Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter/Characters/Phineas Nigellus Black

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Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter - Character
Phineas Nigellus Black
Gender Male
Hair color Black
Eye color Unknown
Related Family Black family
Loyalty Black family

Overview[edit]

Phineas Nigellus Black (1847-1926) is an ancestor of Sirius Black and a past headmaster of Hogwarts. In the series, he appears as a portrait, primarily in the Headmaster's office.

Role in the Books[edit]

Beginner warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.

Order of the Phoenix[edit]

Although we have heard him snicker a few times before that, we first actually meet Phineas Nigellus in Albus Dumbledore's office just before Christmas break; he occupies one of the portraits on the wall. He seems quite snippish and surly, only doing something when forced to by the threats from the occupants of the other portraits. We have gathered by this time that the portraits of the past Headmasters either sleep, or pretend sleep, when they are not actively speaking with the Headmaster. In this instance, Dumbledore wants Phineas to carry a message to Sirius Black at Grimmauld Place. Phineas at first feigns sleep, then, when he cannot pretend any longer, he expresses reluctance. Many of the other portraits in Dumbledore's office threaten him, and he departs, returning shortly to say that Sirius would be delighted to have visitors.

When he appears in a blank canvas in Harry's room at Number 12 Grimmauld Place, the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, we suddenly realize who Harry has heard snickering in that canvas. At that time, he is carrying a message from Albus Dumbledore to Harry. The message is "Stay there", and Harry is nettled to find that is the full message. Phineas snidely tries to take him to task for demanding more information.

At one point over Christmas, Harry awakens in the middle of the night, and believes that he sees a shadowy figure standing in Phineas' portrait frame, watching him.

We later see Phineas Nigellus again in Dumbledore's office. He is dismissive of Dumbledore, who he feels is not hard enough on the students.

He carries a few messages between Hogwarts and Grimmauld Place, but one gets the impression that Dumbledore does not completely trust him. Important messages are typically carried by other couriers.

In the end, after he hears that Sirius Black has died, he claims to not believe it, and goes off to Grimmauld Place to search for any sign of his descendant.

Half-Blood Prince[edit]

We see Phineas Nigellus on Dumbledore's wall a few times, where he makes biting comments. He does not seem to have any other role, however.

Deathly Hallows[edit]

While Harry, Ron, and Hermione are planning their visit to the Ministry, Hermione suddenly remembers the portrait of Phineas Nigellus, and that the matching portrait hangs in the Headmaster's office at Hogwarts, where presumably now it serves Severus Snape. She retrieves it from the bedroom and stuffs it into her beaded bag where it can't spy on their activities.

As they travel through the countryside, the Trio overhear another fugitive group doing the same. Listening in on their conversation, the Trio learn that some Hogwarts students, including Neville, Ginny, and Luna, had attempted to break into the Headmaster's office and steal the Sword of Gryffindor, and that they had been "cruelly punished." Knowing that Harry and Ron will be worried about Ginny, Hermione fetches the portrait of Phineas Nigellus from her beaded bag and blindfolds him so he cannot report where the Trio are. Harry asks him what had happened to the students, and Phineas casually reports that they had been sent to the Forbidden Forest to work with the half-breed oaf, Hagrid. Hermione asks if the Sword had been removed from its case, perhaps for cleaning. Phineas scornfully replies that it is Goblin-made; goblin arms will accept into themselves anything that will make them stronger, and reject anything else. Harry asks Phineas if he can bring the portrait of Dumbledore to speak with them, and Phineas, again scornfully, tells Harry that a portrait from the Headmaster's office can visit other portraits in the school, and other portraits of himself, but he cannot visit other people's portraits outside the school. Hermione now asks when the sword had last been out of its case, and Phineas, sounding bored, says that Dumbledore had taken it out of the case to destroy a ring. Harry guesses that this means the Sword had been used to destroy the ring Horcrux, and that it was able to do so because it had absorbed Basilisk venom, one of the few things that can destroy a Horcrux, in the Chamber of Secrets.

Phineas returns a few times, at Hermione's request, despite periodically claiming to be insulted and insisting that he will never return. It is through Phineas that Harry learns of an ongoing low-level revolt at Hogwarts. The Decree against student organizations has apparently been reinstated, and Dumbledore's Army has been revived, with Neville, Luna, and Ginny at its head.

