Sister Magpie: Rowling’s Mysteries
April, 2007: Repost
“I’ve been involved in a few conversations recently about what’s going on in the tower in HBP, and it’s kind of embarrassing how much I get off on being able to take two short paragraphs and pick them apart to support or deny a theory. :-) In doing this, and often getting a response of “But I can make up a different story that fits, it just doesn’t leave any trace of itself in the text!” I have come to think about JKR as a writer of secrets or mysteries. It’s been surprising me, I guess, because to me some of her methods are so clear and so constant I’m surprised when someone says, as someone said to me today, “As for writing in moments of [these two characters’] interactions connected to [this big thing that’s going on between them in my theory]- well, she didn’t [include them] so there’s not much we can do about it.” I don’t get that answer because, well, first because it’s backwards. If the text doesn’t support your theory you change your theory, you don’t excuse the text and encourage it to do better next time. But also JKR *always* writes those things in.
I don’t think you can really solve all of the mysteries at the center of the HP books. You can figure out basically what’s happening, that Voldemort is trying to get Harry to the MoM, that Draco is trying to kill Dumbledore. Sometimes these things aren’t even hidden. But I don’t think there’s any way that, for instance, you can really figure out ahead of time in GoF that Moody is really Barty Crouch Jr. not dead and Polyjuiced and planning to spirit Harry away to Voldemort when he touches the Tri-wizard cup. Or that Draco is fixing that Vanishing Cabinet to bring DEs to the school. You can’t do these things, because you don’t have the information. We don’t even know a Vanishing Cabinet works with its pair as a portal, and it’s not like this is real world knowledge, so how could we guess it? Had we heard Montague’s story beforehand we could, but we didn’t, so we can’t.
I don’t think JKR’s stories rely on those kinds of mysteries, they just feel like they do — perhaps this is why they hold up more on re-reading (despite the inevitable “Why the hell didn’t Barty just turn the nearest eraser into a Portkey and toss it to Harry?”). They’re really more about the adventure and the plot that’s revealed. Where they feel like mysteries is we still get that very satisfying, “Oh! So that’s what was going on! That’s what that meant!” feeling when all is revealed. We get that because JKR has showed it to us every time. We really do “see” everything. Not to the point where we could probably solve it ourselves, usually, but so that all these questions we had, even if we didn’t realize it, suddenly become clear. Reading back the book doesn’t become less satisfying because we know who done it, but more satisfying because we know what’s really going on and can follow along with the secret plot.
I’m going to use GoF as an example, because it may be one of the best. I’m going to sum up the “mystery plot” of GoF, which you all probably know and can skip but there’s a reason it’s here:
Barty Crouch Jr. is the son of Bartemius Crouch, Sr., who led the trials against Death Eaters during the first war and became cruel and judgmental. Junior was tried as a Death Eater and sentenced to Azkaban where he cried for his mother. On his last parental visit his mother Polyjuiced herself into him and died in his place. Barty was kept under Imperius by his father, cared for by Winky, but was eventually discovered by Bertha Jorkins, who was herself discovered by Peter Pettigrew, who brought her to Voldemort, who then zapped and killed her and went to find his servant. Barty escaped from his father at the QWC, where he was supposed to be being watched by Winky while he was under an invisibility cloak. He stole Harry’s wand and set off a Dark Mark to strike fear into the hearts of Death Eaters who went free, whom he hates with a passion. Crouch fired Winky when he got free. Later, under Voldemort’s orders, he Polyjuiced himself into Mad-Eye Moody and taught at Hogwarts during the year. He slipped Harry’s name into the Goblet of Fire so that he would be in the Tournament with the help of Crouch Sr., now Imperiused by Voldemort. He tries to give Harry help so that he will win the Tournament. When his father escapes, fighting off the Imperius, he kills him and hides the body. Eventually Harry wins the tournament, touching a portkey he’s made, and is whisked off to Voldemort.
Whew! That’s a hell of a complicated mystery to be revealed, huh! But even with a whole chapter devoted to the confession, it’s not so bad because we saw it all happen. There’s not a single item of this story that Rowling has not included in the book beforehand, either by having someone tell it to us in some other context or by having it acted out in a scene without our knowing it. Each important beat or element has a scene explained by it and only it. So rather than feeling like we’re being hit by a big story we’ve never heard (which unfortunately is what many theories come down to) the story just slots easily into place explaining scenes that, although we might not have been totally aware of it, did not quite make sense otherwise. Even if we preferred elements of the earlier version of a scene and try to cling to them later, the revised version really makes more sense.
To illustrate, here are scenes that illustrate all of these points:
Barty Crouch Jr. is the son of Bartemius Crouch, Sr., who led the trials against Death Eaters during the first war.
Sirius tells us about Barty’s reputation and actions back then. We also see him very into rules, which is why Percy likes him.
Junior was tried as a Death Eater and sentenced to Azkaban...
We see this in the Pensieve.
...where he cried for his mother. On his last parental visit his mother Polyjuiced herself into him and died for him.
Sirius gives us an eyewitness account of Barty’s first night, his later quiet, and his burial (though he doesn’t know about the body switch).
