There are at least two species of winged, four-legged, magical creatures living in the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: hippogriffs and thestrals. We are introduced to a herd of each creature by Hagrid in his Care of Magical Creatures class, in books three and five respectively. Both lessons take place inside the Forbidden Forest and both happen to be Hagrid’s first lesson that school year. So why would the author, J.K. Rowling, include two seemingly similar creatures living in the same forest? The answer may be that each species represents a similar, yet opposite force living in the Forbidden Forest. Where there is light, there must be darkness. The hippogriffs and thestrals are mirror representations of life and death in the third and fifth books of the Harry Potter series. Each plays its role in the outcome of each book and the series as a whole.
Life and death can be seen in the physical descriptions of the two creatures. The following is a description of the first glimpse Harry has of a hippogriff:
Trotting toward them were a dozen of the most bizarre creatures Harry had ever seen. They had the bodies, hind legs, and tails of horses, but the front legs, wings, and heads of what seemed to be giant eagles, with cruel, steel-colored beaks and large, brilliantly orange eyes.1
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry sees a thestral appearing in his Care of Magical Creatures class:
A pair of blank, white, shining eyes were growing larger through the gloom and a moment later the dragonish face, neck, and then skeletal body of a great, black, winged horse emerged from the darkness.2
Hippogriffs are majestic and beautiful to look at; their coats are of varying colors such as bronze, chestnut, and gray, for example, but the thestral has a dark and grim appearance: skeletal and black. The hippogriff’s eyes are orange, while the thestral’s eyes are white and cold. The hippogriff has an appearance full of color and life, while the thestral is black with white eyes like the white light before death.
Another interesting physical attribute is that the hippogriff has the head of an eagle, while the thestral has a dragonish face. The eagle and the dragon are also winged creatures. The eagle conjures imagery of soaring to the heavens, and we see the dragon as a fire-breathing monster, which brings destruction down upon the earth. One is a symbol of hope while the other is a symbol of fear and power. The eagle/hippogriff symbolizes life and light, while the dragon/thestral represents death and darkness. These two creatures are polar opposites in appearance. The hippogriff is full of color and life, while the thestral is demon-like and deathly in appearance.
The actions and demeanor of hippogriffs and thestrals reinforce the life/death comparisons. Hippogriffs are dangerous and difficult to tame. They are fastidious creatures; one must bow before the hippogriff, maintaining eye contact, and then the hippogriff decides whether you can approach further. The thestral, however, follows only the scent of blood, and can be seen by only those who know death.
“Oh, more of them will come,” said Ginny confidently [...]
“What makes you think that?”
“Because in case you hadn’t noticed, you and Hermione are both covered in blood,” she said coolly, “and we know Hagrid lures thestrals with raw meat, so that’s probably why these two turned up in the first place....” 3
Life itself is dangerous and difficult to tame like the hippogriff, while death is indiscriminating like the thestral and can appear unexpectedly.
Harry takes a ride on each creature in the respective books. Here is the description given of Harry’s ride on Buckbeak the hippogriff:
It was nothing like a broomstick, and Harry knew which one he preferred; the hippogriff’s wings beat uncomfortably on either side of him, catching him under his legs and making him feel he was about to be thrown off; [...] he now felt himself rocking backward and forward as the hindquarters of the hippogriff rose and fell with its wings.4
The ride on the hippogriff symbolized the roller-coaster ride of life. The “rocking backward and forward” and the violent beat of the wings leave Harry holding on for life for fear of slipping. Harry’s ride on the thestral goes as follows:
Harry did not think he had ever moved so fast: The thestral streaked over the castle, its wide wings hardly beating.
[...] “This is bizarre!” Harry heard Ron yell
[...] but he did not dare shift positions lest he slip....5
The journey to death, fast and “bizarre”, smooth yet frightening, comes without warning. The eerie way the thestrals fly with “wings hardly beating” sends Harry on his journey to the ministry. The thestrals were superstitiously thought to be bad omens:
“But they’re really, really unlucky!” interrupted Parvati, looking alarmed. “They’re supposed to bring all sorts of horrible misfortune on people who see them. Professor Trelawney told me once –” 6
The journey is truly one of misfortune, but this journey was not to Harry’s death.
Hippogriffs and thestrals are also connected with the life and death of Sirius Black. Sirius Black – the name itself sets the stage. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, represents the life of the hippogriff, and Black is the color of the thestral. These creatures are caught up in the life and death of Sirius Black. The journey Harry and Hermione take on Buckbeak at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban is one to save Sirius’s life from the dementors of Azkaban7 (another symbol of death). Harry and Hermione turn back time to save Buckbeak himself in order to save Sirius.8 The hippogriff is life itself, coming to take Sirius away from a soulless existence. Once Sirius escapes on Buckbeak the two are almost always together until the time of Sirius’s death. While Sirius is stuck in Grimmauld Place, he escapes to Buckbeak’s room when he is feeling particularly frustrated. Buckbeak is a reminder of freedom and life for Sirius. Sirius even makes up a Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs.” 9
The journey Harry and the others take to the ministry is one with the same purpose. It was meant to be a mission to save Sirius from death and torment at the hands of Lord Voldemort.10 Instead, Kreacher the house-elf injures Buckbeak,11 who represents the life of Sirius, and sets in motion his demise. Harry and his friends set off on the thestrals to save him,12 and Sirius leaves the injured Buckbeak behind to save Harry.13 The journey by Harry and his friends is on the black, skeletal steeds, to the ministry. They go to the Time Room where time itself is destroyed,14 and then to the Veil Room.15 The gateway of death itself is here, and it is here where Sirius finds his end.16
It is clear to me that hippogriffs and thestrals are representations of life and death. In particular, they are connected with the life and death of Sirius Black. One is used to save his life from the dementors; the other brings Harry to the place of Sirius’s eventual death. The third and fifth books are connected in so many ways, but the prevailing theme is life and death. One book shows Harry overcoming his fears and saving the day. The other shows a determined Harry who cannot save everyone. The hippogriff and the thestral share many of the same attributes and are part of the same ecosystem of the forest. Life and death are both part of the same experience, and we cannot have one without the other. We all must take these journeys in our lifetimes. We will, hopefully, take many on a hippogriff and one, ultimately, on a thestral.
1. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 113-14.
2. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 444-45.
3. Ibid., 763.
4. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 117.
5. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 765-66.
6. Ibid., 446.
7. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 413-15.
8. Ibid., 394-95.
9. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 501.
10. Ibid., 727-8.
11. Ibid., 831.
12. Ibid., 765.
13. Ibid., 830.
14. Ibid., 790.
15. Ibid., 799.
16. Ibid., 805-6.
The Harry Potter Lexicon. Member of the Floo Network. http://www.hp-lexicon.org/ (accessed 23 May 2006).
J.K. Rowling Official Site. http://www.jkrowling.com/en/.Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003. ———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.