This week, JK Rowling published a short story about the origins of Ilvermorny, the American school of witchcraft and wizardry.
The story centres on Isolt Sayre, one of the school’s founders. But there’s one scene that looks remarkably like one of the most important scenes from the original Harry Potter series: when Lord Voldemort kills Harry’s parents. In a chapter titled “Gormlaith’s Revenge,” Isolt duels with Gormlaith, her evil aunt.
Let’s recap this part of Rowling’s new story:
Gormlaith, a descendant of Salazar Slytherin, is obsessed with her pure-blooded heritage. When she finds out that Isolt married a non-magical muggle (or “no-maj,” as they say in America) and opened a school that allows non-pure-bloods, Gormlaith intends to kill Isolt and her husband. She also wants to steal Isolt’s daughters, who are the last of Gormlaith’s bloodline.
Gormlaith uses a curse that sends Isolt and her husband James into an enchanted slumber, and another curse that renders Isolt’s wand inactive.
As Gormlaith approaches Ilvermorny, Isolt and James’ adopted teenage sons, Chadwick and Webster, are left to face Gormlaith. As they duel, Isolt and James’ one of daughter screams and awakens her parents. Gormlaith’s sleeping curse, “like Gormlaith herself, took no account of the power of love,” Rowling writes.
Isolt grabs her wand and goes to confront Gormlaith. Gormlaith drives her three opponents back to her great-nieces’ bedroom and blasts the door open. There is James, who “stood ready to die in front of the cribs of his daughters.”
Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies.
It’s a lot like the scene where Voldemort tries to kill Harry.
The story is told over and over again in the Harry Potter series from various perspectives. The most comprehensive account comes from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” when Harry accesses Voldemort’s memory.
Voldemort enters Harry’s home on Halloween, when Harry is one year old. Harry’s parents, James and Lily, are playing with him. Voldemort kills James first, with the Avada Kedavra curse.
Lily, wandless, barricades herself upstairs. Voldemort pursues her:
“He forced the door open, cast aside the chair and boxes hastily piled against it with one lazy wave of his wand … and there she stood, the child in her arms. At the sight of him, she dropped her son into the crib behind her and threw her arms wide, as if this would help, as if in shielding him from sight she hoped to be chosen instead.”
Voldemort murders Lily. Harry is in the crib, alone. Voldemort tries to kill Harry, but his killing curse doesn’t work, and Voldemort is vanquished for a decade.
In both episodes, people are saved by the power of love.
It might sound cheesy, but love is the most important value in the Harry Potter universe.
Harry survives because his parents loved him. Their love was so strong that it was able to break Voldemort’s killing curse. Harry’s triumph over Voldemort at the end of the series represents the triumph of love over hate.
When Gormlaith corners Isolt and her family, Isolt “cried out, hardly knowing what she said, for her murdered father.”
Isolt’s father, who died years earlier, was named William. William was also the name of a Pukwudgie (a type of intelligent magical creature native to America) who she befriended years earlier.
The Pukwudgie appears and shoots a poisoned arrow at Gormlaith, killing her.
Thus, Harry was saved because his parents loved him. And Isolt was saved because she loved her parents, and because her friends were there to love her.
Gormlaith and Voldemort have similar motivations.
Both Gormlaith and Voldemort are driven by the same thing: An obsession with pure-bloodedness. Here’s how Rowling defines Gormlaith’s goal when she goes to America:
“She intended to lay waste to the second Ilvermorny, slaughter the parents who had thwarted her ambition of a great pure-blood family, steal her great nieces who were the last to carry the sacred bloodline, and return with them to Hag’s Glen.”
Voldemort, like Harry, is actually a half-blood, meaning only one of his parents has a magical background. However, he sneers at his muggle lineage and obsesses over his magical lineage. He hates the muggle orphanage he grew up in. And like Gormlaith, Voldemort is related to Salazar Slytherin.
The antagonists believe in the superiority of their lineage in a way that recalls white supremacy. Rowling herself isn’t shy about making the comparison.
The scenes in both stories unfold in strikingly similar ways.
Both Isolt and Harry have parents named James. Both Jameses are stormed in on by a murderous Parseltongue who wants to harm their children.
In both stories, the pivotal scene takes place in front of a crib. James is the only person who stands between Gormlaith and the cribs of his children. Lily is the only person who stands between Voldemort and Harry’s crib.
The magic wand motif plays across both stories, as well.
The wand is an important symbol of the relationship between Harry and Voldemort in the original Harry Potter series.
When Harry turns ten and gets his own wand from Ollivanders, the wand shop in London, the wand that chooses him is the “twin” of Voldemort’s wand. Both are made with a feather from the same phoenix. After Voldemort fails a second time to kill Harry, in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” he thinks it’s because their wands are twins. So he ditches his and gets the Elder Wand, a wand of legendary power.
Likewise, Gormlaith needs a new wand. Hers was a family heirloom once owned by Salazar Slytherin. But Isolt stole it when she escaped to America.
So Gormlaith has to take a trip to Ollivanders herself to get a new wand. (Yes, the same Ollivanders from the 1600s existed in the 1900s. The family first started making wands in 382 B.C.)
It’s because Isolt has Salazar Slytherin’s wand that Gormlaith is able to curse it. Slytherin imbued his wand with a fragment of a basilisk horn. Because the wand was part-snake, Gormlaith was able to curse it in Parseltongue, the language of snakes.
The similarities show just how mythical Rowling’s world is.
The overlap dovetails with how Rowling sees the Harry Potter universe.
Throughout the saga, parallels exist. People are tied into each other’s destinies. Different people in different times mirror each other, and how they react to similar situations informs the type of people they are. And, of course, these connections are usually inspired by magic.
The amazing thing about these parallels is that we don’t quite know what they mean yet. Of course, the world of Harry Potter and the world of Ilvermorny are connected, but in ways that are still opaque. It will be exciting to see what Rowling reveals about the story in the future.
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