Putting Quill to Parchment: Letters in the Potterverse

This last week, I’ve been feeling a strange need to write letters. And not in a romantic, oh what a throwback to simpler times sort of way, but because, genuinely, I think that sometimes, writing to somebody is a much more therapeutic process than messaging them, or even talking over the  phone. This is because, unlike other, more instant forms of communication, you’re not giving your interlocutor a platform through which to respond immediately. It’s impossible for them to interrupt you, or gainsay you, or cut you off midway—all things that happen far too often when we speak to one another. A letter lets you get it all out there in one go, giving you space and, importantly, the  other person, time to absorb your words, and think about what you’re feeling.

It’s for this reason that I really think the  written is the  most powerful, and therefore, to me, meaningful form of communication. Don’t get me wrong, I love heart to hearts with my besties as much, if not more, than the  average person, but in the  absence of that space and time where once those heart to hearts were taken for granted, a letter can step in, and make you feel less alone in a world where we are constantly reminded, every time we log onto social media, that someone out there is probably doing life better than you.

This got me thinking, as many things inevitably do, about Harry Potter, and how the  characters of that world use, so often, letters to share things that bother them. It’s amazing isn’t it, that in a universe where people can literally just pop over to each others’ houses in a blink, where they can roam through fireplaces to more magical locations, they still rely on the  staple of quill and parchment to say so many important things.

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And letters are hella important in Potter. Letters are what get him out of his Muggle life, for one thing, and the mystery around the ‘letters from no one’ in Philosopher’s Stone is what indicates that Harry is more than meets the eye. Later, letters from his friends are what literally keep Harry motivated, push him through the  horrible summer days at the  Dursleys, even, in a twisted turn of events before second year, tell him that not everything he experienced in Philosopher’s Stone, was a crazy dream. Harry’s friends reach out to him constantly all summer long, for three solid summers, giving him the  support he needs to get through the  days. They even send him literal nourishment and sustenance, birthday cakes and assorted other, healthier food items, coming to him in the  summer before his fourth year in Goblet of Fire.

Letters are also therapeutic in the  series. When Harry is very troubled, woken with an aching scar in Goblet, he writes about his worries to Sirius. Indeed, his correspondence with his godfather is one of the  cementing blocks of their relationship—starting from the  moment when Pigwidgeon arrives, bearing the  note that allows Harry to go to Hogsmeade, to the  last note he reads from Sirius, which, heartbreakingly, talks about the  two way mirror. Sirius and Harry’s relationship, one of, if not the  most, supportive relationships in the  entire series, is constantly imperilled by the  disruption of this form of communication—when it flourishes, before the  start of Book 4, Sirius’s wellbeing is highlighted through the  beautiful, tropical birds he uses to deliver his letters. By the  end, all forms of communication out of Hogwarts have been imperilled, thanks to Umbridge’s snooping, and because of this, this fundamental breach of a channel Harry has long taken for granted, tragedy unwinds.

Riddle_DiaryAnother great example of literal soul baring: Ginny writes to Tom Riddle. She uses Voldemort’s first Horcrux as it was seemingly supposed to be used: as a diary, a record of her innermost feelings. She makes herself so vulnerable by spilling out her soul thus that soon, her body is no longer her own. The implication seems to be that as much as writing can help you affect someone, it can also undo you, pulls a secret, hidden and hence vulnerable part of you outside into a harsh world, where people may not be so kind to it as you hope they will be.

If you think about it, it’s really weird that anyone in the  wizarding world still writes letters, even people who technically no longer have to. You’d think that only the  kids (who can’t do magic outside of school) and those who are under house arrest (Lily, for instance, who writes that letter to Sirius) or in other dire, magic-less situations (Sirius on the  run) would take recourse to such a, well, ‘ordinary’ form of communication. But that’s not the  case. For instance, Bathilda Bagshot, in her scattered interview with Rita Skeeter, mentions that Albus and Grindelwald constantly sent letters back and forth, despite living in the  same village and both (presumably) being old enough to do magic legally. Given what we find out about their relationship later, these letters have a particularly poignant quality, not just the  musings of two, young ambitious wizards but, in the  case of one, at least, also a means to reach out, and unburden oneself, to a fascinating crush.