Barty was kept under Imperius by his father,
We have scenes explaining what Imperius is and how to fight it off.
and cared for by Winky, but was eventually discovered by Bertha Jorkins, who was herself discovered by Peter Pettigrew, who brought her to Voldemort, who then zapped and killed her and went to find his servant.
Bertha’s disappearance is discussed at different points in the book. We see Muggles addled by memory charms at the QWC (and elsewhere in the books). We also hear from Sirius and Dumbledore’s Pensieve that Bertha was a snoop.
Barty escaped from his father at the QWC, where he was supposed to be being watched by Winky while he was under an invisibility cloak. He stole Harry’s wand and set off a Dark Mark to strike fear into the hearts of Death Eaters.
This all happens in front of us. We see Winky up in the stands “alone,” know Harry’s wand went missing, see Winky struggling with invisible Barty Jr., see Crouch’s horror at whatever has happened and his firing of Winky over it.
Hating DEs who went free is a passion of Barty’s.
We see tension between him and Snape in The Egg and the Eye, and see him bouncing Draco in ferret form.
Later, under Voldemort’s orders, he Polyjuiced himself into Mad-Eye Moody
We hear about the “false alarm” at Moody’s house that Arthur covers up.
and taught at Hogwarts during the year. He slipped Harry’s name into the Goblet of Fire so that he would be in the Tournament with the help of his father, now Imperiused by Voldemort.
Crouch Sr. is acting a bit funny in the post-Goblet scene, and at one point even looks evil. Barty actually says outright exactly what’s happened (someone’s slipped another name into the Goblet). We hear a number of times that Crouch Sr. has been skipping work and sending notes to Percy instead.
He tries to give Harry help so that he will win the Tournament.
Not only do we see him sometimes giving advice, we see him invite Neville for tea, which he will later reveal was an attempt to get Harry the book on gillyweed. (Even something as small as giving the book to Neville gets a scene, not an after-the-fact “I slipped the Longbottom kid a book but I guess he didn’t show it to you” — we see Barty come upon the Trio when they’re comforting Neville after the Crucio lesson — yet ANOTHER hint of a secret before it’s revealed — which gives him a reason to think they’re friends, we see him invite Neville for tea, we see Neville come back from tea.)
When his father escapes, fighting off the Imperius,
We see Crouch, slightly demented, and again have scenes all about Imperius.
he kills him and hides the body.
The body disappears and Viktor is stunned.
Eventually Harry wins the tournament, touching a portkey he’s made, and is whisked off to Voldemort.
And that’s where we came in.
You see? There’s no elaborate plot that comes out of nowhere, there’s an elaborate plot hiding in plain sight.
Perhaps the one big reveal without a buildup, one that’s used far too often to back up other theories, is Scabbers being Peter Pettigrew. Scabbers is just an ordinary rat for two books. However, in the book where Peter’s story will be revealed, Scabbers suddenly gets a plot that, as usual, is not what it seems but has beats we can follow later. It’s not like he’s just been sleeping on Ron’s shoulder the whole book. Suddenly he’s got the authorial finger pointing at him.
This is maybe also important to show that if a storyline has twists and turns, we need signposts when one has happened. For instance, let’s say Barty Crouch Jr. decided he’d have to change his plans when he saw Harry fight off Imperius. If that was the plot we would presumably not get a scene of Barty communicating this to Voldemort or having a soliloquy about it. That would give it away. What I submit we *would* get would be a reaction to Harry’s fighting off the Imperius that we would later point to and say: “There. Barty is dismayed by Harry’s being able to fight off the curse. At the time he hides it and it comes across as him just being flustered, but it’s clearly really written as dismay. That’s the moment Barty began to move towards changing his plans to the Draught of Living Death Potion” in retrospect. Similarly, we don’t know the mechanism of the Vanishing Cabinets, but we did get all those Montague references in OotP. On re-reading, the beginning of Draco’s storyline in HBP slots in easily.
So there’s my thing about this. With the kinds of complicated backstories we get we’re not always going to be able to see things as clearly as we see things with Barty. But the answers, imo, are always going to be accompanied by that click of fitting things together, even if we don’t like the way they fit together. Sure sometimes things that you didn’t think seemed odd at the time later turn out to be signposts — it’s fun if it’s not obvious the first time. But even then that’s going to be because the “real” story and the “false” story happen to play the same way. Or the author will use our prejudices and brains against us. It’s not going to rely, imo, on the author helping to cover it up from outside the text. From inside the text sure (Harry can draw the wrong conclusion about an action, for instance), but if a moment relies on something like “Hermione is totally shocked here,” we’re going to see, in retrospect, Hermione showing signs of shock, even if she’s covering it up.
(Case in point: “For a fleeting instant, Harry thought he saw a gleam of something like triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes. But next second, Harry was sure he had imagined it.” This after Dumbledore leaps out of his chair at the news Voldemort cut Harry’s arm, a movement cleverly camouflaged by Sirius’ possibly less significant exclamation at his Godson’s being hurt.)”
Red Hen Note: This has been reposted, by permission, from Sister Magpie’s LiveJournal entry made on March 13, 2006. It and its discussion may be found at: