Dreams and Prophecies in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling’s magical world of Harry Potter is a rich and diverse universe overlaid with our own, where witches and wizards conduct their lives and business just out of sight of the non-wizarding world, trying as best they can not to mix the two worlds. Rowling’s magical world is very orderly, where witches and wizards submit themselves to a wizarding government, set up much in the same way as British politics, where children go to organized schools to learn, develop, and hone their magical skills, and where magic is, for the most part, known, understood, and recorded, broken down by definitions, wand movements, and skill levels. Indeed, there are only a few instances in all seven books of Harry Potter where magic that is not understood is practiced. Magic, it would seem, is by and large a mapped-out science, and the government has strict procedures in place when it comes to experimental magic.

However, in the midst of all this “known magic,” lies a peculiar branch of magic that is shrouded in mystery, guesswork, and a fair amount of skepticism. This branch of magic is divination, which involves all kinds of divining practices such as interpreting dreams, palms, and tea leaves, as well as reading the stars, animal intestines, and the ultimate challenge, prophesy. It is a little understood realm of magic, does not follow logic or formulas, and cannot simply be taught or acquired with practice. It is imprecise, finicky, and often wrong. However, despite its seemingly bad reputation among notable witches and wizards, Rowling uses divination practices throughout her series to point Harry, and the readers towards the path she wants us to take. Therefore, it is my argument that divination is a vital component of wizarding education, just as it is a legitimate magical practice in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, deserving of its place alongside “Defense against the Dark Arts,” and “Transfiguration.”

It is no secret that divination is widely considered to be “hardly magic” by the inhabitants of Hogwarts. The teachers all but openly disgrace the subject every time it is mentioned, and their treatment of Trelawney, the Divination teacher, reveals their bias. This is best seen during the Christmas feast at Hogwarts during Harry’s third year. Very few students stayed at Hogwarts over the Christmas break, making the Christmas lunch an intimate affair, with students and teachers sitting around one table. Professor Trelawney makes a surprise appearance (she hardly ever eats in the Great Hall, but prefers her solitary tower). While the mood at lunch is festive, she brings her typical dower mood, and Professor McGonagall is rather impatient with Trelawney, making an obvious display of her dislike for the teacher and her subject.[1] The two teachers even exchange some bitter words with each other during the lunch, with McGonagall calling into question Trelawney’s skills in her subject, a conversation that gets heated enough that Dumbledore himself has to step in and moderate.

In other places, we see McGonagall dismiss the subject of divination outright. When speaking to her Transfiguration class, most of whom just arrived from a difficult Divination lesson, McGonagall states, “I shall not conceal from you that I have very little patience with [divination]. True Seers are very rare, and Professor Trelawney…”[2] Her open distaste for the subject of Divination is important to note, because Professor McGonagall is a beacon of wisdom and trust in the Harry Potter series. She is not some throwaway character whose opinion does not matter. In most of the series, she acts as a surrogate mother to Gryffindor House, and particularly to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. She is a strict, tough teacher who demands a lot from her students, but also commands the respect of her house. In fact, she is often seen siding with students, standing up for the bullied and abused, and a staunch defender of justice. Students love her, Hogwarts faculty rely on her wisdom, and Dumbledore himself uses her as his sounding board. Her opinions absolutely matter, as they help Harry and the reader know how to feel about new magical concepts. Hermione, who treats McGonagall as a mentor and role model, mirrors McGonagall in her opinions, and immediately declares that divination must be rubbish as well. In fact, this is the only class that we see Hermione do poorly in, speak out against, and ultimately drop.

Dumbledore himself is an enigma when it comes to the subject of divination. He expresses his distaste for the subject on several occasions, most notably when speaking to Harry about the prophesy Trelawney made concerning Harry and Voldemort’s entwined fate. When setting the stage for how the prophesy was made, Dumbledore lets slip that he was disinclined to allow the subject to continue being taught at Hogwarts when he had to replace the last divination teacher. However, out of politeness, he agreed to meet with Trelawney for an interview because of her ancestry.[3] Dumbledore was less than impressed with her interview however, and even rejected her offer at the end of the interview. This was all, of course, before Trelawney made a real prophesy, and Dumbledore, recognizing its legitimacy, hired her on the spot.

