Monday, May 16, 2011

Harry Potter: Thestrals

A very interesting creature in the Harry Potter novels is the thestral, a creature that figures prominently in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

We first meet a thestral when Harry and his friends prepare to enter the carriages that will take them from the Hogsmeade train station to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts. In previous years, the carriages have appeared horseless and have propelled themselves from the train station to the Hogwarts castle with no visible means of locomotion. This year, however, Harry notices that the carriages are being pulled by a strange horse-like creature, described on pages 196-197, like this:

The coaches were no longer horseless. There were creatures standing between the carriage shafts; if he [Harry] had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither--vast, black leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gathering gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of moving along by themselves.

Interestingly, Harry's friends cannot see these creatures, except for Luna Lovegood. Only Harry and Luna can see the thestrals. To the others, it appears that the carriages are moving forward under their own invisible means of locomotion.

Later, we learn more about thestrals, and as we and Harry and his friends learn about them, the thestrals become much dearer. Here is a later description of the thestrals from page 762, as Harry and his friends are preparing to mount them to get to the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic in London to rescue Harry's godfather, Sirius Black.

Harry whirled around. Standing between two trees, their white eyes gleaming eerily, were two thestrals, watching the whispered conversation as though they understood every word.

"Yes!"" he whispered, moving toward them. They tossed their reptilian heads, throwing back long black manes, and Harry stretched out his hand eagerly and patted the nearest one's shining neck. How could he ever have thought them ugly?

As it turns out, thestrals can fly, which means that they can carry a rider from one place to another quite quickly.

Also--and here is the most interesting point about thestrals and the reason that Harry and Luna can see them while their friends cannot--Thestrals can only be seen by people who have seen death. Prior to his fifth year at Hogwarts, Harry could not see the thestrals because he had not seen death. However, at the end of his fourth year at Hogwarts, Harry saw the death of Hogwarts student Cedric Diggory during the Triwizard Tournament; therefore, when Harry arrives at Hogwarts for his fifth year, the thestrals are visible to him. Luna saw the death of her mother when Luna was a little girl, so the thestrals have been visible to Luna from her first year at Hogwarts.

I believe that there is a deep truth behind the thestrals and the fact that they are visible only to those who have seen death. The truth is that some experiences are key to seeing, or understanding, certain things. Here are some of those key experiences:

  • Deep loss: loved one, work, health or physical capacity, home and possessions, freedom
  • Giving birth to a child
  • Living on one's own

Each of these experiences, and I am sure that there are others, opens our eyes and our hearts to see and to know things that we would never see or know otherwise.

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