an amazing length of time. It is probably only thanks to the merpeople’s vigilance that it never got past them to the surface. (Hm. Maybe that is the real function of that giant squid. Salazar left it to keep the Basilisk from getting out into the grounds and raising havoc.) And the Basilisk’s fatal glance may very well not work through the distortions of water.
• • • •
One point which only a few people seem to have brought up so far is the fact that a Basilisk is a magical creature which can be created artificially. (And in Rowling’s interpretation appears to be practically immortal until killed.) Slytherin did not merely discover his monster. He created that Basilisk. We do not know when and we do not know why.
We could come up with any number of possible, if contradictory, scripts, however. For example:
- He was in the process of creating a Basilisk in connection with some unspecified project. Possibly even with the intent of immediately killing and harvesting it for specific body parts, or milking it for its venom. The Basilisk hadn’t hatched yet when he was “forced out”. The other Founders were unaware of its existence and it was an internal Slytherin family story that claimed that it was left behind for his heir. In a thousand years of telling, the story mutated and details like the reason for its creation and the location of the Chamber were lost.
- As the hostilities in the school escalated, he decided to create a Basilisk — a monster which, as a Parselmouth, he knew he could control — to use against the other Founders and thereafter run the school as he saw fit. He was forced out before it hatched. The other Founders’ ignorance of it and the family story play out as above.
- He had already created the Basilisk, either for an unspecified future project or simply because he could.
However, harvesting it for body parts doesn’t play altogether well, since he had evidently arranged that inner lair for its comfort. But maybe he had set the lair up for it first and left it to hatch there. Keeping it on hand as a source of Basilisk venom plays well enough though.
This version does have the virtue of reflecting the general beliefs regarding the aims and intentions of Salazar Slytherin. But there is no conclusive proof that these beliefs were ever altogether accurate.
[Note: Rowling has already given us ample evidence to support the view that wizards can have really eccentric notions of just what constitutes appropriate behavior. It should also be pointed out that the Gaunt bloodline was afflicted by a pernicious lack of common sense, which ultimately ruined them financially. They could have got that from Slytherin.]
Or, he created a Basilisk and kept it more or less as a pet. When the rift occurred he was stumped as to just what he was to do with it.
A Basilisk is not a kneezle. You can’t just casually take it traveling about with you across Europe. Since he couldn’t take it with him, and the inner lair and lake were reasonably secure — the squid and the Merrows could keep it under control — he just left it there. He may have anticipated that one of his descendants would someday find it. But if not, there was no real harm done. Family story as above.
• • • •
As to where the “legend” came from; The statue in the Chamber which is assumed to represent Salazar Slytherin is described to us as looking “ancient” and “monkey-like”. Consequently, if Salazar is also responsible for the statue, we can probably conclude that by the time of the rift, Slytherin was already an old man. His own children were probably grown by that time. And while they had no doubt been raised to regard Muggle-born wizards with suspicion, they also probably recognized that Dad had gone a bit dotty on the subject.
And possibly on more than one subject. They may have dismissed the story of his Basilisk as the ramblings of old age or a Dark Arts-induced fantasy.
Some time afterwards, probably during the equivalent of a “spooky story campfire night” somebody could have popped up with “My great-great-grandad said that there was a monster in a seeeecret chamber hidden somewhere in the school!” and the tale spun out from there.
In any event; what we cannot depend upon is any interpretation of the events as they have been given to us by the former Tom Riddle, or the Death Eaters.
Tom Riddle — who we’ve all seen is probably as mad as a whole convention of hatters — may be perfectly happy to reason backwards in order to “prove” that everything HE claims to consider important must have been what Slytherin considered important because he is Slytherin’s heir, but I am a good deal less than totally convinced by that particular line of reasoning. Tom and Salazar are not the same person. Not even close.
For one thing, Salazar, at least originally, actually had *friends*.
[Note: even Riddle’s anagrams are biased. How the hell likely is it that his legal name is actually “Tom” rather than “Thomas”? Huh? Especially if he was named after a Muggle father. Or that the orphanage didn’t formalize the name into its conventional form on the official papers. Orphanages do that kind of thing.]
But, so long as we are speaking of the “Heir” of Slytherin; does it occur to anyone else that by this time, through all of these cumulative exchanges of blood, power, very specific magical gifts, and even taking into account some of his own underlying personal qualities (and, ghod help us, the Peverill connection), Harry Potter has enough marks on the checklist to make at least a viable claim to be considered one of Slytherin’s heirs as well?
And given that the Trelawney prophesy, like just about every other prophesy which has ever shown up in literature, seems to be based on the “Mirror, mirror on the wall” principle, it is looking as though it is just too, too terribly in accordance with tradition that since every action Voldemort has taken to evade his fate of destruction at the hand of Harry Potter has contributed instead to bringing it to fulfillment. Such actions might have gone a long way toward providing Salazar with another, more “worthy” heir, who will supplant him.
• • • •
And, for that matter, once she played that particular card to produce her big scary set-piece for the climax of Book 2. Rowling gave us all precious little reason to be giving much further credence to the whole “Heir of Slytherin” motif at all. By this time it’s looking as though Tom Riddle was descended from Salazar Slytherin for no other reason than to provide some justification for that set-piece.
Much in the way that Ron Weasley was built up to be good at chess only because Rowling was in love with the idea of the giant live chess game in Book 1. Once the card had been played, that never went anywhere, either.
• • • •
Even before DHs came out I was suspecting that even that much was to give far too much credit to Riddle’s delusions. Rowling has always been very good at fending off any kind of inquiry related to the “heirs” of any of the other Founders. And I had come to suspect that it was with good reason.
