J. K. Rowling's world of Harry Potter is, very few people would dispute, a masterpiece in storytelling and world-construction.
Because although the set of seven bestsellers take place in a familiar world, the focus is on a different world ever-so-slightly removed from our own. All you need to do to get there is run through the right brick wall.
But the reason the Harry Potter books are so successful is because Rowling treads the line between the familiar and the new. Harry and his friends may learn magic, but their emotions and characters are as realistic as you and I.
Not that Rowling ever directly gives us a profile of her characters. Instead, through actions and symbols, she weaves a tapestry that produces concrete images of people that jump out the page with their realism. One of the ways she does this is to use various sorting mechanisms that all serve to highlight a different facet of her characters.
The magical side of pets in Harry Potter
Most obvious are the four houses that make up Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. The Sorting Hat may look into the students' mind but from the song that it sings it is obvious that the sorting system focuses on abilities more than anything else. Though Gryffindors are all brave and all Hufflepuffs are loyal etc., these attributes do not constitute personalities, which is why there are other sorting mechanisms that form part of Harry Potter's world, although they are more subtle.
Wands, for example, reflect the user's personality. J.K. Rowling describes at length the importance of the link between a wizard and their wand in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but it is in Pottermore that she explains that the length of wand mimicks not physical height but strength of spirit, and that unicorn hair - cored wands are more suited to fiddly spells and delicacy of nature.
Again, Patronuses reflect a wizard's soul, which is why Harry's is a stag (majestic but never agressive) and Ginny's is a horse (wild and graceful).
All these sorting mechanisms seem to paint a pretty complete picture of our characters, so you may be asking, where do pets come in? Indeed, the link to pets is one of the most subtle of the series, but nonetheless illuminating. Pets, in the Harry Potter series, reflect that character's relationship with the society they inhabit and they way they are viewed by that society.
Not convinced? Let me show you how.
Harry Potter and his owl, Hedwig
We'll start with the titular character - Harry himself. J.K. Rowling has said that Hedwig represents Harry's innocence, which is why she dies at the start of Deathly Hallows. But that is not the end of Hedwig's significance. She is also a Snowy owl, a rarity. Rowling frequently draws attention to the fact that Hedgwig's white plumage stands out from the rest of the tawny, tan or brown owls.
This is to signify Harry's uniqueness, at least in the eyes of the wizarding community. He will always draw the gaze of any wizard, always draw attention and be prized as rare. Is it a coincidence that Harry buys Hedwig when he goes to Diagon Alley, the very first time he comes into contact with the wizarding community and discovers that they all view him as special?
Ron Weasley and his rat, Scabbers
Ron is the only character in the series to change pets. He starts off with Scabbers, a hand-me-down rat that has been in his family for years and is, usually, quite boring (until he's very much not). Scabbers reflects the wizarding's community opinion of Ron: unremarkable, with very little value - no one expects anything of Scabbers.
Of course Scabbers was passed around the Weasley family before coming to Ron - everyone knows that the Weasleys aren't very well off and have 'hand-me down robes'. Well done Draco for nailing the wizarding community's perception of the latest in a long line of Weasleys.
But after Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Ron gets a new pet - Pigwidgeon the miniature owl. An owl is an upgrade - Ron's social status has changed because of his association with Harry, who is the cream of the crop in terms of wizarding society. But, Pigwidgeon is a small and annoying owl, insignificant next to the magnificent Hedwig, just like Ron will always have to be the second fiddle next to Harry himself.
Hermione Granger and her cat, Crookshanks
Hermione's situation is a bit more complicated - she's a well-known quantity in her own right, so Crookshanks is feline, rather than an owl. She's also famed for her intellect, so Crookshanks reflects this. But Hermione's identity as a muggleborn is inextricable from how the wizarding community sees her - even after five years of acing exam after exam, Slughorn still expresses surprise at how a muggleborn can be so talented.
This is why Crookshanks is suspected to be a Kneazle. He is continually referred to as a cat, but his description of squashed face and bandy legs fits that of the Kneazle described in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was penned by Rowling herself. This split in perceptions reflects the duality of Hermione's identity in the wizarding community. She continually straddles two worlds - the muggle and the magical. This double identity is not one that the wizarding community is likely to ever forget.
Hagrid and his love for original pets
Hagrid continues this trend, although his case takes more care because he's continually surrounded by animals, adopting Norbert and Fluffy in the space of one book. However, his only permanent pet is the dog Fang. Again, Fang reflects how the world sees him. Large and frightening in appearance is a description that can be applied to both characters, but what is interesting is that dogs seem to serve no purpose in the wizarding community.
He is the only real dog we see throughout seven books (mythological creatures and animagis don't count). Dogs aren't on the list of pets permitted at Hogwarts, and don't appear in wizarding folklore. This dismissal of dogs from wizards is frequently applied to Hagrid. Ignored and derisive in the eyes of the wizarding community, Hagrid suffers the same treatment as his dog for being only tenuously connected to magic.
Dumbledore and Fawkes the Phoenix
Then, at the other end of the scale, we have Dumbledore. Fawkes, his devoted pet, is unmistakeably magical, reflecting the esteem that Dumbledore has garnered for his magical prowess. Fawkes is also calm, wise and has healing properties, reflecting the benevolence that Dumbledore is so famed for having. However, Fawkes is also bright red - a lively, angry colour, because it will likely never be forgotten that Dumbledore defeated the dark wizard Grindelwald in combat.
These are just five examples, but it would be possible to continue describing the links for every character known to own a pet - from Voldemort and Nagini to Lavender and her bunny Binky.
So, are you convinced? Can you think of any other examples?
Let us know in the comments below!