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The centaurs in Harry Potter

When my students first meet Potter's centaurs in chapter 15, they invariably interpret them wrongly. The initial description goes like this:

"And into the clearing came -- was it a man, or a horse? To the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse's gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tail".

"Half-horse, half-human? Crystall-clear", say many of my students, for opposing horses and humans 'naturally' leads to opposing nature and society, and this would have been true if nothing else had been said. But something else is said in the text. The text describes the centaurs as always looking up to the stars rather than taking action when action is needed, as being very lofty in their exchange with human beings, as talking in riddles, and Hagrid's exasperated response to that is

"‘Never try an' get a straight answer out of a centaur. Ruddy stargazers. Not interested in anythin' closer'n the moon […] Keep themselves to themselves mostly […] They're deep, mind, centaurs... they know things... jus' don' let on much’".

In the first Harry Potter book, centaurs are therefore described as metaphysical rather than half-natural, half-social. What many of my students do is just pay attention to those features in the text which confirm their stereotyped vision of a centaur, rather than take the text as a whole and look for those features which may supplement, even obliterate the stereotype.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann