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Another essay. . .

December 20th, 2005 · 2 Comments

This time, you get to read my essay on mystery in HP. It’s much too short, again: I was forced to merely mention what I’d love to explore in detail. But there it is.

Mystery in Harry Potter

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about the Harry Potter phenomenon, it’s that J.K.
Rowling has borrowed quite a bit. This is seen as both a positive and a negative thing, depending
on who’s talking. Harold Bloom, in a famous editorial for the Wall Street Journal in July of
2000, stated that Rowling’s basis was the classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes:

“Rowling has taken Tom Brown’s School Days and re-seen it in the magical mirror of Tolkien.�
He dismisses the first Harry Potter book (the only one he bothered to read), asking “Can more
than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will
continue to be so for as long as they persevere with Potter.� Bloom is not alone in seeing
Rowling’s work as inferior because it is derivative. Others see things differently, proclaiming
that it is Rowling’s skill in weaving together many different genres that makes the Harry Potter
series so unique. Anne Hiebert Alton stated that “rather than creating a hodgepodge with no
recognizable or specific pattern, Rowling has fused these genres into a larger mosaic, which not
only connects readers’ generic expectations with the tremendous success and popularity of the
Harry Potter series but also leads to the ways in which the series conveys literary meaning�

(141). One of the primary genres (other than the obvious fantasy genre) which Rowling makes
use of in her series is the mystery. It is part of what gives Harry Potter its widespread appeal:
adults and children alike enjoy trying to piece together the clues along with (or even before)

Each book in the Harry Potter series—numbering six at the moment, with a seventh volume
eagerly awaited by fans—contains a mystery to be solved by Harry, usually with the help of his
two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,
Harry is determined to discover what was hidden in Vault 713 in Gringotts Bank and
subsequently moved to Hogwarts, and who exactly is intent on stealing it. In Harry Potter and
the Chamber of Secrets
, Harry must discover who the Heir of Slytherin might be, how they are
perpetrating the attacks which leave students Petrified, and why Dobby the house-elf keeps trying
to save his life. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban finds Harry searching for clues as to
why Sirius Black might want to kill him, why a mysterious black dog keeps showing up, and who
really was responsible for his parents’ deaths. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry must
try to discover the answers to the mysterious dreams he keeps having, who put his name in the
Goblet of Fire, and why various acquaintances are acting very strangely. Harry Potter and the
Order of the Phoenix
has Harry looking for clues wherever he can find them about what
Voldemort is up to, what the secret weapon is that he’s so intent on getting, and why he keeps
having these mysterious dreams. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shows Harry pursuing
several avenues of inquiry—why Draco Malfoy is acting the way he is, how Voldemort’s past
can show him what he needs to know in the future, and what exactly Professor Slughorn
attempted to erase from his memory. Time only will tell what mysteries Harry will be called on
to solve in volume seven, but solving the mystery of the identity and location of the missing
horcruxes is sure to be a large part of it. Overarching all of these mini-mysteries is the greatest
mystery of all: Why does Voldemort want to kill Harry, what really happened the night his
parents were killed, and how can Harry defeat him at last? Each of the smaller mysteries
contributes in some way to the larger one, and each brings Harry closer to the final confrontation
with Voldemort.

Laying the Foundation

The key to any good mystery story is to make the puzzle sufficiently interesting. Rowling
certainly accomplishes this in the first chapter of the first novel, when she introduces the central
mystery of the series. After explaining that Voldemort, a wizard so evil that most other magical
folk fear saying his name, has killed James and Lily Potter, Rowling introduces our hero:

Professor McGonagall’s voice trembled as she went on. “That’s not all.
They’re saying he tried to kill the Potter’s son, Harry. But — he couldn’t. He
couldn’t kill that little boy. No one knows why, or how, but they’re saying that
when he couldn’t kill Harry Potter, Voldemort’s power somehow broke — and
that’s why he’s gone. Dumbledore nodded glumly.

“It’s — it’s true?â€? faltered Professor McGonagall. “After all he’s done…
all the people he’s killed… he couldn’t kill a little boy? It’s just astounding… of all
the things to stop him… but how in the name of heaven did Harry survive?â€?

“We can only guess,� said Dumbledore. “We may never know.� (12)

But we, as a reader, must know—even if it takes seven books to finally find out. Rowling
similarly “hooks� the reader with the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone by having Hagrid point out
repeatedly how important it is, only to juxtapose that idea with a tiny grubby package. Again and
again, Rowling lays the foundation for the mystery at hand: Dobby’s mysterious warnings in
Chamber, the terrifying appearance of the large black dog in Azkaban, the murder of Frank Bryce
as witnessed by Harry in a dream in Goblet, the refusal of anyone to give Harry any information
of Voldemort’s doings in Order, and the mysterious behavior of Draco Malfoy in Half-Blood
. Rowling catches our interest, and leaves us eager to find out more.

