Fawkes the Phoenix and the Powerful Magic of Song
“…wonderful red and gold plumage.”
“…can carry immensely heavy loads”
“…tears have healing powers”
“…they make highly faithful pets.”
If you are a fellow Potterhead, you will recognize Fawkes the Phoenix from these brief descriptive lines. They are spoken by Dumbledore just after Harry has seen Fawkes burst into flames on a Burning Day (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p207, Scholastic Edition). Being a Phoenix, Fawkes is immediately reborn from the ashes of his burning.
Fawkes is one of my very favorite characters in the Wizarding World, partly because the Phoenix has been adopted by Cherokee People as a symbol of our own revitalization after suffering invasions, removals and repeated attempts at cultural genocide. Our first newspaper was called the Cherokee Phoenix. Our Echota Cherokee Tribal flag has a Phoenix at its center.
As a musician, I am surprised that Dumbledore does not mention Fawkes’ powers as a singer. Birds are among the best musicians on the planet and Fawkes takes it to the next level. He is a pivotal character in a number of crucial scenes throughout the series and it is the magic of his song that often makes the difference in life and death situations. Thinking about his role in three important scenes gives us an opportunity to consider the magic of song in our own lives.
Fawkes is introduced in The Chamber of Secrets, the second book of the series. He comes to Harry’s aid during his crucial confrontation with Tom Riddle in Chapter 17, “The Heir of Slytherin”. Please review that chapter if you want all the details. What I want to focus on here is J.K. Rowling’s wonderful description of the effect Fawkes’ song has on Harry. The situation is desperate and looks hopeless for Harry. Then the action is interrupted by music “coming from somewhere.” “It was eerie, spine-tingling, unearthly: it lifted the hair on Harry’s scalp and made his heart feel as though it was swelling to twice its normal size.” “…Harry felt it vibrating inside his own ribs….” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p315, Scholastic Edition)
Fawkes is announcing his imminent arrival and is not yet visible. Harry has never heard Phoenix song before and does not recognize the source of the music. It sounds unusual to him, even “unearthly”. Still, the physical and emotional effects are powerful and immediate. The magic of the song gives Harry hope and courage. It is significant that he feels it “inside” him. He is attentive to it, opens himself to it and allows it to work on him.
Fawkes’ next important musical scene is found in Goblet of Fire, the “Priori Incantatem” chapter. We are in a graveyard. Harry is in a life and death struggle with the newly resurrected Lord Valdemort. This is a pivotal moment for the entire saga and again Fawkes’ Song comes to Harry’s aid. Valdemort has aimed the killing curse, “Avada Kedavra” at Harry, who has responded with his favorite defensive spell, “Expelliarmus”. The wands “connect” - remember that each has a feather from Fawkes at its core. Harry and Valdemort are soon enclosed in a “golden, dome-shaped web, a cage of light.”
The description of the music that follows is so remarkable it is tempting to quote the passage in its entirety. If possible, review it on page 664 in the Scholastic Edition or page 576 in Bloomsbury. Here are the main points for our purposes. Again the sound is described as “unearthly” but also as “beautiful”. It is coming from the entire web surrounding Valdemort and Harry. This time, Harry recognizes it as Phoenix Song even though he as only heard it “once before in his life”. We are told specifically that the it is “the sound of hope to Harry”. As in the Chamber of Secrets, he feels the song “inside him”. Now, it is a sound he associates “with Dumbledore”.
Then comes this magical idea. “…it was almost as though a friend were speaking in his ear…” And Harry answers the music. “‘I know’, Harry told the music.”
This time, Harry has context and experience to associate with this sound. It is still unearthly, but now it is also beautiful. The only other time Harry heard this music, he was also in a desperate situation. The Song announced that help was on the way. No wonder it is now “the sound of hope to Harry”. Perhaps he can survive again. The idea that the music can be like “a friend speaking in his ear” and that Harry can be in dialogue with the music is especially powerful. Great music and great art in general invite, even require active participation from us. What is on offer is far more than mindless entertainment or cynical manipulation. But for the magic to work, we must be attentive, our imagination must be actively engaged and we need to be open to the possibility of a unique journey.
Valdemort, on the other hand, is clueless about the sound and its possible meaning. He seems confused by the whole experience, even somewhat fearful. This is actually a fairly common reaction for some people when they are exposed to music they haven’t heard before. Colonial folks were often terrified at the sound of Indigenous music making whatever continent they were on, usually projecting the worst possible meaning onto the unfamiliar sounds. Restless (and always violent) natives beating on their drums even became a Hollywood soundtrack staple, an aural stereotype.
