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Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection — Potterverse People Essay: With Respect to Neville Longbottom
Potterverse People

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We are told that Frank and Alice Longbottom do not recognize their son.

In that case, what was Neville’s grandmother thinking of, dragging a small child off to St Mungo’s to visit these scary strangers who are fated ever to remain strangers?

Clearly the experience seems to have traumatized the boy. Or ensured that the original trauma which resulted in their condition would remain “evergreen”. No matter how many assurances he may have been given that his parents did not do this to themselves; long before there was any certainty about his admission to Hogwarts, he had come away from the experience with the conviction that this is what comes of dealing with Magic.

My own suspicion is that Neville is one of those children who found his early magical breakthroughs alarming and had learned to unconsciously suppress or to dissipate them by the time he was no longer a toddler.

When he was a very young child, and still in his own parents’ care, he undoubtedly did display the sort of magical breakthroughs common to magical children. But between the ages of two or three, these displays had tapered off and eventually ceased. If his parents were still functioning normally by that time (which seems unlikely. I now suspect that the attack on the Longbottoms took place before the start of 1982), they took this in stride and saw no reason to inform the rest of the family of the fact.

His grandmother, however, seems to be from a family which has a long history of such childhood breakthroughs on a grand scale. Great-uncle Algie, in particular doesn’t sound like a good candidate for having ever learned to control any of his impulses, magical or otherwise. When Neville appeared to have no such breakthroughs, his grandmother was shocked and dismayed. Her handling of the matter (and that of her siblings) only made an issue of something that wasn’t one.

However, rather than exercising the common sense of a jackrabbit and writing directly to Hogwarts to ask whether Neville was on the enrollment list, they proceeded to try to “frighten the magic out of him”. And they very nearly succeeded.

It is obviously his grandmother and her extended family who put the idea of being a Squib into his head.

Not that his relatives would have actually used the word “Squib” in his hearing. No, they never used such a shameful, mortifying term about one of their own. They worried about him possibly being a Muggle. Which is ridiculous on the face of it.

That particular exercise in being mealy-mouthed temporarily made me and other theorists wonder whether we had been given another clue about Neville’s family background. At a point early in Harry’s first year there was a little conversation where everyone was first getting acquainted with their new housemates in which when asked, Neville comments;

“Well, my gran brought me up and she’s a witch,” said Neville, “but the family thought I was all-Muggle for ages.

Now, how does a child from a wizarding family get to be suspected of being “all-Muggle” unless he is already known to be part Muggle? And yet Neville does not claim, as Seamus Finnegan does, to be half-and-half. From which I suspected that Neville and Harry had something more in common than we had been told. I thought that in both cases one of their parents must have been Muggle-born.

Since OotP was released we now know that this, at least, is not the case. Neville is definitely a pureblood. But, given the comment, one did have to wonder. And, it turns out that he and Harry DID have more in common than had previously been stated. They almost share a birthday, and until Voldemort made his choice in the matter, either one of them might have been thought to have been the child of the Trelawney prophesy.

• • • •

Of course, once Neville went off to school and found out about Squibs, he started calling himself a Squib. But I’ll bet he didn’t pop out with the “s-word” in his gran’s hearing. And by now he has no reason to.

But my reading of Neville is that for the first three and a half years of the series he desperately wanted to be a Squib.

To be honest, I suspect that any of those children who have unconsciously learned to suppress or dissipate their magic would probably benefit from some special coaching to overcome the habit of doing so, and to be better able to access their own magic. And it is obvious that they simply do not ever get it.

But just about everything Neville has ever said on the subject was a deliberate reminder to his audience that he was “practically a Squib”, that he was magically incompetent, a complete waste of Hogwarts space. Everything he had ever been shown to have done magically had been something that might as well have been calculated to give observers the message that he was of no use when it came to magic, and should be removed from Hogwarts, sent home and permitted to just forget about it.

That, in short, people should stop trying to force him to be a wizard when he didn’t WANT to be one.

Of course the very methods of avoidance Neville adopted only served to point out that his problem was not lack of power, but lack of control. And an unwillingness to learn control.

And, of course being sent off to school with a wand that didn’t fit him didn’t help, either.

Snape, for one, quickly saw straight through Neville’s duffer act and it got right up his nose — with absolutely predictable results. The big disconnect here is that Snape was utterly convinced that Neville was being passive-aggressive, and screwing about in his class deliberately, while I’m not convinced that the boy was even conscious of it. Professor McGonagall also displays a great deal of exasperation when it comes to Neville. As I have said elsewhere, there are very few flies on Minerva McGonagall. The only real difference is that whereas Snape’s reaction is basically; “How dare you!” hers is more on the order of; Oh, get a grip!”

• • • •

Neville’s absentmindedness was a whole different issue. That problem was genuine enough. Being forced to stay in a place where he really, really didn’t want to be, and wanting to be virtually anywhere else accounts for much of it. And, although we did periodically see him in conversation with Seamus and Dean, the boy was socially isolated, and he seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time off in his own private little world, inside his head. Things either didn’t get through in the first place or he checked right back out and forgot them. He didn’t want to think about any of that.