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In the  Potterverse, people do extremely mundane things—fight over petty jealousies, go on disastrous dates, call each other horrible names in the  schoolyard, write letters. These are all ways Rowling uses to humanise her characters, underline the  fact that though they have magic, they are no different from us who don’t. Letters, physically sitting down and creating a message for another, are still the  most magical, meaningful ways to reach out to someone, to prove that the  writer, and the  person being written to, are bound in a matrix of emotion that is real, made tangible by the  creation of this physical message.

 Nothing compares to Harry’s feelings as he looks as Lily’s old letter, drinking in the  sight of her handwriting:

The  letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son.

Impatiently brushing away the  wetness in his eyes, he reread the  letter, this time concentrating on the  meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.

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I think the  greatest example of this, of the  power of such personal writing to wrench feelings about and reduce someone to a puddle of emotion is that last image Rowling leaves us of Snape. A man we’ve always seen as cutting, mean, petty even, is memorialized for readers thus:

…Snape was kneeling in Sirius’s old bedroom. Tears were dripping from the  end of his hooked nose as he read the  old letter from Lily. The  second page carried only a few words:

‘could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!

‘Lots of love,

‘Lily.’

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry must buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

How does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

eddieFantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

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If the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that goldsteinsthere is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

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The Potter Christmas

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Merry Christmas, world! Today, I thought I’d take a tour through the Potter Christmases, and focus on my favourite one. Thanks to the school-year structure of the books, Rowling as ample time to explore the various wizarding holiday traditions, and Christmas often receives special treatment in her books. It forms a kind of turning point, functioning as a halfway-mark for the adventures of Harry and company. You’ll notice that no matter how crazy the rest of the world, or their own lives, Christmas provides at least a few moments of calm and reflection for our favourite wizards, and Rowling often uses it to underscore the series’ themes of family, love and dealing with loss.

I love her Christmas chapters, some more than others. For instance, Order of the Phoenix’s is, in my opinion, undeniably the happiest, with Harry seated amongst the loving Weasley family, Hermione, Ron and Sirius at his side. It seems to be,really, the series’ peak moment, a bittersweet one, in retrospect, that shows us what could have been Harry’s life, had the school year not ended the way it did.

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But my favourite Potter Christmas by far is Harry’s first one in Hogwarts, when he sees his parents for the first time.

When Harry wakes on Christmas morning, he is surprised by the pile of presents at the foot of his bed. The Dursleys, after all, had never made his Christmases particularly wonderful. Not only do all his new friends give him gifts, but he also receives a key plot device that makes his adventuring a little bit easier: the Invisibility Cloak. Being a good little hero, Harry puts it into service right away, and lands up in front of the Mirror of Erised, where he sees his family waving back at him.

This moment is exceptionally beautiful, delivered as it is in Rowling’s trademark simple prose.

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The Potters smiles and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.

Rowling ties back to this first Christmas in the seventh, and final ‘canon’ Christmas, when Harry and Hermione visit Godric’s Hollow in Deathly Hallows. Apart from actually seeing the home he inhabited so briefly with his parents, Harry’s connection to Voldemort enables him to relive his final evening in the cottage, watching as his father plays with him, and his mother scoops him up to carry him to bed. Again, the parallels between Voldemort and Harry are underlined by this full circling: where Harry stands before the mirror, aching to join his parents but unable to, Voldemort too stands outside, watching as the family carries on with their everyday lives, so close to destruction, and yet so far from him, experiencing things he will never himself understand.

Similarly, Rowling closes the circle begun in Philosopher’s Stone by having Harry’s parents appear before him and speak to him, no longer just images waving from a mirror. Lily’s words to him, ‘We never left,’ are a beautiful allusion to the distance that Harry felt, in Book 1, and how that distance never really existed at all. It’s evident that, at the close, Harry has realized the truth of Sirius’s words to him in Prisoner of Azkaban: ‘The ones we love never truly leave us.’

Harry’s first wizarding Christmas is, I would argue, the most pivotal one in the series. Not only is his traipse through the castle his first solo adventure (it’s the first time he ventures out without Ron at his side), but the Mirror also provides his first real test. Harry has a choice, as Dumbledore reminds him. He can spend days before the Mirror, wasting away, or he can take the glimpse of his parents it has offered him, and use it as an anchor in the testing times to come. ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,’ Dumbledore tells him. The eleven-year-old Harry takes this to heart, I assume, because the next time he stands before the Mirror, it isn’t impossible dreams that haunt him, but a single-minded desire to do the right thing, a trait that he carries forward hereon out.

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Sirius Black and the Dangers of Loyalty

Great plans in fantasy literature have a tendency to go wrong. This is not really through any fault of the heroes’—to give them their due credit, they slog on even when things go really, steeply downhill. Great plans go wrong in fantasy because, well, that’s how things often turn out (or don’t) in real life, and say what you will, a lot of fantasy’s power as a genre comes from its ability to spin out amazingly ‘real’ and true-sounding stories in universes and settings nothing like our own.

But in fantasy, people, or events tend to show up and, sometimes, make the bad things go away, or salvage the situation before it is completely beyond repair. If done convincingly, this looks nothing like a deus-ex-machina, and instead segues smoothly into the narrative. Rowling is a master of this, and the character who perhaps best depicts this ability to just show up when needed is Sirius Black.

azkabanThe plotting of any novel requires precision, and I don’t think anything exemplifies this better than Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In my review of the book for Fantasy Book Critic, I stated that what really impressed me about this novel was the sheer intricacy of its plotting—how each character, each event and seeming coincidence had a function to play in the larger scheme. To me this is still the most tightly plotted of the Potter books, and a real treasure of the mystery genre. Given that Sirius found his way onto the stage proper in this book, it seems fitting that it be the most well constructed and (pun not intended) well-‘timed’ of its fellows.

In an earlier post, I had celebrated Sirius’s unparalleled ability to love, and how I believe his unwavering, unconditional loyalty really defines his character. In that same post, I alluded to how his ability to just show up when needed, with no questions asked, is one of the greatest markers of said love for Harry. Sirius’s drive to drop all and be there for his godson is, to a large extent, simply a function of who he is—he is a dog, loyal, unquestioning, bound by feelings deeper than most around him would understand to someone he barely really knows. I think, however, that this tendency in him was probably exacerbated by ‘mistakes’ made early on in life, including that most crucial one of all: the decision to trust Peter over Remus in the first war against Voldemort.

Enough and more fan fiction has been written speculating on why Sirius chose to trust Sirius-sirius-black-7016619-937-1024Peter. The most compelling reading, for me at least, is that Sirius, always so hopped up on his own beliefs and loyalties, would never have considered for a second that the same didn’t apply to one of those he had chosen to protect, unless he had, at some point in his life, betrayed that other person. Sirius’s childhood, whatever little we know of it, seems far from a warm and nourishing experience. When Sirius turned his back on his family, he appears to have done it without any intention of ever going back, asking forgiveness, or even giving them a chance to change and come around to understanding his point of view. In the case of the Blacks this was probably a judicious decision, given how most of them turned out, but it also cut out any prospect of reconciling with those who did—such as Regulus.

Given this, I think there are two character traits that, if taken together, could explain Sirius’s lack of trust in Remus and resulting decision to turn to Peter:

(i) Sirius values loyalty above all else, and seems to believe, to a great extent, that others should do the same. ‘Then you should have died,’ he tells Peter in the Shack, ‘died rather than betrayed your friends, as we would have done for you.’ There is no other option for a ‘true friend’, in his mind. The only reason anyone might not remain incredibly, steadfastly loyal to someone they ‘should’ stick with is if they have been badly treated by those same people, as he was by his family. The infamous ‘prank’ involving Snape and the exposure of Remus’s secret could, in all fairness, constitute such a betrayal of trust and friendship, and thereby expose Sirius and his pack to the same sort of betrayal from Remus’s side.

(ii) Sirius does not have great faith in people’s ability to change. This could be put down to the fact that he is the only adult character to have been actively disallowed from ‘growing up’, instead being frozen into an emotional mess at the age of 21-22. Sirius does not have the same sort of maturity and mellowness that most of the other adult characters (with the exception of Snape) seem to possess. It’s ironic that the two characters who seem to snape siriusdetest each other the most are actually in many ways the most similar—fiercely loyal to those they have sworn to protect and/or love and unable, very often, to contain their interactions and emotions in a mature fashion. They just have different ways of expressing that chosen loyalty. I also think this lack of ability to believe in change is a result of Sirius’s own unwavering nature. He perceives any sort of shift in his preconceived notions of how a person should be as some sort of betrayal—such as when Harry decides that the ‘fun’ of Sirius coming up to Hogwarts in Order of Phoenix is not worth the risk. At this point, Sirius coolly tells him that he is ‘less like James than [he] thought’, and its evident to Harry that he is, for the first time ever, upset with him. Peter, who had never been betrayed (as far as Sirius could tell), and had always remained faithful, could not possibly change—at least until he went and proved Sirius dramatically wrong.

