“Harry, it isn't how you are alike. It's how you are not!” - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
What is a witch or wizard without their wand? Wands are vital to defining witches and wizards so it's no surprise that for the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling didn’t just assign wand combinations arbitrarily. Like everything else she did, she planned and imbued each of her choices with symbolism that enriched both the characters and the story.
Wandlore within Harry Potter is an expansive subject, but for now we’ll focus on two of the wands at the very heart of the story, those of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. The books spend a decent amount of time discussing these two wands, but mostly focus on how the wands are similar. Namely, they are brothers.
When, at 11 years old, Harry first visits Ollivander’s he tests many, many wands until he finds the one that performs for him (the wand chooses the wizard and whatnot): an 11-inch holly and with a phoenix feather core. Ollivander pronounces it curiously. He tells Harry, “I remember every wand I've ever sold, Mr. Potter. It so happens that the phoenix whose tail feather resides in your wand gave another feather... just one other. It is curious that you should be destined for this wand when its brother gave you that scar.”
Indeed, Harry and Voldemort’s wands share a twin core provided by the same phoenix; and Fawkes no less! This connection proves highly important throughout the series and ultimately saves Harry a number of times. And, once Voldemort learns about the connection, set off a pivotal arc of the final book and a ton of new wandlore that we’ll explore some other time.
Today, we’re here to discuss the ways in which Harry and Voldemort’s wands a different and how those differences are integral to their characters. And those differences all come down to the wand wood.
Voldemort’s Yew Wand
First, and most fittingly, yew trees are known for living a really, really long time. In fact, the oldest known yew tree clocks in at 3,000 years old. In reality, new yew trees grow out of the trunks of the old. This unique trait earned yews the distinction of being associated with immortality and rebirth.
Yew tree with red berries
It seems silly to explain how this relates to Voldemort. If you’re reading this article you likely already understand the correlation. But for anyone who has stumbled through here by mistake, I’ll spell it out. Voldemort was more than a little obsessed with immortality. Going so far as to split his soul seven (to his knowledge) times to ensure his own. And, thanks to those measures, he couldn’t die, though he couldn’t really live either, leading to his rebirth (in a graveyard surrounded by yew trees, no less) in Goblet of Fire.
Yew trees are also poisonous to humans, which earned them a reputation as a death symbol among the druids. This juxtaposes interestingly with its representation of immortality. Kind of like another noseless, immortal (kinda) bringer of death, yes?
Finally, yew trees are loners. This granted them special study from the Druids and also another notch in the Voldemort similarities column. Dumbledore, care to back me up? “You will hear many of his Death Eaters claiming that they are in his confidence, that they alone are close to him, even understand him. They are deluded. Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one” (Half Blood Prince).
Harry’s Holly Wand
But for every bit of dark, Rowling balanced the symbolism with light. In Celtic lore, holly was known to repel evil and used to protect. Particularly, it was thought to repel lightning strikes. And, again, I really don’t feel like I need to explain how lightning relates to Harry Potter.
Holly tree with red berries
Holly is also associated with high tempers and impetuousness (hello Harry!) In The Wisdom of Trees Jane Gifford writes, “Holly reminds us of the need to calm our emotions if we are to reach wise decisions about our situation… We are reminded of the need to view ourselves, as well as others, in the light of compassion and unconditional love. Like the Hanged Man of the Tarot, holly represents personal sacrifice in order to gain something of greater value.”
Furthermore, in her own additional writing on wandlore, Rowling states, “Holly is one of the rarer kinds of wand woods; traditionally considered protective, it works most happily for those who may need help overcoming a tendency to anger and impetuosity. At the same time, holly wands often choose owners who are engaged in some dangerous and often spiritual quest.”
In addition to these Celtic reasons for Harry’s wand, Rowling also admitted a happy accident that resulted from her choice. “Sometime after I had given Harry his holly-and-phoenix wand I came across a description of how the Celts had assigned trees to different parts of the year and discovered that, entirely by coincidence, I had assigned Harry the ‘correct’ wood for his day of birth,” she wrote. “I therefore decided to give Ron and Hermione Celtic wand woods, too... I liked having a hidden connection between Harry, Ron and Hermione’s wands that only I knew about (until now, anyway)."
So, even though the main plot points of the story revolve around the ways in which Harry and Voldemort’s wands are similar, that same amount of attention was paid to their differences. And, once again, J.K. Rowling turned to plant life to mark those differences with centuries old symbolism. And, just in case I haven’t made a strong enough case, we’ll let J.K. have the last word:
"It was not an arbitrary decision: holly has certain connotations that were perfect for Harry, particularly when contrasted with the traditional associations of yew, from which Voldemort’s wand is made. The European tradition has it that the holly tree (the name comes from ‘holy’) repels evil, while yew, which can achieve astonishing longevity (there are British yew trees over two thousand years old), can symbolize both death and resurrection; the sap is also poisonous.”
For related articles, see The Language of Lilies in Harry Potter and Harry Potter Characters, According to Floral Symbolism.