Happy Birthday, Minerva McGonagall!

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Oct 04, 2017

Posted by: Dawn Johnson | Comments

Books, Character Birthdays, Fandom, Fans, Films, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Philosophers / Sorcerers Stone, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling, News

Today we celebrate the birthday of Hogwarts’ current esteemed headmistress, Minerva McGonagall. During Harry’s tenure at the greatest school of witchcraft and wizardry, she served as Transfiguration professor and Gryffindor’s head of house. In her lengthy career she has seen many gifted witches and wizards pass through her classes and stroll the Hogwarts’ halls, and there’s no doubt her firm, no-nonsense approach to teaching brought out the best in students whenever possible. Though she’s known primarily for her shrewd oversight and smart, witty retorts, not far from the surface lies a deep concern for her students–perfectly demonstrated in her interactions with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

So, in honor of her special day, let’s remember some of our favorite McGonagall moments from the Harry Potter series!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

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“Four students out of bed in one night! I’ve never heard of such a thing before! You, Miss Granger, I thought you had more sense. As for you, Mr. Potter, I thought Gryffindor meant more to you than this. All three of you will receive detentions–yes, you too, Mr. Longbottom, nothing gives you the right to walk around school at night, especially these days, it’s very dangerous–and fifty points will be taken from Gryffindor.”

“Fifty?” Harry gasped–they would lose the lead, the lead he’d won in the last Quidditch match.

“Fifty points each,” said Professor McGonagall, breathing heavily through her long pointed nose.

“Professor–please–“

“You can’t–“

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Potter. Now get back to bed, all of you. I’ve never been more ashamed of Gryffindor students.”

From the beginning, McGonagall made her expectations for her students perfectly clear, which is why Harry was so surprised that she let him off easy after he disobeyed Madam Hooch’s instructions not to mount his broomstick and took off after Malfoy and Neville’s remembrall. Though always one for observing the rules, McGonagall is, after all, a fierce competitor, and she saw an opportunity for the house and the school. This shows that she can also be pragmatic–both key Gryffindor traits.

But–the passage above shows she’s in no way prepared to bend the rules over frivolous disregard for them, even if it costs the house competitively. The honor of Gryffindor and integrity of her students is paramount. And, bonus, she puts Harry soundly in his place–no one tells Minerva McGonagall what she can and can’t do!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
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“Why didn’t you send us a letter by owl? I believe you have an owl?” Professor McGonagall said coldly to Harry.

Harry gaped at her. Now she said it, that seemed the obvious thing to have done.“I–I didn’t think–“
“That,” said Professor McGonagall, “is obvious.”

In Chamber of Secrets McGonagall added to her disciplined leadership an acerbic sarcasm and impatience for foolishness, which she was prepared to levy at students and colleagues alike if she felt the situation warranted. She wasn’t condescending so much as pointed, getting to the heart of the matter in order to communicate an important lesson or, as needed, accomplish an objective.

“We’ll leave it to you, then, Gilderoy,” said Professor McGonagall. “Tonight will be an excellent time to do it. We’ll make sure everyone’s out of your way. You’ll be able to tackle the monster all by yourself. A free reign at last.”

*     *     *     *     *

“Right,” said Professor McGonagall, whose nostrils were flared, “that’s got him out from under our feet. The Heads of Houses should go and inform their students what has happened. Tell them the Hogwarts Express will take them home first thing tomorrow. Will the rest of you please make sure no students have been left outside their dormitories.”

(We certainly enjoyed McGonagall putting Gilderoy Lockhart in his place, especially so she could get down to the business of sensibly acting in the students’ best interest rather than spouting off about her abilities and position. She was already well on her way toward proving herself as a capable headmistress!)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
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“Really, what has got into you all today?” said Professor McGonagall, turning back into herself with a faint pop, and staring around at them all. “Not that it matters, but that’s the first time my transformation’s not got applause from a class.”

