Chapter 15 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Forbidden Forest
When Filch hauls Hermione and Harry to Professor McGonagall, their House Head, Neville is also there for wandering the halls so late. Neville's insistence that he was only going to warn Harry leads Professor McGonagall to conclude that Harry and Hermione fabricated the dragon story to lure Draco out after hours, solely to get him detention. All three receive detention and are deducted 50 House points from each of them. (Malfoy has been similarly punished.) In one night, Harry's actions have bumped Gryffindor to the bottom in House points. He resolves to avoid doing anything that will cost Gryffindor more House points.
Sometime later, Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Draco are escorted to Hagrid's hut for their detention. Hagrid says something in the Forbidden Forest has been killing Unicorns. They separate into two parties, to follow a wounded Unicorn's blood trail. Hagrid, Harry, and Hermione form one party, and Draco and Neville, with Fang (Hagrid's boarhound), are the other. Hagrid's party meets Ronan, a Centaur. Ronan makes a few remarks about astronomy, then is joined by Bane, another Centaur, who also comments on astronomy. After leaving the Centaurs, Hermione sees red wand sparks; Hagrid runs off to investigate.
Neville, panicked, ignited the sparks after Draco had deliberately frightened him. Hagrid, figuring Harry is harder to scare, re-groups Harry with Draco and Fang, taking Hermione and Neville. After about an hour, Harry and Draco find the Unicorn, dead. Harry hears a slithery noise, and a hooded figure appears and starts drinking the Unicorn's blood. Malfoy and Fang run off, while the hooded figure advances on Harry, whose scar is now searing with pain. A Centaur, Firenze, suddenly appears and chases the hooded figure away. He warns Harry that the forest is dangerous, and offers him a ride back to Hagrid. Ronan and Bane gallop alongside, angry that Firenze allows a human to ride him "as if he were a common mule", and also for interfering with the heavens' portents. Firenze responds that he will fight the evil, even alongside humans if he must, then gallops off with Harry.
Firenze explains that Unicorn blood will keep a person alive, "even if you are only an inch from death", but it will be a cursed half-life, causing Harry to wonder why that would be better than death. Firenze says the hooded figure may be waiting for something stronger to restore him to full life. Harry realizes this must be the Elixir of Life, a product of the Philosopher's Stone, and concludes that the hooded creature is Voldemort, who is probably only partially alive, as Hagrid speculated back in July. They reach Hagrid, who lets the students return to the castle. Harry tells Ron and Hermione what has been happening overnight, and they suspect that Voldemort is now just waiting for Professor Snape to get the Stone, and then will reappear to kill Harry.
There is one final surprise: as Harry reaches his bed near dawn, he finds his Invisibility Cloak, neatly folded, with a note reading: "Just in case."
For their punishment, Harry and the others must enter the aptly named Forbidden Forest, an ominous prospect despite Hagrid's presence. Students are rarely allowed to venture in here, for good reason, and only when they are closely supervised. Dark, dangerous, and foreboding, these ancient woods contain many secrets, as well as mysterious, deadly creatures dwelling within. And while a forest contains abundant life, death is always lurking nearby, as seen by the slain Unicorn. We can guess that the Forbidden Forest will continue to play at least some role later in the series, but it is suggested here that Voldemort may still be alive, if only just, and could be utilizing its resources to sustain his life until he is able to fully restore his body.
Rowling also uses the forest, the Centaurs, and the Unicorn to convey powerful symbolic meaning and imagery, as well as instill fear and danger. In literature and western mythology, forests can represent many things including the unknown, a wild spirit, a realm of birth, death, and resurrection, nature's secrets, and even the spiritual world. Unicorns symbolize purity, feminine chastity, morality, and other similar attributes. Harry, pure and innocent, has just entered a dark, frightening place, and he lacks any knowledge about it or its dangers. This parallels his journey into the Wizarding world, another unknown domain filled with unseen perils. Along both paths, Harry often struggles to find his footing, occasionally stumbling as he moves forward. The hooded creature lapping the Unicorn's blood is likely tied to the Dark Lord, and this may foreshadow Harry's possibly confronting Voldemort later in the story, and throughout the series. While in the forest, Harry encounters death firsthand. And not just any death, but a creature that represents all that is good and pure has been slain by something entirely vile and evil. Ironically, this malevolent being can only survive by drinking its innocent victim's blood. It was, we believe, this same evil that murdered Harry's parents, and the slain Unicorn may portend that even more virtuous and pure-hearted victims will fall prey to it.
The Centaurs that Harry encounters in the Forbidden Forest are particularly interesting. These mythological beings, half-human, half-horse, often symbolize mankind's dual nature, with its lower, savage animalistic side frequently in conflict with higher reason and morality. This struggle between good and evil will be seen throughout the series, not only in the two warring factions headed by Voldemort and (apparently) Dumbledore, but also within individual characters who must choose to follow either a light or a dark path, sometimes struggling between the two. And though the Centaurs are able to see, dimly, into the future, their predictions are so vague and abstract as to be nearly nonsensical, at least to humans. They comment several times that the planet Mars is bright, but do not expand on their understanding of this phenomenon. Mars, being the Roman god of war, may hint at a future conflict, probably involving wizards; the Centaurs' calm reaction to this suggests that they also do not believe that they share this fate.
