You really have to hand it to the Prophecy demons.
They are GOOD at their job.
They stitched Tom Riddle up in a sack and made a zip-damned fool of Albus Dumbledore.
(And, finally, some eight years after the fact, I at long last realized that they also assured the death of Severus Snape for being such an idiot as to try to curry favor by reporting the damned thing. The only person to escape their attentions was Aberforth — who may not have even heard it, and ignored it if he did — and, of course, Trelawney herself. The Prophecy demons have every reason to be expected to preserve their own instrument.)
Plus, it was seven years and counting after the closure of canon when I wrote the first iteration of any of this, and most of us still hadn't figured out just where the catch was hiding. Mainly because it wasn’t hidden. The catch was sitting right out there in plain sight.
Of course there was a catch. There’s always a catch to a Prophecy.
Even given that this “Prophecy” manifestly *didn’t* play out the way the text of the Prophecy claimed that it was supposed to — or not if you believe Harry Potter’s account of it, anyway. But we still couldn’t identify the part that was a cheat. Or rather, the way of it that was a cheat.
Because the Prophecy demons always cheat, too.
We’d caught a lot of the other “true lies” related to that prophecy. We saw for ourselves that it wasn't that neither Tom nor Harry could live, but that neither could properly die until the Harrycrux was disposed of. We had it paraded right under our noses that Harry’s power to form, or attract, human attachments clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with the final confrontation — although it does seem fairly evident that he never would have made to to the penultimate confrontation without it. And that the assurance that this was going to take Tom down gave Harry the nerve to submit to it. But that alone, in itself, didn’t do it.
But we did still know that there had to be a catch.
We’ve all known from the minute that it was first hinted — all the way back in Book 3 — that a Prophecy was even in the equation that Tom Riddle would be sure to manage to roll himself up by trying to dodge it. Also that if Harry Potter supposedly had a power that Tom “knew not” then you could bet 10 to 1 that Tom Riddle had probably given it to him.
But Harry Potter’s allegedly exceptional power to love the wizarding world out of Voldemort’s clutches never really materialized. He's a self-absorbed little clod right to the final page of the final book. And it wasn’t the Prophecy demons that sent us off on that particular wild goose chase. It was Albus.
Indeed, Harry Potter’s whole exceptional power of Love™ ultimately appears to be just another exercise in Albus’s policy of flannel-mouthed flattery, to butter the kid up and make him feel good about his allotted rôle.
After having shoved him into it.
And I *still* say that Albus deliberately deployed that Prophecy, hoping that it would goad Tom into doing something stupid. What else would you call parading into the Ministry to report that a Prophecy had been made, and handing over the sealed record? One probably already labeled something provocative like; "Concerning the fall of the Dark Lord Voldemort", too.
Severus only told Lord Voldemort about it. Albus told the world.
And how often do we recall that all of Albus’s assurances on the fallacy of Prophecies was something that we were only given some sixteen years after Trelawney burped that one up? I don’t think that it was only Tom who got led up the garden path by believing in it — when it happened. Albus may be backpedaling like fiddler’s elbows by the time we catch up to him and make him explain himself, but, given all of his known actions at the time, I think Albus believed that stupid Prophecy was “the answer” just as desperately as Tom Riddle did. And by the time we finally get his statement on the issue he’s already discovered that his willingness to palm all the responsibility off onto some “appointed hero” has only made the whole situation about six times worse.
Not that he’ll ever admit as much.
(Gilderoy Lockhart wasn’t the only flimflam man we’ve had to deal with in this series.)
And we got a useful counter-example on how to avoid being bitten by a prophecy when Harry was the audience to Trelawney’s second one, got distracted, and forgot all about it until it was over. No action, no consequences. Of course Harry’s usual luck held and he only got thrown one that had a (mercifully short) time limit.
Which of course isn’t to say that Harry Potter didn’t have a power that Tom couldn’t access.
Because he oh-but-definitely did.
It just wasn’t a power that Tom was unaware of. Our Tom was VERY well aware of that mysterious power. And he desperately *wanted* it for himself. And he told us so. On stage, in front of witnesses.
