Yes, we know, you love Neville, and Professor McGonagall and Nymphadora Tonks. But what about the unsung heroes of the Potter series? Here, New Statesman staff make the case for their personal, obscure favourites from the books.
Let’s face it, a lot of the animals in Harry Potter are a bit high-maintenance. Owls snootily flying in with plot twists on parchment the whole time. Hippogriffs taloning your face off if you have the audacity to blink. Giant spiders with daddy issues. So it’s quite a relief to have Trevor, Neville Longbottom’s pet toad, around. He’s straightforward, unassuming, and really not arsed with the magical world. So much so that he is constantly trying to escape it – a tendency that brings Hermione into Ron and Harry’s Hogwarts Express compartment on their first day, when she’s helping Neville search for him. So without Trevor, they might never have become friends, and the Dark Lord might have prevailed.
“It’s Frank Bryce,” I said confidently to my pub quiz team mates. “Definitely Frank Bryce”. The question asked by the quizmaster was not – I regret to inform you – “Whose death was the most meaningless and brutal in the entirety of Harry Potter?” but was, in fact, something about an Only Fools and Horses actor. Needless to say, I lost us a point – but I gained an epiphany. I realised in that moment that Bryce was stuck in my heart.
Tormented in life and death, the old man was a war hero wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit. He lived alone and unloved – and with a gammy leg. Aged 76, he still tirelessly tended to the Riddle garden. Everything about him is achingly sad. He made up a fake wife in his last living moments. He was replaced by a milkman in LEGO Harry Potter Years 1 to 4.
As one of only five characters whose thoughts are directly disclosed by the narrator, Bryce is undeniably important. He was the first to teach us that alleged cowards can be brave, that cold people can have warm hearts, and that life and death aren’t always just.
Firenze is half-human, half-horse and also a Professor of Divination. He also saves Harry from Voldemort – so there’s a lot to like! But what continues to trot around my brain, long after I’ve closed the page on his forbidden forest home, is his banishment by the rest of his centaur herd for accepting the job at Hogwarts: “They see this as a betrayal of our kind,” he explains to Harry’s class. This feels hopeless and real all at once – and echoes so many human-to-human conflicts through history.
It also makes me think of my cat.
The Dursleys’ secretly non-muggle neighbour never mastered magic, but when it comes to trolling Harry Potter she is a total expert. Mrs Figg keeps him in the dark for years about her true identity as a squib and acquaintance of Dumbledore. Meanwhile, she makes Harry endure miserable afternoons at her house eating disgusting gone-off cake and “looking at photographs of all the cats she’s ever owned” in the name of keeping an eye on him. She also seems to be permanently wearing a dressing gown and slippers, even outside, indisputably living her best life.
We never find a great deal out about Charity Burbage. We know she was the Muggle Studies teacher at Hogwarts throughout most of the seven books. We know she taught Hermione (and Ernie Macmillan), setting her essays like “Explain Why Muggles Need Electricity”, throughout her third year at school. We know that, outside of school, she was a fierce campaigner for Muggle rights, writing “an impassioned defence of Mudbloods in the Daily Prophet”, arguing against wizarding society’s obsession with pure-blood families.
We don’t know if Charity was Muggle-born or pure-blood; whether she was a kind and gentle teacher, or severe and strict. We don’t know what her hobbies were, or what spurred her into a life of study and activism. We don’t know if she enjoyed her life – but we know that it was cut short. We know that she cried when she died.
Charity Burbage seems to me a true unsung hero of the Potter books. We spend so much time watching Harry, Ron and Hermione rage against the unjust treatment of Muggle-born wizards, but what about Muggles themselves? Most wizards seem to think that non-magical folk are either dim or dangerous, and need to be, at best, patronised or, at worst, oppressed. Charity Burbage was a true revolutionary, even within Hogwarts’ seemingly liberal bubble. Her humiliation and murder by Voldemort always stood out to me as particularly nasty. She may have been confined to the background of the Harry Potter stories, but I hope her legacy as one of the most radical opponents of darkness lives on long after Harry’s story ends.
“The owl screeched and fell to the floor of the cage.”
With the exception of the ghost of Fred Weasley’s last laugh, these few words from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows saddened me more than any other in the book. Hedwig had been with Harry through it all – before Hogwarts, before Ron and Hermione, there in the awkwardness of Privet Drive during every long summer. Her death marked not only Harry’s symbolic loss of innocence, but also the close of the series I had grown up with. Hedwig was Hagrid’s present for Harry’s 11th birthday, the coolest pet an 11-year-old could dream of. She was loyal and smart (unlike stupid Pigwidgeon), a badass owl who would find a letter’s recipient (including Azkaban escapees in hiding) with only their name, and fly back directly to Harry – even if he’d moved to live at the Leaky Cauldron in the meantime.