Rowling gives her characters amazing strengths—but she also does a very clever thing wherein she makes these strengths function as their weaknesses as well. Dumbledore’s cleverness and skill and consequent pride proved his youthful undoing; Harry’s selfless ability to throw all aside and play the hero leads to the death of his godfather, Sirius’s stubborn and unwavering nature played a decisive role in the tragedy that marked his, and his godson’s, life. Loyalty has a price, and one slip exacts demands from Sirius, drives him to push himself ever more to be there for his godson.

But hey, if it weren’t for that slip, we might not have had a series at all.

Master Manipulators: Albus Dumbledore

I ambitiously began a series I called ‘Master Manipulators’, profiling characters who fit this category in their respective worlds, tweaking circumstances and their peers to fit, more often than not, some hidden agenda. The object of this was to give readers a chance to objectively view their strengths and weaknesses and then, perhaps, judge for themselves as to who would win a throw-down between them. A specialised Suvudu cage match, as it were, where the cage would be the known world, or as much of it as they might be able to influence.

I profiled the most obvious candidate first, Petyr Baelish from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Today, I’ll present the vital stats of Master Manipulator #2: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

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Strengths

Age and experience: Besides Nicholas Flamel, Dumbledore is easily the oldest person, with the most extensive career, that we meet in the series. The full range of his achievements is hinted at in the first book, and by the time we reach the seventh, they’ve only been substantiated. Dumbledore was around 115-116 when he died, and has dabbled with all kinds of magic (both light and dark, one would imagine), so he brings considerably experience, whether of people or technique, to bear on any situation.

Extensive political reach: Dumbledore is a mover and shaker despite being Headmaster of a school. He sits on councils, he has a hand in the government through his influence on Cornelius Fudge (supposedly he was sending Dumbledore constant owls at one point, soliciting his advice) and was even offered the top position himself. Yes, he gets painted as a liar and a madman at one point in the series, but the fact that the government bothers to do this at all shows how terrified they are of him and his influence.

Kindly old man persona: The other manipulators (Baelish and his fellows) have one major drawback, and that’s that no one really trusts them implicitly, the way people in the Potterverse trust Dumbledore. As long as he is around, they feel, things will turn out all right. ‘Dumbledore trusts him, and I trust Dumbledore’ is the reasoning much of the Order has for trusting Snape; his arrival at the Ministry makes everything magically all right that night in Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s response to Hermione’s worry in Half Blood Prince is ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Dumbledore.’ He provides a steady, anchoring presence in Hogwarts, at least for the ‘right’ students, inspiring them to follow him. Because of this, most people don’t even realize when they’re being manipulated, except, of course, for poor old Snape.

Weaknesses

Emotional attachment: I’m rather sceptical about this professed weakness. Dumbledore tearfully confesses to Harry in Order that he ‘cared’ too much for him to place the burden of the prophecy on his young shoulders. He distances himself from his protege in order to better protect him from Voldemort. He refuses to explain things to Harry, a decision that results in Sirius’s death and major emotional turmoil for our hero. Dumbledore’s plan almost goes awry before the Horcruxes are even introduced, let alone destroyed; Harry could have died countless times during that ill-advised rescue mission.

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Pride: In my post on Snape, I mentioned that the success of Dumbledore’s grand plan hinged on three things:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry the truth of the last Horcrux (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

Dumbledore made these assumptions because he is used to being correct, he believes he knows people better than they know themselves. ‘I am a great deal…cleverer than you,’ he tells Harry rather snappily,when pressed for the reason why he trusts Snape. Dumbledore never believes he has to explain himself except in cases of utmost distress (notably in that office scene in Order and during his King’s Cross walk with Harry in Deathly Hallows), but this sort of overweening pride could easily have caught up with him and tripped him spectacularly in a more realistic, less kid-friendly universe. I think this is a serious blind spot that Dumbledore really needs to watch out for. His pride, in some instances, makes him as bad as Voldemort.

