The Mirror of Erised
Chapter 12 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Mirror of Erised
Now that they have the name "Nicolas Flamel", Hermione, Ron, and Harry spend all their spare time in the library, trying to learn who he is. Hagrid is annoyed when he hears about their pastime. Despite searching for a fortnight, however, they have found nothing by Christmas break, when Hermione leaves for the holidays. Ron and his brothers are staying at Hogwarts because their parents are visiting their older son, Charlie, in Romania. Harry is staying because Hogwarts is more home to him than Privet Drive ever could be.
On Christmas Day, both Harry and Ron receive gifts. Harry's wholly unexpected gifts include a hand-carved flute from Hagrid, a single 50 pence piece from the Dursleys, a box of Chocolate Frogs from Hermione, a sweater and some home-made fudge from Mrs. Weasley, and an Invisibility Cloak from an anonymous sender. The note with the cloak says that it belonged to Harry's father, and advises him to "use it well."
The Christmas feast is very merry, including various magical accessories and truly amazing amounts of delicious food. Following dinner, Harry remembers the Invisibility Cloak, and, obedient to Hermione's parting adjuration to keep searching, decides to explore the library's Restricted section for Flamel. The first book he selects, however, screams when opened, causing Harry to break his lamp, and alerting Filch. On the run from Filch and Professor Snape, he enters a room containing a mirror. His reflection shows him amidst a crowd of people that he realizes are his parents and relations – not the Dursleys, but his mother, his father, and a crowd of people that seem to be his other magical relatives.
Excited, Harry shows Ron the mirror, so he can see Harry's parents. Instead, Ron sees only himself wearing a Head Boy's badge, and holding the Quidditch Cup. Mrs. Norris apparently can sense them under the Cloak, which keeps Ron from visiting again, but over the next few days Harry keeps returning to the mirror until he is surprised by Professor Dumbledore. Dumbledore identifies the mirror as the Mirror of Erised, and explains that it shows "only the deepest desire of our hearts". When asked what he sees when he looks into it, Dumbledore claims that he sees himself holding a pair of socks, which Harry suspects is untrue. Dumbledore says he is going to hide the mirror, and asks that Harry not seek it out again.
Family has recently become important to Harry: being raised by the Dursleys, who barely mask their contempt for him, Harry barely understands how loving families interact. Recently, though, exposure to Ron and the Weasley family has given Harry some idea how these relationships work, and what having people care about him is like. He is truly touched when Mrs. Weasley, knowing he would receive few, if any, gifts, sends him Christmas presents.
Once again, Harry feels justified to ignore the rules, sneaking into the library's restricted section under his Invisibility Cloak to search for information about Nicolas Flamel. Finding none and interrupted by Filch, he is inadvertently detoured into a room containing a magical mirror. Rather than uncovering information about Flamel, Harry has instead discovered much more about himself. He is amazed and puzzled by the images reflected in the Mirror of Erised, seeing for the first time what his parents and other relatives were like in life. Having lost James and Lily when he was still an infant, he has no recollections about them.
Transfixed by his parents' images, Harry continually returns to gaze at the mirror until Dumbledore finally intervenes. The kind Headmaster explains that rather than showing what someone's outer self looks like, the mirror actually reflects what lies buried within, their deepest desires. Erised is "desire" spelled backwards (thus mimicking the properties of a mirror). What Harry desires is a loving family life, his lost mother and father restored to him. Although this loss has created a huge void in his life, it is blank, containing no memories or images to draw upon. Now Harry can begin to fill that void somewhat as he learns more about his family and starts exploring his feelings and his place in the world. While dwelling on his loss does cause him pain and grief, it also creates love and yearning, showing that Harry's emotional self is multi-faceted; his emotions alone never completely rule or control Harry, nor is his tragedy used as a reason to vent anger and hate at others. Budding logic and intellect help temper his feelings, though, at this age, he is still driven by his impulses. Dumbledore's timely intervention prevents Harry from endlessly dwelling on hopeless dreams and lost opportunities rather than actively living his life.
Already having the family that Harry lacks, Ron's desires are obviously quite different. Feeling unremarkable and always overshadowed by his talented older brothers, when Ron peers into the Mirror, he sees only himself, as Quidditch captain and Head Boy, standing completely on his own accomplishments. Unlike Harry, however, he does not feel compelled to continually return and stare at the Mirror's reflection, partially fearing being caught, but also resigned to knowing what it is he wants while believing he can never attain it.
Harry and Dumbledore's relationship is also established here, as until now there has been little significant interaction between them since Dumbledore left baby Harry on the Dursleys' door step ten years earlier. Not only has Dumbledore remained distant in the story, but he has been portrayed as being rather enigmatic and eccentric. Harry even considers that he might be a touch mad. Dumbledore is truly an enigma, and even by wizard standards he seems odd. It is doubtful that he has ever had much direct interaction with students, being a lofty and somewhat aloof authoritarian figure, and it has been unclear yet just what his role will be in the book. He is, however, a kind, gentle, and humorous man, and rather than reprimand Harry, Dumbledore steps beyond his Headmaster role to gently guide the young boy with helpful, almost fatherly, advice, understanding that Harry's needs are unique among the students. Their relationship will likely continue to grow beyond student and teacher from here on.
