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The Genius of Rowling’s Red Herrings
What All This Speculation Does for Us and for Her
By kma1975

In the second half of the nineteenth century, in England and America, Charles Dickens’s novels were published in chapter-by-chapter installments in periodicals. Dickens’s novels were wildly popular, perhaps not on the same scale that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is wildly popular, but for that time the mania was roughly comparable. Without doubt, each installment was rabidly discussed as it appeared, and speculation ran wild about what would come next in Dickens’s exciting, action-packed and often mysterious stories. However, these discussions were limited by the technology of the day: you might discuss your reading within your family and amongst your friends, and sometimes people wrote in to the periodicals that published the novels to comment on what they had read. But for the most part one speculated only with people whom one already knew.

Since Dickens’s time, novels have almost always been published all at once, and so readers generally wait to discuss a work until they’ve reached the end. There are some exceptions; most notably, the unprecedented rise in quality and popularity of graphic novels in the 1990s presented a situation where readers were forced to wait breathlessly for a month between installments. One of the most popular graphic novels of that decade, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, did indeed engender a rabid and obsessive following of fans, but the internet had not yet become common enough or sophisticated enough to turn that fandom into an institution that fed upon itself, and the fandom of Sandman in its early stages remained relatively small and existed mostly offline.

Of course, Sandman has continued to grow hugely in popularity, but it is notable that it really took off only after it was available from start to finish in bound volumes; the same is true for Philip Pullman’s hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy. While authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman have their own official web sites and fan sites with active discussion groups, neither are anything like as elaborate as the Harry Potter fan site network. This seems to be because most popular series, like Pullman’s and Gaiman’s, don’t reach their peak of popularity until after they’ve been published in their entirety. The Harry Potter series, by contrast, is slowly reaching the height of its popularity along with the close of the story, and all this coincides with a moment in time when the internet has reached into nearly every home in the industrialized world and technology has made it easier for fans to create sophisticated, interactive multimedia sites. In short, the fact that the Harry Potter series is not yet resolved with a final volume creates an unprecedented fan need for constant news and reference information at precisely the same time that technology and access make it all possible on a previously unimaginable scale. (A contrasting case is the Lemony Snicket A Series of Unfortunate Events series, which reached its “End” just last year. While also wildly popular and associated with both an official author site and many fan sites, that series relies less on suspense for its charm than these other popular works; after all, readers of Snicket know things will go badly, we just enjoy the incomparable style with which Snicket carries it off.)

Thus, the situation in which the Harry Potter fandom now finds itself is unprecedented. The sheer number of readers and fans of these books is of course staggering, but what is even more unique is that (a) we do not yet know how the story ends, and (b) we can all communicate with each other in real time, around the world, with only a few boundaries of language and access to technology to limit the size of the audience discussing these books.

And we are discussing. The biggest open questions remaining in this series – who will live, who will die, Snape’s loyalty, where the Horcruxes are, how Voldemort can/will be defeated – are driving avid discussion in online forums and chat rooms, on a surprisingly large and varied list of Harry Potter-related podcasts, and at “real-life” conferences and other events where fans (who did not otherwise know each other) gather.

In addition to the large, obvious cliff-hangers that we are left with after reading the sixth and penultimate book in the series, we also discuss – ad nauseum – every hint dropped by the series’ author, J.K. Rowling, in interviews and on her official web site. It is a fascinating and unique fact in itself that Rowling has dropped hints. As we have seen, perhaps no other author has been in a position to do so in this way, on this scale, since most series reach a high level of popularity only after they’ve been completed (and, of course, no other series has been this popular at all). If other authors, however, were in such a position to drop public hints about a plot that was still in the process of unfolding, they might let it suffice to refuse to quash specific questions where necessary, without actually adding new possibilities to the speculation. But Rowling goes further, by voluntarily offering nuggets of information designed to foster still more debate, such as the fact that someone will perform magic in book seven who has not done it before, or that it matters how Dumbledore came into possession of Harry’s invisibility cloak before book one.1

