From beginning to end, the Harry Potter series seems to be more well-planned and structured than anything I have previously encountered. Very little that actually makes it to print is insignificant in the grander scheme of the entire story. From names to spells to character development to plot, everything matters. Whether J.K. Rowling intends for everything to be as significant as we, the community at large, interpret it to be, only she can answer. However, it seems unlikely that some of the “coincidental” items found within the text can be considered that coincidental. In my reading (and frequent re-reading) of the books, I stumbled upon something that, in my mind, represents the multi-layered brilliance of the series.
Let me begin by saying that as an American reader of books written in the Queen’s English, there are several words or phrases that appear throughout the series that I am required to look up to make sure that they are, in fact, what I think they are. The particular word I stumbled upon, which has subsequently led to a theory of mine, is “treacle.”
Very early in the series, we find out that treacle (in its various forms) is a particular favorite food of Harry’s. “He felt it was better use of his time to eat his way steadily through his steak-and-kidney pie, then a large plateful of his favorite treacle tart.” 1
This becomes a rather recurring bit throughout the series. Further, when Harry smells the Amortentia potion, we discover that, beyond just being his favorite food, Harry is actually attracted to treacle. Amortentia is the most powerful love potion in the world and smells differently to each person according to what attracts them.2 When Harry is in the vicinity of Amortentia, he smells “treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle, and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow.” 3
There are numerous other references to treacle – at least one mention of it in nearly all six books. Treacle is also something of a staple in British literature and some of those references seem eerily connected to Harry Potter as well.
Scan the internet for reviews of the Harry Potter series and you will frequently find it mentioned alongside the Alice in Wonderland series by Lewis Carroll. While a discussion of similarities between the two series is not within the scope of this article, pointing out pertinent information is. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we see Alice in attendance at a tea party with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. At the request of the others, the Dormouse tells a story which centers around treacle and treacle wells.4 The Dormouse’s story continues for nearly half of the chapter. Considering the similarities in the two series, is it coincidence that treacle seemingly plays an important role for both authors?
Another reference to the potential importance of treacle in the series is found in a popular seventeenth century British nursery rhyme. The original verse to the popular nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel” reads as follows:
Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.5
Harry Potter’s best friend, we all know, is Ron Weasley. Ron’s surname cannot help but conjure images of a weasel. Additionally, Hermione Grainger’s patronus is an otter – a relative of the weasel.
The final reference of note can be found by doing a web search on the word “treacle.” Once you wade through the first few entries (all referencing the food), you come to a movie called Brimstone & Treacle. Initially, this was a throwaway reference and I ignored it. However, unable to resist temptation, I checked further and found that the movie is based on a play of the same name and was written in 1976 by British playwright Dennis Potter.6 Whoa. Add to that the fact that Dennis Potter also wrote a play entitled Alice, which “dramatizes Alice Liddell’s experiences and those of her family with the Reverend Professor Charles Dodgson.” 7 Incidently, Alice Liddell was the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s (a.k.a. Charles Dodgson) fictional Alice.8 Double whoa.
With all of these tantalizing references to treacle, and not knowing fully what treacle was (I assumed it to be something akin to molasses), I got online and did my research.
Merriam-Webster Online gave me:
Etymology: Middle English triacle, from Middle French, from Latin theriaca, from GreekthEriakE antidote against a poisonous bite, from feminine of thEriakos wild animal, diminutive of thEr wild animal
1 a medicinal compound formerly in wide use as a remedy against poison
2 chiefly British a: MOLASSES9
Whereas Wikipedia provided:
Treacle is an obsolete pharmaceutical term for a medicinal salve, usually given for snakebites, poisons, and various diseases. In the Middle Ages, wells that were believed to contain curative water were known as “treacle wells.” See also treacle mining.
Treacle is another word for molasses.10
After doing my due-diligence, my assumptions were confirmed: treacle = molasses. However, something much larger caught my attention: the molasses meaning was listed as the second meaning in both cases and the first meaning was similar on each site. The idea started to formulate in my mind that maybe treacle was not just a food, but a magical substance that provides some sort of protection to Harry.