Hedwig was a truly underrated character – always patient with Harry, even when he was being a total dick and almost forgot her while fleeing Privet Drive in the Weasley’s flying car. Through the novels and films, her tender relationship with him made for sweet scenes in fast-paced adventures: she would “nibble his ear or finger” to show her affection, “stare” or “show her tail” if she disapproved of Harry’s behaviour. Her flight into the winter sky in the first film remains the series’ most beautiful shot. Hedwig was a magical version of my own pet, a snowy cat with amber eyes. Hogwarts just wouldn’t have been the same without her.
Laugh at Colin Creevey all you like. Mock his boyish wonder at a universe he didn’t ask to fall headlong into. Call him a craven lickspittle and snigger at his unworldly tics: the big camera, the childish expressions of affection, the slavish loyalty to the snooty classmates who have neither the inclination nor ability to understand what he’s about. You’re only cheating yourself. Colin Creevey, I’m afraid, is the absolute boy: the milkman’s son having the time of his life at Hogwarts, brooking no authority greater than his own enjoyment, and demanding nothing in return. His seventeen short years and heroic demise make a great allegory for everything that’s wrong with the British class system. There is some corner of the Quidditch field, in that dirt a lovely kid concealed, that is forever Creevey. What a man. What a photographer. What a friend.
Most of the teachers at Hogwarts are not good. You have the actively evil (Quirrell) the ones holding a grudge against an eleven year old because of the sins of his father (Snape) the incompetent (Professor Binns) and many engage in blatant acts of favouritism to students of their house. Professor Flitwick stands alone as one of the few who seems to genuinely stay professional throughout.
You’ll remember Uncle Bilius for his intoxicated antics (namely, pulling flowers out of his ass at Weasley family gatherings), but his humorous side hides a darkness – this is the same uncle who died of fright after seeing the ominous grim. Bilius to me is a reminder that even the best of families (like the Weasleys) can sometimes fail to take care of their own. Perhaps I’m going a bit too far (and too dark) but I’ve always thought of him as a tragic character who came from Molly’s Prewett side of the family, and wanted so keenly to prove he fitted in with the happy-go-lucky Weasleys that he masked his own depression with alcohol, leading to his eventual death. It is also telling that this sad end is described by the Weasley twins with a shrug; Uncle Bilius went a bit ‘loopy’ toward the end. Oh, those funny old mental health issues.
Ok, so I cheated a little, she’s not that underrated or obscure. But I love her so I’m going to write about her anyway so ner.
We hear about the death of Harry’s parents before we ever meet the boy who lived himself. The fact he’s an orphan, who grew up with relatives who’d rather he’d died too, is his defining characteristic. Perhaps that’s why he spends the next seven books collecting parent substitutes like stamps.
We’re meant to think Sirius Black, his godfather, is the most important of these, but I’ve never quite bought that. Okay, he gives him the best gift you can receive in life, a free house. But he only appears in three books, for one of which we think he’s a psychopath, and he never really acts like a parent. As Molly Weasley yells at him early in Order of the Phoenix, he treats Harry more like a continuation of his long-dead father.
If anyone is the real parent figure in Harry’s life it’s Molly herself. She sends him a Christmas present before she’s even really met him, and from the moment he steps foot in the Burrow, it’s more of a home than anywhere outside Hogwarts. (Incidentally, I’ve always wondered what the Grangers make of the fact they barely see their daughter for much of her later adolescence, but that’s another story.)
The thing, I think, that makes Molly so brilliant is that her effective adoption of Harry is entirely instinctive. She has no connection to his parents, doesn’t know about the prophecy, didn’t fight in the first war: she simply sees a child without a mother and her first impulse is to gather him into her brood. By Order of the Phoenix, she has to be reminded that he’s not actually her son (“He’s as good as!”) and when she’s wracked with visions of what horrors could befall her family, it’s clear she sees Harry as one of them.
In the future, after his marriage, the Weasleys really are his family of course, but this feels like literalising something that’s been true all along. Harry picks up half a dozen father substitutes, but only ever one spare mother.
Oh yeah, and as we find out at the battle of Hogwarts – she’s a bad ass.