It should be noted, however, that it appears that Dumbledore did not hire Trelawney because she gave a good interview, or because he thought she would serve the post of divination professor well. Instead, it seems, Dumbledore hired her precisely because of the content of the prophesy, not because she made one in the first place. Dumbledore would have realized that this prophesy was not only valuable because it revealed the means by which to destroy Voldemort, but it also placed Trelawney in a dangerous position. It would seem that Dumbledore hired her and continued the divination classes at Hogwarts in an effort to keep Trelawney close and to offer her some protection. Surely the bane of allowing divination classes at Hogwarts to continue was a small inconvenience to keeping a potential seer inside the castle. Likewise, Dumbledore also undoubtedly hoped to uncover more legitimate prophecies from Trelawney concerning the downfall of Voldemort, but in this desire, he may have overplayed his hand. In fact, we only know of one other time when Trelawney made a legitimate prophesy, which was again in connection to Voldemort’s life.[4]

As an interesting note, this prophesy about the return of Voldemort goes quite unnoticed by Trelawney, and even scares her a bit when Harry tells her about it. She not only rejects the fact that she made the prophesy, but goes as far as to say she would never prophesy about something as serious as that. Ironically, it is precisely her ability to prophesy about such serious matters that brought her to Hogwarts to begin with. Therefore, strangely enough, Dumbledore, in all of his wisdom and knowledge, still views divination as a subject not worthy of study or his time, even after seeing the legitimacy of the subject through Trelawney’s talent.

Given this bias, particularly in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and the reader are left to conclude that divination is a “dodgy practice” and best left with Trelawney in her tower. However, despite Dumbledore and McGonagall’s obvious dislike of divination as a magical branch and skill being taught at Hogwarts, Rowling also sows seeds of doubt in our reliance on Dumbledore and McGonagall’s opinion. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet the centaurs in the Forbidden Forest, where they argue over Harry Potter and what the planets have revealed about him. Firenze, one of the centaurs, even claims, “Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold!”[5] He also hints that he has understood the fate of Harry Potter through the movements of the planets, going as far as saying that he hopes that they have been read wrongly by the centaurs, an ominous prophecy that the centaurs do not think Harry will fare well in the coming books.[6]

We meet Firenze again in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where he takes Trelawney’s place as Divination teacher at Hogwarts after being exiled from the Forbidden Forest. When Harry meets Firenze, the centaur claims that it “was foretold that we would meet again,”[7] and if so, proves that prophesy has some legitimacy. In the first lesson the students then have with Firenze, he enlightens them, and the reader, on the subtlety of divination, adding nuance to Trelawney’s ribald teachings. Firenze claims that what Trelawney has been teaching the students is “utter nonsense.” Rather, the stars can tell the fortunes of the magical races only through decades of careful observation in which “tides” unperceptively shift and reveal large movements. According to Firenze, Trelawney “wastes her time…on the self-flattering nonsense humans call fortune-telling.”[8] It would seem, therefore, that centaurs have a deeper understanding of prophesy and divination, and approach the subject with more nuance. It would also seem, from these encounters with centaurs, that there is legitimacy in the subject, despite general wizarding bias.

More so than simply the word of a familiar centaur, Rowling provides more legitimacy to the subject of divination in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Hall of Prophesies, by its very existence, is proof that there is something to this slippery branch of magic. The Department of Mysteries serves the purpose of materializing the mysteries at the edges of magical knowledge, as the students discover, much to their peril, on their rescue mission at the end of the book. There is a room devoted to memories and time, as well as a room devoted to the solar system. In these three rooms memory, time and the solar system have been materialized, made physical, so that they can be observed, studied, and properly understood. Even more mysterious, there is a room where death has been captured and bound, fit for study and observation. Indeed, it is in this very room that Sirius dies and slips through the veil. Likewise, we later learn from Dumbledore that there is a room in the Department of Mysteries which houses love[9] (presumably this is the locked room that Harry and the rest of Dumbledore’s Army try, and fail, to break into[10]).

These mysteries are very real and have direct consequences on everyday life. Love, time, memories, death, can all be seen or felt by everyone, and because these are such important issues, each has a dedicated room within the Department of Mysteries so it can be studied and better understood. Interestingly, the only (extant) room in the Department dedicated to a branch of magical knowledge is the Hall of Prophecies. To our knowledge, no other branch of magical knowledge is as mysterious, or in this case, worthy of study and observation as prophesy. The Hall of Prophesies stands as a signpost to the reader, that though divination and prophesy seem to be cast aside by every reliable source in the wizarding world, it is of great importance, and has direct ramifications for the world of Harry Potter.

Voldemort himself places a high emphasis on prophesy. When the fifth book opens, we find Voldemort’s supporters actively seeking a particular prophesy, and the Order of the Phoenix focusing all their power on protecting the prophesy. For the entire book, these two sides are locked in a struggle over a small crystal ball, which itself is simply a record of the prophesy made my Sybil Trelawney over a decade before. Though we never get to hear what Dumbledore and McGonagall directly think about this struggle for prophetic dominance, given that they are both members of the Order of the Phoenix, it would be interesting to see their explanation as to why divination is so worthless when fully 1/7 of the Harry Potter saga is spent fighting over prophesy.