We all know that there are questions Rowling can’t answer, and we wouldn’t want her to, because they would give away the plot of the last remaining book. She has gone on to say that there are certain lines of speculation that, when they come to her attention, she feels she needs to quash, because they “are plain unprofitable.” 2 But, she allows other speculation to run wild, arguing that even if the conclusion is wrong, the line of thought might lead somewhere interesting.3 Perhaps there is still another reason to keep certain possibilities open, and even to directly throw out carefully worded red herrings (“I can completely understand the mentality of an author who thinks ‘well I am going to kill them off…’ ” 4), which Rowling may be invoking unconsciously (or not so unconsciously).

Normally, when we read a novel, we are of course in some suspense about how it will end, but we also employ what we know about the expectations for certain genres to assure ourselves about some basics (that is, most children’s books will have happy endings; a classic Russian novel probably will not!). Rowling has already destabilized some of our expectations by crossing genres – from fantasy to British public school novel to mystery/suspense to young adult – but I suggest that she has also made it more difficult to predict the plot by deliberately offering clues and red herrings in interviews and on her web site. I believe that this unprecedented interaction between author and fans while a story is still unfolding enriches our reading in expected ways. Let me try to show you how by applying this reasoning to a few unraveled plot points.

If, for example, I were to begin reading the final book in the Harry Potter series knowing for an absolute certainty that the hero of the story cannot be killed off (after a set-up in which he is made constantly miserable by evil forces out of his control for his entire childhood) – as we know that such a character could never be killed off in a classical Hollywood studio film – then when I read of Harry’s perils in the final book I would rest secure in my certainty that the happy ending would still, definitely, be coming. I would be less invested in the suspense of the final book, and I would be immune to any clever twists that make him seem to be dead only to turn up dusty, disheveled, hatless (oops, sorry Indiana), but alive, in the dénouement. If, however, that remark Rowling made on the Richard and Judy show – together with the maniacal laughter with which she famously responds to direct questions,5 together with the sheer originality and ruthless emotional truth of the first six books – is enough to implant in me a seed of just 5% doubt … then, when I read the seventh book, I will cramp my hands around its corners, I will disdain food, water, and personal hygiene, and I will indulge in breathless terror until the very last page … just in case Rowling has once again pulled off the impossible.

In other words, if I believe there is even the smallest chance that this book will not play out according to what my previous experience of similar novels tells me should happen, then I will read it with far greater emotional investment than I would have otherwise, and the intensity of suspense will remain high throughout the book.

The same is true if we look at the question of Snape’s loyalty. When I pick up the seventh volume, I will do so knowing that I’m an experienced reader. I will know perfectly well that this character cannot be made to seem evil and then ultimately be proven to be so much more complex than that in every single volume only to be tossed off as the worst kind of pure-evil bad guy in the final scene. No. I know perfectly well that all signs point to Dumbledore foreseeing his own death and arranging it with Snape to ensure Harry’s safety and Snape’s vital position as spy for the Order of the Phoenix. I know that Snape, slimy though he may be, is also a complex personality, full of contradictory needs and misunderstood virtues. I know that hints have been dropped that he may have cared for Lily – and that yes, he, unlike Voldemort, has known love, and can love. I know that the power of the word “coward” is essential to understanding Snape’s character, that Harry’s blind resentment of Snape is simplistic and misguided, and therefore part of Harry’s becoming an adult will require that he learns to see Snape for something far from evil (if also far from wise or pure).

However.

Rowling has planted a seed … a seed planted when she was so dismissive in the Melissa-Emerson interview of Snape being a double-quadruple agent6 … that prevents me and every other fan who read that interview from being cynical when we read book seven. I know that I, at least, won’t quite be able to relax and wait for Snape’s redemption. When what must happen finally happens, I certainly won’t be able to casually tell myself and my friends, “Oh, I saw that coming miles away!” Instead, when it does happen, it will be at the climax of a roller-coaster ride in which I will have thrown myself thoroughly into the world in which Snape might be just plain bad (“Die, you murderer, die!!”), and then thrown myself just as wildly in the other direction (“Harry! Don’t sink to their level! Don’t see only what it’s convenient to see! Reach out to him, Harry!”), until finally I reach the safe shores of exactly the right ending of the storyline, and I bathe myself in sweet relief and the balm of true clarity.