He just didn’t have a clue of how to get it.
Nor that Harry Potter would soon have it.
Which is hardly surprising. That particular power hadn’t been in circulation for centuries. (If ever.)
And by the time it mattered, Tom lacked the evident qualification anyway.
Just like we all suspected, he gave it to Harry.
Have you figured it out? I’m reasonably good at this, and Ghod knows it took me long enough.
And this time our missed opportunity isn’t just a case of Rowling having only needed to have made a minor shift somewhere in order to give us an answer that “read”. She didn't need to do anything but realize what she had sitting right in front of her! Right there in her own hands, in her own words, already.
She even admits it! But she obviously doesn’t appear to have a clue as to why her answer to the troublesome Riddle *worked*.
And it definitely isn’t that lame psuedo-explanation that she had Harry boasting about to everyone. That “explanation” just confused the issue even more than it already was.
In fact, the explanation that she puts into Harry’s mouth to “explain it all” is pure, unadulterated sewage. Which, considering what organic compound Potter seems all too often to use for brains, should probably not be that much of a surprise.
The power that Tom Riddle “knew not” was nothing less than the power to master the Elder wand.
• • • •
Tom was hardly alone in that lack. Nobody else seems to have really understood how to do that either. Let alone have been able to.
Albus Dumbledore tap-danced around the subject with another load of flimflam and mock modesty about how no, he didn't really have the wand’s *mastery*, per se, but the wand had agreed to let him use it. Heavily larded with his own boasts of having only used it “for good”.
Gellert Grindelwald told us (and Tom) flat-out that he never had it. Period.
And for that matter, the wandmaker, Gregorovitch, who Gellert had stolen it from (and had formally “defeated” with it as he escaped) claimed to have had the wand only “to study” which doesn’t sound to me like he was claiming the mastery of it either.
Are you detecting a pattern here?
Frankly, I don’t think that *anybody* has ever truely had the mastery of that wand. Certainly not anybody in living memory.
And, I rather suspect, quite probably neither has anybody from its very beginnings either — particularly not if it really was given to someone by Death himself. That’s a source that’s every bit as risky to negotiate with as believing in something you’re told by the Prophecy demons.
Antioch Peverill allegedly demanded an “unbeatable wand”. Not, you will notice, a wand that would make *him* unbeatable, even though that’s probably what he meant.
By that token, all wands are probably “unbeatable”. You don’t defeat the wand, you defeat its holder. No. No one ever has beaten the Elder wand. After all, they're all gone and it’s still here.
I suspect it would be right up Death’s alley to have handed Peverill a supremely powerful wand that he would never have the wherewithal to actually master.
And that nobody else has ever mastered either. Although the holders of it have never let *that* piece of information out from under their hats. Indeed, a lot of them, like Antioch, probably never realized that inconvenient fact themselves.
And that fool Harry Potter actually believes that the wand obeyed him because he snatched sombody else’s wand out of their hand in a scuffle a few weeks earlier? Please. Draco Malfoy was no more the master of the Elder wand than I am.
And I’m a Muggle.
• • • •
Even though it turns out — after the fact — that you couldn’t necessesarily *believe* him, Albus was much better at Explaining It All than Harry Potter. Even when he was just plain wrong. Like now.
Although, technically speaking I would downgrade this alleged unknown “Power” to a “unique advantage”, or more accurately, a “gift” — because when the chips were down the mastery wasn’t anything that Potter could actually invoke, or necessesarily use. He just *had* it, at the very time when it counted.
And yet, even though it wasn’t thanks to anything that he inherently was, or anything that he was aware that he did, by the time of the showdown in the Great Hall, Harry Potter WAS unquestionably the Master of the Elder wand. Even if he doesn’t understand why.
Obviously, we need to take a closer look both at the issue of wand “mastery”, in general, and, just possibly the whole issue of the Elder wand itself, while we’re at it. Because however the business allegedly works with ordinary wands, it doesn’t work the same way with that one. And no one (especially Rowling) seems to have considered that.
