The Trouble with Trelawney
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Sybil Trelawney, the Hogwarts professor, can be difficult character to defend if you’re going to say that the Harry Potter series is a good series, and especially if you’re going to say that it’s both a Christian and moral series of stories (which I do).
Spoiler alert—this post talks about the end of the Harry Potter series!
First, I’ll explain why there is some legitimate concern about Trelawney as a character
Then I’ll show you what I think Rowling is doing with her as a character in the story
And finally, I’ll show you how I did it, and how you can do the same thing that I did here with other characters in other stories, too.
Why is Professor Sybil Trelawney a Problem?
For parents and teachers who are concerned about the magic and the occult in the Harry Potter stories, her character can be a very difficult one to explain. That’s especially true when you take into consideration some of the other cultural movements that were popular when J.K. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter series.
In particular, what was called the “New Age Movement”
During the 1980s and 1990s, the New Age Movement was really popular in both the US and Europe. People involved in it were constantly on different talk shows, there were a huge number of books published on various aspects of it, retreats, “gurus” that promised enlightenment, etc. Oprah Winfrey was (and still seems to be) a big proponent of many of the ideas associated with it.
Just like Professor Sybil Trelawney does…
Most of the magic in the Harry Potter stories is fairy tale magic, not magic as it’s practiced in real life. But Sybil Trelawney does use methods to try to predict the future that are also used in real life.
This is why I can definitely understand why people may be concerned about the stories—at least while they were still being written (I address a lot of the issues for Catholics in the Harry Potter series, especially the magic, in a series of blog posts here: www.amyemackinnon.com/blog/categories/harry-potter).
I think that Rowling is doing something different with Trelawney as a character:
She’s making fun of the New Age and occult practices
She shows that the "predictions" are as accurate as random guesses
She then shows the conversion of Trelawney
Trelawney’s conversion took time though—it definitely wasn’t instantaneous! She was introduced in the 3rd book: Prisoner of Azkaban. She’s a minor character, but she shows up periodically throughout the rest of the series, and she's almost always treated disparagingly by other characters. Even the times when she's not treated badly, the other characters still hold a very dim view of her practices.
In Prisoner of Azkaban, she’s teaching divination, and Trelawney uses all kinds of methods of telling the future:
Reading tea leaves
Using a crystal ball
But no one ever believes her!
She’s treated with contempt by almost all of the other characters—both teachers and students—and sometimes they’re very obvious about it (*cough* Hermione *cough*).
When Harry and Ron do their homework for her class, which usually involves predicting things, nothing ever works, so instead they make everything up. What’s interesting, is that everything they make up actually happens, and so does everything that Trelawney predicts. They have the same success rate for their predictions.
So you can see why there’s some real concern about using her as a character.
But this only at the beginning of her introduction in the series.
How Does Trelawney Change?
Throughout the series, the other characters have a very dim view of her, and look disgusted whenever her name is brought up. For the most part, she’s treated with contempt by the other professors—but not by Dumbledore.
But at the end of the last book, what she does at the Battle of Hogwarts is VERY important because it shows her conversion.
From the moment that she’s introduced in the story, Rowling gives us a lot of hints that this is what will happen, and those hints come from her name and her lineage:
Her great grandmother: Cassandra
Her first name: Sybil
Rowling uses the names of persons, objects, places, and spells in the series to give hints to readers. When she gives us Professor Trelawney’s grandmother’s name, which is Cassandra, and then her first name, which is Sybil, she’s telling us a lot about this character.
Cassandra is the famous seer during the Trojan War. The god Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy, but with two conditions:
She would always tell the truth when she predicted the future
No one would ever believe her predictions
Trelawney, the granddaughter of a woman named Cassandra, made a lot of predictions that always come true—even though no one ever believed her. In one instance, even she didn’t believe her own prophecy!
Also interesting, is that all the things that Harry and Ron make up—ALSO come true!
What is Rowling doing with this? She’s completely mocking the practice of fortune-telling.
Why is the name SIBYL important?
Because it tells us A LOT about two of Trelawney’s prophecies, and what will happen at the end of the last story.
In the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Michelangelo has painted 12 prophets, both male and female. Each of these prophets predicted the coming of the Messiah. He included both male and female prophets:
7 Male prophets from the Old Testament
5 Female prophets from paganism—or the Classical World
The 5 female prophets are called, “Sibyls.”