On several occasions, Harry has come into contact with magical creatures, notably the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the Acromantula in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The basilisk is described as having “deadly and venomous fangs,” 11 and the Acromantula is described as “a gigantic black spider (legspan may reach up to 15 feet) with a poisonous bite.” 12
Harry’s only encounter, to date, with a basilisk was in Chamber of Secrets, where he is punctured by a basilisk fang. While it certainly appears that Harry is dying before Fawkes heals the wound with his tears, it seems to be taking quite a long while.
But as warm blood drenched Harry’s arms, he felt a searing pain just above his elbow. One long, poisonous fang was sinking deeper and deeper into his arm and it splintered as the basilisk keeled over sideways and fell, twitching, to the floor.
Harry slid down the wall. He gripped the fang that was spreading poison through his body and wrenched it out of his arm. But he knew it was too late. White-hot pain was spreading slowly and steadily from the wound. Even as he dropped the fang and watched his own blood soaking his robes, his vision went foggy. The Chamber was dissolving in a whirl of dull color.
A patch of scarlet swam past, and Harry heard a soft clatter of claws beside him.
“Fawkes,” said Harry thickly. “You were fantastic, Fawkes….”
He felt the bird lay its beautiful head on the spot where the serpent’s fang had pierced him.
He could hear echoing footsteps and then a dark shadow moved in front of him.
“You’re dead, Harry Potter,” said Riddle’s voice above him. “Dead. Even Dumbledore’s bird knows it. Do you see what he’s doing, Potter? He’s crying.”
Harry blinked. Fawkes’ head slid in and out of focus. Thick, pearly tears were trickling down the glossy feathers.
“I’m going to sit here and watch you die, Harry Potter. Take your time. I’m in no hurry.”
Harry felt drowsy. Everything around him seemed to be spinning.
“So ends the famous Harry Potter,” said Riddle’s distant voice. “Alone in the Chamber of Secrets, forsaken by his friends, defeated at last by the Dark Lord he so unwisely challenged. You’ll be back with your dear Mudblood mother soon, Harry…. She bought you twelve years of borrowed time…but Lord Voldemort got you in the end, as you knew he must….”
If this is dying, thought Harry, it’s not so bad.
Even the pain was leaving him….
But was this dying? Instead of going black, the Chamber seemed to be coming back into focus. Harry gave his head a little shake and there was Fawkes, still resting his head on Harry’s arm. A pearly patch of tears was shining all around the wound—except that there was no wound—13
Harry has come into contact with Acromantulas in two books, Chamber of Secrets and Goblet of Fire. Of particular interest is the encounter in the center of the Tri-Wizard maze in the latter book. During this encounter, the spider grabbed Harry with its pincers, leaving a gooey substance (presumably venom) on Harry’s bloody leg. Despite the poison being in direct contact with his bloody leg, Harry suffers no ill effects. “He looked down at his leg. It was bleeding freely. He could see some sort of thick, gluey secretion from the spider’s pincers on his torn robes.”
As Harry eventually becomes Tri-Wizard Champion, he obviously does not die; therefore the bite only has the effect of a simple bite as opposed to a poisonous one. Apparently, I was not the only one to notice the strange results of these encounters. In The Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter (Analysis of Books 1-4), Galadriel Waters writes:
Harry notices that he has some sort of gluey secretion on his torn robes from the spider’s pincers. He also has an open wound and tries to wipe up his bloody leg with his torn robe.
Is this secretion a kind of blood? Possibly, but if we check our reference (Fantastic Beasts is always handy), it says that one of the Acromantula’s distinctive features includes “a poisonous secretion.” A WHAT? The WWP Sleuthoscope just went ballistic! If this is poisonous, and it is not only around the wound, but Harry goes and wipes his own wound with it, then how come Harry isn’t poisoned? There can only be two reasons. One is that this is a different secretion than the poison described (hardly). The other is that there is something very strange about Harry (we knew that) beyond his ability to deflect Killing Curses. We would have assumed that this protection was in him all along – except that he was almost killed in Book 2 by the poison from the Basilisk fang. Of course, Snape has told us that antidotes do not work on all poisons (ref Book 1), so since Basilisks are so rare, maybe that poison was an exception (or maybe Fawkes somehow made him immune?). If Snape had tried to poison Harry in class, would it have inadvertently revealed that Harry cannot be poisoned? Maybe that was the reason for Colin’s coincidental arrival…?15
Anyone who has read Ms. Waters’ works will recognize the WWP’s Rules of Constant Vigilance:
Rule #1: If she [J.K. Rowling] reinforces it, she means it.