Frankly, in DHs Rowling went overboard in her attempts to explain something that she fairly obviously didn’t understand herself. She needed A to do B and for the result to be C (Translation: she needed Harry and Tom to face off and for Tom to blow himself up), and that's how it happened all right, but I think she hadn't a clue of how or why it worked. So she started prancing about sending up smoke screens, deploying mirrors, and making pronouncements that sounded vaguely “arcane”, and basically fleeing when none puresueth, and none of the resulting “explanation” even fits together, let alone actually moves in concert in any kind of a rational sequence without simply falling apart. She’d already given us the explanation. She just never realized it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to make sense of it either. But for this particular article, I went back to the basics.
• • • •
Issue #1: Wand “Mastery”
Apparently wand mastery actually always was an issue, even though by the time we reached DHs it reads like a pasted-on afterthought. My current suspicion is that Rowling probably did intend for it to matter, but never took the time to give us a viable heads-up, until it was already way too late. (Too distracted by other issues, probably.) But we did get at least one possibly deliberate hint — for laughs — all the way back in CoS when Lockhart’s wand seems to have been actively trying to abandon him after his duel with Snape. But I cannot off the top of my head think of any other such kinda/maybe hints to point at until we reached DHs, and by that point the whole business had to be laid on with a trowel in order to make her climax work.
But. Before you can have any hope of “mastering” a wand, you have to have a reasonably sound grasp of what a wand IS.
I gave a fair bit of thought to wands and their possible structure and function back when I first drafted out this whole essay collection back around 2002–’03 (see the essay entitled; ‘The Art + Science of Wandmaking’ in the Oh Wide, Wide Wizarding World sub-collection). And I still think that what I drafted out then still holds together now without having to make exceptions for every second example, or do backbends to make the connections meet.
The basic parameters, to recap are:
Wands are focusing devices designed to serve as conduits for magical energies. Magic is a form of energy, rather like electricity. It operates over a fairly wide range of something very much like a spectrum, or, perhaps more properly, a “scale” of frequencies. Different types of spells are apparently known to transmit within certain ranges within the full potential “spectrum”. Consequently, Olivander *can* tell you, accurately, that a certain wand will be good for charms, because he knows that the components of that wand will most easily conduct magic at the frequency that most charms operate.
Any individual wizard or witch’s own personal magic also has its own native range of frequencies. Therefore, a wand which is a good match to a wizard *will* work better for him than one which conducts in a different magical harmonic range. He gets a higher signal to noise ratio from it. But still, any trained wizard ought to be able to conduct magic though any non-defective wand well enough to function. There was no legitimate need to abruptly make all wands behave as if they were suddenly defective in the final book to get the point across.
Okay. So. Carrying this a bit further into the question of “mastering” a wand which Rowling threw at us at the 49th minute of the 11th hour, and trying to make it somehow fit, let’s consider what wands are not.
Wands are not people. They are not alive. They’re tools. They do not have minds. They do not have feelings. They do not, properly speaking, have memories.
However, a conduit connects at both ends. And wands don’t appear to be designed to allow the energy to travel in both directions. A wand delivers it’s holder’s magic to their target. It is not unreasonable to assume that there is a resonance which occurs when it actually connects with that target. This resonance may well set up a form of feedback which is maintained at least for the duration of the spell. Indeed, given that rather a lot of the spells we have seem wizards using invoke processes which must be maintained for an appreciable amount of time before the task — which may be composed of several different components delivered in a sequence — is complete, it is extremely likely that a wand does indeed set up and register a relationship to whatever target its operator’s magic is affecting.
And since the magic the operator is conducting is traveling through the wand, to the target, it also registers what direction that energy is moving. The “polarity” so to speak. You do not want your magic to be forced back through your wand to you. We’ve seen that happen. It wasn’t fun for anyone involved. (And I’ll be getting back to that in a minute.)
Indeed I think a part of the wandmaker’s craft must be designed to prevent anything of that sort taking place under anything but extraordinary circumstances. Magic is supposed to travel through a wand only in the one intended direction. The wand may not precisely be “aware” (not having a brain, after all) but it registers that *it*, or its operator, affects the target. The target does not affect it. Ron’s broken wand in CoS was deffective in exactly that function. The operator’s magic could not be depended upon to flow in the correct direction.