I found Neville considerably puzzling once I stepped back and tried to sort him out.

He’s clearly overawed by adults, particularly older or aggressive adults — which, given his upbringing, is certainly one direction that such things might reasonably have been expected to go — but he seems to not be at all fazed by other kids his own age. Even though I doubt that he had ever had much exposure to other children before boarding the Hogwarts Express. I’m almost beginning to think that the only reason we hadn’t seen him firing back at Malfoy & Co. more than we have is due to his aversion to being put in a position where he would be forced to use Magic.

Plus the fact that he doesn’t like being hit any more than the next kid, and you rarely see Malfoy without his goons in attendance.

But, at that, we’ve still seen Neville throw a punch at that lot more than once. (A punch, mind you. Not a hex.)

On the flip side of the whole “boldness” issue; Neville didn’t hesitate to stand up to the trio in their first year, and by their fourth year not only was he the first of Harry’s dorm mates (that we heard of) to actually screw up his courage and ask a girl to the Yule Ball, he also had the very good sense to ask someone he considers a friend, rather than getting distracted by the (frankly barbaric) Weasley equation of trying to calculate who might be the best looking girl who might actually accept him, and to parade her about as a trophy.

What is more, when the girl he asked turned him down he demonstrated the social adeptness to immediately fall back on the fine old traditional, well-bred-young-gentleman-at-dancing-school manner and transferred his invitation to the female friend that his first choice happened to be standing with. We may not have known a great deal about the Longbottoms’ socioeconomic background, but Neville’s Gran clearly values traditional standards of behavior. And Neville shows no sign of finding those standards a burden. (Can you even imagine the decibel level of the Weasley whinge should anyone demand that Ron or the twins conform to that level of formal etiquette? Or for that matter, Ginny?)

On the good breeding and social maturity scale Neville scored discernibly higher than any of the rest of the 4th year Gryffindor boys, and by Book 5 it didn’t look as if the rest had caught up to him yet. (Even if his new pet plant did seem determined to embarrass him in public.)

It was beginning to look to me as if it may actually be Neville’s gran who is the flip side to the Malfoy’s “prominent pureblood” coin, rather than Arthur Weasley and his family. Certainly in the “two Houses alike in dignity” sweeps. It is obvious that Neville clearly wants to be a “good” wizard, but up to the middle of Goblet, I was vanishingly less and less convinced that he possessed any intention of ever becoming a good “wizard”.

• • • •

I still really do suspect that Neville spent his first few years at Hogwarts barely pretending to go through all the motions of “trying” to perform acceptably. With what appeared to be quite unaccountably miserable results. But; whenever he opened his mouth, he was endlessly reminding people of what a bundle of incompetence he was as a wizard. He might as well have come right out and said; “Look at what a duffer I am. Can I please go home now?”

It might even be significant that the only class he had ever consistently relaxed and done his best in, without continually sabotaging his own efforts was Herbology, which probably requires the least active use of magical skills this side of Astronomy and History of Magic. There’s not that much absentmindedness on display in the greenhouses, either, I suspect!

I do suspect that he probably wasn’t intentionally, repeatedly, shooting himself in the foot. But he pretty clearly had convinced himself that he couldn’t, so he didn’t, and was hoping that Hogwarts and his teachers would finally get fed up and let him off the hook altogether.

I had begun to wonder if, after trying for most of four years straight to get himself sent home for reasons that he “couldn’t help”, he was going to finally have his own little epiphany and face the fact that he IS a wizard, that his magic was not going to go away, that he can’t siphon it off it the way he did as a toddler. And that if he and the people he cares about are going to survive, he had damned well better get control of it. I was looking forward to watching it, too.

Unfortunately, Rowling didn’t chose to show it to us.

Although it clearly seems to have happened.

• • • •

So far as I can figure out, it seems to have been that up front and personal demonstration of the curse that destroyed his parents which served as the turning point, and set off the beginnings of just such a process as I had been waiting for. Either that, or something to the purpose was said in that private chat he had with “Mad-Eye Moody” directly afterward. A possibility which, all things considered, raises more questions than it answers.

I am only disappointed that we never got a chance to fully witness Neville’s epiphany. It would have made such a very nice dramatic scene for him somewhere in the fifth or sixth book. Unfortunately, although it certainly does seem to have taken place, thanks to the Harry filter, Rowling did not give us the chance to watch it happen onstage.

We were given a hint that it began during the course of Book 4, however. There was a night, after Harry’s first trip into a Pensieve, when he finally knew about what happened to Neville’s parents, that he was lying awake in the night thinking of all the damage that had been done to people by Lord Voldemort.

In one of only about three incidents in the series to that point, the narrator stepped back briefly from the Harry filter and pointed out to the reader that Harry hadn’t realized that Neville was also lying awake that night. Harry hadn’t noticed that Neville wasn’t snoring.

