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Sibyll Trelawney and the Art of Divination
By Zarathustra


We know that one of the truisms in the Harry Potter universe is that J.K. Rowling will keep pounding something into our heads until the light bulb goes off further down the line, sometimes even several books later, and we answer with “Of course! That’s what that means!”

This is the case with Sibyll Trelawney. We are introduced to this batty woman in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when, with the first class that Harry and his friends take with her, she starts off by making nine predictions – five of which come true while the other four are never discussed in the book. We are led to believe that she is only right about half of the time, like most fraudulent divinators. However, after that class all other predictions she makes in the books come true.

An important thing to understand about Trelawney is that she is nearsighted and a bit death-oriented. She sees truly, but her ability to interpret things correctly sometimes goes askew – unless it is important. What else should we know about Trelawney? Her name, and the background we eventually obtain from Dumbledore, should give us a clue as to her abilities as a divinator. Sibyll Trelawney is descended from Cassandra Trelawney. Cassandra is the name of an ancient Seer in Greek mythology who was cursed by the god Apollo to make accurate prophecies, but never to be believed. It seems that Sibyll has a touch of the same problem when it comes to everyday predictions, though Dumbledore and Voldemort take her true entranced prophecies very seriously. The word “Sybil” is also an ancient title for a Seer.

So, let us take a look at the first lesson predictions. She starts off the class by suggesting to Neville that his grandmother may be ill. As he just saw her the day before at the train station, he assumes that she is not. We, as readers, never find out – and by sixth year she still seems to be in good health. The second prediction Trelawney makes is to Parvati Patil: “Beware a red-haired man.” Remember that Trelawney is extremely nearsighted and Parvati has an identical twin Padma. With that knowledge – and the fact that this is not an important prediction, per se – she gets it right but is off the mark as to whom it pertains. Padma is the one who should beware of Ron when he partners her and subsequently abandons her at the Yule Ball the following year. The third and fourth predictions – flu disrupting the class in February and Trelawney losing her voice (it is unclear if this due to the flu, or just a random case of laryngitis) – are never discussed further in the book.1

We already know, because Rowling blatantly shows us, that the fifth, sixth, and seventh predictions all came true. Hermione left the class right before Easter revision period, Lavender received the news about her pet rabbit, Binky, on October 16, and Neville broke both of his teacups. She only predicted one teacup breaking, you say? Let’s look more closely:

“Oh and dear” — she caught Neville by the arm as he made to stand up —“after you’ve broken your first cup, would you be so kind as to select one of the blue patterned ones? I’m rather attached to the pink.” 2

He picks up his first cup, smashes it, and picks up a blue cup. Later, when she is interpreting Harry’s cup, Neville smashes the blue one as well. In telling Neville to pick the blue instead of the pink, Trelawney is predicting his shattering of the second cup as well as the first.

Then we come to the purpose of the lesson, reading the tea leaves. A dicey area of divination to begin with, it is made more so by the students’ interpretations. Then Sibyll gets into the act by reading Harry’s teacup.

The first shape she spies is the Falcon, interpreted as the Deadly Enemy, which we know clearly applies to Harry. The second shape is the Club, which means Attack. As we know, most of the year Harry is considered to be under attack – first by Sirius, then by Bludgers during the Quidditch match, and then by the Dementors. The third form is the Skull, interpreted as meaning Danger in one’s path. We know that is true. It is Harry, after all, whom she is reading about. We discover later in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that Voldemort uses the skull figure in all his dealings with the magical world in the form of the Morsmordre symbol hanging over death scenes and as the Dark Mark the Death Eaters wear on their left forearms.

