Beatrice Groves – The Winter Solstice and Beira, Queen of Winter

We are today (21st December 2022) at the darkest part of the year for the Northern Hemisphere: the winter solstice. The shadows are long and the golden days of Summer seem a long time ago. Now is the perfect time to push your stool a little closer to the fire, and warm your hands on a mug of tea the colour of creosote. Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: The Winter Solstice and Beira, Queen of Winter.

The Winter Solstice and Beira, Queen of Winter

Today is the shortest day of the year, the day when – according to Scottish legend (as retold by Donald A. Mackenzie in his Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend [1917] – Beira, Queen of Winter, sits waiting beside the Well of Youth. The Well’s waters will be at their most powerful on the dawn of the first lengthening day, and so she waits all night to be first to taste them:

The waters of the Well of Youth are most potent when the days begin to grow longer, and most potent of all on the first of the lengthening days of spring. Beira always visited the island on the night before the first lengthening day–that is, on the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter. All alone in the darkness she sat beside the Well of Youth, waiting for the dawn. When the first faint beam of light appeared in the/ eastern sky, she drank the water as it bubbled fresh from a crevice in the rock. It was necessary that she should drink of this magic water before any bird visited the well and before any dog barked. If a bird drank first, or a dog barked ere she began to drink, dark old Beira would crumble into dust. (Mackenzie, Wonder Tales, 23-24)

JK Rowling opened Beira’s Place in Scotland in the depths of winter and the name is apposite for both the timing & location, as well as for the sense in which the women who seek shelter there will be enduring a harsh period in their own lives. If Harry Potter has taught us anything, however, it is that Rowling does not choose names lightly, and ‘Beira’ embodies not simply winteriness but female strength and endurance. Beira is the ‘fierce Queen of Winter’ – a version of the Divine Hag and a feminine embodiment of the wilderness – but she is also a goddess of renewal. She drinks from the Well of Youth as the year turns and survives, and thrives, another year:

As soon as Beira tasted the magic water, in silence and alone, she began to grow young again. She left the island and, returning to Scotland, fell into a magic sleep. When, at length, she awoke, in bright sunshine, she rose up as a beautiful girl with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues. (Mackenzie, Wonder Tales, 24) 

Beira is, therefore, a brilliant choice of name, encapsulating as it does both the power of endurance and the promise of renewal.

It is a name which fits particularly well with one of the names in Harry Potter, for Rowling likewise chose the name of a Celtic goddess as the patroness of a rather different establishment: Rosmerta’s place aka The Three Broomsticks. In one of my favourite early Potter-jottings Rowling notes ‘Rosmerta “Good purveyor”’ – providing evidence for her fascination with the etymology of names.

Rosmerta takes her moniker from the Celtic goddess of abundance – “‘ro-’ is an intensifying prefix, ‘smert-’ means ‘looking after, providing’” – and her name evokes not only her job as a provider of food and drink but also her warm, open nature.

Another aspect of Beira’s story resonates with another of Rowling’s Celtic names – that of her hero Cormoran Strike. As Christian Fisher notes Cormoran is a Cornish, mountain-dwelling giant: ‘didn’t he live in St Michael’s Mount, the giant Cormoran?’ (Silkworm, 29). Cormoran’s story derives from explanatory myths about the Cornish landscape and Beira, likewise, is a shaper of landscape – a creator of lochs, looser of rivers and a builder of mountains. When she sits on Ben Nevis as her throne, she seems connected with larger myths and the numinous power with which religions throughout the world have perceived in mountains, but at other times she seems to derive from the local topography like Cormoran: ‘all the hills in Ross-shire are said to have been made by Beira’ (Mackenzie, Wonder Tales, 27). In folklore studies this is known as a ‘geotechtonic role’ and it may well be the oldest aspect of her legend (in Scotland she is associated more with mountains, in Ireland with rivers – it is even possible that the rivers of the Shannon and the Boyne are named after her Irish incarnation, Cailleach Bhéarra).

In particular, just like Cormoran living within St Michel’s Mount, Beira builds Scottish mountains as homes for her sons: 

Beira set herself to build the mountains of Scotland… One of the reasons why Beira made the mountains was to use them as stepping stones; another was to provide houses for her giant sons. Many of her sons were very quarrelsome; they fought continually one against another. To punish those of them who disobeyed her, Beira shut the offenders up in mountain houses, and from these they could not escape without her permission. But this did not keep them from fighting. Every morning they climbed to the tops of their mountain houses and threw great boulders at one another. That is why so many big grey boulders now lie on steep slopes and are scattered through the valleys. (Mackenzie, Wonder Tales, 28)

Cormoran – like Beira’s sons – is a belligerent mountain-dwelling giant, although he is bested, as Strike mentions in Silkworm, by Jack ‘of beanstalk fame’ (29). A story published in Glasgow a hundred years before Mackenzie’s Wonder TalesJack the Giant-Killer; being the History of all His Wonderful Exploits Against the Giants (1820) – tells of how:

In the reign of King Arthur, there lived near the Land’s-end of England, a worthy farmer, who had an only son, named Jack… In those days there lived on St. Michael’s Mount of Cornwall, which rises out of the sea, at some distance from the main land, a huge giant. He was eighteen feet high, and three yards round; and his fierce and savage looks were the terror of all his neighbours. 