And, in the meantime, we should hardly be surprised that Snape, who sees just about all the of same evidence that the reader does, and, being Snape, ascribes the worst possible motives to it, should have been driven batty by Neville’s whole “duffer act” since Year 1, and to be determined to take it out of the boy’s hide.

And it is uncertain that Snape’s attitude toward Neville Longbottom ever changed, even though Neville’s attitude toward Magic seems to have.

I wonder what Snape thought of Neville as a DADA student?

• • • •

Unfortunately for Neville, Horace Slughorn was recalled from retirement too late to make a difference for him in Potions class. Which there is every chance he might have. Even leaving aside the Slug Club, which Neville didn’t rate, Neville would never have been afraid of Slughorn.

Many fans were disappointed by Neville’s apparent dismissal to the background in HBP after we finally got to see him come forward a bit in OotP. And I do not blame them. We had higher hopes for Neville than that. But the story is clearly focused upon Harry, and to draw too much attention to Neville apparently would have been in excess of the requirements.

We were delighted to learn of his activities in DHs. As one fan put it; “Neville fell out of the awesome tree and hit every branch on the way down.” He certainly seems to have developed into a more effective leader than Harry ever did.

And at that; Neville seemingly was allowed one scrap of unsung glory in HBP.

To all appearances, it was Neville who took out Fenrir Greyback.

It takes some careful reading, but Neville was the only one of the defenders who was in a position to have Petrified Greyback. Everyone else was fully engaged in active combat when it happened.

Harry reached the corridor where the battle was in progress; Bill Weasley and Gibbon, the DE who caught an AK meant for someone else, were down, Greyback broke away from a fight and had a go at Harry, someone hit Greyback with a Petrificus. Harry scrambled out from under his body to see Ginny, Minerva, Lupin, Ron and Tonks all engaged in one-on-one battles and Neville down, but conscious, holding his stomach. We later learned that Neville had been injured earlier on, and thrown across the hall by whatever was blocking the staircase.

So unless someone who was not one of the defenders petrified Greyback, who else was there to do it but Neville?

Go Neville!

• • • •

Btw, I was handed a lovely theory on Neville taking Bellatrix out in the final adventure by another fan at Lumos. It follows the classic Invasion of Hogwarts script, and I can’t say that I thought it was particularly likely, but we certainly had no reason to consider it impossible, even if Rowling didn’t go there. And it’s great fun.

It proposed that in the course of the second invasion of Hogwarts, Neville and Bella (and possibly other DEs) end up dodging each other through the greenhouses. Neville, ducking under the table, gets to the earmuffs and starts uprooting mandrakes.

Which all just seems a singularly appropriate end for a witch who is notoriously entertained by screams.

In DHs Neville and Sprout were lobbing mandrakes at the DEs, but the incident was not really utilized in the narrative.

And of course Rowling opted for a fake, tacky “Battle of Hogwarts” scene instead.

A great many people are annoyed that it wasn’t Neville who got to take out Bellatrix. But I am not one of them. I suppose there wasn’t any plausible way that Rowling could let him do for both Bellatrix and Nagini. And of the two, it really is better that he should have had the chance to settle Nagini.

• • • •

Speaking of theories; I could never buy into the widespread fan conviction that Neville was suffering from a botched memory charm. Never. That never served any real purpose toward advancing the plot. What we needed was a reason to explain why Neville was significant, since we could all somehow see that he was. But carrying around suppressed memories of where VaporMort might have been in 1981 just wasn’t likely to be the reason. That’s not required. That’s a false lead.

Oh, Neville was absent-minded, yes. We’ve ample canon support of that. But none of the incidents of Neville’s absent-mindedness are of a suspicious nature. And indeed, the worst trouble he ever got into over his absent-mindedness was from knowing he was absent-minded, writing important information down and leaving it on his own bedside table inside the dormitory, where it presumably was safe. He could hardly have been expected to anticipate that Crookshanks would steal it and give it to Sirius Black. I mean, really, who would?

But the track record we actually got in the series was one of people not asking Neville the right questions.

He knew the properties of gillyweed. He would have told Harry about gillyweed in a minute. Did Harry ask Neville whether he had any suggestions about staying underwater for an hour? No. He didn’t.

Neville doesn’t volunteer much information about himself. In fact, he volunteered less and less information as the series progressed. But the boy is wizarding-raised, with a large family from older, and possibly more well-informed generations than Ron Weasley’s parents’, and he has a grandmother who rants at the drop of a hat. He probably knew one hell of a lot, and could fill in quite a few blanks if anyone would bother to ask him.

If the pattern we had already been given was holding, he probably doesn’t even realize the significance of what he knows. But he does know it. And he knows that he knows it and breaking memory charms isn’t required to get him to tell you about it. All that’s needed is to ask the right question.

And maybe someone ought to ask his Gran a few questions as well.