In the very first chapter of the very first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Professor McGonagall says of Harry, “—every child in our world will know his name!” In fact, every child in our world was destined to know the name of Rowling’s cultural icon, whether through the award winning books or best selling films bearing his name.
Of course, within the narrative it’s easy to explain why Harry Potter should be a legend; he defeated evil incarnate before he mastered gross motor skills. But what is it about the Harry Potter saga that struck such a lasting chord in our culture?
The final answer may come down to a certain bit of luck and maybe a touch of magic, but that should never be confused with accidental. If J.K. Rowling is nothing else, she is a planner. She took seven years to complete the first book. Much of that time was spent world building, creating backstories for every single character: boxes and boxes of information that would never see the inside of a book for everyone from Ron Weasley to Hannah Abbott.
Or perhaps the story resonates because Rowling pulled inspiration from so many ingrained tales. From Arthurian legends to ancient myths and British boarding school narratives to old-school mysteries, the plot is based upon the classics that have stood the test of time.
Rowling also imbued her magical world with inspirations from the celestial (the entire Black family) to the religious (St. Hedwig is often associated with orphaned or abandoned children) and, of course, the biological (plants and flowers).
The only place to begin a conversation about plant and flower symbolism in Harry Potter is with Lily Potter, née Evans. Her actions are the catalyst for the entire series. Without her sacrifice no spell of protection would have been cast, no accidental horcrux would have been created and Harry would have been just another casualty of Voldemort.
Given Lily’s importance in this narrative and J.K. Rowling’s impressive amount of research, lilies pop up in the story in many unexpected and enlightening ways.
Lilies Symbolize the Purity and Goodness Lily Potter Embodies
There are many types of lilies in existence and as a very popular flower, many cultures have made their own associations. In the Victorian language of flowers, white lilies represented purity and sweetness; yellow lilies represented falsehood and gaiety; lilies of the valley represented a return of happiness, and water lilies represented the purity of heart.
Image: Bright pink water lilies.
All of these meanings can be attributed to Lily Potter at one point or another, but the most obvious is her purity and sweetness. Though we only know about her nature through flashbacks and stories from those who knew her, the common consensus is that Lily Potter was an incredibly good, kind person. As Professor Slughorn states, “I don’t imagine anyone who met her wouldn’t have liked her… Very brave… Very funny…” (Half-Blood Prince)
True, not many people will speak ill of the dead, especially those who have died under such noble circumstances, but the faults of James Potter were laid bare and no such accusations were ever leveled against Lily.
Lily’s goodness and purity of heart are represented in her long-term friendship of Severus Snape, even standing up to James and Sirius when they bullied him. Her goodness is also evident in the fact that despite her initial dislike of James, she was willing to give him a second chance when he showed he had matured. She was also adamantly against the dark arts from an early age (the initial rift between herself and Snape) and joined the Order of the Phoenix straight out of school to resist Voldemort during the first Wizarding War.
Once you associate Lily with purity there is another layer of symbolism from her death. In Sorcerer’s Stone Harry ventures into the forbidden forest for the first time and helps search for an injured unicorn. During the search Harry meets a centaur named Firenze who tells him, “…it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn. Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.”
Of course Voldemort was the one killing the unicorns, but he had already been living a half-life for the previous eleven years. Since he killed Lily, another defenseless symbol of purity.
Across many cultures, lilies also have strong connotations with motherhood. In Greek mythology Zeus brought his son Hercules to his wife Hera to be nursed. But because Hera was not Hercules’ mother, she refused. Zeus waited until Hera was asleep to try to feed the baby, but when Hera awoke she pushed the baby away and the milk that spilled onto the ground grew into lilies.
Because of this story lilies are associated with rebirth and motherhood. Similarly, Assyrians and Babylonians associated lilies with the goddess of fertility, Ishtar, and Christians associated lilies, specifically Madonna lilies, with the Virgin Mary.
Image: Goddess of fertility, Ishtar
Obviously, within the Harry Potter narrative, Lily’s role as a mother is clear. She is not only the mother of the main character but a representation of what motherhood means: sacrificing everything to protect your child.
Lilies have also come to signify devotion, which has earned them the honor of being the 30th anniversary flower. Lily Potter showed extreme levels of devotion to many things: her friends, her family and good in the face of inconceivable evil, but it's her devotion to her son that is her most significant attribute.
When Voldemort went to kill Harry, convinced that he was destined to vanquish him, he had no intention of killing Lily Potter. In fact, he had promised Snape, one of his most trusted confidantes, that he wouldn’t harm her at all. Of course, a promise from Voldemort doesn’t mean much and as soon as it became clear Lily wasn’t going to just step aside and let her son be murdered, Voldemort killed her to get to Harry.
But in choosing to die, when she didn’t need to, Lily’s love for her son became his protection for the next sixteen years. As Dumbledore explained to Harry in Order of the Phoenix, Lily sacrificing her life for Harry allowed a bond of blood charm to be cast on him which was sealed when her sister, Petunia, agreed to take him and give him a home.
Dumbledore stated, “While you can still call home the place where your mother's blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her blood became your refuge. You need to return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you... She [Petunia] may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still, she took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother's sacrifice made the bond of blood the strongest shield I could give you.”
The charm also manifests itself physically. In Half Blood Prince, when Dumbledore visits number four Privet Drive to collect Harry, he remarks on how the agapanthus planted out front are thriving. Agapanthus is more commonly known as an African lily. The fact that Dumbledore is the one to comment on the flowers suggests that they are a physical representation of the protection charm he cast, Lily’s love represented by lilies. Also, the flowers are not mentioned the first time he visits the home when he leaves Harry on the doorstep and presumably casts the charm.
Image: Hummingbird hovering above a light purple agapanthus.
Of course, it could also be argued that there’s nothing magical about the agapanthus at all, but that it was merely planted by Petunia; a lily to remind her of her sister. But, dissecting the meaning of flowers when it comes to Lily and Petunia’s relationship is a whole separate story.
To read more about the floral significance in the Harry Potter series, see The Meaning of Harry Potter and Voldemort's Wands and Harry Potter Characters, According To Floral Symbolism.