Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: Minerva McGonagall, the Matriarch


In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Minerva McGonagall

Because Molly Weasley is generally the go-to mother figure of the Harry Potter series, we often overlook the maternal instinct and behavior of one Professor Minerva McGonagall—or, perhaps more aptly (or as I prefer to call her, anyway), Momma McG.  

Throughout the series, although stern and seemingly no-nonsense, McGonagall proves herself beyond the constraints of the strict educator trope. Her sense of humor may be well-hidden, but her fierce protectiveness is both evident and not to be trifled with. While she is one to dole out punishments when necessary, she knows where to draw the line and is either appalled at or dismissive of anyone who suggests crossing it. She won’t allow jurisdiction to be taken away from her, especially when the well-being of her students is at stake.

The reader is offered a more comprehensive look at McGonagall when we first meet her than her students are. While they see a severe-looking woman, the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone introduces her as a woman dealing with grief and the post-war reconstruction of the Wizarding world. When Dumbledore confirms the rumors of Lily and James Potter’s death, she says, “Lily and James… I can’t believe it… I didn’t want to believe it…” and later she “pulled out a lace handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes beneath her spectacles.” McGonagall is clearly a softer heart than she lets on later, and the loss of her former students and cohorts in the Order of the Phoenix immediately shatters that façade.

Later, when Harry first displays his natural flying ability, McGonagall’s relationship with his parents is further hinted at. McGonagall’s Quidditch mania is present in nearly all of the books, and she takes this opportunity to tell Harry, “Your father would have been proud. He was an excellent Quidditch player himself.”

Personally I like to think that McGonagall and James strategized and bonded over their love of the sport and desire to trounce Slytherin in every match. Even if that isn’t the canonical case, it says something for her character to share this information with Harry, who knows next to nothing about his parents and has never elicited pride from the family he has left. It is exceptionally decent and kind of McGonagall to give Harry this piece of his father, and goes to show that she cares about his emotional well-being. She was, after all, witness to the sort of people the Dursleys are when she spied on them eleven years previously, and was so appalled that she insisted Dumbledore not leave Harry with them. Since her protests came to no satisfactory result, giving Harry a sense of pride is probably the next best thing.

It’s not only to Harry that McGonagall offers such reassurance. In response to Neville’s attempts to please his strict grandmother in Half-Blood Prince, McGonagall tells him, “It’s high time your grandmother learned to be proud of the grandson she’s got, rather than the one she thinks she ought to have — particularly after what happened at the Ministry.”

She offers the self-conscious Neville the praise and comfort he needs, and goes on to put a spring in his step when she tells him that his grandmother perhaps needs reminding that she failed her own Charms O.W.L. McGonagall recognizes Neville’s need to be validated, and she gives him this boost because he not only needs it, but has earned it. She believes that respect is earned, and encourages that to help her students to build character.  

McGonagall’s protective instinct kicks into a more obvious overdrive in Goblet of Fire, when Harry is announced the unintentional fourth champion of the Triwizard Tournament. Directly following the Goblet’s decision, while the likes of Madame Maxime, Karkaroff, and Snape insist that Harry finagled his way into the competition, McGonagall jumps to both his and Dumbledore’s defense:

"“Harry could not have crossed the line himself, and as Professor Dumbledore believes that he did not persuade an older student to do it for him, I’m sure that should be good enough for everybody else!”She shot a very angry look at Professor Snape."

She believes that respect is earned, and encourages that to help her students to build character.  

Once it’s confirmed that Harry has no choice but to compete, McGonagall’s anxiety only worsens by the morning of the first task.

"She didn’t seem herself either; in fact, she looked nearly as anxious as Hermione. As she walked him down the stone steps and out into the cold November afternoon, she put her hand on his shoulder.“Now, don’t panic,” she said, “just keep a cool head…. We’ve got wizards standing by to control the situation if it gets out of hand…. The main thing is to just do your best, and nobody will think any the worse of you…. Are you all right?”“You’re to go in here with the other champions,” said Professor McGonagall, in a rather shaky sort of voice, “and wait for your turn, Potter. Mr. Bagman is in there… he’ll be telling you the — the procedure…. Good luck.”"

