I hope you’ll bear with me here. I might be taking my obsession with HP a little too far (or maybe that’s just my Ravenclaw personality rearing its head) but today I’d like to talk about centaurs and run by you a theory that I formed while rereading Chapter Fifteen “The Forbidden Forest” from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone a few weeks ago.
I would like to start with a short background note on centaurs from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them textbook. I will skip the details on how they look or what their origins are and will concentrate on things that I find relevant to the topic that I’m about to expand upon:
The ways of the centaur are shrouded in mystery. They are generally speaking as mistrustful of wizards as they are of Muggles and indeed seem to make little differentiation between us. They live in herds ranging from ten to fifty members. They are reputed to be well-versed in magical healing, divination, archery and astronomy.
Being intelligent and capable of speech, it should not strictly speaking be termed a beast, but by its own request it has been classified as such by the Ministry of Magic. In fact, the centaurs objected to some of the creatures with whom they were asked to share ‘being’ status, such as hags and vampires, and declared that they would manage their own affairs separately from wizards.
The centaur is given an XXXX classification* not because it is unduly aggressive, but because it should be treated with great respect.
(*Dangerous/requires specialist knowledge/skilled wizard may handle)
The first time we meet the centaurs is when Harry, Hermione, Neville and Draco serve detention in the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid and Fang. First we meet Ronan and Bane. The original impression that I got from reading the part, where they appeared, was of calm and mysterious creatures who talk in riddles and don’t seem to be in any hurry to answer Hagrid’s urgent questions. They keep gazing at the sky, repeating “Mars is bright tonight” and other philosophical things like “Always the innocent are the first victims” and “Forest hides many secrets”. According to Hagrid, who is about to lose his patience with them, they don’t care about anything closer than the moon. He also calls them ‘ruddy star-gazers’ but acknowledges that they are very deep and know things but don’t let on much.
So far everything seems just fine. Such ancient and mythological creatures as centaurs are supposed to be mysterious, wise and impossible to understand as they contemplate skies, stars and planets. But a page or so later we witness a scene that shatters that perception. Firenze, another centaur we meet, saves Harry from the hooded figure that had been drinking the dead unicorn’s blood and takes Harry to Hagrid on his back, because it would be quicker this way and because Harry was in real danger (we know very well who that hooded figure was). However, when Ronan and Bane appear again they are less than calm as they burst through the trees, their flanks heaving and sweaty. In fact, they are outraged at Firenze’s behaviour:
“Firenze!” Bane thundered. “What are you doing? You have a human on your back! Have you no shame? Are you a common mule?”
Firenze tries to explain his conduct:
“Do you realize who this is?” said Firenze. “This is the Potter boy. The quicker he leaves this Forest, the better.”
It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, Bane doesn’t agree. In fact, he thinks that Firenze has been indiscreet with the important information entrusted to him by the stars and that he had let Harry in on secrets that he is not supposed to know.
“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?”
Ronan tries to excuse Firenze’s actions:
“I’m sure Firenze thought he was acting for the best,” he said, in his gloomy voice.
But Bane has none of that. Bane kicked his back legs in anger.
“For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!”
Later, when Firenze galloped away with Harry on his back, leaving Ronan and Bane behind, Harry asked him why Bane had been so angry. It seems like a legitimate question. Why did he get so riled up just because Firenze opted to carry Harry on his back as it would save time and probably Harry’s life? I didn’t think it was a big deal. Firenze didn’t think it was a big deal. Even Ronan didn’t think that the incident merited such violent reaction. Firenze, after all, was doing what he thought was right: he was saving a young boy’s life. But Bane didn’t care about that. I think what Bane really cared about was how such behavior would reflect on centaurs as a whole. After mulling it over, I think I can see where he’s coming from.
Centaurs – ancient, intelligent, proud creatures – have inhabited the planet long before humans appeared. They freely roamed the land and studied the skies until primitive yet cunning humans started spreading and occupying more and more of their territory, driving them deeper and deeper into the forest. I think that in the beginning the relationship between centaurs and wizards must have been quite friendly and centaurs might have even been freely sharing with them their knowledge until wizards started using it against them. I mean, people have a bad track record throughout history, so that wouldn’t be all that surprising. No wonder that Bane is adamant that they should guard most zealously their secrets against humans. Maybe it was back then when they made a promise to the skies and stars not to divulge their knowledge to them.
But that’s not even the worst. Not only might humans have stolen some of their secrets and drove them deep into the forest, they actually put a label on them (‘magical being’ which centaurs refused to carry, because they do not recognize humans’ laws) and started treating them like animals! Or, at the very least, like magical creatures deemed to have near-human intelligence. So said Dolores Umbridge in OotP. But I’m sure that she’s not the only one who thinks that, because though magical and charming, wizarding community is no stranger to bigotry, discrimination and oppression. And, of course, being perceived as magical creatures of near-human intelligence is a great insult with centaurs, because they believe that their intelligence far outstrips that of humans’. So, of course, hearing that on a regular basis would not help to keep their relationship friendly.
Looking at all that, I’d say that Bane’s reaction to Firenze carrying a human on his back is quite justified. Though centaurs have no doubt of their superior mind, they are vulnerable and insecure in the face of centuries of humans treating them as inferior beings. In fact, they are so touchy about that now that any innocently or carelessly spoken word can be interpreted by them as an encroachment upon their status and mental abilities. I think that Bane is so afraid of being perceived as an animal that anything remotely animal-like drives him into frenzy and violence, which, ironically, makes him behave more like an animal that he is so afraid to appear as. Firenze, on the other hand, is more than secure in his belief and doesn’t think that choosing to help a human by carrying him on his back or teaching them Divination (considered a dishonor and betrayal by other centaurs) will strip him of his intelligence or superiority.
However, in OotP, the conflict escalated to the point where Firenze was kicked out of the Forest (almost kicked to death if not for Hagrid), because he agreed to help Dumbledore (according to centaurs “he is peddling our knowledge and secrets among humans” and “there can be no return from such disgrace”), while the other centaurs succumbed more and more to violence. But I think that at the core of the conflict are humans (no matter whether they are Muggles or wizards) and their attitude to those who are different. Those they discriminate against, those they oppress, those they put labels on, because in this way it’s easier to put them in a certain frame and keep them there. And even Hermione, though the brightest witch of her generation, out of sheer desperation committed a horrible offence by behaving in a typically human fashion when she tried to use centaurs to get rid of Umbridge. Suffice it to say that it didn’t go too well with the centaurs for whom ‘helping humans’ is tantamount to ‘serving them’ and they most certainly don’t:
“So we were to do your dirt work, were we, human girl? We were to act as your servants, drive away your enemies like obedient hounds?”
“We do not help humans! We are a race apart and proud to be so. We will not permit you to walk from here, boasting that we did your bidding!”
“They came here unasked, they must pay the consequences!”
“We are an ancient people who will not stand wizard invasion and insults!”
I guess I just wanted to say that centaurs are a good example of how even the most intelligent and superior of beings can be turned into barbarians and animals without being aware of it themselves. They are trying so hard to prove their superiority that they don’t realize that the methods they are using and the attitude they’ve adopted have completely opposite results, and that that’s what strips them of their superiority in the first place. And isn’t that just tragic?
On an unrelated topic, I really love rereading HP with someone else, because then I get such brainwaves and I get to discuss them with passion worthy of Hermione :D
**All quotes (in italics) belong to J.K. Rowling. The images of centaurs are taken from Pottermore.