In Snape's memories, we see that Phineas Nigellus had reported to Snape that Harry and Hermione had just arrived at the Forest of Dean. Snape, taking the real Sword of Gryffindor from behind the portrait of Dumbledore where it had been hidden (a fake, Wizard-made but easily detected as such by Goblin eyes, had earlier been sent to Gringotts to protect it), had then gone to the Forest of Dean to leave the Sword where Harry could find it. Looking back at the chapter in question, we find that Hermione had had the beaded bag open and was rummaging around in it when she had told Harry where they were. Phineas would have been able to hear what she said, if he was in that portrait at the time, as he evidently was.

Finally, he is seen amidst the general jubilation in the Headmaster's office after the final battle, saying "Let it be noted that Slytherin House played its part!"

Strengths[edit]

Being a portrait, Phineas is largely invulnerable to injury; he can flit to other canvases if the one he is currently in is about to be damaged. Additionally, he can sense what is happening around his various canvases; we can hear him snickering in Harry's room at Grimmauld Place, despite the fact that he is probably at the time mostly within his canvas in the Headmaster's office

Weaknesses[edit]

Relationships with Other Characters[edit]

Phineas Nigellus, in life, apparently shared the Black bias towards purebloods, and seems to hold those who spring from, or sympathize with, Muggles in disdain. He displays reluctance to comply with Dumbledore's requests, he seems quite unhappy with his one remaining descendant's views regarding Muggles, and while he does speak with Ron, Harry, and Hermione, he always exhibits distaste at doing so.

Despite his dislike of Sirius' views regarding Muggles, Phineas Nigellus is dismayed to learn of his death, and apparently must visit the house at Grimmauld Place to confirm it for himself.

Phineas Nigellus repeatedly chides Dumbledore for what he sees as Dumbledore's lenient attitude towards the students. Dumbledore later privately mentions that Phineas was the single most hated headmaster in recent Hogwarts history.

Analysis[edit]

First Six Books[edit]

For the first six books, Phineas Nigellus Black is basically a non-entity, amusing to the reader, often infuriating to Harry. He resists requests from the Headmaster, making snide comments about Harry and Dumbledore impartially. He does not seem to have much use for Dumbledore's "Headmastering" style, and repeatedly chides him for being too lenient with the students. It is immediately clear to us exactly why he was the most hated headmaster in recent Hogwarts history. The reader may wonder whether there is any reason, apart from Phineas' being a communication channel back to Grimmauld Place, that Dumbledore does not permanently remove or hood his portrait, to avoid the aggravation of his remarks. Dumbledore, however, proves amazingly even-tempered. And given the manner in which Dumbledore's portrait appears at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it is possible that, if Phineas' portrait was removed, it would be magically replaced.

Deathly Hallows[edit]

While very little about Phineas' character changes, his accompanying the Trio on their journey around England raises other questions. In particular, the question of his loyalty becomes a point of interest. We had seen that his mandated loyalty to Dumbledore was at best reluctant, with, for instance, his continued feigning sleep when Dumbledore needed an errand run. It is likely that his resistance to Dumbledore's instructions is due to the vast difference between Dumbledore's acceptance of students as individuals, and Phineas' espoused belief that the students must be kept in their place, along with Phineas' acceptance of the "blood status" belief structure and Dumbledore's rejection of it. With Severus Snape in the Headmaster's office, Phineas is much more likely to accept requests; Snape's disdain for the students, professed belief in Voldemort's program, and Slytherin origins are much more likely to resonate with Phineas' own beliefs. As readers, we are left to wonder why Phineas is so willing to speak with the Trio about events at the school. One point jars slightly as well: the Trio request that Phineas bring the portrait of Dumbledore to see them, and Phineas explains scornfully that it is impossible. The reader may wonder why he does not take the opportunity to heap disdain on Dumbledore, as he is already ridiculing the Trio's lack of knowledge.

In fact, as it turns out, Snape is allied to Dumbledore; Dumbledore's portrait is still discussing, with Snape, ways of aiding Harry in his quest. Phineas is likely fully aware of this alliance, and likely approves of it purely because Snape does. But we do not discover this chain of alliance until late in the book.

Questions[edit]

Study questions are meant to be left for each student to answer; please don't answer them here.

Greater Picture[edit]

Intermediate warning: Details follow which you may not wish to read at your current level.