Need for ‘moral’ backing: Dumbledore’s teenage insecurities made him such a mess that he refused to step in while Grindelwald ravaged Europe. He waited years to make his move, too terrified to hear that he might have killed his own sister. I find this a really crippling weakness; Dumbledore gave his enemy leeway to destroy both him and the lives of countless others. In this instance, Dumbledore betrayed stupidity: even if he did tell him that Dumbledore was the one who cast the final, fatal spell on Ariana, what reason did Grindelwald have to tell him the truth? If Grindelwald were any kind of villain worth his salt, wouldn’t he lie if he knew it would throw Dumbledore off his game?

Dumbledore’s need to be morally in the right puts him at a severe disadvantage when battling masters like Littlefinger. I understand that  good deal of this is because he is in a young adult/children’s series, and needs to stand in moral opposition to Voldemort, but since he’s proven he is not afraid to get his hands dirty in other ways—such as by ruthlessly manipulating Snape or lying all his life to Harry—this one scruple makes him seem ridiculous rather than admirable.

Conclusion: If it came down to sheer firepower, Dumbledore has it all. Magic is a great asset. But if you threw Dumbledore and Littlefinger on opposite sides of a chessboard stacked with real people, placed some ‘sympathetic’ figures on Dumbledore’s side and then asked them to play, I think poor old Albus would have a tough time seeing the bigger picture for the tears in his eyes. 

Who Killed Sirius Black?

Fair warning: This post presents some hard, cold truths about my absolute favourite character in the Harry Potter series and is the result of a lot of thinking and slow coming to terms with artistic decisions. As a result it might get rather, er, emotional.

Herein I will discuss why Sirius Black had to die.

When Sirius arched through the mysterious veil in the Department of Mysteries, it was no accident. Bellatrix’s jet of red light had been coming on for all of the fifth book, beginning its slow journey with the headquartering of the Order in Grimmauld Place. Sirius had all but been pronounced dead by the middle of Order of the Phoenix when he grimly tells Harry that he is ‘less like James’ than he thought. It’s the first sign of disagreement between the two, and it’s one that is never addressed in the course of the book.

Sirius’s death  was plotted, planned and very carefully orchestrated. In short, it was cold-blooded murder. Who was responsible for his demise? I have narrowed the list down to a few suspects, and we’ll examine their motives and methods in this post. Of course, I have my own very strong opinion on who dun it. Let’s see if you’re convinced at the close.

1)      Bellatrix Lestrange or, Keeping it in the familyImage

I’ll deal with the most obvious suspect first.

Who: Bellatrix Lestrange, wanted criminal high in the Dark Lord’s favour. Blood relative to the deceased (first cousin). Mentally unstable with a long history of violence.

Why: As a trusted lieutenant of the Dark Lord, Bellatrix is known to have had little qualm in dispatching with enemy soldiers (witness the Longbottoms). Added to the fact that they were on opposing sides of the burgeoning war, Bellatrix quite possibly might have hated Sirius more because of their blood connection. We see in Deathly Hallows that she takes the marriage of Tonks and Lupin rather hard, swearing to kill them herself in order to avenge this stain upon the family. Certainly Sirius’s lifestyle choices wouldn’t have sat well with her.

How: In the Department of Mysteries, Bellatrix duels Sirius before the Veil and fires the spell that sends him arching through it.

Conclusion: Bellatrix has some strong evidence pointing against her. However, I would argue that she is merely the instrument of murder, not the one who made his fate inevitable. In the context of the book, it could very easily have been any other Death Eater (I think) who killed Sirius. Rowling, I believe, used Bellatrix because she needed to illustrate what a ruthless and skilled witch she was and taking down Harry’s beloved and dangerous godfather certainly cements her in the top rank of villains.

 2)      Kreacher the House Elf or, The Butler Did It Image

Who: Slave to the Black family, Kreacher is the house elf who malingers in 12, Grimmauld Place, sullenly muttering under his breath about the worthlessness of his master. Kreacher has picked up certain conservative, pureblood attitudes from his mad mistress (Mrs. Black), and hence disapproves heartily of both Sirius’s presence in the house as well as the use to which he has put his beloved home.