Everybody’s heads turned towards Harry again, but nobody spoke. Then Hermione raised her hand. “Please, Professor, we’ve just had our first Divination class, and we were reading the tea leaves, and–“
“Ah, of course,” said Professor McGonagall, suddenly frowning. “There is no need to say any more, Miss Granger. Tell me, which of your will be dying this year.” Everyone stared at her.
“Me,” said Harry, finally.
“I see,” said Professor McGonagall, fixing Harry with her beady eyes. “Then you should know, Potter, that Sybill Trelawney has predicted the death of one student a year since she arrived at this school. None of them has died yet. Seeing death omens is her favourite way of greeting a new class. If it were not for the fact that I never speak ill of my colleagues–”

Professor McGonagall broke off, and they saw that her nostrils had gone white. She went on, more calmly, “Divination is one of the most imprecise branches of magic. I shall not conceal from you that I have very little patience with it. True Seers are very rare, and Professor Trelawney–“ She stopped again, and then said, in a very matter-of-fact tone, “You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you do die, you need not hand it in.”

In Prisoner of Azkaban we see, again, McGonagall’s high standard of integrity and consummate professionalism and self-control. Though she clearly has opinions–and not very good ones–on the legitimacy of Divination, she will not stoop to personal attacks against Professor Trelawney any more than she would directly call Lockhart out as a fraud.

But not only that–we also get a glimpse of her keen sense of humor. She can do more than throw out a wicked witticism; she can be downright funny! (Unfortunately for Harry, the Grim ate my homework would not be an acceptable excuse for failing to submit the proper pages of parchment…)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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“What–what are you doing?” said Professor McGonagall, her eyes following the bouncing ferret’s progress through the air.

“Teaching,” said Moody.
“Teach–Moody, is that a student?” shrieked Professor McGonagall, the books spilling out of her arms.
“Yep,” said Moody.
“No!” cried Professor McGonagall, running down the stairs and pulling out her wand; a moment later, with a loud snapping noise, Draco Malfoy had reappeared, lying in a heap on the floor… “Moody, we never use Transfiguration as a punishment!” said Professor McGonagall weakly. “Surely Professor Dumbledore told you that?”
“He might’ve mentioned it, yeah,” said Moody, scratching his chin unconcernedly, “but I thought a good sharp shock–“
“We give detentions, Moody! Or speak to the offender’s Head of house!”

Here we see that though McGonagall is admittedly strict, she is never cruel, and she would never condone bullying a student as a form of discipline. Her clash with Barty Crouch Jr.’s Mad-Eye Moody was just the precursor for her justified indignation over Dolores Umbridge’s later treatment of students and abuse of authority. She is firm only insofar as it is beneficial for correction, and she knows exactly where that line is.

“Dumbledore, you know perfectly well you did not make a mistake!” said Professor McGonagall angrily. “Really, what nonsense! Harry could not have crossed the line himself, and as Professor Dumbledore believes that he did not persuade an older student to do it for him, I’m sure that should be good enough for everybody else!” She shot a very angry look at Professor Snape.

In standing up for what’s right, she’s also not afraid to bring a challenge to anyone who might cross her, and that includes defending Harry, who, in spite of his propensity for brash behavior, she trusts and cares for. Every decision she makes is balanced by a deep and genuine concern–McGonagall is definitely a woman you want on your side!

Professor McGonagall went straight to Harry. “Come along, Potter,” she whispered. The thin line of her mouth was twitching as though she was about to cry. “Come along–hospital wing.”
“No,” said Dumbledore sharply.
“Dumbledore, he ought to–look at him–he’s been through enough tonight–“

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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“It says here she’s given you detention every evening this week, starting tomorrow,” Professor McGonagall said, looking down at Umbridge’s note again.

“Every evening this week!” Harry repeated, horrified. “But, Professor, couldn’t you–?”
“No, I couldn’t,” said Professor McGonagall flatly.
“But–“
“She is your teacher and has every right to give you detention. You will go to her room at five o’clock tomorrow for the first one. Just remember: tread very carefully around Dolores Umbridge.”
“But I was telling the truth!” said Harry, outraged. “Voldemort is back, you know he his; Professor Dumbledore knows he is–“
“For heaven’s sake, Potter!” said Professor McGonagall, straightening her glasses angrily (she had winced horribly when he had used Voldemort’s name). “Do you really think this is about truth or lies? It’s about keeping your head down and your temper under control!”
She stood up, nostrils wide and mouth very thin, and Harry stood up, too.
Have another biscuit,” she said irritably, thrusting the tin at him.
“No, thanks,” said Harry coldly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped.
He took one. “Thanks,” he said grudgingly.
“Didn’t you listen to Dolores Umbridge’s speech at the start of term feast, Potter?”
“Yeah,” said Harry. “Yeah…she said…progress will be prohibited or…well, it meant that…that the Ministry of Magic is trying to interfere at Hogwarts.”