Because, you see, there’s something more at stake here than just suspense. Sure, we want to be unsure until the very final moments. We want to spend hours and days and weeks after we finish the last book reviewing it all to make all the connections that weave this enormous seven-volume story into such a tight fabric. That’s a large part of the pleasure of reading a story like this. But that’s not all there is to this story. What I love most about Harry Potter is the emotional and psychological depth and truth that J.K. Rowling brings to her characters. Just when I think I’ve got one of them pinned as a type … he or she blossoms into someone I’m unsure of, intrigued by, and inextricably attracted to. I know, after six books, that I can trust Rowling to never take the easy way out, and to give me people who, for all their magical qualities, are recognizable as myself and all the real people I know and love (or, like Dolores Umbridge, love to hate).

Rowling accomplishes this the way all the best writers accomplish the same magic trick: with insight, sensitivity, close observation, and ruthlessly honest writing. But I believe that, somehow, without anyone expecting it, this level of the books has been heightened over the years by the fandom and Rowling between them. Here’s an example: Before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released, Rowling publicly hinted that a major character would die. Speculation was, of course, rampant and soul-wrenching among millions of fans around the world. As we read Goblet of Fire – even though we knew it was impossible for her to kill off Harry, or any other truly “major” character that early in the series – we worried. As danger circled ever closer to Harry during the Triwizard Tournament, we worried. Not coincidentally, the people closest to Harry seemed to be put in direct danger, also, in the second task. So, when Ron and Hermione got their reprieve after the second task, and while readers everywhere chanted to ourselves, “Even Rowling wouldn’t kill off Harry,” we still worried … we worried about Dumbledore, about Neville, about Ginny and Fred and George. And then it turned out to be Cedric. If someone had asked you before Goblet of Fire was released whether Cedric Diggory was “a major character” wouldn’t you probably have said, “Cedric? He’s … some Hufflepuff or something, isn’t he?” And yet, how many of us choked up when Cedric died? And I think the reason Cedric’s death mattered to us was that our fear for the lives of other, more familiar characters had made us so engaged in the story, so absorbed in the danger that threatened these students, that when Cedric died, his closeness to the other students, to the ones we had worked ourselves up to feel so much for, was enough to make us feel his loss as a real loss, as more than the necessary writerly contrivance that it also was. I believe that if we had all gone into reading Goblet of Fire expecting that no one “important” would be killed off in this series (except maybe the old, gray-bearded wizard; this is fantasy fiction, after all), I think we would have greeted Cedric’s death more callously. We would have thought, “Wow, that’s a neat trick – if Voldy will kill off a kid, he’s really scary. Yeah. Good to know he’ll only kill off the kind of characters who get introduced one book earlier just for the purpose of later getting killed off, though. Phew.” And then, maybe, we would have been a little impatient with Harry and with Cho for being so maudlin about it all in the next book. Instead, we identified ourselves very closely with the students at Hogwarts, and we felt the fear and intrusion caused by losing one of our own. We recognized Harry’s (and Cho’s) moodiness and adolescent brattiness as just the same kind of confused, indirect way of expressing pain and fear that we have felt or are feeling at that age.