And while they don’t have conscious memories (since they are not conscious) all wands have been shown to build at least a temporary log of the spells that they have most recently conducted, and the targets they have affected. The Priori Incantatum spell is designed to access this log. We've seen it do so.
We don’t know how long such a log really lasts. Probably not forever. It is most likely to get gradually overwritten by the records of subsequent spells with different targets. But it must remain “set” for the duration of an active spell, and it does not immediately reset when the spell is concluded. A witch or wizard quite often is going to be conducting more than one spell to affect the same selected target. Therefore, a wand retains some sort of resonance with its most recent targets. And the log does not completely reset when new targets are selected, either. the record is retained until it is overwritten by more recent spells.
Which means that if one wizard hexes another and the other physically snatches the wand and tries to hex him back, the polarity of the log’s registration of who is the target is going to make for interference. Ergo: the last time Hermione met up with Bellatrix, Bellatrix had her writhing on the floor in the throes of Crucio, and since Harry snatched that wand as well as the hawthorn one, and the wand hasn't been used for any significant number of other spells by a different operator in the meantime to overwrite the log. Consequently, when Hermione picked up that wand and tried to use it, it was still registering her as the “target” not the “operator”, and she found it very difficult to get it to work. The polarity was wrong. Keep this in mind. It’s relevant.
Like I say. I don’t think this log lasts forever. Data requires storage, and wands don’t have a lot of mass for storing an extensive log of their past spells. But if not overwritten it does last an appreciable amount of time. In the Little Hangleton graveyard, Voldemort’s yew wand was spitting up a log of spells which were cast anything up to over a dozen years earlier, and would have continued to do so had Harry not broken the conection. So the information doesn’t simply fade over time. It needs to be overwritten. And the log of a 13-inch wand clearly can contain something like records of at least a dozen or so spells, because we saw that many all replay, ourselves.
After a long enough interval, particularly if the wand remains in use, it probably will not continue to register someone as a “former” target, even if that person was one. But we do not know how long an interval that requires. Moreover, there are external factors which can erase the log. We noted no complaints from Hermione about Bellatrix’s balky wand after that wand had been taken through Gringotts’s security waterfall. Indeed, she was using that wand to duel against Bellatrix herself before the end of the final battle. And holding her own with it, too. A conscientious seller of used wands would probably know how to erase such a log before putting any used wand into his stock.
Or at any rate, this is probably how it should be interpreted to work for normal wands. But there is no reason to suppose that this necessarily also applies to the Elder wand. We have been given to understand that the Elder wand is unique. Indeed, we’ve every indication that it flatly doesn’t work like that, and it is probably a widespread mistake to expect it to.
(We’ve still no good explanation for the amazing auto-wand of the Seven Potters, sequence. But I doubt that it had anything to do with Harry’s mastery of his own wand.)
So. Where does the Elder wand come into it? How is that one different from normal wands?
HOW did Harry manage to master the Elder wand?
Because obviously he did.
• • • •
Issue #2: The Elder Wand
Here is where I think we need to ignore what Albus Dumbledore has to say about that wand — and for that matter, what he says about about Harry Potter. Albus was not in a position to know that wand’s true history. Nor was he willing to believe that it might be precisely what legend claimed it was. Albus clearly didn’t believe in a personified Death, and *he* certainly never claims to have been the “master” of that wand. Albus, after all, claims that the Elder wand was created by Antioch Peverill.
And I just do not see how a wizard such as what we are given to believe that Antioch Peverill was like, would create a wand that couldn’t be mastered, know that it couldn’t be mastered, and then boast about how it was unbeatable. So either he didn't create it, or he didn’t know he wasn't the master of it, or both.
No. I really do think that we may have to at least consider the possibility that the wand really was given to some fool wizard in a bargain with Death. (Or possibly in a negotiation with something like a Prophecy demon *claiming* to be Death. In any case, some entity that is at least partially from the spirit plane, even though it manifestly is able to affect the physical one.)