 Why: As stated, Kreacher loathed Sirius. Sirius in turn loathed Kreacher. Neither of them seemed to make any efforts to make life easier for the other, with Kreacher only stepping up his insults and insinuations in Sirius’s presence and the wizard making no effort to conceal his distaste for the elf. Each is the living embodiment of the other’s worst memories. I would argue that Sirius is a constant reminder of Regulus to Kreacher, a reminder of the elf’s ‘worst’ failure. It’s no secret that they would both have gladly seen the other dead.

 How: Kreacher fed information to the Malfoys. Though unable to give away key facts such as the location of the Order’s headquarters or their plans, he did provide the Dark Lord a delectable tidbit: that Sirius was the person closest to Harry. This enabled Voldemort to lay the trap that led to his demise.

Conclusion:  By having Sirius meet his end at the hands of Kreacher, Rowling illustrates a telling point in the series: never underestimate anyone, even the lowest of the low. This is an old theme in fantasy fiction, well borne out by Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings. Kreacher, in this case, functions as an indicator of the strength of malice, a Gollum-like trait that leads, eventually, to destruction and furtherance of the plot.

Kreacher certainly did play a large role in the eventual death of Sirius Black. Without him, the plan to lure Harry into the Ministry might never have succeeded. I somehow cannot imagine Harry taking the same reckless steps to save, say, Tonks or Kingsley, who are arguably more immediately ‘useful’ Order members that Voldemort would certainly have wanted out of the way. Kreacher, however, is merely an enabler (an important one, of course), an accessory without whose help Sirius might not have died at the precise moment at which he eventually did. He was not, however, the murderer.

3) Albus Dumbledore, or, the Foolishness of the Wise

ImageWho: Headmaster of Hogwarts, dethroned (at the time of the events) Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, dethroned (at the time of the events) Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, proud denizen of a Chocolate Frog card.

Why: Dumbledore is a master manipulator, as well evidenced by the revelations in Deathly Hallows. He claims, during his talk with a distraught Harry, that he had ‘forgotten’ the effect of confinement on active, brave young men like Sirius. He pleads guilty to the folly of ‘age’, but I’m really not buying it. Dumbledore is too smart to have not known what kind of effect confinement would have on Sirius, nor was he blind to the hatred that festered between him and Snape. Furthermore, Dumbledore would have had another reason for wanting Sirius out of the way; he was the final obstacle between himself and Harry. As long as Sirius was around, Harry would never turn to Dumbledore with the sort of all-encompassing trust that he displays in Half Blood Prince. With the ‘closest thing to a parent’ gone, Dumbledore becomes Harry’s first choice of mentor.

 How: As stated, all Dumbledore had to do (and did) was to keep Sirius under house arrest in Grimmauld Place. This was ostensibly for his own good, but it did drive Sirius more than a little mad. The resentment built up during these months manifests itself in Sirius’s alcoholism and his disagreements with Harry. Stifling an energetic, brilliant wizard surely did its bit in propelling Sirius out of that door and towards recklessness.

 Conclusion: Dumbledore created an atmosphere of resentment and pushed Sirius’s reckless nature to its limits with his confining strictures. There is no doubt that he did have a bit of a vested interest in getting rid of Sirius, and especially after Deathly Hallows I can’t quite trust his apologies and protests of ‘forgetfulness’. Dumbledore had a plan all along, and I think Sirius would have been a serious encumbrance to its fulfilment. Do you honestly think Harry would have been allowed to go off and be suicidal if Sirius had been around? He would have done whatever it took to keep him from throwing his life away, and might even have been successful. Without Sirius around, Harry had no really pushy, energetic soul to wean him from Dumbledore’s chosen track.

While Dumbledore would certainly have welcomed Sirius’s demise and didn’t help with his house arrest regulations, I think we can’t peg him as anything more than a mastermind, not the actual murderer. He is, if anything, an accomplice, a master-abetter. He did nothing to prevent it from happening, but no, he is not the murderer. He closed his eyes to it (thus allowing it to happen), much as he closed his eyes to Grindelwald’s delinquency. It is, really, in keeping with Dumbledore’s weakness to do nothing and hence wreak even greater harm.

4) Harry Potter, or, the Boy Who Lived because others died Image

 

Who: Harry James Potter, son of James and Lily Potter, Chosen One, Gryffindor Quidditch Team Seeker, Boy Who Lived (Come to Die) and godson of Sirius Black. Has a history of causing death to innocent bystanders (Cedric Diggory, Lily Potter).

