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The Ties that Bind

Old Magic, Blood and Sacrifice

“...the blood is the life.”—The Holy Bible1 and Dracula2

By Prongs Patronus

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View archived discussions on this essay here.

Every Tale is Taller than the One Before...3

A magical baby with an unusual scar and an uncertain future is left at a door with a note. Thus begins the saga of Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived, and a quest for devoted readers of the series to predict what happens next. It is a tribute to the author that interest has not waned; indeed, as this is written, predictions and theories come thick and fast like leaves off an autumn tree. It is an exciting time to be a Harry Potter devotee!

There have been a number of tantalizing hints and clues about the role of the Old Magic and the sacrificial nature of blood in Harry Potter, especially after the horrific rebirth of Lord Voldemort in the graveyard of his fathers. Dumbledore’s “gleam of something like triumph”4 has tantalized us from the first reading: how could Harry having less protection be a good thing? Finally, there were the terrifying events at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: the Cave of the Locket and Dumbledore’s death at the top of the Astronomy Tower. These events all had two things in common: they were examples of the Old Magic, and they were tied by blood.

I Fall upon the Earth, I Call upon the Air...5

Magic using the sovereign power in blood is one of the oldest magics we know. Neanderthal man knew the power of blood, as did his successor; red ocher, the ritual substitute for blood, has been found in graves, on cave walls, and in hunting rituals of hunting/gathering peoples the world over.6 Our ancestors believed blood to be the seat of the passions; even today, we talk of killing in the “heat of passion,” or in “cold blood.” Lady Macbeth could not get the stain of blood off her hands; modern medicine has proved that the traces of blood remain, though it be invisible to the eye.7

In the wizarding world, blood ties are the ties that bind. One’s blood status (divided into wizarding and non-wizarding peoples) can determine whether one will be treated with approval or opprobrium. Hermione Granger, thought by some to be the most accomplished witch of her age, is called Mudblood by the pure-blooded Draco Malfoy because her parents are Muggles. Both Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are half-bloods, of mixed Muggle and magical descent. Harry is proud of his heritage; Lord Voldemort is not. Indeed, as we will see, Lord Voldemort’s parentage is one of the sources of his conflicted nature.

The Old Magic uses the selfless nature of a willing sacrifice—blood spilled willingly on behalf of another—to protect an infant, Harry Potter, against the death that awaits him at the hands of Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore follows Lily Potter’s lead and uses that same Old Magic, with its blood ties, to put a charm of protection on the home of the child’s relatives, the Dursleys. While Harry Potter can claim a bed there he cannot be touched. The sacrifice of love by Lily has left a curious protection in Harry’s blood. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Quirrell/Voldemort cannot touch Harry without great pain; the love inherent in Lily’s sacrifice is poison to the poisonous Dark Lord. Dumbledore confirms this when he says

But I knew too where Voldemort was weak. And so I made my decision. You would be protected by an ancient magic of which he knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated—to his cost. I am speaking, of course, of the fact that your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother’s blood. I delivered you to her sister, her only remaining relative. [...] She may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still she took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you. […] While you can still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her blood became your refuge. You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you.8

So we have two boys, each the recipient of the benefits of motherly sacrifice—one gets survival and a mother’s love, the other a handsome face and anonymity. The Old Magic is not picky in that regard; sacrifice, blood and intent are the keys.

There is a strange parallel in Harry’s blood protection and Voldemort’s birth. Merope Gaunt Riddle, in the extremis of childbirth, wishes for her son the handsome face of his father. She gets her wish, but pays a steep price for it. Bereft of her magical power, Merope dies soon after giving birth, and a name, to her son. Did Merope use the last of her magical power to ensure that her son would not suffer as she had? Did she access the Old Magic to do so? It is very possible that she did, using the sacrifice of her blood to seal the charm. It is a great pity that she did not wish for him a handsome heart instead.

Dark Times and Strange Places...9

Voldemort’s grievous error in discounting the ancient magic of blood and sacrifice leaves him bodiless after his attack on the Potters, “less than the meanest ghost.”10 The problem for him, then, becomes the acquisition of a new body. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we read of his success. Voldemort first uses a potion—unicorn blood, known to give the imbiber a cursed half-life, and snake venom, milked from his pet Nagini—to give himself a weak, rudimentary body. 

In the Riddle graveyard Voldemort performs “an old piece of Dark Magic.”11 The Dark Lord purloins a bone from his father’s grave to drop into the bubbling potion: “Bone of the father, unknowingly given, you will renew your son!”; Peter Pettigrew, also known as Wormtail, gives his right hand into the cauldron of poisonous blue liquid: “Flesh—of the servant—w-willingly given—you will—revive—your master.” The last ingredient is blood from Harry himself: “B-blood of the enemy ... forcibly taken ... you will ... resurrect your foe.”12 Harry’s blood is added to a potion that has turned into the color of a sullen flame. The potion ignites. It is a bright white now, searing the eye in the dark night. Voldemort rises from his metal womb and is reborn.

It is a stunning image, the Dark Lord Reborn—whiter than the underside of a toad, scarlet eyes, and a slash for a mouth. The Old Magic, concerned with the absolutes of life—birth, death, and protection—has been perverted yet again in the service of Lord Voldemort. There is nothing of love in this birth; no mother for nurture, though his mother was the source of his magical power. His father’s bone becomes an ingredient in the rebirth of the son, and the magic, he disavowed. The reluctant and unreliable servant, a rat Animagus, gives of his own flesh. The use of Harry’s blood is designed specifically to negate the sacrifice of love the Old Magic had provided The Boy Who Lived. Voldemort can now touch his enemy. In a parlance known to every child, Voldemort and Harry Potter have become “blood brothers.”

Harry Potter proves equal to the task of standing up to the Dark Lord; he escapes, once again, to the safe haven of Hogwarts. Dumbledore learns of Voldemort’s rebirthing and the theft of Harry’s blood; the gleam of triumph on Dumbledore’s face tells us that Voldemort’s moment of ascendancy may not be without cost. Harry’s blood is filled with love. While inclusion of this blood may give Voldemort touching rights, it may be that it will prove inimical to his long-term well-being. Love has ever been the antidote to the poison of hatred; the venom of Lord Voldemort’s existence may well be overcome by the anti-toxin of Harry’s blood. One can pervert the Old Magic only so far—eventually, those false alchemical journeys will be met with failure.

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