The use of folktales – such as Beira’s or Cormoran’s – to explain geographical features is at once a universal aspect of myth, and something that ties those stories intimately to specific regions. Jack o’ Kent, for example (a folkloric bogeyman after whom one of the characters in Lethal White is named) is a Welsh version of the same character type as the Cornish Jack – though he goes one further as it is the devil, rather than a giant, whom he regularly bests. Jack o’ Kent hails from Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, and – just as with Cormoran and Beira’s myths – his legends are origin stories for local geological formations:

Jack is said to have bet the Devil that the Sugar Loaf Mountain was higher than the Malvern Hills. When Jack proved the Devil wrong, the Devil tried to put more soil on top of the Malvern Hills, but his carrier broke and dropped at the end of the island forming a lump.

The cleft in the western part of Skirrid is said to have been caused by Jack’s heel as he jumped onto it from the Sugar Loaf Mountain.

The standing stones at Trelleck are said to have been thrown there by Jack, the result of a stone-throwing competition held on Trelleck Beacon between him and the Devil.

Beira, Cormoran and Jack o’ Kent are all Celtic legends to which Rowling has referred in her post-Potter work – but I think all three have some overlap with aspects of Harry Potter suggesting that they may have been myths that have been part of Rowling’s imaginative furniture for a while.

Firstly, one of the Jack o’ Kent stories connects with the most folkloric moment in Harry Potter: ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers.’ As I’ve discussed in detail in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, this evocative story draws mainly on Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale. But there is an aspect of a traditional trickster tale underlying it likewise – in which the trickster bests the supernatural force – something which is not present in Chaucer’s story. In ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’ Death feels ‘cheated out of three new victims’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 21) when they use their magical skill to build a bridge, but the youngest brother also cheats him a second time, having sufficient skill to outwit Death’s own tricksy gifts. Jack o’ Kent (like Ignotus Peverell) is sometimes said to be wizard, and he likewise beats ‘Death’ (or, in his case the Devil) who expects to kill him after they have made a deal about building a bridge: ‘Jack asks the Devil to help him build a bridge, promising him the first soul that crosses it. They build the bridge and then Jack tosses a bone over the bridge and a hungry dog runs across’. Ignotus, like Jack builds a bridge in despite of Death and outwits Death of the soul he thought he was owed.

The Cornish trickster figure of Jack likewise runs rings round much stronger opponents – and one of his stories has particularly Potterish overtones. Jack lies to a three-headed giant, telling him that a vast army is coming and so tricks the giant into allowing Jack to lock the giant in the giant’s own cellar (during which time Jack carouses to his heart’s content and steals all the giant’s food). The giant is so grateful for his escape that he asks Jack to take anything he desires – and Jack tells him that he wants nothing in recompense but the old coat and cap, rusty sword and slippers hanging by his bed. The giant tells him: ‘the coat will keep you invisible; the cap will give you knowledge; the sword cut through any thing; and the shoes are of vast swiftness.’ Jack attacks the next giant he meets while wearing this invisibility coat, and the violent farce that results has some of the same slapstick comedy as Harry throwing mud at Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle while under the invisibility cloak: ‘[the giant] could not see who had given him the blow; yet he took up his iron club, and began to lay about him like mad with pain and fury’ (Jack the Giant-Killer, 20).

The coat of invisibility has the clearest connection with Harry Potter but a number of the magical objects Jack receives from the giant have a particular affinity with Rowling’s Horcruxes and Hallows – her most important magical objects. There is not only a coat which bestows invisibility, but also an unbeatable sword (like the unbeatable wand) and a cap that conveys knowledge (just as the Diadem of Ravenclaw, a headdress which ‘bestows wisdom’ [Deathly Hallows, 495]). Three-quarters of Jack’s fabulous objects, in fact, recall the magical objects at the centre of Harry Potter

Rowling has cited a number of traditional mythic and literary sources for her Hallows and Horcruxes, such as the late medieval Welsh tradition of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the medieval Irish myth of the Four Jewels. There is an interesting overlap here because the invisibility cloak in the Thirteen Treasures of Britain is likewise a Cornish treasure: the Cornish Mantle of Arthur. And the Cornish folk tale of Jack the Giant Killer has, likewise, been infolded into an Arthurian narrative. Jack uses his coat of invisibility to save a lady who then marries King Arthur’s son and Arthur, in gratitude, makes Jack ‘a knight of the round table’ (Jack the Giant-Killer, 18). It seems possible that the Cornish Mantle of Arthur and Jack’s coat of invisibility have a common folk ancestry – and either way it seems likely that Harry’s invisibility cloak has a Cornish ancestry.

I am always interested in finding possible new literary sources – such as Jack the Giant Killer – for Rowling’s work and her recent reference to Beira makes it plausible that she is aware of Mackenzie’s Wonder Tales. (Certainly there seems little else easily available on Beira – I’d be interested if any Hogwarts Professor readers had a prior knowledge of her!). Her choice of Beira also strengthens evidence, already present in her writing, that she is interested in Celtic mythology. It is also evocative for the possible use of the symbolism of the winter solstice in Harry Potter – a topic I shall cover in the future – for this is an important day in Beira’s story. It is turn of the year from shortening to lengthening days when Beira ‘renews her youth, so that she may live through the summer and autumn and begin to reign once again’ (Mackenzie, Wonder Tales, 31).

All of Dr Groves’ on line Rowling scholarship can be found in the Beatrice Groves Pillar Post.

Beatrice Groves – The Winter Solstice and Beira, Queen of Winter