And that the wand was booby-trapped.
Because if you reconsider the order of events as told in the story of the Three Brothers, Antioch Peverill demanded an unbeatable wand as a reward for escaping one of Death’s traps.
He didn’t win that wand in a fight. Death just created that wand and handed it to him.
And Peverill never was its Master.
Death is its Master.
• • • •
I really do think that humans, and particularly human wizards, ought to be a little more open-minded about other species’ interpretations of the concept of “ownership”. And perhaps they ought not to be *quite* so hasty to ascribe purely human traditions related to that concept to anthropomorphacised allegorical entities. Certainly not when there is no shortage of other competing interpretations of the same concept among other sentient creatures who are also subject to that same entity, with all of whom you already have ample experience in dealing.
Like, say, Goblins?
Goblin views on property ownership may be very inconvenient to wizards, but they are hardly unfamiliar. And we are given to understand that by by Goblin law anything that is made belongs to its maker. Even if the maker allows (or in modern terms licenses) its use by others.
Think about that.
Death has no particular need of a wand. Death isn’t a wizard, after all. He isn't human, either. Yes, he deals with humans. He also deals with Goblins. And House Elves. And as many other races and species as you care to mention. He clearly had no objection to handing a wand out on a long-term loan to an endless succession of foolish wizards, however.
But it’s still His. And eventually he will overcome all of that wand’s holders.
Except that for the rest of this particular lifetime, it’s Harry’s.
So what did Harry do to win the mastery of the Elder wand?
Isn’t it obvious?
He stood there in front of Tom to let Tom kill him. And Tom did kill him. Killed him and dropped him summarily into Death’s own country, into Death’s own keeping.
And then he picked himself up and walked back out.
Under his own “power”.
• • • •
Which I think is probably the only thing that would have ever made an impression on that wand. Or, rather, on its log. That log could no longer record Harry as a target. He wasn’t dead. However, a wand doesn't have a brain, and a wand only recognizes the target and the operator. No 3rd parties. So, it evidently recorded Harry as the operator. Even using an unblockable, unbeatable, permanent, failure-proof death spell on him, the wand hadn’t had any lasting effect on Harry.
Indeed, I suspect that was always the whole point of all the nonsense in attendance to the “Deathly” Hallows. In order to “master” Death, you have to master *Death*. Whether you happen to have physical possession of all three of the fool Hallows at the time is immaterial.
Of course Harry’d never have been able to get up and walk back out if the Harrycrux hadn’t been there to help spread the impact of Tom’s AK. That curse did kill the Harrycrux. Wiped it out completely.
So, even if you can theoretically kill two people with one arrow, or one bullet, you evidently cannot kill two people with one AK.
And, since the connection between Harry and Tom was still live, and open, when Tom hit Harry with that AK Tom got hauled into Death’s keeping as well.
And Harry *could* have let it kill him, too. He really did have a choice about whether or not to go back.
And if he had chosen NOT to go back. I suspect that Tom would have never regained consciousness. And then, when someone killed the snake, Death would have “taken him for his own”.
After all, Death was already holding the main portion of what was left of Tom. It was lying there under a bench screaming its head off. There’s no way that Tom was going to be getting up and walking away under his own power. That was a power that he definitely “knew not”. But evidently, even though the Harrycrux was now gone, the connection between the two was somehow still active enough (probably something to do with the blood connection that Tom set up in GoF) that when Harry returned, he somehow dragged Tom along after him. Temporarily, at least.
Of course Albus hadn’t a clue. Albus doesn’t believe in a personified Death (who evidently hasn’t bothered to come out and have a chat with Albus. Death is probably quite unimpressed with Albus). Harry doesn’t have a clue either, or he’d never have spouted that load of bilge about having snatched the mastery from Draco Malfoy (oh Puh-leeze!). And apparently, for that matter neither does Rowling.