In Order of the Phoenix McGonagall’s mettle was supremely tested. She obviously detested Umbridge, her meddling, and her methods, but she was smart enough to know that being right isn’t always enough. Sometimes, when dealing with a bully, you have to pick your battles wisely, and this was, undoubtedly, a difficult reality to accept–and to communicate to Harry. She cautioned him to maintain his self-control, just as she had to maintain her own so as to remain in a position to assist Dumbledore and advocate for the students against Ministry interference.

“Hem, hem,” said Professor Umbridge.
“Yes?” said Professor McGonagall, turning round, her eyebrows so close together they seemed to form one long, severe line.
“I was just wondering, Professor, whether you received my note telling you of the date and time of your inspec–“
“Obviously I received it, or I would have asked you what you are going in my classroom,” said Professor McGonagall, turning her back firmly on Professor Umbridge. Many of the students exchanged looks of glee. “As I was saying, today, we shall be practising the altogether more difficult Vanishment of mice. Now, the Vanishing Spell–“
“Hem, hem.”
“I wonder,” said Professor McGonagall in cold fury, turning on Professor Umbridge, “how you expect to gain an idea of my usual teaching methods if you continue to interrupt me? You see, I do not generally permit people to talk when I am talking.”

But while she may have been prepared to tread carefully, McGonagall was not one to play the doormat. She had no intention of ceding authority rightfully due her and, whether Umbridge new it or not, she had met her match. And while we might have liked to see her transfigure Umbridge into a toadstool, we cheered every time she uttered another line of subversive sarcasm. Understanding that her hands were proverbially tied, every exchange between the two was both infuriating–and a delight!

“False hope?” repeated Professor McGonagall, still refusing to look round at Professor Umbridge. “He has achieved high marks in all his Defence Against the Dark Arts tests–“

“I’m terribly sorry to have to contradict you, Minerva, but as you will see from my not, Harry has been achieving very poor results in his classes with me–“

“I should have made my meaning plainer,” said Professor McGonagall, turning at last to look at Umbridge directly in the eyes. “He has achieved high marks in all Defence Against the Dark Arts tests set by a competent teacher.”

(We’re not quite done yet, but you may as well raise your glasses of butter beer right here, because that’s worth a nod!)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
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To Neville: “It’s high time your grandmother learned to be proud of the grandson she’s got, rather than the one she thinks she ought to have–particularly after what happened at the Ministry.”

*     *     *     *     *

“My grandmother thinks Charms is a soft option,” mumbled Neville.

“Take Charms,” said Professor McGonagall, “and I shall drop Augusta a line reminding her that just because she failed her Charms O.W.L., the subject is not necessarily worthless.”
Half-Blood Prince exists to remind us that McGonagall really isn’t playing favorites. She’s devoted a lot of attention to Harry but, let’s face it, he needed it given the trouble he gets himself into book after book. (Or, at least, we’re betting that’s what she’s thinking…) But here we see her concern–and affection–for all the students under her purview. She truly wants each one to succeed in that which they’re gifted, and we love that she’s using her straightforward spunk on Neville’s behalf.

While Crouch/Moody may have turned him onto Herbology, perhaps it was McGonagall’s ongoing encouragement that bolstered his confidence, especially significant during the later absence of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Perhaps it was her support, in part, that enabled him to become the leader of Dumbledore’s Army! (At least, we’d like to think so…)

 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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And, finally, we will bring it back around to Harry for a moment because, before McGonagall defended the students against Snape, who she presumed to be a traitor, and fought against Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Battle of Hogwarts…Harry Potter defended her.

As Amycus spun round, Harry shouted, “Crucio!”

“I see what Bellatrix meant,” said Harry, the blood thundering through his brain, “you need to really mean it.”

“Potter!” whispered Professor McGonagall, clutching her heart. “Potter–you’re here! What–? How–?” She struggled to pull herself together. “Potter, that was foolish!”

“He spat at you,” said Harry.

The point may seem a bit backwards as far as tributes go, since it seems to point out Harry’s heroic bravery and loyalty instead of focusing on McGonagall’s–but it’s not. We know Harry Potter, and he does not defend the honor of someone who is not entirely worth of it. She gained his respect and his admiration and, thus, ours as well.

So, go ahead and raise that glass of butter beer one more time and wish the happiest of birthdays to Hogwarts Headmistress Minerva McGonagall–she’s earned it. Cheers!





The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.