More specifically, the Centaurs seen here provide us small tidbits about their beliefs regarding humanity and Wizard-kind. In particular, the three Centaurs clearly show that deep divisions exist among them, with Ronan and Bane advocating shunning humans altogether, while others such as Firenze are willing to set aside their opinions about "inferior races" for the general good of all. Firenze has apparently created a rift within his herd by rescuing Harry and threatening to fight evil alongside the humans, indicating that he understands better than anyone that this growing evil may affect all magical creatures, not just wizards. The Centaurs have apparently foreseen and agree that Harry Potter will play some integral role in this approaching conflict.
Another interesting point is Harry's Invisibility Cloak being returned to him, apparently by the same person who gave it to him at Christmas. Recall that Harry and Hermione left the Cloak atop the Astronomy Tower. The Tower is used fairly frequently, as Astronomy students do their practical work there; it is reasonable to assume that a class convenes there on most clear nights. Wizards being subject to the same foibles as any other human, it seems unlikely that a student would have returned it to Harry. More likely a teacher who is either frequently on the Astronomy Tower during daylight, or else is singularly aware of recent events occurring in the school, found and returned the Cloak to Harry, knowing it was his. This person must be a teacher or staff member, as a student would have been unable to obtain the Cloak from Harry's father originally. We can, however, rule out Professor McGonagall, as the accompanying message's handwriting differs from McGonagall's writing on the note included with Harry's broom in September. While it is true that the note's handwriting is never specifically described, it is likely that Harry would have noticed, and commented on, any difference from the note that had accompanied the Cloak in December. While we are beginning to suspect that the "oddly spiky" handwriting might be Professor Dumbledore's, Harry believes himself to be too insignificant to merit such attention from the school's Headmaster, and so dismisses the possibility.
- Why does McGonagall think Harry and the others are lying about the Dragon?
- Why would students be given detention in a place as dangerous as the Forbidden Forest?
- What killed the unicorn? Why was it killed?
- Why are Ronan and Bane upset that Firenze helps Harry? What does Firenze think?
- Ronan and Bane both comment that Mars is shining brightly. Mars is the Roman god of war. How might that foreshadow upcoming events in the wizarding world?
- Considering how dangerous the Forbidden Forest is, why would Hagrid split the students into two groups and allow one to wander about unsupervised?
- Who could have returned Harry's Invisibility Cloak? Who can be excluded? What does the attached note mean?
- Discuss how the author uses the forest, centaurs, and the unicorns as symbolism, and relate that to events and characters in the story so far.
We learn shortly that the unidentified figure that killed the Unicorn is Quirrell. His actions are entirely under Voldemort's control, and show that the Dark Lord will stop at nothing to regain his power. He has no remorse for killing the Unicorn, and indeed, has none for causing others' deaths. Given that he has splintered his soul and stored the pieces in Horcruxes, Voldemort is no longer quite human. While his later physical appearance reflects his inhumanity, we should bear in mind that Voldemort's facial features are likely something he chose: as the self-proclaimed Heir of Slytherin, and having a great affinity for snakes, Voldemort likely modeled his new self on a serpent, though he did not always resemble one, even after he started creating Horcruxes.
The Centaurs shun wizards and their affairs, though Hagrid, being only part-human, is an exception. They also never harm "foals", as they call human children, considering them innocent beings, though they prefer avoiding them. Human adults, however, are subject to attack should they run afoul of any Centaur, as does Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Dumbledore is perhaps the only human the Centaurs respect. It also appears that Firenze has a greater understanding about events foreseen through the stars and planets, perhaps realizing that the coming conflict will affect all creatures in the magical world, not only humans. He is concerned enough that he vocalizes his intentions to the other Centaurs that he will help fight this growing evil. The Centaurs do agree that Harry Potter is an integral part in whatever is approaching. Firenze's continuing involvement in human events eventually causes his herd to banish him, barely escaping with his life. In the final confrontation with Voldemort, the other Centaurs will finally join the battle, fighting Voldemort and his Death Eaters alongside humans and the other magical creatures.
The following items are included because the Centaurs' personalities, which are first seen in this chapter, are necessary for their occurrence. We cannot know to what extent this was planned, of course.
- Firenze will be banished from the herd because he accepts a job from Dumbledore, teaching Divination after Professor Trelawney is sacked by Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Firenze's willingness to be employed by a human, teaching Centaur divination to humans, clearly reflects his willingness to work against the oncoming darkness despite the herd's distaste for what Centaurs consider an inferior species.
- Later in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Bane and Ronan will again make an appearance, this time saving Harry and Hermione from Umbridge. Their reactions at this time clearly reflect the distaste for Humans that we see them exhibit in this chapter, magnified by intervening events. This distaste will also shift somewhat to Harry and Hermione, who the Centaurs no longer consider to be such "innocent foals" after Hermione manipulates the herd into helping her and Harry.
- Finally, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we see that Firenze has been fighting alongside the human defenders of Hogwarts, even taking a significant wound while doing so. Ronan and Bane will eventually join the battle, with the rest of the herd, under pressure from Hagrid. The behavior of all the Centaurs is entirely true to their personalities as shown in this chapter.