The web of light and the music that emanates from all of its threads cocoons Harry and Valdemort, isolating them from the Deatheaters that have rushed to Valdemort’s side. This is further protection for Harry, but it also reveals the deep and mysterious connection between him and Valdemort. However their journey turns out, they will be making it together. Like it or not, they are in a relationship that must be worked out.
The third scene filled with Fawkes’ Song shows us some of the most profound magic that music can work. It is, of course, Fawkes’ Lament for Dumbledore’s death towards the end of Half Blood Prince. Harry has gathered with a number of his friends and teachers, many of whom have become his surrogate family. Together, they are grieving the loss of Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor and protector. Again the passage is so beautifully written it is worth reviewing in full. You can find it on pages 614-615 in the Scholastic Edition, page 573 in Bloomsbury. Here are a few key bits.
“… a phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before; a stricken lament of terrible beauty.” Again, Harry feels the music inside of him. “It was his own grief turned magically to song…” “…he did not know…why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning…”
Harry immediately recognizes that he is hearing a very different sort of Phoenix Song. Fawkes, great artist that he is, has responded to the loss of Dumbledore with a music of “terrible beauty”. Though we don’t often pair those words, it is the terrible beauty of Fawkes’ Lament that eases the pain of those listening by somehow making their grief audible. Superficial novelty, sentimentality and prettiness have no place here. They have no real healing power. Fawkes also honors the fallen Headmaster by gifting the Lament to his community. Rather than sitting in some tree humming quietly to himself, he offers the healing power of his Song to all who need it. Only when he has done all he can for Dumbeldore’s friends does he leave Hogwarts forever.
Have you ever experienced music that you found “unearthly”? What music makes your hair stand up and your heart swell? What music do you associate with important people and experiences in your life? Is there music that feels like a friend to you? What music brings you comfort and healing? There are no wrong answers here. Everyone’s experience is unique and conditioned by many factors. If you have never experienced those reactions, it is probably not your fault.
I think it is increasingly difficult for us to be open to the real magic of song for a number of reasons. Our devices can now surround us with music 24/7, making even the most powerful music into sonic wallpaper or a pleasant but meaningless soundtrack for our lives. As a result, we are rarely attentive to music in a way that will allow it to work its magic on us. Also, much of the music we now hear is made from stock ideas or overly familiar tracks that are being used in an attempt to manipulate us in some way. Here comes the sappy piano music. That means I am supposed to feel a certain way. Here come the thrashing drums. That means I am supposed to feel another way. Here is a track I have known for years. That means I am supposed to feel good about buying this car/cell phone/booze/whatever. How do we let music in without feeling manipulated? How do we even recognize music of real power when we are constantly bombarded with calculated, mass-produced poser music?
I agree with W.A. Mathieu’s suggestion that we need to protect our ears. “Pay attention to what you are hearing, what you are subjecting your ears to. You have to know when to say ‘come in’ and when to say ‘stay out’”. ( W.A. Mathieu / The Listening Book, p15).
How best to do this will be different for each of us. Here are some things that I have found helpful, some of them adapted from The Listening Book. I try to set aside time each day to sit and listen carefully, to practice attentiveness. Sometimes I will go outside to a place where I feel comfortable and my ears feel safe being all the way open. Other times, I might listen to music. The music may be new to me or very familiar. It can be any style or genre. What matters is that I choose it with intention and give it my undivided attention. Undivided means just that. During listening time, there will be no cell phone, no eating, no talking, no TV, etc. Those of us who are music and audio geeks have usually been trained to analyze and make judgements as we listen. That part of our brain needs to be switched off for this. Figuring out how it works can wait.
Of course, if we are to allow ourselves to be completely open to a sound source, we need to choose the source carefully. Any sound that might cause physical damage to your hearing is unacceptable. I do not hesitate to cover my ears in public spaces if the sounds seem overly loud or aggressive. I will leave places to protect my ears if need be. Nobody can tell you what music should or should not be meaningful to you. Still, there is no denying that some music delivers toxic messages and world views. When I encounter it, I take Mathieu’s advice and say “stay out”. Since advertisers sometimes use music I care about to try and sell me something, I mute the sound during commercial breaks. I’ve chosen not to finish a movie just because of a lame soundtrack. OK, I might be an extreme case.
I also agree with Dumbeldore that music is a magic beyond anything that is taught at Hogwarts. There are those who will try to use its power to manipulate, coerce, even attack us. Dictators and colonizers always attempt to impose their musical preferences as a means of silencing dissent, controlling target populations and committing cultural genocide. Dominant commercial culture also wants its manufactured trivia to be seen as the only game in town, the better to sell us stuff and shape our opinions. The best way to defend against these Dark Arts is to be attentive, protect our hearing and decide for ourselves what gets into our minds and hearts by way of our ears. If we choose well, we can safely invite the Song inside us where it can work its powerful magic.