[This is the fourth essay in a series on numerology in the Harry Potter books. The previous essay -- "Harry Potter Numerology: Three (Stability)" -- was published on September 4, 2012.]
Last time we looked at how the Number Three in the Harry Potter series represents Stability. The Number Four, then, represents… you guessed it: Instability. And here Rowling does more than adopt ancient interpretations of a significant number; she adds her own twist to the underlying meaning of Four.
Throughout the ancient world, many cultures — including the Pythagoreans, Mayans, Etruscans and Chinese — believed that Four represented the natural order of the physical world. There are the four seasons, four directions, four elements, four bodily humors, the four winds, etc. (Schimmel 86-90). It is the first number with which one can describe three-dimensional space: the pyramid can be plotted with only four points. And to psychologist Carl Jung, four seemed “to be an ideal symbol of the ordering” of the world (Schimmel 104).
Although the Number Four symbolized natural order and balance for the ancients, whenever one encounters a tetrad in Harry Potter’s world, it signals instability – like that table in the Hogshead inn whose four legs don’t all quite meet the floor on the same plane. It teeters and totters until somebody wedges a folded piece of parchment beneath the wobbly leg. In fact, tetrads in Harry Potter behave like balanced triads with an extra, unbalancing member—
- Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff Houses unbalanced by Slytherin
- The four Hogwarts founders unbalanced by Salazar Slytherin
- The Tri-Wizard Tournament: three legitimate champions unbalanced by the unexpected Harry
- The Four Magical Brethren: centaurs, house elves and goblins unbalanced (sadly) by mankind, that is, witches and wizards who have made the other three species second-class citizens
- The Marauders: Mooney, Padfoot and Prongs unbalanced by Wormtail
- Vernon, Petunia and Dudley Dursley unbalanced by Harry
- Harry, Ron and Hermione unbalanced by various suitors (e.g. Viktor Krum, Lavender Brown, Cormac McLaggen)
Like that wobbly table leg, Four is an unsteady number in Harry’s world. J.K. Rowling wrote “For no very good reason, I have never been fond of the number four, which has always struck me as a rather hard and unforgiving number, which is why I slapped it on the Dursleys’ front door!” (“Number Four, Privet Drive,” Pottermore.com).
“Hogwart’s Professor” John Granger explains in Unlocking Harry Potter that groups of four are intended to be in harmony, but can get out of balance when they don’t work to a common purpose. Take, for instance, the four bodily humors believed by medieval European scholars to regulate the body – choler, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. If doctors thought a person had an excess of one or another of the humors, they’d attempt to “bleed” out the excess, or otherwise try to restore the body’s balance. Ayurvedic and Taoist medical traditions refer to the “resolution of contraries” when one of the four elemental qualities of the body is out of balance – hot, cold, wet or dry. Like medieval European doctors, Asian healers attempt to rebalance a body’s elements (Granger 82-88).
Rowling conceived of each of the four Hogwarts Houses as one of the elements: Gryffindor is fire (its house color is red), Ravenclaw is air (housed in a high tower), Hufflepuff is earth (housed underground), and Slytherin is water (housed beneath the Black Lake). She explained in an interview, “So again, it was this idea of harmony and balance, that you had four necessary components and by integrating them you would make a very strong place. But they remain fragmented, as we know” (Spartz, Part III).
Each of the Tri-Wizard tasks also represents one or more of the elements. Stealing the dragon’s egg represents fire and air. Rescuing the captives from the bottom of the lake is water, and the journey through the maze represents earth. It is the fourth, the unexpected task in the graveyard, that topples the entire tournament (and the wizarding world!).
Furthermore, the four Horcruxes associated with the four Hogwarts founders require Harry to face the four elements in order to retrieve them. Slytherin’s locket is hidden across a lake, beneath a basin of water. Hufflepuff’s cup is locked in the subterranean vaults below Gringott’s. Harry battles through air and fire to retrieve Ravenclaw’s diadem. Harry himself, the unexpected Gryffindor Horcrux, topples all of Voldemort’s plans.
Granger likens the process of rebalancing the fours in the Harry Potter series to the alchemical process of transforming disparate elements into a new, unified whole (Granger 83-86). Rowling notes that working together, the four Hogwarts houses could even “achieve perfect unity and wholeness… they will achieve harmony” (Spartz Part III).
But the question remains at the end of the series… will the four houses ever achieve balance and unity, or will they continue to wobble, like a four-legged table out of whack?
Granger, John. Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. Wayne, PA: Zossima Press, 2007.
Rowling, J.K. “Number Four, Privet Drive.” Pottermore.com. 2012.
Schimmel, Annemarie. The Mystery of Numbers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Spartz, Emerson. “MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron Interview with Joanne Kathleen Rowling.” MuggleNet.com. 16 July 2005.