And last, but not least, is the Grim. This is one of those nearsighted observances of Sibyll’s. She will see death, no matter what, and in this case what she is actually seeing is Sirius in his Animagus form, stalking our erstwhile hero. Also note that each time she makes a prediction about the Grim, Harry has just seen, or will see in the near future, Sirius as the big, black dog. We see a prediction during the first class, discussions of Harry seeing a black dog in August three pages later and again he sees the dog at the first Quidditch match. She again predicts the Grim stalking Harry near the end of the book and the dog appears five pages later carousing with Crookshanks.3

Trelawney’s final class prediction is telling Neville he will be late for the next class, but we never do find out if he was. Notice how we start off the class with Neville and end it with him, with two predictions that we could care less about. I am tempted to say, because Neville could be considered the Boy-Who-Might-Have-Been, that Rowling is handing us a red herring. We are led to believe that Neville is given inconsequential predictions because he will be inconsequential to the story. Notice the middle prediction as well, painting him to be a bit of a bumbler. We know now, after the sixth book, that this is not the case. Neville only needed a goal to focus his energies – killing Bellatrix works just fine (as well as using his own wand, not someone else’s). We will have to wait and see if he succeeds in the last installment in fulfilling his potential.

The rest of the predictions for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban consist of the following: “When thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die,” “I have seen that Professor Lupin will not be with us long,” and “Fates have informed me the examination in June will involve the Orb.” 4

The answer to the first prediction will not be known until book seven, if then. The second seems to be straightforward: Lupin did leave before end of term. Of course if she was aware enough to realize that not a single Defense Against the Dark Arts professor had lasted past a year since the 1960’s when Riddle cursed the position, she could just have been stating the obvious. But, we are dealing with nearsighted Trelawney who pretty much stays in her rooms and very rarely comes down out of the ethers of North Tower. Of course the last, as Hermione wisely points out before stomping out of class, is set by her in any case so of course she knows that the Orb will be a part of the final exam.

Then there is the second Prophecy that Trelawney makes in her lifetime:

It will happen tonight. The Dark Lord lies alone and friendless, abandoned by his followers. His servant has been chained these twelve years. Tonight, before midnight…the servant will break free and set out to rejoin his master. The Dark Lord will rise again with his servant’s aid, greater and more terrible than ever he was. Tonight…Before midnight…the servant…will set out…to rejoin…his master…5

We can perform a straightforward interpretation of this prophecy after the end of the book. Peter Pettigrew is discovered, breaks free of his chains, and escapes to rejoin his master. He then goes on to perform the ritual, a year later, that brings back Voldemort to corporeal form, and the Dark Lord starts performing greater evil deeds than during the first war.

All through the books the students are constantly making fun of Trelawney, convinced that she is an old fraud. I believe this is Rowling indulging in red herrings. We are supposed to see things from the students’ perspectives, which are jaundiced. I am sure that she makes all sorts of tossed off predictions which never come true – witness all the times she keeps predicting Harry’s death that we are told about. We only actually hear the ones that Rowling wants us to hear, the ones that are important to the story and establish that Trelawney is a true seer. As intelligent readers, we know that Rowling has hidden clues in plain sight all through the books. Trelawney’s predictions are quite likely some of these clues. As we go through the books her reported divinations get more important as we go along.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire she makes two predictions: once at the beginning of the year and later before Christmas break. Both of these come true. In the first prediction she sees Harry’s entrance into the Triwizard Tournament and his meeting with Voldemort in the flesh prior to his name popping out from the Goblet. “I see difficult times ahead for you, alas…most difficult…I fear the thing you dread will come to pass…and perhaps sooner than you think.” 6 In the second prediction she accurately predicts Cedric’s death. “Death, my dears. Yes, it comes ever closer, it circles overhead like a vulture, ever lower…ever lower over the castle.” 7 Although she is pointedly gazing at Harry when she says this, we can take this as another case of Trelawney making an accurate prediction just a bit nearsightedly as Harry was standing right next to Cedric when he is murdered and eventually brings Cedric’s body back to Hogwarts.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix she does not make any true predictions, per se. What she does say to Umbridge is that Umbridge is in grave danger.8 However, this prediction is made under duress and could or could not predict Umbridge goading the Centaurs into chasing her down. Nonetheless, the entire book is centered on Voldemort obtaining the prophecy that Trelawney had made sixteen years earlier and which we hear, in its entirety, at the end of the book.