Rule #2: If she suddenly interrupts something, she’s hiding a key clue!
Rule #3: There’s no such thing as a coincidence.
Rule #4: Don’t take a character’s word for it.16
From the quotes above, we can apply Rules 1, 2, and 3: J.K. Rowling reinforces treacle (and Harry’s fondness for it); when Colin Creevy collects Harry from Snape’s class in Goblet of Fire, Harry is about to be “poisoned” by his teacher – interruption; and finally, there is no such thing as a coincidence.
Harry has come into direct contact with two of the most dangerous creatures known to the Ministry of Magic and has come away relatively unscathed. Is there anything in the books that we have heard of that could account for this “immunity”? Looking back on the etymology of treacle, I can only assume that Harry’s love for all things treacle is somehow providing him extra protection. If this theory is correct, and if Dumbledore is correct in his assumption that Nagini is a Horcrux, we are left with some interesting possibilities for Book Seven. Dumbledore thinks that Voldemort keeps Nagini close by as a sort of “protection.” If Nagini is to be protection against Harry, Voldemort may be at a distinct disadvantage, as Nagini’s venom would not harm Harry.
To carry that thought a bit further, we can look to what we know of Lord Voldemort. The Dark Lord carries a wand made of yew (with a phoenix feather core – Harry’s “brother” wand). The effect of the two wands meeting in battle was shown in Goblet of Fire, but what was not discussed was the potential effects of a yew wand being used against Harry. Yew wood contains poison,17 and assuming that my theory is correct, treacle will somehow provide Harry with protection against Voldemort’s wand. Further assuming that we will not see the brother wands meet again, it would then follow that Lord Voldemort would be incapable of killing Harry with any spell from his own wand.
While far from being conclusive, all of this speculation is quite fun and rather interesting, but is it relevant? Did J.K. Rowling intend for Harry’s obsession with all things treacle to provide him with some form of lingering protection against attack from magical creatures and magical beings? Is it all one big coincidence? How could J.K. Rowling have done that much research prior to putting pen to paper? There is no possible way that these items can all be connected, is there? It must be a coincidence because the only other explanation is that it was planned. It would take an extraordinary author to be able to tie all of that up into a neat little package. We know that J.K. Rowling is an extraordinary author, so maybe it wasn’t coincidence. Why make treacle Harry’s favorite food? Why, if treacle is unimportant, mention it so often? Only one person on the planet knows and she is not telling – yet. But whether I am right or wrong, I, for one, cannot wait to find out.
1. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 210.
2. Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 185.
3. Ibid., 183.
4. Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7.
5. World Wide Words, s.v. “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
6. Wikipedia, s.v. “Brimstone and Treacle.”
7. Harrison, Dennis Potter, Chapter 6.
8. Wikipedia, s.v. “Alice Liddell.”
9. Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “treacle.”
10. Wikipedia, s.v. “Treacle.”
11. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 290.
12. The Harry Potter Lexicon, s.v. “The Bestiary: Acromantula.”
13. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 320-21.
14. Rowling, Goblet of Fire, 632.
15. Waters, Ultimate Unofficial Guide, 335-36.
16. Ibid., xxvii.
17. Wikipedia, s.v. “European Yew.”
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. London: MacMillan and Co., 1866.
Harrison, Irving B., M.D. “Dennis Potter: The Why of His Doubles and Devices.” Clenched Fists: The Official Dennis Potter web site, 2001. http://www.yorksj.ac.uk/potter/IH_ch6_A.htm.
The Harry Potter Lexicon, s.v. “The Bestiary: Acromantula.” Member of the Floo Network. http://hp-lexicon.org/bestiary/bestiary_a.html#acromantula.
Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “Treacle.” http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/treacle.
Quinion, Michael. “Pop Goes the Weasel.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pop1.htm.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
-. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000. -. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005. -. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
Waters, Galadriel. Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter (Analysis of Books 1-4). Niles: Wizarding World Press, 2002.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Alice Liddell.” 26 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Liddell.
-. s.v. “Brimstone and Treacle.” 28 August 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brimstone_and_Treacle. -. s.v. “Treacle.” 2 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treacle. -. s.v. “European Yew.” 25 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Yew.