(There’s more on Wikipedia about the Sibyls here)
Sibyl Trelawney receives 2 major prophecies, both of them are related to Harry—and it’s not just because the series is named after him (well, it kind of is...).
Harry starts out as an “everyman” character, but in the last book he becomes a blatant Christ figure. Sibyl’s first “real” prophecy is believed by Snape and Voldemort, and—with some reservations—by Dumbledore and Harry.
None of them quite know what to make of them until the end, but they do believe them. It's because Snape overheard the prophecy and told Voldemort about it, that Voldemort tries to kill Harry when he's a baby.
And both of those prophecies are made about Harry as a type of Christ in the story.
Harry fulfills that prophecy and takes on the role of the "Christ figure" in the last book, and especially in the last chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
This is also where you see the evidence of Sybil’s conversion at the Battle of Hogwarts.
The Death Eaters are followers of Voldemort; they embrace death and follow the character who is the symbol of the devil.
This is the point in the series where anyone who has been on the fence about fighting Voldemort and his Death Eaters, or denies the reality of Voldemort’s return, has reached the point where they have to choose between good and evil.
There are no other options, because this is symbolic of the final choice we all make between going to Heaven or Hell. That point is at the Battle of Hogwarts—the symbolic final battle between good and evil.
What does Sybil do to show that she’s converted?
She freely chooses to align herself with the Christ figure in the end
She treats her crystal balls like they’re just round rocks
She hurls them like canon balls at the “demon” figures while she fights on the side of Christ
She is symbolically rejecting the practices of fortune-telling that she's engaged in, and choosing to be on the side of the Savior.
Symbolically, Sybil also fulfills the prophecy inherent in her name. She, like Michelangelo's sybils, predicted the coming of the savior, and like Cassandra, she isn't believed.
When the Christ figure appears, she rejects evil and embraces what is truly good.
How did I figure all of this out?
YOU can figure this out, too!
It's a result of using critical thinking skills. Here's how:
Begin first with simple observation: what actually happened in the story? Not just the beginning of the story, or selected points in the story, but the entire story. So read the entire story first. Choosing specific details comes later.
Second, look for change: most characters, particularly the main characters in a story, change because they’ve gone through some type of transformation. Look for places in the story where you can see the changes take place. It may be a challenge or a struggle, but the character will go through a period of suffering which causes change. The character may reject those opportunities to change at times, but they are still important to notice.
Next, identify the symbols that the author uses in the story:
What are they?
What do they mean?
How are they used?
Symbols are multivalent by nature, so one object or reference can refer to many different things. This is where reading a lot of stories from different times and places, and in different genres, is helpful. The symbols may not just refer to other stories; they may also refer to other things.
The symbols may include references to:
Figures or events from mythology
Works of art
Other stories and authors
In most stories, it’s easier to do this with the main character than with supporting characters.
The reason for this is because it’s the primary character, or the hero of the story, that undergoes a change or is transformed. Some supporting characters will change (like Trelawney) but not always.
The point of a story is to show how the hero/protagonist is transformed by the end.
Thinking through all of this requires critical thinking skills, but at the same time it also helps to develop them! Some things, like understanding symbols and how they work, require critical thinking skills along with the ability to engage in abstract thought.
You can figure this all out on your own, and how to teach it to your students, just using the information and process that I went through in this blog post.
But if you want that process laid out for you, you can use the lesson plans that I created that do that. I break the process down into steps in a series of exercises that allow you to teach your students how to do all of this, too.
The questions in the lesson plans guide students through the process of thinking through:
Observing what happens in a story
Noticing the transformation of a character
Looking closely to see where the author shows readers how the transformation happens
Challenging students to see the deeper meaning in stories by noticing the references and symbols the author incorporates into the story
Each of the series of lesson plans can be used for multiple ages and developmental levels. I’ve added challenges to some of the exercises to help students develop more complex thinking skills and to delve deeper into the meanings of stories.
This is why they can be used either in classrooms or for homeschooling where you’re teaching kids at different levels, but still teaching all of them the same basic lessons at the same time.
If you'd like to learn how to do that with other characters in fictional stories, I show you how to do what I just did--and how to teach it--in my series of lesson plans.