In fact, I’d come to the conclusion that the whole Blah-Blah about the Founders was a gasping, flopping red herring. Just as with the bloody Prophecy, the Founders were only tangentially important to the story because they were important to Tom Riddle.
Being descended from Salazar Slytherin mattered tremendously to Tom Riddle. Once upon a time, at least. But when you come right down to it, the man was no more than one powerful wizard, and a schoolmaster.
Yes, he and his associates founded a school, and the school itself is still around nearly 1000 years later. Bully for them. That’s because there is a continuing need for that school, not because of anything those specific founders did to ensure it. They saw a growing need and met it. Good for them. If someone else had done so, their school would probably be the school for British wizards.
But they weren’t the four kings and queens at Cair Paravel. I finally decided that the whole build-up that we’d been given in the books regarding the “Heir of Slytherin” was just buying into Tom’s delusions of grandeur. Otherwise you would have expected Rowling to have done something with it by then. And she hadn’t. She really hadn’t.
Mind you, I suspected the Founders would probably get referred to again in Book 7, even if only to debunk the theme of the Heirs the way that the significance of the Prophecy was devalued by Albus in HBP. But I could no longer convince myself that they were central to anything. They had merely served as a useful distraction to string us all along with for six books into the series and keep the readers from cottoning onto whatever Rowling WAS up to. I suspected that anyone who was still waiting around for the “Heir of Gryffindor” to show up and solve the problem for us was living in a fool’s paradise.
The Founders simply do not have the answer to the problem. The problem is one deranged wizard who has been allowed to cast his shadow over two whole generations, and who seriously needs to be stopped. It was an outside possibility that some further information about the Founders might reveal a weakness in the enemy, but even that was a pretty faint possibility (ETA: a variant of that actually did turn out to be the case. Woo-hoo!)
And the “opposite” of the Heir of Slytherin wouldn’t be the Heir of Gryffindor anyway. It would be something a lot more on the order of the (Muggle-born!) miller’s third son who was left with only a cat.
And, post-DHs, it is clear that the standard fan “Heir” theories were all speculations that ended up going nowhere. The Founders turn out to be all but irrelevant to anything but the providing of bases for some of Tom’s Horcruxes. And that was only because Tom had fixated on them.
• • • •
In any case, I lived in hope that we might finally get a somewhat more balanced view of the history issue before the end of the series. Although I wasn’t holding my breath. Fortunately, as it turned out. If anything, the whole situation only got worse.
But the times had certainly been right for it. In fact, if anything, they were badly overdue.
Rather more to the point; Harry and his contemporaries had finally reached an age to at least begin to be ready to entertain a more balanced and rational view of their own history.
To that point in the story (i.e., just before the opening of DHs), Harry had taken the — rather simplistic — views first introduced to him by Hagrid and pre-adolescent Ron Weasley and simply adopted them wholesale.
Nor is Harry the only one. To that point in the story just about ALL of the kids in ALL of the Houses had been operating on autopilot, never questioning the tenets of their early “programing”. And by this time it is clear that this was doing nobody any identifiable good. If the theme of this series is choices, then nobody in the school seems to have made any kind of a choice yet.
But Harry and his classmates were closing on 17–18 years old by now and some of them really ought to have started questioning such assumptions.
Harry in particular cannot have missed seeing that the adults around him are neither perfect, nor automatically right. Not even the ones who claim to be on his side. Not even the ones whose good intentions are beyond question.
It really wasn’t too much to hope that he might have finally reached the point where he can begin to recognize that if his own side is not beyond criticism, the other side may not be totally evil. That all Slytherins are not his enemies. Or even that there are some people who really are caught in the middle with no easy way out, and that it isn’t their fault.
Or, even that there really is more than one side to the problem.
He certainly got a hint of this in HBP, and he understood enough of what he was shown to begin to have a bit of pity for Malfoy’s position in this conflict. Though he still hates Malfoy’s guts.
I thought we were going to need to see a lot more of this sort of thing before there could be any sort of a satisfactory conclusion to this series, and we were getting a bit close to that end to still be confident that such a development was forthcoming.
And in the end, we didn’t. And from where I am standing, a satisfactory conclusion to this series is still MIA.
It should also be obvious to us from the excerpts that we’ve seen from Bagshott’s History of Magic — going all the way back to Year 1 — that every one of these kids has been being deliberately fed a steady diet of lies where it comes to the history of their own society. And that the myths of Glorious Godric vs. Sinister Salazar aren’t even the half of it.
And kids really hate to discover that they’ve been lied to.
And, perhaps, concerning the monumental collection of Muggle-dismissive twaddle that passes for history according to Bagshott, that it may be long past time to reflect that Bathilda Bagshot’s own family produced one of the most notorious wizarding supremacists in history.
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. Such a possibility is not ever actually suggested in canon, however popular it might be with fanfic writers.
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, was 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 once they got there), 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 from having been there. That’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 the door 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 of interest 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. Carrying their potential for passing on this gift to their descendants with them.
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 did at least attend 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 controlled environment, until they attain their majority and have been properly qualified, presumably by some objective standard other than having your name listed in ‘Nature's Nobility’. 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 late 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 typically 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 possible that Dumbledore, knowing that young Riddle had 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.)
And 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 dissuaded 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 of the data is optional.
Yet despite the later flip-flop claiming 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 conscious recollection of having ever met his nephew, until Albus interviewed him, and uncovered it. 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 to 1881, Marvolo could have been not more than 50 when we met him and still been at school when Albus arrived around 1892 or ’93. But this is likely to be an inquiry 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 first 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 certainly 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-Parselmouthed 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”. I rather think the process was rather more far-reaching than 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 has 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 former or current case of possession. 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 Albus’s translation of the Parseltongue 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 had any idea 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.