 Why: As Joseph Campbell established decades ago, every Hero undertakes a Journey that includes, usually, the loss of a mentor figure. The mentor must make way for the Hero; growth can only be achieved when the Hero undergoes this loss and learns to strike out on his own. Luke Skywalker lost Obi Wan, Rand loses Moiraine, Frodo loses Gandalf…the list goes on and on. Sirius is, at this point, the closest mentor figure Harry has (as established, he is not yet fully reliant on Dumbledore) and needs to be sacrificed in order for him to grow and stumble onward without protection.

 How: Harry is pretty much the reason Sirius was where he was when he died. Using his love for his godfather, Voldemort lured our Hero and his friends to the Department of Mysteries and then sprung the trap that resulted in Bellatrix killing her cousin. If Harry had not fallen for this illusion, if he had practiced Occlumency like he should have,  Sirius might never have landed up at the Department at all.

 Conclusion: I do think Harry is a very strong candidate for the top position, if only because of the role Sirius plays in his life. The mentor figure must go, usually, and the moment Harry wrote to him in Goblet of Fire talking about his scar, the godfather’s chances of survival dipped drastically.

But I really don’t want to blame Harry. The poor boy gives himself enough heartache anyway when it comes to friends dying (and Voldemort doesn’t help). And really, any mentor figure Harry chose would have perished; even Dumbledore and Remus don’t survive the onslaught of Literary Convention.

There was something particular to Sirius himself that made his death inevitable, and that’s why I think this wasn’t really a murder case. It was art-driven suicide.

5) Sirius Black, or, the Man Who Had to Die Image

 Who: Sirius Black, last surviving male member of the House of Black (Toujours Pur, please). Member of the infamous ‘Marauder’ gang that terrorized Hogwarts in its time, member of the Order of Phoenix, soldier in both the First and Second Wars against Voldemort, fugitive from Wizarding law.

Why: It took me a while to come to terms with this, but if you have a character like Sirius, you really can’t help but kill him off. Look at him: he’s a firebrand. He’s a rebel. He’s amazingly defiant. He cannot be contained by rules. You need people like this in war situations, to inspire others, to function as suicidally-protective forces for more passive characters. But what would you do with them in peace situations? Can you honestly imagine him marrying and living happily ever after? Sirius was wrecked already by twelve years in Azkaban, to get him to embrace conventional domesticity, as every other character in the Potter books does at the close, would have been impossible. Rowling had to tie her series up neatly, and I somehow don’t see a half-mad Sirius fitting in well here.

Not only was Sirius as a character untenable in a peaceful wizarding world, but I sincerely doubt the hunt for the Horcruxes and Harry’s final suicidal stand would have been at all possible if his godfather were around. It’s one thing to dissuade Lupin from joining them on the mad hunt; Sirius was a much more aggressive character and would probably not have been thrown off so easily. Would the hunt have panned out the way it did if Sirius has come along? The power of friendship would not have been so wonderfully demonstrated if it were not just the Trio (the reason Ginny couldn’t have joined either) and Harry and company had to literally be on their own and rudderless; the addition of a parent figure would have undercut the weakness of their position and the pure faith and friendship their rather hopeless-seeming quest exemplified. As a more experienced wizard, Sirius’s presence would have strengthened their group and thus, paradoxically, weakened them as a narrative unit.

And finally, Harry’s suicide. There is no way in hell Sirius would have stood aside for this. It’s one thing to walk away from Ron and Hermione, but Sirius, who had literally no one else to live for (unless you ship Remus-Sirius, which I do), would never have let his one anchor to sanity and love walk away to die, even if it were for the good of the wizarding world. Similarly, I don’t think Harry would have been able to walk away from Sirius, who would, by this point, have probably become even more of a parent figure for him.

Harry was able to make the sacrifice he did because he did not, at this point in the series, have anyone to really live for. He can even imagine Ginny marrying someone else, much as it pains him. Everyone else in the books has a future without him, no matter how hard. Sirius? No. Way.

To make Harry a hero, to save the wizarding world, Sirius Black had to die. It’s the sad truth.

And it’s why, to me, he’s the biggest hero of them all.

Case Closed.