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies…9

As we know, it is this prophecy and Voldemort’s belief in it that fuels the entire series. Rowling tells us she was extremely careful when she penned this prophecy10 and while the first half of it seems fairly straightforward, she deliberately left much of the prophecy open to interpretation. For instance: “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord” does not necessarily mean that Harry has to kill Voldemort; it could be interpreted as “remove his powers”.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Trelawney deals in cards. Here she reads the interpretations correctly, although she doesn’t understand all of them fully, and thinks she has misdealt or misinterpreted them. She starts to doubt herself. She constantly re-deals the deck only to get the same result time after time.

So, what does she see? The first card dealt is the Two of Spades, known as Conflict.11 Not only is she in conflict with the centaur with whom she is sharing classes; she is also in conflict with the headmaster over this appointment. However, remember that Harry is overhearing this; so, it also refers to Harry’s conflict with Voldemort.

The second card is the Seven of Spades, referred to as Ill Omen. This scene occurs early in the book and I believe is a precursor to her later card shufflings that constantly turn up the Lightning-Struck Tower. But, for right now it is only a vague hint of the future for Trelawney, Harry and Dumbledore. However, the next card should be warning her of what is to come: Ten of Spades, which is Violence. This is a clear reference to the future fight between the Death Eaters and the Order members and students in the school corridors during the climax of the book.

The last card is our final truth card. Trelawney takes it as meaning she has misdealt the cards or misinterpreted them. However, we as the readers should know that her interpretation is correct and this should be the final clue to us that Sibyll really has the gift: “Knave of Spades. Dark young man, possibly troubled, one who dislikes the questioner.” 12 We know that Harry is hiding behind the statue next to her in the corridor; he is a troubled individual and he definitely dislikes Professor Trelawney. And of course since Harry has heard this whole set of interpretations from her, he should start believing her as well, especially after hearing the last card interpreted. But he is not paying attention at all. If he had, things might have turned out differently.

A note about the suit chosen: Spades, or Swords in Tarot connotation, is known for its desire to tell the truth, another indication for us to take what is being dealt and interpreted as the truth. Swords/Spades, when it predominates a spread, also indicates arguments, illness and death. As all four cards dealt are in the suit of Spades, we need to pay special attention to this scene and its interpretation.

At the end of the book, she is talking to Harry and saying, “Again and again, no matter how I lay them out – the lightning-struck tower. Calamity. Disaster. Coming nearer all the time.” 13 We’ve already been giving the truth card reading earlier – which Harry overheard, so he should be willing to take what she says now as true predictions. Of course he doesn’t because he still believes her to be a fraud. He does not heed the warning of the cards; he is concentrating more on what Trelawney heard in the Room of Requirement. We readers should have been expecting the Lightning-Struck Tower chapter, if we had paid close enough attention to Trelawney and her predictions through the last four books.

As Moody is so fond of saying, “Constant vigilance.” Rowling does not leave these clues out just to tease us. We are supposed to catch them and use them to interpret the scenes in the books correctly. Can we expect more from Sibyll in the last book? Perhaps. So far Rowling has managed to not reveal anything that I can determine by going through Trelawney’s murmurings that pertain to the last book other than the few lines in the Original prophecy that we have yet to deal with: “And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives…” This leaves the ending of the series wide open. Anything can happen. But we should remember if she does pop up with predictions or even another prophecy in the next book we should pay attention to it. It is there to prepare us for the end, and it will lead us in the right direction – as long as we don’t rely on Sibyll’s interpretation.

Notes

1. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 103-108.

2. Ibid., 104.

3. Ibid., 107, 110, 178, 298, 303.

4. Ibid., 228, 229, 296.

5. Ibid., 324.

6. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 199.

7. Ibid., 372.

8. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 315.

9. Ibid., 841.

10. J. K. Rowling Official Website, “F.A.Q.,” paragraph 2.

11. Rowling, Half Blood Prince, 195.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 543.

Bibliography

J. K. Rowling Official Website. “F.A.Q.” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view.cfm?id=23.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.

———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003. New York

———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.


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