Animal magic: familiars and privilege in Harry Potter 


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The animals in Harry Potter are well known: Harry’s beautiful white owl, Hedwig, who helps him communicate with the magical world when he is back with the Muggles. Scabbers, Ron’s rat, who turns out to be the traitor Peter Pettigrew in disguise. Trevor, Neville Longbottom’s toad, and Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat. 

Hogwarts pupils are permitted to bring an animal with them during term-time. Hedwig is Harry’s 11th birthday present from Hagrid; appropriately because of Hagrid’s love of animals, although he prefers more exotic creatures. Owls are not only integral to the Wizarding world’s  communication system, they are a status symbol- Harry’s beautiful and fast Hedwig is the latest smartphone, as opposed to the Weasleys’ Errol, an old iPhone with a smashed screen and a very feeble battery life. The importance of owls to Wizarding life is evident from the acronym for exams taken at the age of 16.

So what can we learn about Harry from his ownership of Hedwig? Firstly, that Hagrid feels affection (and maybe a sense of responsibility) for Harry, as he has bought him this present. Secondly, that Harry is entitled to beautiful and valuable things, due to his inherited position in the Wizarding world. Thirdly, that Harry is a nice person, because a person of lower social status- a gamekeeper, compared to the son of the pre-eminent magical couple of the 1980s- wants to give him a present.

But what of other magical animals? What do Scabbers the rat, Trevor the toad and Crookshanks the cat tell the reader about Ron, Neville and Hermione?

Harry meets Scabbers and Trevor on his first journey to Hogwarts. Scabbers is a hand-me-down pet, who Ron complains never does anything much except sleep. In the third novel of the series, Prisoner of Askaban, Scabbers turns out to be Peter Pettigrew. So, much like everything else in the Weasley family, Scabbers is defective but made-do with; he has a missing toe and Ron frequently calls him “useless”. It is noticeable that nobody in the Weasley family notices Scabbers’ unusual age. 

Trevor, Neville’s toad, is a gift from his great uncle. Hagrid informs Harry that toads used to be fashionable animals, but are not now, so we can assume that Neville’s family is not fashionable or cool, and does not care about Neville being so either. Ron and Harry meet Neville and Hermione when the latter is taking over the search for Trevor on the Hogwarts Express, and while Hermione is bossy, Neville has allowed himself to be bossed.

Finally, Hermione’s cat Crookshanks, an ugly, battered-looking beast, tells us initially that Hermione does not rate appearances as particularly important and has a need to protect those that others may overlook. Crookshanks, like Hermione, is quick to identify the untrustworthy- it is he who chases Scabbers to Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. He is also a source of tension between Hermione and Ron; one of many before they realise their feelings for each other. 

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