Finally, we turn to divination as a plot-driving device in Harry Potter. Setting aside the Department of Mysteries and their Hall of Prophesy, as well as the legitimate use of divination among the centaurs, Harry and Ron, along with a majority of the divination class, view the subject as laughable, an easy class not to be taken too seriously. Harry and Ron frequently blow off their homework, goof off in class, and disparage Trelawney in private conversations. In general, the reader gets the sense that not a lot of “good material” can come out of their time in Divination.

However, it is worth noting that, even when joking around with prophesy, Harry ends up making accurate predictions about the future. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we find Harry and Ron starting their second year of Divination, a class with a laughable reputation. The class is widely believed by most students to be a waste of time, and Professor Trelawney is considered to be a bit of a fraud, even by other professors. In fact, Professor McGonagall very nearly decries Professor Trelawney, cutting her derision short and simply stating that she doubts Trelawney’s prophetic abilities.[11] This does not keep her from issuing a mountain of homework on the fourth-years in the first week of school, namely, using star-charts to make predictions about their future.

After a failed attempt to do the homework correctly, Harry and Ron revert to their preferred method of completing Divination homework; they make up predictions in which they are constantly hurt or in danger, knowing that Professor Trelawney prefers gruesome predictions. We are specifically told three predictions that Harry makes on a whim: first he will be in danger of burns, second Ron will lose a treasured possession, and third he will lose a fight.[12] As it turns out, these three predictions correlate to the three tasks in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and each comes true throughout the rest of the book.

In the first task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, Harry and the other champions have to get past a nesting dragon and steal a golden egg. When Harry originally made his prediction concerning the danger of burns, Ron incorrectly assumes it is referring to their impending encounter with the blast-ended skrewts. However, while Harry, and indeed all the children in Care of Magical Creatures, is in constant danger of burns throughout the book, Harry is actually burned by the dragon he encounters in the first task. The dragon actually succeeds in burning Harry’s shoulder, making his first prediction true.

In the second task, the champions must brave the icy-depths of the lake in order to retrieve something of theirs that was taken. It turns out that Harry’s stolen item is Ron Weasley, his best friend. In Harry’s second prediction, he predicted that Ron would lose a treasured possession. While this does not correlate as 100% accurate prediction, since it turns out that Ron was the treasured possession lost by Harry, it still shows that predictions have merit in the Harry Potter world. As Professor McGonagall tersely states, “Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic”.[13]

In the third task, Harry and the other champions enter a magical maze, searching for the Tri-Wizard Cup and “eternal glory”. Upon finding the cup, Cedric and Harry are transported to a graveyard and come face to face with a reincarnated Voldemort. Cedric is quickly killed, and Harry is forced to duel with the Dark Lord. Through some surprising magic, Harry is able to escape, however he loses the duel in every way. He witnesses Cedric’s death and watches helplessly as Voldemort uses his blood to create a new body, effectively cancelling out much of Lilly Potter’s protection. He discovers that Voldemort is not only alive, but strong and capable, and has many supporters ready to do his bidding. This is the opening prelude to what would escalate into the Second Wizarding War, and while Harry survives the encounter, he does not win the fight, making his third prediction true, that he would “come off worse in a fight”.[14]

Ron and Harry make up many other predictions, and we often discover them doing Divination homework with little regard to the magic of divination. While surely all their predictions could not have come true, the specific one’s mentioned by Rowling come true more often than not. In much the same way, dreams function as a plot-device as well, letting the reader in on secret information and encouraging the reader to make conclusions about what is happening. Although often the dreams that Harry has can be explained away using the connection he and Voldemort share, other times Harry simply has dreams that move the plot along, dreams that he does not necessarily remember, but that prove prophetic in any case.

It would seem that Rowling uses several “red herrings,” in her series to throw her readers off the legitimacy of divination as a magical art. Our most trusted magical mentors, Dumbledore and McGonagall, along with Mrs. Weasley and Serius, all seem to view divination with suspicion and even, at times, disrespect. However, the magical practice of telling the future through reading dreams and stars, as well as making prophecies, seems to carry a lot of weight in the plot of the series, and is worth considering with sobriety. Even in their joking, Harry and Ron frequently make accurate predictions that turn out to come true in some way, lending to the idea that divination, though imprecise and difficult to handle, is actually a powerful magic that deserves great respect in the Harry Potter universe.

[1] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 1999), 228.

[2] Ibid, 109.

[3] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 2003), 840.

[4] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 324.

[5] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (USA: Scholastic Inc., 1997), 257.

[6] Ibid, 259.

[7] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 601.

[8] Ibid, 603.

[9] Ibid, 843.

[10] Ibid, 775.

[11] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 109.

[12] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (USA: Scholastic Inc., 2000), 222.

[13] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 109.

[14] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 222.

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