There are two reasons I’ve chosen to call this space the ‘Third Floor Corridor.’ The first is because the thought of slapping my name in big bold letters onto a webpage makes me uneasy, no matter how small an audience I might have. I’m just shy that way, and I’ve always been more comfortable working from the shadows. Besides, anyone who’s curious about me need only navigate to the ‘About’ page to discover my name.
But more crucially, the site name is based off the third floor corridor in Hogwarts from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In it, the third floor corridor is, in Dumbledore’s words, ‘out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a very painful death.’ Now I’m not that dark. I certainly don’t wish to imply that coming here will somehow kill a visitor! But I always thought there was something rather quirky about the way Dumbledore puts it, especially considering that the third floor corridor ultimately leads, not to death, but the elixir of life- the Philosopher’s Stone.
True, the best defences that the Hogwarts teachers could set up were all penetrated by three eleven year old, first year students. Hagrid’s giant three headed dog was put to sleep with a little bit of music. Professor Sprout’s Devil’s Snare was handled by Hermione, Professor McGonagall’s giant chessboard was expertly played by Ron, Professor Flitwick’s enchanted key obstacle was no match for Harry’s Quidditch skills and Professor Snape’s poison test barely posed a challenge to Hermione. But whilst all of these obstacles could be overcome with a solid, varied skillset, a sharp mind and a bit of luck, Professor Dumbledore’s challenge was by far the most difficult.
He hid the Philosopher’s Stone using the Mirror of Erised, which shows the viewer the deepest, most desperate desires of their heart. Only one who wanted to find the stone, but not use it, would be able to access it. This is why we find Quirrell staring hungrily at the mirror trying to figure out how to work it, unable to summon the Stone because of his (and Voldemort’s) thirst for immortality. The final test isn’t a test of intelligence, magical ability, knowledge, or sporting skills- it’s a test of character. Moreover, Harry’s journey into the castle’s underground dungeons where the Stone is hidden runs the course of what in Greek mythology is called katabasis- the descent into the underworld to rescue someone or something. Fluffy, Hagrid’s three headed dog, is clearly a stand in for the Greek monster Cerberus who guards the passage into the underworld. Chamber of Secrets goes even further than Stone in expounding on this theme, as Harry literally ventures into the underbelly of Hogwarts to defeat an ancient monster and rescue the girl who is destined to be his life partner.
Much like Virgil’s Aeneas in the Aeneid, who braves all the various monsters of the underworld to ultimately have a conversation with his father’s soul, Harry too endures terrible dangers time and again before being blessed with a meeting with the souls of his lost parents and guardians. In the Mirror, he is able to see the image of his parents for the first time in ten years. In the Chamber of Secrets, he is saved by Fawkes the phoenix; in Azkaban it is his father’s stag avatar in the form of his Patronus who saves him from the Dementors. In Goblet of Fire, his mother and father speak to him for the first time since dying, as ghosts who erupt from the connection between his and Voldemort’s wands as they duel in a graveyard. And finally in Deathly Hallows, Harry meets the spirits of all of his greatest, fallen protectors- Lily, James, Sirius, Lupin- as he sets out to confront death head on. Then after one long conversation with Dumbledore in a place that resembles King’s Cross Station- a suitably liminal space- Harry surfaces again into the world of the living, to defeat Voldemort once and for all and end the Second Wizarding War.
Possibly the most striking thing about these journeys through danger is the way that Rowling not only invokes but also subverts the traditions of the archetypal male hero. While Harry seems to be a hero through patrilineal channels, due to his strong resemblance to his father and everyone constantly telling him how like James he is, Dumbledore notes that his deepest nature is much more like his mother’s. The one time Harry gets a glimpse into the life of the living James Potter, he winds up feeling sick and ashamed of his father’s behaviour. He even wonders whether James might have ‘forced’ Lily into the marriage, a highly unusual thing for a patriarchal boy hero to worry about. I like to believe it confirms what I’ve always felt about Harry: that apart from his romances with Cho and Ginny, he’s quite a genderless hero. There’s nothing stereotypically male about him. Yes he plays Quidditch and is a sports star but in Hogwarts that’s hardly a male preserve- the Gryffindor Chasers are nearly always a formidable female trio and are stars in their own right.
Virgil chose Aeneas as his hero for highly practical reasons. Aeneas was a minor character in Homer’s Iliad, who fought on the side of the Trojans. His role in that war was little more than an unflattering cameo; his mother, the goddess Aphrodite, frequently intervenes to save him from more powerful Greek warriors. Yet it is through Aphrodite’s lineage (her father is Zeus) that Aeneas is able to claim godly descent. Through Aeneas’s descendants, Romulus and Remus, twin founders of Rome, all of the Romans are able to claim divine descent and thus secure and justify an incredible legacy. The Aeneid is therefore an exercise in Roman propaganda. Funny how we love to look back at people like Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, etc. and assume that they were just great artists making great work in a vacuum when in fact they were people, bound and shaped by the same systems currently binding and shaping us. That’s not to say that they were not great artists, but rather that their greatness was erected upon political structures, and that art and the politics of propaganda cannot always be neatly distinguished.
The quality of love is foremost in Lily Potter as it is in Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Like Aphrodite, Lily steps in between danger and her son. But unlike the goddess, she sacrifices her life to save him. And while Aeneas’s mother grants him demigod status, Lily’s blood lines work the other way; it is James who is the pure blood, and Lily the Muggle born. Very quietly and underhandedly, Rowling conveys that women are not merely channels through which to claim birth status or exclusive ‘blood’ privilege, but deserve to be defined instead by their actions, and as people in their own right.
I’ll be blunt; it irritates me when people obstinately use the word ‘Man’ to refer to all of humanity. It cements the implicit associations between maleness and personhood, and between femaleness and otherness. I wouldn’t have such a bone to pick with this if the people using the terms actually knew the history behind its origins. The words ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ came about to explicitly distinguish the ‘race of men’ from the ‘race of women.’ According to Aristotle, the female was the flawed, prototype human being, and the male was the perfected being. Why is this important to note? Because it ties back in to the ancient Greek and Roman tendency to not view women as people. Ancient Athens had a democracy, of sorts, but only men of sufficient status counted as ‘people’; all women and plebeians and slaves did not qualify for personhood. So a woman could never be an Athenian citizen because in order to be a citizen, you have to first be a person. But any male children she gave birth to would inherit Athenian citizenship through her. In other words women were nothing but vessels for the transfer of citizenship, legacy and status, unable to possess those things for themselves because they were not whole enough to count as people. Unfortunately even in 21st century India we still have this problem.
So really, it’s significant that Lily Potter takes the classical ideal of the mother and upgrades it, even if it’s just a little subtle background thing. And it’s even more significant that Harry takes after his sensitive, loving, self- sacrificing mother, that he has her eyes and her bravery and not his father’s carefree, joking, insensitive personality, born of unquestionable privilege. Harry Potter is the first modern hero to break with the tradition of patrilineal inheritance. Would I go so far as to call him transgressive? No. But he’s certainly progressive, and that’s enough to be getting on with for now.
The Third Floor Corridor is a homage to the story that has sustained me through the darkest years of my life. Every few years I open my faded first edition copies and fall between those well worn pages as easily and comfortably as the child I was when my mum first started reading Philosopher’s Stone out to me. I hope that this space is my third floor corridor- the place where I can confront monsters, navigate obstacles, speak with spirits and hopefully, at the very end, get a glimpse of the great secret that lies at the heart of it all.