Of note, the mirror's entire inscription reads, "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi". When those words are read backwards, the inscription is: "I show not your face but your heart's desire". We can safely expect that the Mirror of Erised will play a role elsewhere in the book, though exactly what that role will be, and how the Mirror's peculiar function will be important, it is too early to tell.
- Who sent Harry the Invisibility Cloak? Why was it sent now?
- Just what might the Cloak's sender mean by, "Use it well"?
- What does the mirror's inscription mean?
- Is Dumbledore being truthful when he tells Harry he sees himself holding a pair of socks in the Mirror of Erised? If not, what might he actually see?
- Why does Dumbledore hide the mirror and tell Harry not to go looking for it?
- Why are the Trio unable find any information about Nicolas Flamel in the library? Why is Hagrid annoyed that they are looking?
Harry's desire to have an ordinary, peaceful life surrounded by family is something that follows him throughout the series and helps drive many of his actions. Although he can never be reunited with his parents, he does eventually acquire the loving family he so deeply craves. Ron also sees his heart's desire, to become Hogwarts' Head Boy and Gryffindor's Quidditch team captain, winning the Quidditch Cup. While Ron never becomes either Head Boy or Quidditch captain, he is later appointed as a Gryffindor prefect, and wins a spot on the Gryffindor Quidditch team as Keeper, his playing skills instrumental in Gryffindor's winning the Quidditch Cup. While the mirror shows that what we desire may be more than can ever be achieved, it is always possible to attain much that makes for a successful and satisfying life.
After asking what Dumbledore sees in the mirror, Harry thinks he has just asked a very impertinent question; much later in the series, Harry concludes that Dumbledore's answer was not entirely truthful. It is revealed much later, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that Dumbledore's desire is the same as Harry's – to be reunited with his departed family, especially his mother Kendra and sister Ariana.
Dumbledore has rarely had close relationships with Hogwarts students. Though Harry will become an exception, there is another student, also an orphan and a talented wizard, that Dumbledore also paid closer attention to, though not in the same way as with Harry. That student's name was Tom Riddle, and he eventually adopted the name Lord Voldemort.
It is unknown who returned the Invisibility Cloak to Harry until the book's end, when it is revealed it was Dumbledore. However, that raises a large question. When Harry is caught at the Mirror of Erised, Dumbledore mentions that he does not need a cloak to be invisible. Invisibility can be created by a spell, the Disillusionment charm, that Dumbledore probably excels at. Also, the note to Harry reads that James Potter "left" the Cloak in Dumbledore's possession shortly before he died. However, it is learned later that Dumbledore actually asked James if he could borrow it. Why, then, would Dumbledore have wanted James Potter's Invisibility Cloak? It would seem that he has no need for it, after all.
This last point is particularly interesting, as the author mentions that it is a peculiarly never-asked question. It is a key plot point in the series' final book, as the Cloak is one of the titular Deathly Hallows. It should be noted that the author employs a technique to conceal that this is even a question. The Invisibility Cloak's previous ownership is separated in the text from Dumbledore's statement that he does not need one, by several exciting events, even though they happen in the same chapter; the admission that it was Dumbledore who had been keeping the Cloak for the intervening decade is several chapters ahead. Separating the three parts of the paradox removes the immediacy that makes it a question the reader thinks about.
Dumbledore's interest in this Cloak will be echoed again in the seventh book. Harry will be reminded of it when he reads Lily's letter to Sirius, in which Lily mentions Dumbledore having borrowed James' Invisibility Cloak. Harry, now knowing how the Disillusionment charm functions, only then wonders why Dumbledore would have been interested in it. While we have, by this time, seen the Disillusionment Charm at work, we similarly have not wondered about this point, because of the author's skill at concealing the question.
On a side note, Harry's gift from Hagrid will also be of use later in this book: we will learn that Fluffy, the fierce three-headed dog guarding the trap door mentioned earlier, will fall right asleep if he hears a little music. It will seem that the flute, or possibly a recorder or something like one, will be the only musical instrument any of the Trio have access to.
- The Invisibility Cloak, introduced in this chapter, will play a large part in the rest of the series. As mentioned, it will turn out to be one of the three Deathly Hallows in the seventh and final book. It is noteworthy that Dumbledore here mentions that he does not need a cloak to become invisible; combined with the revelations later that he had borrowed the cloak from Harry's father, it is clear that the author had intended the Cloak to be something significantly out of the ordinary by this point in the first book.
- We see here Harry's longing for information about his family. While this is not so much a connection as illumination of Harry's character, it warrants mention because it will be a major concern for Harry through the rest of the series.
- Harry's speculation in the final paragraph of the chapter, that Dumbledore might not have been telling the truth about what he sees in the Mirror of Erised, will be revisited in the final book in the series. Harry will then guess that Dumbledore's "heart's desire", what he sees in the mirror, is the same as what Harry sees: his own family, reunited.