Things are rarely just ‘green’ or ‘red’ but emerald, scarlet, lime, crimson and all manner of rich or exciting sounding shades. Colours are also dynamic: they flash, sparkle or glint all around the characters.
One of the things that stuck in my mind from reading Philosopher’s Stone for the very first time was the use of bright, striking colours in descriptions. From the green icing on Harry’s birthday cake to the jewel bright wings of the flying keys, vivid colours were absolutely everywhere. As the film series progressed, the directors made a conscious decision to tone down the colour palette to suit the more serious tone of the stories but this was never the case in the books. Colour remained as important a part of the wizarding world when the dragon flew through an indigo sky after the Gringotts break-in as it did when Harry first saw that snowy white building in Diagon Alley.
I think one of the reasons that it left this impression on me (aside from the sheer amount of references to colour) is the charged language used. Things are rarely just ‘green’ or ‘red’ but emerald, scarlet, lime, crimson and all manner of rich or exciting sounding shades. Colours are also dynamic: they flash, sparkle or glint all around the characters. While it can look a little ridiculous if you just think about it in isolation (how many things in the books were violet, for instance?), when buried within the text, they just leave you with a pleasurable memory of things being vivid and vital.
One of the most obvious uses of colour, and one particularly important to the fandom, is as an identifier for various groups. The red, blue, green and yellow of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin and Hufflepuff not only distinguish them from one another but speak to the values of each (as well as the element they are most closely related to). However, we also have purple as a way of unifying them all in the Hogwarts crest. It’s an absolute boon for merchandise designers. Members of the Wizengamot wear purple, the Chudley Cannons where bright orange, healers at St Mungo’s wear lime green and so on. Colour gives us a way to picture these people in the background of scenes even when individuals aren’t described
Colour is also a way of establishing an individual identity. One of the things that has stuck with me is the robe choices made by the characters when dressing up for events. The Yule Ball was our first real chance to see people like Parvati out of their school uniform and in an outfit of their choosing. Of course, Tonks is also a notable example of this: the vibrant colours she chooses for her hair instantly tip us off about her quirky personality.
There are subtler codes of colour to be found though, ones that I don’t always find comfortable. Red and green aren’t simply the colours of Gryffindor and Slytherin but of conflict. Harry’s favoured non-lethal spells such as disarming charms and stunners are described as bright red, while Voldemort’s faithful killing curse is characterised by a flash of green light. In a slightly less extreme example, the badges from Goblet of Fire flash red when cheering Cedric and green when insulting Harry. Such a reductionist approach doesn’t appeal to me, not least because it’s hard to get away from the implied idea that Gryffindor = good and Slytherin = bad (who can forget the emerald banners at the first end of year feast turning to scarlet?). Thankfully, there are many places where this code doesn’t ring true. Indeed, pink could be seen as similarly problematic due to its use by Umbridge; it’s reassuring to remember that Tonks’s hair, Hagrid’s umbrella and pygmy-puffs are unashamedly pink without being at all evil.
This last point is probably a cautionary one. Colour is a key part of the wizarding world and while there are certainly patterns to be found, it’s very easy to look for symbolism where there isn’t any intended. While it can be fun to speculate whether something was intentional or not, it does tend to take away from the wonder. So, now that I’ve got this out of my system, I’ll return to enjoying all those scarlets, ambers, magentas, sparkling emeralds and violets for their own sake.
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