Clues and Red Herrings

Rowling is similarly adept at giving well-hidden clues while simultaneously misdirecting our
attention. The first example of this comes in Stone, when Harry sees Professor Snape for the first

Harry, who was starting to feel warm and sleepy, looked up at the High
Table again. Hagrid was drinking deeply from his goblet. Professor McGonagall
was talking to Professor Dumbledore. Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was
talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s
turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on
Harry’s forehead. (126)

Harry assumes (as does the first-time reader) that the pain has something to do with Professor
Snape, when in reality his scar is reacting to Voldemort himself, who is hiding under Professor
Quirell’s turban. In Chamber, Rowling cleverly plants clues to the identity of the attacker and the
eventual solution throughout the book: Ginny running back to the Burrow for her diary (66),
Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue when no one else can (196), the mysterious behavior of the
spiders and the slaughtering of the school roosters (201), and even Ron’s joking uttered
suggestion that Tom Riddle had killed Moaning Myrtle (232). In the meantime, we’re also
misdirected: Hagrid’s appearance in Knockturn Alley (54), Draco Malfoy’s cry of “You’ll be
next, Mudbloods!� (139), Percy’s odd behavior skulking around empty classrooms (219), and
Tom Riddle’s depiction of his “capture� of Hagrid (246–248).

As adept as Rowling is at planting clues for her smaller mysteries, it becomes more and more
obvious as the series goes on that she is even more clever at planting clues for the larger one. We
learn in Stone that it was Lily Potter’s love for Harry that saved his life all those years ago (299),
in Order of the Phoenix it is hinted that love is “the power that the Dark Lord knows not� (841,
844), and finally in Prince it is expressed openly: “‘So, when the prophecy says that I’ll have
“power the Dark Lord knows not,’ it just means—love?’ asked Harry, feeling a little let down.�

“Yes—just love,� said Dumbledore� (509). Similarly, the diary Harry destroyed in Chamber has
turned out to be so much more important than just a diary—it contained a piece of Voldemort’s
soul, and by destroying it, Harry took one step closer to destroying Voldemort for good (500-501). In perhaps the biggest twist of all, the many misdirections which pointed, time after time,
to Snape as the “bad guy� only to be proved wrong, may finally have been proved right: Snape
has, seemingly, irrevocably proved his allegiance to Voldemort (although there are many theories
that dispute that). With one book still left to go, who knows how many more clues we will
discover, hidden in the pages of the previous six books?

In a book review written for the New York Times, Stephen King expressed his admiration of
Rowling’s talent for writing mysteries:

In a Newsweek interview with Malcolm Jones, Rowling admitted to
reading Tolkien rather late in the game, but it’s hard to believe she hasn’t read her
Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Although they bear the trappings of
fantasy, and the mingling of the real world and the world of wizards and flying
broomsticks is delightful, the Harry Potter books are, at heart, satisfyingly shrewd
mystery tales. Potter 3 (”Azkaban”) dealt with Harry’s parents (like all good boy
heroes, Harry’s an orphan) and cleared up the multiple mysteries of their deaths in
a way that would likely have pleased Ross Macdonald, that longtime creator of
hidden pasts and convoluted family trees.

King is correct. Amidst the magic wands, the magical creatures, and the sinister spells, Harry
Potter is a mystery: one that millions of people can’t wait to see solved.

Works Cited

Alton, Anne Hiebert. “Generic Fusion and the Mosaic of Harry Potter.� Harry Potter’s World:
Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives
. Elizabeth E. Heilman, ed. New York:
RoutledgeFalmer, 2003.

Bloom, Harold. “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.� Wall Street Journal, 11 July,
2000, p. A.26

King, Stephen. “Wild About Harry�. New York Times, 23 July 2000. Accessed online 15
December 2005.

Rowling, J[oanne]. K[athleen]. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Levine-Scholastic, 1997.

—. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Levine-Scholastic, 1998.

—. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Levine-Scholastic, 2000.

—. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Levine-Scholastic, 2003.

—. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Levine-Scholastic, 2005.

Tags: Essay · Harry Potter

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat // Dec 22, 2005 at 10:19 am

    Thanks Em. That was worth waiting for! Pat

  • 2 missteece // Apr 20, 2009 at 10:28 am

    My baby sis, (not such a baby, with her own precious baby now), is a huge Harry Potter fan and has read all seven of the books. I have seen all the movies currently out, though I have been dragged to them by my other sister and her two daughters who are huge Harry P. fans. I enjoyed all of them but the last which was too dark for me. As a Christian, I’m not too comfortable with the witchcraft, so I don’t think I’ll be seeing the next movie, (though my sis will probably drag me).

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