Rowling’s choice of words and ellipses placement are both telling clues to McGonagall’s mental state in this moment. She offers Harry both physical and verbal comfort, although her own worry is apparent in her shaking voice and stream of encouragements; it seems as if she is trying to convince herself of Harry’s safety as much as she’s trying to reassure him.

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"“That was excellent, Potter!” cried Professor McGonagall as he got off the Firebolt — which from her was extravagant praise. He noticed that her hand shook as she pointed at his shoulder."

Proud mama bear she might be at the first task’s end, but she still worries over Harry’s injuries as much as Madam Pomfrey, albeit less impatiently and fretfully. 

The events of the Triwizard Tournament come to a head at the end of Goblet of Fire, when the imposter Moody is revealed and McGonagall, Dumbledore, and Snape come to apprehend him. While the latter two go about dealing with Barty Crouch, Jr., McGonagall’s concern is all for Harry.

"Professor McGonagall went straight to Harry.“Come along, Potter,” she whispered. The thin line of her mouth was twitching as though she was about to cry. “Come along… hospital wing…”“No,” said Dumbledore sharply.“Dumbledore, he ought to — look at him — he’s been through enough tonight —”"

McGonagall cares little for the details that brought Harry to this point, and entirely for Harry’s well-being. Since this interaction takes place so soon after Harry’s reemergence from the maze, we can safely assume that the details of Cedric’s death are yet to be known, but McGonagall knows that that’s enough, and that Harry shouldn’t be expected to take on any more just yet.

If McGonagall’s behavior toward Harry in Goblet of Fire is motherly, it only heightens in intensity in Order of the Phoenix. Her maternal instinct goes beyond Harry to all the students of Hogwarts, as well as her coworkers when Trelawney and Hagrid alike are mistreated by Dolores Umbridge. She comes to Hagrid’s defense when he’s being unceremoniously attacked in the middle of the night, and even comforts Trelawney—a fellow teacher she’s never harbored warm feelings for—when she’s being sacked. McGonagall’s personal objections to Trelawney aside, she doesn’t stand to see anyone mistreated when they’ve done nothing to deserve it, especially when they’re so clearly downtrodden as it is.   

All in all, McGonagall’s defiance of Umbridge can be seen nearly every time the two encounter each other, and it usually surfaces when Umbridge is attacking someone in some way or another. (And let us not forget that in the battle between Umbridge and the denizens of Hogwarts, McGonagall instructs Peeves on precisely how to unscrew that chandelier. That’s one for the history books.)

Deathly Hallows is another book in which we see McGonagall continue to step up to protect her students. While she only makes it into a couple of chapters in the final installment, she owns those pages so that her presence is as electrifying as ever. When Amycus Carrow plots to blame the students for calling Voldemort to the castle under false pretenses, she states, “You are not going to pass of your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”

It’s a threat and an insult all rolled up in one, because nobody’s got style like Momma McG.

She goes on to place the protective charms over Hogwarts to postpone Voldemort and his Death Eaters for as long as possible, and she pulls her wand on Snape as soon as he mentions Harry (which translates to her pushing Harry out of the way to duel Snape in the film, which is one change the movies made that I can totally get behind). When her students are put in danger, McGonagall wastes no time in stepping up to the plate, taking the bat to her opponents, and knocking them straight out of the park. She commands respect from her students, and earns it tenfold whenever she meets the forces that would dare to threaten them on her watch.

Harry loses father figures throughout the series—Sirius, Lupin, Dumbledore—but those who take him under their wing in his mother’s stead never falter. Molly Weasley is always around to fuss over him, and even Hermione lends him some much-needed motherly advice now and again. McGonagall, meanwhile, is always waiting in the background, watching over Harry as assuredly as she’d watched the Dursleys so many years before. She’s constantly looking out for Harry’s health, both physical and emotional, and she steps in at every available opportunity to make sure that he makes it through in one piece. Harry needs her as much as any of the other mentors who cross his path, and not once does she let him down. 

Next: On Lily Evans and Sexism

Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.