My name is Leah Miller and I am entering my final year of undergraduate work, studying English and Women and Gender studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, USA. I visited the Royal Society in early June as part of my ‘Six Degrees of Harry Potter’ UK study trip.
I have always been curious about the origins of the creatures found within the Harry Potter series, and whether they came from J K Rowling’s imagination, mythology, or other sources. Rowling’s incorporation of different varieties of beasts allows her books to straddle the line between fantasy and fact, as many of her creatures can be found in different types of texts throughout history.
Our group visit to the Royal Society allowed us to explore the resources of the Society’s Library, searching for connections between science, British history and Harry Potter. There were many ways to relate the Potter series back to the early scientific interests of Royal Society Fellows, from studies of the ‘art of flying’ to mentions of alchemy. One of the most exciting moments for our class, however, was the chance to see a woodcut illustration of a basilisk, or in Latin ‘basiliscus’, as depicted by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605).
Aldrovandi was a pioneering collector of natural historical specimens, and his work acts as an example of the change in thinking that came with the Scientific Revolution, a shift in focus towards observation and experiment which began in the mid-sixteenth century. His profession as a naturalist and professor of natural sciences at the University of Bologna was part of this new approach to knowledge and the natural world. However, Aldrovandi was working in an era when it was still common to place observational studies of real creatures alongside literary reports of fabulous beasts and extraordinary monsters. This means that his books are not entirely credible to modern eyes, but still provide insights into the development of science.
The basilisk image is found within Aldrovandi’s catalogue of ‘Serpentum et draconum’ (serpents and dragons), published posthumously in 1640. The translation of the Latin term ‘basiliscus’ is ‘little king, serpent’, so the illustration in Aldrovandi’s catalogue portrays the creature as a reptile with a small crown resting upon its head. As many fans of the Potter books know, the basilisk first makes its appearance in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, in the form of a large snake whose fang holds the power to destroy one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Despite these different portrayals of the basilisk, it is clear that Rowling’s majestic creature comes not only from her imagination but also from real natural philosophers such as Aldrovandi.
In addition to Aldrovandi’s influence on J K Rowling’s series of magic and fantasy, I believe Daniel Handler (pen name: Lemony Snicket) may also have been inspired by this historical figure. Uncle Monty in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ seems loosely based on Aldrovandi, as both men share an interest in cataloging creatures, specifically reptiles, and have a reputation for juxtaposing the real and the unlikely. After learning more about Aldrovandi, I am finding that several pieces of children’s literature may derive from him and his findings. Thus, the formative years of the Scientific Revolution seem to play a prominent role in many stories that incorporate the natural world, knowledge formation, fantasy and imagination.
A version of this article originally appeared on Leah’s Tumblr blog.