• • • •
But the fact is that Harry Potter demonstrably came back from the celestial Kings Cross Station the Master of the Elder wand. No curse that Tom sent at him from that point touched him. Or, apparently anyone else, more than momentarily — although he was at least able to do something. Tom aquitted himself very well defending himself from Slughorn, McGonagall and Shacklebolt. If all he was working with was his own magic, using a hostile wand, then he must once have been every bit as formidable as everyone keeps trying to claim.
But look at the log: that wand had just killed Tom Riddle. The Harrycrux was Tom Riddle, after all. And furthermore, it was dead. More to the point, it was a piece of Tom Riddle that was *still connected* to the one still walking around and trying to use that wand. Who in the wand’s log now solidly registered Tom Riddle as a target. A dead target.
Which is where I suspect that the real uniqueness of the Elder wand may be confusing the issue. Death handed that wand to Peverill and Peverill expected it to work for him.
And, it did. But Peverill was a designated target. ALL living wizards are designated targets to the Master of that wand.
But the Elder wand will function for any of them. It doesn’t invoke the polarity reversal of a normal wand when a target picks it up and tries to use it. It doesn’t necessesarily enhance their own native powers, although it probably usually does, at least enough for them to notice a difference. And it probably does enable some functions (like being able to repair other broken wands). But it doesn’t give them any clue as to the fact that they are the target.
However, NO wand is going to work properly for somebody who is already dead. None of the dead would expect a wand to properly *work* for them, either. Not even that wand. What Tom Riddle did not realize is that from the point that he regained consiousness in the forest, he was already a walking dead man.
And the Elder wand flatly won’t work against its Master. And nobody can force it to. You cannot kill Death. And Tom Riddle certainly couldn’t. OR Death’s little scar-faced proxy, either.
So Harry Potter will either be killed in the course of his Auror duties by some other wand, or he may die in his bed at an advanced age. And in either case, he will take the Mastery of that wand back out of the world with him.
Tom was absolutely not the boss of that wand. And unlike Gregorovitch or Grindelwald, who realized when they were beaten, or Albus — who Gellert may have warned about the matter when he turned it over — and settled for mere cooperation, Tom just stubbornly kept trying. I’m a bit surprised he even managed to set the Hat on fire. And even at that, Neville doesn’t seem to have been burnt.
(And we’re told outright that even though nobody stopped what they were doing to put it out, the Hat is still in service 19 years later.)
• • • •
So how was that again?
“…and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…”
How’s about we try it; “and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, and he will be given power the Dark Lord knows not”? Indeed, and by the Dark Lord himself. That’s the way Prophecies always work.
Although I think it’s still a bit of a stretch to describe the Harrycrux as a “power”.
And for the record, I’m not altogether convinced that Tom hadn’t figured out the nature of his connection to the Potter kid by the end, either. Or why else would he have been so insistent that HE be the one to kill Potter? Clearly, if he had finally realized that the kid was carrying around one of his soul fragments, he had decided that that one was expendable. But nobody else was going to screw the odds by killing the kid and letting them get a hypothetical advantage over himself.
Which brings us right up to the final confrontation; an “unblockable” AK may ricochet off of a solid object (although we’ve never seen one do so. Generally they just damage the object), but it isn’t going to bounce off of another *spell*. Spells are not solid. Or not unless they are something like a shield spell, and Expeliarmus isn’t. Not unless *something* is in charge of that AK other than the caster. Or this is some amazing hoopy new variant of an AK that we’ve never heard of. (Like the levitating one in HBP?)
But frankly, any explanation for why the AK bounced off the Expeliarmus and yet *both* spells managed to travel in a straight line to solidly nail Tom instead of ricocheting off in two other directions is something that even I am going to have to ascribe to nothing other than sheer authorial fiat. Because I flatly don’t believe it works that way.
And if Harry has any sense at all he will take that wand to the Ministry and pitch it straight through the veil right back to its original owner and get it out of circulation permanently. If Tom could take it out of Albus’s tomb, so can anyone else, and put it back into circulation even if they haven’t a hope of ever mastering it.
But in any case, it is clear that in the final reckoning, Ignotus Peverill isn’t the only wizard who will one day be meeting Death as an equal.