I’ll also offer a counter-example that ‘proves the rule’ that Rowling’s interaction with her fandom outside the books, through interviews and her web site, help to involve us still more deeply in her work. In her famous interview with Melissa Anelli and Emerson Spartz, Rowling was characteristically coy on many points, as already noted above.7 But on one point she was careful to make herself abundantly clear: Hermione and Ron will be a couple in the next book8 (while Harry and Ginny, as we know, already made their serious romantic interest in each other clear in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). The possible romantic relationships among the main characters have long been a topic of vociferous speculation among fans, as Rowling was well aware. Thus, as she has done on many other, smaller issues, she stated the facts on record, deliberately to put an end to particular lines of speculation. As I have already noted, Rowling has said that she quashes some rumors or theories when they “are plain unprofitable.” 9 Now, in light of my theory on the effects of encouraging speculation along certain lines, we can elaborate on how other types of theorizing can actually hinder the enjoyment of the books. It’s really very simple: if we search for clues to a relationship that Rowling knows will not come to fruition in any of the seven books, we will be turning our attention away from the story that she is writing and toward another story, which is not hers. This relative inattention will keep us from being fully involved in the story as it is actually enfolding, and will alienate us from the characters’ real development. In short, it keeps us from enjoying the books as fully as we might. The nature of a story – and the nature of the allure stories have always had for people – requires that you temporarily give yourself to it. That you suspend your disbelief (in magic or in the existence of a real “boy who lived” named Harry), and that you let the author take you for a ride. We trust that the author will provide a ride that is worthy of us; it must ring true, it must bring us somewhere new, and it must speak to truths we recognize, no matter how unreal the setting. In turn, the author trusts us to stay on the ride until its end – not to wander off on a path of our own halfway through (though if we stay on the ride and find it unsatisfactory, of course, we can always write a different one of our own; many great authors are born this way). The Harry Potter series has presented a situation that most of today’s readers are unfamiliar with, in that the ride has continued now for many years. Rowling, when she tells us that some paths are dead ends, is asking us to trust her at least until we’ve seen where she plans to lead us.

The result, it seems to me, of Rowling’s frequent and deliberate communications with her readers while her story is still unfolding is that Rowling has found – perhaps inadvertently – a way of moving beyond the genre of young adult fiction or coming-of-age stories, with their conventions and rules on who can die and who cannot and on what we know to expect, to write honest, complex, psychologically rich literature for people of all ages. Furthermore, a situation has evolved in which the dedicated fan, who reads interviews with the author, visits her web site, and dissects every clue, is able, thanks to Rowling’s thoughtful, generous, and careful management of this game, to enjoy a richer and more involving experience of the series than the casual reader who will swallow them whole a few years from now, when the entire series is available for the taking at any time and Rowling’s hints are no longer a front-page news item.

So we’re very lucky, right now, to be a part of this unique experience. But you know what else this means, don’t you? It means that no amount of time spent in the Leaky Lounge will allow us to be certain … completely certain … that Harry will survive book seven.

Notes

1. Rowling, “Barnes and Noble interview,” Rowling Official Site, “Extra Stuff: NAQ.”

2. Anelli and Spartz, “TLC/MN interview” Part Two.

3. Ibid,.

4. Madeley and Finnigan, “Richard & Judy Show.”

5. Anelli and Spartz, “TLC/MN interview.”

6. Ibid., Part Two.

7. Anelli and Spartz, “TLC/MN interview.”

8. Ibid., Part Two.

9. Ibid.

Bibliography

Anelli, Melissa and Emerson Spartz. “The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling.” The Leaky Cauldron, 16 July 2005. /#static:tlcinterviews/jkrhbp1.

Gaiman, Neil.The Sandman (10 vols.). Vertigo Comics, 1993–97.

J.K. Rowling Official Site. “Extra Stuff: NAQ,” http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/extrastuff_view.cfm?id=23.

Madeley, Richard and Judy Finnigan. “Richard & Judy Show.”Channel Four Corporation (UK), 26 June 2006. Transcribed by Roonwit, Accio Quote! http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2006/0626-ch4-richardandjudy.html.

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials (Omnibus edition). New York: Scholastic, 2000.

Rowling, J.K. “Barnes and Noble interview,” 19 March 1999. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/1999/0399-barnesandnoble.html.

Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events (13 vols.). New York: HarperCollins, 2000–2006.


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